Star Wars Episode VII: The Feminism Awakens (Spoilers)


J.J. Abrams, though one of my favourite directors, has something of a chequered past when it comes to representing women on screen. Although noted for female leads in some of his projects (the TV shows Felicity, Alias and Fringe), he’s not averse to showing them in their underwear to grab ratings or boost ticket sales. The season four premier of Alias springs to mind – a scene with Jennifer Garner in lingerie was brought to the start of the episode as a flash-forward in a cynical effort to hook audiences – as does the gratuitous shot of Alice Eve in her underwear in Star Trek Into Darkness, which rightly caused an internet furore.

So I waited with mixed feelings to see where Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens would fall on the misogyny/feminism spectrum. BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD.

The film presents two new central characters, vying for the position of protagonist: John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey. For the first few reels, the script seems to be trying too hard to be feminist: Rey is constantly rebuffing Finn’s patronising attempts to protect her. This reeks suspiciously of the “post-sexism” portrayal of female characters, whereby they serve the same old plot function of damsel in distress, but are made “strong” by perfunctory attempts to assert their authority and complaints about how reckless and useless the men are – even though the patriarchal script still has those same men save the day.

screen shot 2015-10-19 at 10.31.30 pmThis theory seems to be confirmed as Rey is knocked unconscious and carried off to the villain’s lair, leaving us to assume her plot function is indeed just to be rescued by Finn. Aboard the Death Star, or whatever they’re calling it, villain Kylo Ren creepily remarks that he can take whatever he wants from her. He proceeds to mind-rape her with the Force – a much darker interrogation than Vader’s implied use of the floating spiky ball thing on Leia in episode IV. But the film toys with our expectations as Rey turns this invasion back on Ren, and subsequently escapes her cell through her own agency.

Things get patriarchal again when a climactic light sabre battle sees Rey knocked unconscious as Finn fights the villain. But suddenly J.J. turns the tables. Rey recovers, Finn is knocked unconscious, and Rey triumphantly defeats the antagonist with a bad-ass combination of physical and mental prowess. At least, she defeats him as much as the antagonist can ever be defeated in the first part of a trilogy. Presumably in Episode IX she’ll send him spiralling fatally into the depths of a bottomless shaft, since the whole plot is just a re-run of the original films.

2326134Despite its female protagonist, Episode VII’s feminism is far from perfect. In common with other female leads in contemporary cinema, Rey is surrounded by a sea of male characters, as if the filmmakers have to compensate the audience for the lack of one big leading penis with a plethora of supporting penises. The movie only passes the Bechdel Test by the skin of its teeth, as far as I can recall – Rey’s conversation with Maz Kanata being at least partly about Luke, and dialogue between Rey and Leia not occurring until the film’s closing minutes.

Frequently throughout the running time, Rey is referred to simply as “the girl”. This is a recurring and worrying theme in genre movies: “Give me the girl”, “Let the girl go and I’ll give you the MacGuffin”, etc, etc. Apparently women are so insignificant and interchangeable that they need no names. Let’s hope that J.J. and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt were deliberately pastiching this as part of their subversion of gender roles.

Either way, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is refreshingly feminist and presents a great female role model. Hopefully there will be just as many little girls wanting light sabre toys as little boys (though I find the lack of Rey action figures disturbing). I doubt we’ll ever see a female Bond  – sleeping with hunky men then not caring when they get killed – but we’re moving closer to a female Doctor Who – two major Timelord characters having recently regenerated into women – and having a woman at the centre of the Star Wars universe is a definite step in the right direction for the world media’s representation of the gender.


Star Wars Episode VII: The Feminism Awakens (Spoilers)

My Two Cents on the Bafta Best Picture Nominations

Looking at this year’s Bafta Best Picture nominations, I realised there was only one that I hadn’t seen, so I headed off to the cinema to complete the set. For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on the five nominated films.

_TFJ0226.NEFTHE IMITATION GAME is the story of Alan Turing, the man who helped shorten World War II by breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code, but was driven to suicide after being convicted of indecency for homosexual acts. The film takes numerous liberties with the truth – creating conflict where none existed, and ignoring other people who contributed to the code-breaking success – but such liberties are often necessary in adapting reality to the needs of cinema.

As played by the ever-brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch, Turing is arrogant and socially inept to the extreme, like a wartime Sheldon Cooper. Keira Knightley turns in a solid performance as Turing’s friend and confidant, as do Mark Strong and the rest of the supporting cast. With great design and beautiful 35mm cinematography, the film is a treat for the eyes.

Of all the nominated films, this is the one that got me most, emotionally. I rooted for Turing and his much-doubted Bombe machine to work, and when it does the film really soars. Then begins the plunge to the opposite end of the emotional scale. It is truly tragic what this country did to Turing, and I felt the shame of that keenly as the film drew to a close.

video-undefined-24475D3100000578-421_636x358THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is similar in many ways, the story of another brilliant Englishman whose life is marred by tragedy. Eddie Redmayne is Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist who defied time in more ways than one. Diagnosed with motor neurone disease in the sixties and given two years to live, Hawking went on to model the origins of the universe.

The film is based on the autobiography of Hawking’s wife Jane, played by the very talented Felicity Jones. But inevitably it’s Redmayne who provides the tour de force performance, reportedly exhausting himself on every take as he maintained Hawking’s contorted postures.

Director James Marsh peppers the film with galactic spirals, from the simple joy of the Hawking kids playing around a circular fountain, to the profound mundanity of UHT milk swirling in a British Rail coffee. Like The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything looks great, though its digital crispness can’t quite match the beauty of the former film’s 35mm images.

While both of these films are extremely well made and engaging, neither demonstrates a particularly unique cinematic voice, which would seem to be necessary to justify the winning of a Best Picture Bafta.

1398885003815THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, on the other hand, is stamped with the unmistakable style of auteur Wes Anderson. Formal compositions, deliberate lateral tracks, stop motion FX, intertitles, neo-fetish costumes and quirky characters all abound in this tale of hotel concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) and his young apprentice Zero (Tony Revolori).

Book-ended by scenes in the present day (shot in 1.85:1), the film quickly moves to 1968, which depicts the titular hotel in decay, the 2.39:1 frame literally revealing the fraying edges as they bow under the distortion of Anderson’s super-wide lenses. Conversely, the main narrative, set during the hotel’s heyday of 1932, is seen only through the blinkered eye of a 4:3 frame, all flawless straight lines, as slick as Gustave.

As in all of Anderson’s best work, every situation comes across as hilariously ridiculous, and every character is memorable. Fiennes is delightfully arrogant and self-involved, Revolori is charmingly earnest, and the supporting cast are clearly having the time of their lives. The ski/sledge chase is a particular highlight, the stop motion wide shots looking joyously like something out of a seventies kids’ TV show. (I had the pleasure of working with lead animator Andy Biddle many years ago on Soul Searcher.)

But while The Grand Budapest Hotel is the quirkiest of the nominations, this quirkiness has been well practiced by Anderson throughout his career. He’s not pushing himself, and so this film does not, to my mind, merit a Best Picture win.

The last two nominations, however, both push the artform of cinema by challenging the conventions of how films are made.

boyhood_hires_3BOYHOOD, directed by Richard Linklater, was filmed in annual stages over twelve years, in order to capture the genuine ageing of its young protagonist (Ellar Coltrane). I don’t know about you, but I’m often distracted from the storyline of a movie by unconvincing ageing make-up or the substitution of what is clearly a different actor to play a character at a different age, so it was great to see a movie that finally showed real ageing.

The film stays close to reality in other aspects, too. None of the cast look like (or are, for the most part) movie stars. It’s unusual to see a spotty face or an overweight leading lady in a Hollywood movie, but Linklater does not shy away from these things. The performances are all naturalistic, even when the kids are very young; Samantha’s teasing of her younger brother will be recognisable to anyone who’s not an only child, and provides an early highlight in the film. The look of Boyhood is equally raw; its 35mm images are dirty, and you can feel the stock being pushed in the night scenes.

Unfortunately, Linklater also chose to be true to life in the narrative: there isn’t one. A burst of story a third of the way through sees the family suffer as mum (Patricia Arquette) marries a violent alcoholic, but otherwise it is, like life, a series of unconnected events. Characters show up and disappear without explanation, like the friends we lose touch with. Towards the end, Mom monologues about the futility of life, and that’s the theme I took away from this unique, accomplished but unsatisfying movie.

birdman_aFinally we have BIRDMAN, in which Michael Keaton gets near the knuckle as Riggan Thomas, a has-been actor most famous for playing a Batman-esque superhero. Riggan is now trying to reinvent himself as a serious thesp by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play.

Apart from a brief montage near the end, Birdman echoes its theatrical setting by appearing to consist of one continuous shot. Although this isn’t unprecedented in movies, nowhere has it been done as effectively. The technical and logistical challenges of shooting a movie like this – with grips dancing around behind the camera and technicians dimming lamps up and down to maintain shape in the lighting – God knows how the boom op got in there – would overwhelm most directors, but not Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s roving camera puts you right inside the action. His wide lenses, pushing incredibly close to the actors’ faces, provide a level of intimacy unparalleled in my experience of cinema. That the performances not only stand up to this minute scrutiny, but positively shine, and that the pace never flags despite the impossibility of trimming scenes in post, is evidence of a tremendous talent and skill from director and cast alike. Both Keaton and Emma Stone, as his daughter, turn in career-high performances, extending their range beyond what we have previously seen from them.

But most importantly, Birdman tells a great story with strong and interesting characters. It’s essentially a portrait of a man’s mental breakdown, and it uses the simplest techniques – arresting performances, honestly photographed – and the most complex ones – elaborate hallucination VFX within a single-shot framework – to paint this portrait.

So, because it tells a strong story, and because it does that through the highly effective use of a challenging and near-unique production methodology, BIRDMAN would be my choice to win this year’s Bafta for Best Picture.


My Two Cents on the Bafta Best Picture Nominations

Five Great ‘Making Of’ Books

I love a good ‘making of’ book. Even if the film it’s about is rubbish, you can usually learn something, so long as it’s not one of those cheap cash-in books that relies mostly on reproducing the script and the press kit. DVD extras can be great, but an in-depth book can be so much more immersive; you almost feel like you’re part of the crew by the time you get to the end.

Here, in my opinion, are five of the best ‘making of’ books. If you’re looking for a Christmas present for the filmmaker in your life, you could do worse than tracking down one of these tomes.

cover_fontThe Making of Jurassic Park

Don Shay & Jody Duncan

I can still picture the shop I bought this in when I was thirteen years old. Spielberg’s paleo-blockbuster was one of the major cinema events of my childhood, and along with this book it planted the idea firmly in young Neil’s mind that filmmaking might be a pretty cool thing to do when he grew up. Shay and Duncan, the writers behind the awesome Cinefex magazine, note in the acknowledgments that their publisher wanted “a book of substance and quality on the making of Jurassic Park”. The pair delivered in spades, detailing every step of the journey that started with a best-selling novel, saw Stan Winston and his studio build the most sophisticated and convincing animatronics ever seen on film, took Spielberg and his crew onto a storm-lashed Hawaiian island, and ruined Phil Tippett’s career with ground-breaking computer-generated dinosaurs. But perhaps what inspired me most as a teenager were the 40 pages of storyboards reproduced at the end of the book, a showcase to Spielberg’s visual storytelling genius. I loved this book so much that I mimicked its style when GCSE Media Studies required me to write a journal about the making of my coursework film.

The_Making_of_Star_Trek_Deep_Space_Nine_coverThe Making of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens

By the time I found this in my local library in the late nineties, I was already well set on the path to filmmaking, but I still knew little about how big films and TV shows were made, except what I’d read in The Making of Jurassic Park. The Making of ST: DS9 was a detailed and informative guide to the process of making a high-end US TV series. Having recently tracked it down and re-read it, I found it just as interesting the second time around. While the business side of network TV has probably changed, and the days of off-lining on 3/4″ tape are long gone, much of the content is still relevant, and is backed up by extracts from call sheets, treatments and production memos. Kudos must go to the writers for covering oft-neglected subjects like the art and importance of editing, the role of stand-ins, and the financial reasons behind key creative decisions.

CE3K200Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Spielberg’s Classic Film

Ray Morton

This is the only book on this list which is unofficial, and while that means it lacks for pretty photos, it also means it doesn’t pull its punches when discussing the struggles and conflicts of the production. Engaging and well-researched, Morton’s book traces the origins of the UFO craze and Spielberg’s fascination with it, along with the steps in the young director’s career that brought him to the point where he could make this seminal sci-fi movie. Like many great films, Close Encounters’ production was a troubled one, with a budget that spiralled out of control as studio bosses – convinced they’d backed a dud – fretted and fumed. Two converted aircraft hangars in sweltering Mobile, Alabama, seemed like financial black holes as cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond poured megawatts of light into them and the practical effects crew flew in a full-size mothership underbelly. Morton documents all the creativity and uncertainty in workmanlike fashion, and also uncovers the stories behind the re-releases and special editions.

51qMqBgrATL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Titanic and the Making of James Cameron

Paula Parisi

Not to be confused with the glossier and less substantial James Cameron’s Titanic by Ed W. Marsh, this 230-pager is an intimate account of Cameron’s journey from the depths of the Atlantic ocean to the excesses of the Mexican coastline set as he strove to tell a story that had gripped his imagination. Those intent on hating Cameron will dislike this book, which endeavours to counter the bad press he frequently gets by drilling to the core of the passion and determination which drives him. With a budget that climbed so high it required two major Hollywood studios to finance, Titanic was the biggest undertaking in motion picture history at the time, requiring a full-scale replica of the titular ship, hundreds of extras, hydraulic sinking effects, cutting-edge motion capture and 163 days of photography. Whatever you think of the film, it’s hard not to be sucked in by the drama of this book, as Cameron battles against everything from nature to studio executives to complete what looks set to be a financial disaster, only to have it shatter box office records and scoop eleven Oscars.

Making_of_TESB_coverThe Making of Star Wars / The Empire Strikes Back / Return of the Jedi

J. W. Rinzler

It’s not surprising that the most loved films in the history of cinema have some of the most comprehensive and beautiful ‘making of’ books ever published. It’s only surprising that it took 30 years for them to be written. Drawing on Lucasfilm’s extensive archive of interviews, Rinzler takes us almost day-by-day through the development, production and postproduction of the movies that would define cinema for a generation. Arguably echoing the films themselves, the third book is the weakest, as by then Lucasfilm had financial stability, and making the movies was no longer a huge risk. I was shocked by how difficult Lucas found it to fund Empire; although phenomenally successful, Star Wars had yet to make him much money and everyone thought the sequel would be a pale shadow of the original. All three books are beautifully illustrated with photographs both rare and familiar, concept art and storyboards. There are also extracts and summaries of early versions of the scripts, and the Empire book even includes an extensive transcript of on-set conversations from the day Solo’s descent into the freezing chamber was filmed. Essential reading for filmmakers everywhere.

I’m sure there are some classics I’ve missed from this list. By all accounts, The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam vs. Universal, Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner and The Making of Ghostbusters are all excellent, but sadly I’ve so far been unable to get my hands on them. What are your favourite ‘making of’ books?

Five Great ‘Making Of’ Books

‘Painting with Light’ by John Alton

61kMuhKWfjLPainting with Light is a book I first heard about when Hollywood DP Shane Hurlbut recommended it on his excellent blog. Browsing the shop at the BFI Southbank recently I came across a copy, liked what I saw… and went home and ordered it on line. Them’s the breaks.

John Alton was something of a rebel. In an era when most DPs used complex lighting set-ups hung from the studio grid, Alton lit from the floor, using fewer sources, and was consequently faster. This made him unpopular with his peers. A strained, in-out relationship with the American Society of Cinematographers didn’t help. He sometimes clashed with other heads of department too, notably designers, who didn’t like the way his lighting made their work look. But directors and producers loved him because he worked quickly.

When Painting with Light was published in 1949, Alton was emerging as a key cinematographer of the film noir genre. Today he is remembered as one of the masters of noir. His utterly black shadows, backlit fog and slatted keylights defined the visuals of films like The T-Men (1947, dur. Anthony Mann) and The Big Combo (1955, dir. Joseph H. Lewis).

A classic bit of Alton's noir lighting from The Big Combo
A classic bit of Alton’s noir lighting from The Big Combo

However, noir lighting – or “Mystery Lighting” as Alton terms it – occupies only one chapter of Painting with Light. Two preceding chapters cover the basics of Hollywood filmmaking and introduce lighting equipment, most of which is now obsolete. Subsequent chapters cover “Special Illumination” – predominantly weather effects and vehicle interiors, “The Hollywood Close-up” – looking at key angles and introducing a clock system not dissimilar to the one I once blogged about – and “Outdoor Photography”.

The book then diverges from filmmaking, offering advice to novice photographers taking holiday snaps or equipping a portrait studio. Chapter nine, “Visual Music”, explores lighting and composition in terms of a musical allegory, each shot contributing to the symphony of the movie. Chapter twelve is the strangest, urging women to be aware of how their faces are lit as they go about their lives so that they can ensure they are always seen to their best advantage. All cinematographers know that beauty is as much about lighting as it is about bone structure and make-up, but I can’t see that idea ever catching on outside of the industry. Brief chapters on film processing, suggested improvements to cinemas, and the human eye as a camera, round out this mixed bag. A foreword, a lengthy but interesting biography and a filmography introduce the current edition.

Demonstrating the use of a clothes light
Demonstrating the use of a clothes light

While many of the ideas and principles put forward by Alton are still relevant today, some of it serves more as a historical record of cinematography in the mid-twentieth century. Curiously propounding the system he apparently rebelled against (I wonder how different the book might have been had he written it at the end of his noir period), Alton paints a picture of a time in which cinematography was much more complex and artificial. Whereas today we talk of the three-point lighting system of key, fill and backlight, Alton speaks of an eight light system, adding:

  • eyelight – to give a sparkle in the eye
  • kicker – a three-quarter backlight to define the jaw
  • clotheslight – a cross-light to bring out the texture of the costumes
  • filler – not to be confused with fill, the filler is purely to cure vertical shadows from a high keylight
  • background light

While the modern cinematographer is aware of all of the above and tries to incorporate them, he or she tries to make lamps pull double- or triple-duty and would almost never use eight lamps to light a single close-up. Alton also advocates abandoning all of your wide-shot lighting and starting again from scratch for the close-up, to beautify your star; today’s audiences would not accept the mis-match of such radically re-lit close-ups. He talks of flag and grip equipment which could never work with today’s dynamic blocking and camera movement, like a “chin scrim” designed to cast a very specific shadow on the collar of a white dinner jacket to stop it blowing out.

Alton explains his clock system and its effect on an orange
Alton explains his clock system and its effect on an orange

But some sections still have undeniable value today. Alton looks at different types of faces and how to light each to their best advantage, how to light a dinner table or a campfire scene, and how to light for different times of day. He maintains that movie lighting should always mimic what natural light does in real life – hard to believe, but this was quite a radical concept in 1949. Examples and diagrams are used throughout to illustrate his techniques.

For me the most interesting part was his insight into depth in cinematography. Many DPs, myself included, feel that a shot looks best when the foreground is dark, the midground is correctly exposed and the background is bright. Alton offers the following explanation of this phenomenon:

At night when we look into an illuminated room from the dark outside, we can see inside but cannot be seen ourselves. A similar situation exists in the motion picture theatre during a performance. We sit in the dark looking at a light screen; this gives a definite feeling of depth. In order to continue this depth on the screen, the progression from dark to light must be followed up. The spot which should appear to be the most distant should be the lightest, and vice versa…

I have no doubt that there are more useful tomes on the market for a student of contemporary cinematography, but if you like a bit of history along with useful tips you’ll find Painting with Light a good read. Like a time capsule, reading Alton’s book today reveals which bits of the past were transient fads and which were timeless universal truths. The importance of depth, the tricks of lighting for different faces, the textural power of cross-lighting, the drama of back-lighting… There are plenty of timeless truths here, and in learning them from Alton you’ll be following in the footsteps of many great cinematographers.

Unsurprisingly from the master of noir, Alton's chapter on mystery lighting emphasises the importance of shadows.
As you would expect from the master of noir, Alton’s chapter on mystery lighting emphasizes the importance of shadows.
‘Painting with Light’ by John Alton

Blackmagic Production Camera Field Report

I was recently the cinematographer on Sophie Black’s Night Owls, my second shoot with my new Blackmagic Production Camera, and the first one to be shot in 4K. I’m loving the rich, detailed and organic images it’s producing. Click on this screen grab to see it at full 4K resolution and witness the crazy amount of detail the BMPC records…

Click on this screen grab to see it at full 4K resolution and witness the crazy amount of detail the BMPC records.
Jonny McPherson in Night Owls

Images from Night Owls courtesy of Triskelle Pictures, Stella Vision and Team Chameleon. Produced by Sophia Ramcharan and Lauren Parker. Starring Jonny McPherson and Holly Rushbrooke.

It’s been documented that the Blackmagics, in common with the early Red Ones, suffer from the CMOS sensor “black sun effect”. As the name suggests, this means that if you get the sun in shot, it’s so bright that it turns black on camera.

On Night Owls I discovered that this also happens with filaments in bulbs. This is unfortunate, since the film features a lot of practicals with bare bulbs.

The coil of the filament appears black on the BMPC's CMOS sensor
The coil of the filament appears purple on the BMPC’s CMOS sensor

The issue can be fixed in post – apparently Da Vinci Resolve’s tracker feature will do it, or failing that some Quickpainting in Shake would certainly get rid of it – but a firmware update from Blackmagic Design to address the issue in-camera would be very welcome. Since they’ve already issued a firmware fix for this problem on the Pocket Cinema Camera, I’m surprised they even started shipping the Production Camera without this fix.

And while we’re on the subject of firmware updates, how about an option to display 2.35:1 guides? Surely in this day and age I shouldn’t be having to do this…

Taping off the camera screen and monitor for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio
Taping off the camera screen and monitor for a 2.35:1 aspect ratio
The HDMI convertor on the back of my shoulder rig, powered by the V-lock battery
The HDMI convertor on the back of my shoulder rig, powered by the V-lock battery

Some issues with my accessories also became apparent during the shoot. Firstly, 2 x 120GB SSDs are not enough. They last about 21 minutes each at 4K. Since we were doing a lot of long takes, we occasionally found the shoot grinding to a halt because the second card card was full and the first card hadn’t finished copying to the DIT’s laptop. Yes, crazy as it sounds, it takes about three times longer to copy the contents of the card – by USB, at least –  than it does to record onto that card in the first place.

Secondly, I’ve purchased two different SDI to HDMI convertors from eBay – this one and this one – and I’ve found them both awful. They’re really designed for use in CCTV systems. The frame rate is jerky and the colours are so wildly inaccurate that I had to switch the monitor to black and white. It looks like I’ll have to buy an SDI monitor. If I can get one with 2.35:1 overlays, that will solve another of my problems at the same time.

So all of these problems can be fixed, either by investing in a little more kit, or by firmware updates which I hope Blackmagic Design will soon issue.

Finally, a word on the aftersales service: my camera turned out to have a faulty speaker; I sent it back and a week later a brand new one arrived. That’s pretty good service in my book.

Overall, I’m very happy that I bought the camera, and so is Sophie. The images look fantastic and I’m sure Night Owls will go far.

Jonny McPherson and Holly Rushbrooke in a screen grab from Night Owls
Jonny McPherson and Holly Rushbrooke in a screen grab from Night Owls
Blackmagic Production Camera Field Report

“The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri

On the advice of my friend and mentor Carl Schoenfeld, I’ve just read Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. Penned in 1946, it’s a manual for playwrights, but it drills to the core of what’s important in drama, and as such is just as useful a read for a screenwriter or filmmaker.

The book is divided into four sections: premise, character, conflict and general.

What Egri calls premise I would call theme, though he soundly argues that calling it premise forces you to think of it as almost a pared-down logline, which may make you more inclined to treat it with the appropriate importance. He suggests that a premise should have three parts, indicating the dominant trait of the lead character, the conflict and the ending. Examples he gives include “honesty defeats duplicity”, “bragging leads to humiliation” and “poverty encourages crime”. Reverse-engineering a few recent movies along these lines might give us “instinct trumps conformity” (The Heat), “love transcends human flesh” (Transcendence) or “the powerful triumph over the weak” (Captain Philips). Egri emphasises that the premise must be the very DNA of the script, informing every line and every action.

We have all heard people saying that characters in a film must be three-dimensional, but have you ever wondered what those three dimensions are? Egri’s answer is: physiology (physical appearance, health, heredity), sociology (class, job, religion, home life, etc.) and psychology (morals, ambition, temperament, IQ, abilities and so on).

The premise acts as a goal to your characters, especially your lead, and powers their development – Sandra Bullock’s loosening up in The Heat, for example. Egri reminds us that character development must be a smooth process, so a character who goes from anger to love must pass through many intermediate stages such as irritation, ambivalence, interest and affection. Missing out these transitions, Egri warns, will result in melodrama.

“A weak character,” says Egri, “is one who, for any reason, cannot make a decision to act.” He goes on to explain that, in theory, any character can be strong if you choose the right “point of attack”, in other words if you write about a period in their life when they HAVE made a decision to act, when they are ready for conflict.

Lajos Egri
Lajos Egri

To generate rising conflict, Egri asserts the need for “a clear-cut premise and unity of opposites, with three-dimensional characters.” He defines a unity of opposites as a scenario in which the protagonist and antagonist want precisely the opposite things. This can apply not only to the overall thrust of the story, but to individual scenes within it too. Egri urges the reader not to fall into the trap of “static” conflict, where characters argue back and forth without escalating the situation.

Being aimed at playwrights, the book considers dialogue as the only means of revealing plot, character and conflict, but in a film conflict could be literal (as in an action film) or expressed through some other non-verbal means.

Overall, Egri’s breakdown of a script’s essential elements provides me a with useful template with which to begin interpreting a screenplay. Many people have produced books attempting to distill the essence of good writing, and it is largely a matter of taste which one you find most useful. Personally, I found The Art of Dramatic Writing clear, concise and refreshing, and I’m sure I’ll refer to it frequently.

“The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri

Blackmagic Production Camera 4K: Pros and Cons

My BMPC on a Pro-Aim shoulder rig
My BMPC on a Pro-Aim shoulder rig

I recently bought a Blackmagic Production Camera, having twice found myself in the position where I was scrambling about trying to hire one at short notice. Blackmagic Design have since announced the Ursa and the Studio Camera, but for now even the Production Camera is still pretty hard to get hold of.

I haven’t yet used the camera enough to review it in any depth, but I thought this summary of its pros and cons might be useful to those out there considering their own purchase.

The BMPC has two advantages over its predecessor, the BMCC (Blackmagic Cinema Camera):

  • 4K resolution (or 3840×2160 to be precise) rather than 2.5K.
  • Global shutter rather than rolling shutter, so you don’t get any of that “jello” effect in handheld footage, quick pans, etc.

But the BMPC also has several disadvantages over its predecessor, namely:

  • Native ISO of 400, rather than 800, meaning it needs more light.
  • Twelve stops of dynamic range rather than thirteen.
  • Greater power consumption, though not as horrific as I’d been led to believe. My 6.9Ah battery goes dead about seven hours after call time.
  • ProRes is currently the only recording format. No DNxHD, no raw – though presumably that will come as a free firmware update at some point.
The screen is sharp but reflective.
The screen is sharp but reflective.

The  BMPC shares many of its predecessor’s problems:

  • Highly reflective screen that is unuseable in daylight or any well-lit space, unless you put a cloth over your head like you’re using a Box Brownie.
  • Internal battery has a very short lifespan and isn’t removeable.
  • Utterly unergonomic form factor, but that’s true of many cameras nowadays. Even supposedly ergonomic ones like the Sony F3 and the Canon C300 are in reality too heavy to handhold for any length of time.
  • Terrible audio circuits, but again that’s par for the course.
  • For monitoring, SDI and Thunderbolt outputs only, no HDMI. (Though if you’re upgrading from a DSLR, any monitor output that doesn’t shut off the camera’s own screen is a bonus.)
  • Can’t shoot highspeed.

But it also shares many of the BMCC’s strengths:

  • Excellent value for money. (The BMPC is currently £2,300 inc VAT.)
  • Lovely organic image with relatively little moiréing and a logarithmic look for the most flexibility in the grade.
  • Comes with a free copy of DaVinci Resolve.
  • No need to transcode footage before editing.
  • Although reflective, the screen is sharp and good for focusing.
  • Simple, uncluttered menus.
  • EF lens mount, so if you’re upgrading from a Canon DSLR you can keep your old lenses.
  • Uses ordinary 2.5″ solid state drives to record onto, rather than proprietary media.
One of my V-lock batteries, mounted on the back of the rig in a vain attempt to make it balance.
One of my V-lock batteries, mounted on the back of the rig in a vain attempt to make it balance.

The look of this camera’s images are definitely its greatest asset, and coupled with the affordable price tag, it’s hard to beat.

If you’re going to buy one, bear in mind that you’ll also need to buy:

  • SSDs – at least £70 each, depending on the speed and capacity you go for.
  • Docking station for the SSDs (at least £20), unless you want to open up your laptop every time you ingest footage.
  • Battery system – I paid £500 for two unbranded 6.9Ah V-lock batteries, a charger, a plate and a D-tap cable. (Thanks to Richard Roberts for his advice on this.)
  • Rig – even if you’re never going to shoot handheld, you’ll need something to keep the camera and battery together.
  • Either an electronic viewfinder, a monitor or a cloth to put over your head so you can see the built-in screen.
  • An HDMI converter (at least £25) if you don’t have access to an SDI monitor.

More on this camera coming soon.

Blackmagic Production Camera 4K: Pros and Cons

Borderlines 2014 Review

Hereford’s Borderlines Film Festival draws to a close for another year, and once again I’m going to temporarily turn film critic and say a few words about the screenings I caught.

Joaquin Phoenix in Her
Joaquin Phoenix in Her


Spike Jonze’s latest film puts a sci-fi twist on the romantic genre to produce a love story in which one half of the couple exists only as a voiceover. Joaquin Phoenix plays the improbably-named Theodore Twombly, a soon-to-be divorcé who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The big surprise here for me was the humour. Numerous comedy moments were derived from the application of relationship tropes to the unusual man-machine pairing. But in a near-future world which feels incredibly close to the present day, with our tablet and smart phone obsessions, our online dating, our social media – human relationships bridged (or barricaded?) at every turn by technology – the premise of Her felt entirely plausible, perhaps even inevitable. The film has emotional resonance too,  played out as it is in intimate close-ups with very genuine performances. And I must tip my hat to costume designer Casey Storm who, faced with the classic sci-fi challenge of how to make futuristic fashion seem believable, decided perversely that in the future, young people would dress like the elderly do today, trousers halfway up to their armpits and all – brilliant!

Robert Redford in All is Lost
Robert Redford in All is Lost

All is Lost

In this almost dialogue-free feature from director J.C. Chandor, Robert Redford plays a solo sailor who battles to survive after his small yacht is damaged in the Indian Ocean by a collision and a storm. All is Lost has a lot in common with Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant Gravity: both are extremely immersive tales of a single person alone against the elements (or lack thereof). At the end of both films you feel as if you have lived through those experiences yourself. And just as Gravity has been criticised by physicists and astronauts for alleged inaccuracies, so All is Lost was ripped to shreds in the post-screening Q&A by the many sailors in attendance, despite most of them apparently appreciating its entertainment value. Both films also tackled the big themes of life and death, both employing womb-like imagery in the process, Gravity’s with Sandra Bullock floating foetally in an airlock, and All is Lost’s with Redford curled up in the amniotic coccoon of his life raft. Where the films differ is in pace, however. Whereas Gravity was tense and action-packed throughout, All is Lost has more meditative sequences, during which I often found myself day-dreaming. But in a strange way, that made the experience all the more realistic, as the events continued to unfold in what felt like (but wasn’t at all) real time and I picked them up a little further on. So not a film I would watch over and over again, but definitely worth seeing once for the experience.

Computer Chess

Patrick Riester in Computer Chess
Patrick Riester in Computer Chess

If the characters from The Big Bang Theory made a film, this is the film they would make. Nothing could be nerdier than this eighties-set tale of the rivalries in a computer chess tournament, shot in 4:3 B&W on a genuine period video camera. As if to establish once and for all that there will be nothing slick about this film, an early tracking shot ends with the camera jolting as the dolly comes off the rails. The relationship with technology is a deliberately blurred one throughout the film, with the style crossing over into “found footage” territory at times, constantly reminding us of the clunky electronic medium we’re experiencing it through, while the narrative has computers displaying flashes of humanity – and vice versa. There is a vague story arc about one character rebelling against the nerdy restraint of it all, but the overall effect is of watching a time capsule, albeit a forged one. Computer Chess is an oddity, certainly, but one punctuated by some great comedic moments and saturated in nostalgia for those of us who once dabbled in the dark art of eight-bit programming.

Felicity Jones in The Invisible Woman
Felicity Jones in The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman

Ralph Fiennes directs himself and the up-and-coming Felicity Jones (Georgina Sherrington’s erstwhile Worst Witch co-star) in this biopic about Charles Dickens’ affair with young actress Nelly Ternan. Adapted from Claire Tomalin’s biography, the script is written by Abi Morgan, creator of the brilliant BBC 2 drama The Hour. Slow and subtle throughout much of its running time, The Invisible Woman holds the attention with a compelling performance from Jones, and beautifully understated cinematography. DP Rob Hardy consistently short-sides his subjects, giving the impression that they are all looking out towards something they can’t quite reach. Restraint is the keyword here, and while Fiennes has spoken of the conscious efforts he made to show that there were real flesh-and-blood people beneath the period’s restrictive costumes, the restrictions of society weigh heavily throughout. Just like much of Victorian literature, the film hints obliquely at scandal and impropriety without ever making it explicit. Unfortunately the result is that you come away from the film unsure as to why Dickens’ marriage wasn’t working, why he pushed his wife aside so cruelly, and what Ternan’s real feelings were for him; did she love him, or was she merely star-struck? The Invisible Woman is very watchable, then, but not satisfying.

John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray in The Monuments Men
John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray in The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men

George Clooney directs, co-writes and stars in this faintly Dad’s Army-esque true story of a team of clapped-out soldiers tasked with recovering great works of art stolen by the Nazis. Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, talented character actor Bob Balaban, Downton Abbey resident Hugh Bonneville and The Artist’s Jean Dujardin make up the rest of the team, aided by a resistance spy played by Cate Blanchett. The challenge for Clooney was to make us care about the Monument Men’s mission to save paintings and statues, when men are dying every day for their countries. He achieves this by making us care for the characters – all curators and art historians – and thus share their love for art. Where many Hollywood scripts would have shoe-horned conflict into the team’s relationships, this film avoids such crassness, allowing the characters to all respect each other, but nonetheless banter humourously throughout. A joyous score by Alexandre Desplat is the icing on the cake of this amusing and uplifting film, which ended my Borderlines 2014 experience on a real high.

Borderlines 2014 Review

A Director Prepares

9781408100035I’ve just finished reading the classic thesping manual An Actor Prepares, by Konstantin Stanislavski. Don’t worry, I’m not planning a career switch to the other side of the camera, just endeavouring to become a better director by deepening my understanding of acting.

Despite being 80 years old and translated from Russian, the book is surprisingly accessible. It takes the form of a fictional diary in which an eager drama student, Kostya – whom Stanislavski apparently based on his younger self – records his lessons with teacher and director Tortsov, representing the author’s older, wiser self.

The first instalment of a trilogy which continues with Building a Character and Creating a Role, An Actor Prepares outlines the mental processes which Stanislavski believed are required in order to stimulate the subconcious inspiration from which all truly great acting springs. As such, the book focuses on work that would be done by an actor on their own, before beginning their relationship with a director.

In fact, Tortsov/Stanislavski goes so far as to suggest that directors can often interfere with an actor’s preparation by trying to impose their own themes and motivations on them. “An actor must find the main theme for himself,” he says. “He must not be forcibly fed on other people’s ideas, conceptions, emotion memories or feelings. His own appetite must be tempted. The director’s job is to get the actor to ask and look for the details that will put life into his part.”

Elsewhere in the book, there is a great tip regarding objectives (read: motivation). “You should not try to express the meaning of your objectives in terms of a noun… The objective must always be a verb.” The author suggests that powerful objectives often start with “I wish…” It seems to me that if a scene is going off-track, sitting down with the actor and formulating a suitable objective beginning with “I wish” might be a constructive way to get back to the heart of the narrative and characterisation.

Perhaps one of the best-known elements of Stanislavski’s system is the “magic if”. The theory is that by asking “if” questions, maybe as basic as, “What if I was in the same situation as my character?” a performer – or indeed a director – can very quickly get to the truth of a role, a scene, or a script. By probing scenarios that don’t even occur in the script, for example, “What would my character have done if  such-and-such an event happened?” we can start to build a more nuanced character.

Stanislavski also stresses the importance of the “super-objective”, the over-arching motivation which drives the character through the piece, and “counteraction”, forces working against the super-objective, which are often embodied by the antagonist or villain. This is a good reminder for directors and writers not to lose sight of what the hero is ultimately trying to achieve, and to derive the maximum dramatic conflict from the hero’s clash with the people and obstacles in their way.

Aside from these nuggets of wisdom, the principle thing I’ve come away with is an increased understanding of and respect for the craft of acting. It must require an extraordinary level of mental discipline to control your every thought and action – or rather, to immerse yourself in the character to such a degree that your every thought and action naturally become those of the character – while simultaneously hitting your marks, finding your light, delivering the lines put in your mouth by someone else, remembering your continuity, executing the director’s notes, and ignoring all the crew and equipment in your face.

Which I knew already, of course, but reading An Actor Prepares very much brought it home to me.

A Director Prepares

Black Magic Cinema Camera Review

Throughout September I got a crash-course introduction to the Blackmagic Cinema Camera as I used it to shoot Harriet Sams’ period action adventure web series The First Musketeer. The camera was kindly lent to us by our gaffer, Richard Roberts. Part-way through the shoot I recorded my initial thoughts on the camera in this video blog:

Here’s a summary of the key differences between the Blackmagic and a Canon DSLR.

Canon DSLR Blackmagic Cinema Camera
Rolling shutter (causes picture distortion during fast movement) Rolling shutter (though not as bad as DSLRs)
Pixels thrown away to achieve downscaling to 1080P video resolution, results in distracting moiré patterns on fabrics, bricks walls and other grid-like patterns Pixels smoothly downscaled from 2.5K to 1080P to eliminate moiré. Raw 2.5K recording also available
On-board screen shuts off when external monitor is connected On-board screen remains on when external monitor is connected
Some models have flip-out screens which can be adjusted to any viewing angle and easily converted into viewfinders with a cheap loupe attachment On-board screen is fixed and highly reflective so hard to see in all but the darkest of environments
Maximum frame rate: 60fps at 720P Maximum frame rate: 30fps at 1080P
50mm lens is equivalent to 50mm (5D) or 72mm (other models) full-frame lens 50mm lens is equivalent to 115mm full-frame lens
10-11 stops of dynamic range 13 stops of dynamic range
Recording format: highly compressed H.264, although Magic Lantern now allows for limited raw recording Recording format: uncompressed raw, ProRes or DNXHD
Battery life: about 2 hours from the 600D’s bundled battery in movie mode Battery life: about 1 hour from the non-removable internal battery
Weight: 570g (600D) Weight: 1,700g
Audio: stereo minijack input, no headphone socket Audio: dual quarter-inch jacks for input, headphone socket

Having now come to the end of the project, I stand by the key message of my video blog above: if you already own a DSLR, it’s not worth upgrading to a Blackmagic. You’d just be swapping one set of problems (rolling shutter, external monitoring difficulties, aliasing) for another (hard-to-see on-board screen, weight, large depth of field).

The BMCC rigged with a lock-it box for timecode sync with the audio recorder, on a Cinecity Pro-Aim shoulder mount
The BMCC rigged with a lock-it box for timecode sync with the audio recorder, on a Cinecity Pro-Aim shoulder mount

The depth of field was really the killer for me. Having shot on the 600D for three years I’m used to its lovely shallow depth of field. With the Blackmagic’s smaller 16mm sensor it was much harder to throw backgrounds of focus, particularly on wide shots. At times I felt like some of the material I was shooting looked a bit “TV” as a result.

The small sensor also creates new demands on your set of lenses; they all become more telephoto than they used to be. A 50mm lens used on a crop-chip DSLR like the 600D is equivalent to about an 72mm lens on a full-frame camera like the 5D Mark III or a traditional 35mm SLR. That same 50mm lens used on the Blackmagic is equivalent to 115mm! It was lucky that data wrangler Rob McKenzie was able to lend us his Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 otherwise we would not have been able to get useful wide shots in some of the more cramped locations.

As for the Blackmagic’s ability to shoot raw, it sounds great, but will you use it? I suggest the images you get in ProRes mode are good enough for anything bar a theatrical release, and are of a far more manageable data size. You still get the high dynamic range in ProRes mode (although it’s optional), and that takes a little getting used to for everyone. More than once the director asked me to make stuff moodier, more shadowy; the answer was it is shadowy, you just won’t be able to see it like that until it’s graded.

The colour saturation is also very low, again to give maximum flexibility in the grade, but it makes it very hard for the crew huddled around the monitor to get a sense of what the finished thing is going to look like. As a cinematographer I pride myself on delivering images that looked graded before they actually are, but I couldn’t do that with the Blackmagic. But maybe that’s just a different workflow I’d need to adapt to.

The biggest plus to the BMCC is the lovely organic images it produces, as a result of both the down-sampling from 2.5K and the high dynamic range. This was well suited to The First Musketeer’s period setting. However, I think next season I’ll be pushing for a Canon C300 to get back the depth of field.

I’ll leave you with a few frame grabs from The First Musketeer.

Note: I have amended this post as I originally stated, incorrectly, that the BMCC has a global shutter. The new 4K Blackmagic Production Camera does have a global shutter though.

Black Magic Cinema Camera Review