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Monthly Archives: May 1999

Never Say No to a Mint

By Greg Pak
When I’m shooting, I need to have private, one-on-one conversations with my actors. But with a half dozen crew members in the room, it can be a struggle to keep these discussions private and effective. The result is close physical proximity — I’ll often whisper a direction into each actors’ ear just before a take.
Nothing puts a crimp into this kind of intimate communication like bad breath.
Too much coffee, too much pizza, too little sleep — the conditions of stressful sets provide the perfect incubator for all kinds of interesting chemical reactions. I’ve suffered from the halitosis of others and no doubt stunned people with my own over the years. It may seem like a little thing. But the success of a film can be compromised by anything which hinders communication between directors and their actors and crew.
The principle applies during distribution and promotion as well. Initial conversations with prospective agents, distributors, producers, and programmers often take place in crowded rooms at festival receptions or parties –under these conditions, people will know if you stink — and they may infer that your film does, too.
Never say no to a mint. That little Altoid could mean more to your moviemaking than you realize.

Be Nice

By Greg Pak
Even when everyone around you has transformed into a total moron, be nice. Seriously. Disregard stories about John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock humiliating cast and crew to good effect. You’re not working for a studio and paying people tons of dough for the privilege of being abused by you. Most likely, your cast and crew are working for very little if any money at all. Even when they screw up, they will respond best to firm but civil correction.
This is particularly true when dealing with places like post houses. When they screw up your dailies (as they eventually will), you can pitch a fit, whine and groan, insult each worker and his or her family with scathing, satisfying rancor. But this will not get you better service — and in fact may cause you to lose the little bonuses you could get.
The reality is that most labs will readily correct any mistakes they make — for free. And the mistakes are seldom permanent — I’ve made six 16mm films and only one roll of negative has ever been scratched by a lab. Instead, typical lab mistakes include scratching a print (not the negative), making video dailies with the image off center, etcetera. Your best strategy is to clearly point out the problem and request a redo. Now if they want to charge you for the redo, you may need to show a little more fire… But all the shouting is seldom necessary.

Casting Techniques

By Greg Pak
When casting my short films, I usually bring in actors two at a time and have them read opposite each other. I try to match people up in ways I think might work — an admittedly hit-or-miss process when you’re just looking at the headshots and resumes. When the actors actually show up, sometimes they seem mismatched, but I can still get a good impression of each individual actor, even if I know I’d never cast them together.
By the time callbacks come around, I usually have definite couples I want to see together. Sometimes I’ll be pretty sure that I want to cast, say, a woman in a given role. Then I might have her come in for an hour and have three different guys work opposite her, one after the other. Or I might have a group of actors come at the same time but see them only two at time, in different groupings. These are just different strategies to be able to see people I like working with as many other people I like as possible.
In the end, I need to have seen the people I want to cast work together — I don’t cast actors separately — I need to see how they work together, act around and react to each other. Chemistry, ya know?
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A few general casting tips:
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I usually do a brief warm up with the actors — a stretch, a voice thing, something silly and relaxing to loosen them up. Most directors don’t do this, but I want the actors to be relaxed; I want to get their best work.
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I actually try to direct a little during the audition. When I give the actors their sides, I’ll tell them a little about the characters and what they’re trying to achieve during the scene. Then, after they do the scene once, I’ll usually give them a few notes and have them do it again. Actors love this — they want to do better. And it’s good for me to see how well they react to direction.
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I usually never stick solely to the screenplay. I’ll have the actors read a scene or two, but I’ll also give them an improvised scene to work. Why? Because I might want to see the actors deal with certain emotions or situations, and the actual scene from the screenplay may not be written in a way that makes it useful in an audition.
����Also, some actors show things in improvisation they don’t show in cold readings — and I want to see what they’re capable of. The setups for these improvisations have to be thought through, though. You have to know what you want to see and set up the improvisation accordingly.
����For example, for “Mouse” I needed to see if the actors had the capacity to relate to each other well as lovers. The screenplay deals with their characters’ failure as a couple — there’s not much in there that shows them working together. But in order for that failure to have any importance, I knew that the audience had to feel the intimacy that’s being lost. Now there was no scene in the screenplay that would let this intimacy come out very well… So I had the actors improvise their characters’ first date. It helped me see what kind of depth the actors had, to see how they were conceiving and breathing life into the characters.
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I try to have the auditions taped — by someone competent with a video camera who’s able to follow the action and zoom in for closeups from time to time. A static wide shot of the whole room won’t tell me what I need to know — I need to see the actors’ faces — their eyes, really — to know if they’ll work on screen.

Make It Shorter

By Greg Pak
I’ll say it again: Make it shorter. It’ll almost always be much, much better.
My first cut of “Fighting Grandpa” was 60 minutes long. I though I was nearly done. But the film was virtually unwatchable to anyone outside of the immediate family. The final film was 21 minutes long, has played in 40 festivals and won 20 awards.
Furthermore, the shorter your film is, the less expensive the sound mix, transfers, prints & dubs are. Makes a considerable difference in the end.
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Finally, the shorter a short is, the more festival exposure it will get. Programmers like films under 20 minutes. They really like films under 10 minutes. They love films under 5. The shorter a film is, the more flexibility they have in scheduling it — a great three minute film can be programmed just about anywhere, in any number of shorts programs or in front of an appropriate feature. But a 30 minute film, no matter how great, is usually too long to go ahead of a feature and needs a couple of other very carefully chosen, thematically similar shorts to become part of a shorts program.
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Of course, if your film is perfect at 40 minutes, so be it. If it’s great, it will find its audience. But if you have a 20 minute film hidden in that 40 minute fine cut, please, please, do yourself a favor and find it.

Shoot Recans

By Greg Pak
Others may disagree, but for the low-budget 16mm short, I highly recommend using shortends and recans rather than fresh stock.
What are recans, you ask?
Occasionally productions will load film into magazines but end up not shooting it — these unexposed rolls of film make their way to vendors who test them and resell them at a hefty discount — usually $80 for a recan which would cost $120 fresh. Short ends are the same as recans — just shorter, since some of the film was shot during the original shoot.
I shot “Fighting Grandpa,” “Mouse,” and “Po Mo Knock Knock” with almost nothing but recans and short ends. I’ve had only one problem — the rim of one roll of “Mouse” dailies was fogged, resulting in the edge code being unreadable. This terrified me, of course, but I discussed it with my negative cutter and had the negative and workprint edge coded to match each other. Problem solved.
For a feature film with a budget, I’d shoot fresh stock. But as long as I’m strapped and I can find reputable dealers who test their stock, I’ll continue using recans for my shorts and docs.
����Shortend/recan dealers in NYC I’ve used:
����Raw Stock, 212-255-0445
����Steadisystems, 30 W. 21st, 212-647-0900
����Film Emporium, 212-681-6922

Listen while You Shoot

By Greg Pak
When working as a cinematographer on documentaries, I wear headphones whenever possible to monitor the sound that’s being recorded. The technique allows me to hear interesting things which can improve my shooting.
For example, on a recent project, one subject was equipped with a wireless mike. Even though he wasn’t on screen all the time, I could hear his voice through my headphones. From time to time, I’d hear him start an interesting conversation. I’d turn and catch him on tape from across the room — something which would never have happened if I wasn’t monitoring the sound.
It’s worth noting that this is a much easier thing to do when shooting video — if the sound is recorded directly into the camera, you can simply plug your headphones into the camera’s onboard jack. If you’re shooting on film, the sound is recorded separately, which makes the wiring a little more awkward, since you’ll have to run your headphones to the sound person’s recorder…
In general, I’d recommend wearing headphones if possible, but give ’em up if awkward wiring hurts your shooting or the sound person’s recording.

Budget for Distribution

By Greg Pak
Yeah, I know, at the pre-production stage, most of us are barely scraping together the dollars to get our films in the can. But remember that if you don’t have the money to properly push your film once it’s done, the whole effort is for naught.
For the average short, you’ll want to reserve $200 to $300 for VHS copies, $1000 for festival entry fees (and that’ll only let you submit to about 35 festivals — you’ll probably want to submit to even more), $200 for stills and press kits, and $300 for postage and packing material.
That adds up to about $1,800, more than I spent for the entire production and completion of “Po Mo Knock Knock.” Seems ridiculous to spend more than the film itself, but that’s the nature of the beast. Raise the bux and get it out there — otherwise you’re just sitting on your film and no one will ever see it.
Actually, now that I think about my own experiences, maybe it’s best� not to keep track of how much you’re spending to promote your film. I don’t even want to think of what I’ve spent flogging “Fighting Grandpa,” particularly when I add in the costs of traveling to festivals. But these were expenses I had to make — otherwise the film wouldn’t have been recognized and I probably wouldn’t have gotten either the agent I have or the grants I’ve received for my new documentary.

Test Converted 16mm Cameras

By Greg Pak
If you’re using a Super 16 camera that’s being converted to regular 16 for your shoot, shoot a test roll before you shoot real footage with it. If it’s been configured improperly, the framing will be off on your final image — you’ll end up with more image on the right hand side of your frame, for example, which will bug you and everyone else in the world who cares about decent composition.

Test-Shoot Rehearsals on Video

By Greg Pak
When I’m shooting fiction, I always try to have my cinematographer come to a rehearsal (ideally on location) with a video camera to shoot some of the set ups we’ve discussed. This way, before the shoot, we have a chance to see what we’re talking about regarding camera movement and frame.
Test shooting rehearsals on video also gives the D.P. and director a chance to find new and better camera angles for scenes based on how the actors are moving in the locations. Always good to do this ahead of time — saves some scrambling on the actual set.

Let’s Talk About Frame

By Greg Pak
Talk with your D.P. in exact terms about frame — for example, when shooting 16mm, specify that all important information should be within the TV safe lines. Otherwise, you may end up with an image that’s beautifully framed for film projection but looks cramped when transferred to video.
Also, make sure you know that you and your D.P. are thinking the same thing when you use certain terms — one person’s close up is another person’s medium shot.

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