Learn Filmmaking One Useful Technique at a Time
The boon and the burden of the digital revolution is the remarkable ease with which we can manipulate sound and image. The best way to approach your film production software is to learn the basic functions first, the essential tools. Learn how to choose the shots you want, how to perform cuts and make a sequence. Learn how to arrange those shots and how to trim them longer or shorter as you need. Learn how to layer a few tracks of audio and adjust sound levels and keep your footage in sync. Maybe try a dissolve or two. That’s all you really need at first. Now go make a movie. If your shots don’t work together with a cut, then a “page-peel” transition isn’t going to help. If your images aren’t carefully composed, spinning them across the screen won’t make them more eloquent. If your actors aren’t convincing, not one of the numerous image-effect filters will make their performance ring more true. Strengthen your fundamental storytelling techniques and use only what you need to tell your story.
Those 1,500-page user manuals will always wait for you. When you discover that you truly need to use a wipe transition, then look it up and learn how to do it. As you make your movies, you will be adding one useful technique at a time—but on your schedule and as your movies require. The tail should not wag the dog. Make the technology work for your ideas and resist the temptation to let snazzy technology lead the way.
The film director Michel Gondry developed his filmmaking skills in the world of music videos before he tackled feature-length narrative films. He created memorable videos for pop musicians like Björk. Although he has a reputation for fairly low-tech special effects, his music video works are nonetheless highly stylized and technically flamboyant. However, when it came to feature film storytelling, the music video director surprisingly used no extreme digital technology or even fancy transitions in his 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In telling a very complex story—which traces the labyrinth of a man’s mind as he slowly loses his memories of a woman through a scientific process designed to erase her from his brain—Gondry opted for a highly stripped down style including a handheld camera and natural lighting. His editing approach is equally simple. In the entire film, Gondry uses exclusively straight cuts with only four exceptions: one fade-in, two fades to black, and one fade to white. It is the structure of the film itself that conveys the layered storyline, and not the flashy effects.
The Dardenne brothers’ film La Promesse (1997) presents a fictional drama in a cinema vérité documentary style. The film derives its realism and credibility from the immediacy of the raw, unembellished documentary approach. In this case, the use of digital effects, dissolves, or other fancy transitions in video or audio would be completely inappropriate for the realist content and corresponding style and would weaken the film’s impact.
I certainly don’t want to close off any of a filmmaker’s potential creative avenues. If your story will benefit from all of the bells and whistles, if the fancy transitions, key effects, and digital processing are appropriate and can actually enhance your story, then by all means use them. In The Matrix trilogy (1999–2004), the Wachowski brothers certainly exploited technology for all it was worth in creating the matrix, an entire world and consciousness, a complete construction of technology. In this case the filmmakers are practically obligated by the subject matter and themes of the film to push high technology to its limits.
Excerpt from Voice and Vision: A Creative Approach to Narrative Film and DV Production by Mick Hurbis-Cherrier © 2007, Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.