InFocus Film School Blog

 

Imagine you are out for dinner with two of your close friends. The conversation is candid, and flows from one topic to the next. One of your friends pulls out their phone, and begins recording the conversation.

Does the dynamic change?

Do you speak as freely as you did prior to being recorded?

Documentary film aims to capture a subject or topic with some measure of objectivity. But the simple act of turning a camera on a person can change their behaviour. The premise of Cinema Verité is to film a scene in as natural a state as possible – as though the camera and director were merely flies on a wall.

The following video was made by documentary student Stan Huang. Below the video, read about his experience filming the exercise.

Can you explain the exercise that you were given? Rafi Spivak,our editing instructor, was teaching us about cinema verité and he wanted us to go out and film someone doing something. I thought it was interesting because you don’t usually just go to a shop or restaurant and shoot what people are doing.

Why did you decide to shoot at this particular restaurant? For their kitchen, they have an open window for people to watch. Every I time go have noodles there, there are kids just hopping up in the window watching them making noodles, so I thought that would be a cool action to shoot.

What was it like to shoot the exercise? We only had one day to shoot this project. So my project partner Adam and I decided to go there, and I went in and said we’re making a documentary about local food scenes.

Luckily the owner was there and he was cooking. I asked if I could interview him but he was a bit shy so he said you can just interview the waiters. So Adam did that and we got footage of that. Then I went into the kitchen with a slider and just shot whatever I could.

Did you run into any challenges or anything unexpected while you were filming? Yes actually, that was the first time I used a slider with a DSLR and I learned a lot in terms of how to set it up. And space was very limited in the kitchen so we had to deal with that.

 

Each term our documentary students are given a unique assignment: to create a 3 to 4 minute biographical film. As instructor Steve Rosenberg puts it, if they are to spend their lives pointing a camera at others, it is essential to understand what that feels like. We spoke with current student Amanda Lo about the process for her student film Not/Enough.

Where did the idea come from for your student film?

Amanda: Over the past year or so I’d been talking to friends of mine and just getting some inspiration from them in terms of being in different places in our lives….and how we can get really discouraged, and how in these times we can get caught up in these negative thoughts and words.

We’re the first people who hear the words coming out of our mouths when we talk. And that struck a chord with me. I’m telling myself these things and they’re becoming ingrained in me and I’ve got to start replacing what I’m saying about myself with something better so that I’m not carrying these things around. As I was writing everything for the bio, I remembered that and thought maybe I could do something around it for the bio.

Did you feel any hesitation in revealing your personal insecurities?

Amanda: Yeah definitely. In the beginning I was thinking that I just wanted to make something light, and maybe funny and entertaining. And then we were doing a couple of exercises and I realized that other people in the class were opening up and being vulnerable in front of the camera. And actually I think that’s what inspired me, or gave me the extra courage to make my bio about me, and be more open in it.

Also, I have a background in theatre. So when I realized that I couldn’t make this into a big production, I chose to do something simpler and more theatrical, but with a big impact.

I am obsessed with the eccentric director Ulrich Seidl. He is Austria’s equivalent to the blatantly creepy American filmmaker Todd Solondz. The Paradise Trilogy, a portrait of three women related by blood, is deliberately slow and includes ten-minute static scenes with mundane dialogue. But every moment feels honest, absorbing and occasionally funny. Paradise Hope, set in a militant Austrian diet camp is anything but hopeful, as a chubby adolescent girl falls for a middle aged doctor. Paradise Love features an overweight sexually ravenous Austrian cougar on vacation in Kenya. Paradise Faith, the most riveting of the three, tells the story of a dowdy middle-aged female evangelist who has romantic sexual feelings for Christ.

The exquisite cinematography is minimalist and the masterful art direction, especially in the diet camp, has a cold war East European sensibility. These critically acclaimed films are polarizing, as Seidl
is an acquired taste, so if you are expecting an uplifting experience, with a moralistic tale, look elsewhere. Seidl’s bleak and intimate portrait of three women is not searching for solutions to misplaced morals. However, it delivers unvarnished honesty and therein lies it’s beauty. 

The Paradise Trilogy is available on Netflix US.

201306_paradise3_love_object_590

still taken from Paradise: Love

There is a lot to consider when deciding to go to film school. Because it is a creative art, some may even argue that filmmaking can’t be taught in a classroom, and is better learned on your own. As an independent film school we’re all for indie productions and a DIY ethos. But, we also believe film school is the best way to sharpen your skills and produce portfolio quality work.

Why? First and foremost: creativity breeds creativity. We’re familiar with the lone mad genius trope. But the reality is, we can all benefit from receiving creative feedback – particularly when it comes from experienced industry professionals. Filmmaking is an ever­ evolving art, and the industry thrives on innovative and unique ideas. Working in a creative environment with practicing and emerging filmmakers is the best way to explore and push the boundaries of your filmmaking vision.

IMG_5433Which brings us to the next point. We know you’re passionate about filmmaking and determined to pursue your dream project. Yet setting aside time to do so can often be a challenge. Attending film school gives you an opportunity to explore your ideas, learn new techniques, and hone your craft.­Although it might seem counterintuitive, deadlines are useful because they increase productivity and time management. Instead of being relegated to the “when I have time,” pile attending film school allows you to focus on just one thing: your personal development as a filmmaker.

It also allows you to explore the different technical aspects of filmmaking. From pre­production through to post­production, there are countless processes involved in making a film. While many film industry professionals specialize in one area such as directing or cinematography, understanding the basic processes behind each facet is essential to your development as a filmmaker.

And of course, collaborating with fellow students on a variety of film projects gives you on set experience, and can lead to lasting creative partnerships.

Perhaps most importantly, attending film school gives you the opportunity to build a strong and diverse portfolio of work. Your show reel is your calling card – from entry­level positions to funding an independent project, it’s your key to the industry.

As user­friendly cameras, accessible editing software and online tutorials become increasingly popular, learning about filmmaking on your own is much easier than it used to be. And like any field, much of the learning process is trial and error. Delving into film school expedites the learning curve so that you can realize your potential, and your filmmaking vision, that much sooner.

Downtown Vancouver

You’ve probably heard Vancouver referred to as Hollywood North. In 2012 alone, the film industry contributed close to a billion dollars to the economy – with a good balance of international and domestic productions. Every year, hundreds of films, TV shows, and documentaries are shot here.

Today, the city is ranked as the third largest production center for film and TV in North America. So yes, Vancouver’s earned its reputation, but why exactly is the film scene so happening here?

Facilities

Vancouver is home to most of B.C.’s production and post-production activities, and has the capacity to support the biggest Hollywood movies in casting, set-building, location filming, and audio and special effects. It also has some of North America’s most expansive and sophisticated studio spaces and facilities, and numerous FX and sound stages.

Major studios include:

  • Lions Gate Studios
  • Vancouver Film Studios
  • The Bridge Studios

 Location, location, location!

A mere two hour flight from LA, both Vancouver and LA share a time zone eliminating issues like operating hours, accessibility, and travel time for actors and key crew. Vancouver’s mild climate allows for year round shooting. Consistent cloud cover naturally diffuses sunlight making it easier for technicians to add additional light. And of course, with so many productions shot here, there is a strong community of skilled crews, technicians and creative experts to draw on.

 Vancouverites Just Love Film

The film festival scene in Vancouver is alive with local and international fare. Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) is one of the largest film festivals in North America, with over 500 screenings held over a three week period.

It also features a forum with high profile speakers – 2013 featured Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, and Walter Murch, Oscar nominated master editor of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather.

Other major film festivals include:

  • DOXA – Documentary Film Festival
  • VLAFF – Vancouver Latin American Film Festival
  • VQFF – Vancouver Queer Film Festival
  • EUFF – European Union Film Festival

With a dynamic film scene, Hollywood and indie productions, and everything in between, Vancouver is a great place to be for emerging and professional filmmakers.

One of the most daunting aspects of indie filmmaking is casting. You might have a great script and crew – but your cast will make or break your film.

A casting director acts as a bridge between actor and director, and their expertise should not be underestimated. But you don’t have a budget for one. Now what?

Casting-Call-2-470x260 Before The Audition

Actors need to work with the character’s raw material. This can include the script sample (sides) that the actor performs during the audition, character bios, and story synopses if available. A well-prepared actor will absorb this information resulting in an informed and truthful performance.

Remember that when a director assumes the role of casting director, it’s important to create an environment where the actor can flourish. You are a facilitator and collaborator not a gatekeeper; enable their full potential rather than intimidate.

Choosing The Scene

Choosing an audition scene is a key decision. It should be a high stakes, dialogue driven, one-on-one interaction. Actors love tension because it gives them the best opportunity to showcase their abilities.

Dialogue is the easiest way to observe the choices the actor is making. Action-based scenes are harder to manage without a set and camera movement. One-on-one moments or monologues allow the character to be the point of focus.

The Setup

A simple setup is best – use a single camera on a tripod to capture the audition. Make sure the actor knows how the shot is framed so they can freely use movement without worrying about being out of frame.

If you already have an actor cast, use them as your reader. If not, the writer or producer will work. Just be sure the reader you do choose is sitting out of frame. It’s also important that your reader has an understanding of the script and context of the scene being read. The director should be solely focused on observing performances.

On audition day, your preparation will pay off. When the actor enters, introduce yourself and ask if they have any questions. Show them their mark, have them slate (say their name and role they’re reading for) into the camera and let the audition begin!

The Audition: Expect The Unexpected

This is where it starts to get interesting…

Why are they playing this character with a lisp?

This character would never be that harsh!

And really…do they need to be doing a headstand?

Directors often experience moments of terror when actors make unexpected choices. While it may look like the actor is just trying to stand out, any choices they make are ones they believe in.

Greet seemingly odd choices with an open mind. They give you the chance to gauge the actor’s range and ability to take direction. If a character is being played too harshly, see how they adjust to a request for a tender approach. Explain why the character would act in this way so the actor can rationalize the adjustment. Then run the scene again.

If you want to dig deeper with a promising actor or if you’re on the fence, a great exercise to try is interviewing or just chatting with the actor ‘in character’. Actors who have come prepared will relish the opportunity to explore their character. Improv exercises like this can be as valuable a tool as the scene being read.

We’ve only touched on a few aspects of casting. If you give actors the best opportunity to demonstrate their abilities and inform your vision for the film, you’ve made the most of the casting process.

Alfonso Cuarón won the BAFTA for best director for his latest work Gravity ­a proud achievement for any film director. In light of this event, we are taking look at the cinematic styles that closely defines his career and led up to this moment.

imgres-3Cuarón’s career started in Mexico City where he was a student of philosophy and filmmaking. There, he met his future collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki who’d become his most frequent collaborator. In fact, Lubezki was the cinematographer of all of Cuarón’s directorial works excluding only Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Cuarón’s works are quite varied in terms of subject. His first feature was a quirky, dark comedy about AIDS (Solo Con Tu Pareja). Since then, his films have given us a quixotic story of a young girl in boarding school, a Dickensian tale of love and jealousy, a coming­ of­ age road trip, the fantastical world of wizardry, a dystopian tale of humanity’s collapse, and a realistic space fantasy.

In all of these, Cuarón has proved himself to be a consummate storyteller whether it is his original story or adaptation of a well­-known piece of literature. His superb ability to define characters clearly, and create atmosphere and setting is greatly helped by his visual style.

Cuarón is quite well known for his love of long takes that cover multiple actions and often multiple locations. This technique was used quite extensively in Children of Men and Gravity. The use of long takes gives both films a sense of realism to a setting that lacks it a dystopian future and space fantasy.

Another one of Cuarón’s favourites is a handheld shot that obsessively follows the character and their gaze. This puts the audience in the position of the character or their companion and allows them to be more involved rather than remain an observer. Take for instance Theo walking through the ruins in Children of Men, or Luisa sensually dancing towards the camera as she holds its gaze, provocatively inviting the audience ­in, in Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Cuarón is also a big fan of symbolic close­ups and non­didactic montages. The airplane Finn plays with in Great Expectations, our casual gaze across his paintings on the dingy motel room wall, and Cacho carefully stepping on his row of paper cones in Solo Con Tu Pareja are some of examples.

The realism of long takes and handheld shots are often contrasted with dream­like lighting and soft focus as seen in the attic of Sara Crewe in the Little Princess, the pool scene in Y Tu Mama Tambien and the majority of Great Expectations.

Cuarón also loves to juxtapose wide, long shots with dangerously intimate close ups, further defining the character and their experiences in multiple perspectives.

Check out further examples of his work here:

Great Expectations

Y Tu Mama Tambien

Written by Freddie Kim

There is a dedicated team of on set film crew members behind every moment of movie magic. From lights, to sound, to art direction, each department is essential in its own way. But what role do production assistants and others in entry level film positions play?

They may not get the same accolades, but their dedication is no less admirable. Especially when it comes to some of the odd jobs they are asked to do on set.

83074344The Dog Whisperer

Heard from an on­ set sound professional with decades of experience in the industry. Even though he is now a well­ respected sound person and an instructor, he had a humble start just like everyone else. One of the first films sets he worked on as a sound PA had an on location shoot in a suburban, residential area. On this particular shoot the sound department faced an unusual challenge. The majority of households had large dogs in their yards that barked through the entire shooting process, rendering most of the location sound unusable. On the second day, the sound PA brought his bicycle on set. Armed with sausage links provided by the production department, he toured the neighbourhood throughout the shoot, hurling links at the barking dogs to keep them quiet – a solution to keep both the production and the dogs happy.

The Apple Stand

Unfortunately this is a fairly familiar tale for grips, especially in low budget productions. A nighttime scene was being shot during the day. The problem was the building had several big windows that had to be blacked out completely; no easy task with a limited amount of equipment. The grip department used everything they had and even had to throw on furniture pads and secure them with duct tape. After all that effort and time a sliver of an opening was still letting in daylight, and ruining the illusion of night. One grip armed himself with a flag and stepped on a stack of apple boxes, found the offending sliver and covered it with the flag. However, before he could call over another grip to help secure the flag in place the production, which by then was already anxious about time, started rolling the camera. The grip had no choice but to hold the flag over his head on his tippy toes on top of the wobbly apple boxes until the scene was completed.

The Spit Catcher

Vancouver is a beautiful city and we often see TV shows shot on the streets of Gastown. This episode included a shot of a character spitting gum on the ground as she was talking. The shot, of course, required multiple angles and takes. The production couldn’t let the actress spit the gum out on to the actual street – out of respect for the city as well as for continuity. So a PA had to kneel in front of the actress, just out of frame, holding a brown paper bag for her to spit the gum in. If that wasn’t quite bad enough, the actress’s aim wasn’t exactly perfect either. The PA actually had to pick a piece of chewed gum off the ground and put it in the bag multiple times, all while being showered with saliva.

The Wardrobe Malfunction Attendant

Some odd jobs on set may not seem so bad. Occasionally, movies are required to target certain rating by the executives. This particular one was to be rated PG­13, which meant a woman’s breasts couldn’t be fully featured on screen. The hard part was it had several sex scenes, which required the actors to be topless. In order to make sure the actress’s breasts were never exposed on screen, the 1st AD had to sit right next to the actress, barely out of frame, and stare at her breasts the whole time. His job that day was to yell cut every time he saw her nipples.

Written by Freddie Kim

Director Alexander Payne squeezes humour like a pimple in his bleakest comedy to date. “Nebraska” reveals embarrassing family truths that are hard to ignore. Shot in black and white, stark desolate farms populate the Midwest plains and Interstates forming the backdrop of this unlikely tale. The quiet, persistent landscape is home to small town folk who yearn for enchanting gossip to spark excitement and jealousy. The film’s bleak and uplifting moments are reminiscent of “About Schmidt”, another Payne road­trip saga.

11176448_oriWoody (Bruce Dern) is a luckless alcoholic riddled with vacant spells which indicate early stages of dementia. His marriage to an ego­killing bully wife (June Squibb) shows us why Woody finds a good friend in alcohol. When Woody receives a bogus sweepstakes winner letter, he sets off on a journey to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim his million­dollar prize.

Woody cannot be persuaded by his soul­searching son (Will Forte) to abandon his road trip to Lincoln. The sweepstakes winning ticket is an obvious marketing fraud ­- obvious to everyone except perhaps, a senior with a failing mind.

Father and son eventually hit the road and the journey turns into a family road trip that stops in Woody’s old hometown, Hawthorne. Woody’s spirited determination is laudable; all he wants from his winnings is to buy a compressor and four­wheel truck for his kids. These are modest aspirations for a man who was often written off as a financially unstable alcoholic who scrambled to repay debts by fixing automobiles. Dern inhabits such a complex role with an uncluttered and gentle performance, and deservedly earned the award for best actor at Cannes.

Despite the critical praise, this subtle film will not be universally praised. The laughs are low­key, the pacing deliberately slow but the characters, particularly Woody and his wife are indelible. Director Alexander Payne was once described as the compassionate thinking face of American humour. Unremarkable heroes beating the odds has never felt so real.

Every great film begins with an idea – but the work really begins when you start turning that idea into a film, as Documentary Diploma alumni Javier Ojer discovered. A collaborative project between Javier, classmate Mik Turje, and the Pull Focus mentorship team, “Hands in the Dirt” explores issues around urban farming and agriculture.

“In the beginning there were a lot of points that Mik and I wanted to look at in relation to urban farming, like gentrification and colonialism. So we had to narrow it down. We began by writing down all our ideas, and then tried to figure out what the main issues were. What stood out is the disconnect between this image of urban farming and VertiCrops as solutions for food security, and what was actually happening to agricultural farmland in Richmond,” said Javier.

Mik’s ties to the farming community in Richmond allowed the team a firsthand look at the obstacles that farmers in the area face, including illegal dumping on Agricultural Land Reserves and sky­high land prices. A mere 20­minute drive from Vancouver, which proudly touts itself as a green city and actively encourages urban farming, the reality faced by local farmers in the Lower Mainland provided a stark contrast. Conveying all the issues involved on film however, turned out to be learning process.

“Mik and I both come from an academic background, so the initial cut was 35 or 40 minutes because we felt like wanted to explain everything. After getting a lot of feedback from our instructors, we managed to edit it down to ten minutes or so, while still keeping the relevant content intact.”

It was during the editing process that Javier realized the inherent responsibility of making a documentary film. “It’s very important to honestly represent the issues involved; as a filmmaker you have this power to show stories from a certain bias – it’s almost scary when you realize that this is possible. As a filmmaker you have a responsibility to tell a story as truthfully as you can.”

And after countless hours of filming and editing, Javier and Mik have managed to do just that – tell an untold story about urban farming that honestly represents the issues involved.