The HDSLR narrative

For our second semester, the main project is the Adaptation – a seven-minute narrative film. The assigned camera for the Adaptation was the quite excellent Panasonic DVX-100, a standard def camera. But this year is also the year of the HDSLR. They are affordable, they are easy to use and students are willing to experiment and take risks. Voilà, the perfect storm.

Out of the class of 36, 18 of us shot on an HDSLR ((The rest shot on a combination of the DVX and the EX-1)). Most on a Canon and one person on a Nikon. That’s an incredible number of people to use a school unsupported format and figure out everything ourselves (especially all the gnarly post-production issues).

I shot on the Canon 5D, the magnificent full-frame camera in the Canon lineup. Fortunately Canon released the 24p upgrade for the 5D two weeks before my shoot so we were able to shoot the film on 24p instead of 30p. I also wanted as much latitude as possible in post for color correcting and so we shot with a custom gamma curve to flatten the image.

First up was figuring out the lenses needed and I decided that in addition to my delightful 50m F1.4 Canon lens, I would rent the F2 Zeiss Primes in 35, 50 and 100 focal length. I also rented the Canon F2 L 200m lens – a giant lens that delivered incredibly well. We ended up using only the Canon 50m for the outdoor night shots as it was the only one that would open up enough and it is amazing that we shot at night with only available light on the 5D – a huge positive of the full frame sensor. The rest of the lenses, we used for the internal locations. We ended up being barely able to squeeze the 200m into the apartment since the minimum focal length was 8 feet, but it delivered an exceptional closeup, single shot of the actors that we were looking for with an really, really shallow DOF.

I was incredibly lucky that my buddy Mitch agreed to gaff this film ((Not only did Mitch gaff this film, he also helped me check out equipment, came with me to equipment rental houses, moved stuff and basically helped me in every way during the shoot.)). He flew in from LA a few days early and while the rest of the crew was busy with the previous production (we shoot in rotation), he and I did some tests to figure out where to shoot the night shots. We also examined all the equipment (but overlooked some rig testing that came back to bite us in the rear later).

In terms of equipment, I rented an external monitor. A downside with the 5D (that the 7D and 550D don’t seem to have) is that when you hit record on the 5D, the monitor drops to 480p which makes it difficult to focus. Annoying, but once you adjust to this problem, it is still worth having the monitor.

I also rented a Redrock rig, but it failed us at a key moment when we needed to follow focus because the ring wasn’t the right size and the screw got in the way. My bad for not enough testing ahead of time. The AC did a great job of pulling focus manually though and the shot was still usable.

This is one of the big downsides of the camera – it is basically a still camera and we are making it work as a film camera. Pulling focus is tough because the lenses are small and still lenses go around past infinity. That means, when you mark your focus marks, if you go past infinity, all of them are useless for the next take. This is especially true of Canon lenses. The Zeiss lenses have the added benefit of not rotating past infinity and therefore being better for film. A lot of shots, especially as you pull focus with a moving object could be out of focus in parts. If you watched the House season finale, you will see that even they had this problem (although they did a lot of excellent editing to get around some of the out of focus shots).

Lighting was contained both because of the style of the film and also because of the camera. A large chunk of shots were around a table and we used a china ball for that with an inky adding edge and a practical in the background for aesthetics and lighting. There were definitely shots that were complicated with windows all around the DP and Gaffer did their thing figuring out where to hide things and people so as to get the shot. As I mentioned before, for the nighttime exteriors, we were able to just go with available lighting.

In terms of Audio, the sound on all versions of the HDSLRs are crappy. You have to do dual system – we used the FP-33 mixer going into the 702T recorder. We also recorded camera sound. Recording camera sound is really important for two reasons. One, you can get going with a basic edit with the horrendous sound as a scratch track. Two, much more importantly, if you have it, you can use Plural Eyes to sync up your sound. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty close.

One of the problems I encountered while editing is that in clips that were longer than seven minutes or so (ah, the joy of video where we could keep rolling), the sound started to fall out of sync. What you need to do is adjust the speed of the clip to be 100.06 in FCP and then it settles down and comes back into sync.

Staying in the post-production world, there’s one other consideration that’s a biggie and that’s how to convert the files and into what format ((Our class banded together to help each other through post. The first person who shot on the 7D, Zach, did a ton of research (and found Plural Eyes!) and shared it with the class. As people discovered things, they shared it and the whole group used the information)). Post options abound but I went with a converter called NeoScene because it gave me the extra color correction latitude I wanted. Then I had to figure out which codec to use – the choice for me was between Prores and CineForm, the NeoScene codec and I chose Prores because CF would constrain me to use the NeoScene post processing tools versus Color which is part of the Final Cut Studio package. The difference between Prores Standard and HQ doesn’t seem significant in any real way except space consumed on the hard drive, so Standard it was. All of this took some figuring out. Conversion takes a while, but all in all, I’d rather several hours of computer processing time than logging and capturing tape any day!

I ended up color correcting since I shot flat and bringing back the richness that I’d flattened out. It took a few hours in Color with an expert who knew what he was doing to make sure the skin tones looked right and the colors all looked like I wanted them. The flexibility in post is incredible if you flatten out the image a bit while you shoot.

While a lot of things change with the HDSLRs, some things don’t. The primary thing is that you still need a great crew (and a full crew) to make the shoot happen. My DP, Eunice, owns the 5D and had shot her documentary on it. She was super-familiar with it and that was really critical. Omar, the AC, is one of the most dedicated people to have on a set. He did all the focus pulling manually, noted down all lenses and distances for each shot so that if we had to replicate it or check anything, it was all right there. He was also responsible for the downloading and transferring of the footage which he was extremely diligent about. It’s a ton of work to do and he did it exceptionally. Mitch was the gaffer and, having DPed on the 5D and gaffed a ton of films, he was indispensable. The audio was run by Bella and despite the difficult conditions of a street-facing Brooklyn apartment near the park, she did a wonderful job of getting great dialog and being particular about the crew paying heed to the sound needs ((something that is often overlooked on small, indie productions)). Ed and Alexis both boom op-ed during the shoot (sometimes lying down to get out of the way) and Alexis played the extra role of being a wonderful production designer and a script supervisor who made a complicated card scene flow easily. And my producer/AD Ryan was awesome in allowing me the time I needed but also making me cut shots when required. Ryan ran the set very smoothly and ensured I didn’t have to think about anything else when I was directing. Ravi was the PA and he had contacted me through this blog – he came to NYC on his own and paid for his own stay and worked his ass off on set. He earned the respect of the crew and learned a ton in the process. Donald was our makeup artiste and Ruoyi was the still photographer and they both had a great attitude and were exceptional at what they did.

All of the great work the crew does is to showcase the actors – and the actors were all top-notch – not only in their craft but also in terms of their attitude on set and being flexible and accommodating.

I am so grateful to the cast and crew – the hours were really long and the shoot was tiring and every single person did more than pull their weight. I also had two sets of wonderful friends who were my executive producers. They let me shoot in their homes and were gracious and welcoming – true patrons of the art! Without each person involved, the shoot would not have come together.

I thought shooting with the HDSLR would make things easier. And it did in certain regards, but the basics of film making stay the same, the director’s role stays the same. In another post, I will talk about what I learned in this shoot – especially around shooting dialog with multiple actors, eye-line and all those other wonderful things.

That covers most of my experience of shooting and post on the HDSLRs. Feel free to ask any questions – I’ll try to answer them and Mitch, who lurks around here, will also answer your questions ((all he wants in exchange is some Sauvignon Blanc 🙂 )).

If you are thinking of buying one or shooting with one, but don’t know how they all stack up, this post by Philip Bloom is an excellent review of all the viable models out there. Enjoy.

Chicks in flicks

To pass the Bechdel Test for Women in Movies, a movie has to answer three questions:
1. Are there two or more female characters with names?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. If they talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a man?

What % of movies would pass the test if you replace female with male? Almost all.

Is this test flawed? Possibly. Is it overly simplistic? Definitely. It doesn’t make a movie good or bad if it passes this test, but it is certainly thought-provoking, isn’t it? So few real women characters exist. And if they do exist, they exist to talk about a man. It’s the sad reality of chicks in flicks.

But think about your life. Aren’t there strong, interesting women? Why aren’t they in the scripts??

Out of my class of 36, I think 6 movies pass this test. Not even 20%. And that’s in the indie, student world…

Something to think about as you write your next script/make your next film.

via John August

NYU, Tisch School of the Arts

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.

Chennai Screenwriting Workshop-Part 2

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 Chennai ((To placate the crowd, to some extent, which frequently asked for examples from Tamil movies which many of the presenters had not watched.)) 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.

The day’s screening was Cyrano de Bergerac with the exquisite Gérard Depardieu, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau and written by Jean-Claude Carrière. Monsieur Carrière was on the schedule for Day 5 of the Workshop, in the Seminar portion.

June 1st, Monday, 2009. Day 4.

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 РIndig̬nes, directed by Rachid Bouchareb and written by Olivier Lorelle (who was scheduled to speak on Day 5).

Also read: Part 1 – Days 1 and 2

Chennai Int’l Screenwriting Workshop

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:  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!

Also read: Part 2 – Days 3 and 4

The Last Laugh – F. W. Murnau

We slide down in the elevator, slip past the opening doors and glide towards the front of the hotel and the revolving doors. Looking out, we see the doorman coordinating guests and luggage, managing arrivals and departures. It is with this incredible camera movement that Murnau opens The Last Laugh.

The camera movement doesn’t sound so amazing you say? Well, consider that the movie was shot in 1924. The opening shot had me saying – “He came up with such brilliant and fitting camera movement more than EIGHTY-FIVE years ago??!”

The Last Laugh is about a hotel doorman who defines himself by his job. He is treated with deference at the hotel and at home in the apartment complex – his grand uniform and his well-brushed, giant moustache lending an air of unmistakable gravitas. When the hotel manager decides he’s too old for the job, he’s replaced with a younger version of himself and is suddenly demoted to the washroom attendant – the lowest job on the totem pole. His world shatters.

The completely silent film doesn’t even use title/dialog cards to explain what’s going on. The acting would be considered over the top today, but considering that it had to convey all the emotion without a single word, it is understandable. Emil Jannings as the doorman is exceptional. His desolation and humiliation are painful to watch.

With a very straightforward story line, the movie is about emotions. The camera is used to excellent effect to highlight his mental state. Initially the camera idolizes him, shooting him from below or straight on. After his demotion, he shrinks – not only in comport, but the camera also moves higher, making him smaller. The hotel, is shown as a towering edifice, with revolving doors extending skywards – his perception of his workplace when he returns in fear. Murnau also used the camera to depict Jannings’ inebriatedly-depressed state. The camera swings around Jannings capturing the surreal, discombobulated state he’s in very nicely. And then there’s the dream sequence where Jannings imagines himself back in his role, easily hoisting large trunks of luggage with one hand – the camera flies through the air towards and around Jannings, emphasizing the removal from reality. When his secret is discovered, the laughing faces of his nosy neighbors are super-imposed onto each other – all leering at him. The movie illustrates how the camera, in concert with the actors, can communicate so much without a single spoken word.

The only incongrous part of the movie is the ending. After an utterly crushing emotional attack, it would be most fitting if the doorman collapsed and gave-in to the circumstances. Apparently the studio wanted a happy ending – and so the movie’s first title card apologies for what lies ahead – the doorman unexpected inherits a fortune from a patron who dies in his arms. He’s shown eating and drinking heartily in the hotel and being benevolent to all those who work there before he rides off into the sunset.

That aside, The Last Laugh is an excellent movie. A movie I enjoyed much more than I expected to and one that gets better with repeat viewings. Murnau did things with the camera in 1924 which many directors today are too conservative to try. Bravo!

The Art of the Story

This NY Times article on MIT’s Media Lab examining titled “Saving the Story (the Film Version)” bothered me on a number of dimensions.

The first huge issue is confusing form and function or the story and how it is delivered. Consider this –

The center is envisioned as a “labette,” a little laboratory, that will examine whether the old way of telling stories — particularly those delivered to the millions on screen, with a beginning, a middle and an end — is in serious trouble.

How a story is delivered – via the studio distribution system, YouTube, or Twitter has nothing to do with whether the story has a beginning, middle and end.

The art of storytelling has existed since man learned to communicate. The form has changed. Dramatically.

A good chunk of the rest of the article is about Hollywood griping about Hollywood.

But Mr. Kirkpatrick and company are not alone in their belief that Hollywood’s ability to tell a meaningful story has been nibbled at by text messages, interrupted by cellphone calls and supplanted by everything from Twitter to Guitar Hero.

“I even saw a plasma screen above a urinal,” said Peter Guber, the longtime film producer and former chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment who contends that traditional narrative — the kind with unexpected twists and satisfying conclusions — has been drowned out by noise and visual clutter.

A common gripe is that gamelike, open-ended series like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Spider-Man” have eroded filmmakers’ ability to wrap up their movies in the third act. Another is that a preference for proven, outside stories like the Harry Potter books is killing Hollywood’s appetite for original storytelling.

Whatever, people! Hollywood’s ability has not been “nibbled away” by text messages!! It has been nibbled away by the fact that every decision is made by focus groups and marketers – not the the writers and the directors!

Let’s look at Slumdog Millionaire – how has that story been affected by the noise of tweets or smses? If the story has merit, it stands above the trash… er… or above the urinal screen, as the case may be.

Open-ended series’ – who created them? Who produced them and distributed them? Right – you, Hollywood.

The article goes on to talk about Hollywood insiders complaining that small stories can’t compete with Transformers. So? Hasn’t that always been the case? And if the problem is getting worse who’s making it worse? You, Hollywood!

And again, what, pray tell does this have to do with the “story”? Nothing. So far, all I’ve heard is whining about marketing budgets.

And then there’s the classic “blame the audience” strategy.

Ultimately, he blames the audience for the perceived breakdown in narrative quality: in the end, he argued, consumers get what they want. Bobby Farrelly, a prolific writer, and director with his brother Peter of comedies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Shallow Hal,” concurred.

“If you go off the beaten path, say, give them something bittersweet, they’re going to tell you they’re disappointed,” Mr. Farrelly said. He spoke from his home in Massachusetts, where he is working on the script for a Three Stooges picture, and said he missed complex stories like that of “The Graduate.”

Really? Really?? Let me point you again to Slumdog Millionaire. People are thirsting for great content, but your marketing focus groups will never tell you that. If you miss complex stories, then write them! Is a complex, intriguing and multi-layered story burning inside you Mr. Farrelly? Please, please write it and get it made. You know enough people to do that. I promise you I will spend my twelve bucks to watch it. Why are you writing stuff like Shallow Hal and then complaining that you are being forced to do so?

The only person I agree with in the whole article is Ken Brecher, the Sundance institute’s executive director.

“Storytelling is flourishing in the world at a level I can’t even begin to understand,” said Ken Brecher…


If anything, Mr. Brecher added, technology has simply brought mass storytelling, on film or otherwise, to people who once thought Hollywood had cornered the business.


So what exactly will the Media Lab be doing?

The people at M.I.T., in any case, may figure out whether classic storytellers like Homer, Shakespeare and Spielberg have had their day.

Starting in 2010, a handful of faculty members — “principal investigators,” the university calls them — will join graduate students, undergraduate interns and visitors from the film and book worlds in examining, among other things, how virtual actors and “morphable” projectors (which instantly change the appearance of physical scenes) might affect a storytelling process that has already been considerably democratized by digital delivery.

Rubbish. They are not going to figure out whether classic storytellers are done. They are going to investigate how new technologies will affect the creation and the consumption of content.

And that is… fine. In fact, it is great and wonderful. And it makes for a good, news-worthy article. So why on earth did the Times make it about “the story”? The article opens with

The movie world has been fretting for years about the collapse of stardom. Now there are growing fears that another chunk of film architecture is looking wobbly: the story.

Let’s get it clear – as long as there are writers, no, as long as there are people, “the story” will survive. It is part of us. My grandmother is a fantastic storyteller and there are thousands of people out there who are telling stories every day.

What’s at risk is Hollywood’s business model and the standard methods of distribution. And perhaps the Times’ ability to figure out what the underlying story is all about!