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Early Atwater Burst

The glimmer of the morning sun on the beach of Atwater Park in Shorewood, WI

I’m teaching a weekly filmmaking class through the Shorewood Recreation Department and today my students spent some time looking at the sun. Not the real sun. The sun in an imaginary scene. But the conversation at our table inside Colectivo Coffee wasn’t necessarily about how to light an outdoor scene. I took us in a different direction.

As I prepped for today’s session, I started thinking about a way to help my students create an approach to looking for help shooting a film, although it could be applied to virtually any crew position. The scene in my mind takes place on the beach, specifically Atwater Beach here in Shorewood, and the sun is about to rise over Lake Michigan. The mental image triggered a stream of questions quickly and prompted me to find a photo that best represents what I imagined, seen above in a stunning photo kindly provided for use here by Andrew Slater Photography.

Before I share those questions with you, let me give you a little more set-up. Let’s say the scene we’re shooting takes place when the sun is rising in the early morning sky. For the sake of simplifying this conversation, we didn’t discuss a specific script or number of actors, if any. I just kept them focused on how we want to see the sun rising and its impact on the setting. I also explained how, like shooting live sports, we don’t get a second take when capturing action as it happens.

I set the intention for them that they’re hiring someone to shoot the scene. I set them up to think about what they want that person to know in advance, what they can anticipate and communicate to that other person, and how clearly communicating expectations up front and throughout allows everyone to work towards the same goal.

The Sun Only Rises Once

  1. Do you know what the sun is?
  2. Do you know what the sun does?
  3. Do you know where to find the sun?
  4. Do you know when sunrise begins?
  5. Do you know how long the sun remains at each point in the sky?
  6. Do you know what will be illuminated first?
  7. Do you know what will be illuminated last?
  8. Do you know where the shadows will be cast?
  9. Do you know what visible changes the increased sunlight will bring?
  10. Do you know when sunrise is over?

At no time in those questions am I talking about using an actual camera. Even as I came up with the questions, I mentally set the camera down to just imagine observing the scene. The point is to imagine the scene, in this case the sun rising over Lake Michigan, and have a sense of how it starts, where it will go, and what will change over a period of time.

To simplify what I said above, if you clarify the What, you can begin working on the How. Without a clear plan created from your intentions, the How gets a lot more complicated. For your purposes, What is “What do I need, want or have to do?” and How is “How do I make it happen?”

Here are some simple ways to relate the questions above to what you’re working on now or in the future.

  1. Do you know what the sun is? Let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing.
  2. Do you know what the sun does? Let’s make sure we understand what is going to happen.
  3. Do you know where to find the sun? Let’s make sure we’re putting our energy in the same direction.
  4. Do you know when sunrise begins? Let’s make sure we agree to a time to arrive and a time to start shooting. 
  5. Do you know how long the sun remains at each point in the sky? Let’s make sure we are aware of urgency and time limits. 
  6. Do you know what will be illuminated first? Let’s make sure we know what the start of this process looks like. 
  7. Do you know what will be illuminated last? Let’s make sure we know what the end of this process looks like.
  8. Do you know where the shadows will be cast? Let’s make sure we know how this process affects everyone and everything here.
  9. Do you know what other visible changes the increased sunlight will bring? Let’s be able to recognize changes in what’s happening throughout the process and be able to respond to them. 
  10. Do you know when sunrise is over? Let’s agree to an end game or end point for this process.

Much joy in helping new filmmakers comes from giving them the tools to avoid the mistakes made by countless others, myself included. Visual reminders, like that big ball of fire in the sky, can be more immediate and effective than the notes my students diligently took while sitting in class. When they are creating their own filmmaking process in the coming weeks and months, hopefully they will remember to “look at the sun” and find a solution before they’re blinded by a problem.

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