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Al: Absolutely! So tell me, have you actually used your own books in your filmmaking since you’ve created them?
Chris: Yes! Absolutely! I go back to them as my cheat sheets all the time. If I’m thinking how would I do such and such, I skim through them and find answers. Camera height, for instance, a really key thing.
When people start film making they tend to have the camera at their head height. Then, every time you set the camera, you think, “Should it really be my head height or would it better somewhere else?” That is just a learned habit that has come from having written the books and read the books. Again, the one feature film I made while I was writing the first book or while it was being proofed, I can’t quite remember, I used it all the way through on that film as often as I could.
And the most disappointing thing about my feature film was the dialogue scenes, which is then why I wrote Master Shots 2 all about dialogue. So often I had been making the most common mistake myself—sticking two people standing and facing each other and we go from one angle to the other. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are some brilliant beautiful solutions out there for filming people talking.
Al: Tell me, do you have a favorite camera?
Chris: Well yes and no. My favorite camera that I worked with is the RED. Either RED One or RED EPIC, I think, if I can get my hands on one. But that requires a lot of work and a lot of people. So if I’m going to image, that’s what I choose but I just shoot most of my stuff with the Canon 7D because it’s light and very easy to use and I’ve always got it with me. And also much of my shooting, again, is “guys jump out of the car”, “shoot something”, “get back in the car and drive away”. But if I am shooting actors on a set, and there’s proper work involved, every time, I will choose a RED.
Al: I heard you were a big Jim Jannard (RED Camera Founder) fan.
Chris: Yes. Yeah I loved his attitude. I’ve had to talk to people with quite a lot money to make films but I’d never really chatted with a billionaire before. It is wonderful that this guy, he is always there hands-on. And it annoys the hell out of some people the way he is but I love his attitude, he’s always, “Let’s get out and try something crazy and we will see if works.” And it didn’t at first when we were using an experimental camera. But it all came together in the end.
Al: Do you feel like his maverick style is something that Blackmagic might be doing? Might they become the new heir to the throne, as far as that style of doing business?
Chris: I think in a way, I think it happened when RED became so mainstream so quickly, at the first it was all rebellious and the idea was to put a feature camera into the hands of people such as myself who might only have a million or so to spend or even less.
If we can have a camera that could do feature quality, that is an amazing thing. And now it’s shooting “The Hobbit” and “Prometheus” and these huge things. But I have yet to meet an indie filmmaker with an Epic in hand. It set out to break down the barriers and put cameras in the hands of newbies and instead I think everybody is shooting with a Canon 7D or 5D.
It’s a strange thing, I remember Jim is always saying don’t just finish for the web, you’ve got to be prepared to be displayed on 4K screens one day. I love that idea that we capture 5K so that it’s ready for whatever screen in the future. The problem that so many of us get is working budgets for the web. So you say, “So I can go rent an Epic and it’ll be in 4k,” and then they say, “I don’t care. Please shoot it on your Canon. It costs nothing a day.” And they really don’t care about image quality. So I push things in post as much as I can because I do a lot of Visual Effects and color correction. I am able to get the most I can out of horribly compressed Canon footage. But if I wasn’t finishing for the web, I’d rather be shooting 4k.
Al: What is your favorite software package?
Chris: I edit in Final Cut Pro fairly enough. And usually in the old Final Cut Pro. I never finish a project without it going to After Effects. I use Color Finesse to color and Denoise 2, which is a Red Giant plug-in — the greatest.
Al: You haven’t dabbled on 3D yet, have you?
Chris: No. I haven’t and I want to because I’m fascinated by it.
I know there are different setups and different ways of looking at things. For instance Peter Jackson was accused of not really shooting differently when he went to 3D, he just shot the same way and there were consequences.
Something that fascinated me, I saw “Hugo” just a few months ago and I did not see it in 3D, but what was incredible was that I felt the 3D. It had been shot using the 3D techniques and the 3D way of looking at things. And by the end of it, I felt like I was watching it in 3D even though I didn’t have the glasses on, which is a peculiar experience. But clearly, there is a way seeing, a way of shooting that is so powerful but with 3D it is so ingrained in what you have shot.
Al: How did you pick your scenes for the books? Were these just life-long loves? Did you find that you have to do a lot of research to find what you wanted?
Chris: Yes. I was watching, I can’t remember how many films a day it was, but for the past however many years I’ve been doing the books, five years, during the six- or seven- month spells, before I began writing I would be watching four movies a day. And it was very intense. But I would just try and pick the moments that I remembered from the film. Not the shot that jumped out at me, the ones where you go “Whoa! Cool shot!”, because those have actually failed. They’ve pulled you out of the movie a little. Whereas when you go, “Oh I really care somebody is feeling this, or this has happened or I was surprised”, that is a fantastic moment.
So I would ponder the movie and then if a few days later I was thinking, “Oh I remember that moment really well,” then that was something that had to go in.
Then when I collected a hundred of these things I had to break it down to the ones that would be the most transferable. I’d ask myself, if people read the book, what will they be able to use the most frequently?
Al: You’ve talked about using HD video to go ahead and illustrate the dynamics. What was it like staging some of the things that undoubtedly were scenes that you had a great affection for?
Chris: It was an interesting challenge because we had to get it as just improvised dialogue. One option is to go out and re-shoot the scenes and use the dialogue from the movie and recreate the scene exactly but it’s hard because that might be infringing on copyright. It didn’t feel like being authentic to the purpose of the book. So instead I would look into the technique and I’d say to the actors okay let’s improvise the scene and we would invent a dynamic between those characters. And then I would try and film it using the techniques.
So we didn’t storyboard. We didn’t plan. We just all got together wherever we were and came up with scenes. I did workshop scenes a little until there was some emotion going on because there is no point in talking about how these shots create emotion if you’re just going to have actors talking nonsense to each other. But we did not record the dialogue because if we did, you would watch them and listen to the dialogue and you’d be drawn into the scene probably.
It was really good fun. The actors all went away from it going, you know you really should sell these books to actors as much as to filmmakers. When I was in America last month I was talking to a few people, and several times it came up that Michael Caine apparently believes the secret to his success has nothing to do with the quality of his acting but the fact that he knows how to get his face in front of the camera at the right moment.
Al: So tell me, what are your plans for the future? Are there more books coming? More movies coming? What do you have in mind?
Chris: I was looking to take a very long sabbatical from film and then be with my kids. I promised to put them in the next 2 films ‘coz they are films about children and they love acting. And so they talked me into making those films again so these will be short films I’m gonna do for the love of it. Other than that I have a completely clean slate because I was planning to take some time off but I’m getting itchy feet now and I want to shoot something.
Chris: There are no plans but people are asking for certain things and one thing that has come up is when will be the 3D version?