B&W Composition Practice

For my Composition and Visual Design class we’ve been watching many of Ben Long‘s lessons on Lynda.com. In his Foundations of Photography: Composition course he encourages practicing photographing different design elements in black and white to strip the image down to its basic components. This is a collection of images I took the other with this idea in mind.

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Interview with Cinematographer Robert Howell

In my Art History class we were asked to make a 2-5 minute podcast in which we interview a professional in our industry. This is my interview with freelance cinematographer Robert Howell.

Surrealist Film: A Brief History

This short history of the surrealist film genre is my final project for my History of Motion Picture Arts class.

I tried to keep with the spirit of the surrealist genre by making the animations slightly disorienting and for the most part using whatever ideas came to my head with as little revision as possible, while still attempting to make the information legible and informative.

A Quick Trip to Dallas

So about a month or two ago I finally went out and got myself a DSLR camera so that I could start taking high quality video and photo and ultimately just have something to create content with. And as many people do, I’ve been dabbling in photography to get myself acquainted with the camera (I have a Canon EOS Rebel T3i). A few weeks ago I created a Photography page on this blog with a gallery of photos that I’ve taken around my neighborhood/city, but I wanted to branch out a little, so last week my brother, my friend, and I went to Dallas for a few hours to explore a little and take some pictures. Here are some of the photos that resulted from the trip:

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P.S. Most of the photos that I posted on the Photography page last week were edited solely in Adobe Lightroom, but for these I wanted more practice editing in Photoshop so that’s what I used for this batch. I say all that in case you’re wondering why some of these photos have more effects on them and even a watermark, or if you’re just interested in photo editing applications.

The Most Terrifying Thing About “Gravity”

The most terrifying thing about Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, has been its reception.

“In two days, this movie has become a cultural phenomenon,” states Dan Fellman.

Read almost any review of the film and you will find more or less the same analysis: “Gravity is a beautiful tale of survival that has been recorded masterfully in terms of visuals and cinematography, however has very little to say overall and what it does say is mostly done through visual and spoken clichés. But did I mention how beautiful it was?” And just for good measure, here are quotes from three of Rotten Tomatoes “Top Critics” list:

In contrast to the movie’s magisterial visuals, the writing is often pinched and conventional: an overwrought, unnecessary backstory; a clumsily executed hinge in the plot; dialogue that bristles with hoary cliché.

Frustrating as this flaw may be, however, it is one that is easy to forgive in light of the genuine wonders the film provides.
The Atlantic

In the end “Gravity” has only the most basic things to say, but it says them so well and presents them so marvelously that it’s a cinematic wonder.
The Detroit News

I only wish the film’s screenplay, co-written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonas Cuarón, were not so weightless.

None of these arguments should dissuade you from seeing “Gravity,” if only because what’s good about it is so much better than what’s bad. Visually, if not imaginatively, it sends you soaring.
The Christian Science Monitor

This disturbs me in terms of cinematic priorities. Have we so lost sight of cinema that all it takes is two people floating around a pretty picture of Earth to create an overnight “cultural phenomenon”? Certainly a good film should be visually enthralling, but at what point does the art of film become greater than the heart of film? Or have we lowered our standards so much that we can accept even the most banal story if it at least looks good?

In short, the story of Gravity is fueled by overly convenient conflict, repetitive plot structure, forced metaphors, and weak character development. The two main characters – Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space mission, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), the leader of the mission, which happens to be his last before he retires – are the only survivors after their shuttle is riddled with space debris that originates when the Russians attempt to shoot down one of their own satellites and end up shooting down…everyone’s satellites? The shattered pieces of the first satellite fall into the vicious trap of inertia, a phenomenon apparently unknown to Russian scientists, and the resulting debris follows a path along Earth’s orbit that coincides with several other satellites creating a massive cloud of space shrapnel that our characters encounter approximately every 90 minutes, creating an easy way to break up the long stretches of time when our two heroes are just…floating.

During these floating sequences we learn fairly little about the two characters. Dr. Stone has a (by now infamously) melodramatic backstory to which the audience is given little to evoke any kind of empathetic connection. Despite Kowalski’s general lightheartedness, he is a strong and coolheaded presence when calamity strikes which provides a contrast to Dr. Stone who is frantically unsure of what to do in these situations. As the story unfolds we see relatively no arc in either character. Dr. Stone attempts to let go of what she has lost, but we’re not even sure this is accomplished as she constantly brings it back up, sometimes literally.

As Dr. Stone begins to wonder why she should bother returning to Earth, we are forced to wonder the same thing. She believes in nothing, has no one to return to, and the only activities she has to look forward to are work and her daily run from her past. Yet, according to A. O. Scott of the New York Times:

“Much as “Gravity” revels in the giddy, scary thrill of weightlessness, it is, finally, about the longing to be pulled back down onto the crowded, watery sphere where life is tedious, complicated, sad and possible.”

Is this a conclusion that is to be lauded as a “cultural phenomenon”? How terrifyingly melancholy. A desire to return to the place where life, in it’s most miserable form, simply exists. Where is the exhilaration or passion in that?

In all, was the film technically masterful? Yes; undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary displays of cinematography and 3-dimensional prowess to date. And though it did rely too heavily on its musical score, especially for a film that claims to emphasize the “silence” of space, it was also immersive in it’s diegetic sounds. In these respects the film deserves every bit of praise it has received.

I, for one, have no “space fears;” an irrational phobia that I’ve found many people have developed in the last few days. What does scare me though is the fact that film audiences have been trained so well to open their eyes and shut off their minds when they walk into a theater; expecting no challenge to their psyche, simply a beautiful or fun picture to rest their eyes upon. A beautiful image is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking, but hopefully soon we will be able to marry the beautiful stories of old and the beautiful technology of today to create a spectacle for mind and eye simultaneously that will be truly praiseworthy as a “cultural phenomenon”.

What else you could watch:

If you are looking for a beautiful survival story about life, death, loneliness, faith, and motivation, watch Life of Pi.

If you are looking for a revolutionary, terrifying, and mind-bending story about space, watch 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If you are looking for another pretty movie with a weak, cliché story, watch Avatar.

If you are looking for ways to pass the time while NASA‘s website is shut down, watch Gravity.

Surrealism and “Un Chien Andalou”

Luis Bunuel Quote

I recently created this poster for my Psychology class, and since surrealism, specifically Un Chien Andalou and the work of it’s two creators, has interested me for some time, I would like to write about why this poster means something to me.

Luis Buñuel was a spanish filmmaker in the mid 1900′s who is often associated with the surrealist movement. This image is a frame from a film he created with surrealist artist Salvador Dalí entitled Un Chien Andalou (1929). The scene pictured above was inspired by a dream that Buñuel had about a wisp of cloud cutting across the moon like a razor blade cutting an eye. The film was actually conceived after Buñuel and Dalí shared with each other some strange dreams they had each had and decided to make a film about them. (Dalí’s was a dream about ants coming out of a hand which he referenced in this and other works throughout his career, including this short animation that he began to develop with Walt Disney in 1945.)

The two artists wrote the film to ultimately signify – nothing. They literally wanted to create an abstract visual roller coaster, full of incredibly symbolic images that do not, in fact, symbolize anything. They went out of their way to make the film as incomprehensible as possible. Buñuel later commented:

“Our only rule was very simple: no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation was to be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.”
Luis Buñuel

Un Chien Andalou is also a classic example of DIY. The two artists had next to no money when creating the film, Buñuel’s mother funded it, and it was shot entirely within a period of ten days. They had to do what they could for the few “special effect” shots that the film called for. For example, the now iconic shot of an eyeball being slit open by Buñuel – which accompanies the above moon image – was accomplished by slitting the eyeball of a dead calf and using extreme makeup, lighting, and camera preparation to make it flow with the preceding images of the woman’s face. By the end of production the two had so little money left that Buñuel had to cut the film himself, in his kitchen, with no editing equipment to assist him.

When completed, the hope for the film was to enrage the French bourgeoisie society of the day by completely and intentionally undermining everything they had come to expect and love in cinema, and art in general; however, the bourgeoisie ended up embracing and lauding the film, which ultimately prompted this response from Buñuel, who had expected nothing less than a violent upheaval at the initial screening of the film:

“What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate call for murder?”
Luis Buñuel

The irony that abounds throughout this entire story is impossible to ignore: the unintentionally inexplicable acceptance of an intentionally inexplicable work of art; a work of art that explores themes of love despite hate, which received love where hate was expected, and ended up hating that love in return; and two financially broke artists creating revolutionary art from practically nothing to speak to hundreds of people doing practically nothing with exorbitant amounts of wealth.

The ironic paradoxes of the situation are almost surreal in themselves, and yet, it is only through the reality of this surrealism that Buñuel’s dream to “explode the social order, to transform life itself” can ultimately be realized.

Wrapping up For an Eye

Before reading this post, it would be beneficial to watch my short film For an Eye so you are not entirely lost.

As is quite apparent to anyone even slightly following my blog, I have been rather lax in my intervals between posts. So I’m going to try to finish the series I am working on now regarding the creation of my short film For an Eye, so that I may move on to more recent projects in a more timely manner. Ergo, this post maybe lengthy and will cover production through completion of the film.


The Streets

I’m going to start with the few street shots because they were few and quickly shot. The first street scene we shot was the scene right before Simon and Cameron end up in the parking garage. We shot this pretty quickly one night after our main shooting at Sertinos was done. This was not a particularly difficult scene, at all, except for the lack of lighting, and the fact that everyone on the street was asleep. We ended up using the flashlight on my phone to light both Michael and Benjamin because the lighting in from the streetlight wasn’t enough to light them up enough.

The shots of Ben walking to work at the beginning were a little easier. Most of the places we shot were well lit so I was able to focus on framing instead of being able to see each of them.

The House

The house took a little more effort. As I mentioned in my Location Scouting post, we used my media room for the scenes that took place in Simon’s house. For this scene we gutted my whole media room, save a couch and table. After that is was a matter of framing shots and trying to visualize the projection TV that would be in the background. I actually used four red X marks on the wall to track the projection and then masked them with the four lights, which it turns out wasn’t entirely necessary, which I will discuss more in future posts.

The Parking Garage

Ok. The parking garage. We shot in the parking garage on two different nights. The first, was actually our first day of shooting for the film. The first day we shot everything from Ben walking up the steps to the top of the garage, through Michael leaning over the rail, just before he dies. (I told you to watch it first!)

So this scene contained pretty much all the action for the whole film. And on this night, Michael had mono, strep, and a new contact in his eye (he had never worn contacts before). So unfortunately those two incidences coincided, but Michael was a real trooper and pulled it off magnificently.

Also, if you are ever shooting audio and video separately, try to remember your slate board. Or you may be reduced, as we were on multiple occasions, to use things like tire irons, or your hands, which are much less effective, but serviceable in a pinch. There are also several slate board apps which will work as well, unfortunately I discovered this after production was over.

And, if you have to be on the top level of a parking garage with a production crew, drinks, pizza boxes, mattresses, cords, et cetera, et cetera, try not to throw them around in a way that might attract the attention of the security guard. Because hypothetically you might have to stop shooting for five to ten minutes to explain to him what you are doing and why you have such a random combination of equipment and trash. Yeah. Definitely make sure you have proof of permissions and all that jazz.

So anyway, the second night we shot from Michael and Ben entering the parking garage, to Ben running up to the top, then we filled in the end with Ben yelling and Michael’s body on the ground. I was fortunate enough that I had been in the parking garage a few times before and that it is inherently a surprisingly photogenic location on its own, which made the on-the-fly camera work much much easier.


Obviously Sertino’s is where the bulk of our filming took place. There actually isn’t a whole lot to tell about this part of production. We shot for about three hours a night for about five nights. Thankfully we were able to shoot all the scenes with the doctors in one night which kept scheduling conflicts to a minimum. Finding the few extras we needed for customers was simple. My mother played the first costumer, and the second was a member of a group of ladies who had been meeting in the cafe when we started filming but moved outside, so we asked one if she would help us and she agreed. Other than that things went as smoothly as we could have hoped inside the coffee shop.


Sequence Editing

This was the simplest part of my job as the editor. I knew the sequence that I wanted everything to be in, as per the script, so all I had to do was put them into Adobe Premiere and add the few transitions that I used. One area that I spent some time focusing on though was the color corrector. Color corrector is something that I have played with a lot but haven’t quite mastered yet (see Tip 3), so this was a good opportunity to try it out in a situation other than a sketch, which require little or exaggerated correction, and in a situation with footage from a high quality DSLR camera, the Canon Rebel T2i. The biggest challenges I run into when color correcting is to over color correct and trying to blend consecutive shots together. So those were areas that I focused on during that aspect.

Effects Editing

This is the area that I was pushed most probably throughout the entire experience. Looking back on it I still am not sure how I came to the product because I had very very limited experience with After Effects and the experience that I did have was mostly following tutorials and not actually putting anything into practice. And then again, the effects that I created were fairly simple, however very tedious. On the whole they were simply keyframed shapes timed to match whatever action the actors were doing on the table. I had shown my actors my basic test of the effect and a taped off area of the table to constrain their actions, but other than that they did what they envisioned and I had to follow that up in post. This was also possibly my favorite part of the process, definitely my favorite part of post, because it’s such a small thing, but the detail of it sets up the whole tone of the futuristic setting.

On the flip side of that, was rotoscoping. Rotoscoping is, according to Wikipedia, “an animation technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame…manually creating a matte for an element on a live-action plate so it may be composited over another background.” This took hours on hours of work because if not done right, the whole effect would be ruined.

Other smaller effects that I did included the title sequence, which was basically the same techniques as the table effects, and the projection television at the very beginning. This effect consisted of two shots of me and my production assistant, James, sitting in front of a greenscreen in my garage saying the lines, and later I chroma keyed us, and added a picture of a table I found to put over us and added a simple title and some rolling text (which actually contains some foreshadowing if you read it).


I was fortunate enough to have a family friend, Steve Hebert, who has his own home recording studio and who I was able to work with to create the majority of the score. He used Reaper‘s MIDI recording functions to create the score as I played back the already edited film. The very few pieces that Steve did not create came from the music library of Audio Networks.

Audio Engineering

I really can’t say much about this aspect, or the music aspect of the production because audio is my weakest area of production, so I left all the production recording, Foley work, and post-production mastering up to David Burt. When I handed him my edit of the film it had a huge problem with white noise changes, blips, volume levels, blank spots, no Foley at all, and a thousand other audio problems. I was literally dumbfounded when he showed me his work that he had done to it. I couldn’t imagine having left this aspect of the film in anyone else’s hands. He really did a fantastic job with it and was great to work with on and off set.

Well, I think that’s all I’ve got for For an Eye. I hope everyone gets as much enjoyment out of it as I put into it. Feel free to comment or contact me for more information!


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