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.

emotional-graphs

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!

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The Limelight Index: Vincent Grashaw – Writer/Director

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Vincent Grashaw is a filmmaker from LA who recently completed directing his successful debut feature film Coldwater. Here, we talk about how he got there, the film and his plans for the future.

When did you first become interested in filmmaking?

I started out in junior high, 1994. This was more or less the beginning of the impressionable years, where you’d absorb all of an artist’s work – for me this was movies. From 14 to 18, a lot of the movies I watched really had an effect on me even if they weren’t necessarily the best movies. I was young and used to ‘hack’ projects that’d I’d seen, using similar elements, pulling stuff from it for my own scripts. Sometimes you even do it subconsciously. So at some point you stop hacking films you love and start to come up with your own film aesthetics, style, and vision. So I suppose it was never a bad thing because I knew the creative wheels were turning and that film was something I really wanted to do. It was my schooling process since I never went to college. The movies I watched at that time molded the kinds I want to make and who I am as a filmmaker.

What kind of films do you like to watch?

I have so many different movies I like to watch, the ones I can watch over and over are completely different to my favourite movies. For example, I could watch What About Bob, The Witches, Stand By Me or The Big Lebowski over and over. These movies I connected within and they are comforting and humoring, however these are very different to what films I actually make.

Am I right in thinking your movies lend themselves to violence?

Yeah, I tend to gravitate towards the darker subjects in movies. I have a couple of movies to make that aren’t violent in the pipeline that I intend to make.  I’m not harnessing myself to just one genre.

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What’s your opinion on directors who stick to one genre?

It depends on the director.  If a filmmaker only makes horror films then that’s their thing, I don’t have a problem with that at all. Filmmaking is such a personal thing that it has to be relevant to the filmmaker… it’s a huge release as an artist.

You acted in and produced in one of last years acclaimed indie movies ‘Bellflower’, how did you get involved with this?

Evan Glodlell, the director, is a good friend of mine and we used to make short films together. The film was a very long process; Evan had been working on the script for a while. We shot the movie in 2008 on a tiny budget. Initially, we weren’t sure how to proceed, but we had a little bit of money and just went for it.  We became obsessed with getting things done, at ALL costs. We did many things, most illegal to make that happen.  The only reason I was acting in it was because he couldn’t find anyone to play the role, and we’d acted in each other’s shorts, so I just did it.

Are your short films online anywhere?

Its funny, once Bellflower got into Sundance, we pretty much took all our stuff off the net. We used to make ridiculous stuff, it was outrageous and weird, and we didn’t want it out there! One day, some of it might be re-released, maybe through a compilation Dvd.

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When did ‘Coldwater’ become a reality?

I had the project on my plate throughout my entire 20’s. I had a loose connection to a kid who was abducted one night, so this was where the idea originally came from. However, it wasn’t until several times trying to get the film made that it came through.  Trying to make the film was basically my film school; I’d meet lots of different types of producers, some who were absolute weasels, playing wannabes, and some who were just in over their head. It’s definitely better it wasn’t made back then because over 13 years I learned a lot more about the reality behind the movie as well, which lends to its credibility. All these elements combined drove the film into what it is today.

What is your take on crowdfunding for indie filmmakers?

I just produced a movie in September with the guys who I made Bellflower with. It’s a gritty, turf-war action movie; we crowdfunded this film using Indiegogo and raised about $180,000. We then partnered with a couple of production companies who funded the rest. So, crowdfunding was great for this movie because we obtained a following with Bellflower, so it was a great way to get things going.

Are there any other projects in the works for you?

I recently acquired a script for the next feature I will be directing, which is a psychological horror movie.  I’m very excited about this. We are currently aiming to shoot around spring/summer 2014.

Any release dates planned yet?

In some cases, in the indie world you don’t really know where your going to be until you do it. It’s not like the studio system where you can set dates years in advance. We’ll take the film to a festival and it will hopefully sell there, unless we presale the movie because of the actors I attach.

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What’s your favourite thing about filmmaking? 

All the drama and bullshit that coincides with filmmaking really has nothing to do with it. There’s a key relationship with everyone involved, it’s like being family. You come together for a period in your life and then it’s all over and you get a new family. Filmmaking is so much fun and, for me, actually a very peaceful experience. It’s a very collaborative art, even though at the end of the day the director has to make the ultimate decision. It is a very fun process, I mean why else would I be doing this? It’s not like we’re all getting fat and foolish from all the money we’re making!

Any advice for filmmakers starting out?  

There’s a lot of advice I could give, but I have a couple of main things. Always stay humble, there will be a lot of things you’re married to in your script, but things will evolve and you’ll have to accept changes. Being open to this process is very important; nothing will be exactly as you pictured it in your head. Basically I am saying that your project evolves into many forms throughout the process and instead of fighting it, embrace it and see what transpires.

Secondly, don’t look at the business as a competitive thing. It can appear so competitive on the surface, which is overwhelming.  Don’t let that affect anything because at the end of the day it’s just you and your film.  People will try and knock you down, tell you that you’re doing something wrong, or unconventional. Before everything took off for me, the month before Bellflower took off, I think we were all in the darkest phase because we were getting all of this negative energy and feedback from people we should’ve never been listening to in the first place. So find a group of people you can trust with your material for honest criticism. Potentially from other artists who are relevant to what you’re trying to say; no one knows your material better than you.

Check out the trailer for Coldwater below:

Visit the movies website.

The Limelight Index: Tom Van Avermaet – Writer/Director

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I recently met up with Tom Van Avermaet, Belgian film director, who has been over in the UK with his new Oscar nominated short film, Death of a Shadow (Dood van een schaduw). He is an incredibly passionate filmmaker who has put life and soul into this film, it was an absolute pleasure to hear what he had to say.

When did you first get interested in filmmaking?

Even from an early age, I’ve always been fascinated by film. I used to be a regular at the local video rental place (when these still existed) and devoured as many films as my pocket money would allow. This passion for film always remained and I always felt that I needed to be involved with cinema in one capacity or another. As I also had this great love for storytelling, I felt that either being a screenwriter or a director would be the best fit and I enrolled in film school on the directing side (as in the end this is still the function most prevalent in the making/shaping of a film). I ended my film school with a thesis film called Dreamtime, which then went on to do numerous festivals and gained awards worldwide. One of these awards helped me finance the next short film, which ended up being Death of a Shadow, my first professional short film.

Who are the filmmakers you look up to?

It’s always hard to pick one or two, as there are so many filmmakers I love. Even if I don’t enjoy their whole oeuvre, I at least am passionate, I at least enjoy, a few films of theirs. Stanley Kubrick, like with any visual director, has always been a great inspiration, but I particularly am drawn towards the great imaginative surrealists of world cinema, people like Guillermo Del Toro, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry and Darren Arronofsky. Darren Aronosky’s second film (Requiem for a Dream), which I watched in the theatre the first time I saw it, impressed me so much that it really solidified my desire to wanting to be a director (as it really inspired me to see how big an impact a 90 min film could make on an audience emotionally).

I’m also drawn to filmmakers from the early stages of cinema, people like Fritz Lang, Murnau, Carl Theodore Dreyer, people who really made their film with the essence of visual storytelling.

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How did the idea for Death of a Shadow come about?

As a writer and director I’ve always been fascinated by metaphysical and symbolic figures and with Death of a shadow I wanted to give my own interpretation of ‘Death’. It was important for me to find a way to make this an interpretation that I felt would be original. So I thought, why can’t Death be like an art collector, but instead of gathering paintings or sculptures, this figure collects moments of death, with his own esthetic view of what is a good death and what is a bad death, what is an ugly and what is a beautiful death.

Because I’ve always loved to work with light and shadow I’m am a big fan of expressionistic lighting, I felt that a shadow would be an ideal element to portray this visual and thus had the collector amass shadows of people at the moment that they died, pinning them down like butterflies. A shadow also felt like the right element to use, as in many stories and myths it’s been seen as something connected to the soul. A shadow is something that’s always with us, a reflection of ourselves. Separating body from shadow seemed like a very drastic thing to do.

In this world of the collector, I didn’t feel like he himself would actually go out and gather these deaths and shadows, I felt like he would use someone already in the collection and offer him/her a second chance at life, if they give him one life for every day that they would have lived. That’s how the vast story of Nathan Rijckx, the deceased WWI soldier, came into being.

Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. How did the festival journey begin?

We were lucky enough to begin our festival journey by immediately winning our Oscar Qualifier, a prize entitling you to be considered for Oscar nomination. We won this prize at a festival in Los Angeles called LA Shortfest. This came very early in our festival run, which is quite unusual and after that we were fortunate enough to get on the shortlist and finally be part of the nomination for the 2012/2013 edition of the Academy Awards. We were also very fortunate to have won a European Film Award nomination the month after in Valladolid, Spain, making us the only film up for both prestigious awards in 2013 (the latter will be announced the 7th of December). And now we’re very glad to be part of the Mélies D’Or nominations as well by winning the Silver Mélies, something very special for me as this is a prize specifically for fantastic shorts and I really consider the people supporting the fantastic genre as my core audience.

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The set design is exquisite, who designed this and how did you find the locations?

The design process was collaborative between me and the French art director ‘Erwan Le Flo’ch’. The locations and setting are very important to me as a filmmaker, I almost try to make them another character in my film, so a lot of research and thought was given to them. The locations were all found in the French region ‘Champagne-Ardennes’, who were also supporting the film financially. However, the process of finding the right ones wasn’t easy; I went down with the location scouts to explore the region myself, but in the end we managed to find everything we needed for the film. As a short film maker you don’t have a lot of money to really build stuff, so you have to really work at finding the right locations and props and depend on ‘the kindness of strangers’.

The machine in the entry hall in the film for instance, was designed by a Dutch artist named Jos De Vink, who designs steam powered works of art and who had made a steampunk time machine, an element just like the one we were looking for. Sometimes you have to be lucky in making a film.

Your film has done incredibly well here at Leeds. What has been your favourite short film in the programme?

I think the level of the short film programming was very high. I was fortunate to be both part of one competition and judging four others. I have really enjoyed watching all the incredible works. To pick a favorite would be difficult (we picked our winners as a jury, so these films are definitely my favorites too), but the selection was so diverse and interesting that it would be unfair of me to name one or another.

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What advice would you give to likeminded people starting out?

Don’t give up. Our film took quite a long time to make, five years in total, and at certain points it really felt as if the film was never going to happen. At those times it’s very easy to just say, enough is enough and give up. I think a lot of great films don’t get made because people abandon them when things get tough. What separates people from making films and talking about making them is definitely that drive and passion you have to have for a project. If you want to be a filmmaker you have to be prepared to fight tooth and nail, to suffer blood sweat and tears for your film, because in the end it’s only you who really cares if the film gets made or not (you might have partners who support you equally in this of course, but it’s still most important to you). So I would definitely tell them not to give up and if you have something you believe in and you have an objective view of its potential, then do everything to get it made, even if it takes a long time.

For you, what makes a great short film?

It’s hard to define this as there are so many different styles and genres, but I always look for something that grabs me, something that touches me, something that I’ll remember, be the film 5 minutes or 30. This can be the performance of the actors, the interesting story, the visual aesthetic, or a combination of all those things. I personally veer most towards the narrative films, but I do think that films in any genre can really be great as long as they move or intrigue an audience.

Watch the trailer:

Watch Tom talk about his short film here:

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