Digressing from the Subject…

In 2009 I had the chance to experience something really amazing! I was the Director’s Assistant on a low-budget Feature Film when the Director asked me to join him for a special rehearsal with his main cast. We were having rehearsals every second day so I thought it would be more of the same. Little did I know what he had in store for us: he organised a rehearsal session with Simone Young, a Meisner Drama Coach. What an experience! She did some exercises with us all (whoever was there couldn’t just watch, they had to participate) and showed us the basic rules of ‘repetition’ as tought by Sanford Meisner and practiced by many great actors like Keaton, Duval, McQueen, and used by Lumet, Mamet, Polack, Kazan, etc.

To me it was a new practice, an incredible acting exercise, a revelation! I was so surprised by it! How could such a simple exercise liberate the actors and make their performance so incredibly honest?

It intrigued me so much that I had to contact Simone privately and find out more about that method. She invited me to a Meisner ‘rep’ session with professional actors who had years of experience training using that technique. I witnessed an incredible show! And it was all real, there was nothing scripted! These were people who had just met but were completely honest about their first impression towards each other and reacting truthfully to those emotions, right then, in that place… A bunch of lunatics! I saw two girls almost pulling each other’s eyes out, screaming out of their lungs how much they hated one another; I saw a couple who only after a few minutes of ‘rep’ started kissing and pashing without any restrains; I saw people talking and behaving like they were good old mates; and more importantly, I realised how frozen I was, because of course, I had to participate, and I was completely paralysed. That night I went home absolutely drained. I drank a bottle of wine feeling emotionally retarded…

I kept going to those sessions that were attended not only by actors but by directors and screenwriters alike. They were incredible! So many ideas were springing out of those improvisations! And more importantly, they made me very aware of others’ behaviour and very conscious of when they were avoiding their emotions and not responded to their acting partner. But I couldn’t really get my head around what was actually going on… Silly me, the concept was to not think but feel. A phrase I kept hearing was ‘you’re in your head again’. I am not sure I can not be in my head completely, but luckily I don’t intend to pursue an acting career.

At one of the sessions I ended up chatting to David Kemp, one of the actors/writers in the class. He had written a few short plays, some of those were performed in the Short and Sweet Festival. He was interested in getting me to direct one of the plays on camera. We changed a few minor details in the script to fit the location we came up with, I begged around for some gear and free labor and eventually shot it. The idea was to use as much repetition as possible, even during a take, to allow him and his acting partner to engage with each other. I had no idea if it was going to work.

I had only seen one other director to do something similar and that was Paul Currie on the set of Twenty Something. He would sometimes get the actors to repeat certain parts of the dialogue changing their objective while the cameras were still rolling. I spoke to the actors of that shoot and they all, without exception, loved that technique and that they felt so closely watched and given the opportunity to immediately correct an action or a line.

I haven’t worked with any other director to use this method on set. But about three months ago I went to an interview for a new TV show with Geoff Bennett, a very experienced Australian director. Among many other things he mentioned Practical Aesthetics. I felt incredibly lucky! That was a technique based on the teachings of Meisner! When I finally started preproduction with him I was in absolute bliss to see that, during a rehearsal, he invited a Drama Coach to do some Meisner rep with Anna McGahan and Firras Dirani. Why was this a great privilege? Those of you who work in the industry know how little time is allocated to preproduction on a TV show. We had the standard 2 and a half weeks of pre for 2 one hour episodes. There’s barely any time to see the locations. Rehearsals usually end up as very quick script read-throughs, if lucky enough to get the actors who are normally on set shooting for the same show. The actors come to rehearsals after being on set filming scenes from two other episodes and we bring two different scripts we want to talk about, sometimes without them even having a chance to read those scripts. It often gets a bit confusing with back story, events’ order and where a certain scene fits into the story. I mean before rehearsals there are often questions like ‘have these guys had sex already?’, ‘has he divorced his wife?’, ‘does he still need to find a house for his children?’ and the list goes on and on. Any kind of rehearsal is of enormous benefit. Now to get to do a ‘rep’ session is, seriously, a luxury! I was really surprised to how embracing of this method the actors were!  All my respects to Geoff Bennett for giving them this opportunity, also for allowing me to be a part of it! It encouraged me to believe that this technique, as strange as it may seem, does work!

As I am still editing the story shot with David, I just had a look for some ‘rep’ examples. For someone who has never seen a Meisner repetition this might seem a bit strange. But here are David and Sienna warming up just before getting into scripted dialogue.

I need to add, that this is not even close to a conventional way of shooting a scene. And because this is after all a Script Supervision blog, I must mention that using this technique within a take does not make for an easy way of either shooting or editing. Some takes run for 20 minutes and even though I had two cameras rolling at all times it still doesn’t make it easier to edit. Each new take is completely different to the previous one. It makes for really arduous and painful editing which is taking me forever! It will take a bit more time until I finish editing the real story because I am only a slow, amateur editor. In the meantime, enjoy some ‘repetition’ in the Meisner style!

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Script Supervision Course

Hi all,

Open Channel Melbourne asked me again to run their intensive Script Supervision Course this year. It will take place in November over the weekend of the 17th – 18th.

The course is for those who want to work in the industry as Script Supervisors and those who have some experience in this role but want to advance to a professional level. Whoever attends the class needs previous experience on a film set and to be familiar with the industry script layout, the various roles in the industry and a general understanding of how a production runs. However, I had students in the past who had zero on set experience and still managed to understand the nuts and bolts of the role.

This is a specialised course that runs through all the responsibilities of a Script Supervisor. It is a very intense weekend I must say, with 7 hours of contact each day. At the end of the course though, students have all the information needed to do the job plus tips on building a career in the industry, where to find work and how to negotiate their salaries.

First day offers an overview of the role off and on set and detailed step by step information on what a Scripty does in preproduction and during production. We will talk about script consultancy, breaking down and timing the script, calculating shooting ratios; we will watch clips from various films and discuss blocking, coverage, eyelines, crossing the line, screen direction and camera angles versus action; we will also discuss prompting actors and providing off screen lines and sound effects and also the general ethics of working with the cast and the crew. We will talk in detail about what information you need to record for each department.

This first day is lots of fun! In the past I got the students to pretend they were on set so they had to block a scene and suggest the coverage, explain eyelines and screen direction. There will be plenty of visual material to refer to. The students will receive a booklet with diagrams and lots of articles on the subject!

Second day is of a more practical nature and focuses mainly on applying all the skills and doing the Scripty’s paperwork. We will use a script from a project that has already been shot and DO the actual work. The students will time and breakdown the script, they will watch rushes and take notes for each take, they will then simulate providing feedback for each take, they will learn to mark up the script for editing, how to do the DPR and the editing logs. At the end of the class we will watch the edited scene and discuss it from the Continuity point of view.

Overall, this is an exhaustive class great for those who are serious about working as Scripties. There is a lot to cover in two days which means a lot to forget if the students don’t apply this knowledge on set. It really helps if there’s a will to pursue this career straight away. This course will build the confidence needed to chase that next production.

To apply, log onto the Open Channel website and register soon as there are only 6 places on offer!

I hope to see you there!

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You’ve Got To Sell Your Heart

I just read this letter written in 1938 by F. Scott Fitzgerald to an aspiring writer who sent him a story and asked for feedback on the quality of her writing. Here is the very honest advice that could apply to any writer and even filmmaker out there.

(Source: F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters; Image: via)

November 9, 1938

Dear Frances:

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories “In Our Time” went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In “This Side of Paradise” I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.

The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming—the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.

That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is “nice” is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the “works.” You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.

In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,

Your old friend,

F. Scott Fitzgerald

P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent—which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

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Beautiful Shots Versus Coverage

I just wrapped on a lower budget film and it seemed that every day we were facing the same issue: to spend more time on a certain setup to make it look as beautiful as possible or to get coverage in simpler setups that allow for more control in post production? This of course doesn’t need to be a debate at all as these discussions should happen in preproduction at the scheduling and planning stage. But this is the nature of lower budget shoots where preproduction time is extremely limited and most discussions about shots and coverage happen on set.

As Scripty I always ask, push, demand and scream for more coverage. I don’t even mind shooting overtime if it’s for that cutaway that will cover the action and help tell the story, or a few more takes with better continuity. It might seem a bit single-minded to always suggest more shots even when the style of the film doesn’t need them. But I know how difficult it is for editors to try to compress time or get good rhythm in a film that has no variable angles for certain actions. It’s impossible to cut into a single shot – unless jump cuts are what the director had in mind in the first place, though it’s very rare for straight drama to adopt this more experimental style of editing. I don’t remember working with any director who liked jump cutting. Even if the shots don’t end up getting used in the final film I believe it’s a good idea to shoot extra angles, as backup.

Ultimately it’s not my decision how many setups and what angles will tell the story. But the issue of storytelling needs to be on everyone’s mind. I’m not talking about directors here. They always want what’s best for their film. They will often want more coverage and will also want their film to look as beautiful as possible. In an ideal world they’d have all the time and money to get the coverage AND the beautiful looking shots. It’s just a reminder for all DP’s that the story is more important than anything and if one setup takes two hours and that’s all the time left for an entire scene that can’t be covered in a single shot, then maybe they need to rethink the shot, make it simpler, and allow some time for a few other angles to help tell the story – even if that won’t win them the ACS award. No wonder I get in trouble with the DPs and the 1st ADs…

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A Film Within A Film Within A…

Very inventive and extremely funny!

This is Martin Scorsese paying homage to Alfred Hitchcock in a very original way. But what is the homage actually to?

(is it just my impression or does Scorsese look and behave a lot like the neurotic characters Woody Allen plays all the time?)

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What You Lookin’ At?

In a previous post, I mentioned TJ Smith who has done some amazing research and detailed experiments on how we watch movies. He is one of the team members behind The DIEM Project (Dynamic Images and Eye Movements). Using elaborate eye-tracking technology they can monitor viewers’ pupils and register the movement of their eyes.

Eyelink 1000

The information is then collected and analysed by DIEM with a software called CARPE (Computational and Algorithmic Representation and Processing of Eye-movements). This tool outputs the data in a visual form that looks more like a heat map. At the end of a test they can tell where exactly on the screen a viewer was looking.

Here are 4 types of visualizations analysed with CARPE on a sample of viewers watching the same video. Each green circle represents a single viewer’s eyes movement patterns. The bottom right corner is a ‘peek through’ of the screen that uses the heat map to exclude all that isn’t seen.

The results are incredible! The tests show that viewers look more or less at same part of the screen. You can easily understand how a skilled filmmaker can direct the action in such a way so our eyes follow the same part of the screen. Have a look at this amazing test done on a scene from There Will Be Blood by PT Anderson.

David Bordwell did an in-depth analysis of this scene in his blog post from Observations On Film Art. Have a read to understand how intentional staging and actors’ movement on set direct our eyes to look at a very specific part of the screen.

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Right On Target

Have a look at this photo! Do you see anything ‘wrong’?

Target Shop Australia promotional material

Have a look again! Anything wrong with … the Man?

I shall call him the Octopus Man!

Errors like this one happen all the time in printed media and of course in films when there’s a need for visual alterations or special effects and not enough time – or skills.

This ad reminded me of an urban legend from socialist Romania of the 80’s. Back then the content in newspapers had to go through the tight scrutiny of the Party representatives before anything was printed. The articles and the photographs that didn’t respect the ideology of the Party were censored. Scanteia was a newspaper that reached its loyal factory working readers every morning without delay; except only Once, because of a… protocol error. Cristian Mungiu based one of his scripts on this legend. I am sure something like this happened with the Target ad.

This was an excerpt from The Legend of The Party Photographer, one of the six shorts in the portmanteau film Tales From The Golden Age, written by Cristian Mungiu and directed by various directors. All films were based on well known urban legends from Romania under the communist regime. He wrote these scripts at the same time as his 2007 Palme D’Or winner 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, but as comedies.

And this was my roundabout way of announcing that Mr Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills was accepted in competition at the 2012 edition of Cannes Film Festival. I hope he wins and proves again that for great cinema you don’t need a huge budget and a high profiled cast, but a good subject and great storytelling skills.

I hope I get to work with him one day!

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The Faces On Our Screens

Whenever I go to the cinema I always try to get a seat at the back of the theatre so I can see the entire screen. A couple of weeks ago I went with a friend to see a film called A Separation. We got a bit distracted by our catch-up conversation and arrived 5 minutes into the screening. The only seats we could find were in the second row. The film was playing at an art house theatre so the screen was not too large but really close to the seats. It was a real effort to watch the images and read the subtitles at the same time and now that I think of it I cannot remember much of the mise en scene but mainly the characters’ faces (except for that very nicely staged shot under the end credits: the newly divorced couple waiting in the courthouse hallway on separate sides of the glass wall).

I grew up watching subtitled movies as I couldn’t understand any of the main spoken languages until much later, so I never had a problem following the screen and reading subtitles at the same time. Even now, I don’t find them distracting and after doing a bit of research on how the audiences watch a film I don’t doubt I haven’t even missed much or what I might have seen without subtitles.

TJ Smith a lecturer in Psychology at Birkbeck University of London has put years into researching how we watch movies. He says that:

Only the visual information at the centre of attention can be perceived in detail and encoded in memory. Peripheral information is processed in much less detail and mostly contributes to our perception of space, movement and general categorisation and layout of a scene. The incredibly reductive nature of visual attention explains why large changes can occur in a visual scene without our noticing. Clear examples of this are the glaring continuity errors found in some films. Lighting that changes throughout a scene, cigarettes that never burn down, and drinks that instantly refill plague films and television but we rarely notice them except on repeated or more deliberate viewing. 

The visual information at the centre of my attention when watching A Separation was split between the subtitles and the characters’ faces. The film is a family drama with more weight on dialogue than action. There’s heightened tension between the few characters in the film. These are characters who don’t always tell the truth. Their actions contradict their emotions. Their faces were more important to me than any other elements on the screen because of that intense desire to read their emotions.  So their faces carry more of the story than the dialogue. Naturally their faces were what I noticed the most in the film.

Since the face is the main source of emotions and therefore information, obviously the closer an object is to an actor’s face the easier it is to notice if it changes. Boo those hats, earrings, collars, scarves, ties, buttons…

Levin & Chabris the guys behind The Invisible Gorilla experiment did another perception test on continuity on the screen.

 

Of course these changes were done on purpose and therefore they are quite obvious even on the first viewing. On the second viewing they become annoying (at least for me). The first time we watched the clip we focused on the dialogue. The second time, we spend less time listening to the dialogue so we take in more of the surroundings and that’s when we get to notice the changes.

I hear this on set very often: ‘whoever in the audience notices that continuity mistake is obviously not watching the story’. I completely agree! But whoever Likes the story and watches the film again will start to notice those mistakes.

I did like the story in A Separation so I need to go and this time see more than just the faces. Go and see it, it’s worth it. Have a look at the trailer!

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The Invisible Gorilla

Continuing last week’s post…

Psychologists specialising in Cognitive Vision have been studying the phenomenon of change blindness for quite some time. They wonder how we cannot perceive changes in our environment when they take place but these changes seem really obvious when they are pointed out.

This phenomenon poses some very interesting questions, like how much of what we see do we actually process and become aware of? Some studies argue that instead of storing information about the world in our memory we use the world itself as an external memory source. In a continuous shot like ‘Whodunnit’ we do not expect unmotivated changes. Therefore we do not take any notice of them. Our understanding of the observed world is that such changes cannot logically occur. Would it have been a different case if I asked you to notice all the changes Before showing you the clip? Maybe, but even then, some of those changes would have been omitted because they were not expected.

There is also the element of ‘distraction’, in the case of ‘Whodunnit’ this is the story itself. The Detective talks to us directly about a murder. He asks us to find the killer and therefore we concentrate on what the suspects say and how they behave. Our focus is on the confessions.

When we fail to notice a stimulus that is right in front of us we experience what psychologists named ‘inattentional or perceptual blindness’. Our attention cannot be focused on everything at once. Apparently this happens because we are overloaded with ‘inputs’ and it is impossible to pay attention to all of them.

Try to do this fun test:

This clip is based on an older experiment conducted by Simons and Chabris at Harvard University in 1999. They made a short video that showed two basketball teams, one dressed in white, one in black. Then they gave their viewers the task to count the number of passes between the players dressed in white. In the original clip a guy dressed in a gorilla suit walked through the players punching his chest. Half of the subjects watching the clip didn’t see the gorilla! They were concentrating on the given task counting the number of passes.

Apparently this has become one of the most well-known experiments in psychology. It reveals that we are missing a lot of what happens around us. We don’t necessarily perceive something we see if we don’t pay any attention to it. At least in our day-to-day lives the advantage is that we don’t even know we are missing so much!

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Whodunnit

This is a great clip to test your attention to details! It’s one continuous shot so what could go wrong – there’s no continuity right? I’ve already said too much.

All those I’ve shown this clip to, my ex students, on set attachments, other Scripties, other crew, friends, etc… none of them (including me) could find ALL the changes. It might sound strange coming from a Scripty, but this just proves that most of the time when the story is gripping most continuity ‘mistakes’ are unnoticeable.

By the way, how many ‘mistakes’ did you notice?

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