Tag Archives: movies

GEARS and the Film Set Experience

Back in February, I was kept busy working my first job on a professional film set. No, it wasn’t a huge Hollywood project with a multi-million-dollar budget and a plethora of big-time actors, but it had more hierarchical structure and technical prowess than a few guys getting together with a Canon Vixia and saying: “Hey, let’s make a movie!”

A little info. about the film itself: the film is a short entitled GEARS, and it is being produced by the student-run Production Club at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. From the film’s Facebook page, the synopsis is as follows:

“GEARS is a sci-fi drama about a father and daughter who live in a typical, suburban home. After the daughter is in a near fatal accident, the over-protective father investigates the origin of an unknown gear discovered after the incident. As his daughter is recovering, he continues to find intricate gears throughout their home.”

The film has been funded through grants and kickstarter projects, allowing the club to use professional equipment such as the RED camera (pictured below). It has been filmed at multiple locations in the Milwaukee area. (The project is in the middle of filming right now–inclement weather at the end of February set back our last weekend of filming, so those days have been rescheduled for the end of March.)
On the set I’ve helped out on the sound department, usually as boom operator (that’s the microphone on the end of a long pole). I’ve also helped out with the art department.

Because Milwaukee isn’t particularly a big hub for the film industry, it’s a privilege that this project even exists. Production Club is giving the film students of UWM a chance to experience what it is like to work in the industry: it’s immersing them into the structure of a film crew and allowing them to discover just how much time and effort goes into creating even a short film. When you realize just how many specific jobs there are behind the scenes to make the film perfect, it’s both a humbling and an empowering experience.

That being said…

The best way I can describe being on a film set is to say that it is almost surreal. That may be confusing…let me explain: When you’re on the set, you’re looking at the setting of the film that you’ll be watching later, and it’s absolutely clogged with cameras, lights, people, and a bunch of other equipment. When a scene is being shot you see the actors moving about and reciting their lines, yet you also see the camera and sound crews moving around to catch their every movement. The scenes themselves are also a hassle to set up–sometimes taking upwards of half an hour. Also, the actors, when not filming, will occasionally act out of character–like regular people. Yet, when the final product is seen, none of this is visible: you don’t see the equipment and the people that filled up the whole house in the background even though you knew it was there all along; the scene doesn’t run for half an hour showing its entire set-up; and the actors seem to embrace the characters that they are–completely alien from the normal people you know from behind the camera. What I’m trying to say (and pardon me for rehashing basic film theory) is that film viewing is subjecting yourself to an illusion: in the back of your mind you know that what you’re viewing isn’t real yet you ignore those facts for the time that you sit in front of the film and take it all in, and being a part of a film crew turns the tables for you are now the one creating the illusion. It’s empowering, in a way.

Or maybe the surreality is just a result of the 12-plus-hour days on the set and a lack of sleep…

More information can be found at these links for GEARS and UWM’s Production Club.


A Look at Stylized Flicks, Genre Films, and B Movies.

The other day I finally got around to seeing Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It was sitting on my “To-See List” for too long so I decided to sit down and watch it. It was quite an experience, simply put. The story, which is based off of a series of comic books by Bryan Lee O’Malley, follows a 22-year-old slacker/loser by the name of Scott Pilgrim (played by Michael Cera) as he endures the hardships of young adult love in Toronto. He eventually meets the love of his life, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but quickly finds out that if he is to be with her he must defeat her jealous and violent Seven Evil Exes. The geeky nerd in me got a kick out of the story’s format, which plays like some sugar-hyped hybridization of a comic book and a classic arcade game. You can never look away, because there’s always something so visually stunning that it’s like a roundhouse kick to your eyes.

Unfortunately, that’s all the film really has going for it. Some of the dialogue is eclectic enough to keep you entertained and some of the characters are humourous, but the story seems rather patched together and the characters are very one-dimensional. But, in a world where everything plays like a comic book/videogame is that okay? Does anything have to make sense? In this case, does style trump basic storytelling?

This is difficult to address. As suggested in my previous posts, I value character development and solid storytelling above much else. However, I still enjoyed Scott Pilgrim even though it was rather lacking in these qualities. I don’t know if this makes me a hypocrite, or if I can just appreciate the execution of style.

In fact, lots of movies tend to rely on their style for support, and that isn’t necessarily bad. Just look at genre films: they rely heavily on particular tropes to set the mood and convey their story. (That’s not to say that all stylized films are genre films, but it’s a considerable portion.)

For example: Films that fall under the category of noir all tend to utilize lighting to set the mood of mystery with shadows and the contrast between dark and light, good and evil. Their stories follow the same basic set-up: a lone protagonist who’s been jaded by life, a femme fatale who gets in the way of his crime-solving, and other supporting characters who tend to be one-sided yet help the protagonist with clues that lead up to him solving his case. The plot is detailed but the characters aren’t, yet the dark setting helps keep the viewers intrigued.

This brings me to a new discussion point: B movies. Generally speaking, they’re low-budget films with little publicity and commercial tastes. They usually don’t have big stars in them, yet they’re not considered “artsy” enough to fall into the category of a serious independent feature. More recently, the terms has been used to describe multiple types of genre films and even exploitation films. These, too, tend to focus more on their style than anything else.

Many people associate B movies with bad tastes, but that is not always the case. Just look at films like Primer and π, whose films have gone deep into their subjects of time travel and math/numerology, respectively. They were made on very small budgets, had at the time no-name actors or directors, and used many techniques such as lighting and music to set their offbeat, chaotic moods. They weren’t trying to be very artsy, but just immersed in their science fiction.

That isn’t to say that all B movies are what we might consider “good”. In fact, some are terrifically bad (Plan 9 From Outer Space, anyone?).

But their being bad isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They don’t aim high to begin with, and they don’t expect you to expect much of them. They’re the kind of films where you can sit back and say: “This is so stupid, it’s funny.” A. O. Scott of the New York Times described them as “…the cheesy, campy guilty pleasures”, yet fears that “those cherished bad movies” are nearly a thing of the past. In a 2005 article he noticed how what used to be considered B movie material is now moving into the A-list arena, describing the process as how “…the schlock of the past has evolved into star-driven, heavily publicized, expensive mediocrities”. Is it bad that genre films and B movies are getting more mainstream attention now? No, but it is annoying to see all that money wasted on films that focus in on the negative aspects of B movies instead of the positive. It’d be nice if those two categories stayed a bit more separate, instead of having the A- and B-movie lines extremely blurred.

In conclusion, stylized, genre, and B movies are vital aspects of cinema. They are meant to fulfill a simple purpose, whether that is to keep you visually/thematically entertained or give you cheesy enjoyment. And if that purpose is served, it’s a success.


The Plight of Originality in Sequel-Ridden Hollywood

Twenty-seven. Yes, that is the age at which many musicians die, but that’s why it’s important. Twenty-seven is the number of movie sequels that are being released this year. An unprecedented and disappointing record, it marks the beginning of the end of original storytelling.

Sequels (which in this definition also include prequels and reboots) are getting undeniably worse. This is not to say that all sequels are bad. Many have expanded on their original source material and are considered good or even better. “The Godfather: Part II”, “The Dark Knight”, “The Empire Strikes Back”–all are considered classics. The trend of poor sequels, though, has been an unfortunate Hollywood plague of recent times.

The reason for this overflow of sequels is strictly economical. Around the 1980s, studios realized that they could cash in big on film franchises. Aided by the recent success of blockbusters, studios started producing films to pander to fanbases. This would ensure that a movie would still get an audience of devoted viewers. Odds are more people will see a movie with familiar characters and story arcs. Investing in new, original material is too risky.

However, in the pursuit of top-grossing flicks quality was lost. Sequels started losing the solid writing that held together the originals, and characters became stale. They were placed in slightly different situations to purvey the idea of being new. Special effects became the new movie star, and intellect was disregarded. Ideas were recycled, yet the cash came flowing in. The big studio heads could care less about what the critics think.

The economic climate of recent years hasn’t helped the situation, either. With people tightening their belts, they’ll be more wary to spend money on movies. When they do, they’d rather go see movies they know they’ll probably enjoy. Thus, studios started rehashing old classics as reboots and churning out sequels at astounding rates. They’ve also been turning to another cash cow: other various intellectual properties.

Today in Hollywoood, rarely any scripts aren’t simply adaptations or sequels of already-established properties. Rarely will you find a big studio backing an original story. Why? Because there’s no guaranteed money in it. Adapting a popular series of books or comics will attract the masses. An original crime drama will not. If you’re looking for money, which option would you choose? (Not all adaptations are bad–I’m just pointing out how there are few original scripts.)

Major studios need to market their films to as many viewers as possible. They invest a lot of money in their projects and distribute them across the country. They need to ensure that their films cater to as many people as possible. Singling out large groups of people is bad for business. However, in this studio-controlled bleakness, there is still some hope.

Independent films are finding outlets much better than in the past and locating interested audiences. Without studio heads breathing down their neck with expectations, the filmmakers have more creative control. They are able to experiment with original stories and non-traditional genres and storytelling tropes. And some of these films become quite successful (think “Juno”, “Once”, and “Little Miss Sunshine”). If interest in these types of films increases, originality could still thrive.

However, originality is sadly coming to an end in mainstream Hollywood. The audiences are eating up the sequels with an insatiable appetite. Property after property is being adapted. Original scripts either suffer through the cliches of genre or get tossed away. Film is just as much of an art medium as anything found in a museum. And no one wants to keep looking at the same paintings over and over.


Sir, You Forgot Your Side of Familiarity!

In the last post I covered why many people say they enjoy “exciting” stories when in reality they just divulge themselves in rather trite, stockish fare. However, I forgot to touch on why these people like the archetypal stories in the first place.

It’s simple, really: because they’re simple. That may sound a bit weird, so allow me to elaborate. Simple stories with basic plot lines and common literary elements are easily recognizable by the public, and thus more readily embraced. Familiarity is preferred over the unexplored vastness, especially when it comes to something that demands a considerable amount of one’s time and attention. People would rather sit through a movie or read an entire book if they had a pretty good feeling that the protagonist would triumph, and that the sequence of events occurred in a timely manner and remained unchanged (Exposition, lots of rising action, climax, a bit of falling action, and a denouement to top it all off–ooh, and throw in a romance! Everybody loves a romance.). And if they like one story that follows these standard guidelines, odds are they’ll like others that are similar. These people will have a more difficult time enjoying stories that are unconventional and break the rules because they’re afraid to journey into the unknown and try something new, to risk a bit of effort to discover what breaks the standards.

Please don’t misinterpret me–I am not saying this archetypal story structure is the Great Plague of Literature or anything like that. In fact, I enjoy this structure in both book and film form from time to time as a bit of relaxation from the heavier pieces. However those heavier pieces allow me to be more intellectually involved, to dig deeper into them and analyze their messages more thoroughly, and to experience tales that don’t fit into the standard mold. But, sadly, relaxation turns into escapism for most and once getting lost in that they rarely ever venture back out. I guess they could use a better map.


Why I Chose Film School

I chose to go to film school because it provides so many more opportunities to aspiring filmmakers than does jumping directly into the industry.

First of all, it allows you to learn the history, technique, and theory in a more organized manner. Sure, anyone can pick up a book about how to portray emotion through symbolism on-screen or learn how Hollywood’s studio structure has changed over the years, but self-taught learning will be periodic and will have to fit within the confines of your weekly schedule. If you take the time to study how to portray a story on the screen in a captivating and effective way and learn why certain techniques must be carried out, the films that you make will resonate with knowledge of what you are doing and won’t simply be moving pictures with audio.

Second, with all of this time put aside to learn and be taught the ways of filmmaking, you will also have time to get some hands-on experience. Like teaching yourself, making movies on your own requires time out of your weekly schedule: you’ll have to schedule around work and other obligatory commitments, where as in school you’ll get class time to work on your projects and complete them in a more timely manner. Along with this hands-one experience, you will be able to dabble with professional equipment that you would otherwise only experience on a professional movie set. Unless you have a job on a movie set that requires no college education, you won’t be able to use professional equipment unless you shell out a sizable chunk of change and you’ll have no experience operating it. Some argue that with the increased use of digital video and availability of editing software on your personal computer that experience with actual film isn’t necessary, but most major Hollywood films are still being shot with film as it is part of the history and tradition of film production, so it will not die out that quickly. It’s good to get familiar with the equipment while you can.

Third, film school allows you to receive one-on-one advice and help by like-minded individuals. You’ll have mentors who are professionals in the field who can give you tips on how to better your projects and offer you inciteful and helpful critique. The same goes for your fellow students: seeing as they’re studying the same thing as you are, their critique and input may be more useful than that of your close friends and family or a random YouTuber who’s simply trolling the comments section of your video.

The fourth, final, and most important reason as to why one should attend film school is the connections. As previously stated, your teachers and mentors are quite experienced and no doubt have had some involvement with the film industry at one point or another. Establishing good relationships with them while in school can be beneficial down the road, as they can put you in contact with other influential (and affluent) filmmakers active in the business. Even the connections you make with your fellow film students are important; maintain good relationships with them and you’ll see how much easier it will be to find a crew and/or cast to help you out with your future endeavors (or for you to find future work on a crew yourself).

If you are interested in making movies, film school is most definitely beneficial and should not be passed up.