Saturday, September 15, 2007

My Shortest Apposition, Part 1

If you want to spend more time with your friends, do a project with them. —Josh Mehler

I've been quiet about this next film project I'm working on because there hasn't really been a need to talk about it, but I'm in the final stages of preparation for a short I'm directing a week from today. My old friend Hans, a highly talented still photographer, was finding himself spending an alarmingly disproportionate amount of time listening to DVD director commentaries. Finally, earlier this year, he emailed me with this singular resolute sentence: "Dude, we've got to make a film together."

Of all the people I know, Hans is certainly the most meticulous and I know he'd take the studying of, and the craft of, cinematography very seriously. Naturally, I was stoked he wanted to shoot something for real. The plan is one day to do features, and hopefully many of them.

Instead of horsing around with random shooting experiments, we decided to do a short film and learn about each stage of the filmmaking process. I strongly believe in the power of experiential learning: you can read a million books, take hundreds of lectures, even do correspondence clsses, whatever—in the end, the only way to gather and retain life lessons is to go out and make actual mistakes. Some schools embrace this philosophy by offering hands-on experience before you make expensive mistakes in the real world, but too often schools teach children to avoid making mistakes. Thus, Hans and I decided to use an experimental short film to make a bunch of mistakes and not feel too guilty about them. (NB: Depending on the goal of a short film, i.e., whether it's a souped up home movie vs. striving to win an Academy Award or some other prestigious award, I have firm opinions about how much money should be invested on short films.)

Initially, we were going to do this whole short in miniDV to let our hair down and really experiment, but then Hans bought a 16mm camera and we starting thinking of ways to experiment shooting with film, too. The problem is, film is expensive. It's expensive to develop, it's expensive to transfer to a digital format, and—if you go that route—it's expensive to transfer an edited digital version back onto film. Plus, adding sound into the equation is another financial headache. Video is an infinitely better medium to get your feet wet in filmmaking without completely jumping in. Nevertheless, Hans and I were moving in the direction of shooting a feature on celluloid, so why not learn sooner rather than later?

Great! I thought. This short will look beautiful if we shoot it on film. After all, shooting a film with celluloid is how Vin Deisel made his superb breakthrough short Multi-Facial (which Steven Spielberg saw and instantly hired him for Saving Private Ryan). But shooting in film would also skyrocket our budget... could we combine the financial advantages of video with the sublime beauty of film? More importantly, how could we shoot in 16mm without blowing so much money that we'd start to get gunshy? If our goal were to be experimental, we couldn't constantly be worried about burning film; it would kill any desire to embrace our mistakes and thus stifle our ability to learn.

As many of you know, I'm a huge fan of integration—if something doesn't belong in the story, it's gratuitous. If the bulk of your film is shot in video, you don't just shoot film because you can. It's weird and distracting and isn't true to the nature of weaving a compelling narrative spell. If you put something in, it needs to serve a purpose.

My next thought: shooting in film is expensive. That's its weakness. Film is also troublesome when doing synch sound, especially since the 16mm camera Hans bought was quite noisy. So if we shot anything in 16mm, it would have to be MOS (silent), or the camera would have to be so far away that the mic wouldn't pick any of the noisy reel clatter. How could we turn this weakness into a strength? And how could we integrate these two formats seamlessly?

Tune in tomorrow to find out...

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