After Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of his movie Rust, many people have been wondering why films even use real firearms. After all, (spoiler alter) Star Wars doesn’t use real lightsabers and Jurassic Park doesn’t use real dinosaurs. Why should westerns and cop shows use real guns?
Largely, I agree with this argument. Firearms present an unnecessary risk on a film set. But if we ban firearms in films, we’re avoiding the bigger issue, and it’s not just a problem in Hollywood.
I’ve observed a pervasive attitude in the United States that rules are for suckers, regulations only exist to hinder progress, and anything is legal as long as you don’t get caught. This is a shortsighted, toxic attitude. It’s the kind of thinking that led to nine people dying at the Astroworld Music festival last week and eleven people drowning in illegal basement apartments in New York during hurricane Ida. It’s the same narrative that has led to injuries at Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 and, before that, its plant in Fresno. It’s the same kind of thinking that killed Sarah Jones on a movie set in 2014. (No firearms were involved in that incident.)
I think this general attitude can be appropriately described as “toxic individualism.” It’s a belief that I have a right to say and do whatever I want at any time I want without consequences. It’s a belief that rules don’t apply to me. It’s a belief that personal choices are not influenced by social constructs nor do they affect the people around us. To be clear, individualism itself is not a negative concept. Some degree of personal independence is healthy and rewarding. But extreme individualism at the expense of everything else-individualism that tramples on other people’s rights-is downright deadly.
The issue on the set of Rust was not that the filmmakers were using firearms; the issue was that they were not following well-established guidelines for handling firearms. I’ve been on sets with explosive, guns, helicopters, boats, pyrotechnics, car crashes, fight scenes, and hundreds of extras wielding swords. I was perfectly safe on all of them. The most dangerous sets I’ve been on are the ones where production rushed the crew, ignored the safety recommendations of more experienced crew members, or flouted industry standards altogether. There is nothing clever, artistic, or thrifty about putting people’s lives at risk.
I’m not opposed to banning firearms on set, but that’s not going to solve the problem. We need to disabuse ourselves of the idea the rules apply to everyone else. The rules only work when they apply to everyone. And we need to start calling out our colleagues and employers who think they can cut corners and take shortcuts. It takes guts. Reports from the set of Ruststate that crew members walked off the job shortly before Hutchins was killed. It’s not easy to stand up to Alec Baldwin or Elon Musk. It’s going to take a sea change in American culture for worker safety to take priority over profits. Fortunately, we don’t have to do it alone.
Individualism may be American, but so are unions. Unions built this country. They led the fight for the weekend, overtime pay, minimum wage, health insurance, and banning child labor. If the crew of Rust had been following IATSE’s firearms regulations, Halyna Hutchins would still be alive.
Eliminating toxic individualism will not be quick or easy. Like anything that’s worth doing, it will take time. Appropriately, it’s important to recognize that you aren’t alone in the fight. Educate yourself about your rights as a worker and a consumer, participate in the processes that negotiate these rights, and reach out to the unions and organizations that are trying to make America a better place for everyone.
Should we ban firearms on set? Sure. But while we’re talking about it, let’s talk about the root of the problem, as well. Let’s ban toxic individualism, too.
In his book, The Death of the Artist, William Deresiewicz laments the decline and fall of the blue collar, professional artist. And while he unpacks a variety of legitimate and terrifying issues such as the unravelling of historic institutions and the job gobbling monster that is big tech (problems that affect everyone, not just artists), I feel like he misses a certain perspective about the motion picture industry. While the industry manages to sidestep many of the issues plaguing other artistic endeavors, it’s not avoiding them altogether. Because it’s a complex, multi-layered situation, I think it might be instructive to look at the motion picture industry through the three specific lenses: technology, art, and business.
Technology (What is film?)
Deresiewicz differentiates between television and film, but it’s an arbitrary distinction. With the exception of the live or live-to-tape multi-camera shoot, production crews make feature films, television shows, and used car commercials the exact same way. Only a decade ago, we filmed thirty-second lottery commercials on 35mm Kodak. The question of “what is a film” has less to do with being “filmed” than how the content is delivered to an audience.
In that regard, feature films suffer from a major constraint: they need to be long enough to justify the price of admission but short enough to satisfy an audience before their legs fall asleep. To do that, many films rely on tropes and cliches to keep a story moving forward. The boom in quality television over the last decade has allowed filmmakers to explore more interesting stories in more depth than they ever would have been able to on the silver screen.
Are movie theaters dead? Well, not quite. Some nostalgic urge to hit the town and see a show will linger indefinitely. Movie theaters have yet to kill live theater, and a black and white silent movie won the Oscar for best picture in 2011. I can guarantee that ninety-minute visual storytelling will live on. It is true, however, that certain low-to-mid-budget genres are not currently profitable. Nevertheless, I’m not fully convinced that it’s a bad thing or that the trend won’t change.
Art (Are filmmakers artists?)
Deresiewicz defines four paradigms of artist: artisans (or craftsmen), bohemians, professionals, and producers. It’s the professionals—working artists who own houses and have dental plans—that Deresiewicz is most concerned about in his book. Chapter after chapter outlines how writers, painters, and visual artists fight for the crumbs of an ever-shrinking pie while struggling to find time to develop their art. And yet, in 2021, television and film are actually doing okay.
One of the big things I need to point out here is that television and film straddle the worlds between art and commerce more than other industries. True, you’ve probably heard of writers who cut their teeth in the newspaper industry (when that was a thing), but very few renown painters started off whitewashing fences.
On a film set, any given crewmember may have spent the previous day filming a television show or commercial. Disappointingly to most crewmembers, that often means that they’re capable of delivering a much higher quality product than the used car company requires, but it also means that art and commerce move around freely in the same space. Similarly, scenic painters, carpenters, costumers, and camera operators are highly educated, incredibly talented artisans operating at the top of their game. Not only do they need the vision to offer their own artistic input, they need to be able to shift gears to cater to someone else’s vision or mimic a historical style.
In that way, filmmakers really match Deresiewicz’s first paradigm—the artisan—and I think it’s a good model to follow. Although it really doesn’t matter to the IRS, Deresiewicz’s paradigm poses an interesting question: “Are filmmakers artists?” That’s hard to say. If Deresiewicz is looking for talented individuals who work in a creative discipline and can afford middle class lifestyles, then yes. We’ve found a winner. But if you define artists as individuals who create things that make you question and challenge the world… well maybe not. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but the latter is far less economically viable.
It’s also worth pointing out that filmmakers have always been “gig” workers. A crewmember (even a director) may have multiple employers in a single week. By and large, the thing that enables filmmakers to buy houses and get dental plans is unions. As people are trying to cobble together livings by working Uber and Door Dash, I can’t stress enough how beneficial it would be to unionize.
Business (Are moving pictures safe from a flood of amateurs?)
On page 220, Deresiewicz states, “Film and television have a final advantage over arts like music or writing. Amateurs do not pose any threat because no one is ever going to mistake what they do for the real thing.” I have to disagree with him there. As technology has decreased cost, it’s become easier and cheaper for people to produce video content. Whether their productions can be considered art or even “feature films” is another matter. Birdemic is a prime example.
If you think I’m being dramatic, you haven’t noticed how much content Gen Z watches on YouTube. Poor production quality has become synonymous with verisimilitude, and young viewers have managed to lower their standards below even “reality TV” quality. True, in the world of fiction, no one’s going to mistake Tommy Wiseau for the next Spielberg, but it’s a troubling sign if you recognize the names Tommy Wiseau or Birdemic.**
The bigger problem here is that as audiences accept lower quality, they refuse to pay for higher quality. Consequently, production companies refuse to pay as well. Just earlier today, I was speaking with a coordinator who lamented that the latest money-saving trend is to not hire location managers. And after a year of looking at everyone’s terrible lighting skills on Zoom, I’m afraid the bar for quality has been irreparably lowered.
Where does that leave us?
Although not artists in the Van Gogh or even the Andy Warhol sense, filmmakers do work in creative fields, and they can make a decent living. Artisans produce work that is beautiful and functional. Their work may be thought provoking but is seldom a “think piece.” In other words, film—and all twenty-first century art—needs some utility or usefulness (see The Death of the Artist pages 272-273). Within this paradigm, artists are producers. I like this concept. It’s more democratic and egalitarian than the concept of elite geniuses sprinkling culture to the plebes. Artists are useful members of society who produce goods that can also be beautiful and thought-provoking.
That being said, our society is continuing to devalue labor and expertise. There’s no easy fix for this, but there is, perhaps, a silver lining. Art, throughout the ages, has always helped humanity cope with change and reframe tragedy into something that we can—if not understand—at least articulate. In the twenty-first century, art is not only doing this job metaphorically but literally instructing us on how to make a new economic paradigm. If you have a chance, check out Deresiewicz’s book. And if not, at least take a moment to check out some art.
**In many ways, Canon’s 5D Mark II, the first SLR camera to shoot full high-definition video, marked a depressing turning point. In 2009, every film school grad with $3,000 suddenly thought they were a director of photography. Today, the image quality and editing ability of a smartphone are more advanced than the professional digital equipment I used in the early aughts. But to reiterate a point Deresiewicz makes over and over again, just because some can paint or film or sing does not mean they have the professional experience or artistic eye to be an artist.
Two years ago, I wrote a post about some new technologies that were allowing video editors to create realistic videos of things that never happened. Today, we call them “Deepfakes.” I think it’s worth a re-read. In it, I argue that education–particularly arts education–is the most effective way to combat the Deepfake. After all, Deepfakes aren’t really new. We’ve been dealing with “fake news” and propaganda for hundreds of years. How would you have responded to this story from February of 1898? The U.S. went to war.
But it did have me wondering. What do we do with a Deepfake? How should we treat some kind of shocking video or audio revelation? I don’t exactly have a checklist, but I think we need to look at scandalous revelations holistically. What else supports this shocking news? Do the facts add up? Where did the evidence come from?
The problem is (and I acknowledge that Hollywood is largely at fault for perpetuating this myth), we are obsessed with the “smoking gun.” There will be some single, irrefutable piece of evidence that proves our point and wins the day. But as I say repeatedly on this blog, movies aren’t real life. “Smoking gun” evidence rarely exists, and when it does, it’s usually not enough to prove much of anything.
Strangely, Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape offers a perfect case study for Deepfakes. Here we had a presidential candidate caught red handed saying absolutely repugnant things about women, about mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and loved ones. The Democrats thought this was it for his campaign. They finally had hard evidence of what a narcissistic, sexist pig he was. But it didn’t matter.
Everyone already knew all of that. They knew he didn’t respect women. They knew he was vulgar. They knew he was lewd. It didn’t matter. Trump didn’t even try to deny it. He could have decried it as a Deepfake, but he didn’t need to. The smoking gun was just that, all smoke and no fire.
Is it possible for some video of dubious origin to crop up at an inopportune time in efforts to sway the public’s mind? Yes. Should the NSA stay abreast of Deepfake technology? Of course. But I think the situation is overblown. McKinley didn’t need video evidence of the Maine explosion to invade Cuba in 1898. Bush didn’t need video evidence of WMDs to invade Iraq in 2003. The question is less about what kind of evidence we have and more about what kind of sources we gather that evidence from. Keep that in mind as the conversation continues.
On Sunday night, HBO suckered Game of Thrones fans in for what was touted as a two-hour behind-the-scenes documentary, a glimpse into the magic of the making of Game of Thrones. I’ve seen most of the bonus features on the Game of Thrones Blu-rays. They’re well-produced and informative. This sounded like it would be a great retrospective on the series and an emotional farewell tour. Instead, HBO gave us a cloying, aimless, slice-of-life piece that ranks somewhere between a vacation slideshow and college project.
There are plenty of behind-the-scenes shots in The Last Watch, but they completely lack context or explanation. My wife called it pretentious. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘You don’t understand what we do, and we’re not going to explain it to you.'” I agree. Hundreds of people worked on the show, but the documentary only covered a handful of crew members and none of them very well. No one from the camera, grip, electric, props, sound, video, or AD departments were interviewed. There was no story. There was no narrative (ironic for a show whose finale centers on a speech about great stories). There were some heartfelt moments, such as when makeup artist Sarah Gower explained that because both she and her husband worked on the show, neither of them were at home with her daughter. Sad? Yes. A two hour story? No.
In many ways, it felt as though these crew members had drawn short straws and were being saddled with the BTS crew because no one else wanted to talk to them. That may have been the case, but the documentary did have a way out. Andrew McClay, a background actor who played a Stark soldier for multiple seasons, seemed to love the BTS crew. He was the perfect, humanizing connection between an epic fantasy series and the audience at home. Just an average Joe trying to make a living. But the documentary failed in some very basic ways to craft that story. Can we see where Andrew lives? What did he do before GOT? How did GOT change his life? What do his friends and loved ones think of all this? With so many unanswered questions, maybe he’ll get a spinoff series…
The documentary avoided discussing creative decisions in the final season, in depth interviews with major cast members or the show’s creators, or even a broad representation of the cast. Fingers crossed, those things will appear in the Blu-ray. Last night however, we were given a voyeuristic opportunity to fawn over Emilia and Kit (or Keeeet as the Spaniards call him) and a very brief glimpse at the humanity of a very small slice of a very large crew. Not exactly the kind of documentary quality I’ve come to expect from HBO. Did it fill two hours of programming and keep some of Game of Thrones fans tuning in for another week? Yes. But it could have been so much better.
Like all aspects of filmmaking, lighting has subtle, psychological effects on the audience. Knowing what these effects are and knowing how and when to use them will greatly enhance any film you make.
Low Key*: Darkly lit or low light scenes evoke a sense of mystery and danger, like this shot from The Shape of Water.
High Key: Brightly lit scenes like the opening of La La Land tend to be happier.
Soft Light: Few or poorly defined shadows create a sense of fantasy. For example, I find dragons and armies of undead more realistic than the fantasy world created in Letters to Juliet.
Hard Light& High Contrast: Well defined shadows create a grittier look like Sin City.
Warm Colors: Orange hues can evoke warm feelings and romance.
Cool Colors: Blue is used to create a sense of cold or uncaring.
The previous two images are both from the movie Limitless. You’ll notice the color difference the most by looking at Bradley Cooper’s skin tone. Skin tone one of the first reference points audiences latch onto.
Other colors can be used to create a sense of unease, like something isn’t right. The Matrix, for example, was decidedly green.
Knowing the Toolkit: Skilled cinematographers, of course, can also use these techniques ironically or to create a new meaning with juxtaposition. One example is flash photography.
You get this effect by having a harsh, bright light source right next to the camera (as you would on a disposable camera or smartphone). Things close to the camera (like faces) get washed out, while the background is underexposed. It also creates harsh shadows. (Look at the distinct black line on the left side of the red coat). It looks amateurish. But if you want your project to look like it was made by amateurs, this is your ticket. Thank you, Blair Witch Project.
One Final Thought
When you think about it, all movies, all TV shows, all video games, every viral video you watch on your phone is really a manipulation of light on a screen. The realty – the screen – remains unchanged. The meaning comes from your mind’s interpretation of that light and the story it creates. Controlling that light is the difference between staring at static and touching an audience.
*The “key” in “low key” and “high key” refers to the “key light” or main light source.
What is it with films and lighting? It’s right there, number 1 in the most cliched of all Hollywood phrases*. And if you’ve ever been on a film set, you know that the vast majority of time is spent lighting and relighting the scene. But why?
At its basic level, film (and the modern equivalent of digital video) is actually a way of recording and preserving light. So while we think of films as epic stories with huge budgets and special effects, it’s really a specific kind of recording device. On a technical level, you could compare film to taking a plaster impression of an animal print or recording tremors with a seismograph.
For those of you old enough to remember developing photos from 35mm film, this is “film” at its most basic. Photons bounce off an object, are focused by a lens onto the film, activate photo-reactive chemicals, and leave an impression. The film is then developed into a negative, and the negative is used to produce the positive picture.
The thing is, that 35 mm film from your disposable CVS camera is actually the same film used in movie cameras and was essentially unchanged for 100 years. Today, the process is digital, but essentially your iPhone and a professional movie camera work the same way. And it’s all about capturing light.
What are we waiting on?
So why does it take so long to light a film set? There’s a problem between seeing and seeing. Your brain plays probably about the same role in sight as your eyes. Yes, your eyes perceive light, but your brain needs to decide what to focus on (literally and figuratively). In addition to actual focal distance, it must determine proportion, patterns, colors, shapes, and movement. Are you looking at a cat or a lion? Or a toy lion? Or a picture of a lion?
Our brains concentrate on only one small part of what we actually see. But when a filmmaker sits you in a darkened room and projects an image 30 feet tall and 100 feet wide, they need to direct your attention. They have to be sure what they are showing you is more interesting than the exit sign in the corner of the theater or that weird haircut on the guy two rows in front of you.
Just to be clear, your director of photography and the camera are taking the place of the two most complex organs in the human body. This involves framing shots appropriately, dressing and costuming appropriately, and making sure the correct subject matter is in focus. And it also involves a LOT of lighting.
Consider this shot from Citizen Kane.
It’s both simple and incredibly effective. The main sources of light come from the back of the room, creating a hard silhouette of both subjects. They are both easy to see while also being obscured. The light beams add a sense of depth, while the desk lamp fills in some of the void. That way we aren’t merely looking at silhouettes.
This shot required critical placement of the lights, camera, and actors. The lights had to be focused and balanced in intensity so the desk wasn’t too dark or the beams too bright. Smoke or fog played a critical role in creating those beams, too.
Physics of Photography
Whether you’re taking photos at a wedding or shooting a film for Spielberg, everyone’s playing by the same rules. Light and film have certain properties and limitations. A lot of cinematography is understanding these limitations and finding a way to get the look you want with the tools you have.
There can be a lot of stuff in a scene: actors, props, sets. How does your audience know where to look? Light, of course. Here’s a very messy photo from my office.
Now where did I leave that fine point black Sharpie? When I change the lighting, it’s a little easier to see.
Ever had an annoying camper shine a flashlight in your eyes in the middle of the night? First, it’s painfully bright. Then it takes your eyes a few seconds to readjust to the darkness. Your irises make minor adjustments constantly, and because it happens so fast, you don’t usually notice. What happens if you’re filming a scene that includes very bright and very dark parts?
Here, Phillies Bear and Phanatic Pillow Pet are very excited to watch the Phillies (currently number 1 in the NL East!), but the problem is, the window behind them is grossly overexposed.
If we set the exposure for outside, it looks like they are sitting in a black hole.
The solution is to add light inside the room or take light away outside (most likely by putting filters on the windows). Either way, it’s going to involve some lighting.
The intensity of lights decreases as you get further away. Not by a little, but by a LOT. In fact, light follows the inverse square law. That means if you double the distance between your subject and your light source, but want to keep the same light intensity, you need to quadruple your lighting power. Bigger shot? More lights.
How many lights did it take to illuminate this post-apocalyptic set from Bladerunner: 2049?
Well, start counting.
You’re out of your depth.
Lighting adds a sense of depth to a scene. After all, we see in three dimensions, but movie screens are flat. If there were no depth, everything would look like a cartoon. In the shot from Bladerunner: 2049, you can see the silhouette in the foreground, our actor in the middle distance, and hazy ruins in the background.
This shot from The Third Man, shows the depth of a tunnel. Even as a still frame, you get a sense of the dimension.
Today, many movies are shot in 3D, but lighting still plays a critical role in creating the space for a scene.
That covers some of the technical hurdles that go into lighting a scene. In the next post, I’ll cover some of the other things a director of photography considers on a set.
*The phrase “lights, camera, action” was probably never used to get a film crew rolling. Even today, lights take a while to warm up. There is also some dispute about the origin of the phrase. In reality, the dialogue before a take goes something like this:
1st Assistant Director: “Let’s roll.”
Production Assistants: “ROLLING!”
Sound department: “Sound speeds.”
2nd Assistant Cameraman: “101 take 1. A mark.” (Hits slate.)
Film sets can be dangerous places. There’s heavy equipment, high voltage, and people working 70 or more hours a week. Every day, we do our best to work safely and return home to our families, but as a new person on a film set, it’s important to stand up for yourself and your safety. More importantly, it’s incumbent on department heads, production managers, and producers to look after their crews. A film set isn’t different than other kinds of work. A producer is the same as a business owner, a foreman, or a school principal. It’s your job to make sure your employees are safe.
Strangely, people get very worked up about trying to get some particular shot before the sun sets even though they don’t have the right gear or the manpower or the permits to do it. They act as though it’s going to win the war or cure cancer, but it’s not. We’re just making movies. Don’t let the pressure get to you.
The reason I’m writing this now is that a friend of mine from high school died recently in a driving accident. He did not work in the film industry, but he had been driving an Isuzu cab-over box truck — a truck that was identical to one I had driven for years as a production assistant.
It takes some skill to drive a truck. They do not stop quickly. They take wide turns. They have poor sight lines. But for some reason, production managers will often assign the job of driving a production truck to a recent college grad without any training. The first time I drove a truck for work, someone threw the keys at me and said, “You know how to drive a truck, right?”
Fortunately, I’d had some experience helping friends move, and I knew enough to take my time and watch my overhead clearance. After some time, I carved out a niche as a “truck PA.” I knew how to load a truck. I knew all of the common stops in New York, which tunnels you could use, what roads had low bridges, and what the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requirements were. And because of my added experience and responsibility, I asked for a higher rate.
Most producers paid it. Some did not. They asked if I could recommend other drivers that would work at a lower rate. I refused. They hired people with no experience and they ended up paying for it in other ways.
The people involved in these accidents were okay, but they should never have been put in those positions in the first place. We are only making movies. Don’t put your crew in dangerous situations. Don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. It’s going to be okay. Take your time. Be safe. And get home to your family.
It’s really a physics issue. Gravity pulls down, but belts pull in. Freakonomics actually did an episode about this a while back. If you, like me, are required to carry around work tools, this can be a serious problem. (Things are about to get a little specific and wonky, but if you want to learn about filmmaking gear, vests, and my own persnicketiness, read on!)
The Things They Carried
This is my regular complement of work tools.
All told, you’re looking at 3 pounds, 5.7 ounces. And that doesn’t include the cell phone, car keys, etc.
The first thing I did was try to minimize weight. If you have to carry wrenches around, here are two big (or small?) recommendations. First is the Neiko Mini Ratchet. It does require you purchasing 3/16″ hex bits, and I’d recommend putting a drop of glue on the end to be sure they don’t pop out.
Then there’s the Lobtex lightweight adjustable wrench. Besides being incredibly light, this wrench opens up to an inch, so you can still use it on cheeseboroughs. Those little changes saved me just over a pound. Look at the difference!
You do sacrifice some leverage, but it hasn’t been an issue yet.
Strangely, the lightest 25′ tape measure I’ve found just so happens to be my old Stanley at about 13 ounces. I have yet to find a lighter one, and many of the weights listed on Amazon are wrong.
Okay, great. But there’s still the problem of where to keep everything.
Most crew members carry various kinds of pouches, sometimes on a second belt. But that really doesn’t solve the gravity problem since you’re still pulling in against something that is pulling down.
Here, we have a winner. Vertical pockets (somewhat) reasonable price. Thick cotton to resist tears and fire. Great success. Unless you’re working on a stage next to a heating duct… (Also, I notice that it’s on clearance, so I’m not sure what will be available in the future.)
Capitalism, even in its communist form, has a way of funneling things down to “good enough.” There are a handful of these vests sold by different companies, but I have the deep suspicion that they’re all made in the same place.
Anywho, if you’re on Amazon and see a vest with vertical pockets that’s only $30, you’re like, well, why not? Sure it has a sticker on it that reads “Fashion Style” and I had to order three different sizes because no one can just write a chest size on the product, but it’s only $30. Well, after a week of wearing it, one of the buttons popped right off. Then I noticed that the inside pockets weren’t actually stitched into the vest… So, I’d avoid this one.
This had the lightness of the Chinese vest combined with the durability of Duluth, and, of course, Swedish style. And a price tag to match. It did not, however, require allen wrenches to assemble. Plenty of vertical pockets to keep the tools from falling out (with snaps, not velcro). Sadly, it is rather expensive, but hopefully it will last a long time. I would certainly keep your eyes open for sales.
But now, success at last. I don’t have to worry about my pants falling off. It’s very easy to shed all of that weight at the end of the day (Just take the vest off), and you can even sit on a toilet without getting all tangled up in your walkie talkie cables. There you have it.
Cold weather: Duluth.
Warm weather: Fjallraven.
And as your reward for dealing with all of that, enjoy this:
You’ve probably come across a variety of blogs, books, and gurus who insist there are “rules” for writing a screenplay. (Maybe you’ve even read something to that effect on this very blog.) But are there really? Is there a secret formula for success? Well, yes… and no. Depends on who you ask. But maybe this is a better way to explain it.
Here’s one way to look at it. Screenwriting is like building a house. There are some generally agreed upon “rules” for houses: protection from the elements is a must. Generally a door to keep you and your stuff safe. Probably indoor plumbing and electricity. Bathroom and kitchen to make this a full service abode. Hopefully a window or two but otherwise…
The thing is, doors, electricity, and plumbing have rules. Doors need to be appropriately framed with headers. There are physical limitations to what you can do with electricity as well as safety precautions. Water flows downhill. If you want your sinks to drain and your toilet to flush, you’re going to have to install your plumbing correctly.
None of this has any bearing on the number or size of the bathrooms. None of it affects the shape of the house or the material you use. But there are definitely trends because some things are more effective or more efficient than others.
Point is: they’re all houses. They all meet the same basic requirements while expressing the art and lifestyle of the builder and the inhabitants.
Screenplays are similar, and many screenwriters will describe themselves more as craftsmen than artists. Yes, you need a creative mind, but you also need to know when to use a hammer and when to use a saw. Similarly, screenwriters need to be adept at understanding “the immutable laws of screenplay physics” as Blake Snyder calls them. Is your comic relief effective or overpowering? Does the story drag because the protagonist’s obstacles are episodic rather than escalating? Does the dialogue feel wooden because there is no subtext? Or maybe there’s no sense of urgency because your script violates the unity of time.
Or maybe your script feels cliched and predictable because itfollows the rules a bit too closely. (This would be the home building equivalent of a stamped out, mass production condo.)
And this is the final important thing to remember about the rules. Rules are meant to be broken.
Below are 2 examples of VERY successful movies that very clearly break screenwriting “rules.” I don’t care how much you want to bend the rules or try to contort things so they fit into some mold in a bizarro world. These are generally bad screenwriting choices, and yet, nobody cares.
Your Protagonist is not active enough.
Your protagonist should drive the story. Their decisions and actions push the movie forward. That’s why they’re the protagonist. Blake Snyder calls this “The Hero Leads.” And if your hero is just some schmuck who gets dragged from place to place like a cosmic lump on a log, Snyder calls him “Johnny Entropy.” But I have another name: Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge has probably gotten the most mileage out of doing the least work of any protagonist ever. Wikipedia lists 20 film adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and more than two dozen TV adaptations or episodes. But what does Scrooge actually do with all this screen time? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Marley, not Scrooge initiates the Christmas hijinx.Then the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future drag Scrooge on a time bending whirlwind. But apart from some tepid protests, Scrooge just goes along for the ride. Yes, at the end, Scrooge makes one massive 180 degree turn and starts giving his money away. But for the other 80 minutes of screen time, he’s as passive as Mr. Entropy himself.
The thing is, nobody cares. Since his creation 175 years ago, the audience has loved Scrooge’s largely unearned transformation from miser into philanthropist. And every ten years or so, a new production company capitalizes on Scrooge’s ability to do nothing and make cash. Do you always need an active protagonist? Well…
It’s important to hook your audience in the beginning of your script. Fifteen to twenty pages/minutes is a good rule of thumb. It gives you some time to establish your “world” before you hit your characters with the inciting incident. And when you analyze a story, most professionals look at scripts from the perspective of the protagonist’s conscious goal.
In Jurassic Park, a beloved, award winning, visually stunning, and financially successful film, you could make an argument for any number of main characters, but I think many people would agree that Alan Grant (Sam Neill) is the protagonist. What’s his goal? To make it out of Jurassic Park alive. Well that can only be his goal if the dinosaurs have already escaped their pens, which means the power going out is the inciting incident, which means, the inciting incident doesn’t actually happen until almost an hour into the movie!
Does that mean the power going out is the midpoint? Or should Spielberg have cut the first twenty minutes and had more screen time of Grant trying to save children from velociraptors. Or maybe you don’t always need your inciting incident in the first twenty pages.
You could make an argument for any of those things. But the bigger point is that Jurassic Park is a great movie and that the rules are not so hard and fast as they might appear.
As a filmmaker, it’s important to know the rules. Like a builder, you are part artist and part craftsman. The “rules” are more of a user manual than a blueprint. They’ll help you understand how a screenplay works without really telling you how to make one. So don’t cling to the rules like a Dickensian judge. Successful movies, like life, find a way.
A while back I wrote an article about “grips,” one of the first film credits the average movie goer puzzles over. But gripping isn’t my day job. I’m usually a video assist operator. Most people, even my coworkers, don’t really know what video assist entails. Well hold onto your BNC*, because you’re about to find out!
Do you ever watch the bonus features at the end of a movie and see the director watching a television monitor? That’s video assist. The video assist operator sets up that monitor. Pretty basic. More broadly, it’s the video assist operator’s job to get the image from every camera (no matter how many there are or where they are) to the director. In a nice, studio setting, it may look something like this.
This is a control room we built for Comedy Central. On a stage, with one camera, this may be as simple as connecting the camera to a monitor (with some BNC). Things get a little more complex if you’re riding around the street at seventy miles an hour or if one of your cameras is in a helicopter. In those situations, we use transmitters to get the image from the camera to the director.
Once upon a time, we filmed on something called “film.” This was a roll of cellulose coated with a film of photo reactive chemicals that had to be developed before you could see what you shot. Each day, someone would run the film to a lab where it was developed. Then they would race back with “dailies” for the director and producer to review. It worked great for about 70 years.
But in the 1950s, television and video came onto the scene. Television captured images electronically and recorded them onto magnetic videotape so there was no need to “develop” film. Although the quality was far inferior to film, people could now watch what they filmed immediately after they filmed it.
In 1960, Jerry Lewis used this new technology for his film The Bellboy. As both the director and the star, he couldn’t watch his own performance. He connected a video system to the film camera allowing him to instantly playback what was just recorded and make adjustments to his performance. This is generally considered the invention of video assist** and the first use of video playback.
In addition to getting the image to the director, the video assist operator records the action, allowing for immediate playback. This allows directors to re-watch takes without waiting for dailies. Directors may call for playback to check performances, look for continuity errors, see if a piece of gear was in the shot, check to make sure a stunt or effect worked, or watch something back in slow motion.
The video assist system is also used to record rehearsals. When we shot on film, this was a critical way to practice camera and actor movement without wasting thousands of feet of film. Today, most film production is done on digital video, but film crews still use rehearsals to practice shots before all of the lights, makeup, and effects are in their final places.
On a one-day shoot for a thirty-second commercial, playback may not be critical. But on something like a feature film that may take months and is generally not filmed in chronological order, playback can play a major role in keeping a film’s continuity. One intern I worked with said that video assist sounded like the film’s library. I kind of like that. (To be fair, the script supervisor is the film’s librarian, the video assist operator is the guy who has to go to the basement and find all of the old reference books…)
It’s important to point out that video assist is for reference only. When we shoot on film, the video feed or “tap” doesn’t have nearly the depth of field or exposure range of a piece of film. Video playback is not a completely accurate representation of what you filmed. In fact, oddly enough, video taps only record what isn’t on the film. The light entering the camera either exposes the film or goes to the video tap. Most things happen so quickly it doesn’t really matter. But several years ago, I was working with a producer to film gunshots for an action movie. When I played it back for him, he didn’t see the muzzle flash. I had to explain to him that was a good thing because it meant the muzzle flash was on the film. (Ugh. Tech talk.) And while that’s not the case with modern digital cameras, the video feed is a compressed version of what you’re actually recording. Much to the dismay of one producer whose intern deleted their favorite take, video assist operators do not record full resolution video files.
One other note is that for decades, video was recorded on tape. This led video assist operators to also be called video tape recorders or VTR. And while many ADs will still stay “let’s roll video” we moved on to computers about ten years ago.
In addition to the image, the video assist operator works with the sound department to get audio to the director. It’s critical to make sure all of the cameras and the audio are synchronized. Like watching a badly dubbed film, it’s disorienting and distracting to watch things out of sync.
This may sound like a simple thing, but let me give you an idea of what it’s worth to a production. A few years ago, shortly after we switched to high definition signals, quality, affordable transmitters were still in development. The transmitters we used, while great at long distances had a noticeable delay. (It takes some time to crunch down all of that video data, shoot it through the air, and unpack it back into an image.) This isn’t an issue if you’re filming across a football field. It is if you’re sitting ten feet from your actor and the actor on your television is moving noticeably slower. So after one frustrating day of filming on a new television show with transmitters that were less than a year old, our company shelled out $40,000 to upgrade to the latest transmitters.
Gak is a technical film term for stuff. And video assist operators have a lot of gak: monitors, switchers, speakers, cable, transmitters, hard drives, HDMI, BNC, barrels, patch bays, UPS’s, power conditioners, batteries, power cables (OSHA cords, P-Tap, Lemo, Hirose, 4-pin XLR), 3-pin XLR, mini XLR, intercoms, video printers, and on and on and on. Again, all of this is to get the image from the camera or cameras, synchronize it with the audio and give it back to the director for live viewing and playback.
It’s a lot of techno-wizardry and it can be kind of mesmerizing. Maybe that’s why everyone likes to look over your shoulder. Or maybe they just like watching TV. Whatever the case, the video monitors always attract a crowd. The director, assistant director, and script supervisor are generally at the monitor. The producers will often get their own set of monitors. Then there are the hair, makeup, and costume people who need to be sure the actors look their best. And you’ve got the additional assistant directors cueing background actors, the electric and FX department standing by for cues, the humane society looking out for their four legged actors, and a couple of groupies for good measure.
And of course, all of these people need chairs and coolers and tents and heaters if it’s cold and, frankly, before you know it, you’ve got a regular village on your hands: a video village, which has become the industry term for, well this.
One of the biggest positives about video assist, however, is that you always want to be near the director. So if it’s raining, you’ll be dry. If it’s cold, you’ll be warm. If it’s warm, you’ll be cool. And you’re generally the first person to know if craft service is serving something better than hot dogs.
24 Frame Playback
Video assist operators have one more vital function that isn’t related to anything else I’ve mentioned so far. We are responsible for every “on-screen” video display. Every time you see a smart phone or a television or a computer monitor, a video operator has provided that image. Here are a few of the riveting images I’ve put on screens.
Amazing stuff, right? The video operator works in conjunction with the director, props department, and editor or visual effects department to make sure the right images get on the right monitors. Sometimes, that image doesn’t exist yet, so we just put green or grey screens on the monitors. That helps the VFX department create the image in post. Green makes it easier to remove the image. Grey allows light to fall on the set and actors like a real television.
Video assist operators need to be careful about what they put on screen. One of my coworkers was troubleshooting an issue with his personal phone and forgot to delete the number when we went to shoot. Months later when the DVD came out, he was inundated by calls from curious fans who wanted to know who Jason Statham called in the middle of the film
The name, “24 frame playback” comes from the fact that film cameras used to film 24 frames or individual pictures a second. Televisions, however, display 29.97 pictures a second. So for every 1 picture a film camera takes, a television displays 1 ¼ pictures. (Oh God. Math…) Because the television is projecting light, that means ¼ of the television screen will appear brighter than in every picture the film camera takes. That’s why in old movies, you will see television screens flickering in the background. To fix that, playback operators force the television to display images at 24 frames, not 30.
Modern TVs and flat screens like your phone don’t display images the same way older TVs did, so we don’t actually need to create a 24 frame video. That’s why it’s anachronistic to call it “24 frame playback” when it’s no longer 24 frames and playback actually has another meaning. Sheesh.
For some more information about how a television actually works, check out this fascinating video from The Slow Mo Guys.
Roll the Credits
There you have it. Another one of those hundreds of names that scroll by at the end of a movie explained. While it’s true that most of the work of the video assist operator doesn’t end up one screen, the movie – and filmmaking – wouldn’t be the same without them.
*BNC, the ubiquitous tool of the video assist operator, is a type of connector for video cables. BNC is also refers to the cable itself. Many people erroneously think it stands for “British Naval Connector,” a rather shoddy backronym for an American invention. It actually stands for “Bayonet Neill-Concelman,” the connecting mechanism and the name of its inventors.