Friday, May 12, 2006

One Take Forward, Two Takes Back

After watching Honda's astonishing 2 minute Rube Goldberg-type commercial (which I've since learned is called Cog and which I blogged about here) about 20 times, it hit me how glad I was that commercials exist. I don't watch TV anymore, but when I used to—every so often—a great commercial would come on and I'd go, yeah... cool.

Sadly, that occurrence was not often enough. Most TV advertising sucks ass and TV ads are actually the reason I don't watch TV anymore. There are too many commercials, and they're all really dumbed-down. Clever advertising is few and far between.

Not all advertising is shitty... I worked at a swanky San Francisco ad agency for almost a year, and I saw some excellent advertising come out of there (Hear Me's silent monk ads, for one), which showed me that creating ads is merely storytelling on an itty bitty scale. Something funny, or cool, or shocking... something that grabs your attention is the crunchy bit at the center of the advertising Tootsie pop. And Cog did that brilliantly. If there hadn't been a company willing to spend $6 million and four weeks and wait 606 takes to get the final cut... Cog would never have been made. And you simply can't watch Cog without being completely hypnotized by its genius, no matter what product it's trying to hock.

France even had a show showcasing exceptional TV commercials around the world called Culture Pub (or "Commercial Culture"). They'd spend the top half of the hour focusing on the history of a particular company's TV commercials, how a corporate brand had evolved over time, then the second half of the hour showing you the world's most brilliant commercials for that week. Every year, they'd compile the best of that year's commercials and show them at a movie theatre. It was like MTV for commercials.

Anyway, while I was watching Cog, I started thinking about the film shoot I'm on currently and about how much time it takes to light a feature film... it seems like forever. We arrive on set and three hours can go by before we're finally rolling (I'm being somewhat disingenuous here because scheduling conflicts with locations and named actors is also a culprit in the mix; lighting does take a long time to look good on film, though). When we do get rolling, it goes fast because we have two cameras rolling at once, sometimes even three. Because it's digital, filming has become faster and easier, but lighting always slows shite down... Yesterday, we shot a courtroom scene in two hours—which was breakneck fast—but we did it that fast only because we had to. Still, that means it is possible to film quickly if you're willing to make the decisions necessary to make it happen, like not carrying the the heavy ass 5K lights to and from the grip truck. If you have a 12 hour day, allowing an hour to unpack and an hour to pack the grip truck is standard. (It's no surprise, then, that Lars Von Trier and other filmmakers opted in their "Dogma" movement in 1995 to use only natural lights and music on set, but that fodder for another post.)

If I were going to film a low-budget film in hi-def right now, today, I'd get two glide cams, 2 tripods, a fucking great sound kit, minimal lights, and shoot two angles simultaneously and only during the day in quiet (preferably secured) locations. Most importantly, I'd rehearse with the actors until they knew their lines as if they were performing a stage play. Only after the actors were on book—and/or had found the best lines to deliver—would I start blocking with a cinematographer and bring in lights to setup. To that end, deciding all the shots and drawing up storyboards in pre-production would probably save so much time in production that I could let the actors deliver their best on-book performance first and then their best improv performance.

Great fimmaking like Cog starts with an amazing concept. Without that, you're toast. Then it needs great... what word to use? Enaction? (Yeah, I know that's not a word.) You're not exactly stoking a great performance, but actually teasing out the essence of the written material onto the screen. There are no actors in Cog, just moving parts, so "performance" isn't exactly the word. You get my point, though.

If you're going to film in the digital age, where technical problems like shooting ratios and film development lag have been minimized, then it seems like you should be using all the time you save by pushing it into other parts of the production instead of allowing familiar time sponges like setting up lights slow you down.

1 comment:

Ross Pruden said...

Okay, so I take most of it back. Today we shot 19 1/8 pages... in just 12 hours. At that rate, we could have shot our entire film in 7 or 8 days, instead of 12. There is no way we could have done that with celluloid!