I wrote most of this on my long, exhausting flight back to the States, after an amazing week with an amazing group of people in Perth. The quality of talent and content that I saw over the week of the workshop only made the awful in-flight movies more unbearable.
Our final 2 days of the lab were a flurry of production. We divided the participants into 4 teams, and they each were tasked with filming a narrative short of a genre. In the end, we had an eclectic set of short films that showcased some impressive talent for such a short deadline.
I’m sure they’ll be available either here or elsewhere soon, so I won’t dwell upon the specifics of the films right now; instead I’d like to talk about the techniques that I saw and what I thought the teams had learned and what troubles they ran into.
First, the universal trouble of all large format cinema productions reared its ugly head: content management. Only 1 team actually finished close to the original deadline, and I believe they were still 15 minutes late. That team had made several interesting compromises when planning their production, and these compromises allowed them to stay ahead of most other teams in the schedule.
Their particular short involved video only, with no synced sound. These two considerations greatly sped up their workflow, and they had time to preview their work in progress on the dome more than once to get a feeling for how shots and cuts were working. What I found most interesting about this approach was that they really got into the pacing of the film, adjusting the speed and length of shots, and paying careful attention to their choice of cuts. All in all, I think it was a great lesson in making hard choices about what to devote time to in the production. Really basic filmmaking 101 stuff, but they applied it towards the dome very well.
The other teams all had various levels of animation and compositing in their films, which of course greatly increased production times. Warik & I were floating about the editing room most of the day, encouraging them to consider how long different shots and tasks would actually take to produce, and all of the teams ended up having to cut or rethink various shots because elements simply weren’t finished.
So, other things that worked. 2 of the teams worked for a thriller atmosphere as their genre, and they achieved a good deal of success in my opinion. The use of the immersive space of the dome to make the audience uncomfortable by giving ambiguous imagery was quite evocative, and I found it interesting that whenever they cut to a more “conventional” shot the sense of dread was greatly diminished. Even if the scenes were still consistent and clear in the storyline, a cut from abstract imagery to straight forward actors immediately felt less threatening. I found that the more askew the camera was, the more effective, in particular a beautiful overhead tracking shot looking down into a bathroom stall, which reminded me of the stunning overhead tracking shots through the rooms of a hotel that Brian DePalma used in Snake Eyes.
The other element that was used effectively was dramatic, almost melodramatic lighting and color. 2 films used actors with spot lights against black to reduce the washing out of the dome and they had brilliant contrast and colors compared to the films that had a more homogenous lighting scheme. The vibrant colors used for costumes and makeup in one group’s piece also popped nicely on the dome.
Finally, what I found most interesting was the use of very close shots for the most part. The other tutors & I discussed this briefly, with various opinions, and I had a couple of short discussions about it with various team members. It seemed that the close shot was favored in our particular projection setups because of the generally low resolution of the video display. When projected over such a large surface, an actor who is more than a few feet from the camera quickly becomes a pixellated mess, especially in small details, such as facial detail. Broad movements generally work because we (viewers) are trained to recognize human bodies and movement, but any subtlety of performance is all but lost. For that reason, I felt that the productions used close-ups whenever they wanted to engage with the characters. In particular, there was a shot in one piece that I had observed during filming that didn’t work because of the lost subtlety. It was a scene that depended upon actors making eye contact, and the act of eye contact was almost totally lost in the projection experience.
Finally, I want to make a note about the comedy on display in most pieces. Only one piece had no deliberate comedy, and generally the comedy was rather broad and worked pretty well. One piece was almost a parody of the types of “traditional” dome filmmaking that we’d been showing the participants all week, and that drew a great reaction from the other teams who knew all the inside jokes. Another used broadly comical performances and silly dialogue to great effect, achieving a bit of farcical fantasy filmmaking that was funny without being cheesy. That’s a very fine line, and the piece walked it rather well on the whole.
I feel that the experiments of these productions taught me nearly as much, if not more, than I was able to teach the filmmakers. Many theories that I’ve heard in talks and read in papers for years were tested. Maybe not very rigorously or scientifically tested (it would be nice to get some audience feedback from non-workshop participants), but tested nonetheless. I really rather enjoyed that some of the filmmakers listened attentively to our collective “wisdom,” then said to hell with all that we’re going to try something anyway and see if it really doesn’t work. A great spirit of discovery and playfulness was present in all the productions, and while not everything worked, and I’m sure not every participant is totally sold on full dome filmmaking, I think everyone left eager to further test the possibilities.
As I left the lab, I was struck by how quickly everyone ran into the limits of current live action, large format production, dome or otherwise. Complaints about resolution, color, and light spill from the screen back onto itself; all the problems of full dome large format filmmaking were identified very quickly. Equally striking was how quickly the teams adapted to overcome or even utilize these to their advantage. I’m not going to say that the lab produced a set of gems, but all the films were displays of talent and improvisation in the face of technical difficulties.
I’ll leave with a film for everyone to watch for inspiration. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. You, your family, your friends, your pets. This film teaches more about filmmaking and creativity than any film school in the world. It’s also beautiful and hugely entertaining. It is also Lars von Trier. 87 minutes of awesome. For those who can’t watch films on Hulu.com, track this down anyway you can. The Five Obstructions, a film that is itself nearly perfect, about a film that is described within the film as “perfect.” In both cases, any semblance of “perfection” that exists arises out of obstacles. Or Obstructions.