Film School Journal

I have been playing with my iPhone, since I am not yet comfortable enough using one of the DSLR cameras. What is most striking is the resolution difference between what I see through the viewfinder and what I see on my computer screen when I upload the clips. I have been filmed on several Reds and an Arri Alexa. There is a difference in visual quality between the “professional cinema” cameras and my iPhone, but it is only a matter of time before the pros are shooting motion pictures on a simple phone. This is a remarkable development – the full democratization of cinema. The price and the availability of technology someday will not prevent the poor or the homeless “Alfred Hitchcock” from putting something on the screen that really demonstrates his talent. People are naturally communicative and expressive – hence the fascination of so many people with their iPhones. Plato sensed this in his “Republic.” Man is a social animal, he said, and his greatest punishment is not to be executed but to be ostracized. It makes sense then that, if given an opportunity, the vast majority of people will be filmmakers – capturing footage, editing on the spot by what they shoot and do not shoot, posting on social media, making their personal statements about this crazy life we share. From the early twenty-first century to the end, the accumulation of the creative pursuits of humankind will be shot, edited, and posted. The aliens that discover our archeological remains thousands of years from now will deduce that the entire Earth had been one grand soundstage and its sundry inhabitants directors, editors, and actors in one, great, elaborate show. 

I notice so much more since walking around looking at life through a viewfinder.  So many details everywhere you turn. Life is rich with beauty, and the line between the ugly or the unimaginative and the beautiful often enough is razor thin. Usually, all it takes is moving a fixture here or there in the frame, or bringing in a little more or a little less sunlight through the blinds, or adding something with brilliant color to an otherwise drab scene to create beauty. I have heard that paint is expensive, but that color is free. It is so true. What matters most in creating beauty in a frame is an eye and a bit of patience. As an actor, I have learned over the years of taking my time in between lines of dialogue – not necessarily temporal time as measured in seconds or minutes, but rather that esoteric time that allows us to say that “eternity can be measured in a second.” An actor can hear a line of dialogue, tap into the emotions his character would feel upon hearing that line, dig deeper into the imaginative life that actor has created for that character, and respond instantly with a look, or a pause, or just a thought that conveys so much in the second between what he heard and what he says next. What I have learned is that the same is true with setting up the scene within the frame – the physical motion may be as slight (just as the time between the previous spoken line and the next spoken line may be slight) as moving this or that fixture, or letting in more or less sunlight, but the slight movement can convey so much if the mover (director, cinematographer, set designer, costumer, makeup artist, etc.) is tapping into that deep reservoir of talent and imaginative creativity that inspired him to make motion pictures in the first place. What I am saying is that the filmmaker can do so much with so little, if he just allows himself to tap into that wellspring of awe and openness to his own unrestrained talent that had first called him to pick up a camera. On the contrary, filmmaking becomes a lot harder when he second-guesses his own instincts by considering “what sells?” or “what will make this shot more marketable?” or “how will this film help or hinder my own career?” 

My friend introduced me to Instagram, and this is one part of social media that I find enjoyable and worthwhile, if only because the forum has inspired me to take better photographs. I do not have too many Instagram followers (Is that what we call them here?), but just the idea that someone out there may see something I have shot has given me the impetus to put a bit more creativity into the effort. As just one example tonight I took a picture with my iPhone of the top of a conference table. There is a long and jagged opening cut down the middle of the table, and there is a low hanging chandelier over the opening. When I shot the opening from above, and played with the color tones, I created an image that looked like the jagged mouth of the cave into Hell, or something similarly horrific. Plato’s Cave Allegory is so true. Early humans huddled together inside their caves, ignited campfires, and stared at the peculiar ghosts and goblins reflected off of the cave walls, while thunder roared outside. If that does not convince us that the gods exist, then I am not sure what will. Cinema will remain popular, because we want to believe that the mundane, like the jagged hole in the conference table, can be strange, and beautiful, and horrifying if we just move the lights this or that way. Actually, that is not quite true. It is not that we want to believe. Rather, it is that we do believe. The atheist may not believe in God, but he believes in “the gods,” which is to say he believes that the veil between the world we experience everyday and the world snatching out at us from within the shadows is so thin as to be virtually nonexistent. We are all huddled in our caves – sometimes with one another, sometimes with the files we have stored on our smartphones, but the common denominator is a fear that the edge may fall out from under us at any given moment. Stories serve to remind us that “the gods” are always at play in our lives, whether it be in the moments we find or lose something we most treasure by whim of circumstance largely outside of our control. Stories are like the branches meandering outward from myth, which is the trunk. Myth is rooted in what? The gods? God? Nothing? I am not sure, actually, but what I can say is that the underlying uncertainty is precisely why there is always an uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) variable in any story. Will the protagonist convince the woman of his dreams to live happily ever after with him? Usually, yes, but maybe no. Will the protagonist avenge the murder of his family? Or solve the crime? Or blow up the Death Star? We do not know for sure, but more importantly we sense that the character does not know for sure. That is why stories are compelling. The scriptwriter may know the ending of his screenplay, but the character does not. For the character, the gods are variables, enchanting or capricious, but always uncontrolled; and what seems unimportant or mundane (the jagged hole in a conference table) may turn out to be the critical fact or plot twist (the jagged hole turns out to be the entrance to Hell) down the road. 

The filmmaker is the priest of the modern age. He brings alive upon the screen the romance, or the horror, or the beauty that is otherwise hidden. He reconstructs all that we presume to be real and, in so doing, reminds us that the real is as much the expression of our creativity as it is something inhabiting a certain space and time. I have been watching “The Twilight Zone” episodes on Netflix every night for the last few weeks. The stories work because they are intrinsically cinematic, which is to say they play themselves out in that strange and sometimes discomforting grey zone in between “real” and “imagination.” Cinema is a sensual dream cutting back and forth between shots and sequences that the characters could never experience “in reality” in the manner we see on screen, and yet we accept without question the underlying truthfulness of this dream. Is it because we sense in cinema, like in poetry, that the dream, or the grey zone between “real” and “imagination,” is actually closer to the truth? Early theater attempted with the technology of the time to do what we do on the screen today – the chorus off stage singing the voices of the gods, the bonfire in front of the stage casting strange shadows on a backdrop, the screens lowering and rising to suggest a jump to another place and time. Early humans did not have the cameras we have, but he had cinema. The filmmaker should keep this in mind when he writes his screenplay, or constructs his shots, or edits his footage. That does not mean that he must insert “weirdness” or “the esoteric” for its own sake necessarily, but it does mean that in his framing of the dialogue, or his imagining of the set, or his manipulating of light and of sound, he remains open to the dreamlike nature of what is real. To use an overused phrase, he allows himself to think outside the box, since that box most likely is an artificial, not entirely necessary restraint on the truth of a scene or a sequence. At the same time, the filmmaker also understands that a certain level of storytelling restraint is necessary for his vision to be conveyed to the rest of us. He finds that line, or more accurately that grey zone, and so like the priest will be playing with arts that are simultaneously approachable and shrouded in mystery. 

I saw a woman who is not conventionally beautiful, but who nevertheless managed to grab a hold of several of the strings in my mind. Did I see the beauty hidden under her unremarkable exterior? Yes, just as I hope that from time to time others see the beauty hidden in me. Did I magnify her in my own mind, because we had locked eyes a moment? Yes, because the desire for even a second of real contact with someone else in this world is such that I am inclined to magnify the experience at the time and later in my memory. From a cinematic standpoint, what is interesting is that there is so much that can be contained in a moment. I learned this as an actor: The very best acting usually happens in a second of time, usually involves the eyes, and is so subtle as to be almost lost altogether. Part of the reason why I generally avoid the huge and expensive “popcorn movies” thrown onto the screens every summer is that there is no room for subtlety in all that CGI mayhem. I am not saying that action adventures cannot make for great stories. I am as much a fan of Star Wars and of Indiana Jones as anyone else of my generation. Just give me moments on screen where there is an actual connection between the characters – where they sense a hidden beauty in the other that would be there regardless of the plot in which they find themselves. Give me real people – unremarkable, normal, hidden in their own insecurities and drab routines – and then put those real people into extraordinary circumstances. That is the kind of cinema that moves me, just as I had been moved briefly by that woman on the train, and no amount of CGI wonder can make up for losing those moments.

The taxman came, and he left behind a largely depleted bank account. For the past week or so I have had to focus on how to get enough cash to put gas into my car and food onto the table. Until I manage to get a job, my focus will be on survival, which is another layer of stress I had not foreseen when I started the MFA program. If there is a blessing, as often there is, then it is a profound sense of how much more I should treasure the opportunities for storytelling when they come to me. I have had a short film story in mind for the last month or so, but ever since approaching the dire edge of my checking account (beyond which is a dark abyss called “Insufficient Funds”) I have valued so much more any moment I have to write my script, or to reach out to prospective actors, or to figure out how to do with nothing what I could have more easily afforded just recently. The experience has forced me to narrow the story to one scene in one location, and the result actually is a better scene. The experience has forced me to reach out to prospective actors and crew who will not be charging me too much for their services, and the result is an expanding network with fellow artists. Filmmaking is largely an exercise in problem solving, and scarcity of funds has forced me to do much more problem solving in the pre-production phase than I have had to do in the past. In the Great IMDb page that is my life, I hope soon enough to put “the starving artist” into the category of “past films,” rather than where it is at the moment (“filming,” or maybe “post-production,” depending upon what I think of my job prospects at any given time). Nevertheless, until that happens, I shall make a pitcher of lemonade from these lemons. I went to the line reading for Cat Commander’s short film last night. It is a godsend to be a part of that film. The stress of job hunting has been particularly hard the last few days, and just spending an hour in a room with fellow actors committed to the joy of storytelling took me out of the doldrums for a while. I always love storytelling, but there are times when I absolutely need it. The blessing in all this is that when I am above water again I shall have an enhanced love for the craft I have chosen. 

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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