Robert Downy Jr. in Iron Man
For those of us who enjoy a great comic book based movie, but were not comic readers, the idea of an Iron Man movie seemed... out of place. Looking at the history of Marvel and DC movies, film adaptations were made on the best-known characters. I’m talking about super heroes known by non comic book readers because they are everywhere. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Hulk and the X-men, are all examples of comic book heroes who had a huge following outside of their comic book pages. From multiple film adaptations, to TV shows, to pajamas, you knew these characters to some degree, because they were just about everywhere.
Disney announced a new super hero movie, Iron Man, would be their next summer blockbuster, and I was confused. At the time of the announcement I knew of Iron Man. I had heard his name before. I could pick him out of a line up. I’m not entirely sure I knew his real name was Tony Stark, or that he had a goatee. As quickly as it was announced, I had pretty much forgotten about it. (I mean they announce these things over a year in advance!)
A few months later, I am sitting in the movie theater and the first trailer for Iron Man comes on. I find myself suddenly intrigued. Amidst the explosions and huge actions sequences, it’s the few dialogue pulls they show of Robert Downy Jr. that get my attention. What the heck? He kind of seems like a jerk. He’s cocky, sarcastic, and made me laugh. This is not Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne. This is not what I would imagine a hero to sound or act like. This is a movie I need to check out!
When Iron Man finally came out in theaters, I was not disappointed. It delivered on all levels. Story telling, action, humor, and heart. What made this movie different from all other super hero films though, was that I was greatly enjoying the scenes of Tony Stark out of the Iron Man suite, than in. Robert Downy Jr.’s personification of Tony Stark made it the very first, and to this day only, super hero film where I enjoy seeing our hero “in his streets” more than in super hero mode.
RDJ made me believe that this character could exist. He put together the whole package. Sure, there are other actors that are funny and could pull off the comedic timing and sarcastic tone to make the movie funny. I think of actors like David Duchovny, or perhaps director John Favreau’s old buddy Vince Vaughn. But even Favreau knew that the role needed more than just the humor. RDJ brought the right amount of humor, physical presence, and humility to the role to bring Tony Stark to life in a way that got the entire world to know he is Iron Man.
Now, let’s see if Paul Rudd can do the same for Ant Man.
Jack Nicholson in The Shining
Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, is in many ways a very different story than the movie we all know. In his own words, Stephen King once had this to say regarding the film:
“I don’t get it. But there are a lot of things that I don’t get. But obviously people absolutely love it, and they don’t understand why I don’t,” he tells Rollingstone. “The book is hot, and the movie is cold; the book ends in fire, and the movie in ice. In the book, there’s an actual arc where you see this guy, Jack Torrance, trying to be good, and little by little he moves over to this place where he’s crazy. And as far as I was concerned, when I saw the movie, Jack was crazy from the first scene.”
King really hit the nail on the head regarding the leading man, Jack Torrence. What made the book truly spectacular and disturbing was the slow transition from a normal dad to a monster.
Whether you have read the book or not, I don’t think many would disagree that in the movie, at no point would we consider Jack Torrance a good guy or at least show any redeeming qualities.
So, if the leading role was the cornerstone of the story’s arc, and it was Nicholson who portrayed Jack Torrance, it would seem like I have talked in a bit of a circle. After all, it was Nicholson’s early distant and distracted persona that left the transition of Jack Torrance without a huge character shift. That character shift, or transition, is what really builds the tension and the conflict within the story of The Shining. So how does an actor get the intended character wrong, but get the movie right?
The answer is intensity. Nicholson brought to life a character with such ferocity and heat that it’s almost impossible to ignore. This intensity can be seen not only in the film, but also in behind the scene clips. Watching Nicholson prep before a scene, you can feel the energy and passion radiating out of him.
Here’s an interesting trivia fact about the filming of The Shining. During the famous scene where Jack Torrance is taking an axe to the bathroom door where his wife has taken refuge, show producers had placed hollow prop doors for Nicholson to hack his way through. It turns out, that Nicholson had experience firefighting, and the doors would break through rather anticlimactically.
They had to ultimately replace the prop door with a solid wooden one. This not only led to a much more realistic and suspenseful action sequence, but also allowed for Nicholson to create a more authentic and adrenaline pumping scene. It was in the heat of that moment that Nicholson went off script and said the most iconic line of the film, “Here’s Johnny!” This improved line, inspired by the actor and the real physical exertion of the moment, would become part of the movie’s fame. It was featured in the original trailer, and to this day is more commonly associated with The Shining than it’s origins on The Tonight Show.
Like The Dark Knight and several other movies I will mention in future posts, I am in no way saying these films would have been unsuccessful without these actors. What I am saying is there is a huge difference between a film being a financial success and a classic.
Every design starts with a digital canvas or art board. These are the digital open worlds of possibilities that need to be filled with ideas, colors, and imagery. A lot of non-designers just know they need an ad drafted up and struggle with communicating the specs of the design. The following is an easy way to understand resolution and dimensions which may help with future communication issues.
What is DPI?
DPI stands for dot per square inch. The higher the DPI the more visual information is being stored thus the more pixels. The more pixels like longer the loading time, but the image is sharper with more pixel variations creating bolder images. For the most part the internet uses 72 DPI to ensure images load quickly, where as print typically is set for 300 DPI so your printed products come out sharp and colorful.
Resolution V. Dimensions
The best way to think about resolution (in my opinion) is to think of visual information as a liquid. If you have a cup of blue liquid (pixels) and you want it to fill a gallon jug (dimension) it simply won’t. Sure, you can slosh the water around distorting it’s size and shape to give the jug the appearance that it is full, but it’s just blurry and doesn’t look right. To fill a gallon jug you need a gallon or more of blue liquid. If some spills out, that’s fine we call that “bleed” and will cut off in the end.
Keeping with this analogy, the blue liquid can be poured from the gallon into a cup without loosing quality or color, it can also be concentrated down to a cup. To sum it up, high-resolution images can be reduced down, but low-resolution cannot be scaled up without losing quality.
If you have a set amount of square pixels utilize a smaller DPI will yield a larger image. If you have 300px x 300px that would be 90,000 square pixels so 72 DPI will have a 4.167” x 4.167” square where as 300 DPI would be would be 1” x 1” square.
Live vs. Staged Video Shoots
This week we had two different kinds of video shoots; One was a STAGED video shoot in the studio, complete with talent, set design, dramatic lighting, and so on – The other was a LIVE video shoot, capturing a speech at an event on-location. While both projects will end in a nicely polished video, the approach and production between staged and live shoots are quite different. Let’s take a look at some of the main differences, and tips to make your next live shoot run smooth.
When you think of a video shoot, from smaller projects to Hollywood TV and movie sets, you probably imagine a staged production – A bustling set with lots of equipment, lights, cables running everywhere, and the obligatory/stereotypical “Lights, Camera, Action” line. In a staged production each shot is meticulously planned and you can shoot it as many times as necessary until you get it just right. There’s room for error (or the friendlier sounding “bloopers”) and you can always reset and start again before moving on to the next shot on the list.
During our recent staged shoot in the studio, we had the entire day before to set up our lights and cameras. There was a call sheet for crew and talent, we were able to test some shots before hand, we used the clapper to help sync the two cameras and audio in post-production, and we could repeat lines and redo takes. You could also hear the director calling “Action” and “Cut,” see make-up jumping in for quick touch-ups, and get the occasional break for a coffee refill. Once we had all of our shots checked off the list, we called it a wrap and the project moved to post-production. A typical shooting day in the studio.
Live video shoots are much less forgiving, requiring constant focus and flexibility to adapt to unexpected changes or problems. They typically have a more “run-and-gun” feel with minimal equipment and a smaller margin for errors. In staged shoots the entire environment revolves around capturing the scene on camera, but in live shoots the event is environment, and the videographer must capture the scene as it unfolds – no redo’s or Take 2’s.
The live shoot we had this week involved capturing a speech that would kick-off an event for the attendees. The speech was only going to be given once and done live in front of the audience, so we had to get it right the first time. We were asked to be as invisible and unobtrusive as possible, which meant no elaborate lighting setups, using minimal amounts of equipment, and being discreet with our movements, breakdown, and exit.
We used our precious few minutes before the event to mic the speaker and test sound levels, make sure both cameras had matching settings that were optimal for the room we were in, and develop a game plan and exit strategy. Once the event began our focus turned to capturing the speech. Once the speech was over, we quickly and quietly grabbed our gear and snuck out a side door to pack everything up and head back to the studio for post-production.
Tips for Live Shoots:
Because of the unforgiving nature of live shoots, they have to be approached differently than staged shoots. While Pre-Production is key on any video production, live shoots require a different kind of planning. Not necessarily shot lists and storyboards, but rather making sure everyone involved is on the same page, knows the plan and schedule, and works together seamlessly during the course of the event to execute the plan. Remember, no redo’s!
- Have a Plan B… and Plan C, and Plan D
Contingency plans are crucial for live shoots. Unexpected issues tend to pop-up, and you have very little time to adjust for them. The best way to prepare for the unexpected is to have back up plans – plural, with an S, as in multiple options. If a camera monitor isn’t working, have an extra one you can switch out. Don’t know how long of an XLR cable you might need for audio? Bring every damn cable you have. It’s always better to bring some things and not need them than need them and not have them. And if possible, have multiple cameras and microphones running “just in case.”
- Be Ready to Adapt
There seems to always be something that doesn’t go according to plan, or wasn’t mentioned in planning. But that isn’t an excuse to not do your job. Rather, you need to make quick decisions that will get you back on course. For example, during our recent live shoot I had my camera and tripod staked out in a prime location to capture the speaker. As things happen, a taller gentleman took a seat in front of the camera that completely blocked my shot, so I had to react quickly. Luckily, it was a simple fix just moving the tripod over a few feet and reframing the shot a bit, but it’s the ability to adapt and think of your feet that prevents major mistakes and problems. That, and I knew we had a second camera running that would get coverage as I made my adjustments.
- Have Deep Pockets
You may not get a chance to run to your camera bag, or may not have the space or ability to keep everything you need within arm’s reach. So the best solution is to keep some of these essentials on your person. Extra batteries, memory cards, a roll of gaff tape… Anything that I might need and will physically fit in my pockets. This way, when your camera battery starts to die, switching out a new one can be done in seconds and doesn’t cause a scene, as opposed to leaving my post to find the camera bag, dig around for what I need, and then taking the time to switch out batteries. And who knows what you might miss when you take your eyes and hands off the camera.
- Take a Chill Pill
A final word of advice is to just breathe. Stressing out over a mistake is an easy way to lose focus which could lead to more mistakes. Stay relaxed but attentive and learn how to adjust or prevent that mistake in the future. You may not get a chance to re-shoot anything, but if you planned for the “just in case” scenarios, you should be just fine.
Before everyone goes off the deep end, this is not a top 10 list. There are way too many actors who have done great things that could be put on to a single list. This is also not a list of the world’s greatest actors to have ever lived.
In this series of blog posts, I am going to list examples of, where if a different actor were chosen, their films would have not had the success they did.
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Oh, I can feel the controversy already brewing. Is this guy really suggesting that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series would have failed without Heath Ledger?
Well, maybe. Here’s the issue. Anyone born before the mid 80’s, who doesn’t have Batman comics in protective packaging, had one image come to mind when they thought of the Joker. The white faced, sadistic grin of Jack Nicholson from Tim Burton’s Batman franchise has become an icon. A tough act to follow.
So when it was announced that the 20 something year old, Australian actor, known mostly for his roles in romantic comedies (and one well known cowboy flick) was to reprise the role, the Internet went a blaze. Expectations were lowered, as no one gave this kid a fighting chance to give us not only a new Joker, but a believable performance that fit into Christopher Nolan’s darker, more realistic trilogy.
When the Dark Knight hit theaters, the recently deceased Heath Ledger showed the world just what the Joker might have been. A truly disturbed sociopath, who had no care for money or power; someone who just wanted to “see the world burn.” The real trick to this was Ledger’s choice to personify Tom Waits as the voice and mannerisms behind the character.
Who is Tom Waits? Take a look at this interview and meet the man who inspired the Joker.
With a tough act to follow, low expectations, a superb performance, and an unfortunate death, Heath Ledger commanded the attention of not only moviegoers, but also the mass media.
All of this then led to a first in Hollywood. Heath Ledger had won the very first Oscar for acting in a comic book movie, thus making history for The Dark Knight and giving it the success it would not have had without him.
*The Dark Knight rated 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. 7% higher than its sequel The Dark Knight Rises, and 9% higher than Batman Begins.
As a cinematographer, I’ve learned the hard way that it is always good to have a solid plan before tackling any production. I’ve been on sets where I’ve forgotten lenses, didn’t charge my batteries, and have lost the quick shoe for my tripod! Always have a plan and list of all the essentials you will need!
Recently our studio produced a larger scale commercial that was both time sensitive and complex. For the most part, the shoot ended up going smoothly, which I attribute to our team and the vast amount of pre production.
Below is an outline of the major factors you should think about before going into any production.
1. What kind of project am I shooting?
There’s a million different ways to approach a project, but be mindful about the kind of project you are producing. Are you shooting a commercial? Short Film? Music Video? Explainer Video? Anytime I am given a project to produce or shoot, I immediately start researching other projects that are similar. Watch everything from this years successful Super Bowl Commercials to the local furniture commercial. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work. Most importantly, work with your director to see how he wants to approach it. It is your job to bring his vision to life.!
2. Scout! Scout! Scout!
I don’t think I can emphasize this enough. Scouting is just as important as everything else. The right location can make or break your project. For me, scouting always seems to inspire new ideas. Be creative with your space! Have a camera with you and take pictures from every angle. This will help you later when putting together your shot list, lighting set up, and storyboard.
What are my limitations with this space? What is the lighting like? Can I use the available light to tell my story? Where can I store my equipment so it is out of the way? Are there enough outlets to plug in my gear? Is this an actual business and will we be interrupted patrons?
Most of the time casting is really up to the director and producer, but it is up to us to make the talent look good on camera. Skin tones, hair color, and wardrobe are only a few things for us to consider when it comes to shot composition and lighting. How many actors will there be in the scene? Where will they be positioned? Do they have dark skin or light skin?
Now that we know the project, location, and cast, it is now time to start planning the shoot. Always keep it simple! I know a lot of us want to use all the gadgets and have those long cinematic takes, but a lot of the time the simplest approach is the best approach. Diagram your lighting setups for each scene. This will help you tremendously on the day of shooting. Try to have multiple scenes pre lit. This way you can easily transition from one scene to the next. If you can, try and group scenes together based on their proximity. Know which equipment, lenses, and camera settings you will use for each scene.
Prior to your shooting day, make sure you have scheduled each scene, scheduled actors call times and any allotted breaks. It is your job to let the director know beforehand if certain lighting and camera setups are going to take longer than others. The worst thing is having your talent sitting on set waiting for you to be ready. Keep the talent in the green room until you are ready for them. Know your call time! Make sure to have checked all your equipment, have back up gear, and all your batteries charged! Have your shot list up to date and prioritized by necessary shots and your dream shots.
6. Shooting Day
On your shooting day, stick to your schedule no matter what! Know how long you have to setup and shoot each scene. Have all of your equipment out of the way, but easily accessible in case you need something on the fly. Stick with the shot list that you and the director put together. If you have extra time, then you can get your dream shots. Plan for everything that can go wrong!