Monday, June 23, 2008

David Mullen A.S.C.

Real quick post to point out that DP David Mullen is documenting his work on his current film over at REDUser. Check it out HERE. He is fielding questions on his process as well. Don't miss this!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Keep it simple

In 1977 I wrote my first computer program. In the 31 intervening years, I have worked for a number of large organizations (GE, Bell Labs, Countrywide, Universal Studios et. al.). During the course of this career, I have come to embrace the idea of simplicity. Now, that might seem to be at odds with the fact that I typically work on very complex systems.

Typically, these systems are only complex when viewed as a whole. However, when broken down into the many components that make up these systems, there is simplicity to the individual components. Consider systems like Windows XP or Vista or Mac OS X. Viewed as a whole these systems appear terribly complex.

However, it’s important to understand that no single individual understands how this complex whole functions in its entirety. There are teams of developers that specialize in specific components of these systems. There is a team that works on the GUI. Another that works on the file system. Another that works on networking. And so on.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by these systems if we try to gain an understanding of them as a whole. But, broken down into functional components, they become much easier to understand because, taken at this level, they are much simpler. Early in my career I was intimidated by systems of this nature until I understood how to break them down and attack only the relevant components.

Now, so far, I have just been blathering on about computers. What the hell does this have to do with film making or post production? Patience, grasshoppah. All will be revealed.

When the solution is simple, God is answering – Albert Einstein

It has been my observation that typically, the simplest solution is the best solution. For many years as a software engineer, I would receive requests from the business side of the company that I was working for to request some new software feature.

Invariably, these requests would be convoluted, complex explanations of how the business felt that a particular feature should be implemented. Before I understood the magic of simplicity, I would go back to the business to have them clarify what they were asking for. More often than not, these sessions did not result in any clarification.

And then, one day, I had an epiphany. The next request that came to me that obfuscated what the business actually wanted, I very quickly resolved by asking the business one question:

State your goal.

Simple. Direct and to the point. What is the end result that you wish to achieve? This new approach worked wonders for me and it serves me well to this day. And, the beauty of this simple approach is applicable in almost every aspect of life and the tasks that we all seek to perform.

Simplicity breeds excellence.

I am a big fan of Sting. I think he is a great composer. If you look at a lot of the hits that he has written, they exude simplicity of composition – Every breath you take, Shape of my heart and many others. Simple and beautiful. It takes real talent to pull that off.

The Log Line

And now we come to the part where I relate this to film making and story telling. Last night, Nancy and I attended the LAFCPUG meeting in Hollywood. We have been to many of them but we tend to be selective. Last night was the 8th anniversary of the LAFCPUG and had, as a speaker, feature editor Norman Hollyn.

Norman was there to give a talk on the craft of editing. Unlike most of the meetings, this talk was specific to storytelling. Typically, LAFCPUG focuses on how to use the tools. Not how to tell the story. Norman brought up a couple of things that reminded me of my “State your goal” approach to problem definition.

The first was the log line. A log line is a way to describe a story, regardless of its length, in one or two sentences. Doing this, forces you to boil the story down to its most essential elements. For example, a log line for Raiders of the lost Ark might be:

An archaeologist finds the ark of the covenant. The Nazis steal it from him. He pursues the Ark, recovers it and turns it over to the US government.

Simple. Taking your story and converting it to a log line can allow you to objectively tell the story with only the most essential information necessary to convey the story. We have all sat through films where there were scenes that were boring, slow and did not move the story forward.

The log line can assist us in eliminating this type of issue by allowing us to ask simple questions about every scene in our story such as “how does this scene serve the essence of the story?”. “Does this scene move the story forward?”.

Norman related a number of anecdotes pertaining to his experience as an editor and dealing with a director or producer when he is struggling to understand a scene and is trying to make the scene work. He asks the director “What is the impact on the film as a whole if this scene was removed?”

Simple. Direct. This forces the director to look at the essence of the contribution of the scene to the film as a whole. How does this scene contribute to the story? If you cannot tell me that, then the scene needs to go away. It’s superfluous. Or the director may realize that the scene needs to be moved – before or after the current place in time in the telling of the story.

The point being, when you break down a complex system to its simplest element– Be it a computer, or a story, you will find that the issues that you thought were insurmountable, now become manageable and clear.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Smooth Operator

Gear Heads


n: a person who pursues mechanical or technological interests (as in automobiles or computers)

But this has nothing to do with the gear heads that I am talking about here today. Gear heads are a mounting system for cameras that provide very precise control over the panning and tilting of the camera.

Fluid Dynamics

Today, most of your low budget indie filmmakers use what is called a fluid head to mount their camera. This type of head uses a thick fluid to dampen the movement of the camera. These types of heads are very effective and reasonably priced.

Some of the lower cost fluid heads make it very difficult to have nice smooth starts and stops. You always end up with some jerky movement at the start or the end of the pan or tilt. Some of this can be overcome by doing simple tricks like putting a rubber band between the head and the tripod to add pressure to the movement in question.

And this brings us to Gear Heads. Gear heads have been around for a LONG time and are a mainstay in studio productions. They provide VERY precise, repeatable control over the panning and tilting of the camera. Here are two examples of gear heads.

A Mitchell:

And an Arri:

These heads use a precision gear transmission and most examples provide the ability to select the gear ratio so that you can have very fine or very coarse control with the head. They take some practice to get used to, but once you gain some proficiency with them, they are an amazing tool to have at your disposal.

Years ago I was on the set of Knott’s Landing with an operator friend of mine (King Nicholoson S.O.C. now retired). The talent was tossing a football around and the director told King that he wanted that football in frame when they threw it no matter what.

Well, one of the throws went wild and the football landed at the base of the dolly that the camera was on. But, King never let that ball get out of frame as he furiously spun the gear head's controls and followed that ball until the camera was pointed at the base of the dolly. I twas an impressive sight to see.

If you have ever used a gear head, you know what I am talking about. Problem is, most Indie filmmakers have never seen what they can do or had the opportunity to use one. Most of the ones I have talked with, don’t even know what one is.

Budget Head

In the world of budget filmmaking we have some amazing tools at our disposal. Redrock Micro makes low cost cine lens adapters, rail systems, follow focus and matte boxes. Varizoom makes low cost Steadicam rigs, jibs and remote heads.

And a host of other manufacturers provide gear for the budget filmmaker. Even Tiffen, makers of the $55,000 Steadicam professional rig, makes lower cost rigs for the indie filmmaker such as the Merlin.

But NO ONE makes a gear head for the indie filmmaker on a budget. I think this is a huge gap. If you buy a used Mitchell gear head that is 25 years old, it will cost you $5000+. An Arri gear head will run you $10,000-$15,000. FAR outside the typical budget of the indie filmmaker.

Last year, at the DV Expo I was at the Redrock Micro booth and I asked them if they would consider making a gear head. They said that I was now the second person that had ever asked them for this.

I explained that I figured that the reason for this was that their customer base had no clue what one was or what the benefits of using it are. If someone could make one for about $1000 for the indie market and promote it properly, I KNOW it would sell. Well, I know that it would sell to at least one customer: Me.

So here is my call out to you low cost indie filmmaking gear manufacturers: Make a low cost gear head!