The Trap of Easy Answers — for Filmmakers and Anyone Else

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Of all human activities, ‘rocket science’ surely takes the biscuit for the most casually and regularly dismissed endeavor. There you are, faced with some new activity, challenge, skill to be gleaned, task to be performed, perhaps knitting your brow at the daunting prospect, or you’re involved in a discussion about some issue you reflect might prove complex, nuanced, deserving of painstaking research and analysis, and what do you hear from your interlocutor…?

That fateful mantra, ‘It’s not rocket science’, as common in everyday speech as SUVs on the 405…

What’s Right for You?

From a storyboard by the eleven year-old Martin Scorsese.

You don’t want to go to film school? You can breathe a sigh of relief. You’ve saved yourself as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars. But how do you go about learning your craft?

You have many ways — more than ever before…

1. Just make movies. Find your story. Write a scene, storyboard it — if you can draw — or at least have a strong sense of what shots you need, convince friends to act and crew, pick up your smartphone, go out, shoot, cut on a laptop. Don’t expect a masterpiece. See…

Which is Right for You?

From The Ronin Student (Director Angela Chen, Cinematographer Andy Hoffman).

“It’s not wha’ yer know, it’s ‘oo yer know!” my mother told me, when, as a callow youth, I yearned to get into the world of film and TV in my native England. To an extent, given the English class system at the time and our place in it, she was right. Even so, by whatever means you find to progress, knowing someone or simply being around someone at the right time, don’t you have to know, at some point something? If you can’t write, simply acquainting yourself with a screenwriter isn’t going to teach…

The Inspiration–Perspiration Spectrum

Concept and Experiment in the Creative Process

(Citizen Kane, Director: Orson Welles, Screenplay: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Welles, Cinematography: Gregg Toland / Vertigo, Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Screenplay Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor, Cinematography Robert Burks.)

A friend recently introduced me to a book that claims profound insights into how artists set about their work. Old Masters and Young Geniuses by David W. Galenson posits the notion that there are polarities of creative process, the conceptual and the experimental.

The conceptual approach, Galenson writes, is the M.O. of the artist, writer, director who first gets an idea, plans their work meticulously, then once ready, paints, writes, or shoots and cuts it to its pre-planned perfection. No hesitation, no stumbling, little sweat — 100 per cent…

The Chemistry in the Contradiction.

From Bringing Up Baby, 1938. Dir. Howard Hawkes. Cinematography Russell Metty

How do we think of function in the context of a story? As it pertains to a scene, a shot, a beat? What purpose they serve perhaps. How they work. The result they lead to. How they relate to something else. Their part in the connective tissue of the story. Maybe their place in the structure. Some point of no return. The end of an act or movement. The start of another. What they set up, pay off, invite, answer, challenge. How they move the story on. How — if they don’t — they merit…

How You Show What You Show

From The Man with the Movie Camera: Director Dziga Vertov, Cinematography Mikhail Kaufman.

Most social media posts, when discussing camera, refer to the physical entity, a device for capturing an image. Such posts are usually concerned with models of camera. Alexas, Reds — what have you. Filmmakers like to post pictures of themselves alongside a camera — una macchina fotografica, as an Italian would say, a machine, an object, a thing. Just as a guitarist might be pictured with their Fender Strat, a violinist with their precious Stradivarius, so cinematographers like to be seen with the tool of their trade. And why not? …

What Matters, and What Doesn’t

With New Filmmakers (Photo: Meiyi Art Education)

Why do so few posts in social media filmmaking groups ask questions about story, about world, about character, about their representation on the screen, the forms this can take and the ways in which these can work? About the emotions a movie conveys, the thoughts, fears, wants, questions, suspense, conflict, joy and pain? Why should there be a preponderance of inquiries about this model of camera or that, this microphone or that? Why only the most naïve assumptions about ideas and story development? (I have an idea. Hey! Where can I find a proper writer…

Sometimes I wish it would stay. Sometimes I wish it would go away. (Paul McCartney: McCartney III)

Sakuro Ando as Nobuyo Shibata in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters. (Cinematography by Kondo Ryuto.)

On the screen, in the hearts of the audience, in the course of a story, at its denouement, emotion is Cinema’s most precious gift. In tandem with existential vision (Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland), orchestrated by trenchant intellect (Michael Haneke’s Amour), unleashed through the stealth of patient narrative (Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire), conveyed achingly in each and every frame (Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu), emotion is both the punishment and the reward we take from the films that count.

Why do I say…

Filmmakers and the Psyche of the Moment

From Ammonite, Cinematography Stéphane Fontaine

How aware is the filmmaker of the messages their film might be communicating? Not the intentional but the unintentional ones. How aware should they be? How aware can they be? And how much is an audience conscious of the messages they receive? Do the unintentional missives of the filmmaker follow pathways into the unsuspecting minds of their audiences more insidioius than any intentional messaging? Certainly, a director like Hitchcock could intentionally sway an audience one way or another by a simple sound in the background barely noticeable but subliminally efficient in evoking, say…

My experience as a teacher in graduate film school.

Sadie Palmer. Photo by Nick Palmer

My grandfather used to advise, gruff and guttural in his Paddington patois, “Yer go’’uh ge’ uhn edificayeeshun!” How though (always assuming Grandad had a point), does the aspiring filmmaker get their “edificayeeshun” — sorry…education. From teachers? What kind of teachers? From classes? What kind of classes? Do they consult filmmaking friends? Head for social media? Books? “Masterclasses?” Workshops? Do they learn by watching — movie upon movie? Do they watch and simply allow the chops of the filmmakers to seep lazily in or do they attempt to put themselves in their…

Peter Markham

Consultant, educator, author, former AFI Conservatory directing head, I discuss filmmaking, visual storytelling, cinema.

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