subtractive filmmaking


i'm beginning w/ this image from my new film remove to dispense because, 1. i have to promote it in order to produce it (motivation), and, well, 2. it speaks visually to what seems to be at issue in these conversations about multimodal texts, essays, films, rhetoric, argument, art . . .

so i find, at UT Austin's viz. site, some assignments. one, a semester-long storyboard project. i see this: "Films can only truly make their arguments when ideas and words are translated into moving images. But before they can be shot, they must be developed and pre-visualized." pause. breathe. sigh. breathe again. now. i have to intervene. because it's simple: working in film may involve storyboarding, and it certainly does and has, but it need not do so (see this indieWire interview w/ Patrice Leconte . . . or the excerpt, below*). independent film and radically independent film (beyond Sundance, Telluride, etc. . . . i'm talking about the free form film festival, for example) wouldn't happen or exist, certainly not w/ any momentum, were it not for filmmakers who decided that they had to shoot some scene, happening, etc. many filmmakers will tell you that they work it out in editing; writing is revision. there is to some extent, "previsual" conceptualization, but, as w/ writing, filmmakers often discover that the story they thought they would tell is not the one they are telling, that they shift, and they shift in production.

sometimes, a film begins w/ one simple image that feels important or provocative, and shooting begins. maybe this advice about planning it all out in advance is coming from a sense that this is what polished productions do, and many do, but for students or new filmmakers (who can now do things with greater ease and speed) let's just say that this viz. advice feels so factual and certain ("they must be"), and it's just not right. and then, this is supposed to be a "semester-length" project, but students are not asked to film anything. but why? in the course of a semester, surely they could produce a film they "invented," the film (argument) they imagined or simply found? (on "finding" your film, go read this Paul Thomas Anderson interview, or the excerpt, below **). what i am suggesting is that storyboards are not absolutely necessary ("must") but that following a vibe can produce an interesting piece of work just as easily (more easily?) than can a project that emerges from analyzing other people's work and then imitating it w/ a storyboard. it's funny, the prompt says, "Although this assignment does not ask students to actually shoot their films, they will experience the early rigors of producing a moving argument." it's almost as though the framers realize that if students actually produce a film, they may undo the advice they are being given about the necessity of "early rigor"; they may learn that they have stories to tell and images to produce and affects to engage, all of which can be told and produced and expressed quickly and with rigor that extends throughout a process that is inclusive of, that privileges shooting and editing. it's as though the framers of this assignment don't, 1. trust that it will "count" as a valid academic assignment unless it can properly be called an "argument" (which somehow seems to mean early rigor but not production??) and that a filmic argument must follow Big Studio Conventions, and/or 2. that they do not trust their students to make anything meaningful. but it will be always already meaningful, possibly "overfull" of meaning, and maybe that's what's at issue, the "subtractive" role of language that claws at "coherence" or "clarity" or something called an "argument," this thing that does not shape shift but is stable. and. that's. nearly. impossible.

all that said, i'm happy to see that people are doing this work, and it's certainly true that storyboards are especially helpful for certain kinds of projects, especially large-scale projects that require massive funding (and thus, trust, and thus, a sense that someone's in control of the thing). so of course, work like this is incredibly valuable for some teaching and learning and filmmaking scenarios. i think i'm just stuck in this space of resistance where i don't want to have everything neatly lined up, and i don't even want to imagine a supershinysmoothe product, and so i'm trying to comment upon my particular reading, to think against the concept of control that storyboarding wants to be about. and, well, i wonder if student projects need to be treated like massive studio projects, with that level of control, and so but i hope that comments like these help move (certain kinds of film) projects in the direction of a rhetoric as art rather than an art of rhetoric (a phrase i'm playing around with lately). mainly, i hope they move toward film production that is inclusive of, um, production (even at some tiny level).

i like what director Peter M. Cohen (Whipped), which i have not seen, says in an interview w/ imdb: "The best (and cheapest) way to learn about camera angles is to borrow a friend's video camera and go out and shoot. Play around with different angles, focal lengths, and lighting, to see, firsthand, the effects different shots and angles can have. You'll be surprised at how much you can learn just by experimenting with a video camera." my point.

* here is the excerpt from the Patrice Leconte interview. i include it to make my point about storyboards. to get the effect i'm after simply read the bolded passages contiguously (and read the rest afterward, if you like).

"iW: At last night's screening, you said if there was a recurring theme in your work, it was to live with your arms open, not closed... and it's certainly manifested itself at least from "Monsieur Hire" to "Intimate Strangers." Why do you think you're continually drawn to that? [emphasis mine]

Leconte: I just feel deeply that it's one of the secrets of life, to live like that. It's just an observation that I have. Years ago, I thought that as life goes on, as we get older, we will do this more. But I see it's not happening. I see people growing more and more isolated in their lives. It's not like it's a new thing, but it's more preoccupying now as you can do so many things without leaving your home. You can work, shop, do everything from home, and I find this unsettling. [emphasis mine]

iW: From a screenplay standpoint, your films to have a very strong sense of structure, yet the filmmaking seems very loose and almost effortless. How does your mindset differ when approaching the two things? [emphasis mine]

Leconte: I like films that are well-written and concise and with not a lot of room for improvisation. I like films to be complete in their written form. If a film is very clever and well-written, that's what gives you freedom as a director. Part of the freedom in directing, for me, is that I'm also the camera operator [ . . . ] That's the place where things are less rigid, where I can adjust as I go along [ . . .] I can zero in on subtle things because I'm holding the camera [ . . . ] I never storyboard. I hate it. I don't understand why so many directors want to make comic strips of their films. How can they decide shots before getting to the set? I don't get it. The only time I ever did storyboards is for the action scenes of "Une Chance Sure Deux." I have colleagues in France who will storyboard a scene between two actors! For me, it's crazy! [emphasis mine]

iW: Do you try and create a certain spontaneity on set or is it a hard-earned spontaneity?

Leconte: I take this as a compliment because it's an illusion of spontaneity that I strive for. I'm not one to dwell on rehearsal or preparation. I like to just go out and do it. Of course, that doesn't mean actors are free to do whatever they like, they're always being directed. But sometimes it only takes three words, so long as they're the right words, to direct an actor in the right way." [emphasis mine]

**here is the interview w/ Paul Thomas Anderson (on "finding" your film in the process of making it, in production)

"I ask him about some of his choices for Magnolia (beyond "masterpiece"), which is dense with symbolism and populated by grief-stricken and shell-shocked characters. He was inspired in part by his close friendship with John C. Reilly, who plays the LA cop Jim Kurring. 'That stuff,' he remembers, 'happened about three or four years ago, during one summer when we were really bored, and he had grown a mustache and it just made me laugh. He would do this character, this guy who was on Cops, and I had a video camera and we'd drive around and improvise, and call up actors who weren't working at the time, so we'd call up Phil Hoffman and say, go to Moore Park and fuck with the trash cans and we'll drive by in ten minutes and catch you doing it. Then we got a cop uniform and improvised all these altercations. And eventually I started writing all that stuff down. A lot of Jim's dialogue is based on that improvisation, like the Mike Leigh style. It really is a pretty fucking cool way to work. We've gotta try that again.'"
[emphasis mine]

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