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The Cine-Technician (1948) - Production Methods Compared




Production Methods Compared

The filming of each picture is a problem in itself. The solution to such a problem is an individual thing, not the application of a mass solution to all problems.

Something I do today makes me feel that the methods I used yesterday are out of date, and yet tomorrow I may be faced with a problem which I can best solve by using yesterday's methods. That is why I try to make my first rule of direction — flexibility.

Next, I try to make it a rule that nothing should be permitted to interfere with the story. The making of a picture is nothing but the telling of a story, and the story — it goes without saying — must be a good one. I don't try to put onto the screen what is called "a slice of life" because people can get all the slices of life they want out on the pavement in front of the cinemas and they don't have to pay for them.

On the other hand, total fantasy is no good either — I'm speaking only for myself remember — because people want to connect themselves with what they see on the screen.

Those are all the restrictions I would place on the story. It must be believable, and yet not ordinary. It must be dramatic, and yet lifelike. Drama, someone once said, is life with the dull spots removed.

Now, having got our story — what next? Obviously we must develop our characters and develop the plot. All right, let's say that's been done. It may be putting a year's work in a few words, but let's say it. Are we ready to go on the floor? No, because our picture is going to need editing and cutting, and the time for this work is right now. The cuts should be made in the script itself, before a camera turns, and not in the film after the cameras have stopped turning.

More important, if we shoot each scene as a separate entity out of sequence, the director is forced to concentrate on each scene as a scene. There is then a danger that one such scene may be given too great a prominence in direction and acting, and its relation with the remaining scenes is out of balance, or, again, that it hasn't been given sufficient value and when the scene becomes a part of the whole, the film is lacking in something.

You are all familiar with the "extra shots" that have to be made after the regular schedule is completed. That is because in the shooting of the scenes, story points were missed. The extra, expository shots are generally identified by an audience for what they are — artificial devices to cover what had been overlooked in the preparation of the film.

Now, how can this be avoided? I think it can best be avoided if a shooting script is edited before shooting starts. In this way, nothing extra is shot, and, most important, story points will be made naturally, within the action itself

Let me give an example of what I mean. Let's suppose that our story calls for two scenes in a certain street, one a view of a parade going by, and the other — several days later in our plot — being an intimate conversation between two people walking along the pavement. We shoot the scenes on different days, the parade a long shot, and the conversation a close-up. Now, after we've finished our scenes, we discover that the locale of the conversation is not quite clear to the audience. We must now shoot another long shot of the street which we will tack onto the front of the conversation merely to identify the street.

That "identifying long shot," in this case, is an unnecessary one. Because it's not really needed, it's awkward. If we'd seen to it that the script had been given expert editing before the film went on the floor, we would have found some way to identify die street within the structure of the conversation itself Or, better still, since the parade scene is a long shot, we could have tried, at least, to combine the two. In this way, the parade would serve a dual purpose, its plot purpose, and its expository one.

Another example: if we do not edit before we shoot, we may be faced, in the cutting room, with one of the nastiest of all editorial problems — the unexplained lapse of time. Our characters speak on Monday, and then speak again on the following Monday. That a week has gone by may be essential to our plot, but we may have failed to make it clear in the sequences we have shot. There was a time — long since past — when we would simply have photographed the words "One Week Later" in transparency and caused them to appear on the screen in mid-air during the second scene.

The lapse of time can easily be indicated by the simple method of shooting one scene as a day scene and the next as a night scene, or one scene with leaves on the trees and the next one with snow on the ground. These are obvious examples, but they serve to illustrate what I mean by editing before production commences.

I try never to go to the floor until I have a complete shooting script, and I have no doubt everyone else tries to do the same thing. But, for one reason or another, we often have to start with what is really an incomplete script.

The most glaring omission in the conventional script, I believe, is Camera Movement. "Jane embraces Henry," the script may read. But where is the camera while the two have their fun? This omission is of very great importance. Of course, the director may decide how he is going to film the embrace "when the time comes," as the story conference idiom has it. I think the time is before shooting. And here we come face to face once again with the fact that the tendency today is to shoot scenes and sequences and not to shoot pictures. The embrace can be shot from the front, from either side, or from above. If we are really going to be arty about the thing, it can be filmed from behind. But when we make that concession we are speaking only of the embrace by itself, and not as part of a sequence which is, itself, part of a picture which ought to be a dramatic whole. The angle from which that embrace is to be shot ought to flow logically from the preceding shot, and it ought to be so designed that it will fit smoothly into whatever follows it, and so on. Actually, if all the shooting is planned and incorporated into the script, we will never think about shooting the embrace, but merely about shooting a picture of which the embrace is a part.

I've taken a long time to get around to telling you that I favour shooting pictures in sequence. After all, the film is seen in sequence by an audience and, of course, the nearer a director gets to an audience's point of view, the more easily he will be able to satisfy an audience.

A picture maker need not try to please everyone, of course. It is important to me, before anything else is done on a picture, to decide just what audience I'm aiming at, and then to keep my eye on that target from that moment on. But it is obviously uneconomic to shoot for a small audience, and a motion picture costing some hundreds of thousands of dollars, which has taken the efforts of one hundred or perhaps two hundred men, has no more business directing its appeal toward people with a special knowledge of film-making than exclusively towards, say. Seventh Day Adventists, or Atomic Research scientists, or Chicago meat-packers.

Now what of the actual techniques of picture making? I happen to have a liking, for instance, for a roving camera because I believe, as do many other directors, that a moving picture should really move. And I have definite ideas about the use of cuts and fade-outs which, improperly handled, can remind the audience of the unreality of our medium and take them away from the plot. But those are personal prejudices of mine. I do not try to bend the plot to fit technique; I adapt technique to the plot. And that's the important thing. A particular camera angle may give a cameraman — or even a director — a particular satisfying effect. The question is, dramatically, is it the best way of telling whatever part of the story it's trying to tell? If not, out it goes.

The motion picture is not an arena for a display of techniques. It is, rather, a method of telling a story in which techniques, beauty, the virtuosity of the camera, everything must be sacrificed or compromised when it gets in the way of the story itself.

An audience is never going to think to itself: "what magnificent work with the boom" or "that dolly is very nicely handled"; they are interested in what the characters on the screen are doing, and it's a director's job to keep the audience interested in that. Technique that calls itself to the audience's attention is poor technique. The mark of good technique is that it is unnoticed.

Even within a single picture, techniques should vary, even though the overall method of handling the story, the style, must remain constant. It is, for instance, obvious that audience concentration is higher at the beginning of a picture than at the end. The act of sitting in one place must eventually induce a certain lassitude. In order that that lassitude should not be translated into boredom or impatience, it is often necessary to speed up things a little towards the end, particularly towards the end of a long picture.

This means more action and less talk, or, if talk is essential, speeches ought to be short, and a little louder and more forceful than they would be if the same scene were played earlier in the picture. Putting it bluntly, it's sometimes necessary to ham things up a bit. This rule was recognized very early in the picture business, and the old-timers used to say: "when in doubt, get louder and faster." They were putting it a bit crudely, but perhaps the rule still applies.

It takes a certain amount of tact, of course, to induce a good actor to overact and this is another argument in favour of shooting pictures more or less in sequence, because, once you have edged an actor into overacting, it is, sadly enough, entirely impossible to edge him back again.

Direction, of course, is a matter of decisions. If it were possible to lay down a hard and fast rule that would cover all the decisions, all directors would be out of work. I shudder to think of that but fortunately, it's impossible.

The important thing is that the director makes his decisions when the need for them arises, and operates with as few rules as possible. The fewer rules you have, the fewer times you'll have to experience the unhappiness of breaking them.