"You know, I always noticed that in art school, that grief was considered more profound than happiness. But why? Break it down into something like acting: Comedy is super hard to do well, and yet every year, it’s dismissed by the Oscars. A great comedy like The Big Lebowski will never win Best Picture, you know? If it happens, it’s a fluke, once in a billion years … but if you’re playing an alcoholic with a harelip and a limp and financial problems, have we got an award for you! I just reject that notion that grief is more profound than joy." Brad Bird
When educating yourself about any field, it seems best to me to go straight to the people actually doing the work. The ones in the field, on the set, day after day. The ones for whom the craft isn't theoretical, but a cold practicality, a problem to be solved.
Here are a few filmmaking podcasts that give you close access to talented creators. I've gotten a lot out of them.
3rd & Fairfax | iTunes
The official podcast of the WGAw, 3rd & Fairfax features interviews with writers discussing their latest work, and covers TV as well as features.
The American Society of Cinematographers creates this podcast about the art of capturing moving images. The interviews feel unrehearsed and candid, and feature artists who we typically have less opportunity to hear from.
The Director's Cut | iTunes
This official DGA podcast features a unique format of established film directors being interviewed by their peers. It's fun not only for the educational content, but for the friendships and relationships that are revealed in the discussions.
Host Jeff Goldsmith interviews screenwriters and the occasional director or actor about their recent films, asking in-depth and unique questions. These interviews are approachable for novice and experienced writers alike, as he dives into both breaking-in stories and deep discussions of structure and craft.
Scriptnotes | iTunes
Hosted by working writers John August and Craig Mazin, Scriptnotes is "a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters." It's both extremely educational and entertaining, with John and Craig coming at writing from different perspectives and discussing all parts of the process, from breaking in, to craft, to the business, and everything in-between.
"…cutting through all the technology and cutting through all the cultural fads, the fashion, the one thing you can rely on—the one thing that has to be protected—is that initial inspirational spark you had when you first decided that you wanted to express yourself through the moving image. That’s very hard to protect. It can be chipped away at over the years. You may have to do things that you don’t necessarily want to do. But you still have to protect that initial inspiration. Ultimately, it’s just you and that. Nothing else matters."
I've not seen The Lost City of Z, James Gray's film about British explorer Percy Fawcett, but I recently read the screenplay. So when I noticed an interview with James Gray about the film on the DGA podcast, I was curious enough to listen.
Near the end of the interview, Gray talks about Carlos Kleiber, a relatively unknown orchestra conductor who had a humble outlook on his talents. Gray summed up Kleiber's belief about the role of the conductor in this way:
"The conductor is not playing the instruments; the conductor's job is to summon the magnificence of others."
There are many different styles of creative leadership. Some are auteurs, others intensely collaborative, others demanding. But the Kleiber style of leadership really struck a chord with me. It takes what can be a huge and intimidating job, with enormous pressure bearing down on one person, and spreads it out among a group of excellent artists, technicians, and craftsmen. Surrounding yourself with people who can do their jobs far better than you ever could, and giving them the freedom to do so, liberates the creative leader and elevates the creation.
It's almost a servant leadership approach to creating. Yes, there is someone leading the project; but that person is also facilitating—fielding ideas, seeking input, encouraging people to try new things and surprise them. Bringing out their magnificence.
William Goldman says something similar in Adventures in the Screen Trade:
"The best [directors] are wonderful storytellers. Those best do one thing superbly well: They help. Everybody."
I don't believe that is the only approach to creative leadership. But it's one that appeals to me and that I'd like to embrace.
Glen Keane is more than an incredible artist. He's one of the finest animators the world has known, a man who creates magic from a Mitsubishi 10B pencil and a sheet of paper. His work has shaped childhoods and expressed feelings difficult to put into words. You've seen him act, though you may not realize it; it was disguised as Ariel, the Beast, Tarzan, and Rapunzel. But underneath those costumes was Glen Keane.
"I can't believe life can be this wonderful." Glen Keane
On the Bancroft Brothers Animation Podcast, Glen spoke in depth about his faith as a Christian. He discusses reconnecting with his faith while a young animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios, the influence of fellow animator Ron Husband, wanting to leave animation to go to seminary, finding God's purpose for putting him at Disney, and the spiritual elements behind scenes in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
Glen is a deep thinker, and imparts his reflections and wisdom with an ease that comes from his depth of faith and feeling. It's a fantastic interview that greatly inspired me as a Christian working in a creative field.
For an artist, every work of art is instructive, even if only as a cautionary tale, an example of what should not be done. But some works, and some artists, teach us more than others.
Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was briefly in theaters again in celebration of its 40th anniversary. It's a beautiful, strange, and unconventional piece of filmmaking. Through it Spielberg inspired filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and Denis Villeneuve, and it continues to educate us today.
Cut in Camera
The moving master, or 'oner', is one whose history includes legends like the openings of Touch of Evil and Back to the Future. Spielberg is a master of this shot, because rather than wowing us with an obviously long take, he orchestrates the camera to move from one composed shot to another. It's effectively cutting without cutting, and is invisible to the audience.
One of the best examples in Close Encounters is when the fighter planes are found in the desert. Spielberg starts in a medium shot of a plane, moves wide to track the characters as they run to the aircraft, settles on a composition of a plane, and then turns it into a two shot as David Laughlin walks toward camera and yells to someone off-screen. It's an immersive set of individual shots blended seamlessly by motivated camera movement.
Characters talk over each other throughout Close Encounters, sometimes making it difficult to understand the dialogue. This reminds me of Christopher Nolan's approach to dialogue, one which he has taken some criticism for:
"I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound."
The effect in Close Encounters often provokes a feeling more than a clear understanding of what is being said. It is also more realistic, as real-world conversations routinely involve people interrupting and talking over each other. This is something that films from the golden age of Hollywood did very often, and while it requires a few minutes to adjust, it makes those films all the more witty and enjoyable. You have to run to keep up.
Directing Our Attention
My favorite moment in Close Encounters is the audience's first introduction to an alien ship. Roy (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is lost and has parked his truck in the middle of the road to look at a map. A car pulls up behind him, headlights filling the frame, and Roy waves them on. They drive around him and Roy continues to study the map. Another pair of headlights appear, and a frustrated Roy waves them on as well. But while Roy continues searching the map, the headlights slowly rise behind him and float off-camera—and suddenly we realize this is not a car at all, but something more alien:
All of this happens behind Roy and out of focus. The shot is clearly composed to direct our eyes to Roy and his predicament. But by deciding not to call attention to the alien ship, Spielberg brilliantly does call attention to it, shocking the audience and eliciting smiles and laughter. It's a wonderful moment that illustrates the power of restraint and showing less.
One more lesson from Close Encounters comes up again and again in Spielberg's body of work. It's something he's both celebrated and criticized for, and I believe it's an important reminder for artists in any medium. It's far too easy to center on the dark and difficult. But as Close Encounters reaches its lyrical climax, Spielberg reminds us once again:
Moving my writing to a new system means there's a lot of content left to sit in a dark corner of the web. And while some of it is dated, there's actually some good stuff there. For now, the entire archive is still available here.