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Tips, tricks and advice from the artistic battlefield. Hopefully what I know will make your road a lot smoother.

Make Your Own Storm

As you can tell from this week’s video, I’m looking a little worse for wear. Notice the bags under my eyes. I actually have a double bag under my left eye, which is a new look for me. I look this way because I spent three days in McCormick Park in St. Helens, Ore.,  filming storm FX. It was big, it was tough, and it was exhausting. Now a new phrase has been coined from my appearance: It was two bags deep.

Creating a windy rainstorm is difficult to do, especially on a budget. The big movies use jet engines and other nifty tools to create a massive hurricane effect, but in our case we didn’t have any of that. We were, however, able to make something very effective. This is how we broke it down.

First, there’s the rain. If you are creating your own storm, you might hope that you could use a little garden hose. That’s just not going to cut the mustard. Actual rain probably won’t do it either, so coordinating your shoot with the weather report isn’t the way to go. As you’ll see in the video Making A Storm: Part 1, rain provided by Mother Nature is sometimes thin and wispy. You need big, fat movie rain.

To make our storm, we hooked up to a fire hydrant. We ran a fire hose to a couple of rain towers, and we made rain! Thick, wet, sloppy rain. It shows up great on camera. Keep in mind that if you do this, you need the right tools for the job. There are special fittings that attach to fire hydrants. I would highly suggest getting someone who is experienced at doing this. Working with fire hose can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. When that water flies through that hose, it could jerk about and snap a leg in a heartbeat, so BE CAREFUL.

Also, if you go this route, you can’t just hook up to any hydrant you want. You need to get permission from the city. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds. They’ll issue you a permit and will track how much water you are using. All said and done, we were charged less than $100.

Another tip for filming rain is to remember your lighting. One of the best ways to get your rain to POP is to back light it with an HMI. Even if you are outside, try to position a light so it rims the drops. You’ll have sexy Ryan Gosling moments in no time.

We did something else for our storm that really helped sell the effect. We added wind. Wind is an interesting animal. If you just pelt someone in the face with a leaf blower, you’d think it would really read on camera, but it won’t unless the subject has something that flutters in the breeze. Trust me, if your subject is just a guy with a crew cut and a skin tight shirt, all you’ll see is some guy squinting.

Give this a whirl. Try putting some sort of debris in the air. We used all kinds of bits, particles, and dust and you can really see what the wind is doing.

Fuller’s earth looks great on film, but it sucks to work with. It’s the consistency of hot chocolate powder. Have you ever put a spoonful of that stuff in your mouth and inhaled? That’s what it’s like working with Fuller’s earth. If you decide to use it, think ahead about how to minimize the discomfort to your actors or damage to gear. (That crap LOVES to wedge into places like focus rings and battery slots.)

Before you start hurling sawdust in front of jet engines and demanding your actors look into the wind, think about their safety for a minute. You don’t want debris that will cause injury. Some of the things we were able to safely blow at the actors were big leaves, oatmeal, dry cereal, and cedar pet bedding. At first, I didn’t believe that the oatmeal and cereal would work, but by golly it looks amazing. (Your crew can eat it during lunch break AND it’s part of this nutritious breakfast.)

Here is a tip you can use to really enhance your storm.

To communicate the power something, instead of trying to show massive winds, reveal the effect those winds have on something else. On this shoot, we took a windmill and used it to demonstrate the power of the storm by how fast the windmill was spinning, and we made it seem as if the windmill spins so hard that it blows apart and almost hits an actor (no actors were harmed in the making of this film). Showing the effect of something is a great way to tell your story if you don’t have a lot of resources to create on a grand scale.

It’s also helpful to stay in tight on your actors. If you’re up close, you don’t have to do your FX or set dress for as big of an area, and you can imply bigger effects through the emotions on the faces of the actors; reaction shots of your actors will help sell how powerful the situation is. I know it’s really sexy to show a wide shot of a tornado blowing past, but if you don’t have the budget for several big fans, staying up close will save you a world problems.

To see the finished product, here it is below.

Those are a few ways I’ve found effective for making a project look big on a small budget. If you decide to go out and shoot your own storm, I would love to see it! Please send me your links and let’s see who can out do Jan de Bont.

I would also love to hear your thoughts about other things that would be helpful to build a storm. I didn’t even touch on visual effects such as the ones Video Copilot recommends.http://www.videocopilot.net/tutorials/lightning_strike/

Please share your thoughts and info below!

Making a Fight Scene in 5 Easy Bullet Points

Shooting fight scenes is one of the things that most film makers dream about. Unfortunately, they are rarely given the opportunity to try it out. If this is something you want to try, make sure you practice a few times before you do it on a real set with real actors. If you want to watch this blog, click on the video below. Otherwise, you can read all about it in this post.

When you’re shooting fight scenes for films, you will encounter one of two things. You’ll either shoot with actors who’ve never fought before (except for a couple moves they rehearsed before you started shooting), or you’ll work with true martial artists.

A popular method on lower budget films is to throw an actual martial artist into the mix. This can work quite well, but you have to be careful that your jujitsu king doesn't outshine your star (unless that's your intent.) Or, that Mr. Blackbelt understands how to throw a realistic looking punch on film.

As a general rule, there are two approaches to shooting fight scenes. The first is you are filming expert fighters. If that is the case you’ll want to showcase their skills. The way to do that is keep the camera back so you can really see what they are doing. Many Asian martial arts films are like this. Admit it, it's pretty cool to see what those guys can do. 

This approach is more of a cinematic exercise than anything else. You'll probably spend more time trying to design something cool for them to fight in front of. You know, something original like a burning building... at night... in the rain.

The rest of you will be working with actors who couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper sack. (Unless that paper sack is wet because they are fighting in front of a burning building... at night... in the rain.) 

So, your job, should you choose to accept it is to make them look awesome. How do you do this, you ask? Here is the number 1 and most important step:

1) Assess the actors’ physical abilities.

Don’t start designing a scene before you’ve had a chance to meet with your actor, and assess his or her skills. It will be a colossal waste of time because you don’t know what they can do.

And don't make the mistake that many directors make, by assuming that if the actor is in shape, he or she will be good at throwing or faking a punch. DO NOT MAKE THIS MISTAKE. In my experience, some of the worst actors for fight scenes have been the ones who look the most cut. 

Even if they are in Olympic shape, check with them to make sure they don't have any physical issues. You don't want to choreograph a fight, and then find that the actor can’t do it because of shoulder issues, a bad back, or a hernia. You also need to check them out to see if they have any control over their own body.

What I mean is you need to find out if an actor can throw a punch consistently in the same place. You don’t want him clobbering anyone, and if he is all over the place DON’T GIVE HIM A WEAPON TO SWING AROUND. If the guy can’t even control his fists, he’ll never be able to control something attached to the end of his arm.

The best way to figure things out is to have a stunt coordinator work out these kinks. An experienced coordinator will recognize an actor’s strengths and weaknesses, and help the actor correct any issues. He will design moves that work naturally for them. If he learns of a previous hernia injury for example, he'll make sure to build things that don't involve a lot of gut punches or wrenching jujitsu moves. He will build the scene with them and rehearse until it’s ready.

(For more on these techniques, check out the stunt tutorials at the end of this post.)

Now, I know what you are thinking. “But Jason, I don’t even have time to rehearse the dialogue! How can I find time/money to have them rehearse the fight!?'”

2) Choreograph the fight scene at the beginning, shoot it at the end.

I cannot tell you how useful this has been to me. Get together for an afternoon before filming to work out what the fight will be. As you move through the shoot, the actors can run through the punches during breaks, lunches, whenever. Near the end of the shoot, film the fight.

Actors have a lot of down time on set, so they’ll be able to get in lots of practice. Actors want to look like Chuck Norris on screen, so they will dedicate a lot of their free time to getting the moves down.

3) Shoot the fight scene like a conversation.

Think about the way you shoot a typical conversation between two people. How will you do it? Are you going to just keep it on an extremely wide shot the entire time? If you do, It will look like the 1960's Batman show below.

Most conversations use the traditional wide shot, OTS, OTS. Do the exact same thing with a fight. Start wide, and work your way in. And if your actors aren’t great fighters, avoid wide shots. Shoot the scene in close ups, because it gives you lots of opportunities to cut around mistakes and the dreaded AIR GAP in swung punches.

This will also help you when it comes to cutting up the action to make the punches seem more visceral. You can cut out a frame or two to get a great head snap or make the punch look quicker.

You can also take the opportunity here to think up awesome angles to film from.

 

4) Build your fight with beats and pauses – just like a conversation.

If you got into a real fight, you wouldn’t just be swinging punches all the time. That’s a big mistake a lot of first time filmmakers make. They load the fight up with punch after punch after punch, and it’s just annoying.

Just like with conversations, build in moments of struggle and breath. These moments can actually up the tension as the characters are grasping for a knife or trying to choke each other out.

This will also help draw your fight out if you want to get a lot of screen time out of it. And the best part? It’s super easy for the actor to do, and even easier to film.

Don't misunderstand me on this point. I don't mean to have the actors stand up, brush off, and then square off like they are in a boxing ring. I have tried this in the past and it always comes off a little cheesy. I know you could probably find a scene that will prove me wrong, but as a general rule, people don't just stand around and look at each other in a serious fight. I think one of the best examples of what I am talking about is the fight scene in Safe House. It is super intense and has some great moments of pauses during a struggle.

What's great about this scene is how the scene doesn't look clean. It feels very realistic, even in the pauses. Also notice how they stretch it out a little bit by focusing on Denzel Washington's face. This is another great thing to remember while filming. Get some reaction shots of the other people in the room.

5) Break up your fights into locations – just like a conversation.

This clip from Safe House also uses this technique. Some of my favorite fights are ones that travel, and the same is true with conversations. If you are shooting a scene with two actors, especially if they aren’t that strong, you can make things more interesting by spreading the conversation over several locations.

Start with a few lines in the kitchen, and then cut to them walking down the street. You see it all the time. It’s very effective.

The same is true with fight scenes. Have the guys duking it out in the kitchen, and then crash through into the garage, struggle for the knife, and then BAM out onto the porch.

There are tons of benefits to this. If your actors are rusty with their choreography, it will make it easier to tackle. They don’t have to remember it all at once (just like a conversation). It will also give you more time to film, and it will give your actors a break. Trust me, fighting on camera is hard, even if you’re in shape. If you change up the room, they can take a breath and work out the next few punches while the DP lights the scene.

Another big benefit is your makeup artist can duck in and update the bruises on the face. If your characters crashed through a shelf and into the living room, you can add a cut on the forehead or whatever.

In the end, your scene will flow right along just like the best told stories.

One final tip: This is something I have run into that has made things a little easier for me in the edit suite. When the actors are punching and kicking and choking each other, try to monitor how often they yell and "Ugh" and "Oof!" It really gets annoying if every punch someone is yelling or whatever. I have had to do some very tricky audio edits to fix this when it happens. 

If these techniques were helpful to you, and you use them, please send me your work! I would love to see the amazing fights you come up with!

Please watch the following tutorials for more insights into shooting stunts.

How to keep Actors from Acting

In the previous post, I mentioned some things to try when working with actors. This time, I want to take a look at a different side to it all. There are some things you should be watching for while they are performing.

Actors are funny creatures. Most actors spend their lifetimes watching themselves to learn little tricks that look great on camera or stage. Many times these are gimmicky gestures that have worked as substitutions for real emotions. An untrained eye may not spot that the actor is doing the worst thing an actor can do:  “Acting.”

Trust me, acting is not what you want. You want them living in the moment of the scene. Just the word “acting” suggests something that isn’t real. If you know anything about the craft, you’ll discover that acting is all about truth. (One of these days I’ll invent a new term for this craft. If any of you have ideas, I would love to hear them.)

In the spirit of this truthfulness, here are some signs to watch for that may tell you when an actor is “Acting.”

1) The Breath Hold 

In the last post I talked a bit about this. This is so important to watch for. Acting is a lot like running a sprint. All the racers are on the starting blocks, the lights are set, the camera rolls, and the actors are waiting for the proverbial starter pistol. This is prime territory for breath holding.

Oftentimes I’ll let the camera and sound roll for several moments before I say “action,” and I’ll have the actors breathe. It gives them a chance to settle in to the moment before the race begins. Other times, I will get everything rolling and then calmly talk the actor into their space. Remind them of what their character has just gone through. Then, instead of saying "action," I'll just let them go when they are ready. One of the most powerful tools an actor can have is when the director gives them the choice of when they want to start the scene. 

2) The Dramatic Pause

You can spot this one pretty easily because the actor usually won’t just say their lines after the other actor stops talking. They’ll give a clever little pause before gifting the world with their speech.

Two things are happening here. First, they aren’t listening to the other actor, they are just waiting for their turn to talk. Second, they are controlling the moment. They give you that little pause because in their minds it looks like Oscar winning drama. It almost looks like they are thinking. Don’t be fooled. This is control. In real life everyone talks over the top of everyone.

Actually, the only person who patiently waits for you to finish speaking before replying is my wife. She is the most polite person on the planet. So, unless your actor is in a scene with my wife, they are trying to control the moment.

Here’s a tip: Have them start interrupting each other. Yeah, your sound guy and editor will hate you, but the acting will be real. Your scene will suddenly become alive.

3) The Blowhard

This one is very much like the dramatic pause, but usually it comes out in some sort of audible expression. The most common is a big exhale or chuckle. A lot of actors love this one. The “heh” and then the line. Sometimes this comes out in the worst of all forms: the stutter. 

And man do I hate the stutter.

Once again the actor is attempting to control the moment. They do this because stuttering, stammering and exhales look a lot like real life. It’s all a big show. It might slip past most audiences as authentic, but it isn’t. The main direction point here is to just get them to say the line. That’s it! Just say the line.

Doing more than “just saying a line” is a strong temptation when you’re performing. As an actor, you feel like just saying the line in your present space isn’t enough. You aren’t doing anything. (So you think.) In order for it to feel like you’re doing something you will add anything. The direction is to back the actor off. Tell them they don’t need to add anything on top of who they are. Who they are in their own skin is enough. 

4) The Smokescreen

All of you know this actor. This actor is usually considered bold and daring by most. They are the ones who love to just scream and yell and get all blubbery. They tend to gravitate towards material where they lose it and throw some sort of temper tantrum.

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At first blush, you might think that this is what you want in an actor. It’s true, when it works it is so awesome. However, some actors are so comfortable with the tantrum that they can actually do it and not feel a thing. Many times they’ll just throw this action out there when they feel stuck. The reality is that it is a big circus show. Some emotion is behind it all, but not the deep emotion that you want.

The raw beating heart that you are looking for is hidden behind a smokescreen. Believe it or not, many times what you must do here is have them stop moving. Even when you want them to explode, many times locking them down will really produce something phenomenal. The key to this, and to all actors, is to watch their eyes. You’ll see it when they are plumbing the depths.

Another thing to try with an actor like this is to give them the chance to explode. Sometimes I’ll let them scream their guts out before the cameras roll. I’ll let them just get all raw and messy, and then once the cameras start, just have them bottle it all up. It’s like squeezing Niagara Falls into a garden hose. The emotion has no choice but to spill out through their eyes. Prepare to be riveted.

5) The Thespian

I don’t think this one requires any explanation. This is the stage actor who carries his “staginess” into the world of film. Unfortunately, the few actors who commit this sin give the rest of the theater actors a bad rap. Most, if not all, of the actors I have worked with have spent considerable time on stage. Many of the actors you love in film learned what they know on stage. Kenneth BranaghJudi DenchEmma ThompsonBenedict Cumberbatch, and David Tennant are just a few who jump to mind. But not everyone easily makes the transition from stage to screen.

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The Thespian does two things. First they use the “you have to be big on stage in order to be seen” technique as a crutch. Second, they hide behind a big shield. They have spent so much of their life in front of audiences, exaggerating emotions, that they have built an iron barrier around their hearts three feet thick. Working with these actors can be tough because they just aren’t used to being seen close up. They think that what they are doing looks good because years of live audiences have told them so.

The only way to get through this is to aggressively dismantle that shield. You have to call BS when you see it. A word of caution here, I don’t mean humiliate the actor. Never, never, never do that.  This direction has to be approached with love. Talk to them from the place that you want them to be great. You want to see that inner beauty. You want to see that fragile human heart.

Usually what I have to do is tone them down. Sometimes I’ll just have them speak softly without moving. What will happen here is they will feel very uncomfortable. The key word in that last sentence is “feel.” You’ll see the shift in their eyes. Start with that feeling and let them blossom.

It is worth mentioning that I completely understand that stage acting requires bigness. Actors are performing for the last row of the audience, and in order to do that you have to exaggerate. However, I would argue that that doesn’t mean that the actor shouldn’t connect to their partner and feel. Big doesn’t mean empty, it just means big.

Acting 301

Directing Aris Juson and Emma Pelett on the set of Splinter Cell Extraction

Directing Aris Juson and Emma Pelett on the set of Splinter Cell Extraction

One question I am often asked is how do I work with actors. It is interesting to me that of all the complicated things you must learn to master film directing, working with actors seems to be the biggest mystery.

It makes sense when you think about it. Actors are the great irony of film.

They are generally the only ones recognized when the film is complete, and they are involved the least. Film projects can motor on for months or even years before all of the script writing and financing is together. Pre-production starts and the mountain of planning begins, and eventually someone is cast… usually a week or two before the start of production.

If you are lucky, you’ll get a rehearsal, but often you’ll get a few conversations and maybe a read-through before the day of the shoot. They get to show up after everyone one else, and leave before anyone else. (Unless extensive makeup is required.)

Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now

Then, once they are on set a brand new dialogue happens. Up to this point, all of the conversations are logistical. Where is the location? What camera are we shooting on? Where will the crew park? What’s the lighting package? What are we having for lunch?

Once the actor shows up, the dialogue switches from technical to emotional. It is a completely different vocabulary and it requires the director to jam the gear shifter from 5th to “R.” (Assuming “R” means Race.) You not only have to get the actor to a vulnerable place, you have to be vulnerable with them. It can be a scary place if you are not used to it.

Good actors are raw, and all their senses are on fire. They are trained to let their beating hearts be exposed, and looking into their eyes can be just like looking into the sun. And the more open they are, the better it looks on camera.

It is no surprise that most directors are terrified of this. (Whether they admit it or not.) This is why they often hide in video village, safe from danger. They look at the actor like another piece of equipment, and often fumble around looking for what button to push to make the actor feel. It is an arms-length, mechanical response to a machine you don’t understand.

It reminds me of the first few times I had to hold an infant. It was this wiggly little thing, all soft and blubbery, looking at me as if I had some answers. I didn’t speak blubber, so it started crying. I gingerly held it out in front of me and tried to mimic what I had seen good dads do – starting with not referring to it as “It.”

If you identify with this when it comes to actors, I have written out a few tips to getting into the same space as actors and getting the performances you need.

Be warned: It might not be easy.

Paul Thomas Anderson directing Daniel Day Lewis on There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson directing Daniel Day Lewis on There Will Be Blood

1) Create a safe space.
If you really want your actor to drop their guard and open up, you have to let them know it is safe to do so. But just telling them it is a safe place is not enough. I find it is best to station myself as close to them as possible. (Sometimes I am bumping into the AC.) Get eye level and lower your voice. Speak calmly and smoothly and before you tell them it is safe with your voice, tell them with your eyes. 

2) Breathe.
You will not believe the power that the breath holds. So many actors, and people in general, walk around either breathing shallow or holding their breath.

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I have seen actors shudder as they flood their body with air. You can watch the emotion ripple through them. It is important to have them breathe in through their nose and out through the mouth. Make sure they loosen the jaw to let the air flow. This can take some coaxing because a lot of actors get so locked up that they don’t realize they are clenching their jaw. The actor’s tool is their body, and the breath can give them access to it.


 3) Don’t deny anything.
As the actor is breathing, the tendency may be to think calming thoughts. This can be helpful, but what you really want is for them to breathe in the feeling. If they are nervous, have them breathe that nervousness in. If they are angry, sad, frustrated, or whatever, have them take it all in. Especially if they are feeling all this because of what day they might’ve had. Have them bring it all into their body, and pour it out into the work. You’ll be stunned by what you see.

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4) Pull, don’t push.
The actor is not another piece of equipment that you are using to light the scene. They are a living entity. The worst thing to do is to try and push them around until you get the result you want. Pull them into the emotion. I do this by putting myself into that place ahead of them. If I need them to be joyful, I will flood my system with that joy and invite them to it. If I need them to be broken, I will break with them. I’ll let the tears flow and walk them towards me.
This doesn’t mean that I am always talking slowly and calmly. Sometimes I have to yell. If I want anger, I’ll show them that anger. But not at them, with them.

5) The actor is a mirror of the director.
When I learned this, it changed my entire approach to directing. If you see an actor who is having a hard time connecting to their scene partner, then take a minute and see if you are connecting to the actor. If you’re not, then you must. If they are holding their breath, maybe you are holding your breath. If they are controlling all the moments, maybe you are controlling all the moments. It may seem counter-intuitive to stop controlling the moment if you are the director, but you need to let the story tell itself.
Breathe deep and let it go. Be what you want to see, and then bring it to your actor. If you do, you’ll experience one of the greatest joys a director can experience on set.

Surprise.