Monday, May 12, 2014

My Journey Into Street Photography

Photo by Matthew Mann

As some of you know, I've been getting back into shooting film photography over the past year.  I picked up a cheap 35mm FED4 camera and carry it with me wherever I go.  From this, I've improved significantly in reading exposure by eye and guessing where my settings should land on my camera in any lighting situation.

After a year of shooting with it, I gained my confidence with film on the FED and was ready for a next step up.  After seeing the documentary "Finding Vivian Maier" (watch the trailer below) I really began researching medium format cameras for all-around high end photography.  After a few weeks of research, I invested in a Hasselblad 500cm, which was the holy grail of medium format film photography for a long time.  They shot the lunar landing with a 500 series camera.  It's been used for decades in fashion shoots and classic studio photography.  It's robust, and is just a finely engineered piece of machinery.

I've done multiple outings with it as a street photographer with my buddy Matt and have really been struggling with shooting people.  It's just an uncomfortable hump to get over, and is a very common problem to street photographers when they first start out.

My goal is to be comfortable just approaching someone on the street, getting into their personal space and capturing an event or portrait of them.  It's a lot easier said than done though.  Several articles and videos I've come across have really helped me get my head into it and challenge myself to get over this anxiety.  Hopefully some of you are in a similar boat and could use a good set of tools to help curb this issue.

One of the most helpful tools I've come across is an e-book written by Eric Kim that gives a 30 day challenge to green street photographers.  Each day provides a new challenge and new set of tips to go along with it.  A lot of the material is common sense but it's helped align my mindset when going out and doing this.  That can be downloaded here.

The next majorly helpful item I've come across is a lecture by Adam Marelli sponsored by B&H.  He goes through seven major approaches he uses in the way he tackles street photography.   Surprisingly, there's very little overlap between he and Eric's tips.  Where Eric challenges the photographer to shoot first and handle the consequences later, Adam suggests picking a location that's photographically pleasing and almost like a wildlife photographer, waiting for the right people to walk through your scene.  I think both approaches have merit and it's ultimately worth trying any and all techniques until you get over that fear.  The lecture's about an hour and a half and can be seen below:

The last thing that's helped me approach this anxiety is another article I came across through Eric Kim's site called "10 Things Garry Winogrand Can Teach You About Street Photography".  Again, it's another list of tips, but they're from a great source for learning technique and the general message is important: Shoot a ton.  The article talks about how Garry would shoot an entire 36 shot roll just walking down the street and not stopping!  That's a challenge to find that many interesting things even with a digital camera.  Let alone handling film.  But I love the idea of it.

There's kind of a dark and light side to shooting film.  You are generally more selective on the shots, composition and subject of each individual shots because there is a finite amount of film and every shot is a little more money burnt up, but on the other hand that can be arresting as well.  You may miss a shot because you go back and forth about it in your head.  "Is this situation worth it?  Is the light good?  Are these people emotionally evoking enough?" and by the time you've decided whether or not you're going to shoot the photo, the moment's already passed and you're stick with zero photos for the day.  I think shooting 36 shots in a matter of minutes, especially on film, is a bit absurd, but the idea is right.  I think the more you do it, the more refined your sensibilities will become for spotting those moments and the quicker you'll become at getting the shot off.

Another interesting piece that came from the article is a recommendation of Garry to not develop your negatives for a year.  I'd never heard that before but I guess that's a common practice for street photographers.  Shooting in the moment is important, but forgetting the moment over time can be just as important.  Waiting for an extended period of time and then returning to the material without rose-colored glasses and truly reacting to the photo as a pair of fresh eyes would is important in curating your own work.  I think you could do a similar method without so much "wait time" and only allow yourself to share three photos per roll of film you shoot.  Maybe even be more strict and allow one photo per roll.

I like that idea, as you're teaching yourself the discipline to ask "what is the best, most emotional and aesthetically rich material I've shot?" and severing any "maybes".  It's about honing your sensibilities and remaining critical of your work.  I know at this point in time, I typically post maybe 30% of my exposed photos online, and I'm learning that that's probably too much quantity, and not enough quality.  I think as I receive my first few rolls of medium format back from the lab, I'll really start to incorporate a more strict filtering of my work.  To read the full article, visit Eric's site here.

Finishing My New Screenplay "Garage Boys"

About two months ago, I began really entertaining this idea I've had brewing in my noggin.  The premise was simple: It's a buddy comedy set in the early 90's about a trio of late-blooming friends who get the wild idea to start a tech company in their mom's garage with the assumption that in doing so, they'll strike it rich. Their friendship is put to the test as they soon face the hard realities of their naive plan.

This has been the most organic writing process I've experienced thus far.  I had an idea.  I gestated on the thoughts for awhile.  I wrote a rough outline of how I saw things playing out in the story, and I sat down and began writing.

Three weeks after beginning the screenplay, I now have a finished first draft and am feeling good about the first broadstroke I've put on paper.  I realize there's a lot of work ahead for the project, in both the screenwriting and the potential of actually funding and producing it but this is the third feature I've written and it feels like it's getting easier over time.  Perhaps it's because this was the first feature I've written where I've had a cast in mind for the key players, and was able to use my familiarity with their natural speaking voices to help guide the writing and focus more on the "want" of the characters and not think so hard on finding a voice for them.

I filed "Garage Boys" with the copyright office last week and sent out the first draft to a batch of friends and colleagues for review.  I have up and down moments in my confidence in the story as I eagerly wait for the first response to come back, but hopefully I'll either have that confidence restored, or will receive a hard dose of reality in identifying the true problems and plot holes within the story.

My plan is to take the screenplay after I've received these first reactions to it, and begin a writing room with the intended cast and take another stab at it with them to help distill the story another level.

As I wait for the responses to roll in, I'm beginning to noodle with my next screenplay that I want to write, which is a fictional political drama set in the very near future.  This one may require quite a bit of research but it could be an interesting cultural tableau of a potential reality.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Unique Look at Uniqueness in Filmmaking

Nelson Carvajal, a fellow Chicago native, filmophile and insightful writer over at IndieWire shared a video essay with me today about Aronofsky that really got me thinking.  There are a lot of good filmmakers out there today but few great ones.  I'd put Darren Aronofsky on the short list of great ones next to Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, and the Coen brothers who all skate that fine line between unique, envelop-pushing auteurship and commercial success— but how are they all doing it differently?  My gut tells me they're not.

In this wake of the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a torrent of great material surfaced in interviews with the man, and many critics have turned toward retrospective analyses on the state of the film industry today and how people like Hoffman have changed that landscape and redefined what a "movie star" actually means.

Something that came across my newsfeed was an interview from Hoffman (which I can't seem to find anywhere on the world wide web) saying that great art is about speaking in the macro, but telling your story in the micro.  Essentially speaking containing a large message within an intimate story about a single character or collection of characters in a given circumstance.  Arguably all of these greats do that.  They intimately examine and peel back the layers of these simply fascinating characters and give you a pervasively close look at who we are as a society.

Now getting back to Carvajal's essay: the topic has come up before with my fellow film geeks about how unique Aronofsky's films are from one another.  But I think it boils down to that old adage about how every storyteller (or filmmaker in this case) tells the same story over and over again.  Arguably, I think that, while Aronofsky's films may be different on the surface in the intellectualized, resulted sense, they're emotionally telling the same story.  I've got to give credit to Mr. Carvajal for sparking that insight, as before this essay, I was just in the same boat as everyone else on the argument.

I would love to see a similar analysis done on Danny Boyle, as I've heard similar discussions arise from his storytelling.  Without further adieu, read the article here first, and then watch the essay.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Kick in the Ass by Folkloristics

As some of you may know, I began writing this blog for two reasons: 1, to document the progression of my short film "Your Milkman" from inception to completion, and 2, to use it as an open forum for ideas for a personal thesis I've been working on for nearly five years now.

Obviously, the blog has veered and evolved into a greater scope of my personal education in film and observations on life in general.  I took some time off from working on the thesis; about a year and a half actually.  Occasionally I'd jot an idea down but I haven't done much more research on it for quite some time now.  Part of this sabbatical was to work on a few feature screenplays I wanted to write, and part of it was because I'd hit a dead end in supporting research.  The breadth of the idea quickly expanded from a little shell of an idea to a pretty large scale abstraction that spans across sociology, psychology, anthropology and communication sciences— it quickly became pretty daunting to me to work on, especially trying to regain footing on it and really finding the passion for the idea I had when I first began.  Now it required research and supporting ideas for folklore, mythology, pop-culture, child psychology... it was just the tip of the iceberg.  There were plenty of books available on each topic individually, but rarely could I find anything that bled between them so I got discouraged and just sat on it.

I had a friend and colleague, photographer and fellow academic mind with mad Reddit/Buzzfeed cred, John Cessna, look over where it stood about a year ago.  In essence his feedback came down to continued research and obviously, one of the worst parts of writing anything academic: citation.  I'd taken margin notes as I went along for citation but I haven't been that organized in keeping that its own document.  For shame!

So with my head spinning and my tail between my legs for not appeasing the citation gods, I just took time off.  No big deal... except it was an unknown amount of time and I just didn't have my bearings.

Fast forward a year later and I'm at a co-workers apartment reviewing an edit and I look over at his bookshelf and this spine is jumping out at me.  "FOLKLORISTICS" it says in big bold red letters.  "What's that?" I ask.  "Oh, it's this textbook I saved from a college course I took on Folklore and Pop Culture.  "What?!"  And like a prized Olympian firing off the running block, I dove for it.  Luckily, he was kind enough to let me borrow it.

I've been slowly making my way through it, meticulously making notes, quotes and examining references on every thought that comes to mind as I wade through it.  It's fantastic.  Most importantly, it's give me a long-lost footing to start thinking about the thesis again on both a macro and micro level.  So as I sit typing this, I've got the book open, only a tiny dent of the way through it and I'm already feeling that juissance I felt working on the idea initially.  Things are clicking and hey, I'm actually keeping citations this time.  It feels good to be working on it.  The carrot at the end of the stick for me is having a physical copy— even self-published and printed through an amateur site like Lulu, just so I can put it on my shelf and use it for my own interest.  I've made it a goal of mine to make that a reality within this year so here's to hoping!  Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some reading to do.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Unifying and Dissonant Cuts: Guiding or Misguiding The Human Eye

Something I've noticed, but not seen much written about in editing theory is the use and abuse of what I call unified cuts.  I often talk of saccade patterns and their role in editing and viewing films.  For those who haven't heard of such things, a saccade is the physical movement of the eye from one location to another.  You look in the upper right corner of the screen because that's where the actor is, and on the next cut, another actor is on the lower left part of the screen.  Your eyes saccade from far right to far left and both a physical and subconscious emotion is associated with that "request" of a viewer.

A heavy saccade is more strenuous on the eye and subconsciously dictates an overall more negative disposition toward the content; whereas little to no saccade movement is less taxing upon the viewer's physical state and therefore subconsciously communicates a more pleasing and unifying disposition—  not to mention a lessening in the affect of a visible cut.

In the opening sequences of War Horse, as the protagonist begins to relate with the horse, their cuts are unified (i.e. where the boy is geographically on screen, the horse will be in the relative same third to quarter in the composition in the proceeding cut), whereas when the story unfolds and conflict builds, the cuts become more dissonant creating a subtension that may not otherwise be identifiable.

The concept has been in the back of my mind since I've began ToneCutting films, but I have yet to come across a filmmaker or editor who discusses this idea and outright uses it as a guideline for editing.  Perhaps the concept is felt more than called out and when you see the edit it just "feels right" and doesn't need any explanation beyond that.

I'd find it hard to believe that filmmakers consistently think that far ahead into the framing and blocking of a shot, anticipating how those shots will cut together later and how they intend for those unifying and dissonant cuts to affect their viewer, but perhaps they do. 

More often than not for me though, it simply happens to work out that way.  At least, I try to make those cuts happen when it serves the story.  It's a hinge and you're most likely going to have at least a batch of your shots be on one side of the frame or the other so you're already part of the way there in achieving less visible cuts.  And if they do clash, compositionally there's usually something in the negative space that helps "soften the blow" of guiding your eye toward something else, assuming you've got a good set designer who takes framing into consideration.

I know as I cut projects with a director or a client, I'll speak in terms of 'guiding the eye' of the viewer and how in my opinion a certain cut works or doesn't work— most of the time, they simply nod their head in understanding but aren't truly registering the dramatic implications of this practice.  It can sway the viewer subconsciously and affect their overall perception of the characters and the story.  For me, this concept is as rudimentary and important as understanding the Kuleshov effect or action matching.  It's a basic tool that an editor should understand and put into practice if they want to truly understand their craft.

Act On Your Ideas

As a creative, you get sparks of ideas.  Most of them flutter out back into the ether.  Probably one of the best things I've learned to do is to write my ideas down; and not just in one place.

In the "olden days" people would use composition books and journals to write their ideas down in.  Now the pages have been torn away and there's a much more accessible medium to work with: the digital document.

Several years ago I saw a documentary on Woody Allen that talks about his body of work, and the method in which his ideas come together.  One thing that really stuck with me was that Woody was just like everybody else in the way his ideas are conceived.  He thinks, he comes up with ideas, and then he acts on those ideas.  In the documentary, he has a little nightstand next to his bed that contains a pile of physical notes written down for film ideas and scenes he's thought about.  He even reads a few of them— all of which he could probably turn into a film but what it did for me was that it made the idea of a successful end product in filmmaking an attainable concept.  A living legend such Woody Allen simply acts on his ideas.

I've taken it more seriously whenever I have an idea, I write it down as quickly as I can digitally in my phone and then when I get a free moment, I'll send it to my long-threaded e-mail I've been drafting to myself for several years that contains every fleeting idea that I've had for a film.

Now it's not just simply writing down the idea, but it's also trying to convert that initial spark of emotion and excitement ignited by idea into words that can later on re-ignite that same passion.  You often find yourself asking "What is it about this idea that I like?".  I've found that breaking it down into the simplest terms and into the least contrived and least verbose way possible is usually the best way to go about it.

I'll often go back through my thread and look at individual ideas.  I can then tack on further thoughts to those ideas and simultaneously develop all of them at a slow, but natural and un-forced pace.  That way down the line if for some reason someone says "Hey, I saw your script, it's great, but I'm looking for a low-cost, indie sci-fi film" I've got my ideas at least half-way developed and can have that pitch ready to go.

My biggest advice is don't ignore your ideas.  Learn to embrace them, even if they're a mere infant thought.  There's probably something there that can be extrapolated; it's just a matter of self-reflection on it and asking yourself "What do I like about this?".  Act on your ideas and at the very least write them down to revisit later!