Edwin Porter is credited with changing film making, way way way back in the beginning, because he realized that you could reuse footage. That footage of a burning building for example could be used for more than one project, and it is true, and so stock footage exists, and works.
BUT IT ISN’T THAT SIMPLE.
There was this forgettable show Team Knight Rider (Yes, I’ve watched a few pieces of a few episodes – what can I say, I’ve also watched Gigli, and eat fast “food” sometimes), So on TKR during action sequences they continually kept cutting to their stock shots of the cars and motorcycles separating, or turning right, or going left, dodging explosions, maneuvering around tires on the tarmac. Obviously they shot a bunch of this all on ONE one day so they could have it all on hand. But they used these same shots over and over again, every episode, – chase on a crowded highway – cut to shots of action on the empty tarmac, this week the chase happens on a beach, near the edge of water, cut to right and left turns on the empty tarmac. Episode takes place in the rain – cut to action taking place on a sunny day, Etc. Etc.
It doesn’t work, because these shots are just images. They don’t have enough content to stand on their own and they are generic, without thought, direction, or feeling.
There is something behind the images, the content of the images are more than just simple patterns, shapes and movements. There is the intention. You can see this how this is important when you are watching a movie, and suddenly you are blasted out of the film, because a shot doesn’t work.
It’s like when an when an actor phones it in, even for just a moment – De Niro – yes even Robert De Niro, just for a moment in the film The Score, you can see him, lost floundering, and laughing just so out of the character he is playing. It only lasts a few seconds, but it sticks out like a sore thumb from an otherwise solid performance.
Somewhere the process has broken down, the intention is lost, and the content is lacking. Perhaps content isn’t the right word. I mean after all what is the content of a shot? What we see in the frame – certainly. What about the actor’s expression? Oh “don’t hock my chainik”, go with actors expression and I’ll just mention the Kuleshov experiment. You see it all really works in conjunction, the writing, the performance, the lighting, the frame, the sound. Yeah sure, happy accidents happen, but only when the intention is there. What happens when the content isn’t there, the intention behind the shot choice, or exposure choice, framing, actors performance, music, edit? You get – YAWN – an uninvolved audience.
Which brings us to the wonderful world of AUTOMATIC functions.
Look, for certain purposes, certain projects, auto features can be a blessing. Auto White Balance – woo hoo, so I don’t have to worry about the color temperature of the light matching the sensor? I don’t have to compensate for the fluorescent lights over head. something I don’t have to think about. What else can I do that won’t require me to think?
At this moment I think we pause, and enjoy some audio while pondering whether or not we really want to create something without thinking about it.
IS that really how we want to make films, without thinking? Is that really what you want from a film when you go and watch it? Paying good money to see a film that is lacking in thought, because it was too much effort and someone could just hit the auto-button? I’m not talking about people who don’t know yet, people who are learning, or trying and failing. I’m talking about when there just isn’t the effort behind it.
Years ago, I realized that I have a shot that I go to when I’m in trouble, when: the production is running late, we are losing light, whatever. I go to this shot, it’s a neat shot, interesting, different, it can work really well, and when that shot is right for the film, it can be a life saver. But if the shot isn’t right, it can kill the film, and better to just not even shoot it, because what is the point if it is just filler? If it doesn’t belong.
Camera placement is important, lens choice – effect of the perspective, (the choice of lenses available now is staggering), Color Choices, lighting choice, wardrobe choices, dialog and acting performance, tempo, pace, cutting, sound, music. ALL these are choices. Do one take, do another – Never do just one take (except maybe for a master that you will cover later) Make the choices. Insert shot, still needs choices, tight, wide, long lens, wide lens, what is the angle, what is in the background, it’s less than two seconds screen time – who cares, YOU do, or you better. A hand grabbing a glass, big deal, but how is it grabbing it? Not even a question of the hand matching the wide shot, but why are we cutting to it? Oh so we can cut two different takes together in case there is a problem, okay, but how does that affect the scene – cut to a G-d dammed cat in the window if you must (inside joke, nod to Bill Hornsby), cut to anything, but it’s got to fit with the rest of the scene. MUST, MUST, MUST. It isn’t just a cutaway, or insert. It’s an opportunity, every moment in a film is an opportunity, every moment of an actors performance, every moment that is in or out of focus, an opportunity to share, to involve, engage, and move. If it doesn’t fit with the scene, the film, then at very least it is an opportunity lost, and at worst so jarring as to take the audience out of the film.
I remember when I first started shooting Super 8 film in college. It was so simple, pretty much just frame and shoot. Lovely, fun, and fast. Of course as I gained experience and practice, there was so much more I wanted to make choices over. Lighting, focus – ooopppps Need to start moving up to larger formats, guess that is a choice, etc. I learned, I grew, I make choices, and I know there are choices to be made. Creative choices, ways of doing things, old ways, and new ways to discover. Not just what some engineer who doesn’t make films thinks is a cool thing. Which is also why on the high end, film manufacturers and film camera manufacturers have ALWAYS listened to the people using their film and gear. Only relatively recently have the “digital” camera manufacturers started to listen- oddly enough this new found listening coincides with digital capture becoming acceptable as a cinematic tool.
Now an engineer, while creating automatic features, is working within a very narrow scope, the camera isn’t really making choices about the shot, just following a simple set of instructions, that have no way of taking into account, when in the film the shot is taking place, where in the world the shot is, what is going on in the movie at the time, where the camera is placed or why it is placed there? What the character is doing, going through, feeling, what is the color of the wall, the lighting of the scene? What the shot is supposed to mean or convey in the context of the scene. Sometimes you have no other option, you have to use the auto focus or auto exposure, or this scene mode or that one, so you do what you can try to find a way it works in context of the film, but it’s going to affect your finished project, and it isn’t really a choice so much as a surrender. Make a choice, for good, bad, right or wrong, make a choice – don’t surrender.
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