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10 Things I Learned at Masters in Motion

On December 2nd, 2012, filmmakers from as far away as Canada, Croatia, Tanzania, Switzerland, and Brazil converged in downtown Austin, Texas for Masters in Motion, a three-day immersive filmmaking workshop, held annually at the world-famous Alamo Drafthouse on 6th Street. Despite having a Canon C500, C300, C100 and an array of DSLRs from Lens Pro To Go on hand, in addition to the Phantom Flex and TS3 Cine provided by Rule Boston Camera, the vibe of the event was summarized perfectly in this tweet:

“@niceladypro Refreshing going to a 3 day filmmaking workshop where people don’t talk about the camera they shot their video on.”

In the spirit of that quote, number one on the list of “Ten Things I Learned at Masters in Motion” comes from Shane Hurlbut, ASC, who is an accomplished DP, with titles such as Terminator Salvation, Act Of Valor, Swing Vote and Crazy Beautiful under his belt, to name a few.

1) “Cameras constantly change. Lighting and composition don’t.”

This wasn’t necessarily something new I learned but it was refreshing. In today’s day and age, the speed with which new cameras are released is almost absurd. The emphasis on camera specs and the 4k vs. 1080p discussion has been debated via social media and on forums, ad nauseam. It was great to hear that we weren’t the only ones that feel that camera technology is so good and accessible at this point, that you should focus on mastering composition and lighting. In that same vein, Hurlbut also dropped another gem when he said, “Don’t listen to what the camera reviewers say. You have to test (the camera) out yourself. You are the artist. You have to see if it speaks to you.”

2) The importance of a strong beginning and end to a film.

Ondi Timoner, the only filmmaker with the rare distinction of winning Sundance twice, referenced We Live in Public and said the opening took eight months to put together, the same amount of time she spent on the rest of the film in post. Hearing the ratio of time spent on the beginning of the film in the editing process in comparison to the rest of the film was a real eye opener. In the era we live in, people are bombarded with a bevy of information from a multitude of sources at any given moment. You have to engage your audience, pull them in, and make them want to see more. On the other end, you also have to finish strong. Ending with a call to action was highlighted through various examples provided during Timoner’s thought provoking and in-depth analysis of the state of filmmaking and technology in the current landscape of filmmaking.

3) You can have all the talent and intelligence in the world and it means nothing if you’re not willing to get your hands dirty and work very, very hard.

When Oscar nominee and current Director of Photography for the Saturday Night Live Film Unit, Alex Buono, took the stage at Masters in Motion, he made one thing abundantly clear. His talk would not be about codecs, cameras or debayering patterns. He then proceeded to put on an absolute clinic on Visual Story Construction and how it affects your ability to tell a story as a filmmaker. He essentially crammed four years of film school into a mesmerizing and mind-blowing two-hour tour de force performance that left people’s brains aching from information overload. He illustrated how space, line, shape, color, tone, movement and rhythm can affect how the viewer interprets your film. Despite the massive amount of information he gave us, one thing in particular jumped out at me. He clearly has a vast knowledge of filmmaking, is incredibly talented, and has experienced great success in his career. The thing that jumped out to me was a picture of him in the back of a grip truck, that if memory serves me correctly, was taken on location of the feature film Twister. He told us that in the photo he was scrubbing the mud off camera cases. A man who had just shown us examples of some of the incredible work he has produced, who was nominated for an Oscar, who has had the level of success we all are aspiring to achieve, was scrubbing mud off camera cases. It reinforced that there is nothing beneath us. The point is that without a lot of hard work, without getting your hands dirty, without being able to accept a job doing the grunt work and then doing it as if it were the greatest thing to ever happen to you, you will probably never achieve much as a filmmaker. Throw away any notions of glamour and glitz you may have. At its core, filmmaking is a very difficult, labor intensive process, that requires long hours and personal sacrifices. You better have a serious passion for filmmaking or you will be miserable.

4) In a demo reel your worst shot speaks loudest.

Vincent Laforet did a pretty amazing and unique thing at Masters in Motion. He accepted demo reels from attendees via thumb drives, hard drives, Vimeo links and any other delivery method you could imagine. He then went through them all, took notes and then took the stage in what I would call a respectful but no-nonsense approach to “tough love.” Anyone brave enough to submit their work had it dissected live and their web presence critiqued. With the assistance of Justin P. Hamilton, he also chose one piece and re-edited it. Then they went through the thought process and editing decisions they made in the project to tighten it up and make it a more effective vehicle to attract the type of client the piece was catered towards. As Vincent went through various demo reels and pointed out some shots that were much weaker than others, he made a very good point. In a demo reel, you can have all the most amazing shots in the world but your worst shot will speak the loudest. This is a case of quality over quantity. A demo reel should reflect the absolute best you have to offer. What I took away was that one mediocre shot will scream out to a potential client, “This is the absolute best I could do!” A very powerful message indeed. Tighten it up. If it’s not gold, it has to go!

5) When shooting outdoors use the sun as a backlight.

Sean Stiegmeier and Joe Simon held a hands-on session on utilizing natural light. They went over a lot of amazing tips including using negative fill to shape the light. The biggest takeaway from this for a lot of filmmakers, myself included, was to always use the sun as a backlight and then bounce the sun back on the actors as the main source of light. A lot of filmmakers make the mistake of keeping the sun in front of the talent to try to avoid over exposing the sky in the background and thereby create a very flat and unflattering image. We have already started to implement this and have noticed a drastic change and are now armed with much more flexibility in shaping the light.

6) If you can’t tell a story effectively, you are in the wrong business.

In a move reminiscent of Andy Kaufman, Konrad Cystokowski of Freshsox had us spread a rumor before the third day kicked off, that we were unable to find him and had no idea what to do since he was the first speaker slated to present. After we announced that we were embarrassed but had no idea what to do because we couldn’t find him, there was an awkward silence and murmurs. Konrad then magically appeared on stage. It was all a ruse designed to illustrate the point of how a story, when effectively told, can move people on an emotional level. Our job as filmmakers is to manipulate emotions. It’s almost become cliche to say, “Story is more important than gear.” It may be cliche but it is also true. Through real-world examples, Konrad illustrated the importance of story. Without it, we have nothing but a series of nice looking images. As a filmmaker, if you are not able to tell a story, you won’t get your message across, which is crucial, no matter what genre you are working in whether it is event, documentary, commercial or narrative.

7) Color is crucial to setting the mood of a film and providing information to the viewer about the feeling of a scene or sequence.

Ian Vertovec, the colorist for acclaimed films such as The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, went in-depth about color theory and expressed the importance of it in filmmaking. It can dramatically alter the viewer’s perception of a scene. It also subconsciously gives them clues to how they should be feeling at any given moment and provides a subtle context. Watching him break down the coloring from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was an amazing behind the scenes look at one of our favorite films to date.

8) Sound is woefully under appreciated, misunderstood and a crucial part of any film.

Erik Aadahl, Oscar-nominated sound designer for such films as Argo, Transformers, and Tree of Life has worked with the full spectrum of directors from Michael Bay to Terrence Malick. His presentation gave us a look behind the scenes at one of the most neglected aspects by independent filmmakers: sound. It was amazing to have him at this year’s event. His passion and extensive knowledge of all things audio helped reinforce the fact that we need to have someone who is as passionate about sound as we are about imagery on all projects going forward. Your film will only be as strong as it’s weakest aspect. All too often when budgeting for a film of any size audio is almost an afterthought, which is terrible because, more than a camera or any piece of gear, audio and lighting are the foundational blocks you must build upon.

9) The importance of finding a creative partner who shares your vision as well as the importance of organization and attention to the smallest details.

This point is demonstrated to me constantly by the co-founder of Masters in Motion, Cristina Valdivieso. In many ways she is the driving force behind the event. I tend to think more in sweeping brush strokes and focus on ideas and concepts. When it comes down to logistics, an event containing so many moving pieces becomes very similar to a large-scale commercial shoot or short film. That is the approach we took. Our amazing staff was armed with walkies and the equivalent of call sheets. Her attention down to the smallest detail is one of the reasons we were able to pull off the event with such a small crew and still have things fire on all cylinders. You can have the greatest idea in the world but if executed poorly it will be reflected in the end product.

10) If content is king, authenticity is what keeps the king from being overthrown.

If you say something and your actions don’t back it up you will lose trust. Trust is important. Whether it’s your brand story, the underlying message of your film or even the contents of a bid, you are making a promise. A promise that you are going to not only meet but hopefully exceed your audience or your client’s expectations. Anything that is worth doing is worth doing right. Never accept mediocrity. Never accept “good enough” because it isn’t. If you don’t feel utterly exhausted mentally and completely drained creatively at the end of a project, you could have and should have done more. Surrounding yourself with a talented, passionate team will give the fuel you need when you feel yourself slacking. Negativity is contagious and poisonous. Positivity, passion and determination are the key components that will keep a crew together no matter how much adversity and resistance you are up against. A healthy sense of humor never hurts to make it through long and exhausting days.

In conclusion, it is a New Year, signaling a fresh start. I hope that you will commit this year to do everything in your power to tell stories authentically, passionately and with a renewed focus on the aspects of filmmaking that transcend camera technology. At the end of the day a truly great story doesn’t rely on codecs, technology, or camera resolution. It goes beyond that and focuses on something more meaningful. That meaning is entirely up to you to find as a filmmaker, a storyteller, and a creative. Be good to each other out there and let’s collectively raise the bar as we head onward and upward in 2013.

Masters in Motion 2012: Day One from Kessler Crane on Vimeo.

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