Archive for December, 2011

In Chapter 3 of Moving Images, sound is the primary topic of the unit, and the concluding sections deal with the introduction of advertising and a promotional project for students.   For the interview at the end of this chapter, I contacted a former student of mine who has gone on to a highly successful career in advertising.  Besides being an extremely talented advertising copywriter  and associate creative director at DBB in Chicago,* Kevin Goff provides another inspiring example: a very nice guy who makes it big.  Moreover, there are a couple of classroom moments from when he was in high school that I will never forget.  First, when we were doing an initial brief in-class project that is designed so that students can get their hands on the cameras and start getting used to filming, Kevin was in a group working at the back corner of the room, essentially a little closet that was about three feet wide.  In this cluttered, tiny spot, Kevin — who hadn’t really done much in video until then — directed this amazing little piece (and he was behind the camera) that immediately grabbed the viewer’s attention because he had a jaw-dropping sense of where to place and how to move the camera.  Later, his final project for this introductory course was exceptional: he created a take-off from the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider video game that was dynamic, funny, strikingly shot, and clearly the work of a budding ad man: the twist at the end was that it was a “Got Milk?” commercial.  And this was made well before the Lara Croft movies starring Angelina Jolie!

Here is the full interview with Kevin Goff, whose credits include internationally recognized projects for clients such as McDonald’s, Capital One, Budweiser, and State Farm (and another).

McDonald’s “No Fry Left Behind” ad won many international awards

What drew you to working in motion picture communications?

I’ve always enjoyed the art of storytelling- be it written, or on film. Advertising provides me with the opportunity to craft stories around a variety of products and human truths. Every day is different, with a different challenge and a different story to tell. As a creative, that’s a fun playground to be in.

What were some useful lessons you learned through your first experiences writing and producing motion pictures?

There’s no right answer. But there are countless wrong answers. And you’ll eventually find countless examples where that’s true. For example, a joke on a script that we’ve been laughing about for weeks, even through auditions, comes out flat when the camera starts rolling. The belly laughs are suddenly replaced by crickets. There’s no explanation for it, but it doesn’t really matter why it’s happening. Because it’s not happening. And you better start writing. Fast. I highly recommend going into a shoot with a good list of prepared alternatives. (They’re easier to write when you don’t have the client, director, producers, and entire film crew waiting on you to be funny.) You never know – an alt may be better than what was originally scripted. But you won’t know until the shoot, or even until you start editing.

What are the standard key positions and the basic work flow for a 30- or 60- second spot?

As a copywriter, a project begins with us getting briefed. We’re told what the assignment is for, the message we’re supposed to communicate, and how much time we have to communicate it – 15, 30, or 60 seconds. It’s then up to us to conceptualize and write an effective, memorable, and entertaining commercial that can be completed on time and within budget. Many scripts will be written, and should one sell, we begin the production process.

Working with a producer, we’ll look at directors and find three or four who we feel are a good fit for the job. We’ll talk to each director about the script, discussing what we envision. After the call, the director writes a treatment for the spot. It’s the director’s chance to present what he envisions the spot to be, and how he wants to tell the story. The agency will take each treatment, and each director’s reel and recommend one director to the client. Once the client buys off on the director, a casting agency the director works with begins casting. We’ll eventually go through casting tapes of actors acting out parts in the script, selecting who we’d like to see called back for another casting session.  Once at callbacks, the director has a chance to work with the actors and we all get a better feel for their abilities and can better judge if they’re the best actor for the role or not.  At the end of the day, or days, the director and agency selects a cast, sometimes with back-up choices should the client have an issue with someone.  We’ll also go over the director’s shooting board and shooting locations, as well as props and wardrobe.  Soon, it’s time for the pre-production meeting.  While the agency and the director are all on the same page at this point, the pre-pro is designed to get client approvals on everything.  Once the client signs off on everything, it’s time to shoot.

Come shoot day, the director runs the shoot.  But the agency makes sure they’re getting the performances and shots they need.  While a spot often evolves for the better, the client bought a script, and the agency needs to cover what was boarded and sold.  That said, I’m still writing new lines on set as the camera is rolling.  You have to cover what you sold, but options are good, and those options often turn up in the final cut.

Capital One Triple Rewards sold by “Barbarians”

After the shoot, the film is sent to an editing house for an editor to cut.  The editor will cut several versions of the spot to show the agency, and from there, the agency chooses a cut and starts tweaking- trying different shots, adding frames to shots, etc.  This is also when music becomes an issue.  We’ll use scratch tracks as fillers, and eventually either hire a music house to score a piece of music, or find a piece of stock music to drop in.  On occasion, we’ll license an artist’s music track.  With a spot assembled, we’ll bring it to the client to sell the cut.  With the client’s approval, we move on to recording company to record voice-overs, and mix the spot.  The sound engineer begins sound design, adding ambient sounds, music tracks, voiceovers, and adjust levels of all sound, while the agency tweaks and approves it.  With the spot mixed, it’s on to another post-house for the telecine.  Here, the agency works with a colorist to color correct the film, and then finish it, cleaning up the film by applying minor special effects, and adding any necessary legal copy.  With the client’s final approval, the spot ships, and it’s onto the next spot.

Can you cite an instance when you were able to find a visual solution to a storytelling issue?  

I was working on an assignment involving a movie promotion for a major restaurant chain. I needed to find a way to tell a story that linked together the restaurant chain with the motion picture, and do it in a way that would get people excited to go buy the food and go buy a movie ticket. Additionally, the spot would be running globally so I had to find a solution that didn’t rely on dialogue.  Not surprisingly, months went by where no one was able to sell a script. If one side liked a script, the other side didn’t. It’s how these promotions usually go. Eventually I sold a script that satisfied everyone. It was a purely visual comparison of the similar sensory experiences people would enjoy while watching the film and while eating the food. For example, I compared how someone watching an intense action scene in a theater might grip the arm rest of the seat their sitting in, the same way someone might grip their bag of food if they were worried someone was going to steal it.

How do you balance visual storytelling in your pieces with the importance of sound in establishing tone and style and in communicating key information?

There’s more than one way to tell a story. You can do it purely through visuals, without any sound. But you can also tell the same story purely through sound, without any visuals. The balance of visual and sound ultimately comes down to the story you’re trying to tell and how you want to tell it. Any stimuli you choose to include, or choose to omit, communicates something to your audience. It’s up to you to determine just the right combination of stimuli to communicate your story in the most impactful way.

Sound is important in every project I’m involved with. From the music and sound effects, to the dialogue and voice talent, sound is vital to the communication. Music can evoke a variety emotions, add energy- or remove it, and even set a pacing for the film. Sound effects simply help explain what you’re seeing on film, adding a texture to the visual. Voice talent can be a challenge. Male or female. Old or young. And all the different voice qualities you can think of- the slightest variation of which can mean the difference between feeling authentic or fake, and getting laugh or getting crickets. It’s common to audition as many as 400 or so voices just to get the right one. Because without the right voice, the spot might simply not work. Sound is a sensitive thing. It usually works or it doesn’t. And you don’t usually know if it works until you see it put to picture.

What have been some of your observations of the filmmaking process?

Have an opinion. And have a reason for it. Because everyone has an opinion- some good and some bad. Listen with an open mind. Then listen to your gut.

Once you start shooting, anything can happen. Actors you thought could act- can’t. Lines you thought were funny- aren’t. You go from being ahead of schedule, to 4 shots behind. And weather that’s sunny and 80, is suddenly a flash flood washing your set away. Filmmaking is a fluid process. You have to roll with the punches and find solutions- fast.

What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in promotional moviemaking?

Creating television commercials that make people think about something in a way they’ve never thought about it before. And in a way that doesn’t make them want to change the channel.

* Currently (2014), Kevin Goff is a Senior Copywriter at Arnold Boston, where he has produced work for Produced Work For: New Balance, Volvo, Carnival Cruise Lines, and ADT Security.  

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This fall, I was overjoyed to see the news that Frank Borzage’s 1932 film A Farewell to Arms would be released by Kino in a full, restored version on DVD and BluRay.  For me, this release holds special significance because it was during an amazing run of movies shown at the Wadsworth Atheneum in the 1980’s that I discovered the films of Borzage — relatively forgotten to the moviegoing public at that time, even cinephiles — along with so many other classics in programs curated by University of Connecticut lecturer Robert Smith.  Below is a excerpt of the program — Smith’s preface is a perfect introduction to the story of this version of A Farewell to Arms in the context of film preservation. Borzage films are highlighted in figures 4-21 and 4-22 of Moving Images  (“Storytelling with Light”) and I use A Farewell to Arms as an example in Chapter 5: Personal Expression and Studio Production.  Frank Borzage was a member of a large, close-knit Italian immigrant family and his films show consistent dedication to the ties that bind couples together and to roots in family and place. He began working in Hollywood as an actor and throughout his directorial career actors lauded his passionate support of their craft and his attention to their interaction.  Borzage was one of the most highly regarded directors of early Hollywood, and his works offer some of the richest examples of visual storytelling in the period of transition from late silent films to early sound.   While Borzage is certainly known for the deep romanticism of his films, I have found that the weaving of his tales of passionate love through finely detailed places and amidst contexts of everyday life and economic or familial struggles gives his stories more depth and grounding than they are generally given credit for.  In the 1990’s, the discovery and subsequent release of the silent film Lucky Star was a particular revelation (currently available in the beautiful box set Murnau, Borzage, and Fox); I was fortunate enough to see it at the Film Forum with live music and an enthusiastic audience.  Among Borzage’s sound films, I would highly recommend his movies Three ComradesThe Mortal Storm, and Moonriseand Joe McElheney’s article on Borzage is the finest recent scholarship on the director I have read.  Or perhaps some time before or after going to see the new 3-D release of Titanic, it would be a revelation to see Borzage’s History is Made at Night from 1937 — now that’s a movie about the Titanic that really gets the heart stirred! Here are the program notes from 1984, written by Robert Smith, for a double bill with Little Man, What Now? :  History is Made at Night is the Borzage film for everyone, with enough material for three ordinary movies.  Jean Arthur is absolutely radiant, transfigured by Borzage’s genius and his commitment to a redemptive vision of the world.  Mad love, insane jealousy, murder, and a giant ocean liner racing through the ice-bound darkness provide the mortal trial through which Jean and Charles (like all great Borzagian protagonists) demonstrate their spiritual and moral greatness.  Soon after their first meeting, Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer dance the Tango of the Roses in a deserted Parisian nightclub.  Arthur is dressed in a lace nightgown, and the image of Arthur’s exquisite naked feet peeking out from that swirling lace nighty as they tango in the darkness will haunt you the rest of your days – now that’s romance!”  … okay, does this sound familiar to anyone?  James Cameron, eat your heart out!

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Nash Edgerton with camera operator Sebastian Dickens shooting “Lucky”

The interview for Chapter 8, The Production Process, is with a filmmaker who has been involved in an amazing range of capacities of media processes: as a writer, actor, director, editor, and in the role that originally started his career, stunt artist.  Nash Edgerton has also played a key role in one of the most interesting stories in movie production of the past decade or so, which has been the emergence of the group of filmmakers who work through the partnership Blue-Tongue Films.   This collective of young Australian filmmakers has sustained a very interesting working relationship to produce work that clearly revolves around the stories, styles, and objectives that interest and inspire them personally and as a group.  Among the highlights of Nash Edgerton’s prolific career are the shorts Spider and Fuel, and his feature The Square; he has worked on the stunts of dozens of movies and served as stunt coordinator on the upcoming Wish You Were Here.   In addition, his shorts Lucky and The Pitch are featured on the DVD with Moving Images.  His next short, Bear – which is a follow-up to Spider – premiered in competition at the 64th Cannes International Film Festival.  As a couple of final notes, one neat aspect of connecting with Nash as a contributor to this textbook is that I have used one of the original Blue-Tongue collaborations, Bloodlock, in my media studies and production classes for many years, and this short provides many enlightening lessons on the roots of Blue-Tongue films, their stylistic approaches, and the dynamics of their collaborative.  Finally, it was such a pleasure to be able to work with Nash: he was very generous with his time, materials, and attention, and so keen on sharing his respect for his collaborators and his love for his craft.

Did you have any early inspirations to use moving images to communicate? 

I watched a lot of films when I was a kid.  Seeing something that totally affects you, like horror films – I think what surprises me now, working on films, knowing what goes into it, the make-believe, is that I still get affected by films when I see them and that’s what’s really powerful about them.

From the beginning of your career, you have worked as a stunt specialist.  How did you develop expertise in that type of work?

I kind of got into it and learned it in an old-fashioned approach, learning from people that had done it before.  I would get the concept by helping out, and then get training by working with different people.  I think one of the most important aspects of it is being adaptable because there are things that are always changing and things don’t always go to plan or you’re working against time or weather or various other things.  As you work, you can get better at finding solutions.  Having learned to be adaptable, as director you can get better ideas on that day when you’re in actual situations.  I think that’s what helped me most in preparing to be a director.

Nash Edgerton performing a stunt for “Lucky” featured as the short for Chapter 4 of Moving Images

Your background as a filmmaker is rather unique, having moved to the director’s chair from starting as a stunt specialist and actor.  How did your work as a director unfold as your career evolved?  Describe your initial experiences overseeing an entire production. 

By the time I started directing I had been on a lot of film sets, so just by being on film sets I feel natural and comfortable being around a crew.  It’s quite daunting running the show, so the fact that I was comfortable really helped.  I think it’s always kind of scary trying to get your head around how to tell the story.  You have to make sure you can do as much homework as you can so you have an idea of how you’re going to approach the day of filming with fresh ideas. Filmmaking is such a collaborative process.  You try to hire the right people to be around you because they’re going to bring something to it.  The combination of you all is going to help you get the best of your day.  What I like about filmmaking in general is that it does take more than just one person to do it.  It’s working as a team made of different people who all have different skills.  It’s a combination of these contributions that creates what it becomes.

What were some useful lessons you learned through your first moviemaking experiences? 

The best thing I learned is to be open to accidents, to things going wrong or not your way.  Instead of resisting it, maybe it’s meant to be that way.  If you’re open to things that change or don’t go your way, maybe you’ll find a better idea.  Rather than just being disappointed because it’s raining or because you can’t have this tool or something is broken, there is always a solution.  It’s good to have a plan, but ideas are always evolving and part of it is always out of your control.  Embrace the chaos!

David Michôd, Spencer Susser, Nash Edgerton, Luke Doolan and Joel Edgerton of Blue-Tongue Films

You have worked with a team of filmmakers throughout your career, and you have helped to run Blue-Tongue Films, an independent production unit. How have your collaborative relationships been fruitful to you throughout your career?

Yes, there’s a bunch of guys that I work with, what’s great is that we all work on each other’s films, in different aspects.  I’m not always directing, like at the moment I’m editing, or I do stunts on them.  Luke (Doolan), who edits a lot with me, he sometimes shoots on my stuff, he’s also been directing.  What’s great is you learn from each other, and we have a good shorthand with each other that makes it easier.  They have a good way of challenging you and asking why you want to do something a certain way.  It’s kind of like a healthy competition.  It helps you to be the best that you can be and next time you want to do something even better than that.  Then they make something better, and it makes you want to do something better.  I like working with my friends.

On some of your films, you have served as writer as well as director.  How have you experienced the process of seeing a project move from inception to release?  What lessons have you learned from that process?

I find writing hard, to put it quite bluntly.  Ultimately, making something you’ve written tends to be more satisfying. Going from what’s inside your head, sharing it with other people, going through the whole process, I like that a lot.  For example, Spider was my idea.  I’ll explain my ideas to one of my friends or my brother, because I know I will like their writing of it better.  So Spider was my idea and it took David (Michôd) to actually write it out and flesh it out a bit.  I like to see someone else’s take on the idea.

When you have directed from screenplays by writers other than yourself, what input or developmental contributions have you made to them?  Have you found that scripts evolve significantly during production or post-production? 

For example, for films I have made with my brother what will usually happen when I read it during the process and the different drafts is that I will be thinking about it as a director.  If I can see it when I’m reading it, then I know how to make it.  If I can’t see it, for a particular scene, if I can’t visualize it then I fear there’s something that’s not working for me in it so that’s how I talk about it with the writers.  Rather than telling them how to do the scene I’ll say there’s something about the scene that doesn’t work.  I know it’s not right because I can’t visualize it.  By the same token, I’ll say what scenes I like – it’s as simple as that.  If I can’t see it, there must be another way of doing it or it doesn’t need to be there.  I’d rather say it at that point than try to shoot it without any idea on how to.

Nash Edgerton at right directing The Square

What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced in filmmaking? 

Usually on any kind of shoot day you get challenges, where you’re trying to get everything you need to shoot in that one day.  A lot of the time, I find that the start of the day is rather slow and the second half of the day you’re chasing your tail to get things done.  The challenge all the time is, if you have a plan like “the way I want to cover this scene is in five shots,” you have to be ready for complications.  There was a day we were shooting The Square in a small apartment, and we had gotten really far behind.  We were trying to get this scene, and my plan was to get five or six shots, and with the amount of time I had left, I was forced to try and cover the scene in one shot.  I think sometimes the pressure can help, and the way we ended up shooting it was way better than anything I had come up with before.  Because I was forced to do it in that shorter space of time, I got something better than I would have if I had all the time I wanted.  It’s funny because the pressure or the challenges you may face make you step up to it, or I’ve shot stuff where you try and figure out the best way to do it, and then you get home after the shoot day and then you figure it out.  Naturally, it can be pretty depressing because it’s too late, and you figured out how to solve it when what you should be doing is planning the next day.  Filmmaking is always ups and downs, but I find that there’s always at least one good thing that happens in a day, and it’s enough to keep you going.  Something good happened or something worked out how you planned it.  You try to savor that when other things don’t work out.

What have been among your most fulfilling experiences in moviemaking? 

The most fulfilling part for me is when you screen the film for the first time in front of an audience and it works. The actual process of shooting is always challenging and exhausting – and rewarding.  When you’ve written something, you’re thinking about it, you’re planning it, you’re shooting it, you start to forget the freshness and enjoyment of when you first write or read something.  When you’re making it, you start to lose sight of what it was, and it’s not until you see it with an audience for the first time that you’re reminded of how you felt when you first read something.  You get to see it through other people’s eyes and through their reactions.  A lot of times, the hardest thing is to complete something you start, and if you do go full circle that’s when you get the reward.  If it doesn’t happen, you get to learn what works and what doesn’t.

With storytelling and filmmaking, I always try and make stuff that I want to make.  I try not to make something just because I think other people are going to like it.  I try to trust in the fact that if I like it, there are enough people in the world that someone else might like it too.  Rather than trying to second-guess what you think, you try to create movies for yourself and put yourself in the audience.  Hopefully you’re not that weird and someone else will like it too.

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