September 29, 2012

More Big Lessons from Short Films

A few months ago, I had written this post on what all I could learn while making a short film. This summer, we shot another. And I can proudly say that none of the mistakes committed earlier were repeated this time – at least none as far as my conscious mind can pick up. We made sure to implement all lessons learnt during the last shoot. As a result, we ended with a film much superior than the last, though not good enough to share with everyone. But most importantly, this time we committed mistakes which were more complex and sophisticated than the last time. The lessons we learnt this time were of a higher order – and they greatly helped us evolve as film-makers.

That the resulting film wasn’t great is a fact of lesser importance. The more important and crucial truth is this – we can back-track all these months and see how we have grown. I just wish this process continues. Some day we will be able to make a film for the world to see.

Here are some more lessons learnt in the process. I’m documenting these here, and would definitely go through them before making the next short-film.

  1. Working with good actors can be a greatly fulfilling experience. However, the key to that lies in developing a strong relationship with them, based on mutual trust and admiration. That human connection will save you during the shoot, and will make sure you have something beautiful to cherish even if you end up with a not-so-good film.
  2. Listening to the actors since the day you meet is a great tool to understand them both as people and professionals, listening, as if they are the most important people for you on earth at the moment.
  3.  Rehearsals do not mean reading lines and finding the ‘perfect’ rendering of each. Rehearsals should involve finding options – how differently each moment can be played – so that you and the actors can build up a tool box to be used during the shoot. The actors should work with the director to achieve truthfulness in their performances. The degree of performance varies with the genre and the flavor of the film, but it cannot have a false note.
  4. Often, the director can come up with ‘images’ or ‘adjectives’ to help the actor find the truth of the performance. Instead of calling the character as ‘funny’, he can use the word ‘endearing’. Instead of ‘make the audience laugh’, he can say – ‘make the audience love and care for you’. Instead of intellectualizing emotions, he can say – ‘you are like a little boy with clenched fists, made to stand outside the classroom.’
  5. So, rehearsals should not involve too much of line-reading. However, the actors must learn the lines one day before the shoot. You will save a lot of time on the shoot then.
  6. Get the set ready at least 24 hours in advance, if you have the location. Do not leave the touch-ups for the last day – it will always cost you shoot-time, come what may.
  7. You can shoot 15 minutes of screen time in one night (shooting for 12 hours). This can be done, although it seems impossible. The key would be to make sure you have worked well with actors before. Then you won’t lose time trying to ‘explain’ things to them during the shoot.
  8. However, it is advisable to not target shooting more than 6 minutes of screen time in a day. I would suggest, it should be lesser, if you can afford.
  9. The different options with which you shoot one particular moment of a scene constitute your Coverage. Traditionally, each scene is first shot in a Master shot (the widest shot to cover the entire action), and then we shoot Medium and Close Shots, followed by Inserts and Cutaways. Despite all plans you may end up with insufficient coverage. So please pay attention to it more than you normally do. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
  10. Make sure you have good, effective, and visually appealing wide shots to show the entire geography of the location.
  11. There can be hundred types of close-ups. Determine carefully which one you want for which shot. Determine whether you want the frame to be cut above the collar bone or below it, and so forth.
  12. Be careful about the internal rhythm of a conversation in Two-Shots (a shot with two subjects). Those shots cannot be ‘intercut’ like two Over-the-Shoulder Reverses and hence the timing of the spoken lines and the actions must be well thought of. If you are not careful about this, you can only regret during the edit.
  13. Staging should be repeated exactly when being covered from several angles. Or the audience will feel disoriented when you intercut such shots.
  14. While framing, work on each frame to make it as visual as possible. Do not settle for ‘storytelling needs’. Of course, this starts with art direction.
  15. Invest, if you can, on a focus puller. This is an amazing tool that not only gives you more aesthetic options, it also saves a lot of time during the shoot.
  16. The cinematographer is the person working continuously during the shoot. Take care of his comfort. At least give him a shoulder rig if he demands one. Beg, borrow, or steal to afford such equipment if your pocket doesn’t allow.
  17. Take several Inserts and Cut-Aways before you end shooting the scene. They are among the most powerful tools you can provide to your editor.
  18. It is not difficult to find a friend who will just hang around during the shoot, without any major responsibility. Request that friend to take care of the actors and the crew. By just having someone to ask for tea or water can make things so much favorable for you. Thank that friend profusely, and never ever tell him that this is the job of a Spot Boy on a ‘real’ film set.
  19. During the edit, prefer story and content over performances, characterization, and ‘moments’ for at least the first few minutes. The idea is to hook the audience into ‘what is happening’ by using screen time very economically. Once they are ‘into’ the story, they will take several times more interest in your characters.
  20. Without replacing too many shots, without going too much into the full coverage, by just sticking to the shots on the rough cut line-up, you can drastically improve your cut. Like re-writing, re-editing is an invaluable weapon. Use it to your advantage.

September 10, 2012

Thirty-Two Short Films about Wasseypur

Several months ago, I had received this SMS from one of the regular readers of this blog: “Your blog has been mute about ‘7 Khoon Maaf’, ‘Shaitan’ and ‘That Girl in Yellow Boots’. I expected you to say something. Please sum up the experience if you can.” The reason why I never talked about these films, and several others, is that I was hugely disappointed after watching them. If I wrote anything, it would be all negative, and hence I did not. I would rather write something positive about the cinema around me. Over the last three months the two parts of ‘Gangs of Wasseypur (GOW)’ got released. And anyone familiar with me or my blog would have expected some sort of reaction from me on these. I, however, chose to keep silent; silent, because I was not very happy with these films, and because I didn’t know what to write. Now I do, and hence this post.

I eagerly awaited ‘GOW – I’, not because of its promos or songs, but the fact that it was an epic without any stars. A film of this scale without a popular star is almost an unforeseen thing in our industry. I was intrigued to know that a major studio had backed the film and extensively marketed it. When I watched the film, I enjoyed it in parts, but overall it left me unaffected. I felt there was nothing extra-ordinary about it. A few weeks later, just as the sequel was about to hit the theaters and the reports from Cannes said that it was better than the first, I suddenly felt the urge to watch the first film again. I wanted to ‘revise’ it to enjoy the sequel more, but mainly to enjoy the first part ‘again’. Somehow, the movie had grown on me. When Part-II came, I was disappointed further. I felt it was weaker than the first. Surprisingly, within a few days the urge to watch it again kicked in. Today, I would love to watch both films back-to-back. ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ have found their way into my life. The latest draft of my screenplay (also set in Bihar) has improved tremendously because of these two films, and I know I’ll keep learning a lot from them.

So what’s this reaction? How can I explain this? And how can I explain the superlatives that some of our film-makers use to describe these films by Anurag Kashyap. I was having a chat with Sudhir Mishra, and he said that he believes Anurag to be the only film-maker in our industry. I appreciate this compliment, but don’t really understand it. Why, for Sudhir Mishra, are the two films on Wasseypur brilliant? I don’t know.

I understand that these two films were important. Perhaps we have just witnessed a watershed moment in the history of parallel cinema – where reasonably big-budget films have been made, extensively marketed, and made more money than any other film without stars. Actors of great caliber, but not ‘star-like features’ can now find hope – that they can be part of not only character roles and good content, but also something that is rich in style and worthy of claps and whistles and cheers. More stories from distant corners of the country may find their way to the big screen. A lot of good may happen. But then, if only these films were truly great, if their narrative had the power and the punch a revenge saga should have, if the numerous indulgences wouldn’t have had interrupted the storytelling, these films would have turned into classics. Imagine a screenplay like that of ‘Satya (1998)’, Kashyap’s first film as a storyteller. What an impact it would have created if it were as well-structured, cohesive, and purposeful like that! The revolution against the formula and the star-system would have just won a major battle, because then even the collections would have soared. My regret is this – if only the thrust in the main story would have been preferred over the numerous anecdotes it had, we would have witnessed a great achievement in cinema.

And as soon as I utter a sentence like my last, some movies start raising their voices in my head – films of Fellini and Bunuel, of the French New Wave directors like Godard, and lately of Tarantino, Kiarostami and Jarmusch. These film makers have made several films which are more a collection of episodes rather than one cohesive whole. These films defy the Classical Narrative, and often bear the blame of being over-indulgent and esoteric. But over time, they earn the reputation of classics. Some film-makers, perhaps, excel in creating exciting and mesmerizing short-films within their features. They purposefully let go of their responsibility to tell one long story – they would rather say a lot more than that, and in more exciting ways. Perhaps they prefer the Mahabharata over Ramayana, or Marquez over Shakespeare. And when they do this, we really find them in the best of their form. Should we then complain, about the lack of cohesiveness? My brother loved the Wasseypur movies because of one simple reason – he got to see stuff he never had on cinema screen. Isn’t this reason sufficient then? And perhaps, this is why I long to watch these two movies again – to watch the numerous short-films within them: ‘Perpendicular and Tangent’, ‘Definite and the Snake-Charmer’, ‘The Assassination of Sultan at a Sabzi Mandi in Bhagalpur’, ‘Permission Lena Chahiye Na’, ‘Raamaadheer Singh and Cinema’, ‘Sardar and the Lady from Bengal’, ‘Aakhiri Vaar’ and so many others full of the colour and cinematic fervor which is not only rare and exotic, but also immensely entertaining.