Mad Max and Lost: Religion, Selfishness, and Feminism

With my current Duplass brothers obsession, I didn’t think I’d be all that into Mad Max. I thought Thunderdome was the best of the trilogy, am a Tom Hardy fan, and was fascinated that the man who created Happy Feat and Lorenzo’s Oil would be now making a VFX-driven action film, fourth installment/remake, but my friend calling it a “two hour long music video” made me skeptical.

I really did love the film though. It is some of the best action I’ve seen in a while. I never looked at my watch or felt bored by the barrage of fire, explosions, and car chases. It wasn’t because I particularly cared about the characters. It was because it was great, inventive action.

What especially stood out to me was the world Miller created, in particular the film’s treatment of religion. There are two “religions” in the film. One is created by the evil boss, bad man to convince his white-painted henchmen to do his bidding despite the clear threat it poses to their well being. The other is held by his “breeders” and is used for a similar reason: it gives them a Heaven to look forward to. But the film shows that neither group is well off believing such things. The two characters that the audience connects with are Max, who is clearly a selfish skeptic, and Furiosa, who isn’t searching for some mythical place but the home she was taken from.

The two are completely selfish but in so being, they find it beneficial to help each other and further each other’s goals. In doing so, they bring down the people in power, bettering the lives of everyone, but most importantly, their own. Their empathy derives from their self interest. Religion just gets people killed and while the leaders of it might be well off, they sure don’t look like they are in as good a position as our heroes are at the end of the film.

I love how modern the film is. Furiosa is probably the fiercest person in the film and she is a one-armed woman! I recently went back and started rewatching Lost. I had never seen the final season so I thought I’d start from the beginning and finish what was once my favorite show. But I could not stand it! It was so sexist. I stopped midway through the second season.

Take Ana Lucia for instance. She is the ruler of her camp, which consists of an old man, a bunch of women, and a guy who doesn’t talk. But once she encounters the rest of the survivors, she is a total screw up. She kills someone innocent and becomes an outcast. When there are able men around, she is no longer capable of leading. Not only that, but she is shown to be totally helpless. When she is setting up her camp, Jack has to come over and help her put up a tarp, correct her for doing it wrong. Not only that but Jack is the one who accepts her/allows her to join the group because of a potentially sexual encounter they had. A man has to approve of her and does so only because he has the hots for her.

That’s just one example of why I couldn’t keep watching. There are plenty of others. (Men can go prancing off into the jungle on their own but any time a woman does, someone says “you shouldn’t go alone.” Rousseau lives on her own in the jungle but she’s portrayed as being crazy.) While I think some aspects of the filmic art form are heading in the wrong direction (such as that the Platinum Age of Television is really just a glorification of villains), I do think we’ve made some social progress. Mad Max is a prime example. A big studio action film doesn’t need to be dumb.


Best Films/TV of 2014

Best Films/TV
1. Interstellar, Boyhood
3. Edge of Tomorrow, Wild, Theory of Everything
6. The Imitation Game, American Sniper
8. True Detective

Honorable Mention: I Origins

Still to be seen: Foxcatcher, Selma, A Most Violent Year

Best Director: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Screenplay Original: Interstellar

Best Screenplay Adapted: Edge of Tomorrow

Best Actor:
1. Eddie Redmayne (Theory of Everything)
2. Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)

Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

Best Supporting Actor: Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Cinematography: Interstellar

Best Editing: Wild

Score: Interstellar

Production Design: Interstellar

Sound Editing: Interstellar

Visual Effects: Interstellar

Other Categories:

Best Long Take: End of Episode 4 of True Detective

Best Color Design: Theory of Everything

Best Newcomer:
1. Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood)
2. Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar)

Can a Human be Uploaded? Thoughts on Science Fiction and Singularity

As you’ve probably noticed, you shouldn’t read my posts until you’ve watched the movie. For one, they don’t make much sense until you have. And two, they shape the way you watch the movie. I’d rather have the discussion with you after you’ve watched it than influence your expectations.

But if you weren’t planning on watching it, hopefully my thoughts will either persuade or dissuade.

Transcendence was an action thriller that wanted to be a scifi film that should have been a love story.

I figured there would be action. Wally Pfister, the director, evolved into the incredible DP he is while working with Christopher Nolan, director of the recent Batman trilogy, InceptionThe Prestige. I knew there was a love story. Every Nolan film has one, usually with a troubled man unable to get the love he wants. Plus the trailer told us there was to be one. But what I was looking forward to was the science fiction.

Science fiction changes with the times. Look at this incredible graphic and compare history with scifi it records.



To hit a few major points: When Hitler was around, we feared controlling governments. When the atomic bomb was invented, we feared the wasteland. When we went to space, war moved into the stars. And now that technology has become an inseparable part of our lives, we talk about singularity, or transcendence.

I went into this film, Transcendence,  excited for that. I was introduced to the topic in a Time article. It blew me away. I had already been working on a script that mildly involved a similar theme, but this article showed me how much more was possible than I’d ever imagined. I sought out more and more. I watched Her immediately and as soon as I learned Robot & Frank existed, I hit play, not even putting it on my Netflix queue but just immediately hitting play. I rarely read contemporary fiction but I devoured Dave Eggers’s The Circle. For the longest time, I had felt that history showed progress, that the difference between man and animal was that we could build on the previous generations and that made us better. But singularity made me doubt that.

What if we were working toward a point that wiped us out? When I heard the term singularity, I thought of a black hole. A single point with infinite density from which nothing can escape and in which nothing can exist; all is one and all is nothing. Were we progressing, transcending from our humanly selves into a black hole, into nothing? My theory was very much influenced by my favorite movie, The Matrix.

Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we… are the cure.

To a computer that can create better versions of itself, that can direct its own evolution, we are simply an imperfection that should be eradicated. From watching a film like Her, I realized that isn’t necessarily true. A computer might not care that we exist but simply enter into its own realm of post-life.

And so what excited me about the film Transcendence was seeing what its take would be. Would it postulate that computers would delete us? Would it be more hopeful and think that they will simply leave us?

It took the simplest, Hollywoodized answer of all: they love us.

In all honesty, I didn’t get the ending. Transcendent Will (Johnny Depp) kills himself because he can’t save the love that saved him, but that is okay because he has saved the planet, not the humans on it, but the planet itself. If he can evolve the planet in the span of two years, and if he truly loves her, why doesn’t he rush her inside and take ten minutes saving her? Instead, he waits, and talks to her, and shows her he is capable of love, then he realizes, oh no more time to save her! It had the same problem that alien movies have. If aliens can figure out all that they do, in order to travel here and what not, then why is it that the bacteria on earth, or a well-directed kamikaze plane, can destroy them? The film talks of logic and almost has some, until the conclusion, when the science no longer matters because they want to make us cry: it is him! He’s alive! He still loves you!

Sorry Hollywood, I’m not crying.

Surprisingly however, I am interested. If the opening scene, instead of giving away the ending, had showed Will and Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) falling in love, I might have bought the end. But it just took me too long to realize it was a love story. She does save him out of love, but they talk about too much science at the beginning to make you feel like that is what it is about.

In the end, I’m left wishing the film hadn’t talked so much science but had instead explored the love story more. It tried too. She has dreams of making love that turn into nightmares as she reveals he isn’t human. They tried to have dinner together with Will faking the sounds of eating to make her more comfortable. Will approached her with a surrogate body but she couldn’t accept it. The problem is that all these scenes were just underdeveloped versions of what I saw in Her.

I don’t want another Her. I want something new. And Transcendence just didn’t deliver it. While that may be partly Pfister’s fault, I think the problem was the writing.

I think the cure would have been to make a more realistic scifi film (with the amount of logic in Her, The Matrix, or a Shane Carruth film). In other words, it needed more research. But it should have been a scifi film that realized it was actually a love story. It wanted to be that, but the filmmakers hid that from us, got too caught up in the action.

Will asks Evelyn if she still loves him near the end of the film. That is when I realized what the film should have been about. It should have focused more on her and less on the hundred other characters in the film. It should have just been about her asking Will back: do you still love me? (Which she doesn’t ask but should have, at least to herself, much earlier on.)

Can a human transcend or can we just make computers smarter than us? Can a human be uploaded?

I applaud the film for making me ask that question, but I wish it had spent some time discussing it. I’d gladly have sacrificed all the gun fire and running for the sake of that question.

Style before Story: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The majority of my work has purely focused on style, almost entirely through imagery/cinematography. The Domino Effect had a very simple story of a train of bad news colliding with an innocent little girl, derailing her onto a new track of even more lies. What interested me though was this cool, jumpy, fast-paced, colliding-domino style I had seen in a video on Vimeo. Diagnosis started simply with the idea of spiraling around this girl in a chair, slowly revealing more information through the camera movement, until the reality of that scene gets intermixed with her mental lack of clarity as the spiraling movement seamlessly transitions to a different time but the same place, causing us to question if this continuous motion that we have taken as our only constant is real or just what she has made up because of the entrapment she feels. Only in the subsequent Diagnosis Extended did I try to make sense of the story. At first, it was just about the cool camera move. And I can keep going with pretty much every short film and music video I have made to date.

What I have created are these technical, visual metaphors. But they aren’t stories. They don’t feel like reality. They do not connect with us. Instead, they force us to analyze. T.S. Eliot created puzzles that gave us an impression even on the first read. I created puzzles that had little impression except for “a kid having fun with his camera and editing software.”

I wouldn’t compare myself to Wes Anderson. My style has not been concrete nor finessed. And I struggled to tell stories in my visual poems that I called short films and music videos. However, I do think there is a similarity. Wes Anderson does not seem to care about story. For him, filmmaking is about style. It is about the telling of the story, not the story itself.

When our parents tucked us in and sat at our side recounting the quest of a knight in shining armor or even their day at work turned into a war of legend, it wasn’t so much the story that interested us. We simply wanted to hear them tell a story. To have them sit at our side and speak words excitedly, in a magical way, to take us on a journey: that is what we enjoyed. This is what Wes is interested in.

His latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel did not leave me on the edge of my seat. I did not cry when the characters died or were married. I did not yearn for change or fear the villain. My watching of the film seemed more at a distance. I observed it. And that gave me a very unusual experience.

It was like we were looking at our own world through a lens, through Wes Anderson goggles. It wasn’t like the rules of our world didn’t apply which is usually what looking through a lens means. It was just our eyes that had changed. All gore and death was shocking but so shocking that it was comical and cute (like in Django Unchained plus an element of cute–and see how even Quentin Tarantino has to break the laws of gravity. Wes doesn’t). Harvey Keitel played your typical tough guy in prison. But he was so stereotypically that character that it became comical. All the tattoos on his body, which would make the real life version of that character scary, instead become children’s drawings, satirizing the idea that all this ink actually makes you look tough.

harvey_keitelR Gumpert 8

So does all of it work? Critics praise Wes Anderson. And on the surface, it is true that he has created a style that is uniquely his and received critical and commercial success with it. Few filmmakers can be both mainstream and artsy. He is definitely one of the few. But what is the purpose of storytelling? Of film? Of art?

Art is the world seen through someone else’s eyes. Check. Film is an art that combines all the others: movement, imagery, sound, story. He definitely has all those things and brings a unique touch to them. But storytelling…

The stories we most remember are ones that moved us, reaffirming or making us question our view of the world. A great story can be told poorly, causing us to forget it very quickly (as is the case with many films that are literary adaptations). A terrible story can be told very well, often tricking us into thinking it is great (as is the case with most art films and something like Citizen Kane). The former bores. The latter makes our minds work but doesn’t move us. It is rare that we find a great story that is well told. But when we do, we watch it again and again. We tell our friends about it. We read about it online. We write about it. We buy it as soon as it comes out. And we forget about all the movies we have seen before as it feels like our favorite, like no other movie has ever existed.

Wes Anderson does not do that. When we walk out of his films, we are not moved. But we are tickled. And it is a tickle that sticks with us. A tickle that brings us back to the movie theater for his next film. A tickle that reminds us of how it feels to be a child when we see things the way we want to see them. A tickle that keeps on tickling. But his films do not impact us. They might make us laugh a little more. Or not take things so seriously. We do not walk out of them changed though.

The reason for it is that he is focused more on the telling than the story itself, as I have often done. He is one heck of a teller but tellers work at banks. He is missing the story.

What is the point of the birthmark shaped like Mexico on Saoirse Ronan’s cheek? There literally is no story behind it.


I’ll probably make a short someday that tries to mimic the Wes Anderson style. I am actually developing a short right now that only has the purpose of creating tension, with no story beyond the cinematic trickery enabled through editing and cinematography. But when I make a feature, I will focus on story. Form will follow function. I will let the story dictate the style. And I hope that people walk out of the theater a little more than tickled.

But don’t get me wrong, I love a good tickle. And Wes can tickle like no one’s business.

Transcendent Endings: 12 Years a Slave

From the trailer we know he doesn’t start out as a slave, and the film is called 12 Years a Slave (2013) so we know he doesn’t stay one. I get that it is based on a true story, but when have movies told a true story anyway? (And by the way, it is impossible to give unbiased news. The closest you can get is by having two people present their views and hash it out, which I applaud CNN for doing. But that isn’t news; it is opinion. The selection of the news and its presentation, in the end, are done by one person or one group that has a point of view. My point being, even a film that uses only actually-said dialogue and true events is still biased from the camera angle alone or even what the camera is focused on.) So what I am bringing into question is whether or not, for the sake of the story, 12 Years a Slave ended in the best way possible. Obviously, there are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead as I will be analyzing the details of what I have already mentioned and comparing it to the endings of two other films.

One of the major differences between Blood Diamond (2006) and Hotel Rwanda (2004), both of which deal with violence in Africa, is their endings. Blood Diamond ends with a giant lawsuit, a internationally successful article, and a changed diamond industry, leaving the viewer with the impression that the problem has been solved. Hotel Rwanda, on the other hand, also a heroic movie, has a bitter sweet ending in which the character survives but the violence lives on, asking the viewer to bring it to an end. That is where Blood Diamond fails miserably and where Hotel Rwanda becomes so much more than entertainment. So how does the conclusion of 12 Years a Slave compare?

While watching the film, I kept wishing it had a different title. The message was so important that I felt a happy ending would diminish its impact. I was afraid it was going to be another Blood Diamond. But it was the scene with the family that made me break into tears, his seeing his grandson who is named after him that made me sob, and the on-screen text saying that he helped bring about change that left me fulfilled.

The reason it worked is the reason he fought for his life. It was his hope that he would be a free man again, able to see his family, that gave him a desire to live, for without it, why would he want to wake up another day? (You could ask the same question about the other characters and for them, I think the answer is religion. Suicide would prevent them from entering the golden gates and so their hope was for the afterlife.) Had it ended with him in misery, the audience would leave thinking the human race is doomed. But instead, we are reminded that we did get out of it, and we can slip back into it, but we do not have to. We must fight to end any legacy such terror has remaining and push to never let it happen again. The ending gives us hope, just like it was his reason for having any, and us learning that he went on to free slaves is our call to action.

After watching this film, I am rethinking my life. I am going to try to live without slavery, buying clothing and products made without sweatshops. I am also going to try to spread the message, chronicling my journey to live free of slavery and exposing the places where it still exists.

As I said in my previous post: Slavery is not behind us. There are more slaves now than at any other time in history. We need to bring that to an end. End It Movement

12 Years a Slave: A New Pair of Eyes

I attended the IFP Independent Film Week and went to a talk called “New Black Voices”. I couldn’t stand it. It was as though the people on stage wanted to be called black. We need to stop seeing black people as black people and white people as white people. We are all just people. To get rid of racism, let’s stop talking about it, as Morgan Freeman wonderfully said.

But then I saw 12 Years a Slave (2013). Like almost everyone, I think racism is horrid and ridiculous. I think slavery is a terrible part of our country’s history. Someone told me once that I am better than most in that when I see a fat person, I don’t think of them as fat; when I see a female, I just see them as another human being; when I see a person of a different race, I am blind to the difference between us as human beings; and so on. I think part of that comes from my being half Indian and half American, but definitely a major part of it is from my belief that we have self-autonomy as human beings. It isn’t their color or gender or genetics that make them who they are. It is who they have chosen to be that matters. So when I meet someone, that is what I try to discover. While I think a lot of what I believe is good, I now realize it is not enough.

Because a film can make you sympathize with people you think are despicable and can make you suspend your disbelief in order to be moved by things that you absolutely know do not exist, a movie is like an open-minded conversation. No matter how stubborn you are in your beliefs, it can get inside of them in a way that nothing else can. That is what 12 Years a Slave did. I go into every conversation knowing that I might learn something, but this film changed something that I didn’t know was in need of changing. It snuck in, grabbed me, and gave me a new pair of eyes.

There were several times in the movie when all the sudden I felt tears well up in my eyes. It wasn’t like the end of the movie when you hear the whole audience sniffling. But it was just me, on the verge of crying. The cause was a thought that I felt, and that I hope everyone other white person in the audience felt: We did this.

For the first time, I felt a connection to the people who engaged in slavery, to both the people who did it and those that allowed it to happen. Before, I thought what mattered was that slavery was behind us and that we did not let it happen again. Now, in some way, I felt responsible.

When the filmmakers on the “New Black Voices” panel talked of their race as though it were a culture, I thought: you guys are human beings. Sure, we need to break any barriers that prevent blacks from entering the film industry, just like we need to break barriers that prevent blacks from following their dreams just because they are black. But, now I know what they mean when they feel connected to that heritage, legacy, culture, race.

One of the worst things we can do as human beings is to be born feeling like a sinner, as so many religions preach. However, you should recognize that you can be one. To prevent it, put yourself in another person’s shoes, or in your ancestors shoes, or in the shoes of other people in history.

I still believe we need to see each other as human beings. But I also think talking about our past is extremely important. We need to feel connected to it. It is films like 12 Years a Slave that help us do so.

Note: Slavery is not behind us. There are more slaves now than at any other time in history. We need to bring that to an end. End It Movement

Subtlety vs Excess in “Prisoners”: The Secret to Great Filmmaking

Art is an artist’s view of the world. He creates an experience that you the viewer/listener receives. Art that makes you feel miserable is made by a miserable artist. (Some documentaries might make you feel miserable but they awaken you to a cause which empowers you with the ability to make a difference. That is not a miserable artist. But miserable fiction is made by miserable artists.) Romantic art is made by people who are happy to be alive, who believe in the world. Naturalism is made by people who think they can rid the artist from the process of relaying experience, but that is a fallacy. Their presence is always felt, as art involves selection and selection is creation of an experience and that experience is made by someone with an opinion of the world. Contrary to critical belief, even Meursault has an opinion of the world. (I am not calling Camus a naturalist, but I am calling him miserable.)

I had a film professor tell me that ambiguity makes a movie great. The same concept has been echoed by many film critics. Ambiguous art, however, is made by artists without a clear view of the world. They see it as this hazy place that doesn’t make sense. While I agree that what they make is art, I do not think it is great art. Great art should enlighten us, should show us how to overcome obstacles; it should empower us. People who believe it to be great art either think the world is unclear and do not want it to be made clear, or they enjoy being active viewers. I do not know why the former enjoy living (and they probably do not). The latter pose an interesting question though.

Ambiguous art requires the viewer to do more work to understand the film. The film will fly right over their head if they aren’t constantly aware and trying to find meaning in everything. (Take The Master or a Haneke film for example.) I think that is very admirable in a viewer, but the filmmaker is not admirable for putting them in that situation. The filmmaker is either just bad at his craft, unable to write a good outline or plan out a shot, accidentally leaving gaps that the viewer must fill, or he sees the world as an ambiguous place. The former find themselves to be very lucky and think good fortune and contacts got them to where they are. You already know what I think of the latter.

So there is this interesting thing going on. There are despicable viewers. There are despicable filmmakers that are good at their craft. There are sucky filmmakers that get away with it. And there are admirable viewers who can only enjoy films made by unrespectable people. These aren’t the only groups of people. However, they are a large group. They are the ones winning/giving the awards at film festivals. Since Pauline Kael overthrew the critical regime, they are the ones giving ratings as well. They also have taken over college campuses as what is considered cool. And I find myself in that group of admirable viewers, craving for films that require brain activity. But I also hate artists with an ambiguous view of the world and am pained that the films I enjoy are not romantic. It is as though I am a living contradiction, wanting a clear philosophy but wanting to work when I am viewing a film.

Now for that question: how do we solve this problem? The answer is subtlety.

What truly awoke me to it was the movie Prisoners (2013). [SPOILERS AHEAD] The world in the film starts out very ambiguous, making you feel like there is no sense to it at all, but it is slowly put together. We even figure it out before Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) does. You must be a very attentive viewer to truly understand it though. Many of the characters/suspects end up having nothing to do with the actual kidnapping of the girls. However, together they weave a story that is there to paint a picture of the person who did it. By the end, not only do you know what happened, but you understand it. And that understanding was not shoved down your throat but was put together by you. For example, take the creepy guy with the snakes and the clothes, Bob Taylor (David Dastmalchian). He is living this fantasy world in which he reenacts his kidnapping in order to solve a puzzle at the end of a book that is about kidnapping. But if he didn’t actually do the kidnapping, how does he have the clothes? He stole them. Some of this is mentioned off-hand when Loki talks to forensics about a book they found in his house. But the key is when Loki finds the other sock outside the Dover’s house (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello). Nothing is said about the sock. But we see it. And that is enough. It is a small moment in which so many pieces fall together. Yet not a word of dialogue covers it, nor does it need to for we are active viewers. All we need is to see the sock in the mud outside the window. The film creates a world that makes sense while also providing an active viewing experience.

Despite my love for romantic art, Prisoners is by no means romantic. Keller Dover’s (Hugh Jackman) story is that of a tragic hero. And while part of me wants him to get out, most of me thinks he got what he deserved. The film also shows a very heroic character though. Loki, puts together the pieces. Granted, the last piece was a coincidence for him. But it is through him that everything makes sense for us. Our understanding of it all allows us to learn from the film, learn about right and wrong, which is what the film really comes down to.

So why isn’t Hollywood subtle with all of its movies? It wasn’t the subtlety that made the movie “fun” to watch. It was the excess. And excess is what Hollywood is good at. The brutality, the horror, the mystery, Dover with the hammer, Loki’s chasing Taylor through the woods, the car chase/rush to the hospital at the end. And the majority of the audience wants that. They come to the cinema for that larger than life 4D experience. They go to television for drama. This film is a beautiful merging of the two though. It is a drama as good as what is being produced for television but that is meant for the big screen. Why can’t Hollywood produce more of this type of film? It is extremely difficult to make. A straight-thinking filmmaker with very clear ideas must make a subtle film. The screenwriter must create a detailed outline but let none of it be known to the viewer. If filmmakers can do that though, they will solve the problem that Hollywood is having and make incredible films.

The Butler

As I recall from high school, there was this dichotomy between two approaches toward gaining freedom and equality for blacks. One was promoted by WEB Du Bois and the other by Booker T Washington. Du Bois thought that blacks needed to protest for their rights, go out and get them, demand them; Washington believed that they needed to show that they were just as capable as anyone else, show that they could do all that the white man could by just doing it, founding a trade school around that philosophy.

In Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) – the hard working Booker T style protestor – is juxtaposed against his son Louis (David Oyelowo) – who takes the Du Bois approach of refusing to be treated second class. Cecil comes off as afraid and just accepting the way things are, while Louis appears to be fighting for his rights. The film slowly shows that not to exactly be the case. In a subtle, short but important scene, MLK (Nelsan Ellis) tells Louis of the silent protest in a butler’s job, how it makes the whites comfortable around the blacks, shows them of how hard working they can be, and teaches the younger generations. However, in the film’s resolution, it clearly shows that without the protests on television and in the news, as are the ones Louis is a part of, no change would have occurred.

What really impressed me was how the film wove the two stories together. On the one hand, there is Cecil, working his way up to a very prestigious position. On the other hand, there is Louis, a fictional character made up by the screenwriter, who progresses from small sit-ins to marches to violent protests and then back to peaceful ones. The two characters show the two philosophies of protest for equality. More importantly though, they show the progression of each, their strengths and their weaknesses, their power and their possible dangers.

While the biopic in and of itself is definitely an important story that everyone should know, it is this artistic liberty taken by the screenwriter that turns the film into an experience that everyone must know in going forward, in trying to find the best way to overcome new social obstacles and rid ourselves of the existing ones. Social mobility is one of the most needed characteristics of a society and it must be accessible to everyone. The Butler is a heroic film that shows us how to obtain it.

Indie Cinematography

A friend of mine asked me what I thought of his short film. After a short conversation, he asked for cinematography advice. This is what I wrote to him:


There are certain rules you need to follow:
Always make sure it is properly exposed. Each camera has a exposure meter. Look up the camera online and figure out how to access the meter. on the 7D, you lightly tap the shutter button and on the screen, a little line pops up that you want to be in the center of the little number line. The center has an arrow. To the left is underexposed and to the right is overexposed. You’ll learn to be more precise with this later but even Devon still just always shoots with the line perfectly in the center.
Cameras have optimum settings. On a DSLR, that is as low ISO as possible at increments of 100, 200, 400, 800 (the ones in between aren’t as good). Never go above 800 and only go above 400 of you absolutely must. As you increase ISO, you lose quality. Shutter speed should be half your frame rate. If you are shooting at 30 frames a second, set your shutter speed to 1/60th of a second. If you are shooting at 24 frames a second, set your shutter speed to 1/50th of a second. Lenses tend to look best when the aperture isn’t all the way open so try to close down the aperture one or two stops but never go above f8. The bottom end doesn’t matter too much but you don’t want to get above f8 or the image won’t be as crisp and the depth of field gets wide so it doesn’t look like film but like video. If it is bright out, use an ND filter so that you can keep the aperature open. Ideally, you set the camera at optimum settings and adjust your lights until you have the right exposure. That is how shooting with film works. You pick a certain ISO film, the shutter speed and frame rate are set by the camera, and only use aperture for artistic control of depth of field, using a light meter to make sure you are properly exposing the film. Into a light meter, you type the ISO, frame rate, shutter speed, and it tells you the aperture. You adjust the lights until the aperture on the light meter reading matches the aperture of the lens you want to use.
The two other operational things are  focus and steadiness. You need to make sure to always nail focus. To do so, set up the shot, press the button to magnify (which digitally zooms in on the image so that you can see it more easily), and focus on the person’s eyes. All monitors and all DSLRs have the zoom feature. Just figure out what button allows you to do it. If you have two people in the shot, increase your depth of field by closing down your aperture (higher number) and focus in between the two people, or have a focus puller rack between them on their lines. And the other thing I mentioned, always keep the camera steady. Unless you have a steadicam, you really should always use a tripod. But if you really want the handheld feel, just go for absolute steadiness.
As for getting better with cinematography, there are a few other rules. For one, always follow the rule of thirds. Place subjects on one of the third lines looking into frame or have them dead center with a symmetrical frame. Also, as much as possible, create tension in the frame by having depth. Usually you want three points of focus. For example, a person in medium shot on the other third line, a parked car a little ways in the distance on the other third line, and a lamp or row of street lamps that draw your eye deep into the frame. The horizontal third lines are used for the horizon. Place the horizon or any prominent horizontal line (like the edge of a table) on one of the teo third lines. These are things you can learn and practice in a few ways. For one, take photos. Get a cheap point and shoot camera and try to take beautiful photos. Framing and patterns and depth are what you can learn from that. Secondly, study photos, realistic paintings, and cinematography. Watch well shot films, pause it at any point, and study the frame. Get a paper that has a frame guide on it, draw in the one third lines, and just think about where the different tension points are in the frame in the film. Draw them as circles on the frame. If there are any big lines your eye follows (usually leading diagonally through the frame to create depth) draw them on your frame guide too. You’ll realize the what the eye likes and what it doesn’t. It is a pain but it helps. You’ve seen how simple my storyboards are. But I do them because it sets rules for me so that I can make sure to follow them on set. Really all I am doing is placing the subjects following the rule of thirds and on set I find things that can create tension points and diagonals and depth.
All of those things are rules. You need to follow them. Even on something like The King’s Speech, which seems to be breaking the rules, still sets simple rules and sticks with them. And the rules he sets are very similar to the ones I just told you but with slight variations. He moved the third lines out slightly and used empty/negative space as a tension point and used extreme lopsidedness as a variation off of balance/symmetry. But he was still very conscious of these rules.
Lighting, on the other hand, doesn’t really have rules. The tricks are light should always feel motivated, which usually means placing the lights high as that is wear most light comes from. Don’t create harsh shadows unless there is a specific reason for it. Use your key light to set the exposure and use your fill light to bring up the shadows so that they aren’t too dark. The fill light shouldn’t look like a light, it just makes the key light seem less intense. The biggest thing though is that naturally, most light hits walls. But for a film to feel natural, the actors must pop. So you want your actors to be slightly brighter than the walls. This is partially done by keeping light on them and off the walls and is also done through using masks while color correcting. (Color correction is also key to good cinematography. Watch the Color Grading Central to learn how to do that. It is a two step process of matching all your shots and then stylizing them without pushing them so far that they lose image quality. The reason color correction is so important is that the eye can see a larger dynamic range than the camera can pick up. Part of color correction is adjusting the image to be more like the eye sees. This is especially needed with DSLRs. For optimum image quality, in addition to all Said above, You are supposed to set your DSLR to shoot ‘flat’. This means you go to its picture styles and create a custom one that has low saturation, low contrast, and low sharpness. You want the pure image off the sensor, and don’t want the camera to color correct for you because it isn’t good at it. Look up the optimum flat picture style settings for a particular camera online.) To help keep light off the walls, keep lights high and pointing down so that they only light up the actors. But beware, your camera might think you are slightly underexposed when in reality your actors are properly exposed but your overall frame is slightly dark. And here is where the artistry and difficulty of setting exposure comes in. But this is something you’ll learn through practice.

All of this, I’ve learned over the past year. Each time I’ve made a film, each time I’ve learned a new rule, I’ve focused on that one thing and have made sure to follow it. Each new film, I’d add a new rule until now, when I’ve just about figured out what it takes to make something look pro with a 7D.

You asked for cinematorgaphy advice. I hope this helps. I know it is a lot ad it probably seems overwhelming. But even if you are just a director in the future, not shooting your own films, habing a general understanding of all this will help you communicate with your cinematographer and will give you more control over your image. Let me know if you have any questions about any of it.

The Future of Film

I am writing a scifi script right now. There is supposed to be an amazing invention in it. All I can think of though is this computer that is part of our bodies. But, oh wait, H+ already did that in the film world and Google just did it in ours. Even if I have not yet found my own Jules-Vernian eyes, I have noticed a few things that lead me to believe the future of cinema looks nothing like its present.

What if your local multiplex operated like video on demand? It is not a googleplex so you cannot walk in to your own private theater and watch an obscure Japanese romcom at 7 on a Friday night. Nope, you still have to work your butt off, make a lot of money, and build your own theater to see those guilty pleasures on the big screen. However, rather than going into the restaurant that is a movie theater and ordering from its menu, what if you got to tell distribution chefs in advance what you wanted to order next Friday night at 7? This is the future Tugg foresees. You cannot ask them to make a story of yours. But you can order from a larger menu of all the films ever made. Tivo, Netflix, RedBox, YouTube, and (sadly) BitTorrent have made us think of movie watching in this way. We still want to see Blockbusters in IMAX on the midnight they come out, but we also want to see what we want, when we want. The roadshow is back, and the seats you are reserving are ones you are dying to have. So what does the future of cinema look like? You can walk up to the box office and ask for a ticket to the 7 o’clock showing of Transformers 12 (which I will definitely be in line for at midnight even when I have a film shoot at 7 AM the following morning). But you can also walk right up to the ticket stub guy and show him the pass you printed at home to the new Sundance pic by that director you love or the Hitchcock film you have been dying to see in surround sound that you and a group of your friends ordered.

But is this all a good thing? These new forms of film distribution have hurt movie theater attendance, and hence, the reliance on statistics to tell studios what will work and Speilberg’s lamenting. It is true: I went to the theater this summer and was just not impressed. Everything was a variation of something we have already seen. I still did go and did enjoy the visceral three-dimensional surround-sound experience. But where has the story gone? It is in the story and its presentation that the art of movies lies.

We are on the brink of two problems. One is that movies with story stop playing in theaters, and two is that they disappear altogether. We are well on the way toward the first, and probably heading toward the second as well. Speilberg thinks the solution will be that the movie industry will implode and everything will go back to the good old days. But that means The Dark Knight Trilogy and Star Trek disappear, which no one wants. So how do we have both the Blockbusters and the indie films? They both have to be commercially viable. For that to happen in theaters, Tugg has to be able to generate enough box office revenue to pay off budgets up to 20 million (as that tends to still constitute an indie film). If Tugg is not a source of revenue for those movies, then they need to be able to make the money through online distribution, like Vimeo On Demand. Indie films get made independently of big budget studios, but they hope to get distributed by those studios. For these new models to work, indie films need indie distribution. So keep an eye on Tugg and Vimeo On Demand. They will be a good bellwether of the future of cinema. (Check out this article for a very insightful discussion of how this relates to recent happenings in the music and publishing industries.) (Also, while film festivals and film societies will help put these films in theaters, they aren’t commercial models for they won’t give films the same type of ticket-selling theatrical run. However, I do believe the rise of big budget films devoid of story has been one of the reasons for the proliferation of film festivals. It is yet to be seen if the same effect is happening with film societies as people have found that the Internet has provided an equivalent service.)

On the flipside though, is the loss of story in movies a bad thing? Just because movies became an amusement park accessible to every town (allowing you to spend 8.50 rather than hundreds to get the Disney World experience), that doesn’t mean stories will disappear altogether. Maybe the art of the novel will come back or maybe stories will just shift to another visual medium. People are calling this the Platinum Age of Television and saying the ushering in of all the amazing content was due to the death of movies. Maybe stories, which have characters rather than explosions at their center, are better suited for long form and more intimate viewing settings. This might just mean that movies are getting to do what they are good at and stories are shifting to where they belong.

I think the ideal future of film is one in which studios use their bucks to make big budget films but also one in which indie films can be seen across the country, finding revenue through independent (online and theater) distribution services. No scene should be included just for the purpose of getting you to watch the next one. Television that has commercials within the episodes tends to have that problem. They care more about retaining viewers than story. Television should migrate to an on demand format, as Netflix has pioneered, and the big budget storytelling can be long form. With the rise in piracy and success of other forms of advertising, it will probably be the case the television gets distributed in those formats.

Hence, the future of film doesn’t look bleak, but it does look different.