ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Unnecessary —

This is a delightful salad of concepts, chopped up and presented for your perusal.

My buddy Chris and I have this running joke/theme going for the last months or so, where we send each other basic how-tos in each other’s field, his being writing and mine being filming. We also bump into a lot of how-tos in our own fields, just boppin’ around on the world wide web. A lot of them say the very same things, sometimes couched in humor, occasionally misstating them, and occasionally buying into ideas they themselves have obviously never tested. People often offer advice! It’s freely given and generally it doesn’t hurt to look them over. If you’re so unsure of yourself that someone giving you advice is a terrifying or despairing experience, you haven’t field-tested your methods enough. Don’t avoid work to hear advice, but don’t ignore advice because you think it’ll affect your work.

The upshot is we ping a lot of shit at each other.

So in my travels and thanks to Chris’ suggestions of places to check out, I’ve formulated this idea about creating “stuff” in the contemporary frame. I’ve been living this idea for years now, but I don’t articulate it often. I keep bumping into other people articulating it, so I figured it was my turn.

Robert Rodriguez got a bunch of fame because he shot his film Mariachi very cheaply, doing an unbelievably low ratio for shot footage and ending up with a flick that could rival a lot of low-budget Hollywood features. His secret was utterly abusing his crew/friends and instituting crazy risks and jumps towards making his film. It does not scale, but given what he was working with, it was very effective. Later, he’s gone on to make more films, notably shooting in digital format. In recent presentations about his digital work, Rodriguez mentions how he leaves the cameras running almost constantly during shooting, working stuff out with the actors and jamming the cameras all around to catch lots of stuff dynamically. In other words, his frugal footage style, this huge hallmark of his work, went right out the window at the first opportunity. Instead, he knew that digital footage is absolutely cheap and so he would just let stuff run constantly so he’d capture every last bit of his actors’ output – which itself is not cheap, so he was actually switching one overexploited scarce resource for another.

There’s a book I enjoyed reading called the DV Rebel’s Guide, which is done by one of the founders of an effects house. It’s a pleasant little read, although if you don’t edit on an Apple using Final Cut Pro with After Effects, his exacting technical walkthroughs aren’t overridingly useful to you. No mind; he often gives you advice that would work with an 8mm handheld film camera, so it’s worth browsing.

Specifically, he mentions how you are bursting, filled to the brim, really, with one resource that Hollywood just does not have: time. If you need to wait to the next rainfall for the best shot, you can. If you have to wait 3 months before that family vacation out west will enable you to get some good establishing vistas, fine. In one chapter, he mentions how a fire down the way from his home enabled him to round up his actors and shoot a scene out in front of the smoking building, giving a sense of realism to his film he could never afford. Shooting your film to take advantage of someone else’s terrible personal tragedy is morally reprehensible and I love it.

In these cases, you are looking at what you have at your disposal and exploiting it instead of bemoaning the lack of other advantages you don’t have. Winona Rider is not going to be 18 again and be the perfect girl for your role, and work for you for cheap. Another actress, however, one of many who would jump at an opportunity like what you want to work on, definitely will. You can’t shoot downtown and fire weapons. Shoot in a park and fire fake weapons and do sound effects later at your desktop.

This is all interesting but not where I am commenting today.

What has my interest is my theory that a lot of people get hung up on doing stuff because it was always done that way, and the way that their judgment works is that if they don’t do things in a similar fashion, they’re not valid. That’s a huge mouthful, and I think I can reduce it down to: stop doing unnecessary things. If the output of your effort has the same look, effect and result of doing it the old way, and a new way is easier, cheaper, or whatever, then do it the new way. There’s no shame in doing it the new way, and if someone is shaming you, they are lame and should go in a hole.

A concrete example. You can use a digital camera, of which there are ones so cheap they should come with a side of fries, and shoot stuff at a great resolution for animation. You click in a remote, which many come with, bind that camera in a tripod, and then shoot at a huge resolution that would be more at home on an HD screen than an iPod. And the feedback is instantaneous. You see right on the little screen that you’re shooting well, got the lighting right, got it in focus. There’s way to chop these little cameras so you can yank the pictures off as you go, too. Plug in the end of the USB camera, yank the newest shots you took, unplug, keep shooting. Why would you do this in 16mm film? Nostalgia? Because Will Vinton used to? Because that’s what your favorite animation was shot with? I shot that film I talked about earlier this month in 16mm. I would never, ever, ever do that again. There is no benefit. It is unnecessary.

It’s easy to focus on the small stuff and think you’re living with this philosophy. You used your buddy’s band for some music instead of paying insane rates for a similar-sounding band. You used a really good poem from the 18th century as a prologue instead of making one up. Not bad! But let’s take it out even further.

Why are people often making films as linear 1.3 hour narratives?

I mean, sometimes it makes sense to do this, but more frequently than not, you’re shooting the length because that’s what movie houses preferred/prefer to get more showings in a day. It’s a single piece because you can easily ship the film canisters around with numbers to indicate what reel should go when. Make no mistake, I find technical film aspects fascinating. I was even trained in some, but it is utterly unnecessary now. This was the genius of Pete Chvany, my college film mentor; his lessons still work for me even when the medium has completely changed. Good is good!

BBS Documentary was seven hours of content, 5.5 of that film episodes. There were another few hours of audio recordings too. GET LAMP may, in the aggregate, end up rivaling BBS Documentary for the amount of content you get within the final product. There’ll be a main “film” but I already know of three “featurettes” (really, shorter episodes) accompanying it. The work will exploit the DVD format for multi-angle, subtitles, menus, and interactivity. Why not? I’m already there, I’m already making this work available in DVD, there’s no reason not to.

I am not pursuing film festivals because I don’t see any point. I suppose I could prowl around a few with my film being shown and enjoy things that way, but there’s not an overriding reason for me to do so. Various events have asked me to show a film and accompany the showings. I will do that, since I get the benefits of travel and meeting people without looking at everyone I meet who has any success as a “get”. The medium of film festivals, that is, a meat market where you often pay money for the hope that some big names will find your film and watch it and give you a gabillion bucks, is not something I see being relevant for the things I do. GET LAMP has several rough goals that I hope happen:

  • People who have never heard of text adventures will be interested in this film.
  • People who make or play text adventures will feel good about the film.
  • The final product will take the average person a week of effort (40 hours) to fully regard.
  • That average person could just see just a small bit of that and still be satisfied.

None of these is particularly impossible; I am leveraging my obsessiveness and regard for the subject and not getting hung up on being just like a film I might have seen in the theater in the last week. We’re different things and we each can do what we do well enough; why waste our talents trying to be like the other?

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  1. Chris Orcutt says:

    Besides what Ben Franklin said about advice (“Wise men don’t need it, and fools won’t heed it.”), one thing we all learn if we create enough over a long enough period of time is that ultimately you have to do whatever you do your own way. You can’t approach the making of your “stuff” using the tactics or elements of style that made another person what s/he is. To become an original you have to be willing to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes yourself.

    Sure, sometimes you can shorten the learning curve by following another creator’s advice, but a funny thing about the advice most people give is this: they predicate what they suggest you do on what has worked for them. Few are the people in our lives who are willing, or able, to give us advice predicated on what they know will work for us.

    Jay summed this up when he wrote, “We’re different things and we each can do what we do well enough; why waste our talents trying to be like the other?”

  2. ross k says:

    i dig the concepts you lay out here. i myself have flirted with the idea of “working it” to try to get my stuff out there. this ranges from courting galleries or submitting to journals.

    but at this point i submit a very small percentage of my output. most of it goes online, and i’m proud of having it there for whoever gives a crap.

    i look forward to your new doc, i ate the last one up! DELICIOUS