A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with Randal Kleiser and we discussed filmmaking in the digital age. We also discussed his upcoming International Digital Cinema Workshop which will be held July 8-28, 2012 on the campus of Cal State San Bernardino.
Mark Travis: As filmmaking moves firmly into the Digital Age, how do you see digital technology supporting our efforts to tell more effective stories?
Randal Kleiser: Because digital capture is something that can be done without cutting, the world opens up to a new way of shooting. Instead of having to shoot and reload, with digital technology you can keep right on going, keep the actors in the right frame of mind. You can get the actors’ best performances because they’re not distracted by scenes stopping and starting according to the needs of the camera.
Another benefit to digital technology is it gives everyone a chance to tell their stories to the world. In the past, you had to have money to rent cameras, sound equipment, editing equipment, etc. Now, anyone who as an iPhone and a laptop can shoot their stories and edit them practically for free. Then, they can showcase them on YouTube instead of being at the mercy of distributors and film festivals.
MT: Has digital technology affected how you tell stories as a director?
RK: Oh, yes. I’m now looking into a new type of filmmaking that I never would have thought of before. It’s very low budget, which happens to coincide with the economic difficulties we’re all facing – it’s extremely hard to get a film financed right now – and with digital filmmaking, I can look at stories that cost less and therefore can be made as opposed to getting a big movie off the ground through a studio.
Along with the advances in digital shooting technology, there has been a dramatic drop in the cost of visual effects. Most movies today have visual effects and they don’t have to be monsters stomping on a city. The effect can be something as simple as changing a sky color, taking a day that’s overcast and making it sunny or adding locations that you can’t get to. For example, let’s say your story is taking place at the Vatican. You can’t get to the Vatican to shoot because it’s difficult to get permits. So, you go with your still camera and get all the background shots, then shoot the scene on a green screen. These are some of the ways technology can help us tell good stories, very big looking stories that are not terribly expensive. In fact, I saw a student film just last night about a rock star who thought the world revolved around him. It was shot in Germany and they way they shot it, they were able to have digital helicopters flying around, digital crowds and the like. It was a student film that looked like a hundred million dollar production.
RK: On some parts, but then there were other parts where I just wasn’t sure. For example, I didn’t know if they’d actually gone to a Madonna concert and shot extras or if they had cloned people digitally or if they were using software that created extras. But that’s today. Maybe next week we’ll be unable to tell the difference between what’s digital and what’s not. I fully believe that this is where we’re heading – we’ll be able to fool anybody with anything and won’t know how it was done – if it is real or digital or what.
MT: Do you think all these endless possibilities that digital technology allows is helping storytelling or could it possibly be hindering it simply because the focus shifts to “look what I can do with the technology” rather than on telling a solid story?
RK: That has to do with how good a storyteller you are, what story you want to tell and how badly you want to tell it. If you have a good story and you want to tell it badly, you will. If you are obsessed with telling a story well, you won’t fall into the trap of focusing exclusively on the technology. A lot of people do get carried away, but those are the ones who aren’t focused on telling a good story.
MT: Years ago, a friend of mine was directing a huge Broadway show. I asked him how it was going and he said, “Terrible.” When I asked him why, he said the budget was so big he could have anything he wanted. It was throwing him off because he was so used to working with restrictions and boundaries and lack. Lack can stimulate creativity and that creativity sometimes produces a scene or moment or idea that is extraordinary.
RK: You’re absolutely right. Years ago, in the late 70s, Philip Noyce was starting out. He was shooting in Australia and there was a sequence in which he needed a flooded town. He had no money. In Hollywood, we would build a town and flood it. Noyce took three flats of the tops of buildings and put them strategically in a river. He shot from one angle where it looked like a vast set, sent a guy in a rowboat rowing through the ‘town’. There’s an example of something that looked huge and cost next to nothing.
MT: My concern is that the seduction of all these new digital tools will hamper part of that creative process. If Noyce had had all the technology we do now, he’d have created that whole flood scene digitally.
RK: That’s why education is really important – we still need to know all the tools that are considered ‘simple’. On Honey, I Blew Up The Kid, which had a lot of size differential, I went back to the way they did Darby O’Gill and the Little People, which had a lot of forced perspective. We built part of a set that was small and part that was big, put the baby in the foreground, the parents in the background and the studio was wondering why I was doing it this way instead of on a blue screen. I told them I thought it would look better, and it was cheaper. So, it’s about knowing when to use the digital tools. That’s one of the things that will be taught at the International Digital Cinema Workshop July 8-28 at Cal State San Bernardino. Susan Zwerman and Chuck Finance wrote a book called The Visual Effects Producer. They will be doing a six-hour workshop that explains every possible technique you can use for visual effects from the beginning, simple stuff to the most complicated CGI. They’ll be talking about how you can go back to those simple ways of creating effects rather than always relying on the more complicated ones.
MT: That’s great. The problem is, every time I hear about these classes, I want to take all of them! There are a lot of techniques we’ve all learned or that have been explored and then abandoned – like matte painting – that are very effective. It’s important to know what these techniques are because, under pressure, they are tools that can still be used. Filmmakers need to understand all the options at their disposal. Now, this workshop runs for twenty-one days?
RK: Yes. Twenty-one days. Morning, noon and night. People can opt out of certain parts, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The way we have it set up, we’ll be showing a movie the night before and discussing it the next day. So, if Jonathan Sanger is lecturing on a Wednesday, we’ll be running The Elephant Man or Vanilla Sky the night before. The next day, participants can ask questions about what they saw.
MT: Playing the Devil’s Advocate, why do filmmakers need to learn all this digital stuff?
RK: Well, anyone who doesn’t learn it is going to be left in the dust because this is the direction filmmaking is heading. The entire industry is turning this way. We’re heading into a digital world where, if you don’t know the tools and how to use them, you’re going to be left behind. People who are only shooting on film are like those polar bears stranded on an ice floe that’s melting, getting smaller and smaller.
MT: The global warming of film. In these twenty-one days, there are also some field trips in addition to the lectures and seminars. Can you talk a little about those?
RK: Sure. We’re going to visit the Smart Stage at Universal which has been designed for doing moving cameras and green screen. We’ll also visit the USC Institute of Technology’s light stage, which is what was used to scan actors for Avatar and Benjamin Button.
MT: So, motion capture technology?
RK: Motion capture and also facial capture. Scanning people so they can become avatars that look real. This will become standard practice in the future when working with big stars – capturing all their facial expressions digitally.
MT: But with facial capture, the expressions, does that mean in post-production, I can go in and change the facial expression?
RK: It’s been done. When Marlon Brando refused to smile per Frank Oz’s direction, they ended up digitally putting a smile on Brando’s face in post-production.
MT: I remember seeing that at the last Digital Day at the DGA. It was definitely Brando’s iconic smile. Which raises an interesting thought: It’s possible, then, with all the digital technology that an actor can get an Oscar for a performance he or she never gave.
RK: Yes. Anything is now possible.
MT: So, there’s the possibility of changing performances in the audio realm, too, then. I could go in and put pauses in, slow down dialogue, change the line delivery digitally and totally change the performance.
RK: Oh, sure. George Lucas has been doing this for ten years. He did this on all the Star Wars movies. He cut and pasted performances, took heads of characters and put them on other bodies, inserted characters in scenes that were never there when the scene was originally shot.
MT: Wow. That’s fascinating and frightening at the same time. So, this International Digital Cinema Workshop is three weeks that focuses on digital technologies in film. How much of that time will focus on just the basics of storytelling – those critical non-digital aspects that lead up to the digital moments.
RK: About half. We have four days of a hands-on acting workshop based on the Nina Foch course that’s going to be run by her former USC teaching assistant and protege, James von Tempo. He’ll be working with student participants. Diane Baker will talk about her experiences working with directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Jonathan Demme and how their techniques differed. Jonathan Sanger will be talking about directing from his point of view, working with Mel Brooks for so many years as well as working with Cameron Crowe and David Lynch. John Badham will be talking about how he approaches directing and how to adjust for episodic television. He’ll also be talking about storytelling. So, the workshop has two tracks: the digital track and the directing track with each taking up about half the time. It’s very exciting. It will be a great program.