Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Surviving Film School: Part 2

In the last post I discussed the characteristics of a good film. 
But what are some characteristics of a bad film?

Usually we can't figure out who the main character is, or what it is that character is trying to do.  We can't figure out his goal.

There is too much exposition.  Instead of seeing the action, characters often just tell us what they feel, or think, or what they just did, or what they are going to do.  The worst is when a character tells us what they are going to do, then we see them do it, then they tell us what they just did!
We don't care what happens next, or why.  We have nothing invested in the story.  There is no emotional connection, either to a character or her goal.

The camerawork is clumsy.  Shots are framed poorly.  They seem unbalanced, and not in the good, crooked-angle kind of way.  We don't know where to look in the frame.  There are no original shots.  The camera is too still, or it moves around too much; there might be dolly shots that aren't motivated.  
The sound design adds nothing to the story.  Or the sound itself might just be bad.  Dialogue might be tough to hear, music might be inappropriate or cliched,  presence (ambiance) might be choppy or non-existent.

The editing is plodding.  Or so frenetic you can't tell where you are.  Instead of controlling rhythm and pace to create tension or fear or joy or sadness, the editing merely advances the story.  Or it might not even do that!

The film is dark and underexposed, or too bright, or the lighting is too flat and gray.  There is no color in the film, no sense of lighting to help define time and place.

The acting is wooden.  It seems like the actors are reading lines instead of talking to each other.  Or the actors might be miscast.

Locations are poorly chosen.  They add nothing to the story.   Sets too are poorly, or minimally, designed.   Costumes are inappropriate.

Finally, we know we've seen a bad film when we feel we've wasted our time, or that the film had no redeemable feature.  Sometimes a film just misses the mark, but has too many faults to recommend it.  Sometimes you wonder, why didn't anyone making this film see how bad it would be?  Why didn't anyone tell them?  Most frustrating is when you can see the good film buried deep in the bad film!


How to avoid bad pre-production!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Surviving Film School: Part 1

What Makes A Good Film?
Let me get this out of the way - I'm a film teacher.  I've never worked in Hollywood or made a feature film.  I do make short films and I have worked for hire over the years as a producer, writer, director, and editor.  

But what I am primarily is a teacher.  I've been teaching in film school for over ten years.  I've taught freshman and sophomores, seniors and grad students.  I've seen students' first films and final thesis films, class exercises, documentaries, animated films, films on 16 mm, 35 mm, HDSLR, even VHS.

I've seen hundreds, maybe THOUSANDS, of student films.   

And to be honest, many of them stink.

We do our best as film teachers to instruct students in both the technical and creative aspects of film making.  Some students get it.  They recognize how much work goes into a film, how it's a collaborative process.  They divide the labor, so they aren't doing all of the work themselves.  They have something to say, and are eager to share with an audience.  They work their butts off to make each student film better than the one before.  They want to learn.  They want to make good films. 

A VHS tape, if you've never seen one.  (photo by J. Betke)
Other students sleep through class, miss assignments, only care about making films "their" way, and get easily demoralized.  They don't foster friendships, meaning they get stuck doing all the work themselves.  They are sloppy on set.  They want to be filmmakers, but are unwilling to do the work needed to make good films.

This blog will help student filmmakers, and other beginners, recognize what mistakes make a bad film, and along the way hopefully show you how to do things the right way.  In other words, we will show you why student films stink, and how to make sure yours don't.

Let's start this by discussing what constitutes a good film.

There is usually "Suspension of Disbelief."  The film "looks and feels" like a professional movie.  It looks like you're watching a scene from real life, or, if it's a genre film like science fiction, horror, or even a western, an imagined real life. 

There are no glaring production mistakes, and the story is often shot from one character's point of view.  The camera is placed at appropriate angles, the lighting is such that you can see what's important, and it might even help set the mood.  You can hear what you need to hear.  The dialogue is believable and you can't tell that the actors are acting. 

You care what happens to the characters.  You want to know what happens next; you want to know how the story will end.    

There is usually an emotional investment.  You laugh or you cry, you feel anxious or tense.  It's more than just being shocked or startled, or laughing at a joke; you find humor in situations, or you are scared for a character.

Finally, you feel somehow fulfilled when the film is over.  You can't always put your finger on it, but you know somehow you've changed.  Either you got a peek at a life you didn't previously know, or you felt a sincere emotion.  Maybe the film touched you in some way.  You can't stop thinking about why the characters acted the way that they did, why they made the choices they made. 

You tell your friends how great the movie was and you recommend it.  You post links to its trailer.  In the back of your mind you might remember some shots that looked great, or a line of dialogue, or an actor's performance.  And the movie stays with you, in a good way, for years. 

NEXT: What are some common problems of bad films?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thoughts on Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" (2009)

The villains in Michael Haneke films are often cold-blooded, amoral psychopaths that live, undetected, among us.  When accused of a crime, they look right through their accusers.  Other people's lives mean nothing to these antagonists.  It's beyond cruelty.  Those who dare to have empathy for others are looked down at with contempt.  They are gods in their own minds, and we are less than ants. 

Haneke's goal is for us to recognize how dangerous these people are.  Because they are immoral, it is impossible for the rest of us to even deal with them in any kind of legal, or even social, manner.  They don't play by our rules, and if we assume, even for a moment, that that they will be amenable to our rules, then we are doomed.  They will steam roll us.  While we are debating the rules of the game, they have already taken the ball and shoved it down our throats.  And they do it apologetically, almost as if they are sorry for our weakness. 

In Haneke's "The White Ribbon," set in a German village in the year prior to the outbreak of the Great War, a series of violent accidents and crimes go unanswered.  A doctor out for a horseback ride has his horse tripped out from under him by an invisible wire, breaking  the doctor's collarbone.  An older woman who works in the local land baron's sawmill falls through a rotten floorboard and dies.  The baron's young son is found tied upside down to a tree, his back whipped.  And a young retarded boy, the daughter of the doctor's mistress, is found in the woods, his eyes nearly gouged out.

The townsfolk are concerned by these events, but fail to see how they might be connected.  Only when the last boy is severely wounded does the village school teacher, who might represent the village's conscience, begin to notice that some of his students are reacting strangely to the deaths.  We never see the students kill or even injure anyone - although we do see the baron's son accosted after he recuperates fro his own injuries.  What we do see is bland, fake concern for the injured, that probably masks a different motive. 

Ultimately the crimes in the village are never solved.  The retarded boy and his mother, who had gone to the police in the nearby larger town to express her own suspicions of who committed the crimes against her son, disappear.  The doctor, who we discover might be sexually abusing his own teenage daughter, also leaves town unexpectedly.  And the baron's wife flees the village, taking her children to Italy. 

A note found with the last boy suggests the attacks might be punishment for the crimes of the fathers.  The doctor, in addition to possibly abusing his daughter,  might be the father of the retarded boy.  The baron's son might be punishment for accidental death of the old woman.  If the attacks are a form of retribution, however, they fit no logical moral code. 

While the victims, and perhaps the perpetrators, of the crimes disappear, the children who might have committed the violent retribution, and their abusive parents, including the town pastor, remain,  Their callousness, coldness, and antipathy also remain, setting the stage for even greater disregard for human life.  These are the children who would live through the Great War, the collapse of the German economy,  and the rise of a fascist regime in which their own evil would find a place to thrive.      

Friday, October 7, 2011

Johnny Depp to star as Nick Charles in a new "The Thin Man"

I just read about this "The Thin Man" remake being produced by Johnny Depp.  While I appreciate Depp's acting and his ability to produce quality films, I wonder why they are choosing to remake such a well-loved film.

Remakes are fine when the story is easily adaptable.  Some stories can, and should, be told over and over again for different generations.  Each new approach can bring something new to the story.  "The Three Musketeers" can and should be remade every generation, if not sooner.  The same for "Dracula" or "King Kong" or any number of historical dramas.  These stories benefit from retelling.

Films that are associated with a particular actor or performance, however, bring risks.  Those films might benefit from a remake in the right hands.  The recent adaptation of "True Grit" was successful because of the unique skills of the Coen Brothers and the good casting of Jeff Bridges.  Other remakes, such as Gus Van Sant's literal remake of "Psycho," failed miserably.

I welcome a new take on Dashiell Hammett.  His novels are dense and complicated and deserve a good adaptation.  In some ways I wish the Coens were working on this.  Their "Miller's Crossing" is a loose adaptation of "The Glass Key," Hammetts novel about mobbed-up political wars.  "Miller's Crossing" is actually an improvement on the Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake version from 1942, which was something of a step backwards from an earlier 1935 version staring George Raft.

Hammett's most popular novel, "The Maltese Falcon," was perfected on film in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.  The first adaptation, from 1931, was racier than the classic Huston version, but suffers from a weak performance from Ricardo Cortez (who, you might ask?) as Spade.

We associate Bogart with Sam Spade for a reason - he's great at those hard-nosed, loyal, cynical tough guy roles.  He attracts women but he's somewhat indifferent to them.  He needs to solve the puzzle, first, and women can wait.

William Powell, as Nick Charles in "The Thin Man," is also irreplaceable.  He's a cynical, funny, street-wise ex-cop who has what used to be called "savoir faire."  He's a fish out of water, a regular guy who married-up and has to float equally well between two worlds.  William Powell had that capacity to earn your confidence.  He does it on screen between himself and his fellow actors, and he did it between himself and his audience. 

I'm optimistic about Depp bringing his own characterizations to Nick Charles.  He can play a loveable eccentric, or a handsome guy who everyone wants to be friends with.  He has the star power to attract a good supporting cast - I'm especially curious about who will play Nora, as she hasn't yet been announced.  Their interplay will make or break the film.

I have absolutely no faith, however, in Rob Marshall as the director.  He does big budget pictures that, so far, have shown little nuance.  The success of the film will rely on the screenplay and on the Nick and Nora relationship. 

But the whole thing could flop if Marshall doesn't capture the heart and soul of Hammett's original novel.