Home > Uncategorized > Shooting Steven Spielberg

Shooting Steven Spielberg

Working for the New York Film Academy has some perks; aside from getting to bask in the cheery personalities that work the equipment room (Bianchi), we get to shoot video for the Q&A’s of working professionals after we screen one of their films, or in the case of Joe Mantegna a reel of his work.  We had more gear today, we started earlier today and had more faculty, students and camera operators than normal.  Today was a 35mm print of Jaws (1975) in the Hitchcock theater on the Universal lot with special guest Steven Spielberg. There was a bit of frenzy; students trying to get into the screening but being turned away because they failed to get on the list of 250.  The formidable Greenwood stood guard at the door and told students to take the next shuttle back to the school as they griped “I sent the email, I should be on the list.”  “Can we pay to get in?”  “Oh, let me see the list, I’ll just show you my name.” Nice try.  I even met some new faculty that suddenly turned up for a screening.  Where were they for The Bridge to Terabithia?

Knowing the theater was going to be packed I set up a little chair for myself while setting up the lights.  I tucked it next to a source 4 up in a balcony and nestled in for my first print of Jaws experience.  If you haven’t seen Jaws…. ….. – i couldn’t think of a snide witty thing to say, i was actually at a loss for words thinking there is someone who hasn’t seen Jaws – how about, shame on you? Every time I watch this movie I find more elements that become compounded to make this one of the best bits of story-telling to come out of the last 40 years of Hollywood. The first time you watch it, if you’re a kid like I was, it’s all about those tense shots of a dorsal fin, legs kicking under the water, the scares and the blood!  Then next time it’s all about the score, you’ve matured a little in your understanding of film and can pin-point what is helping build that tension. Then, after years of watching movies, you watch Jaws again and become aware of the amazing shot economy.  There are not nine angles to cover one conversation. This is the work of a director who is sure of himself.  He doesn’t need nine angles just to have choices during the edit.  He can choreograph an efficient oner of three men in an argument and land with a vandalized billboard of Amity Island square in the background to illustrate the point of the entire argument. Filmmakers today rely very heavily on fast “MTV” style editing along with dozens of angles because the director is lost on the set, doesn’t know what he needs to tell the story and hopes that he can desperately glue something together on his Avid (or FCP if he can’t afford a man’s editing system).

On this viewing I also noticed some good old tell-tale signs of 1970’s filmmaking including using a split diopter and the zoom lens.  Filmmakers in the 70’s really enjoyed their split diopters and zooms, they were somewhat new and people were experimenting.  The good thing with Spielberg, and he’s shown the same restraint with digital tools (excluding in Indy 4), is he uses the tools sparingly enough to tell his story.  Not every shot needs a split diopter, but when an old man with C-cup man-boobs is talking your ear off while you’re trying to keep an eye on a kid swimming in shark infested waters but the boy is far outside the depth of field for your lens and stop, then a split diopter is perfect to tell your story.  Man in foreground is in sharp focus yapping about God-knows what and we can see the sheriff is still concentrating on the boy in the water, as he is also in sharp focus.  Spielberg had a tool and used it appropriately as dictated by the story.  Bravo.

At the close of the film my work had to begin, throwing a hefty HPX up on the shoulder to be the “wandering” camera during the Q&A.  Spielberg emerges from the balcony to thunderous applause, I catch him coming down the stairs, high fiving students and taking his seat.  Immediately the moderator, I should probably know who she was but can’t remember, mentioned that she loved watching Jaws because there were practical effects.  She liked knowing the actors were on location, actually in the water, on a boat sinking, etc. She mentioned it twice before Spielberg had to step in to defend the implication of modern film-making.  It was obvious she was implying that it’s a nice change of a pace from the digital world everything is created in today.  For instance, have you seen this photo?

Seeing a photo like this, I understand the moderator.  But Spielberg refused to allow an attack on digital cinema.  He said that if someone would have offered to him back in ’74 a solution to Jaws that meant he could get off the ocean and stop futzing with that shark, he would have taken it. He said that computer effects has allowed filmmakers to start realizing the potential of their imagination which is a very positive thing.  He, of course, did not deny that it is abused.  When the film becomes about the special effects, about the CGI and not about the story, that’s a problem.  People used to have limits on what they could afford to put into a film, or what they could shoot, or what the schedule allows for, and that restraint on their ability unleashed their creativity. But now they have the ability to barrage each frame with everything of which they are capable by throwing money at post-production and forcing their team of editors, assistant editors and post PAs to work 36 straight hours at a time to get it done (I’m looking at you Pirates 4)

As Spielberg continued to answer question after question my arm started to fatigue. Then, around minute 40, it feel asleep and my handheld skills feel to absolute crap. Long lens shots? Forget it. The editor is probably watching the second half of my footage thinking the operator was either drunk or handed the camera to a five year old that had to pee. No matter!  Just keep pointing the lens at Steve and enjoy the conversation.  Oh, wait! My buddy Randy showed up, I handed off the camera and could concentrate on the last two questions (one of which was interrupted by the moderator’s cell phone, tsk tsk).

During these last two questions Spielberg echoed what I’ve been hearing all of the biggest professionals in Hollywood say and that is “you never get what you want as a filmmaker.  I still don’t everything I want.”  He expounded more on the topic, basically saying that film-making is about the compromises you have to make.  Too often I hear students on sets complain that “I must have curved track for this scene to work!” “That curtain must be red, or this doesn’t work!”  “I need her to eat breakfast nude or the scene doesn’t work!” Etc.  Spielberg went on to say, essentially, that as creative filmmakers we must be malleable, we must adapt to what is available.  Do your prep work.  Shot list absolutely every detail if you want, but once you get on set remember that it will all change and you have to be ready for that.  A lot of scenes that ended up in the final cut of Jaws was made up during the long days waiting for a shot on the ocean. Spielberg even stopped bring a shot list to set when shooting on the ocean.  Most iconic movie moments were “happy accidents” that occur during the exploration of collaboration.

This advice seemed to go back to what he told several students asking for advice on how to pursue a career of Spielberg’s caliber and he told them you need to have a plan but be ready to adjust it and accept the unexpected.  Life, like making a movie, doesn’t have one set direction or plan.  The more frustrated you get by any deviation from that plan, the more you are going to allow life, or the movie, to get away from you.  That’s when you fail as a director, when you refuse to allow deviation.  Maybe a refusal to deviate from your plan is the sign of a very insecure director, one that doesn’t know his story.

I hope these students took that point to heart.  I hope that when I go back to one of their sets this week I don’t need to spend an hour explain why they really don’t need to hang a jib off the roof of their apartment for the story to work.  Shoot the story, not the red curtains and not the cool dolly shot that you believe helps reveal the inner turmoil of the blah blah blah.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.