Thursday, June 17, 2010

101 Things I Learned in Film School by Neil Landau

Neil Landau with Matthew Frederick.101 Things I Learned in Film School. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010.

The author Neil Landau attended UCLA Film School. He finds films work best when they begin with their central theme. Scenes should show the film’s essentials and not bother with unnecessary preliminaries. Film needs to present stories visually.

Pre-production is the period up to the start of the shooting. Production is the period of shooting to when principal photography is over. Post-production is the editing of scene and adding music, dialogue, and effects and begins during production.

The toilets are located in the “honeywagon trailer”.

Abby Singer is the second to last day of filming. Martini is the final day of filming.

Cameras should optimize presenting the action to the audience. The audience should not feel disengaged from what they are viewing. At the same time, some action should be kept from the audience to make them curious about when will be coming.

A moving discovery shot, such as showing a section of a room and then moving to the characters, makes an audience feel as if they’re spying on the character. A fixed discovering shot makes an audience feel like they’re eavesdropping.

A certain future is shown by a character, who is in focus, moving into a blurry background.

A blurry character in a focused background is seeking focus in the character’s life.

Low angle camera shots present a character as powerful. A high angle camera shot diminishes the character. A tilted, or Dutch, angle shot indicates something is amiss about the character. An over the shoulder shot makes a character appear vulnerable. A jitter or hand held shot makes a character appear overwhelmed.

One should consider ways to present bits of the backstory while presenting the narrative.

A protagonist is more interesting when flawed.

An antagonist fears the truth and seeks to create a false truth.

Act 1 presents a problem. Act 2 complicates the dilemma. Act 3 presents the problem’s solution. A film should present high stakes yet realistic goas for the protagonist, and the crisis must be threatening.

A story presents emotional events.

A theme should touch the universal human condition.

Entrances should include something making them memorable.

A Wide Shot, aka Master Shot, or Establishing Shot, presents the broad visual of a scene. The Full, or Long Shot, shows a character’s entire body and is usually for entrances, exits, and when walking. A Medium Shot, showing a character from the waist to head, is usually for dialogue. The Medium Close Up, showing a character from the chest or shoulders to head, is usually for intimate dialogue. A Close-Up, showing a character from the neck up, shows intimate facial reactions. An Extreme Close Up, usually of the eyes and nose, usually shows the subtext of emotion.

A protagonist must be active and not passive.

Props can help show characteristics of characters.

A person can process 20 images per second.

Audiences prefer when a character’s stakes use emotion, revelations are exciting, a dilemma and conflict increases, and then are kept in suspense. Each scene presents some new information. There must be conflict in every scene.

Fantasy movies should set rules early and clearly. Audiences feel cheated when new rules resolve a story.

Animation allows for expansive presentation.

A setting should be a character.

All characters are corrupt in film noir.

A character should not overly converse as if speaking for an audience to understand the message. Instead, there should be normal conversation between characters.

Dialogue should be natural.

Characters should have their own voices.

“Mise en scene” is the entirety of characters, shots, shadowing, color, depth, sets, type of film used, etc.

Multiple copies of important props should be made in case of damage. One should make certain child and animal actors are prepared.

Using a hand held Steadicam can save time and money over using a dolly track.

Film when natural light prevents requiring the costs of artificial light.

A second unit can film establishing shots, cutaways, and inserts.

Actors can be worn out through too many master shots.

“Clear the eye line” means to remove distractions an actor may see while filming a scene.

Using a variety of shots allows actors to offer subtle changes and present more choices while editing.

One should plan for the unexpected when filming.

Actors usually face each other when conversing. Filming thus follows a 180 degree rule.

An actor’s eyes usually appear best when in the top third of view. A horizon is usually best presented in the bottom third of view.

Leaving headroom above a character’s head gives an appearance of the actor sinking. More of the front of an actor’s head should be shown than the back of the head. Avoid shooing at natural cutoff lines that make the character appear amputated, such as at knees, ankles, neck, and waist.

Speaking characters need to be closer together than the usual two feet of distance that often exists in reality. This space creates a void on film.

Avoid shooting busy background. Lighting the foreground and blocking the background can reduce background visuals.

Good movies have showstoppers, or set pieces, or high points that audiences remember.

A central conflict should increase during a movie. The conflict will force the protagonist to both respond and to evolve from the experience.

Characters should have memorable names and indentifying characteristics.

A movie shows stories visually and implies things not shown.

A pivotal character is one who helps a protagonist solve the central dilemma. This usually occurs by having the protagonist reach a changed outlook and to move towards a catharsis.

Even an ensemble movie needs a central protagonist. That character usually is presented first.

Visual motifs should be relevant to the characters and the story.

A story could be presented elliptically.

A clean cutaway is an isolated scene that continues the continuity flow.

The protagonist should not be able to resolve a conflict by returning to where situations began. The protagonist must face an unknowing future. Often, the protagonist will have a deadline for resolving the dilemma.

During auditions, note how an actor responds to direction.

Actors should be doing some task important to the subtext during dialogue.

Subtext, such as a liar rapidly blinking eyes or with body language, can often express a character move than the dialogue.

A coincidence should not resolve a problem. It is more effective if it complicates the situation.

A character should question matters as an audience would question things.

Avoid overusing clich├ęs and being predictable.

The character vested in a problem should be the one the resolves it.

A protagonist should find truth in the climax and should be better for learning that truth. A movie should end soon after a climax. The characters and the audience should feel a catharsis.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Teaching the Pig to Dance by Fred Thompson

Fred Thompson. Teaching the Pig to Dance: A Memoir of Growing Up and Second Chances. New York: Crown Forum, Random House, Inc., 2010,

The author was a Counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, an actor on the TV show “Law & Order”, a U.S. Senator, and a Presidential candidate. Thompson writes he wanted to title this book “Why I’ve Had Such a Hard Time Keeping a Job”.

His failed Presidential run was the first time had had set out to do something and didn’t achieve it. He describes the result as “humbling”.

Thompson’s father advised him to never become an attorney or a politician. He did both. He did tell his mother “if it’s any consolation, I didn’t turn out to be much of a politician after all.”

The author was born in Helen Keller Hospital in Alabama, which was also the birthplace of Sen. Mitch McConnell. Thompson grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. It was a two restaurant town where “whichever one you go to, you’ll wish you’d gone to the other.”

Thompson’s father was a Roosevelt Democrat truck driver. His father ran for Sheriff as a Republican. He lost.

Thomson was inspired in college by the writings of Barry Goldwater.

Thompson was an Assistant U. S. Attorney. Sen. Howard Baker met and was impressed with Thompson. In 1973, he hired Thompson to be Republican Counsel to the Watergate Committee.

Thompson was an attorney representing a woman in the Tennessee Pardons and Parole Board who had fought the Governor over pardons, was filed, sued, and won. Her story was made into a movie. Frank Capra asked Thompson to play himself in the movie. This led to roles in 20 other movies.

As an attorney, Thompson represented a company that fought a strike. He won the case because the workers had not unionized.

Thompson got a role in the movie “Fat Man and Little Boy” because the casting people thought he resembled the real life character Leslie Groves. Yet the part was later given to Paul Newman. Newman trumps looking realistic. Thompson did get another part in the movie.

Dick Wolf, the producer of the TV show “Law & Order” unexpectedly asked Thompson to portray a District Attorney. He accepted. During a routine medical check for the show, it was discovered he had cancer. Fortunately, it was a condition resolved with medicine.