Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ellen Kuras - A marathon cinematographer

Ellen Kuras is one of the best-known directors of photography in American independent film of the past 20 years. She has won the Sundance Film Festival's cinematography prize three times. To list just a few of her credits, she shot Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls, Bamboozled, He Got Game and Summer of Sam, Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and his new film, Be Kind Rewind, Jonathan Demme's Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol.

Before she ever picked up a camera, she started working as a director on her first film about a Laotian family's experiences in the United States. That was 23 years ago and now that film, Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), a gorgeous metaphoric meditation on immigrant displacement and loss, has its premiere at this year's Sundance festival.

Kuras's long-term project represents an extreme but distinct trend in documentary filmmaking toward films that take years. Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore noted at the beginning of the festival that fewer films were coming from the "professional class" of documentary makers and more from people with a personal investigation they were determined to share with the world.

Among the examples are fashion photographer Steve Sebring's Patti Smith: Dream of Life, which took a dozen years, as the director befriended the rock star and poet from the mid-nineties, in the early years of her widowhood to the present. Katrina Browne, a social worker, took nine years to research her family's history as slave traders before completing Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. One of the three Canadian entries in the official documentary competition, The Women of Brukman, by Montreal director Isaac Isitan, follows the women workers who took over a clothing factory after Argentina's economic collapse in 2001 and documents their legal and political battles for the past half-dozen years.

Read more

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Finding a Good Film School

This one is for the prospective film student. How to find the right film school? Does location matter...Or should you go for the infrastructure (camera/lighting equipment, editing suites, studios)? Reputation does count a lot. In fact, many of the film schools from the old days are still gold...and the plethora of those that have sprung up now, might just confirm your worst fears.

1. Choose your vocation: You might be interested in just the technical side of filmmaking (see video editing, sound editing), or the creative side (set design, scripting) or both (production, direction!). Deciding your vocation in advance will help you decide the course you want to pursue.

2. Grab your course: Once you've decided what you really want to do (and I hope you decide that on the basis of what really interests you, and not what will earn you more)...its time to grab the course. Most film institutes offer dedicated short term courses in cinematography, video editing, sound engineering and acting respectively. If you like a bit of everything and/or are undecided on what you'd really like, then go for the comprehensive filmmaking course.

3. The Location: Will you be placing yourself thousands of miles from the place where you want to film your work? If you ultimately want to work in Hollywood you might want to aim for a California school so you can go ahead and begin building that network. If you want to work in Bollywood, nothing better than FTII at Pune.

4. Equipment and Facilities: decade ago, the equipment that a school could offer mattered a lot, but it’s not a lot to get worked up about today. After all, you can buy an HVX-200, a laptop and Final Cut Studio for a fraction of a year’s tuition at most film schools. You don’t want to go someplace that has crummy equipment, nor do you want to attend a school that lacks enough equipment to serve its students. You need good (film and video) cameras, sound equipment, lights, and editing stations. (Maybe not even the editing stations, if you already own one.) Beyond that, don’t get worked up about facilities and equipment.

5. Length of Program: Most programs are three years; some are two years. There may be a difference between what a school’s literature states and the reality though. Ask current students for the skinny on how long it takes for students to typically finish a program. It can be a positive thing, of course, to stay in school as long as you can.

Action! Every year, tens of thousands of hopefuls apply to film school to start a career behind the camera. If you're of them, you probably dream of one of top five film schools - UCLA, NYU, the American Film Institute, Columbia and USC. (Aren't film students big dreamers, after all?)

Of the five, USC and NYU are considered the top of the heap. USC is, both literally and figuratively, closer to Hollywood. Applicants may need Jedi mind tricks to gain admittance into this alma mater of George Lucas - the school accepts 150 undergrads out of 14,000 applicants annually. NYU, the home base of Miramax and Tribeca Productions, has an "indie" edge, personified by prominent grads like Spike Lee, Ang Lee, and Oliver Stone.