Fade to Black—Is the Feature Film Dying?

A great short piece on the demise of the feature film.

Why are you trying to make a feature film? If you’re doing it because you think it’s the dominant story medium of our time, or because you believe it’s the way to a mass audience or because you think you’ll get rich, you need a healthy dose of artistic and personal self-examination. Telling stories through media of some form, yes. But buying into the conventional feature-film format and all its legacy business practices… that is no longer something you do by rote. —Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker Magazine

Steven Soderbergh on Retiring from Filmmaking

And what was that reason? It’s a combination of wanting a change personally and of feeling like I’ve hit a wall in my development that I don’t know how to break through. The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere. But that could just be my form of theism.

from Steven Soderbergh on Quitting Hollywood, Getting the Best Out of J-Lo, and His Love of Girls

Thoughts on Errol Morris' Tabloid

The most striking thing about Errol Morris’ new documentary Tabloid, besides the literally unbelievable story, is the director’s decision to leave whole sections of interview footage uncovered.

Minutes go by without b-roll.

Instead, we see the exposed footage, jump cuts and all.

To complicate the matter, like many of his recent documentaries, Morris continuously tracks the camera when shooting interviews. So what might be a subtle right-to-left movement when seen in its entirety, in Tabloid becomes not only a jump cut but a startling shift with head shots jumping across the screen.

For transitions, the director simply fades to black before fading up again, sometimes to the same speaker.

Altogether, it’s a pretty dramatic technique.

At first glance, I’d say the decision to do this was made, in part, to combat a lack of archival material. Many of the scenes were simply never filmed. But Morris is no stranger to reenactment. He’s recreated scenes in many of his films. So why not here too?

It’s a good question; one that I’d like to hear him address.

The more pertinent question though is, does it work? I have to say, given the film’s reliance on point-of-view as a narrative device, I think it does.

Oddly, that just might be Tabloid’s most startling revelation.

Three Women on Multimedia Muse

Multimedia Muse was kind enough to give my film Three Women a really nice review.

They write:

The dialogue is of the inner-thought, whisper-spoken kind, thin on familial deets yet saturated with self-loathing. "I am ugly," begins the second chapter—some seriously hostile terrain for a male writer. And yet the language is so precise, the images so soulful (authored by photo wunderkind Pamela Chen) that the project feels truer to fact than fiction. How often do you find a multimedia piece (a work of fiction, no less) that illustrates such an unpopular truth: that a person's faults are what make them interesting.

See Three Women here, at MediaStorm.

What Now?

Two weeks ago, my short film Three Women premiered on MediaStorm. It was the culmination of three year's work and I can't think of a better home for it.

But now, I'm feeling just a little lost. The intensity of finishing Three Women has been replaced with uncertainty of what to do next.

It's times like these that it's important to remember that the creative process, from gestation to completion, is a cyclical one.

What has left will return.

My New Film 'Three Women' Now Showing on MediaStorm

I'm proud to announce the completion of my new short movie Three Women, premiering on MediaStorm.

The five-minute film features arresting visuals by photographer Pamela Chen and video by Jeff Hutchens. The short also stars a trio of gifted actors: Rhonda Keyser, Elizabeth van Meter and Monique Vukovic.

From the description:

Three Women is a short film about women in pain, struggling to make sense of their lives. It is a series of stories reduced to their emotional essence. This is a fictional piece but one that is also true.

I hope you'll check it out.

What is Story?

A story at its most basic is what happens when a character sets out to achieve what he or she desires. It’s a kind of journey, though your character does not actually have to go somewhere for a story to begin. Trouble can come to town instead. In the end, your character may not get what she set out to achieve, but her main goal or desire is settled in one form or another. Most classical stories begin with a kind of stasis: a man goes about his everyday life, or planning for the wedding was going smoothly until, you’ll never guess what happened—an event throws the main character, or protagonist, off his equilibrium.

This event is called the inciting incident. It’s the action that throws life out of whack. It is a problem that must be solved: a call from a lost love the day before the wedding; she’s coming to town to make it work. Or the moment the struggling family receives a foreclosure notice. The inciting incident sets up the story’s conflict. It sets the stage for the drama that will now unfold. The more the character’s life is unhinged by this event, the more she will have to overcome in order to return her life to the state it was in beforehand. This differential is often referred to as what’s at stake. If a character is about to lose her house, those are pretty high stakes. High stakes make for more drama than, say, a character who realizes he’s lost his wallet—unless that wallet happened to contain his last $5. That character now has his very future at risk. High stakes make for more drama.

The inciting incident is followed by rising action. This is a series of obstacles in which the character sets out to get what she wants in response to the inciting incident but is met by more and more challenges. Each new hurdle is bigger than the last. Each confrontation takes the protagonist further afield from where he or she would like to be. These events should be surprising and make the audience wonder how the protagonist is going to get out of the mess her life has now become. Shorter movies and documentaries often spend less time on rising action, or as it’s sometimes referred to, escalating conflict.

Finally, the protagonist arrives at the climax. This is the moment of truth, the do-or-die moment when she comes face to face with the possibility of actually achieving her goal. The goal might not be obtained, but at the climax this issue will be determined decisively, one way or another, once and for all.

A story sometimes ends with a denouement. This is a quick tying up of loose ends after the action of the climax. It’s simple and short.

This is classical story structure. Of course, not every story contains all of these elements, and they don’t always happen in the same order. Think of movies that start at the climax then go back to the beginning to show you how the events unfolded.

Most important though, all good stories have conflict. A character has a desire, and that desire cannot be achieved due to obstacles. That is conflict. Conflict is the friction that propels the story forward. It’s what keeps the audience interested enough to want to find out what happens next.

Documentaries that don’t have the benefit of time often recount stories. They describe events that have already happened. But the means by which a story is told, even if it’s in the past tense, remain the same: inciting incident, escalating conflict, climax. These are the elements you want in your story. You can always surprise your audience, even if the story has effectively taken place already, if you have the elements of a good story and you use them well. A good story well-told: that’s your goal.

A quick note on things that are not stories: A location is not a story. Little Italy is not a story. Little Italy is a place where a story might happen. Stories, in the vast majority of cases, are about people, people who want things and do everything in their power to get them, despite the mounting obstacles that get in the way.

iPhone Time Lapse: One Hour with Bob Sacha

[qt:http://www.ericmaierson.com/blog2/wp-content/uploads/quicktime/bobstopmotion.mov 448 336] Last week I twittered on the MediaStorm feed about xyster.net's TimeLapse application for the iPhone. The $0.99 app offers easy controls that let you set the interval between shots as well as the length of your session. I pasted the results in to Final Cut.

(Not responsible for Bob's antics at the sight of a camera.)

Observations on Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure

  • Still images don't have to fill the frame or even touch its borders.
  • The right score makes a documentary much more compelling. The right scores includes the use of motifs so that musical themes act in harmony with the film's themes.
  • Compelling interviews do not need b-roll to cover cuts. Fades, flashes, and other camera angles work fine.
  • Morris's secondary camera angles don't veer more than five to ten degrees from the primary eyes-to-the-camera shot.
  • Interviewees look at the camera, not off to the side, increasing intimacy by simulating a conversation with the viewer.