The Philosophy of Filmmaking: Top Five Film Production Secrets – Jeremiah Birnbaum 8 of 12

Did I get your attention? I know people love secrets and “top five” (or ten) lists so it made sense to combine the two. Just good marketing….which is another blog topic altogether. So without further ado, here is my top five list of things to keep in mind when you’re producing your next movie:

Be Organized – This may sound obvious but I would say that most filmmakers, especially beginners, begin production without being truly organized. There is an old adage in filmmaking, “pre-production = production.” What this means is that the more you prepare BEFORE you start shooting, the better the shoot will be and the better the film will be. Make sure your shot list and shooting schedule are detailed and real. If you’re trying to film 10 locations in two days or get 50 shots in one day – you’re fooling yourself. Do your homework and have a plan that is doable and will lead to success. And really sweat every detail. Scout your locations at different times of the day and decide when the light is best, and know where the best parking is and, if you’re shooting outside, where the closest restroom is located. Create overhead diagrams of camera and lighting set-ups for every scene. Maybe use the phone on your camera to create a digital storyboard. If the scene calls for an actor to throw red wine in another actors face, make sure you have at least three sets of the same clothes for the lucky actor getting his face drenched so that you can do multiple takes. Good filmmaking is in the preparation.

Have GREAT Food on Set – Students of mine always laugh when I say this to them, but it’s true. Food is a major part of film culture – look at Mr. Coppola – and having good, nourishing food on set shows that you respect the crew and the work they are doing. Nothing will irk a film crew more than lousy food, or no food, on set. Bad food will cause a film crew to grumble and not do their best work. I’m not saying you have to provide gourmet meals (though I do this as much as my budget allows), but making sure your crew is well fed will more than pay for itself in hard work and loyalty.

What Can You Get for Free? – Every one of us has certain things we can get for free. A friends sail boat he doesn’t use or your crazy uncle who has all that WWII memorabilia. Maybe you worked as a waiter all through college (I did) and you know the manager of the restaurant who’ll provide a couple of free lunches. Do you need special clothiers for a scene? Do some research and maybe there is a local designer looking to get their clothing in a movie and will give you your entire wardrobe for free. Explore your options and don’t be afraid to ask. The worst anyone can do is say “no.”

Hire the Best Crew Possible (especially Sound) – As filmmakers we are often blinded by the latest, coolest piece of equipment, especially cameras. Yes, use the latest, coolest camera you can get your hands on, but more importantly find crew people who know how to use it! Film equipment is only a tool. The artistry come from the person wielding that tool, not the tool itself. So take your time and find great people to help you make your film. And don’t skimp on the audio. Sound is as important as picture. If you can only pay one person on your crew, pay the sound person and you’ll be saving yourself a ton of headaches in post-production.

Say THANK YOU – I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – filmmaking is a privilege and every opportunity we get to bring the dreams in our head out into the world through motion pictures is a blessing. At the end of every shoot I make sure to thank every member of the cast and crew for their hard work. People who dedicate their lives to making movies do so because they love films and want to part of the magic. Saying thank you shows that you appreciate them and the contribution they are making to realizing your vision. It’s the least you can do!

The Philosophy of Filmmaking: Now Playing at a Theater Near You – Jeremiah Birnbaum 7 of 12

The theatrical run of my feature film, TORN, has just finished. We played in movie theaters across the country including New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and of course, San Francisco. It was an amazing experience – both terrifying and exhilarating. The terrifying part was waiting for the reviews to come out in each city before we opened. Our distribution company hired a PR firm who spent a lot of time talking up the film to reviewers in the hope they would choose to review the movie. TORN opened in October/November, very busy months for releasing movies, especially “art house” films, like mine. The weekend we opened in New York City, more than 20 other films were also opening. Magazine reviewers have a limited amount of print space, so they’re very choosy about the films they’ll review. There are two newspapers that MUST review your film, the Village Voice and the “star” of them all, the New York Times. One of the main reasons films open in New York City is because they hope for a good NYT review. The problem is that most NYT reviews are brutal! Reviewers take great pride in finding clever ways to explain how awful a film was directed, written or acted. I grew up in New York City, so for me, the NYT review was even more important to me, and I was terrified the days before it came out. When one of our PR folks forwarded me the advanced copy, I read it through, my heart in my chest. Thank goodness, it was a a good review. In fact, it was a glowingly positive review, and I was thrilled. That is when some of my apprehension started to wear off, allowing the exhilaration to come in. The film also got a great Village Voice review, and the high I was feeling grew.

The excitement continued to build when the film finally opened and I could experience the audiences reaction directly with the handful of Q&A’s I was able to attend. Good reviews are wonderful, but would an audience respond to the film. Would they feel what I hoped they would feel? Would they go on the journey I wanted to take them? It turned out people did. They responded to the film very positively, and I learned as much from their questions, as they did from my answers. I’ve said this before in a previous blog – the audience completes the film. Everyone brings themselves to the experience of watching the movie, and they “finish” the film in their own unique way. In every city that the film opened, it was the same experience for me. Terror before the review, and relief and joy at the opening Q&A. I’m not saying the film got all rave reviews – we got some mixed ones as well – but for a small indie film we did great (see many reviews here – http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/torn_2013/ ).

It has been hard to come back down from the intense high of all of this, back to the everyday life of a filmmaker/teacher/filmschool president. What’s next for TORN? All of the ancillary market releases where the film can actually make money. A theatrical run for a film is usually a break-even or money loser. Some films do bust-out and make a lot of money, but those are few and far between. The run in theaters is meant to get reviews and create awareness of the film for the potential audience. It’s on VOD, DVD, TV and foreign sales that a film makes it’s real money. And to even get it into theaters is crazy. You have to work with a distributor who has a good “booking agent.” A person with a relationship to the theaters and a reputation for releasing good films. Then if you’re not a big Hollywood studio, each theater watches your movie and decides if it’s right for their audience and if anyone will some to see it. Of all the theaters we showed in, the best ones were Landmark Cinemas. The staff was terrific, and they even had their own in-house PR person who got us some great local press. Once you’re in the theater, every week they decide if they’ll hold you over another week. They make their decision on Monday after looking at the weekend box office. If your film did well, you stay. If nobody came to see it, you’re out. It’s a crazy cut-throat business where the theaters have a lot of power – especially for indie films. That said, if you’re ever lucky enough like I did to have your film play on the big screen – smile your biggest smile and enjoy it. Who knows when it will happen again.

And for those of your wondering, TORN will be available on VOD (video-on-demand), iTunes, Amazon, etc. on January 28th.

Wishing everyone a very happy New Year!

Jeremiah Birnbaum
President
FilmSchoolSF

The Philosophy of Filmmaking: Be Grateful – Jeremiah Birnbaum 6 of 12

One of the things I love about Thanksgiving is how we are encouraged to focus on all we have – not what we lack. To be grateful for the wonderful people in our lives and all the blessings – both tangible and intangible – we possess. One thing I’m grateful for is that I found my love of filmmaking early and that I have had the opportunity to successfully pursue my passion. I believe making films is a privilege and whenever I finish a day of shooting, I make sure to personally thank everyone on set for their work and contribution. Saying “thank you” is powerful when it comes from the heart.

Gratitude is not the only thing a filmmaker can learn from this holiday. Like Thanksgiving, food is at the center of making films. One of my principles is having great food on the film set. If you don’t have delicious, nourishing food on set, your film is doomed. There is a famous study from the 70’s that scientifically proves this fact. And it makes sense. When your cast & crew come together to make a movie, it feels like we are forming a “family.” Amid all the hard work, camaraderie and challenges, a film cast and crew share a unique experience that brings everyone together. And like family-life, good food is at the heart of it. Providing good food shows the cast & crew your care about them. And in return they will do their best for you and the movie.

The other thing filmmaking shares with this holiday, is the importance of surrounding yourself with wonderful people. Filmmaking is a team sport, and every director knows that his/her success is a direct result of the people who surround him/her. Finding actors that bring their characters to vibrant life. Hiring crew that are excellent at their jobs and willing to work their hardest. Creating with talented collaborators who bring valuable insights to the project. Every time you have the wonderful gift of making a film, be sure to take the time to find the right team. You’ll always make the best film with the best people.

I hope everyone has a very Happy Thanksgiving and “thank you” for reading my philosophical musings…

‘Torn,’ a Look at a Bombing’s Aftermath – New York Times Review

Subdued in mood and palette, “Torn” sensitively explores the aftermath of a mall bombing through the eyes of two mothers who each lost a teenage son in the explosion.

Drawn together at the disaster site and the police station, Maryam (Mahnoor Baloch), a poised Pakistani-American real estate agent, and Lea (Dendrie Taylor), a struggling office cleaner, form a tentative friendship. But when Maryam’s deceased son is learned to have frequented a mosque attended by a radical Muslim, and becomes the bombing’s prime suspect, hostility and defensiveness swiftly eradicate the women’s mutual empathy.

Torn Screenshot Jeremiah Birnbaum
As questions and revelations about both boys begin to surface, the director, Jeremiah Birnbaum, keeps the emotions convincingly intense if largely internalized, forcing the actors to express themselves in small, profoundly human gestures. Fathers — one Muslim, one evangelical Christian — hover helplessly on the margins, each having paid a price for his religious beliefs.

Slowly uncovering the prejudices that calamity can unleash, Michael Richter’s screenplay lays bare the damage wrought by Sept. 11 while deftly dodging hysteria, wondering how we differentiate between innocent teenage behaviors and dangerous red flags. Most of all, it wonders if we can ever fully know the people we live with, leaving the question to resonate as deeply as the two women’s grief.

The Philosophy of Filmmaking: Orson Welles is Always Right – Jeremiah Birnbaum 5 of 12

Orson Welles was a master of cinema. A true pioneer and icon. “Citizen Kane” and “Touch of Evil” are two of my favorite films. Welles was also a man that knew how hard it was to make a film – especially on your own terms. Financing was often difficult for him (especially in his later work) and some of his films remain unfinished. He was also someone who understood what it took to make an artful film. One of my favorite quotes from him is “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” This quote comes to mind most often when I hear other filmmakers and film students complain about the limitations they have in making a film. If only they had more time, or more crew, or more $ – THEN the film would have been good. I don’t buy it. Look at some of the worst movies made in recent years – many of them have GIGANTIC budgets and all the time, crew and $ in the world – and yet they’re still awful. Now look at the films that come out of many of the best festivals in the country (Sundance, Tribeca, SxSW, RIIFF) and you’ll find wonderful movies made for almost nothing, shot in no time with a skeleton crew.

We can look back even further at an example from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Some of the best films made in the 1940’s & 50’s were B-movies, films made cheaply by the studios to run alongside their big budget, star-studded “A” movies. Our cinephile friends, the French, even coined a term for the B-movies from that era – Film Noir. Watch “Kiss Me Deadly”, “Gun Crazy”, “Double Indemnity,” or any of the dozens of wonderful Film Noirs to see what I’m talking about. With limitations, a filmmaker is forced to invent creative solutions – he/she can’t throw money at the problem – they must discover innovative storytelling techniques that often create a more exciting and visually interesting cinematic moment.

As an educator and filmmaker, I’m going to take this idea of limitations one step further and make the argument that even the PROBLEMS or MISTAKES you made during production can turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Mistakes as a good thing? Has JB finally lost his mind? How could a mistake do anything except hurt my film? Well thanks for asking – I’ll tell you.

Look at a famous example of this happening to another terrific filmmaker, Stephen Spielberg (though I’m much more partial to his early work). While filming “Jaws”, Spielberg and his team couldn’t get their mechanical shark (Bruce) to work properly. It was constantly malfunctioning, breaking down, and generally looked like a giant rubber bath toy. This apparently forced Spielberg to rework many of the shark attack scenes in the film – using his camera as the shark for some scenes and/or editing around the missing footage. What could have been seen (and probably was at the time of shooting) seen as a disaster (the film is called Jaws and the main character isn’t performing = problem), actually turned out to be a blessing. By not showing the shark until later in the film, it creates a greater sense of mystery and fear. The film is better (and makes history) BECAUSE of the problems and the creative solution it forced upon the
filmmakers.

In every production, there will be limitations and problems/mistakes will happen – it’s a fact of filmmaking. Rather than seeing these as fatal errors, look at them as creative opportunities to make your film better and more dynamic. In editing, it is vital to free yourself from the singular vision you have of your movie – the ONE and ONLY way the film can be. By embracing, rather than cursing your challenges, you free yourself to look at your film in new ways. Remember, Orson Welles is always right.


Jeremiah Birnbaum
President
Fog City Pictures

FilmSchoolSF President wins Best Feature Award

TORN, directed by FilmSchool SF President, Jeremiah Birnbaum, won the Grand Prize Best Feature Film at the 2013 Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF), the largest film festival in New England. Called one of the top 10 film festivals in the United Staes, RIIFF screens more than 200 films from around the world. “Congratulations to the entire cast and crew of TORN. It is such an honor to win this award. Everyone at the festival was extremely friendly and supportive of the film. The audience was amazing with a wonderfully enthusiastic and engaging Q&A,” said Birnbaum.

Set in a quiet California suburban town. TORN tells the story of two families drawn together in tragedy and then ripped apart through prejudice and fear. Maryam Munsif, an upper-middle class Pakistani immigrant, and Lea Pelletier, a working- class single mom, form a deep bond after their teenage sons are killed when a gas line ruptures, causing an explosion at a local shopping mall. But when the police find evidence that a bomb caused the explosion, Maryam’s Muslim son becomes the prime suspect, and their relationship and lives are stretched to the breaking point.

TORN is being distributed by The Film Collective and will be opening theatrically at the Village East in NYC on October 18th and the Music Hall in LA on October 25th.

Please follow and LIKE the film on Facebook – Facebook.com/TORNthemovie

Jeremiah Birnbaum
President
SF School of Digital Filmmaking

The Philosophy of Filmmaking: The Pre-Production Polarity Principle – Jeremiah Birnbaum 4 of 12

I’ve produced or executive produced a half-dozen feature films and mentored hundreds of students in the production of their films. Over the years I’ve discovered some universal truths about the intangible aspects of producing movies, and in this blog I’d like to share with you a phenomena I’ve discovered that occurs during pre-production. It’s best described with an analogy involving magnets.
In the pre-production stage of making a film, a producer (sometime the same person who wrote the screenplay and will direct the movie) has to gather together all the key elements necessary to make the movie – cast, crew, locations, equipment, etc. With focused hard work, these crucial elements usually come together in a timely manner, but there is always one or two things that don’t. One stubborn location that refuses to be located, or one role for which you can’t find the right actor. As you fight to lock down these final elements, something may start to happen, the other pieces of your cinematic puzzle start to loosen and possibly unravel.

Way back in grade school, you learned in physics class about the polarity of magnets. There are two polarities, a north pole and south pole. Magnets are attracted to their opposite poles, but try and push two sides of a magnet together with the same polarity and it can’t be done. If you’re really strong or the magnet is especially small, you might be able to hold them together for a few moments, but as soon as you release the pressure, they separate. Their nature is to fly apart. This is true for the critical elements you are trying to bring together in making your film. I call this the “Pre-Production Polarity Principle.”

You have to understand that by their very nature, many of the elements you need to make your film do not want to be together. Their nature is to fly apart, and it is your job as THE PRODUCER to hold these “magnets” together, often by sheer force of will. For example, your cinematographer gets an offer for a bette praying gig, your lead actress goes into rehab, the city decides it wants to tear up the street in front of the house which is your primary location – these are all results of this principle. The best you can do as a Producer is to accept this principle as a fact of filmmaking and have a strategy for dealing with it. You will know when to let a magnet fly away and when to hold onto it even tighter. You must metaphorically “hold the production together” until the day production starts. Once the camera starts rolling, things usually quiet down. Polarities reverse themselves, your magnets lose their resistance to each other and the production begins to hold together by itself. Production has it’s own energy that takes over at this point. Whew! This is not to say the Producer’s job is over and you can hang out all day in the actors dressing room eating craft services and schmoozing. There are always fires that need to be put out and new magnets to find to replace the ones that fly away.

The Philosophy of Filmmaking: Is there anybody out there? – Jeremiah Birnbaum 3 of 12

By: Jeremiah Birnbaum, President – San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking – Films are mass media. They are perfectly designed to be seen by as many people as possible. And with that great equalizer, the internet, anyone can upload their movie, making it available to millions of viewers (on the net people aren’t people, they’re viewers or eyeballs). In the early 1900’s, waaaay before the internet, movies were looked down upon as mere entertainment. Movies (and the people that made them) weren’t even allowed in the same room as “high art.” With the invention of Hollywood and the studio system, movies became big business.  They were also pap for the people., a momentary distraction from the dull misery of everyday life. It wasn’t until the middle of the century, when the French taught us that films could be art, that we started taking film seriously. The French turned B-movies from the 1940’s & 50’s into Film Noir, they turned Hollywood directors like Ford and Houston into auteurs. The art house audience was born..

As filmmakers – auteurs – where does “the audience” fit into to our craft of filmmaking? When do we consider them and when do we turn a blind eye? I believe first and foremost must make films for ourselves. We are the first audience member that must be satisfied with our movie. But, what about everyone else? Films are too expensive and they take too much time to make them for an audience of one. (As a quick sidebar – never fall in love with your film – it’s creative death. But that’s for another blog post….)  I look at the audience through two sets of lenses – or maybe it’s better to think of it as wearing two types of hats – either way, look at it two ways.

The first way to view your audience is as a business person.  Filmmaking is a business and consistent filmmaking requires it to be a sustainable one. If you want true freedom as a filmmaker, your films should make money.  For that to happen lots of people need to pay to see it. Woody Allen makes a film every year and he has his financing in place BEFORE he has even written his script. His films consistently make their money back and sometimes, like VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and FROM ROME WITH LOVE, they make a lot of money. Look at the filmmakers that have the most creative freedom – Scorsese, Spielberg, Aronofsky, Boyle – most of their films make money and some have made a lot of it.  Unless you are making micro-budget, self-financed movies (a great way to go if you’re built that way), your films should make money.

Okay, so you’re wearing your fedora and thinking like a stylish business person, when should you starting considering your potential audience? It’s vital you begin in the development/pre-production stage. When you are raising money for your film, especially from private investors (as most indie films do), you must have a clear understanding of who is the audience for your film. If your answer to that question is “everyone” then you haven’t done your homework.  What age range is your potential audience, where do they live, what do they like to do besides watch your movie, how will they be seeing your film (theater, VOD, YouTube…)? The latest buzz word these days is “audience engagement.” How will you be engaging them – screenings, partnerships, social media campaigns? One of the benefits of using a kickstarted campaign to raise money is the fact that you begin to engage your audience at a very early stage in the filmmaking process.  How are you building buzz for your movie, so that people are excited to see it when it finally comes out? The more you understand your audience, the easier it will be to convince an investor to put money in your crazy project, and the better chance you’ll have of to reach an audience, any audience, when your film is finished.

Audience engaged – check! Now what? Well as you start production, take off that fedora, put on your baseball cap, and DO NOT think about your audience while you’re shooting the film. You’ve thoughtfully considered the audience in your pre-production and script development, now forget about them. Be present and shoot the film with only one audience member in mind – you.  As I’ve mentioned before, a filmmaker should bring with them GREAT curiosity to the production process. And curiosity demands exploration – with your cast and crew. Worrying about your audience will only get in the way of this journey.

The next time you should be seriously considering “the audience” is when you’re in the final stages of editing.  As you contemplate these eyeballs, put on your auteur’s hat (could be a beret or beanie depending on your level of Francophilia). One of the most challenging things for a filmmaker to do is see their film as someone who is seeing it for the first time. As the filmmaker, you know every shot and moment. When you watch your film, you see all the things that DIDN’T work, everything that didn’t turn out like you’d dreamed it would. The good news is your audience doesn’t see that film. They are virgins to the story, living blissfully in a state of innocence to the “sturm und drang” that it took to create those images. Your job in this stage of the process is to think like an audience member – get in their head and see the film as they will be seeing it.  What is working and what isn’t? Are they following the story? Are they feeling what you want them to feel, when you want them to feel it? Show your film to select people you respect (both filmmakers and lay people) and ask them for HONEST feedback. You should start to see patterns in the feedback – listen to it.  Finding the right balance between stubbornly sticking to your guns and listening to feedback is tricky. It’s an essential craft of filmmaking and becomes easier as you develop your personal voice as a filmmaker – as you become more of an auteur.

At the end of the day, your job is to create the best film your movie can be. A film that tells the story you want to tell, makes the audience feel what you want them to feel, and works for both you and all those millions of viewers out there.

The Philosophy of Filmmaking: The Director’s Evolving Vision – Jeremiah Birnbaum 2 of 12

By: Jeremiah Birnbaum, President – San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking

I believe that filmmaking is a team sport, with collaboration at its heart. The role of the Director is to lead this team in all creative decisions, guided by a clear vision of the movie firmly established in his/her head. Therefore, a central task of the Director is to find his/her vision. Once created and known, this vision becomes the bright light that cast and crew follow through the dense fog of moviemaking. But in practice, this “vision thing” is not so clear cut. In this blog post, I will contend that the Director’s vision is not something static. This VISION must be dynamic – learning and evolving through the process of making the movie. Adhering doggedly to a static vision, no matter how powerful, will result in poor work that neither takes advantage of the collaborative nature of film nor the creative journey of discovery a filmmaker takes.

There are three stages to making a movie: pre-production, production and post-production. In each stage, the Director’s vision changes and grows. Pre-production is where the movie is dreamed-up and developed. A single image or thought can be the spark that lights the flame of an idea for a movie. The Director’s job at this point is see the entire film in his/her head, an endless loop of pictures and sounds that whisper their meaning. We are haunted by the movie only we can see, until it reaches a point that it must be released. As we gather the pieces that will allow the film to be made – funding, cast, locations, crew, equipment – the movie in our heads sharpens and comes more vividly into focus. We nurture our nascent vision, breathing life into it, feeding it, making it strong enough to live through the arduous task of making it a “reality.” We are now primed and ready to start production.

In production, our vision hits the cold, hard wall of reality going 125 mph. We have a finite amount of time and resources to re-create the movie in our heads in front of the camera. The Director must follow his/her vision, but never slavishly. I believe that the Director must enter the production stage with GREAT curiosity. I do not adhere to the notion that production is merely the mechanical implementation of a detailed pre-production plan. YES, to detailed pre-production planning, and YES, to changing that plan during shooting. Production is a highly creative process and so much of what we discover about the film happens here. A line of dialog that works on paper, may fall flat in the mouth of your lead actor. CHANGE it. A scene you thought was critical to the story arc of your movie is found to be redundant when seeing it come to life. CUT it. A location is so beautiful that you decide to film the climax there instead of where you had planned. SHOOT it. Things change and your vision of the film matures and deepens. You are “finding your film” for the second time.

In the movie, “Men in Black,” the agents have special devices that erase your memory. This would be a useful tool for filmmakers as they enter the third and final stage of filmmaking – editing & post-production. Editors are born from this essential need for objectivity. They are virgin viewers. Editors don’t care what went into getting that particular shot or performance. They aren’t disappointed or elated depending on how accurately the footage matches the movie in their head. Editors only care whether that shot or scene, that piece of music or special effect, WORKS on DOESN’T WORK in the movie. The Director has a very hard job in this stage of filmmaking. He/she must find a way to bring their mature, evolved, full-grown vision into post-production and make it sit patiently in the corner watching, occasionally voicing an opinion, but mostly sitting mute and smiling a fake smile. But the Director’s vision is not abandoned, on the contrary it there the whole time, imbedded in the footage. Nothing is lost by setting your earlier vision of the film aside. The sights and sounds you captured during filming carry it for you. It is deeply rooted in the tone and texture of each shot. Now, the Director’s job is to LISTEN to the story held within the footage, allowing the film to take shape, and his/her final vision to appear. Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set it free.” This is the Director’s task, to find the angel. At this stage, the Editor and Director are midwives. The film knows what it wants to be, you are there to guide it into the world. And, if you’ve been successful in following the dynamic vision of your film, then once it is finished, there stands your VISION in a form that millions of people (we hope) will experience and share.

Jeremiah Birnbaum is a filmmaker and President/Co-Founder of FilmSchoolSF – a school that does filmmaking. He has been working in the entertainment industry for 24 years and has no other professional skills except his wickedly dry sense of humor.

Jeremiah Birnbaum

President

San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking

The Philosophy of Filmmaking: Storytelling DNA – Filmmaking tips by Jeremiah Birnbaum – 1 of 12

By: Jeremiah Birnbaum, President – San Francisco School of Digital Filmmaking

This is the first in a series of filmmaking tips blogs exploring the practical theories of filmmaking through the lens of philosophical thought. I am a filmmaker and this exploration will be rooted in the practical aspects of making movies in today’s re-evolving digital world. If you’re interested in reading about semiotics in post-revolutionary Russian cinema – look somewhere else.

Storytelling is an essential part of our DNA. Human beings’ innate, primal search for meaning is the birth of narrative.  We impart meaning to the events we experience. Our personal identity is created through the story of our lives. It is this innate gift for narrative that as filmmakers we must recognize and source for our work. Filmmakers are storytellers, working in the medium that has the most impact and relevance for today.

I myself am a filmmaker and an educator. I meet a lot of people who want to be filmmakers, people who want to take that journey, but they don’t know how to begin. The craft of filmmaking has much to blame for this. Except for the occasional post-modern or experimental work, we filmmakers do everything we can to hide the filmmaking process. Lights, cameras, crew are never shown. We want the audience to get lost in the movie, to experience the story unaware of the arduous tasks necessary to create that cinematic dream. Because of this slight of hand, non-filmmakers tend to come to two conclusions about filmmaking: either it’s EASY (films are so much fun to watch, how hard could it be to make one) or is it’s IMPOSSIBLE (I could never do that, I’m not a creative person).

Filmmaking is neither easy nor impossible. It is an art form rooted in craft. It is both highly technical and mysterious. The craft is something you can learn. How to tell a story within the context of a dramatic structure. How to use the latest camera. What lighting instruments are needed to create a desired look. How to create an actors performance in the editing room. This craft of filmmaking relays upon specific tools, often highly technical, but is not dependent on them. A great cinematographer can shoot beautiful footage with an old VHS camera. A talented editor may use a particular piece of software – but his skill is not tied to it. The tools of filmmaking are constantly changing, but the fundamental language of cinema has remained relatively constant. This is not say that film language is static. Like any living language it is evolving and developing with filmmakers ever punching holes in walls of narrative. Transmedia is all the rage. Movies made today look nothing like movies made 30 years ago, yet all films are bound together by essential elements of visual storytelling. One of my old film teachers said “movies come from movies,” and I agree.

Along with it’s technical demands, filmmaking is also an art-form and here is where “the mystery” plays its part. Where do story ideas come from? How do you make a truly great film? Why do talented filmmakers sometimes make awful movies? Personally I love the mysterious aspect of filmmaking. Having to embrace the uncertainty of the creative process is challenging and exciting. The not knowing forces me to dig deep and be fully present in every part of making a film. Some filmmakers describe this mystery as connecting with the subconscious, others talk about tapping into the “cosmic slipstream”. For me, embracing the mystery means creating a powerful and consistent dialog between my head and my heart. Between the intellectual concepts I’m exploring in the film and the emotional connections I’m feeling. A conversation encompassing what I think is right and what I feel is working. A strong head-heart connection is essential to making good cinema. Cultivating this connection is a talent that can be learned and developed, which brings us back to craft.

At the San Francisco film school I helped found in 2005, we have a core principal of teaching –  “the only way to learn filmmaking is to make films.” All our project-based curriculum is rooted in this philosophy.

The barriers to making movies have collapsed. Professional quality digital cameras are cheap, cloud-based editing software can be yours for $30 a month, crews can be organized with a few clicks of the mouse. For those of you yearning to dig deep and make films – concentrate on developing your craft, embrace the mystery, and remember that storytelling is in your DNA.

The Philosophy of Filmmaking: The Director’s Evolving Vision – Filmmaking tips by Jeremiah Birnbaum – Part 2 of 12