Monday, July 23, 2012

Trust and the Art of Directing Actors

You paid them.  They showed up.  They memorized their lines.  Why can't they just do what you want??

I see it all the time with unprepared directors.  They're on set about to roll as the actor looks at them to figure out what to do.  The director's eyes dart to the script for answers.  "Make sure you're really warm and friendly," he says with a big smile.  The actor nods her head, hiding the fact that she has no idea what that means.  The director painfully watches on as the actor performs her interpretation of what she thinks the director meant.  She pushes through the scene, forgetting the subtext she pulled when she initially read the script.  The director bites his lip knowing it's not what he wants.  Lunch is in 20 minutes and they still have two more setups to get.  This will have to do.

This has probably happened to every director sometime early in their career.  Having a language and a rapport with your actors is one of the most important aspects of your job as a director.  I've seen so many directors painfully storyboard out scenes with their DP, analyzing every dynamic of the visual world of a story.  They often get to a point where the DP knows the visual vocabulary the director wants, and knows what the director wants before it is asked.  What is it about acting that seems so straightforward that directors don't feel the need to prep at this level with their actors?

Acting requires a level of openness and often times honesty that is completely unnatural to normal human behavior.  Bad acting is obvious when someone is visibly attempting to emulate their character by trying to approach it externally.  Getting into character requires an actor to open up and expose themselves.  Often times they must be emotionally vulnerable.  This process is delicate, and for many actors it requires them to be in an environment that feels comfortable and safe to them.  The last thing they need is to be directed by a total stranger that hasn't earned their trust.

Like every other aspect of filmmaking, it's all about the preparation.  Prepping doesn't always mean rehearsing either.  What is important is that you take the time to get to know the actor.  Have dinner with them.  Grab a cup of coffee.  Grab a beer.  Give yourself the opportunity to understand who it is you are working with.  

Every single actor is different and their processes will always vary.  By learning who a person is, you can feel out what makes them tick.  Knowing what both drives an actor, and what repulses him are key to unlocking what is at the core of their performance.  When I meet with my actors I am always very open about myself, which gives them the breathing room to do the same.  I am always very open about my directing process and what I'm hoping for in the given production.  We often share our favorite films and why we love them.  This is a great way to get a common ground for creating art.  

Don't just depend on your instinct on how to work with a specific actor.... ask them!  Often times when having a drink with an actor for the first time, I'll bluntly ask them about their process.  Now listen. Absorb what they're telling you.  

"The first thing you should do with an actor is not sign a contract with him.  
Take him to dinner.  And then take him for a walk afterwards".  - Elia Kazan

There was one instance I remember where I had a chat with the female lead a couple weeks before we were going into production.  She told me that she worked best with a certain amount of external reality to play to.  After this, I was always trying to find that slice of reality for her throughout production.  In one scene, the script called for her to kiss a character who is not expecting it.  It's a first kiss, it's awkward, and it needs to be spontaneous.  It was a pretty straightforward scene to block and shoot, but it was a key scene for her character.  I made two decisions in pre-production that were tailored for her acting style; we'll shoot this on the first day, and she won't know we're shooting the kiss until right before the take.  Front loading the schedule with this scene made the most sense for the journey of these characters; they don't know each other yet, and it's  awkward.  

When we arrived on location I pulled the actors aside and told them we were cutting the kiss.  I could see a bit of relief in their eyes.  Our blocking rehearsal didn't include a kiss, and I think we rolled a couple takes without it.  I then pulled her aside making the excuse that I needed to see her makeup.  "Kiss him", I muttered to her in full seriousness.  "What?  Does he know?" she asked, eyes widened.  "Nope" I replied with a grin.  Before she could compose herself or make sense of what she was about to do, we were rolling.  There's a moment of hesitation where she takes an extra moment to try to think. Then she goes for it, flinging herself at him without regret. He's stunned, but goes with it.  Perfect.  She naturally went through the range of emotions the character was meant to without forcing it.  We couldn't have rehearsed this kind of result.

Now before you close this window demanding this would never work with actors you've worked with, remember this was tailored for this actor only.  I never would have tried this if I didn't chat with her about her process.  She never would have been OK with this if she didn't already know me and trust me.

I could go on with more examples, but the most important thing here is to know your actors and have them know you.  Do everything in your power to spend time with them before a shoot.  Whether they're a nervous first timer, or a seasoned veteran, be sure to take the time to feel them out.  The actor may be a diva and not feel they need a director.  Fine, but try to figure out what they know they have, what they want from you, and what they don't know you can offer.  

Don't be afraid to put yourself out there.  Trust me, most actors are just as timid as you are when it comes to starting this process.  It can seem as difficult as approaching a total stranger, but it gets easier when you remember this is part of both of your jobs.  At the end of the day, many actors are wonderful people that are an absolute joy to work with.  Having a close collaboration with them creates an exciting and fertile space to create great work.

If you have any thoughts or questions, let's keep the conversation alive in the comments section!

Friday, February 24, 2012

The "Redemptive Presence" Dilemma

It was sitting on paper staring me in the face.  At the time, I wasn't exactly sure what it meant, but I knew it was something profound.  I re-read the phrase... "redemptive presence".

Before I began taking on my position as Vice President of Lakeview Productions, I met with Chris Gearhart, the company's president for months leading up to my hire.  Think of them as job interviews... only they weren't.  I would drive from central Indiana to Chicago on weekends or even weekdays after work, and we would sit in a restaurant or coffee shop and just talk about our ideas for directions we could take the company.  

On one such occasion we were finishing up a discussion on the specifics for the hypothetical first 12 months of my employment.  He put a sheet of paper in front of me that listed what he called the core values of the company.  It had all of the pillars that creative companies strive for; creative excellence, client relationships, professional fulfillment.  These were things that I hoped for in an employer.  But one of the values struck me as a little odd: the two words "redemptive presence".  

I looked at Chris nodding my head as if I knew exactly what he was talking about.  Redemptive of what?  Did Lakeview Productions screw the pooch in a past life and now we're seeking redemption for a past mistake?  Chris then said something that really stuck with me after the meeting.  "We should strive to be the redemptive presence of the industry", he explained.  "In the way we do our work, in the work we do, and with the people we work with."

I was probably nibbling on a french fry or sipping my coffee when it hit me how bold of a statement that was.  We strive to lead by example.  Holy crap, we're not just talking about doing our best and striving to please our clients... we're striving to be the shining beacon of light that others lean towards!

At first this type of pledge seamed overzealous.  This kind of declaration puts much more on us than making a goal of delivering good work.  Heck, creating great work might not even be good enough for this kind of aspiration.  No buddy, this was the mother of all ambitious goals.

Months later I started working for LVP, and with that I started to embrace the mantra of striving to be a redemptive presence.  I began to realize this philosophy is what sets us apart in our industry.  Now let me clarify that I'm not claiming that we are the redemptive presence of the film industry.  Instead, our pursuit of this elusive goal is a defining attribute which us different.  

It forces us to ask ourselves at any point in a project if we're on track to fulfill that goal.  Are we doing everything we can both creatively and professionally to be on track to be a redemptive presence?  Can our work "cut through the clutter"?  

When you're striving to be a redemptive presence, the industry standard is not good enough.  It's the business equivalent to a "what would Jesus do" bracelet.  

To be a redemptive presence we are challenged in the way we work with others.  In the way we work with clients, and treat each other.  It demands honesty with ourselves and others.  It requires we value relationships higher than any one project.

It changes the way we consider the projects we choose to take on.  It tasks us to ask ourselves if a project will be of artistic or creative value to ourselves, the viewers, and our client(s).  It's a challenge to take a project to a higher level than originally intended.

This is only the beginning.  Will we ever be the redemptive presence we strive for?  To me that's not important.  It's the pursuit of that goal that matters.  It's the way it challenges us to be bold and be fearless.  It's the way it pushes us to take risks.  To try to be different.  To find our creative potential.  

Friday, December 9, 2011

Monday, September 26, 2011

New New New!!!!

We've been busy the last couple months.  Really busy.  The biggest change for us has been moving into our new location.

Our new address is:
811 W. Evergreen Ave. Suite 301
Chicago, IL. 60642.

In addition to this, we've taken order of our second RED EPIC camera.  Our RED EPIC-X will be shipping soon and we're excited to implement it into our existing infrastructure of digital cinema cameras.

We also were involved in the production of a short film titled "Your Milkman" directed by Zacuto's Daniel Skubal.  Our very own (and very talented) Christopher Gearhart was the Director of Photography, and the footage is looking great!

The set of "Your Milkman"

Expect updates sooner rather than later, including more info on the making of "Your Milkman", the new location, and the new RED EPIC-X!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What's in a Vision?

You've heard it before; a director discussing his or her "vision" for their project.  The director's vision in many cases might as well be the word of God, sent down as the ultimate truth for a film or video production.  In many instances someone on set will have a strong idea, suggestion, or even demand for the director, and it will quickly get brushed off with the words "that's not part of my vision for this".  This is the ultimate veto on a set.

So what's all the fuss over something so elusive as somebody's idealization of the project?  What does a director "see" when they have a "vision"?  Is it something that comes to them in the night and takes over them like some kind of spell? 

As a director it took me a while to get accustomed to being the final say in any discussion or decision.  Doubt naturally seeps in when making decisions on a major production as a beginner.  But after years of working at it I started to realize that decisions need to be a perfect blend of knowing it's the right thing logically, and knowing it the right thing instinctively.  Like anything, you get better at dealing with logistical issues it with experience; you learn from your mistakes and hone in on what works best for you.  The second is more difficult.  Over time, when considering a decision you just begin to know whether something is right or not.  You can feel it in your bones.  Half the time I won't know why I made a decision until I'm in the edit room and I can see the way a decision gives the right feeling, but it's nothing I really considered on set aside from that gut instinct.  This is a skill that also takes time to refine.

So that's how decisions are made in the moment, but what's with this vision?  Is it seeing the movie play in your head?  Actually, yeah that's it exactly.  It's how the piece comes together in the director's head.  For me, I literally see a little movie in my head.  Now for an actor this could be terrifying knowing your director already has their performance in their head.  The idealization of a director's vision can be the death of a project.  Nothing will be good enough because it's just not the same.  Instead of this, I've found that the vision is the map; it's the path to make sure the project has a unified direction in narrative, theme, and style.  The vision is not the be-all end-all, and it's never static. 

The vision is the first step in inspiration, and it will shape-shift throughout the process.  If there were a technology that would allow someone to extract my vision from my head and say that's the final product, I wouldn't purchase it.  Nothing is more inspiring for me as a director than the ability to have my vision altered and challenged by the creative people and settings around me.  The process of going through production forces a director to revisit that vision and breath new life into it.  This is how good films have a life and texture of their own.  It's how they lose rigidity and gain complexity.  An actor with expressive eyes can change the way we shoot and light a scene.  The way a room takes in light can change the set dressing and the overall blocking of a scene. 

OK, so you must think this is the most convoluted explanation for what should be a simple concept.  It's important to understand that it doesn't seem this complicated because the vision itself isn't complicated.  A vision can be simply described as the way a director sees a piece, at any given moment of its creation.  Much like an artist painting a mural, we need to know how the overall piece must come together.  But at the same time, we can get caught up in the moment and let inspiration take over when we step closer and start working in details.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Our article on Reel Chicago!

Ruth Ratny of Reel Chicago recently wrote a great article about Chris Gearhart, our company's president.  It also includes some information about our company and its leadership that you may not have already known.

Read it here!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Seven Reasons Advertisers Shouldn’t Worry About Video Production

If you’ve been involved with or heard horror stories of video production, you may get a slight wave of panic and nausea when considering a production. Budgets . . . pre-production . . . location scouts . . . storyboards . . . productions meetings . . . edits . . . revisions . . . transcoding . . . dubbing . . . compositing . . . audio mastering . . . color grading . . .

Feel that first tingle of a migraine in your head yet?

Fear not brave warrior of advertising. We have made a set of thoughts to remember when approaching your decision on whom to work on your next visual masterpiece:

1. We love what we do. Truth be told, we’re total geeks. There’s a good chance that we actually enjoy the things you dread about video production. We’re in this industry because it’s our passion, and we embrace the challenges that others see as headaches.

2. We’re in the business of problem-solving. For a production company, just about every step of the process after the script is written involves figuring out how to make it happen. We do this for a living and solving problems is what we do every day.

3. We know advertising. I worked in an ad agency before coming here, and I’ve worked the knowledge I’ve obtained into how we run our company. We know the difference between a business’ brand, and its branding. We study how to speak to your target audience. We are concerned about your concerns as an ad agency, and want to help you obtain your goals.

4. We love film, and are filmmakers. What does that have to do with your ad? Everything! Almost any spot’s production value will be judged on the same merits as a movie. “Filmic” is almost universally synonymous with high-quality production. Equally important is the way film uses visual language to communicate its message. Commercials these days are like short-form movies, and the good ones share the same qualities as a good film.

5. We want you to be happy.  Let’s face it, if you’re happy with working with us and our work, you’ll want to work with us again. It’s good business. It’s also a core value of Lakeview Productions that maintaining good relationships is one of the most important parts of what we do.

6. We only aim for the highest quality. We are constantly trying to better ourselves creatively and technically in our art. We are very prideful of our work and strive for the same high level of quality in all of projects, no matter the budget.

7. We’re flexible. Our clients vary and logically, so do our projects. We love to explore different styles and genres, and can work on a broad range of budgets. We approach each project with fresh eyes and always are ready to adjust to its needs. Your crew, equipment package, creative approach, and budget will be specific for your project and your needs.

We could make this list much longer, but I think you get the picture. So take a deep breath, relax, and remember we’re here to help. We can make your next production not only bearable, but also fun!