Happy Halloween! It’s the peak of scary movie season. Some of us are big into scary movies, others of us shy away from such things. I’m somewhere in the middle. They don’t all appeal to me, but I do still find quite a few to be worth checking out. Some even become favorite films of mine (might be time to pop in The Shining when I’m done posting this).
Much like Sci-fi, Horror is not exactly a pure genre. And what I mean by that is that stories within Sci-fi and Horror usually involve elements from both Drama and Comedy. Think about the scenario for many Horror films. At the core of such stories is usually the same principles of characters in relationship or conflict with each other that drive a good Drama or Comedy. After all, a story can’t just be zombies attacking or ghosts doing scary things. We have to care about characters to empathize with their fear. And there has to be something at stake for the characters if we are to go along with them on this journey. There’s a reason for this.
What horror films manage to do so effectively is to draw us into the struggles and journeys of characters and then give shape to our fears so that we can confront them in the safety of a movie theater or our living room. Much like nightmares function as a means for our subconscious brains to experience the fight-or-flight instinct within the safety of our sleep, rather than having to wait until we are actually in a life-and-death situation in real life to have us learn to deal with all that adrenaline and survival instincts in the moment. So dreams, and movies, offer us a sort training ground for life’s potential scary moments.
Movies share some profound similarities with dreams, even down to how our brains experience movies which mimics in some key ways how our brains dream (for more on this I highly recommend Colin McGinn’s fantastic book, The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact). So many have pointed out that horror movies offer us an opportunity to confront and deal with our fears in a situation where ultimately our lives are not at stake (again, safe training ground). So weather we deal with the fear of coming face-to-face with a man-eating shark or our fear of what goes bump in the night, horror movies can offer us a chance to experience fear and ask ourselves how we might respond in similar situations.
In fact, this whole question of how we might survive in similar situations is possibly at the very core of why we are drawn to any kind of story in the first place. Author Lisa Cron addresses this idea in her book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (which I’m currently reading). She talks about the notion that humans evolved a very effective means to relay important information about how to navigate the world and vicariously have crucial learning experiences without having to put our lives in danger. So early humans told scary stories about confronting deadly predators, and this served as an opportunity for listeners to experience a manageable dose of fear and listen to how the protagonist of the story either dies or survives. The idea then is that as we listen to such stories we are subconsciously asking ourselves how we might respond in this same situation (which is why so many of us find ourselves watching Horror movies and saying, “No, don’t go down it the basement, stupid!”).
So what are your favorite scary movies, and why? What do you think draws you to such movies? What do you think you get out of the experience of watching such films? And do you think scary movies today help us deal with fears or generate new ones we otherwise wouldn’t have? I’m honestly curious, so please, do comment.
Meanwhile, I’ve to get back to work on that outline for that Sci-fi/Horror movie I’ve been dreaming up.
Getting new stuff can be great. But when you’ve grown so accustomed to something and had it for so long, replacing it can also feel a little sad. This week, I said goodbye to my ‘97 Saturn SL2. Now, my wife and I got it in 2005. But still that’s eight years of having that car. The reason that particular car is so significant to me is that around the time that we got that car, I also bought my first HD camera. And over these past eight years, both that camera and that Saturn proved to be very valuable filmmaking tools.
With the camera, I shot several short film projects, ultimately achieving my objective at the time to get into film festivals. In fact, two of those projects shot with that camera went on to secure international distribution. The Saturn served me well when my friend Dan and I drove down to Texas for three weeks so we could volunteer as Production Assistants on a feature film being shot in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. This was an amazing experience that taught me so much, including: be more attentive at 3 AM when you stop at a gas station near Tulsa to fill up because you might fill your gas tank with diesel by accident–no good. But hey, we got that sorted out and that car kept running like a charm. We were able to be part of a professionally run feature film set. This kind of hands-on experience is invaluable! I learned so much! And the Saturn made it into the film twice: Once parked, and once I drove by in it in the background of a shot.
That Saturn eventually became the car I drove most of the time and carried my filmmaking gear around in. Somehow I managed to cram way more gear into that thing than should be possible (and one time it wasn’t quite possible and resulted in a cracked windshield on the set of a concept trailer I was producing with my friend Jed).
So saying goodbye to my little Saturn made me feel a little nostalgic. This car served me well and allowed me to help make some great films. In fact, two in particular stand out to me.
In 2009, I hopped in my Saturn and drove down to Princeton, New Jersey, to pick up my friend Steve so we could drive together to South Bend, Indiana to shoot a short film I’d co-written with my long-time filmmaking partner, Andrew Gilbert, which he was directing. That short film is “Evaluating Kaitly.” As I think of my Saturn, I can’t help but recall that long trip with Steve out to Indiana and back so we could shoot this film. We even managed to power up hard drives and Steve’s MacBook Pro on our drive home so he could start processing the HD footage we’d shot and get the editorial organization process started on the road. The car got us there and got us home, carrying gear and luggage. But the real gift is that we were able to be part of telling a moving story, of helping bring to life this story that was inspired by real events in the life of a woman battling cancer and struggling to find the will to face each new day with joy. I’m glad I got to be part of telling that story!
In 2012, my Saturn, by virtue of being already on the set of “Melt,” became the car that our main character was traveling in with his son and daughter. So we loaded it down with prop luggage and parked it in front of the diner we were shooting at, and there sat my little red Saturn in the frame, humbly adding to this beautiful story of sacrifice and renewed hope as a father struggles to make ends meet for his children and how sometimes the hardest thing to accept in life is the help we are offered by other people. What an honor it was to be chosen by director Chaz Sutherland to be the cinematographer for “Melt.”
So you see, when I think of my Saturn, I think of all the amazing things I was able to be part of in those years of driving that car. I’m not really a car guy. It’s really about what I was able to do with that car. And it feels a little like the end of an era in my life to part with the car. In fact, as life would have it, I ended up parting ways with both that HD camera and the Saturn in just a matter of a couple of months after having acquired both around the same time eight years ago. Talk about really feeling like it’s the end of an era.
Such transitions in life are part of our reality. And while being overly sentimental isn’t really a good thing, taking a moment to look back and reflect feels worthwhile. Particularly, I am proud of the help I had form that Saturn in being able to tell two amazing stories I hope you’ll check out, “Evaluating Kailty,” and “Melt,” because they mean a lot to me.
The flip side of such transitions is that this could be the start of a new period in my life. At times we have let go of old things to make way for new things in our lives. And I would like to face this new period in my life with hope and expectation of getting to tell more great stories (doing so while carrying more gear more comfortably in my 2008 Outback that’s replaced my ‘97 Saturn).
I occasionally get asked about why I became a filmmaker. Most of the time, such conversations are short and only scratch the surface of why I dove into filmmaking in the first place. I answer with some simple remarks about how I’ve always been drawn to cinema from a young age. This is true. But, like so much of life, this is far from the whole story.
The truth is, from a young age I was drawn to stories. My parents introduced me to magical books like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. As my imagination was captivated by these worlds and characters, I was also sucked into the immersive experience that films offer. I can still remember what it felt like to sit in the movie theater as a 5th grader seeing Jurassic Park for the first time (and I felt that all over again this summer when I checked it out in theaters again with the 20th anniversary 3D re-release of the film). But my point is that it is probably more accurate to say that really I was always drawn to storytelling first.
I started writing at a young age, and studied writing on my own even as a high schooler. In college, my primary concentration in my Liberal Studies degree was writing. As you might be able to tell from my other blog posts, I definitely have a profound fascination and love for the technical side of filmmaking. But at the core of all of this excitement is storytelling.
So maybe the bigger question is, why do I want to tell stories? There are probably all kinds of answers other storytellers can offer as to why they specifically tell stories. For me, it comes down to exploring life’s meaning and purpose. When I was quite young, my favorite children’s book was (still is, actually) The Giving Tree. Something about this simple story of friendship and sacrifice gripped me and moved me regardless of how many times I read the book. I don’t think I could have articulated it this way at the time, but there is something profound being explored in that book that transcends the notion of a life-long friendship between a boy and a tree. There’s something more foundational about the human existence being touched upon as the tree gives of herself completely to bring happiness to the boy, until she is only a stump and he an old man simply in need of quiet companionship and a peaceful place to sit.
In ancient Greece, Socrates expressed the notion that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (see Apology by Plato). Radical? Maybe. Or maybe Socrates sensed something profound about the nature of our existence. Will we be content at the end of our lives if we have not asked the big questions about how did we get here, what is the purpose of our being here, and where are we headed (as individuals and as a species). For my money, I think Socrates is right. Can a life devoid of examination really be worth the hassle? While it might be tempting in our consumer-driving society to numb such “nagging questions” with more stuff and noise (for which we need better jobs so we can afford to buy more stuff and fill our fleeting quiet moments with more noise), the question is, are we examining life? Or do we flee thoughtful engagement with our world?
I think the reality is that stories fulfill a foundational role in our lives as a means of examining our reality and our shared experiences. Stories unpack and offer perspective on ideas so deep, so vast, and so overwhelming they are often seemingly impossible to grapple with otherwise. In this way, stories allow us to safely wrestle with some of the scariest questions lurking in the back of our minds. This has been the case ever since the the evolution of language, which quickly allowed for stories to be shared. Experiencing stories serves as a means to vicariously experience conflict and assess how we might respond in similar situations. It also has been a means of exploring and seeking to grasp the mystery of how we came to be here (which is why every culture in our world has some sort of creation narrative that explains how human beings came into existence and how pain and death became part of the human experience).
Stories today, even in our consumer-driven culture, continue to examine life. Stories about relationships, survival, and overcoming great difficulties continue to attract audiences today. This is the core nature of narrative storytelling that I’m attracted to. While my academic career in college found me cramming in a double major in Philosophy on top of my Liberal Studies degree, I find myself far more interested in exploring the age-old questions of philosophy through narratives.
While I believe that there are some great stories being told today that can help us examine life (which is why I helped start The River Film Forum where we show movies and discuss them every month), I think it is worth pointing out that there are definitely storytellers today tapping into the most basic of universal questions not as a means of genuinely wrestling with life’s tough questions, but rather they do so in order to sell copies of their books or movie tickets or get more eye balls glued to the TV long enough to sit through commercials. But not all storytellers today are simply interested in making a buck by any means. It is the storytellers that are interested in honestly exploring life that continue to truly offer truly transcendent stories that stand the test of time. These are my role models.
And all of this is at the very core of why I embarked on this adventure of creating and running Stories by the River with Kristina Stone Kaiser. We believe stories have a profound ability to offer us shared experiences that spark moments of honest reflection about life. And the uniquely powerful quality of movies is that they offer an emotionally immersive experience that speaks both to heart and mind. Not only that, but movies tend to be an experience we share with other people. Because of this, movies have such a special place in our culture.
We believe we’re just at the beginning of this awesome journey of examining life through stories here at Stories by the River. And we hope the films like “A Silent Universe,” “Evaluating Kaitly,” “Melt,” “Slippery Slope,” “Playing with Ice,” and the ones we’ve yet to make offer people genuine opportunities to experience thoughtful and moving stories and engage in examining life, even if only for a moment. Because, when it comes to living an examined life, as Socrates’ challenge stands through the ages, it is clear to me that this is a life-long endeavor which is most fulfilling when regularly engaged in. Rather than become overwhelmed by the prospect of daring to stare life’s big questions in the eye, I believe we are best served when we regularly explore life’s big questions in small doses, having time to reflect and soak in each experience. And the beauty of narratives is that examining life through stories can be a cathartic and enjoyable experience that is life-giving. I sincerely hope you’ll join us on this journey.
One of the movies that Stories by the River distributes is called, “Playing with Ice,” and it’s, among other things, a story that allows us to ask the question: Are we born this way? And maybe allows us to ask follow up questions like: How much can we modify our behavior?
I had a moment of pondering this sort of thing this morning. As of about a month and a half ago, I have a new job: getting our Kindergartner to school by 7:40am. We’ve mostly chosen to walk to school. It’s a 15-minute walk (if you’re going slow,) and, in many ways, the walk beats battling the traffic out of the parking lot where the rules are clearly: every man for himself!
It’s also been a great way for us to review the things that she is learning in school. So, yay! It’s great connecting time. We get a little exercise. And momma doesn’t have to battle with the other parents as we all try to squeeze out of one driveway. As long as the weather is good, this is a total win.
Except for when something goes wrong. Today, my little love bug decided to make a run for it as we were crossing the street and this caused her to do the “baby sprawl” thing where you fall forward and spread out like you are going to make a forward facing snow angel. I had two thoughts in the moment: Did she hit her face? And: Is her outfit okay? (What can I say? It’s true.)
Turns out she was mostly fine. She had the TINIEST scratch on her right palm. TINY! But she cried as if she needed stitches. The crossing guard was all embarrassed and awkward. And then the next crossing guard was over-sympathetic. And she just wouldn’t leave her “woe is me” frame of mind for anything.
Whenever this happens, I tend to think to myself, “I’m raising a little soprano.” (I used to sing opera before I was a pastor. Yup. Opera singer to pastor.) But the thing is, despite my own flare for the dramatic (and despite her father’s flare for the dramatic,) I honestly don’t know where she gets it!
I pondered for a bit how I thought my husband and I would have handled falling down out in the open like that. I am pretty sure that my personal modus operandi would be to get up and act like I’m fine, like nothing happened. I would suffer in silence.
And I’m pretty sure that my husband’s MO would be to try to do a somersault or something – make it into as much of a moment of entertainment as possible. He might even go so far as to act like that fall was going to be the highlight of his day. (People that know us, do you agree?!)
But our child chooses neither of these things. She chooses to wail. As some animals would unlock their jaw to eat their prey, our child will unlock her jaw to wail as loudly as her body will allow, to let everyone know how much pain she is in.
And this is pretty much who she is. I have been unable to change this behavior. I can’t talk her out of it. I can’t reason with her. I can’t distract her. I can’t convince her to think of others. This is just her.
Now clearly, she’s five. Things could change. But I think back on my own life. I would have tried to hide the pain even back then. And I’m pretty sure my husband would have tried to “ham it up” even as a young child. While each of us might have changed a little in this area, I think our tendencies remain pretty consistent.
It’s entirely possible that those tendencies are born out of our larger circumstances, that we learned to cope in a certain way based on some external factor that we continue to respond to even to this day.
But still. It seems like a relatively difficult thing to break. Which leads me to wonder: how changeable are we? What sorts of behaviors can be changed in us and what sorts of behaviors are basically us? I’m guessing you all have thoughts. 🙂
I’ve been on a bit of quest recently. Specifically, a quest for more lenses. Most everyone has something they can’t help but be endlessly fascinated by. It’s the kind of thing you find yourself scouring eBay late night for when you can’t sleep (just in case there’s some awesome deal out there). You find yourself thinking, if I can just save up this much, I can spring for this thing. You read articles and reviews and blog posts (kind of like this one). And you scheme and plan for how you can get your hands on the next part of this great collection you are chasing down. Well, that’s me and lenses these days, it seems. And when I found a sweet deal on some vintage manual lenses, I couldn’t resist.
Recently my wife and daughter and I were up in New Hampshire for a few days. On our last day, before heading home, we opted to visit some shops in one of the towns near where we were staying. One of our last stops was at a modern antiques place. We were really just curious and enjoying walking around. Then my eyes landed on some beautiful vintage SLR lenses. Specifically, there were two Exaktar lenses. One was a 35mm f2.8 and the other a 135mm f2.8. They were going for $5 a piece. So naturally, I snagged both. I figured I could either end up with some cool looking decorations on my bookshelf in my office or I could somehow figure out how to get the lenses attached to my Canon EOS DSLR. Either way, totally worth ten bucks.
Initially, I believed I would need to possibly build something myself in the way of an adapter that would allow me to connect these M42 screw mount Exaktar lenses to my Canon Rebel T2i. thankfully, there are actually a few adapters on the market. For those of you considering looking for such lenses (you can find them on eBay, but none as cheap as $5, sorry) and adapters, it is worth noting that while these lenses I snagged are made by Exakta (the name of the actual German camera company whose line of lenses is called Exaktar) these are M42 mount lenses. So I initially grabbed an Exakta to EOS adapter on Amazon. However, this is not the correct adapter. After some quick research, I found that I needed the M42 to EOS adaptor, that is actually cheaper (bonus). I specifically grabbed two of the M42 to EOS V.2 adapters made out of chrome. The M42 lens mount was developed by Carl Zeiss in 1949. Various cameras used the mount until is was slowly phased out of use between 1970s and 1980s. So that means these two lenses I snagged can’t be newer than the 80s, and are likely older than that.
So what’s the whole point of grabbing older lenses for use on a modern camera? If you do a Google search for people using old lenses such as these on modern cameras, you can definitely find a lot of naysayers complaining about the lack of quality of some of these older lenses, including these exact lenses I found. Ironically enough I am excited about these lenses because of their unique vintage look. If I were looking for the quality of modern lenses, there are plenty of those around I could choose from and several at reasonable prices (though of course, none for five dollars). In fact, I’ve been picking up Rokinon Cine lenses as my new go-to lenses for filmmaking and video work.
What makes these Exaktar lenses interesting to me is actually their vintage look. The most obvious difference right off the bat is that compared to many modern lenses these lenses may be a bit softer. Especially wide open at f2.8 these lenses are not as sharp as many modern lenses. But there’s another key factor as well: The chemical coating on the glass is different. This means that light passes through these lenses differently than you might be accustomed to from using current lenses. You’ll see the difference because of how it affects things like lens flare and the color bias the lens may have. By color bias, I mean that a lens may tend to be either warmer (stronger on yellows and reds) or cooler (stronger on the blue side of the color spectrum) in it’s overall look. This is often most evident in skintones, but you may also notice it in other areas of a given frame, such as the highlights or darkest areas.
I set out to shoot some test shots and here’s a quick comparison between a couple modern lenses and these two Exaktar lenses. I used no filters whens shooting these picture below. All pictures were taken in RAW mode and no color correction or sharpening was done to any of the photos. Let’s take a quick looks:
I found that overall the Exaktar lenses may not be quite as sharp as some modern lenses I’ve used, but honestly, they actually hold up pretty well. When it comes to color and contrast, that’s one area where they are definitely different in some key ways. Particularly, I found that the Exaktar lenses tend to feel a little colder, particularly in the shadows. When I looked at a RGB histogram of each photo, I noticed the blue channel was particularly strong on the shadow end. I think this gives these lenses a particularly cold look. They are also lower contrast lenses. These two factors combine to give these lenses the vintage look I was hoping they might have. So, what some people might consider a drawback to these lenses is the exact reason why I’m excited about having them in my kit!
There are some other interesting things about these lenses. Particularly, I like how unique the lens flare is for the Exaktar 35mm. Check it out below:
I also like that the 135mm has a long travel distance between macro focus and infinity focus. Modern DSLR lenses have such a short distance between minimum focus and infinity that it makes trying to pull focus when using such lenses to shoot HD video a royal pain in the butt. That’s one of the dead giveaways of DSLR-shot films these days: focus that drifts back and forth before locking on the subject. But with this 135mm, I feel like I might actually stand a chance of keeping a subject in focus even if they are moving in the frame.
Finally, I find the shape of the iris in the 135mm quite different than anything else out there I’ve seen before. Wide open it’s circular, but close up stop to f4, and you get a very different shape to the iris which then can be seen in the bokah of the lens.
Okay, so what’s the deal with all of this? Well, the real thing that matters is how these lenses look when shooting people. So since I needed to shoot an interview for the new short film SbtR is releasing, “Dead,” I opted to shoot that interview with two cameras and these two Exaktar lenses. I have often shot interviews for SbtR in the same space and under very similar lighting conditions. So this afforded me an opportunity to compare these Exaktar lenses to modern lenses I have used in the past. So let me lay out some shots here from interviews I have done previously with modern lenses and then compare them to some shots from the Exaktar lenses.
Now obviously the lighting isn’t a perfect match (in the first shot, the background has more light on it than in all the shots that follow), so this is not a very scientific comparison. But it does serve as a relatively close comparison so we can get a feel for these lenses. Now I learned one big thing doing this most recent interview using the Exaktar lenses. These older lenses are not as forgiving about excess light entering the lens. So if you look closely at the close-up of Raz Cunningham, the director of “Dead,” that was done with the 135mm lens, you can see that it looks pretty milky compared even to the shot from the 35mm Exaktar lens. I’d also say that the skintone goes a little pink in that particular shot. This is because one of my backlights was throwing a bit of unwanted light into the 135mm.
Now check this out, at a couple points during the interview I stood up and blocked the back light from hitting the B-camera that was using the 135mm lens, and look at the results:
Skintone and contrast look much closer to what we see in the medium shot done with the 35mm. Not an exact match, but much much closer. Thankfully, I should be able to address this in color correcting as far as matching things up for this particular interview, but all the same, lesson learned! After looking through this footage on my editing system, I immediately got on Amazon and ordered two lens hoods for these two lenses. The chemical coating on these vintage lenses just isn’t as forgiving about extraneous light hitting the lens as often is the case with modern lenses.
Okay, I’ve really royally geeked out here over these old lenses! Why all this geeking out? Well, lenses are ultimately the most important factor in how good an image is (maybe I’ll write about that some time here in more general terms). The digital camera sensor or film stock definitely matters, but it all starts with the lens. And while much can be done through color correction to give a project a specific look, nothing ever beats being able to organically acquire images with the look you want. Cinematographers often use a variety of lenses and cameras for this very reason. Just recently I read in American Cinematographer that Bill Pope (who shot The Matrix Trilogy) used some ragged old lenses that actually had fungus growing in them when shooting specific scenes in The World’s End. In fact, he shot those scenes on 16mm film using a hand-cranked camera so the frame rate would purposefully be inconsistent. The goal of all of this? To give the flashback scenes a specifically aged and etherial look.
So how will I use these vintage Exaktar lenses? I’m not totally sure yet. When the right project comes along, I’ll know. But for the price of a good burger and a beer, having these lenses and the adapters to use them on my modern Canon camera is totally worth it in my book. They are definitely great little tools to add to my expanding camera kit. If you have question, please comment below.
– Mikel J. Wisler
And I said, “Oh wow! Happy Birthday! Are you doing anything special? ” (I may have been a bit loud with that cuz other heads turned in our general direction.)
And the other mom said, “Oh, I’m not really doing anything. It’s a work day you know…Maybe this weekend.”
(I should also tell you that my mom-friend is from Brazil. She speaks pretty good English, but I know that she feels uncomfortable with all the paperwork that comes home for the kids and would prefer someone to translate it into Portuguese for her. I also have seen that she really loves it when people speak Portuguese with her and for this reason she loves seeing my husband who knows a handful of Portuguese phrases. If I were smart I might pick a few of them up, but it feels too little. If I’m going to learn a language, I want to go all out!)
As I was saying…
Drop off takes about 5 minutes, so we parted ways pretty quickly. And while I was on my way home I thought, “I should bake her a cake. I should bake her an apple cake since I have about 30 pounds of apples in the fridge.”
So I went home and rummaged through about 12 years of Cooking Club magazines until I found the “perfect” one. Then I went to work. But then, as the moment came for me to bring the cake to school I almost chickened out. I had all of these thoughts: Maybe it’s stupid. We barely know each other. Maybe she’ll not like the ingredients or be allergic to something. Maybe it will be too heavy for her to carry home. With all of my thoughts of insecurity, I wrapped the cake, put it in the car next to me and decided to play it by ear. Worst case scenario, I could take it to small group with me tonight.
I sat in the parking lot waiting for her right along the sidewalk I knew she would be coming on. When I saw her walk past, I jumped out of the car, wrapped cake in hand, recipe taped to the wrapping. When I caught up to her I said, “Happy Birthday!!” and I presented her the cake wrapped in tinfoil. You couldn’t see the ooey gooey goodness underneath it, the two containers of maple glaze that I’d wrapped with saran wrap under the covers so they wouldn’t leak. You couldn’t see the toasted walnuts arranged over the top of the cake that had been mixed with some of the maple glaze. You couldn’t see that it was in the shape of a bundt. Honestly, all you could see was a rectangle tinfoil container wrapped in tinfoil with a recipe taped to the top.
And suddenly she started to cry. Well, first, she said, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to cry.” And then she cried. And then she said, “I’m so sorry. It’s just…I’ve been missing home and my family so much. This means so much to me.”
And so I hugged her again and said, “I’m so glad I made it.”
And I was glad! And I was also embarrassed of myself that I had wondered if I should deliver the cake at all.
So I don’t know. I know it’s not the grand scale that we see in Melt. And for sure, if you need more inspiration, I totally recommend watching Melt if you haven’t already. It’s a pretty good movie. But I was reminded of something very important today: We have no idea how much a little gesture that means almost nothing to us will mean to someone else.
What about your stories? Have you ever experienced something like this, either as the giver or the receiver?
It’s a new age for filmmaking. Or at least, that’s what we’ve been hearing for the last several years. As digital technology has evolved rapidly in the last decade, the reality of a how movies are being shot has quickly morphed along with it. Tapping into this idea, director Christopher Kenneally and actor turned producer Keanu Reeves teamed up to capture this unique moment in the history of the film industry in their documentary Side by Side, named so because of the dualistic and polarized atmosphere in the industry as traditional emulsion film and new digital technologies currently are being used to shoot movies (sometimes used on the same set).
I got a chance to see Side by Side last summer as part of it’s limited release touring through festivals and various unique venues (I checked it out at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which as a fun experience). Thankfully, Side by Side has been made available on Netflix streaming and featured on PBS recently. For anyone interested in how the new technology is changing movie making, how many of the most prominent personalities in cinema are resisting or embarrassing this evolution, or simply interested in this particularly volatile and important time in film history that will forever change how movies are made in profound ways, Side by Side is a must see. Here, check out the trailer on Vimeo by clicking here.
Of specific interest to me as a micro-budget filmmaker myself is the idea of the democratization of filmmaking. In many ways, digital technology means that virtually anyone can now make a movie. Getting your hands on a camera and then putting celluloid into that camera so you could shoot something is a prohibitively costly proposition for most indie filmmakers. But before the development of digital cameras capable of shooting images that are able to compete with the aesthetic quality of film, the only option for filmmakers wishing to make a professional-grade movie was to spend serious money on film stock that often cost as much as $500 per minute when the price of the film stock and lab processing fees were all accounted for. Today, an investment of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars allows new filmmakers the opportunity to have a much more cinematic aesthetic available to them.
This evolution is something that is very clear in my mind. When I studied at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center just a decade ago, we shot most of our student projects on Kodak Super8 film stock. Our other option was to shoot on standard definition MiniDV. I shot all of my projects on Super8 as a personal challenge to understand celluloid better. But those short reels meant we could only shoot a three-minute take. So planning became something I highly valued.
Today, I shoot exclusively on HD cameras given the low cost and accessibility. In the recent past, shooting a movie on HD and using better lenses often meant using a cumbersome lens adaptor that dramatically lowered the camera’s sensitivity to light (and this was attached to already light-hungry HD camcorders of the time). This was the case with our short film, “Evaluating Kailty,” whose set had to be bombed with light from multiple lighting instruments, including 2K Fresnels. But just three years later, I found myself on the set of or our ambitious short film, “A Silent Universe” dealing with an extremely light sensitive camera capable of using fast cine lenses and often wowed by how little light we needed to reach ideal exposure, not to mention the much cleaner picture generated without the cumbersome lens adaptors that used a spinning ground glass. The digital evolution continues to provide amazing new tools in such a short amount. I imagine that what I’ll be shooting a movie with in another three or four years may well put to shame (in technical terms) what we’re using today.
One of the fascinating ideas discussed in Side by Side is that there is a real downside to this democratization of filmmaking. Because the technology is so accessible, it means more and more people are making films. And the argument is that inevitably this means that a lot more junk is being turned out. The cheaper it is to produce something, the easier it is for terrible ideas to get the green light (by one means or another). But is this really the case?
As an avid film viewer and someone tapped into the festival and indie film world, I can say with painful honesty that, yes, unfortunately this seems to be true. I’ve seen an awful lot of stinkers at festivals. And yet, I feel the opportunity that new digital technology affords new filmmakers is of great worth! As we learn in several of the interviews Keanu Reeves conducts in Side by Side, film or digital–these are just tools to tell stories. In the end, storytelling remains the purpose. In fact, I would argue that good writing is becoming even more important today. Because while digital technology is allowing more filmmakers to make movies today, festivals, distributors, and audiences are being flooded with more content than ever before in an increasingly saturated market. How do you stand out from the crowd today? Aesthetics alone are no longer good enough. The visual and auditory cinematic quality of cheaply produced films today is something more and more distributors and audiences take for granted. So a film can’t just look good. It needs compelling characters and engaging plot. In other words, it needs good writing.
This key factor keeps me excited about cinema today as new storytellers seize opportunities to tell stories in a medium that just a few years ago might have been closed to them due to the expense of production and distribution. So in real way, the digital revolution has ushered in a new age of artistic freedom for many filmmakers able to pursue stories that personally matter to them, stories that might not be funded by the old traditional gatekeepers. And many are doing so with increasing technical and aesthetic beauty. Maybe the real question to come out of the digital revolution is not can we still make aesthetically appealing movies, but rather can we effectively tell bold new stories that connect with audiences in increasingly meaningful ways? That’s our hope here at SbtR. But we invite you to see for yourself if we’re headed in the right direction by checkout some of our films.
– Mikel J. Wisler
Today I was getting ready to announce Stories by the River’s first ever Film Festival on Facebook. (By the way, you can submit your short films and sign up to attend the event here.) And as I was posting about this event that I am ever so excited about, I saw a very disturbing update come across my news feed about some motorcyclists that got into a tiff with a man in a van in New York City. You can’t help but click on something like that, so I did. And I saw this video:
And all of that got me thinking about the fragility of life, the brevity of life. (In fact, I had just broken into my home only a couple hours before…for the second time in two weeks! Every time I “break in” to my house with such ease, I think about how vulnerable I feel. Most of the time, I’m happily unaware of it!)
And then I think about movies like Evaluating Kaitly. Here you have a film based on a true story that also puts me in touch with these ideas. So I don’t know. Maybe take a moment today to hug someone as if life is actually a gift, do something special for someone just because, and breath deep some fresh air – because you can – because you are alive. And living is a pretty amazing thing.
– Kristina Stone Kaiser