Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Look Inside My Brain part 2

Flickering Images from Marcus Donner on Vimeo.

In this post I will once again explain my process while making a short documentary for the Seattle international Film Festival.
I feel that when doing a creative work it is best to place restrictions on one's self. These restrictions, or rules, give the piece an internal consistency. They also force you to be more creative. There is an old saying that goes, "Calm seas make a poor sailor". When you have something to challenge you, it's amazing what you can achieve.

In the heyday of Warner Bros. animation they developed rules about how to handle particular characters. For instance, they decided that Bugs Bunny would never just run around starting trouble, but that he should always be minding his own business when Elmer Fudd or some other antagonist would come along and start the trouble. Or in the case of the Roadrunner cartoons, the rule became that the Coyote would be hurt by his own incompetence and not through any malicious action of the title character.

Restrictions can be beneficial to any artist and if you have none, you should create them for yourself.

When I was selected to make a short for SIFF one of the first things I did (along with my DP and producing partner) was compile a list of rules and guidelines to follow. This list was written even before we knew our subject. Our subject would be pulled out of a hat a few weeks later. I called the list the Declaration of Principles. It is a reference to a list of ideals that Charles Foster Kane made in the film Citizen Kane. Here is our list:

Declaration of Principles

This document is to serve as a philosophical framework for the filmmakers of Brian McDonald’s Fly film documentary for The Seattle International Film Festival 2004.

1.) Always tell the truth. Meaning that nothing may be set up for the benefit of our camera or story. We want real people doing real things.

2.) The story is more important than the storytellers. In other words, we are not the story.

3.) The audience does not owe us their attention; we must earn it. We must have a point. Why should anyone care about our subject?

4.) People are more interesting than things. Just as in fictional storytelling conflict is more interesting than the lack of conflict.

5.) Style for style is sake will not be allowed. Our style shall be dictated by the needs of the story. This applies to all elements of the film: direction, photography, sound design, editing and music.

6.) The humanity of a story takes precedence over any technical concern. A bad recording of a great event is better than a great recording of a bad event. (This is courtesy of the director Mark Rydell)

7.) The old adage tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them shall act as our road map.

8.) Remember basic three-act structure.

9.) We can only tell one story. No matter how interesting another subject might be, if it has nothing to do with our story it must be cut.

Brian McDonald (Director) and Marcus Donner (DP/Associate Producer) compiled this list of principles on February 14th 2004.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

A Look Inside My Brain

Because I think it’s important that I show you the principles I espouse applied to my own work, in this blog entry I will breakdown a short film that I directed. 

Two years ago I was asked by the Seattle International Film Festival to participate in the Fly Filmmaking Challenge. These are films made ‘on the fly’. They selected ten directors to each make a five-minute documentary. Our subjects where pulled randomly out of a hat, so we didn’t know what we would be making a film about. That year all of the subjects were Seattle Neighborhoods. Mine was an area called Belltown. We could do whatever we wanted in or about that Neighborhood. We had a couple of weeks pre-production to figure out what we were going to do and get our permits and things taken care of. We then had five days to shoot and five days to cut the five-minute film.
Flickering Images from Marcus Donner on Vimeo.

I remember some of the other directors grumbling that five minutes was just not enough time to do anything with impact. I remember someone saying, “What can you do in five minutes?!” And I remember thinking, if they can sell you Coke in thirty seconds you can do a lot with five minutes. I think that some of the other filmmakers let the five minutes beat them before they even started.

So what was my approach? I knew that a well-told story has three acts, so I needed to make sure the film had three acts. I also knew that documentaries, like all stories can be boring without any emotion at the center of them. Without emotion a documentary is just a string of facts. Who cares? Filmmaker Ken Burns is amazing at finding an emotional hook to hang his films on.

I chose to make my film about a demolished movie theater from my childhood. I had an emotional attachment to it and I know others did as well.

I didn’t know too much about most of the people I interviewed except that they had a love for this theater.
In order to get my three acts I asked three basic questions of my subjects:

1.) Can you describe the building?
2.) Can you tell me of an experience you had here?
3.) How do you feel now that it’s gone?

That was it. I knew that those questions would cover everything I needed. It gave me three acts. It would also give the audience the virtual experience of having been there. This is the way you would have experienced the place if you had ever gone, right? You would see the place have an experience there and now that place is gone.

I chose not to have old pictures of the place because I wanted the viewer to supply their own theater. This also heightens the emotion because they imagine a place they have an attachment to.

Emotion was a big thing for me with this film. I knew I needed a real strong emotion for people to latch onto and I was hoping that one of my subjects would express heartfelt emotion. Well, here’s the thing, it turns out I had the strongest emotion.

I wasn’t supposed to be in the film, but we were ready to shoot before any of our subjects had arrived at the location, so in order to test the camera and crew I decided to shoot an interview with myself just to see what we got. What we got was a real emotional moment on camera that even took me by surprise. When the shoot day was done (we shot all our interviews in one day) I knew that I had to be in the film. Truth is I didn’t want be in the film, but I had to be because I was the person with the strongest emotion.

What we ended up with is a film I’m really proud of. A film I am told has impact. A film that uses the principles I champion in my blog. At the screening of the Fly Films one of the other directors turned to me and said, “I don’t know how you made me cry in five minutes”. Now you all know how. I used Invisible Ink.