How A Film Becomes Law Part 4: After Taking The Film Out Of The Camera

How a Film Becomes Law

Hoy-hoy, everybody! I’m taking a quick break from editing Rum and Pancakes and I don’t have a lot of time, but I thought I’d tell you a little bit about the lab-based confusion we suffered when shooting our first 16mm assignment, by this point going by the title The Key, or The Strange Key, or That Movie Thing.

After we ran out the last of our film and boxed it up and wrote “WARNING! EXPOSED! DO NOT USE! WARNING! LOOK OUT!” all over the boxes, we needed to figure out how to get our film to the lab. I mentioned earlier that the person who left our group when she dropped the class was the only one among the three of us to have a car. Luckily, we were able to get in touch with someone in another group who was willing to take our film in with theirs. So far so good.

The problem occurred when she went back on Saturday to pick up the film. The web site of Film and Video Services ensures anyone who might wish to know that they are open until noon on Saturdays. Turns out that’s a lie. Turns out that they wouldn’t be open again until Monday morning, the same day as our class, at which we were supposed to present our films.

So we panicked a lot, then made a compromise with our teacher: although we would not have an edited piece to show, we would let our class look at our rushes. The fun part is that we would not have seen a single frame of our film when we popped the tape into the player.

Well, here’s what we (and the rest of the class) saw.

I like to think of myself as a fairly articulate person, but the only word that springs to mind when watching this transfer is “yuck.” It’s not that the film we shot is that bad, although it is perhaps just a tad underexposed. It’s that the video transfer just doesn’t look good.

Time for a lesson on film-to-video transfers!

Ever since television has existed, there has been a need for a system for transferring film to video. The earliest and simplest way of accomplishing this was a method known as film chain, in which a film projector is basically just pointed into a video camera lens and run at full speed. Later on, a more sophisticated process known as telecine or occasionally rank transfer came to popularity, in which the film is transferred frame-by-frame directly to an image sensor (this is more akin to running the film through a scanner than projecting it into a camera).

Well, Film and Video Services offers only film chain transfer, which looks jittery and ghosty and dark and yucky. Yet another reason to never use them again.

Anyway, there’s nothing we can do about a bad transfer (and to be fair, reversal film doesn’t look all that great in the first place), so we just have to work with it. Our next task was to edit, and do our level best to make the transfer look decent.

Check out our results next week during Exploding Shorts Month!

How A Film Becomes Law Part 3: Production (Redux)

How a Film Becomes Law

Last time on How A Film Becomes Law, I outlined our production plan. Kinda blah, but what the hell. It’s a silent three-minute short, and I’m no Eisenstein to begin with.

Our production strategy was simple:

  1. Check out a Bolex and a lighting kit for the weekend
  2. Rope Ethan and Parker into acting/crewing, without pay or any form of compensation
  3. Set up the lights for the apartment scene (in my apartment, natch)
  4. Learn how to load the camera
  5. Shoot the darn thing

Because our expectations were rather remarkably low for the project, the shoot went rather more smoothly than usual. It also helped that we had heard the “edit in-camera” mandate, thought about it very carefully, and decided that the best course of action was to pretend to not have been listening during that part of class. Shooting out of sequence is pretty much always a better option, even if it means being a weasel to get there.

The one real hang-up was that the Bolex we got had a broken film counter, meaning that we just had to be incredibly paranoid and listen for the film to run out. It also meant sticking the camera in a changing bag every ten minutes, popping it open, and checking by hand to see how much film was left. One thing I learned: I’m incredibly bad at estimating film length by the sense of touch alone.

The other hang-up was that the Bolex we got had, for some obscure reason, two 26mm lenses, rather than a 26 and a 16 or something like that. So we couldn’t do wide shots in our confined location. That is, we couldn’t do wide shots until I went all vigilante film student on its ass and gaff taped my .3x wide angle conversion lens to the front of the camera. Surprisingly, that worked (Speaking of gaff tape, check out FilmTools. The selection of available gaff tape varieties will blow your mind).

Aaaaanyways, we shot the movie. ‘Nuff said. The focus pulls worked, the camera was kinda scary, we were paranoid about underexposing and it was way too cold outside, but we managed to get everything shot in one day.

Check back on Thursday when I’ll tell you all about our difficulties with the lab! And show you the rushes!


…say hello to Deep Thought.

Deep Thought 1

Deep Thought is smarter than you.

Deep Thought 2

How A Film Becomes Law Part 2: Production

How a Film Becomes Law

We closed last time on How A Film Becomes Law on a group of three film students, trying to find a premise for a short film. We open this time on a group of two film students who do not yet know that they are a group of two, and still have no ideas.

We met on Wednesday evening to pitch a few ideas. I didn’t really have any, so I was hoping somebody else would have a good one. Turns out Matt didn’t really have any ideas either, and our third group member never showed up (we found out the next day that she had dropped the class—not too big a deal, except that she was the only one with a car).

So we bandied about our half-baked ideas for a while, then got down to the dirty business of picking the idea we despised the least and getting ourselves excited about it.

We decided the story would focus around an ordinary guy placed in an extraordinary situation (see as examples every other silent short student film ever made). He finds a strange key in his sink, which does not open any lock. Then, one day, his keys do not open his door. He tries the strange key, which works. A pan-dimensional being (ibid) is waiting for him inside. He returns the key to this being, after which the status quo is restored (ibid, et al.).

To make this stupid little cliché more interesting we decided to put in a lot of rack focusing and other fancy camera and lighting work. I drew up some gorgeous storyboards:

Scary Key boards 01Scary Key boards 02Scary Key boards 03Scary Key boards 04Scary Key boards 05Scary Key boards 06Scary Key boards 07

…and it was time to shoot.

Oh, and one more thing: screw that whole ‘edit in-camera’ thing. We’re just not gonna do it. There just ain’t no way.

Next week: Shooting! And then the following week you get to see it! Because guess what time of year it is?


That’s right, March 2008 is the second annual Exploding Shorts month, during which at least two new short films will be posted to every week for free viewing! And other festivities! And cake!

…ok, so I made up the thing about cake. But everything else is true.

Rum and pancakes, and other things

You know what’s a great way to celebrate shooting three films in one evening?

Relax, guys. It's just colored water.

Getting shitfaced.

Relax, guys. It’s just stage rum (water and food coloring). I may have just given my grandmother a heart attack.

That’s right, I shot three films last night. 800 feet of film. Class in 15 minutes, more deadlines this week, but rest assured that there are a great many of new things slowly inching their way towards this web site. I’ll post more information on these new and wonderful things as soon as I can.


Robert with Arriflex

A peek behind the backdrop

Peggy Archer works as a film and television lighting technician in Los Angeles, and she has a fantastic Flickr set of behind-the-scenes lighting and rigging photos from some well-known and bigger-budget productions: Random set photos [via B-Scene Films] Techies, take a look and geek the hell out!

I was pleased to note that although these big productions have fancier toys and more of them (18-kilowatt HMIs—yowza!), the setups can be just as haphazard as anything I’ve put together.

Incidentally, Peggy has what looks to be a very content-rich blog: Totally Unauthorized. I haven’t had time to look through it, but I think I’ll be adding it to my RSS feeds.

Computer names

In the past, I have never named my computers. I’ve always felt that it needlessly anthropomorphizes them. I have always been inextricably tied to computers, but I pride myself as never having tried to strike up a conversation with a Linux box or trying to calm a panicky G5 with my soothing words. I may be nuts in many ways, but I don’t want to be the 21st-century equivalent of the crazy cat lady.

Still, there is something to be said for naming computers. At Channel 10 all the Final Cut stations were named after famous directors of the 1970s, and it certainly imbues you with a sense of prestige to sit down in front of Coppola and start editing. And the fact is that there are some computers that are such beasts that they deserve names. Think HAL 9000, or ENIAC.

So then, what would you name an 8-core Mac Pro, packed to the gills with RAM and loaded with a vast array of post-production software and hardware? I was thinking of “Euclid,” as a nod to Pi, but I’m not that big on geometry. Or possibly just “The Beast.” Thoughts?

Five (or six) classy music videos

I’ve been thinking about music videos recently, and how some of the best music videos are also some of the simplest.

The urge as a director is to try and use music videos to make grandiose statements or overindulgent visual feasts. The problem with this is that those sorts of videos tend to detract or distract or restrict the experience of actually listening to the music. They stop being music videos and become short films set to music. That’s okay, but they do a disservice to the source material. (I myself am guilty of this on two counts.)

Here, then, are some quick picks—five (or six) of my favorite “classy” music videos, in no particular order. These are videos that do not serve to limit the scope of a song, don’t get sucked into the yawning abyss of literalism or wrapped up in their own oh-so-clever concepts, and are just generally kick-ass.

They Might Be Giants, Ana Ng (1988) or Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head (1986); Adam Bernstein

Really any They Might Be Giants video from 1994 or earlier, actually. Now, these aren’t videos that you’d necessarily associate the word ‘classy’ with, but let me just give it a shot. They are some truly weird shows, and yet, somehow, they don’t distract from the music. The visuals are unusual but in perfect keeping with TMBG’s style, and the videos developed an aesthetic that stuck with TMBG for the next fifteen years. Most importantly, I think they work because they discarded the idea of dealing literally with the somewhat nonsensical lyrics of the song but rather chose to introduce new, equally-nonsensical visuals to accompany them.

Paul Simon, You Can Call Me Al (1987); Gary Weis

I put this in here as proof that classy music videos don’t have to take themselves too seriously. Here is a video that pokes gentle fun at itself, as well as the entire “white room” genre of performance videos. Paul Simon delivers a perfect deadpan, and the minimalist staging is surprisingly complementary to the rich audio. A perfect video for a song that became so popular in part because nobody could agree on what the lyrics meant.

David Bowie, Life On Mars? (1973); Mick Rock

My favorite music video. Pure, unmitigated cool. And if you can’t understand why then I just don’t think we can go on being friends.

The Umbrella Sequence, Heads Explode (2007); Micah Dahl

I put this in here for a few different reasons. One is that yes, Micah Dahl graduated from MCAD a couple months ago and this was part of his senior thesis. But the other, more important reason is that the video demonstrates a simplicity of concept that is so incredibly rare in contemporary music videos. Clever, fun, and quietly insane.

Johnny Cash, God’s Gonna Cut You Down (2006); Tony Kaye

Yes, a posthumous music video. No, I don’t think it’s in bad taste because it’s so well-conceived and faithful to the song. We all know about the Hurt music video and how cool it is, but I think that it gets a little too specifically biographical, which limits the scope of the song. That’s an instance where the video is good and the song is good, but when the chips are down I’d rather just listen to the song. God’s Gonna Cut You Down, on the other hand, although in some ways a “concept” video, is beautifully poetic and, in my opinion, expands the horizons of the song rather than limiting them.

For an example of a not-classy music video, see this. It’s important to note that although I’d say that particular video is pretty damn horrible, there are a lot of not-so-classy music videos out there that I quite like. I usually put very narrative or “concept”-based videos in this category, and sometime I’ll do a list of my favorite non-performance videos (the preceding disclaimer was for the benefit of Greg, whom I’m sure was about to pounce on me for being too dogmatic about my taste in music videos).

What are your favorite music videos? Is there something I missed here? Something I should be ashamed at having not seen? Or an easier question: What are some really good songs with really horrible music videos? Let’s hear it!

How A Film Becomes Law Part 1: The Assignment

Time to get back to my roots and write a little bit about making movies!

“WHAT?!” You exclaim. “The filmmaker Andrew Gingerich is going to write about making movies?! Surely this must be some cruel trick!”

But no, dear friends, it is not a cruel trick. It is, much like everything else I post here, an aimless whim.

Anyway, after a semester off from production classes I am now up to my neck in film classes, most notably 16mm production (yep, we shoot real film, like back in the olden days of… well… 2004). I thought maybe it would be a fun exercise to outline how a short film goes from concept to final product. So for the coming month I’m going to shower you with weekly installments of how our first film was made.

How a Film Becomes Law

Here was our assignment: work in groups of three. Shoot 200 feet of Tri-X black-and-white reversal using spring-wound Bolex cameras. The theme of the film should be “finding something.” Film is due in two weeks. Edit in-camera.

Edit in-camera?


Ah fuck! No! Don’t make me do it! Noooooooooooo!

In class, we get demoed on the Bolexes; loading, operation, and how to avoid the broken parts. You turn the winding crank counter-clockwise. If you turn it clockwise, it falls off. It’s all fairly simple and they’re beautiful cameras. Unfortunately, according to people who have actually used them before, they’re also very temperamental.

Then we’re handed our film (Free film? Sweet!), and we head off to determine what we’re actually going to shoot. We can’t have any dialogue because they’re silent cameras and it’s way too much work to record it later, since we only have a two-week turnaround. But a story would be a nice thing to have, yeah? Too bad we can’t think of anything. All we can think of are sight gags. Typical student film garbage. We resolve to each come up with a couple concepts and meet in two days to pitch them to each other. Best concept gets shot.

Little did we know that a drastic restructuring loomed before us unseen, like some sort of giant invisible rat. But you’ll have to wait until next week to hear about that!

ALSO: Notes on another director have been added. This week: John Frankenheimer, director of deliciously paranoid and bone-chilling films The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds. Phrase of the week: John Frankenheimer is crazy cool. It’s true.

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