Elstree Film Design and Rob Finlay

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After hours, days and weeks of emailing production companies with a keen interest for work experience, it is often that you don’t end up hearing back. You might send them a second email, if you could still remember the details. Elstree Film Design  (EFD) have no such hospitality, they replied within minutes and, after the initial shock, things progressed: a phone call. Here is something that was made very clear to me at EFD, don’t waste your time with fancy emails because calling is ten times more effective. If I’d called the company first, an instant interest would have ben expressed on my part and no doubt a clear resolution to the matter by the end of the call, no treading on mailbox eggshells. However, it is never easy to confront a cold and icy line out of blue water, yet such is the task of life, so lets make it easier for ourselves by picking up the phone.

I met up with Rob Finlay, the company director and a great musician as well as a filmmaker, who inspired me to talk passionately about film. I quickly developed a keen understanding of the work Rob does at EFD and his productive, forward-thinking and tactile approach. For a company who started on the corporate scene only two years ago they are making clear waves in the sector and have exciting prospects for the near feature. With a prolific output, a prime and crisp location, and a small dedicated team with big minds, I hope to visit EFD again very soon. All I can say, is the work experience was thoroughly enjoyable, flexible in the productive sense of the word, and.. get your placements in!  There are only a few companies in this industry who have such warm open doors; they care for the future, remember their pasts and are highly intelligible workers of the present.

To finish this blog post, I have an exciting recording of a Skype interview I did with Rob. I also have an innovative music video embedded, a fantastic project that I was fortunate enough to help develop alongside EFD. Find the interviews on my YouTube channel here, or the full interview embedded below:

Music video: Rob Finlay – Call Back the Day

Visit Rob’s personal website here for more cool videos.

Or, and finally, Visit EFD for a leading service in corporate video!

A Book of Tricks and Manipulative Exploits for the Film Director

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The tricks and exercises in this book are justifiable and perceptive enough to succeed any literal knowledge, in the field of directing, gained from three years at film school or university. They are irrefutably researched and practiced insights from the top, the best; they are known to be the most effective. In most cases, the tricks are kept brief in hands-on example, but they come with enough resource to guide the beginner or advanced practitioner (or “wizard”) to furthering their magic skills quite considerably. In fact, this metaphor of the director as magician, or wizard, is instinctively argued and becomes a remarkably valuable way of understanding the craft. These tricks that Mark proposes do indeed involve the slight-of-hand of what are fundamentally psychological sidesteps and manipulations, or illusions, if you like.

And what do these illusions hope to achieve? Essentially, it is to excel in the creative collaboration with actors and directors. While, the book does focus on working with writers and actors, the tricks are, in fact, applicable to the entire filmmaking process as a director and all the obstacles you will come to face. It is clear, that the most important consideration for a film director is to get the best performance from his/her actor. And Mark gives some great answers to this largely inexplicable phenomenon. I will mention, what I believe to be, an underlying theme across making all Mark’s tricks work, a strong focus on the subtext of the text/character/scene/or any situation (in filmmaking and, dare I say, life).

I won’t recite the tricks in this post; you will have to buy the book. However, I wouldn’t be able to offer a patch of the intuitive and mature outlook of Marks writing, which surrounds each technique with an extra flavour of humour and reflection. There is the odd bit of cynical wit surrounding the director and Mark fulfills the good old joke of the director doing, at the end of the day, whatever he can to get what he wants. In fact, the interviews that Mark conducts with wise, noble and expert wizards are occasionally diverting and even mocking of what we, as directors, do. Of course, this is no criticism, it is the insight of entertaining personalities, and they offer ample bouts of sharp knowledge and evidence of everything that Mark has talked about during the book. The book is a package that folds together to form a neat little parcel full of treasures and surprises.

If you have read Mark’s other books (The Directors Journey and Directing Feature Films) you will be familiar with his style and friendly approach. But, don’t be fooled into thinking that this book will be a rework of his past writings, it is essentially distinct and whilst a few intuitions are understandably repeated (Mark even acknowledges these areas), the bulk are remarkably fresh and even rewarding to read. Thanks Mark (and Michael Wiese)!

Find the book on Amazon here.

Film Producers – “What Don’t They Do?”

Christine-Vachon

(The title quote is from a book called Shooting to Kill: How an Independent Producer Blasts Through the Barriers to Make Movies That Matter written by Christine Vachon – above).

Christine Vachon, a film producer who gave life to such stimulating independent films as Happiness and I Shot Andy Warhol (plus many more), gives a fine insight into her working life and the countless scuffles of the filmmaking process. Ultimately, the book is a reflection of her practice as a film producer and a rousing discussion for aspiring filmmakers to get ahead of the game, which moves ever so fast.

Christine’s grounded and somewhat taxing approach is actually refreshing to hear and she offers predominant insights into personal experience of film havoc, despite her wonderful success. It is essentially real; diary interludes offer a further taste of Christine’s approach and the inevitable tasks of filmmaking. Though, the discourse can at times be overtly self-conscious, it doesn’t set out to be a clear and concise guide of A to B, it is a meditative medium after all.

Whilst running through the filmmaking process in chronological order, Christine is generous in her offering. She provides full-budget feature film write-ups, cost reports and production reports etc. Whenever something is clearly daunting for the reader, she lightens the mood with her witty thought on the subject – “Stay sane and embrace the madness.” Descriptions like, “No cut is painless; the trick is to avoid slicing a major artery” (on budgeting whilst Shooting to Kill) are memorable and entertaining for the reader. Frankly, there are a number of quotations one could pull from this book and use as stimulus or however else you like to use intuitive information.

I wish to note a few points in the book that struck me as areas for deeper thought (not relative to practical tuition, however). Christine briefly mentions (to paraphrase) that she is intrigued by how disparate the continuity between a movie itself and moviemaking process is. The parts that make up the constituents of a film have obsessed film theorists as far back as Eisenstein (such as the process of montage editing), so yes, technical aspects of filmmaking have been studied in regard to continuity. But, the aesthetic of actually being on set (actually making a movie) – the chaos – is absurd in its discontinuity. How can cinema appear so pure on the screen? This is, of course, the magic of filmmaking (and all the hard-work that goes into it!).

Furthermore, Christine notions a lot towards the personality a film producer should have towards their work. It varies, but she gives some valuable thought. Of course, respect and equality reigns on set, yet balancing this with authority and sixty egos is no easy feat. Of the finished film, it is understandable that the producer and their team will expect everyone to think it amazing, how couldn’t they after their concentrated long-hours? Christine says, “Not everyone is going to like it, nor should they be expected to.” If you want to produce controversial work, or work that is going to be seen for its difference (often the only way in a saturated independent market, like today) then you have to keep a level head and respect peoples opinions. Okay, if it’s your last chance at a distributor and they read it completely backwards, feel free to go out into the backyard and scream a little.

Find Christine on Twitter.

Her book can be bought on Amazon by clicking here.

The Jaws Log – The Real Chaos

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‘The real chaos’, or the beauty of cinema i.e. the sheer capacity of deceit that the director hides behind and around the camera! In this case that would be a great tugboat, 2 unit barges and a mound of rigging entangled amidst poor souls in scuba-diving gear.

If you are currently producing a film and finding yourself worked up, then take a step back and think about how tough it was for the team on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1974. Take out Carl Gottlieb’s book, The Jaws Log, and laugh wickedly at their hardship. This book truly is a marvellous account of the perils and joys of making a movie. It will transmute you into the minds of the crew-members and send a shiver down your deck. I even gasped at some of the convolutions in this book… Conclusion… Spielberg is a hero.

However, this book is more than just a mash up of everything wrong with making a movie, instead it actually provides the answers. The answers of thinking outside the box, motivating your crew, relying on your director to make the right decisions and, surprisingly, maintaining a good relationship with your producers- in this case the unrivalled Richard Zanuck and David Brown (Zanuck/Brown Productions). Apparently, Steven Spielberg’s brain was so sapped of lucidity and wellbeing that he spent 3 months after leaving Martha’s Vineyard having nightmares about being on the Ocean with sharks – now there’s a director with their head in the game!

Peter Benchley is the author behind the marvellous book Jaws, the book which got turned into this spectacular picture. Despite plenty of significant script changes by Spielberg and Gottlieb, (screenwriter for the movie – Benchley is also credited) alongside a couple of scuffles, Benchley was highly commendable of the outcome. And, so were the mass audiences who would flock to see the picture, “laughing and shrieking”, in the summer of 1975.

Carl Gottlieb has truly witnessed an extraordinary account of filmmaking and his documentation is certainly engaging entertainment. If you know a friend who doesn’t appreciate the craft of filmmaking, then throw this book at their lap and they may grow to become obsessed.

I would write a more detailed account of what Gottlieb has to say, but you really need to immerse yourself in the book and salute your admirations to the filmmakers. Grab a copy here.

For fun, as I love trailers, here is Jaws:

7 Key Traits Filmmakers Can Learn From Entrepreneurs

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If you are a filmmaker, then you are probably already thinking: “But we are entrepreneurs!” Yes, filmmaking is a business and it has moguls that make it so, and consequently the independent filmmaker, more and more so, needs to act and think like an entrepreneur. You need to get funded, you need to build a team around you and you need all the traits listed below (or in my case, bits of them), of which I have found to be most commonly associated with entrepreneurs.

Let me begin with this rather unhelpful quote “entrepreneurship is dealing with repeated failure.” (I can’t cite this quote, but it has come from somewhere!). One would fathom that this suggests “repeated failure” will eventually lead to the good will of success i.e. you just keep trying to succeed. Of course, tenacity is essential, but this quote is probably hammering home the harsh realities of running a business, and learning from your mistakes. (My dad has forever told me to “learn from my mistakes”; he just forgot to tell me to write them down!). Making a film, getting represented, publishing a book etc. are all things that no doubt feel like you are receiving treatment of “repeated failure”. But, if you learn to deal with it and flip it on it’s head into progressive enthusiasm then it can only be valuable (admitted, we are not all this strong minded). Essentially, it seems to me that this is what entrepreneurship is all about: you need to deal with whatever is thrown at you and have an answer for it (commonly by “flipping it” – a term I have now made up) – thus emulating the role of the film director.

Passion

It was obvious, who can make something happen without passion? The slight difference in regard to an independent filmmaker is that they should be primarily fuelled by their craft and the story (much like an entrepreneur is for their product, however). You shouldn’t be so fuelled by the need to get rich, if so, you probably should be an entrepreneur after all. Passion, belief and excitement all come before money in this game i.e. the world.

Tolerance

A filmmaker needs to be able to tolerate a vast number of individuals all at once. Let’s hope everyone is on the same wave length, but if not, you need to know that you have control over the outcome. A big hamper is obviously fear and various anxieties; this could be fear of the ambiguous or the ‘Other’ hanging over your shoulder. Successfully controlling such a marvel will keep you right on cue.

Vision

Just like an entrepreneur needs to vision their product and its market 6 months down the line, so do filmmakers. It is easy to forget that at the end of the day, as a filmmaker, you are selling a product. Moreover, having a clear vision to bring that product to life goes without saying. For the director, to be assertive and maintain a state of control, you have to have a clear vision. Surely, if not, then that control would stem from something other than a passion for a vision, egos begin to come out and play. Tension between crew on a film set is the ultimate assassin for a director.

Self-belief   

Nay-sayers are what the cultural industries are all about; decline and more decline. Or, so it can sometimes seem when trying to get a project off the ground. So, overcoming such individuals and taking steps away from subjective dismay and into future resolve is a desirable and fundamental trait. These are understandably tough moments were support could be largely beneficial, but “rise above” as they say.

Flexibility

If you are in control/running something (as is an entrepreneur or a film director) then you have to be adaptable to survive. Arguably, one can be narrow-minded, bigoted to the heavens and still become the lord of a business, but I will argue that filmmaking can be more delicate (especially on set) and being flexible is vital. Being assertive to changes and managing them in the best way possible is all one can do at times. This doesn’t mean letting your power slide, your power will be all the more if people respect you for listening and become enriched by your compliance. The history of film directing is littered with debates around this topic (and the others listed), nothing I have said here is to direct you, it is purely personal thoughts and beliefs for my own reflection (with the hope you may like them too!)

Rule Breaking

Perhaps not a forerunning thought for a narrative filmmaker. Of course, innovative aesthetics are not the only way to be recognised, powerful stories are the significant other. Yet, with powerful stories, more often than not, comes a beautiful and ground-breaking aesthetic and the stamp of an author. I guess this trait is about being open-minded (to yourself, your DoP, Art Director etc.), in other words, defying some form of conventional wisdom associated with filmmakers (notoriously the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking that we all know so well). However, there is no set of rules when making a film (someone respectable said this, though I can’t remember who), so set your own and break them on occasion. Besides, creative choices, there are the guerrilla filmmaker rules i.e. break the law. This is another story altogether (Read Chris Jones’s Guerrilla Filmmaker’s Pocketbook)

Tenacity

I like to think of tenacity as having an external strength – the Zeus of filmmakers if you like. This is the eternal drive that keeps you going, the firmness in your belief-system that keeps you on track, the device that pushes you through the obstacles and defies uncertainty. Anyone trying to make something happen needs a degree of tenacity.

Underlying all these factors however, is the obvious and ubiquitous need for a strong mental state – nothing is applicable without such a device. And, this is where it all begins to get a bit complicated…

Thank you readers. Please share your experiences with these traits in the comments below.

Get to know Mark Travis

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Mark Travis is a consultant and expert on the art and craft of film directing. He is also a very friendly guy who one can easily get in touch with to ask for advice etc. After reading his internationally acclaimed book Directing Feature Films, I felt obliged to get in touch with Mark and express my enthusiasm for his work. Mark got back to me 10 minutes later with his thanks and a mark of confidence and good luck.

So, if you are starting out – like myself – or a crafted expert, then either way you should head over to Michael Wiese Productions and check out his brilliant book. In this blog post I want to note a few effective and basic methods that Mark mentions in his book and shed some light.

Firstly, Mark talks in great depth about character and how one needs to dig deep below the surface in order to reveal the truth. It comes down to genuine human emotions and behavior when looking for that believable performance, or “magical” performance as Mark likes to say. In the book, Mark suggests a few fundamental ways to achieve this as well as some new and alternative approaches. I found the emotional graphs and obstacle charts that Mark draws particularly insightful.

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Above, I have included the emotional graphs of two characters in a short film I am directing at the moment. The emotional graph allows me to see where the characters reactions/shifts in emotion are taking place from good to bad. I have labeled the graph by the chronology of scenes in which they appear. From this I can get a true representation of the characters arc and how they should respond by changes in their behavior. Of course, these graphs are highly susceptible to the interpretation of a character and the various other obstacles they may be facing through staging and their environment etc. But, from a director’s point of view, it appears invaluable to guiding the actor through various obstacles and hidden anxieties. Once you understand this, you can break the ‘rules’ and shift the characters obstacles slightly to get a different emotion and performance that works best.

Another area that draws similar results is recognizing the characters ‘Gap’ – the difference between their expectations versus the reality. How a character responds to this can determine their true nature – it could be aggressively, progressively, confidently, arrogantly, wisely, sadly etc. etc. Mark explains this in greater depth in his book and also provides examples of graphs you can draw to configure your characters ‘Gap’.

Moving on from character analysis, Mark takes the reader from assembling the creative team to the final mix in postproduction. He always evaluates the areas from an approach of the director and gives valuable examples of all the hidden tasks he and his fellow filmmakers have undergone in the past. It is hard to find an angle that Mark doesn’t cover. Though, I am sure this opinion of mine will change when/if I get the opportunity to direct a feature a film. I will end up writing to Mark saying, “You didn’t warn me of this, or that, or this! Etc.” Though he does say something along the lines of “be ready for the unexpected!”

One of my favourite things in the book about production (I hope I don’t get in trouble for attempting to quote the book too much!) is that one should think of the camera as a character and the director should play that character. This character will eventually become the audience. Having a reason behind every angle or move you make this character (the camera) do is essential; the reason should link nicely back into the arc of your story. A cinematographer knows all this and depending on your specific collaboration he may push your reasoning or he may have a stack of his own. I think a great cinematographer should bring his or her own ideas and challenge yours respectively, but inevitably encourage whatever you – the director – decide to do.

(You – the reader – probably already realise this, but the idea of this blog post – and the rest – is not for me to teach you, rather I just to want share my opinions (small or tall, fresh or naive) and hopefully you will put a comment in the box below!)

On the other front, is working with actors and Mark has plenty of answers (Also, I promise this post isn’t a Michael Weise ad). I will let you discover these notes for yourself, but it goes without saying that ‘result direction’ is also frowned upon here. However, I must say, Mark does provide a noteworthy reason for times when it can be necessary and valuable to throw commands at your actors.  One thing that he does hammer home is the priority of character intention and function over anything else, including the written word. This intention and function is established via character objectives (intention) and behaviors (function). So, by looking at this, to change the outcome of a character-driven scene, simply change their objectives and behaviors – it is pretty simple really.

So, there were a few things that stood out to me from the book; there are 395 pages more of it!

Find Mark on his website here.

I won’t attach a link to buy the book because as I mentioned  – this is writing from the heart, not the bank!