R.I.P. Gunnar Fischer (1910 – 2011)

12 06 2011

Gunnar Fischer (1910 - 2011)

Legendary Swedish cinematographer Gunnar Fischer passed away yesterday at the age of 100.  Fischer’s lighting and camera techniques brought to life some of Ingmar Bergman’s most iconic films from the director’s early period.  Though not as well known as future collaborator Sven Nykvist, Fischer’s style and visual eye has dazzled cinema-goers for nearly 60 years, though his general recognition remains mostly silent.

Born in Ljungby Vasternorrlands Lan, Sweden, on November 18, 1910, Fischer originally studied painting at Otte Sköld.  Following his education, he enlisted as a chef with the Swedish Navy, before turning to a career in cinema at Svensk Filmindustri. His first film credit was as assistant camera on Smålänningar in 1935, and his first feature as a director of photography came in 1942.  He worked with several international directors including Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer and British director Anthony Asquith.  However, his most endearing and remembered artistic partnership was with Bergman from 1948 to 1960.

The fruits of Bergman and Fischer’s collaborations include such films as Harbor City, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician and their final collaboration, The Devil’s Eye.  Like many fellow Swedish cinematographers of the era, Fischer was a master of practical lighting and operated his own camera on all his films.  Such classic images as Max von Sydow playing chess with Death or the wide dancing chain on the hill side from The Seventh Seal still move and touch viewers of all generations.

Bergman and Fischer went their separate ways after The Devil’s Eye in 1960.  Bergman went on to form another strong artistic partnership with cinematographer Sven Nykvist which lasted through almost the rest of the director’s professional career.  Fischer continued shooting feature films until 1979 when he retired.  In retirement, he continued to be close to his craft by serving as an instructor of cinematography at several prestigious Scandinavian universities.

An interesting article and interview regarding Fisher’s time working with Bergman from the Washington Post in 2008 can be found here:


Silent Film Released in 2011 A Possible Oscar Contender?

27 05 2011

Copyright 2011 La Classe Américaine

This film was recently brought to my attention by a co-worker and I can’t tell you how excited I am to hear about it.  Directed by Michael Hazanavicius, The Artist was completely shot in black-and-white, in Academy Ratio (1.33:1) and is completely silent!  Starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller, the film takes place in 1927 and centers around silent film star George Valentin.  At the dawn of sound, he’s worried his career might fall into shambles; whereas, in contrast, young extra Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) sees the transition as an opportunity to propel to stardom.

The film made it’s debut at the Cannes Film Festival the other week and won Best Actor for Jean Dujardin.  In addition, the Weinstein Company have negotiated to bring it to wide release later this year, both domestically and internationally.  Could this film possibly be the first silent film in Oscar contention for Best Picture in nearly 70 years?   Could it be the first silent film to win Best Picture since the beginning of the Academy Awards in 1927 with Wings?  

Being a huge fan of silent films, I can only hope for such happenings.  I can’t wait for the release to see if this film really is as good as so many critics say it is.  In the meantime, I will have to be happy with the trailer, which is available in HD at:

Yvette Vickers and the Dark Side of Fame

4 05 2011

Vickers from a 1950s Photo Shoot

Hollywood is legendary for red carpet events, epic parties, glitz and glamour, but it has always been the underbelly of this faux front that has in some ways interested me.  Hollywood, like the film industry itself in many ways, is very plastic and fake in so many ways; one day you are a star, the next you are forgotten.  The old phrase still rings true in so many ways, “You are only as good as your last picture.”

Why this type of post today?  Well, I recently read an article on the death of actress and former Playboy pin-up Yvette Vickers.  These are stories that you don’t hear as much about, the ones that show the sad, lonely side of fame.  Vickers, who was born on August 26, 1928, is probably best remembered for her lead role as Honey Parker in the Sci-Fi/Exploitation classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman in 1958.  However, her career also included bit parts and other work in such classic films as Sunset Blvd., Hud and a host of guest roles in a variety of television programs.  In addition, she was Playboy’s Miss July in 1959, with photos by B-movie trailblazer Russ Meyer.

In her prime, Vickers was about as beautiful as they get: blue-eyed, blonde haired and very shapely.  As time went by, however, her roles became less and less and, by the mid-1960s, her career had squandered to only sporadic appearances.  According to IMDB, her final role was as “Neighbor” in a low budget horror film entitled Evil Spirits from 1990.

Largely forgotten by all but the most dedicated of science fiction and horror fans, Vickers body was found in her Benedict Canyon home last week.  Coroners were unable to pinpoint exactly how long she had been dead, as her body had mummified.; sources say it could have sat in her upstairs bedroom for as long as a year.

She had lived in the 1920s-era home in which she was found for decades, but over time, the home had fallen into a state of disrepair and even been exposed to the elements in some areas.  Noticing cobwebs and yellowed mail spilling out of the mailbox, neighbor Susan Savage decided to investigate further.  Savage looked in through the windows and could see blonde hair, which turned out to be a wig.  She entered the home which was purportedly filled with boxes of old mail, clothes and junk and maneuvered her way upstairs.

Copyright 1958 Woolner Brothers Pictures, Inc.

In a small room, cluttered as the rest of the house was, Savage found Vickers body next to a small space heater that was still running.  The body was unrecognizable and completely mummified.  According to Savage, she remembered her neighbor as a kind, older women with a warm smile who had friends.  Where were all these friends though to allow a death to go unnoticed for so long?  Everyone wants to make excuses, but in reality, poor Yvette Vickers was just a forgotten soul that few people outside of some fans across the nation remembered.

On a small scale, this is truly the bad side of fame, the part that forgets you after you are no longer in the spotlight.  On a large scale, this is the sad truth that likely much of our geriatric population without children go through, famous or not.  It hurts to see someone forgotten, someone no one seems to remember or care about anymore.

As for filmmaking as an industry, why don’t we take care of our own?  If you didn’t know already, the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital that had long been a service of the Motion Picture and Television Fund, is closing down.  No one new has been admitted for several years and after the passing of those currently occupying, the facility will close for good.  Many former staples of the industry have spent their last days in this facility and some would have had no where else to go but a demise such as Vickers had they not had this facility to rely on in their old age.

Maybe I’m biased because my father is older and always has been a senior citizen since I’ve been alive, but these people deserve to be cared for and treated properly.  If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have many of the things we take for granted today.

Apple Announces Final Cut Pro X for $299

13 04 2011

I’ve been cutting with Final Cut Pro as my primary editing software of choice since my early days in college.  When I started using the program, we were using Final Cut Pro version 3 on Apple G4 towers.  Needless to say, the workflow was painfully slow (and we were only using DV and VHS footage!).  The latest release of the program before last night was Final Cut Pro 7 in 2009 as part of the Final Cut Studio 3 package; it came bundled with other applications such as Soundtrack, Color, Compressor and DVD Studio Pro.  The combined price for the entire Studio package was $999.

Last night in Las Vegas, as part of the annual NAB festivities, Apple announced the new version of Final Cut, entitled Final Cut Pro X.  It is a complete, from the ground-up redesign of the program that has largely been formatted the same since its inception over 10 years ago.  Many were concerned that the new release would be a dumbed down version of the program, similar to the less professional-based software, iMovie, which comes standard on macs.

It looks, however, that those concerns have been allayed.  Final Cut Pro X looks to be a pretty interesting program re-design and still sharply aimed at the professional user.  Updates to the program include: support for 64-bit processors, the ability to utilize more than 4GB of RAM with the program, new smart collections for grouping similar types of media, clip connection for keeping audio and video in sync, a magnetic timeline and the ability to begin edits on the video before the ingest is complete.  Furthermore, transcoding issues have been addressed, easy color balancing options have been added in the timeline, background rendering will run with available CPU and the ability to import and handle 4k files is now an option.

The screenshots from the program itself looks quite sleek and the aforementioned updates sound very enticing.  Perhaps more enticing than anything though is the price tag that accompanies the program – $299.  Having before only been available for purchase as part of the Studio package at $999, this price drop and ability to download from the Apple App Store make it a lot more affordable for everyone, especially students and small production companies.  No news, however, on if the rest of the Studio suite programs are going to get a redesign like Final Cut, but Apple said in the unveiling last night for everyone to “stay tuned.”  Final Cut Pro X will go on sale in June; I can’t wait to get my copy and see what the hype is truly about.

Saying Goodbye to One of the Best: Sidney Lumet

9 04 2011

Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet, one of my favorite film directors, passed away today at the age of 86 from Lymphoma.  Looking through his repertoire of films is like looking through a must-see list of movies over the past 50 years.

Lumet, who was born in Philadelphia, Penn. on June 25, 1924, began his career as an actor in the theatre.  He quickly moved to directing and eventually settled into directing early television productions.  One of his most famous films as a television director is his amazing adaptation of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men.  Centered around a dissenting jury in a murder trail, the film has amazing performances by all the cast, headed by Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb.  It easily ranks as one of the best films of the 1950s and is ranked number 87 on the AFI’s Top 100 movies list.

Moving out of television work and into feature films in the 1960s, Lumet had successes with the stark drama The Pawnbroker and the cold war thriller Fail-Safe with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.  In the 1970s, Lumet produced what I consider some of his best films, including: Serpico with Al Pacino, Murder on the Orient Express based on the Agatha Christie novel, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and Equus. All of these films rank high among the best pictures of the decade and Network makes an appearance on the AFI Top 100 list as well at number 66.  Other films from Lumet’s extraordinary career include Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running on Empty and his latest film at age 82, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

In 1996, Lumet released his memoir entitled Making Movies. In addition to being a memoir of his life experiences, it also chronicles his ideas and techniques in making motion pictures, making it one of the best sources for aspiring filmmakers to understand the art of the director.  My friend and fellow filmmaker, Dan A. R. Kelly, loaned me his copy of this book a few years ago and I was engrossed in it from beginning to end.  If you ever plan to go into filmmaking, especially as a director, then this is a great book to start with to understand the process and scope of what goes into making a good motion picture.

Lumet was nominated for five Academy Awards in competitive categories, but never won; he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2005.  Lumet’s ability to command performances and take on vastly different subject matters in each of his pictures are evident in his body of work.  Few director’s have such an impressive career that spans nearly 50 years.  It saddens me greatly to know that I will never have the opportunity to see a new Lumet film come out, but the films he has left us with are testament to his legacy as a filmmaker.

Anticipated Release: The Rum Diary

30 03 2011

Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp in "The Rum Diary." Copyright 2011 GK Films, Infinitum Nihil and Film Engine.

It was revealed yesterday that writer/director Bruce Robinson’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary will be released theatrically through FilmDirect.  The film, which stars Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckart and Amber Heard, is set for an October 28, 2011 release date.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about seeing this film.  For those of you who are unaware of who Bruce Robinson is, he directed the seminal British comedy classic Withnail and I (one of my favorite comedies of all-time).  Following the success of Withnail and I in 1986, he has only directed two other pictures: How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Jennifer Eight. This is his first release as a writer/director since 1992 and, even though his two latest films weren’t as well-received, this new project has some amazing source material and a great cast to accompany.

The Rum Diary, the book, was written by acclaimed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in the early 1960s (though unpublished until 1998).  It was his second novel following the still unpublished Prince Jellyfish. Like many books by a young writer (Thompson was 22 at the time of writing), it is a semi-autobiographical piece dealing with his time in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1960.

According to the press release from New York yesterday, the story “…tells the increasingly unhinged story of itinerant journalist Paul Kemp (Depp). Tired of the noise and madness of New York and the crushing conventions of late Eisenhower-era America, Kemp travels to the pristine island of Puerto Rico to write for a local San Juan newspaper run by the downtrodden editor Lotterman (Jenkins). Adopting the rum-soaked lifestyle of the late ‘50s version of Hemingway’s “The Lost Generation,” Paul soon becomes entangled with a very attractive American woman, Chenault (Heard) and her fiancée Sanderson (Eckhart), a businessman involved in shady property development deals.  It is within this world that Kemp ultimately discovers his true voice as a writer and integrity as a man.”

Now, as with any film, there is a possibility that there could be a let down, but this film seems to have some pretty amazing things going for it and I can’t wait until it comes out.  Bruce Robinson adapting a Hunter S. Thompson film starring Johnny Depp  – that just sounds like magic on screen to me.

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

23 03 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, one of the few true living Hollywood legends passed away today at the age of 79 from congestive heart failure. Having been ill for the past several years, she had spent the last month in a Los Angeles hospital. Taylor, who began her acting career as a child actor in the 1940s, went on to win commercial and critical acclaim as an actress, as well as becoming an astute business woman.

Her film career encompassed a nearly 60 year span and included classic films such as Giant, A Place in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, among many others. She was nominated for 5 Academy Awards and won twice for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her work in Butterfield 8 and her electrifying performance as Martha opposite then husband Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Her career and elegance as a leading actress made her one of the top billing actresses of the 1950s and 1960s. For Cleopatra in 1963, she became the first actress to receive one million dollars for a film role. However, unfortunately, her private life became as much news as her public roles with several tumultuous affairs and multiple marriages (eight in all, twice to actor Richard Burton).

In addition to her acting career, Taylor also helmed a successful business with her perfume line which included “Passion”, “White Diamonds” and “Black Pearls”, as well as being a lifelong lover and collector of diamonds.

There aren’t really any actresses these days that stand on the same legendary platform as Taylor, especially during her heyday. As one article put it, “it’s the end of an era”, and I don’t think they could be more right in saying so. The style and ability that exuded from the top actresses of Taylor’s era is something that is much more unachievable in our globally connected world.

Now, that being said, I am not one to place much merit on glitz, glamour and star status. What I will remember Elizabeth Taylor for is her screen performances; in spite of her larger-than-life public status, she was an amazing actress who’s abilities far out-weighed any other facet of her career. She could perform loving, kind, caring, restrained, electrifying, mad, maniacal and so many other emotions with exacting precision; her legacy of films is testament to her amazing abilities. She will be missed, but her screen legacy will live on.

5 Things I’ve Learned Making Short Films

21 03 2011

I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of a variety of short films and, in doing so, have had the chance to wear many hats from production assistant all the way up to director (even acted in a few, but I will never tell the names of those to protect innocent eyes from my sub par acting abilities).  Having been a part of a lot of productions, as with anything, I’ve been able to crew on some amazing films that have won awards and screened at international film festivals and I’ve also been part of some films that I wish “Allan Smithee” could take my credit on.  In my nearly 10 years in independent filmmaking, I’ve learned a few things along the way and hope these few tips will help you in your endeavors in making a short film on a little to no budget.

Me on set of a recent short I directed. My very talented DP, Jeff Stepp in blue shirt and the multi-talented Dan A. R. Kelly, a great writer/director who was kind enough to AD/Co-Produce for me on this film in the hat.

1. Short Films DO NOT make money

This is a statement that I can’t stress enough to anyone looking to make a short film.  If you think it is going to bring you fame and fortune, you are completely wrong.  So, why take the time to make a short?  Well, firstly, if you have the drive to tell stories then you need an outlet to do so.  Most of us won’t get several million dollars to put our stories out there the first few times we attempt to make films, but like a sickness, we still have the need to express our creative desires and find said desires an audience.  Secondly, you are not going to make an amazing film the first time at bat.  Making films is a deeply collaborative effort that takes practice like anything else.  Each film you make you will learn something from your mistakes and be better for the next project you work on.  So, in a world where practice makes perfect, financially speaking, short films are a lot more viable a training ground.  Finally, the people who will give you several million dollars to make a feature aren’t going to give it to you on a script alone.  They need to see what you are made of from a visual standpoint, and what better way than a fragment of the feature you want to make or a reel of visual work?  The more festivals you enter, the more awards you win, the more buzz you acquire will all lead you a step closer to those dreams of one day making a feature (and obtaining fortune, fame, etc.).

2. Multiple Locations = Multiple Headaches

Whenever I get a script for a short film, the first thing I look at outside of whether I actually like the story is what it’s going to take to produce/make the film in relation to shooting, special effects, production design and many other factors.  The more locations that need to be dressed, moved to and lit, the more money you are going to have to spend to make that happen.  If you are wanting to make a short, do everything you can to take the amount of locations to produce the film down to as low as possible.  What’s a magic number for a short film’s number of locations?  In my mind: one.  If you can stick to one location then you are going to have the extra time and funds available to focus on performance, shot composition and story structure rather than worrying how you are going to get 10 people working for $75 a day (or less) and a meal for 16 hours a day to commit to a few more days because you cant do enough company moves in time.

What if there is no way to tell my story without multiple locations?  I can see this point, some stories need more than others.  My advice would be to consider whether this is a good story to try to tackle at the time and on the budget you are limited to or do your best to consolidate as much as possible.

3. Films are a Visual Medium, Who Needs Sound?

What’s the number one thing that usually sucks in a short film?  The sound and sound design.  Why?  Because most people are too concerned with the visuals and figure sound won’t be too big a deal to “fix in post.”  Well, you’re wrong.  Yes, we work in a visual medium and as a cinematographer at heart, I feel this more than about anyone you’ll find (hell, I think we should still be making silents!).  However, no one is making silent movies anymore and, if they are, it’s probably not a very serious one; it’s probably an homage to a certain look with sepia tone and 16fps projection.

No matter how good your film looks, if listening to it sounds like the whole thing was recorded in a turbine one minute and a wood box the next, then people won’t be able to properly enjoy it and give your story the chance it deserves.  ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) is always an option, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “well, we’ll just ADR this” and then in post-production greatly regretted the decision.  ADR is a difficult process that still needs to be done by an audio specialist and it’s something difficult to mix properly with on set sound unless done under a very controlled environment.  Not to mention, it’s a timely process that will probably push your production’s final cut date back dramatically.  So, in short, don’t skimp on sound!  Hire someone who knows what they are doing, even it is a boom op/mixer all-in-one type.

4.  Don’t go with the Cheapest Camera (or DP)

It’s hard to write a great, engaging story.  Look at most of the films even on multi-million dollar budgets, only a few of them are truly great stories.  If you can have a real hit screenplay every time you sit down to write though – more power to you.  However, more often than not, our stories aren’t as great as we usually think they are in the end.  What’s this got to do with cameras?  Well, if nothing else, you can at least make that short film look damn good.  How do you go about doing this?  Don’t go with the cheapest camera or DP available (the DP part is more important).

For those of you new to film, what’s a DP?  The DP is an abbreviation for Director of Photography. This is the guy (or gal) who will help the director define the visual look of the film.  On set, the DP is in charge of both the camera and lighting crews and choses the lighting schema, camera lenses, filters, instruments and makes a plethora of other decisions that will get what the director wants to see on screen to the audience.  Being on a low budget makes it easy to go with the cheapest person for the job.  But, this is who will define the look of your film.  If they aren’t qualified or don’t have a good visual sense, then your film will not come out looking good at all and, this element of making short films, I think can be one of the easiest to achieve.

Furthermore, once you have the right DP in place, give him the proper instruments he needs to complete the job.  I know on a low budget you can’t always shoot 35mm with a full lighting and grip package, but on the other hand, don’t give him a K-Mart camera and a few incadescents from Lowe’s Home Improvement either though.  Talk with your DP and figure out what he feels he needs to complete the shoot and achieve the look you want.  If it’s too much, tell him, compromise – it’s what low budget filmmaking is all about.

5.  As a Director, Always be in a Good Mood

If you are directing a short film, then you likely are the writer and producer as well (and editor, special effects, composer, cinematographer, etc. sometimes).  Being on a low budget, you probably have a lot of people working for little or nothing to help you tell the story that you want to tell.  These people are doing you a favor and the least you can do is treat them with respect and keep the mood light on set.  There are going to be long days, difficult decisions and times you wish you could pull your hair out, but you always have to remember that you are the heart of the set.  A great director is someone who understands the whole art of filmmaking, every facet, from the photography to the acting to the way its cut together.  They are a foreman, a manager, a psychiatrist, a friend, a confidant and a believer.  Your attitude alone will affect the whole set and everyone involved.  If you are angry and difficult to please, then it will show readily to everyone on set and not help your picture get made.  Likewise, if you are friendly and can face the challenges of independent filmmaking with a good heart, then you will likely have collaborators that will stick with you for a long time to come and be happy to help you create your vision for low pay, meals, copy and credits.

There are obviously many other facets of short film production that could be covered, but I feel that these five simple truths are the ones that I found to be the most important.  If you are wanting to take the dive into short film making (for the first or hundredth time) then I think that if you can remember these words of advice, your life will probably be a lot easier through the grueling pre-production, production and post-production processes.  I wish you luck and feel free to share your experiences or “life lessons” in this crazy business with me too.  You’re never too old to learn something new.

The 5th Quarter Premiere in Winston-Salem

19 03 2011

The 5th Quarter was shot entirely in Winston-Salem and premiered at the Grande 18 theatre on University Parkway last night.  It was an invite only event which included many staples of the local film industry and many of the cast/crew who worked on the film from out of state.  I was lucky enough to get an invite for my minor part in working on the film in late 2008.

My involvement with the film began rather unexpectedly.  I had heard that this film was coming to the area, but at the time, I was busy playing in a band and working as a Features Editor for a small newspaper.  My good friend and associate Dan A. R. Kelly ended up being hired as a casting associate through extras casting agency Altair Casting.  Two days out from the first day of filming, the production had yet to find a suitable stand-in for lead actor Ryan Merriman.  Being at the pre-filming party with Dan, someone suggested I might fit the bill.  I laughed a little thinking to myself how drastic a change that would be from the roles I usually play on a set, but they insisted I come down and check with the AD department to see if I would work.  I did and, sure enough, they wanted me for the entire shoot (25 days) to be on set as Ryan’s stand-in.  The pay wasn’t bad and the opportunity to be close to the camera/lighting crew headed by A-list camera operator Craig Haagensen was very nice; so, I jumped on the offer.

This was my first time seeing any part of the film cut together.  The story itself is based on actual events and was scripted and directed by Rick Bieber (no relation to Justin). It focuses on Wake Forest University line backer Jon Abbate (Ryan Merriman) and his family (Aidan Quinn as the father, Andie MacDowell as mother, Matthew McGrath and Mandy Manis as other siblings) who lost their youngest brother/son in a tragic car accident during the 2006 season. The young son, Luke’s, organs were donated following the accident and his spirit was the inspiration for his brother Jon switching from Jersey “40” to Luke’s number “5”.  The switch and remembrance of Luke brought on a phenomenon at Wake Forest calling the 4th quarter the 5th quarter and the 2006 season went on to become one of the best in the university’s history.

I enjoyed the film.  It definitely pulls at the heart strings and knowing it is a true story makes that all the more difficult.  It’s great seeing a film like this made in the area because it really shows some of the wonderful locations for filming that are available here in the Piedmont Triad area, puts money into the local economy and shows some of the pride of Wake Forest.  The film will open to the masses on March 25 at 120 screens.  More information on the film is available at http://the5thquartermovie.com/.

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