NYU is a production program. The goal is to learn the art by actually making movies.
So, we are thrown into the deep end. Sink or swim. At the end of the first week, we are assigned crews and given our cameras. 16mm film cameras. Video may be fine for exercises, but film is tougher, film requires more discipline and therefore, our very first deliverable will be on film1.
At the end of the first semester, we will each deliver a four-minute black and white film. It is required that the film be all exteriors (so we aren’t forced to deal with lighting right away) and it will have no dialog. The lack of dialog forces us to focus on drama through action.
All of the classes that we have are tailored to teach us how to make our films. The classes are directing, writing, aesthetics, production management, sound, editing, acting and cinematography (techniques and lecture). Directing and writing are self-explanatory and it is our directing classes that assigns us exercises every single week.
Aesthetics is all about how to construct your shots, scenes and your film. Shot design, movement of the frame, movement within the frame, camera strategies, color, lighting, depth of field… The list is endless. We watch films that do an incredible job and deconstruct why they are in fact so powerful. It is an incredible class. Brilliant. I’m learning to notice, to think this way, to appreciate the incredible detail filmmakers go to get their desired effect on their audience.
Sound and editing are, again, self-explanatory. Production management teaches us how to be indie filmmakers. Permits, licenses, releases and the other joys of being write/director/producers. Acting starts off with teaching us the basics of acting so that we understand what’s involved and then moves into how to direct actors. The in-class exercises are just incredibly fun and revealing. I love acting and find that almost all my fellow classmates are great actors.
Cinematography gets split into a hands-on techniques class where we learn the details of the camera, the equipment, and how to actually shoot and a lecture, where one of the most incredibly interest women I’ve ever met talks to us about how to use camera techniques to make the films we want. She shows us the movies she’s shot and the ones others have shot and deconstructs how the cinematography was done.
I can’t stress how much I love my classes. Each one is incredibly rich and deep and the professors are amazingly accomplished (but that’s for another post). But while each class teaches us skills to make our first semester films, each class also assigns us separate deliverables that make the workload pretty significant.
As I sit here towards the end of the semester, I am amazed by what I’ve had the privilege to learn. One of the things that the head of program reinforced to us at the beginning was the fact that we are in art school. This has a whole bunch of specific implications (some of which are controversial), but the one that is staring me in the face is that being in art school means we get evaluated on our work.
At the end of the semester, each of the 36 of us will screen his/her movie for the faculty. We will then sit at the front of the screening room and hear the critique. No rebuttals allowed. Just absorb the evaluation.
Jeez. A lot of editing to be done before I will be ready for that… Off I go to edit.
I am sure there’s a debate about the wisdom of shooting film in the digital revolution era, but personally, I find the discipline of shooting film an incredible lesson to learn ↩
Those who’ve read this blog for a while will remember a post I did on whether or not to go to film school. Well, back then, I decided to apply.
I applied only to NYU. Since I live in NYC, NYU and Columbia are the main full-time options (The New School and SVA are also good options). Even if I had been able to move to California, the schools there never held any appeal for a whole bunch of reasons.
I liked NYU because it was focused on production. It is also focused on the independent film and not on the Hollywood system. It is very international (I’d say 40% of the current class). It is very diverse. And very importantly, every single student gets to make a thesis film. This is huge. One of the things that put me off some west coast schools is that they slot people early and only some get to be directors while others have to assist them. Experience has shown however, that some people take more time to bloom than others. And when everyone pays the same tuition how is that even close to fair?
Another critical positive of NYU is that the filmmaker owns the rights to the films he/she makes, not the school. I am not sure people understand how important this is. Not to belabor the point, but some west coast schools own your IP. Huh?? Why on earth should the school own your creativity when you pay tuition to learn and use the equipment?
Anyway, for all these reasons, NYU it was. The application process was draining. Statement of purpose, treatment of a feature film (narrative or documentary), a scene with dialog, a treatment for a four-minute silent short film. And visual submissions of either films or photographs. I submitted both the short films I made. By the time I was done, I had no energy to even think of applying to Columbia.
The next step was the interview. I prepared as much as I could. The interview was three people – John Tintori, chair of the program, Milcho Manchevski, directing professor, and David Atkins. Wow. They just hit me with question after question without time to breathe. Nothing about my background or my aspirations. Just creative and visual challenges the entire time. 30 minutes later, I walked out feeling it was the worst interview of my life.
The fact that I am writing this post means, of course, that things were not as grim as I had anticipated.
I was ready to start in the class entering 2007. But life has its own plans. Two years later, I started in the class entering 2009. September 1 was the first day of orientation. And things have been insanely hectic ever since.
This post is a bit late, but I’m hoping to reverse the trend and blog about my experiences at NYU. If anyone is interested in the school or in film school in general, please feel free to ask any questions in the comments.
Fred Wilson wrote a post on how streaming and easy availability of content via streams can/will kill piracy via the torrent download. I largely agree. And especially for movies and TV shows I think people are even willing to pay to get instant access rather than download a torrent and wait an undefined period to get the file.
However, what happens globally? I’ve been in India for a few months. I can’t watch any Netflix stream here. I can’t watch Hulu. If I wanted to, I would have to go through a US proxy server that slows things down tremendously and even that does not work for Netflix. If the customer is a US customer but is traveling globally, these restrictions are simply ludicrous. I live in New York City. My Netflix account is tied to my address in Manhattan. I am still paying the monthly fee. And just because I am out of the country I am no longer a valid customer? Ridiculous.
I understand there are convoluted rules governing global rights. But the content creators should also realize that in today’s connected world, the audience for any piece of content is global. Excluding the situation of a traveling user (which is a no-brainer), here’s a very simplistic solution to the problem
Let’s assume the rights for a certain TV show or movie, that is created in the US, are sold in India. A viewer from India arrives a US site showing the movie. The site should let the viewer watch but share a certain % of the revenue with the rights owner in India. Clearly the rights owners in India have failed to provide the customers in the country access in a timely and/or user-friendly way. Why should the end-user be punished? Why should the content creator be punished by having fewer viewers. Distributors get your act together! Get stuff out to users in your country on-time. Get the content out to them in a way they want to watch it. Otherwise be okay with a provider in another country doing this.
If the rights in a certain country are not sold, then the users can view the content without the streaming site having to worry about reverting payment. If US site makes money via advertisements, and the advertisers don’t care about a global audience, then either make the user pay a fee or let them watch for free and build brand loyalty.
Same thing applies to an Australian movie and a viewer in the US. The locations of content creator and viewer are irrelevant.
Content wants to be global. Why should the viewer be concerned about rights in each country? Even brands are becoming more global every day – why should Hulu be a US brand? YouTube isn’t. It is really time for a new model. In future, my hope is that content creators and rights owners forget the country-by-country rights sale model. Just put the movie online, let the whole world watch it, collect your money. Much more efficient, elimination of months of negotiations, everyone is happier. Some content creators are starting to do this. It is time more jumped on the bandwagon.
Slightly delayed, but let me jump into coverage of Day 3 and Day 4.
May 31st, Sunday, 2009. Day 3.
The morning of Day 3 belonged to Atul Tiwari and dialog. Atul was a great mix of prepared notes and extempore. He started off with a history of cinema in Chennai1 and then waded into the key elements of writing good dialog. He talked about how characters give birth to dialog and dialog gives birth to characters; that to write good dialog, you really need to know a lot about the character, who she is, the physiology, sociology and psychology. He stressed the importance of subtext and of the unspoken word.
He also talked about common pitfalls to avoid – like falling in love with dialog and ensuring some character in the script (or in your next script) says those lines. I can honestly say I’ve had those moments where there’s a great line and I spend time wondering how to get a character to say that.
We then watched several scenes of dialog from movies and he deconstructed what worked in each of those scenes. He ended with stressing that dialog should not be used for exposition in your script. After all, cinema is a visual medium – show don’t tell, as the oft-repeated phrase goes. Atul is an engaging speaker – expressive, witty, and very aware of the pulse of the audience. All in all, a very good session.
While Atul owned the morning of Day 3, the afternoon session was run by Mr. Hariharan. The topic was Deconstructing a Screenplay. The session started well – he screened a movie called The Lunch Date written and directed by Adam Davidson. This is a famous short and used in film schools all over the world as an example of a great short. Davidson made it as a student at Columbia and it won the Student Academy Awards as well as at Cannes and at the Oscars. So far, so good.
Mr. Hariharan then dived into a very detailed deconstruction of the short from the perspective of film making. Not the screenplay, film making. So we were treated to details about how to figure out the location size and block your characters accordingly, how to stage the scene, how many seconds it took the character to do something, how many shots it took to communicate a certain event etc. All very good stuff but really, it was not deconstructing the screenplay at all. It was deconstructing the film. Mr. Hariharan is clearly a very visual filmmaker (a good thing) and he communicated the intense focus on detail one needs to make a good shot, scene and short film, but I think it left a lot of the audience confused as to what it had to do with the script. And, it also left several newbies wondering what to put in a script (location details, shot details, etc.)
A more effective method for this session might have been to read a script (as the writer wrote it), examine how it worked with regard to building momentum and tension, character detailing, dialog construction etc. and then watch the director’s vision of the same piece as a film. The session as it was held, definitely had some positives, but I’d mark it as the one with opportunity for improvement.
Day 4 was a sizzler – packed and useful. When I was considering whether to apply to the workshop, I chatted with a friend, Somen M. When he saw that Anjum was leading many of the sessions, he insisted I apply because Anjum “was an exceptional teacher”. Let’s just say that Somen’s respect for Anjum lived up to the hype.
The morning and early afternoon were dedicated to sessions on The Hero’s Journey, led by Anjum Rajabali. This is a hard session to write about since so much of the detail was in Anjum’s delivery. So instead of transcribing my notes, I’m going to provide an overview. Using Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the basis, Anjum spoke at length about the various parts of the hero’s journey. This is fascinating stuff and is an exceptional way to understand why mythology all over the world has stood the test of time. In terms of screenwriting, it is a very useful way to think of both plot construction and character construction and growth. Campbell’s book is now on my must-read list and it should be on yours if you love screenwriting. Before Anjum started speaking, Atul introduced the session and said many of Anjum’s former students seek out his talks on the hero’s journey. After the session, I certainly understand why. If I’m ever in a position to attend another of these sessions, I certainly will.
This long and utterly fascinating session was followed by two quick and practical ones on the writing process and terminology (Anjum) and a review of a free screenwriting software called Celtx (Mr. Hariharan). Screenwriting software greatly enhances the speed of writing because you don’t have to worry about indenting things the right way and Celtx certainly seems pretty bulletproof in most regards. And who can beat free?
The final session was about the Industry Aspects of writing. Anjum and Atul, both of whom have been instrumental in crafting a standard contract for writers in the Bombay film industry led this session. They talked through the writer’s rights – fees, credit, termination and rolayties and the writer’s duties – schedule of submission and presence at meetings. I was stunned to learn that they had a really hard time of getting people to agree to a minimum fee of Rs. 6 lakhs (USD 12,000) per script. I mean, months, perhaps years of work and the payoff is 6 lakhs? How on earth is a writer to survive? Someone at the seminar pointed out that promo cutters (the folks that cut the trailers for films) get paid 6 lakhs for a month or two of work. Sure you need to know how to edit, but are we kidding here? There’s really no comparison in the amount of work involved.
This session was an eye opener. And to think that the writers union worked really hard to even get to this point! A lot of credit to them. I really hope this is just a starting point and over time, the amount paid even to first time writers – for a good script – goes up dramatically. On that note, it was interesting to see Mr. Kamal Haasan’s reaction to this session; he wears several hats – one as a writer himself, two as the host of the workshop and three as a producer who hopes that this body of students will produce some great work for him, at a reasonable price. He was clearly torn on which hat to don 🙂
The session was an excellent jolt of reality. Everyone should go into this profession with their eyes open. Knowing the reality will better prepare folks for the crazy world that awaits them. The session also wrapped up the day and yes, as of Day 4, Mr. Kamal Haasan had still attended every single session. Impressive.
The next post will cover the final part of the workshop, the seminar. Coverage will be light since I was sick as a dog for a majority of it. My being sick also made me miss the screening on Day 4 – IndigÃ¨nes, directed by Rachid Bouchareb and written by Olivier Lorelle (who was scheduled to speak on Day 5).
A few weeks ago, I learned (web, twitter) about the Chennai International Screenwriting Workshop and decided to apply. The application process is probably one of the most tech-savvy I’ve seen. Everything was run through their website (a modified blog, really). Regular updates kept the masses fed in a very efficient manner. And just a day later than their originally promised schedule, I found out that I got in.
And here we are…
May 29th, Friday, 2009. Day 1.
The day kicked off with an introduction by Mr. Kamal Haasan. He put the entire workshop together to make screenwriting more accessible to aspiring writers. This is the first time I’ve seen the man in person and I have to say that he’s articulate and intelligent. He also seems very self-effacing. Most importantly, he seems really committed to the workshop. I’m writing this at the end of day 2 and he’s been in every session – hasn’t skipped a single one. He also introduced the rest of the presenters for the workshop – Hariharan, Director of the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy, Anjum Rajabali, Head of departments of screenwriting at FTII and Whistling Woods, and Atul Tiwari, a professional screenwriter and an excellent dialog writer.
Anjum Rajabali took charge of the next couple of sessions. He’s a very impressive man – funny, engaging, articulate, compelling. An excellent presenter who captures and holds your attention. He clearly loves what he does and he communicates that joy when he talks about his craft. In his first session, he walked through each of the elements of a screenplay – idea, premise, theme, plot, character, structure, scene, dialogue. It was a solid primer and a good grounding on the basics of what’s involved with writing a screenplay. He then spent an entire session on Premise. The key take away for me:Â figure out the Premise early in the writing process in order to ensure you have enough to power an entire feature film.
Mr. Hariharan (feel compelled to say Mister here… Anjum seems like a guy who’d be cool with it if you called him by his name though, so I’m going with it) then led a very detailed session on Characters, Characterizations and Characteristics. And when I say detailed, I mean extraordinarily detailed – pages and pages of detailed PowerPoint, each one filled with great stuff. The best parts of the session were when he took the time to illustrate with examples – he came up with hilarious examples that will stay with me for a long time. An example of one of his examples – “What if you named one of your characters Abithakuchalambal? It immediately embodies the character with certain attributes. Then what if you name the other character Tania? You have an image of an Abithakuchalambal and you have an image of a Tania. Now what if Abithakuchalambal was 20 and Tania was 60?” It’s enough to convince you that you have to have a weed-smoking, goth-styled Abithakuchalambal in your next script, yes?
The day wrapped up with a screening of On The Waterfront. I’ve watched it before and I can honestly say the second viewing of Kazan’s masterpiece was better than the first.
May 30th, Saturday, 2009. Day 2.
Anjum led the session on Structure. This is one of those parts of a workshop that has to be taught (I mean, can you actually say you don’t teach anything about structure in a screenwriting workshop?) but, one that really shouldn’t be applied by screenwriters *as* they write their screenplays. And fortunately, Anjum himself stressed that point – do not think about structure, do not work to a formula. Having learned the basics of screenwriting from the inimitable Mick Casale (head of the writing program at NYU’s Tisch), I was jumping up and down in agreement with that statement.
The next session was on Scene design and Anjum screened and dissected a handful of beautifully constructed scenes including the opening scene from The Godfather, the scene in the car from The Sixth Sense where Cole reveals his secret to his mom, the scene from Satya where Bhiku Matre comes home and exchanges slaps with his wife, and finally the opening scene of Charulata which Mr. Hariharan talked us through.
Despite the fact that we spent a session and a half on Scene Design, I really feel this needs even more time. Creating a great scene is hard and I would love to learn more about the variables in the writer’s toolkit to build a great scene. I’m hoping they can spend a bit more time on this on Day 3.
The last session of the day was led by Mr. Kamal Haasan. He chose to focus on Hey Ram, in which he was the writer, director and actor, and spent most of the session answering questions. A very open and honest exchange despite the occasional, cringe-inducing “question” that was really a verbal love-letter from an ardent fan.
The day’s screening was Ghatak’s extraordinarily depressing Mehge Dhaka Tara, widely regarded as his best film. Even though I like Ajantrik better, one can’t really complain at having to watch any Ghatak film again, especially on a large screen.
Finally, I have to say this is a really well-organized conference. It’s located in IIT, unarguably the best campus in the city, the presenters stick to their times, the food is decent and handed out in a very organized manner and the volunteers are genuinely helpful. When was the last time that happened? Kudos to everyone involved!
Can you imagine a movie comprised almost entirely of close-ups? Would you feel claustrophobic? Want to shove your elbows outward to create some breathing room? Stand up and stretch and take huge, gasping breaths? Or perhaps even hit pause and take a walk outside?
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc made me feel all of those things. And therein lies a lot of its brilliance.
Set in the last hours of Joan of Arc’s life, the movie covers her trial, how her English judges coerced her, her recanting and her eventual execution at the stake. We all know the story and we all know how it is going to end, but it is still gripping, moving and utterly consuming.
Joan is played brilliantly by Maria Falconetti. She is wide-eyed, she is afraid and she is resigned. The camera frames her face. At most you can see her face and shoulders. Her tear-streaked cheek fills the screen. She tilts her head, looks down in defeat and you want to jump up and shake her and tell her to fight or yell or scream – just don’t take what these bastards are saying so calmly!
If Joan’s face is one of innocence and acceptance, Dreyer has chosen the antagonists even more brilliantly. Every single actor has a face that could inspire a comic artist to create his evil, plotting, scheming baddie. Hooked noses, curling lips, ears sprouting hair, supercilious glances, conniving chuckles and blubbering superiority are all in full force.
In the first scene, Joan is brought into the court. Dreyer surrounds her with guards that dwarf her. And he shoots her from above, making her even smaller. The committee of jurors are placed on a slightly elevated dais and are shot from below. All of this accentuates the stress that Joan is placed in. Dreyer often has shots in the film where we see only parts of a character’s face with the background providing relevant context and meaning – for example, the image used in this post where we see only a part of Joan’s face and the cross looms in the background. The provocative camera angles continue throughout the film.
Another scene that’s fascinating is one where Joan is threatened with torture if she does not confess. She’s initially calm. Then she is shown the device on which she will be tortured – a plank over which a wheel with spikes will be rotated. The torture master starts turning the wheel and the camera focuses in on it. The whirring of the wheel gets faster and faster. Joan is afraid. It spins faster still, filling the screen and becoming a blur. Joan faints in fear and my heart was pounding. Brilliantly constructed to build tension and anxiety.
I watched the Criterion Collection DVD and it has provides interesting background information on the film – “Long thought to have been lost to fire, the original version was miraculously found in perfect condition in 1981â€”in a Norwegian mental institution.” It also offers the movie with no sound whatsoever and with an opera score that was inspired by the film. I watched the completely silent version first – it was the way Dreyer wanted it to be watched. I then started to watch the film with the score, but having watched it silent and been so taken with it, the score felt like too much and I stopped.
Whether you watch it for the first time with or without the music, I recommend you do watch this movie. This is a master at work – he takes a story that you know and makes you care, makes you feel and keeps you riveted through the whole harrowing tale.
Watch this film for the Odessa steps sequence – it is stunning, disturbing and consuming. Watch it for the camera placement and how the tension builds. A must-see for film students, it is the first real use of montage in film making. You can learn something new each time you watch this brilliant sequence.
The film is based on the crew rebellion on the Russian battleship in 1905 and while the rest of the film is okay, it’s not at the same level as the fictional Odessa sequence.
Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Genre: Drama (Silent)
Sherlock Jr. is a Buster Keaton classic. At just 45 minutes, it is short, but packed with action and innovation. The stunts are astounding. At a time before CGI, I have no idea how he did this stuff. So I started digging around to try to understand it better.
Sherlock Jr. is about a projectionist who wants to be a detective. He proposes to his lady love but by doing so irks her other suitor who frames Keaton in a robbery of the girl’s father’s pocket watch.
In the first amazing sequence, Keaton follows the other suitor to try and investigate. This involves a Keaton-usual where he walks within an inch of a person he’s following, every movement synchronized. How? The detailed video deconstruction (below) reveals that they set the camera to roll at a slower frame per second (FPS) to record the action and then sped it up to normal speed (24 FPS) for viewing.
In real life, he’s a pretty pathetic detective and doesn’t get very far. But when Keaton the projectionist falls asleep at the projector, his dream “avatar” enters the movie being projected. After Keaton is thrown from location to location (Africa, the ski slopes, in the middle of traffic) at the whim of the director, he is then allowed to become the super-duper detective of his dreams (pun intended of course).
The stunts then take on a new level of cool – in an exquisitely choreographed move, he jumps out of a window, through a dress and emerges full clothed as an old woman. Unbelievable. From The Comic Mind by Gerald Mast:
Perhaps the most brilliant Keaton far shot to reveal a process (and what a process!) is in Sherlock Jr. (1924). A single far shot presents (1) a room where Buster is surrounded by thugs (Keaton has dissolved its fourth wall); (2) an open window with a paper hoop that Buster previously placed in it; and (3) the exterior of the house outside the window. In a single shot Buster dashes toward the window (1), leaps through it, through the hoop resting inside the window frame (2), somehow puts on a dress stuffed inside the hoop as he is tumbling through it in midair, rights himself on the group outside the house (3), and begins to impersonate an old beggar woman, since he is now wearing a dress. Without the far shot, it would be impossible t believe that a human being could turn himself into a beggar woman while in midair tumbling through a hoop; it would also be impossible to believe that any comic acrobat could perform such a stunt. Apart from the mechanical performance of the stunt, there is the idea behind it. Who else would think of escaping his foes in such an incredible way and with such an incredible means to an incredible disguise? Keaton’s far shot makes incredibility to the third power completely credible.
Then there’s the one where he leaps through the stomach of a vendor woman and disappears. How? Search as I might I couldn’t find the answer.
But by far the most brilliant sequence of the whole film is where he rides solo on the handlebars of a motorcycle (not knowing the driver has fallen off). This is not a short sequence – he drives through crowds, over bridges and through long stretches of road, all the while “steering” the two-wheeler from his precarious position. Undercranked or not, this is superb stuff. All of these sequences are in the clip below –
A combination of the stunts, the humor and the real life/reel life comparisons (hey, it wasn’t a cliche back then – he invented this stuff!) make Sherlock Jr. more than a fun, engaging movie to watch. And understanding how Keaton achieved some of the scenes elevates it to the realm of the exquisite.
This is a brilliant, witty, feel-good movie that’s deftly directed. I try to watch this movie once each year to laugh and sigh and smile. Like reading an old, familiar, happy book, this movie brings joy, peace and comfort. Audrey Hepburn is at her charming, gamine best. Peter O’Toole is his suave, dashing, debonair self. And the whole movie is just a pure delight to watch.
Director: William Wyler
Genre: Comedy (Romantic)