When Film Became the Real: “You make film in the world”

“After the 1920s and 1930s, the heyday of silent film and transforming into talkies, there was life going on,” Alrick Brown notes. He teaches his students, “you can’t make films outside of the world. You make films in the world.”
Two world wars happened in that time period. There was filmmaking that happened before World War I and after World War I. And then you have filmmaking that happened after World War II when the world changed a bit. A lot of lives were lost. This has a reflection on society and a reflection on storytelling in Alrick’s opinion.
As societies go through traumatic times, the art also changes and shifts. The Italians, Germans, and other people started looking at their stories and said, “let’s be a little bit more honest, a little bit more truthful, and not do this romantic storytelling that Hollywood is always doing.” Hollywood picked up on that. There were people in Hollywood who said, “yeah, let’s stop romanticizing. Let’s get a little bit darker and a little bit grittier.”
Alrick thinks that Snow White was one of the first color-popping films. Filmmakers had always tried to play around with color and different hues, even in the black and white era, to give a different feel of a film. But 1937 or 1938, when color started becoming this thing, another layer was added, he says.
Alrick thinks that no one can argue that you’re able to capture color now. You’re able to look at real life and think, “what is that real life that you’re going to capture?” But back then, filmmakers had this existential crisis that the world was getting a little darker, but the films were becoming more colorful.
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Visual Effects (VFX): VFX production Arc: Pre-Production and Principal

“When I talk about pre-production and production in sci-fi or visual effects, I really should say sci-fi or visual effects world,” says Seith Mann. “Because now in film production, there’s much more visual effects usage. For instance, we used visual effects on The Breaks to recreate physical realities that no longer existed. To depict architecture of 1990s New York City, we removed modern day objects from our 2015 New York City shoot—any evidence we were not actually in 1990.”
“There’s a lot we can agree on, when talking about what that reality should look like (1990s New York), while trying to get as close as we can to it,” continues Mann. “But it’s very different in a sci-fi environment, you’re trying to create and present something as reality that doesn’t even exist in our world.”
For instance, something like the “Crooked Man” in Raising Dion, which was, on paper, this lightning monster, which is cool when you read it. But then it’s like, but what exactly does a lightning monster look like? This feels like it.
We went through many different drawings and concept diagrams of what this monster would look like. Once you have something, that’s great because you can share it with your actors, other crew people. Then they have a sense of what it is they’re imagining.
“That’s important because when we’re shooting, the monster’s not actually there,” explains Mann. “But I need people to be reacting to the same thing, even though there’s nothing there.”
I mean, there may be some lights up on stands that shoot lightning strikes for timing, something like interactive lighting that will work when everything’s cut together. “But my poor cast is tasked with imagining something that they’ve never seen before. They must react to it in a way that’s believable and consistent among these different characters,” says Mann.
I can’t assume that, because something’s not there, I don’t have to be specific. That’s a false assumption, even though there’s some flexibility.
I have to say to yourself, “OK, the monster’s over there and he’s hurting something now”, as far as camera composition and timing is concerned. “Not just for the cast, but for any interactive gags that are going to help sell the illusion once the visual component is laid in,” Mann ends.

Visual Effects (VFX): Special Effects

“Special effects are a wonderful tool in the film industry. Some more obvious special effects use would be, as an example, in the Avengers films. However, many other films use visual effects that aren’t as easy to detect,” explains David Irving.
“These effects simply enhance the image—whether it’s adding elements to a crowd, a composite shot. This is all done in post-production.”
Some special VFX examples
You have to be careful about working VFX material in the film post-production process. If you’ve got a CGI-heavy movie, you’ll have a post-production budget to do all that work. However, post-production CGI can be very expensive, so you want to be very prudent with costs.
For example, in the movie Forrest Gump, the Gary Sinise character loses his legs in the opening reels of the film and spends the rest of the movie legless.
Obviously, we did not go to Sinise and say ‘we’d like to remove your legs surgically. We can put them back on later because science is so wonderful.’ Sinise would have said ‘no thank you.’
“Instead, we created visual images with the help of a green screen,” says Irving. “We put the actor (Sinise) in green socks against a green background and (using editing and VFX software) we erased his legs.”
But we only do that for three or four key shots, so that the audience, in their brain, sees him without legs. For the rest of the film, we have him in a wheelchair. We only show him from the waist up, but the audience believes that he has no legs.
VFX costs may be too much for most film budgets
Working post-production CGI or special effects is challenging. When Jurassic Park was made, Dennis Mirren—who later won the special effects Academy Award for that film—was told by director Steven Spielberg to make the dinosaurs ‘cross in front of the actors on camera.’
This had never been done before. Up to that point, it was either rear screen, where the actor would look toward the back, and go “awgggh,” or it’d be front screen, same thing. But before Jurassic Park, we’d never seen animated/CGI characters cross in front of a live actor. But Spielberg said, that’s what I want.
Dennis Mirren took a year to do the R&D necessary to create the special effects and software that allowed them just that. When he accepted the statue—this is the statue I hope you all get one day—he said, ‘from now on, no director ever has to compromise his or her vision.’
But that sentence should have ended with, ‘…if you’ve got enough money.’
“So just be very careful about CGI in post-production. It’s an expensive part of the filmmaking process. It looks wonderful, just make sure that you’re covered. And just don’t count on it too much,” Irving ends.

Toward Democratized Cinema: Working on the Outside

“Oscar Micheaux, (born 1854, died 1951) was an important African American filmmaker. Micheaux had a different, sort of parallel film career compared to other filmmakers of the era. While the early days of commercial American cinema were dominated by a handful of studios—white heterosexual men telling a certain kind of story—Micheaux worked independently, making distinct kinds of film specifically for Black audiences, known at the time as Race Films.”
Liberated from the sound stages, indie filmmaking begins
When film equipment became smaller, more portable, it paved the way for other types of film to burst upon the scene. Italian neo realism, auteur theory. It was then that films representing these cinema styles began showing up in American arthouse theaters. Shown mostly in urban areas like New York, San Francisco, Boston, and-Los Angeles, filmgoers started to watch these films and get new ideas.
Around the same time, in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a cultural inflection that coincided with the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement. There was a whole counter-cultural group of people who wanted to express a new kind of story.
This led to the emergence of new filmmaking styles, voices, and visions. John Cassavetes was one important filmmaker who made the type of films that led to the American independent film movement.
Independent film always had more diversity than the studios, but not as much as they could. Though the film industry was still dominated by white, middle class cis-gender males this slowly started to change.
The aperture started to widen.
In the 1970s, we finally started to see more interesting films being made by women and people of color. And this movement only grew over the years.

Closeup on TV Writing: Child Separation

When Yahlin Chang wrote about child separation in The Handmaid’s Tale…

she had no idea how much that subject would hit close to home. “Parents and children were being ripped away from each other at the Mexican border,” Yahlin recalls. “Refugees were being put in cages.”

Yahlin remembers writing similar scenes for the show. “There is a scene with rebellious women being put in these large cages, these holding pens,” she explains. “And they did look like the holding pens that we’re using to jail migrants and refugees.”

The show took the startling imagery even further in an episode called, “The Last Ceremony.” “I wrote the scene where June gets to see her daughter for 10 minutes,” explained Yahlin. “Her daughter has been kidnapped and is now living with new parents. This scene is both a hello and a goodbye.”

When Yahlin wrote this part, she couldn’t imagine that the same scene played out every day in the United States. “I talked to UN experts, psychologists, and international human rights activists,” says Yahlin. “We were talking about things that happen in Laos, Cambodia, the Congo, and Syria. We were talking about these incidents happening all over the world. But I never for one second thought that these scenes would be happening in America.”

The week that the episode aired, news broke that the United States was separating parents and children at the southern border.

“You’d see these scenes on TV of parents and children being ripped away from each other. This was happening in our own country,” Yahlin remembers.

When the uncanny episode aired, Yahlin got a lot of attention from reporters. “Suddenly, my phone was lighting up,” she recalls. “All these reporters wanted to ask me, ‘How did you know this was going to happen?’ And my answer was that we had no idea. We just spent a lot of time asking what would happen if you have the worst people in charge with the worst possible motives. What are the consequences of their horrible and cruel decisions? And so sometimes, our show interacts with the real world in extremely unfortunate ways.”

Learn from Yalin Chang in the online certificate course, Film and TV Industry Essentials. Grads get a certificate of completion from New York University’s acclaimed Tisch School of the Arts and learn from experts across the industry – including the pros at NYU, IndieWire, Rolling Stone.

Television's Narrative Structure: Netflix’s Model of Television – One Long Movie

“Spielberg and George Lucas started to collaborate on movies together. They decided they were going to do Indiana Jones. But before they did that, George Lucas did the first Star Wars. And if you remember the first Star Wars, it was episode IV,” Thomas Mangan explains. “He had already conceived this as a series of nine movies.
In 1977 Lucas stated, “I’m going to make nine movies over two hours. I’m going to tell this story over 18 hours.” This led Spielberg and Lucas to collaborate on Indiana Jones, which was released two years later in ’79. Indiana Jones was also a trilogy. The idea of movie trilogies wasn’t perceived as sequels like they are now in today’s movies—it was considered a long-form from storytelling.
Lucas didn’t like the two-hour limit placed on films; therefore, he made a longer version of the movie by expanding them into a series of films. It changed the way the film industry made movies. However, many people interpreted it as “sequels work.”
Mangan states, “If you look at movies now, where even The Avengers still follow that model, they take the same characters and they put them in different movies. They interweave in between multiple stories, which is very akin to what Netflix has done with the binging of television shows.”

“They’ll make a show and then make it available so you can watch the whole show. But if you watch an episodic series of 10 shows or 8 TV shows—I just finished watching Killing Eve season 2 last night—it’s one long movie. Netflix copied George Lucas’s movie-making model to create this disruptive form of binge-watching TV.”

Introduction to Television: Episodic Television

To understand the process behind creating and filming episodic television, director Harry Winer had to see the “rhythm” behind it.

“What happens is that directors are hired on a week-to-week basis. You come in and direct one episode. You leave. Another director comes in and directs an episode.” Winer says. “For a television series that goes on for years, the actors themselves are the ones that are running the show because they know their characters.”

When Winer came into doing his first TV series, Hart to Hart, he had no idea how television worked, so he treated it as if he was making a movie: “I go in and start setting up these elaborate shots.”

“So I get called into Leonard Goldberg’s office [at 20th Century Fox], and I’m sort of intimidated,” Winer recalls. “And he says to me, thank you. You directed a beautiful movie, and maybe one day we’ll get a chance to actually make a movie together. But right now I’d like you to direct Hart to Hart.”

That was one of Winer’s biggest moments of education. “I had no idea what he was talking about,” Winer says, “but subsequently came to learn that in that era, episodic television was a product.”

There is a standardization of the product — of television — and there are certain rhythms and ways in which a series is filmed that is the emblematic style of that particular episode. And subsequently when I recognized that, I started playing ball and would make several more Hart to Harts.

After directing his seventh episode of Hart to Hart, Winer realized that it was indistinguishable from every other episode of Hart to Hart. “That was the goal that they had set for me to achieve.”

That led him to discover an important lesson in the TV industry. “I realized that in serious television, there was a choice of being a really good series television director and implementing the style that others had created versus sharpening my skills of original creativity that originating a television series would allow.”

Introduction to Television: Television’s Home Invasion

In the late 1940s to 1950s, this thing called television invaded people’s homes, Alrick Brown comments. Film, on the other hand, went from this visual thing that eventually got sound. He says, “people were in their homes listening to radios and getting sound. Imagine what happened when a box came into your home, where an image was broadcast, and you could actually see pictures and people.”
Alrick thinks that television has evolved a lot. But he wants you to understand why TV was built as it tells you a lot about what television is today. At its core, TV was built to sell coffee, knives, vacuum cleaners, and whatever the American housewife needed in the 1950s. If they could just have commercials, that’s what TV would be, Alrick says.
They created television shows as sponsorships, as a part of selling these products. “And so this magical, wonderful thing that we call television, that we consume so much and shapes our understanding of the world, was created to sell products.”
Harry Winer thinks that television had a glorious introduction. Initially, it was film theater. In the 1950s, they were trying to figure out ways to capture an audience once they had this wonderful new tool.
They would take vaudeville comedians and other stand-up comedians and put them up for variety shows, Harry says. They tried to create legitimate storytelling. They would take plays that had been successful on Broadway, or that were part of the American theatrical canon, and stage them for TV.
Harry notes that this is where many directors of a previous generation to his own cut their teeth. For example, John Frankenheimer, Sidney Lumet, and a host of others went on to become wonderful filmmakers. They took that understanding of the medium and found new ways of using imagery within a very tight budget and tight time frame in order to tell stories.
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