Saturday, February 24, 2007

Two things aspiring filmmakers can do to hone up on their skills

I casually follow the entertainment industry, trying to find out how people can eek out a living in an industry that is grossly unprofitable. (Seriously, both George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola have started side businesses to support their film production companies. And if these guys can't make money by only making films, there is no way some visionary with two camcorders and a microphone can lead the good life.)

And if you follow the industry news, you find very quickly that the day-to-day bread-and-butter work is commercial or industrial work. There is very little room for creativity or experimentation. If a filmmaker wants to branch out and do something experiemental or non-mainstream, they have to either do it on their own dime or find someone who will pay for something eye-catching and memorable.

Hence, the music video. I've really become obsessed with some music videos over the years for their no-holds-barred approach to filmmaking. Even if I don't like the song all that much, I can watch the music video repeatedly.

Like this one:

Because of their disposability, the filmmakers can get downright abstract and experimental with the process. Sometimes when I see music videos, I ask myself, "How in the world was this pitched to the financiers?"

Can you imagine a meeting where a filmmaker goes, "Yeah. When I hear your song, I see a single, slow-motion shot of a running man burning," and the music company goes, "Sure, here is $50,000 - make it alive for us!"

Improbable, but, still somehow we wind up with one of my favorite videos:

And there are even stranger ones out there. Can you imagine how this film was pitched?

So that is what I recommend people do to hone their filmmaking skills - make music videos. Because the field is so wide open, and because there are not any real set standards as to what constitutes a "good" one vs. a "bad" one, you can't really go wrong.

If you don't want to do something experimental and strange, you can always draw from the rich visual language of the Hollywood musical. Despite everyone saying the musical genre is dead and gone, I find it turning up in music videos all the time. Like in this one where we get to see one singer play three different vocalists - you can tell them apart because they have different hair color.

And if sensory overload and editing that causes autism in children, epileptic siezures in the sensitive, and ADD in the rest of us, there is always the musical narrative music video. Like this one:

Once again we have a single singer as three different characters - a blonde, a brunette, and a red head. Unlike the previous one, all three apparently fight over some blandly attractive lunkhead. Does anyone else get confused at the bait-and-switch at the end of the video where the brunette is clearly the one who wins the guy, but somehow he winds up with the blonde in a bathroom stall? And who associates romantic conquest with bathrooms these days? As with the rich musical tradition, a willful suspension of disbelief is necessary for enjoyment to begin.

The most fun I've been seeing with music videos recently have been the strange little assemblages of film that people cobble together in their homes. Like this one:

This not only shows the power of good editing, it also offers an insightful commentary on the way media affects people in front of the camera. Frankly, I forgot that Ms. Spears was ever a child star until I saw this footage. Seeing a little girl spout lyrics like this simply reinforce the dangers of exposing children to pop culture.

At this point, I should probably wring my hands and wonder what our culture has come to, with popular pop songs directed towards young teenage girls bastardize a 1940s swing style to include lyrics like "He makes my panties drop," and "He makes my cherry pop." (Of all the ladies I have met who were alive in the 40s, none of them struck me as someone who would talk like this.) Or I should wonder about the affect of videos that show that the best way to have a healthy, caring relationship with a boy is to push his current girlfriend into a Port-a-potty.

Instead, I will offer up the other short film genre that fascinates me: the documentary.

In the couple of documentaries I have attempted to film, the main problem I have found is that no one likes to be on camera. Whip out a camera, and people run away from it.

But if you can establish a good rapport and an air of trust, some great things can happen. Recently, a local paper featured a vintage 70s documentary on Dallas-area carhops. In some ways, it is just as fun and abstract as the music videos. It has intriguing visuals and an interesting narrative.

Here's Part 1:

What I really like about this is how the subjects are so open and honest... and how strange and fun that time was - when people dressed up as marching band members serving people in cars. I'm not really nostalgic for that time and fashion as much as I am notalgic about how comfortable and unguarded about how people are in their thoughts. Like in Part 2, where the one fella talked about a place that specialized in having "fat girls, 10 or 12 of the heaviest girls they could find" carhops - and then they showed it. There was a lot of implicit trust and honesty going on in that film. I don't see that happening very much nowadays.

So there you go. Music videos and documentaries are the key to making yourself a better filmmaker. Go forth and do some strangeness.

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