Thursday, October 22, 2009

“Film School Follies: Parts 4, 5 & 6 – Triple Combo Deal”

By ScottDS

Many colleges and universities include classes specifically designed for freshmen. At FSU, it was called “FYE” or “First Year Experience.” At Full Sail, it was called “Behavioral Science.” In this class, new students would learn study skills, coping strategies, conflict resolution, how to deal with various bureaucratic problems, etc. Our teacher was Ms. Strudgeon and she was very nice and so unmemorable that I didn’t even remember her name until I looked at my class notes in preparation for this blog!

“Behavioral Science: The Beginning of a Friendship”

We talked about different styles of learning: some students are visual, whereas others are auditory, and yet others are kinesthetic (physical). We touched upon different types of intelligence and the importance of setting goals. One reason why people don’t set goals is fear of failure and I have to admit I’m probably as guilty of this as the next person. We had an assignment lovingly referred to as “Reflection Writings” in which we were to write about our experiences with trust and afterwards, we had to answer questions like “Did anything about this activity make you feel uncomfortable?” I wrote my reflection in screenplay format and the teacher gave me a good grade, but I’m not sure if I learned anything that I wasn’t already cognizant of before the class.

We discussed memory, how it works, and why we remember some facts but not others. The five theories of forgetting are: decay (not interested), displacement (too much too fast), interference (confusion), incomplete encoding (didn’t learn it correctly in the first place), and retrieval failure (disorganization). I’ve been accused of suffering from a serious case of decay but, thankfully, we also learned ways to strengthen memory, including but not limited to: mnemonic devices, acronyms, acrostics (where the first letter of each line spells out a word), rhyming, visualizations, and my favorite, associations. We also learned about public speaking (according to Jerry Seinfeld, more people are afraid of this than death!), which came in handy when we were put into groups and assigned a skit: we had to write and perform a five minute piece (see the supplement below) about something we’d learned in class. Our group decided to do study skills.

There were eight of us in the group and this is where I first started hanging out with Mike (the guy from the last blog). We discovered we were both from South Florida, both wanted to direct, and were both Star Trek fans. Our group mates would go home but we’d stay behind in the classroom writing our little skit. I guess I was pretty eager to please and we finally did a five-minute rehearsal outside the classroom just before we were to go on. It didn’t help that our group was first but I think we set the bar pretty high. I was the narrator (reprising the role I always played in elementary school productions), four guys played studying kids (only one would be uncorrupted), and three guys played bad influences (alcohol, pot, and procrastination). The laughter was music to my ears!

“Computers, Math, and the Internet: …of a Bicycle Built for Two”

This class, referred to as “CMI”, was taught by a charismatic gentleman named Frank Long and since Full Sail faculty e-mail addresses were first initial-last name, Frank Long soon begat “Flong” which begat “The Flonger” (this is how my mind works). He had a Spanish accent and dressed as if he were going out clubbing after class. He always talked about his family and the arsenal of video game systems and gadgets he had back home. The objective of this class was to familiarize ourselves with the basics of computers: their history, how they work, networking, and basic office and design software.

We spent a lot of time on graphing and coordinates, units of measurement, powers and functions, calculating dimensions, etc. I was always a terrible math student and sadly, this class did not improve things. Math is certainly important to filmmakers when it comes to knowing how big to build a set, how far the camera is from the action which influences what type of lens and which F-stop to use (more on that later), as well as visual effects production involving miniatures and motion control photography. In the five years since this class, there have been many advancements made which make it easier for film crews to determine these figures. One kid (the freelance video genius from the last blog) recently showed us an iPhone app that allows the user to take photos and convert them into storyboards, insert animated figures, and add artificial camera movements!

Among many other things, we learned that Charles Babbage is widely considered to be the father of modern computing. He proposed the use of the “difference engine” which was basically a mechanical calculator. We discussed Alan Turing who developed methods of codebreaking during World War Two and proposed the Turing machine: a device that could manipulate symbols stored on a piece of tape. We also learned about the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer), which was one of the earliest electronic computers. It worked in binary language and was a stored program machine, based on (John) von Neumann architecture, which was a design model that used different units: one for storage, one for processing, etc.

The centerpiece of the class was the “Computer Construction Assignment” wherein we were given an imaginary budget of $1200 and had to find all the parts necessary to build a computer. We had minimum system configuration standards to meet and we could not use the websites of any computer manufacturer nor could we buy a pre-packaged system. This had to be done from scratch. We would have to cross-reference various specs to make sure each peripheral would work together and not cause a conflict. The basics included: a CPU with fan, motherboard, memory, hard drive, CD drive, video and sound cards, modem, case with power supply, operating system (legal!), and accessories: mouse, keyboard, speakers, and monitor. Mike and some of my other new friends came over to my apartment one afternoon and we all took turns on my old laptop trying to put our computers together. Two years later I bought an iMac and forgot about all of this!

“Multimedia Audio: Reverb, with a side of Quantum Flux”

Multimedia Audio was our last core class (I miscounted; I thought we had three, not four) so most of these people I would never see again. Our teacher was a cool guy named Howie – he spelled it “Haui” – but at one point he had to leave, so for a week or two the other MA teacher filled in. His name was Mark Pinsky and he was so animated that he actually separated his shoulder while turning to point to the board! Behavior was an issue for a few students who were under the misapprehension that, upon graduation with their recording degrees, they were going to go right to producing Beyonce’s latest album without doing any of the legwork to get there. I also recall one moment where, during the viewing of a DVD featurette on film scoring (featuring Danny Elfman, one of my favorites), one student blurted out, “Who da’ man wit da’ stick?” Mike and I turned to each other and asked, “Really?” I also became friends with an audio student named Pablo who, like Mike and me, was from South Florida, as well as another film student, also named Mike (“Mike #2”), from the Midwest. A rather raucous fellow.

In short, the sound mixer is the head of the sound department and is in charge of recording the actors’ dialogue live on the set and oversees the placement of microphones. He or she will work from a sound cart that houses spare parts, cables, and the recording equipment. For many years, the most common piece of technology used to record film and TV audio was the Nagra, a battery-powered audio recorder manufactured in Switzerland. Today, most films are recorded digitally with the tracks stored on hard drives or digital audiotape. The boom operator’s job is to place microphones and to wield what looks like a mic attached to a broom handle (the boom mic). The boom op must be aware of the framing of the shot, possible shadows, and movement of the actors so he doesn’t end up in the film. Most film crews also include a sound utility person who acts as a backup sound tech. Our short films did not require a utility person though ironically, on one of our films, one girl who was assigned to a sound crew had hearing problems!

In post-production, the re-recording mixers assemble the final soundtrack from three elements: dialogue, music, and sound effects. Many times, sound effects need to be created from scratch and this is a process called foley (named after early sound pioneer Jack Foley) where incidental sound effects (like footsteps) are recorded in a studio. I’ve seen footage of foley artists in action and it looks like a lot of fun: breaking celery to mimic the sound of bones being broken and so on. Not so much fun is ADR (automated dialogue replacement or “looping”) where the actors are called in to re-record lines that were poorly recorded the first time around. Ironically, the high quality audio on DVD and Blu-Ray discs make looped dialogue in older films stick out like a sore thumb. Unfortunately, due to a lack of time, we were not able to play around with ADR and foley (which is sad since our films still need work!).

We also learned the basics of hearing (too complicated to go into here), different audio formats, certain legal issues (Napster, etc.), and I recall a lab at 1:00 in the morning where we were introduced to a few software programs for sound editing, including Pro Tools, Sound Forge and Vegas. Our assignment was to take a piece of footage provided for us (a clip from one of the Charlie’s Angels films) and add sound effects to it from a pre-existing effects library. It was a lot of fun. After glancing at my class notes, I see some blank areas, which reminds me that we ended up skipping a lot of material. After we finished this class, the powers that be decided to drop the audio class from the film curriculum. I do not know if this situation has changed. What I do know is that there were moments where I almost fell asleep during the lecture. Our student films feature soundtracks of variable quality and one day, a few of us hope to go back and fix them.

Supplemental Materials:

BS Syllabus
First page of BS notes
Reflection writing (excerpt)
The five-minute skit (page 1)
The five-minute skit (page 2)
CMI Syllabus
First page of CMI notes
Computer construction assignment
First page of MA notes
Another page of MA notes (sound design)
Charlie’s Angels sound effects list


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Nice article. I'm enjoying the series very much.

You say that some people are afraid of public speaking. What's interesting is that I know a ton of lawyers who feel that way. The good ones get over it fairly quickly and get to the point that they feel nothing at all about speaking in public. The bad ones keep feeling nervous their entire careers.

I recall being very nervous my first couple of trials (and the first time I ever appeared before a state Supreme Court). But at this point, it's no different than speaking to my friends.

I would assume acting works the same way.

It's interesting to see that there is a technical base to film school. Other than learning about cameras, I kind of thought of film school as "go shoot films" --i.e. purely artistic. How heavy were they on math and understanding mechanics and the such?

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

Thanks for the kind words!

I believe Seinfeld's line at the time was that more people are afraid of public speaking than death so, at a funeral, they would prefer to be in the casket than giving the eulogy. :-)

As for acting, I'll be talking about that a few blogs from now. I can't speak from acting experience (I have none) but, as a student who had never worked with actors before, I found it was simply a matter of communication. Thankfully, we worked with (for the most part) good actors who knew their lines, showed up on time, etc.

I have heard horror stories about other classes and the morons they had to deal with (including one actor who brought his pet chicken to the set or some such nonsense!).

There is certainly a technical base - that was actually one of Full Sail's selling points: "Come on down and play with the toys!" Sadly I have forgotten a lot of this but they tought us the basics of lighting, audio recording, using the cameras, etc. There were topics I wish we had covered in more detail (visual effects, for example).

They could only teach us so much but, speaking as one of the few students who directed, if there was a shot we wanted, we would simply ask and the lab assistants would advise us: "Well, you'd need x feet of dolly track and so on and so forth."

ScottDS said...

And to get a better idea what one of our sound carts looked like on the set:

Yep, all that stuff had to be connected from scratch!

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I always thought you were a fellow ham. I couldn't wait to get into a courtroom and play Perry Mason. I was a budding actor as a kid, and a scene-stealer from that day forward. But I have seen good lawyers who just fall apart at the idea of having to go into that courtroom. I dread having to go back to the office and deal with the mundane crap.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think that would probably be the best sales pitch for a film school -- come play with the equipment. I would never want to go to a film school that was just about film theory. It's the technical parts that you really need to learn. Hands on experience!

Lawhawk, Ham? Probably. All I know is that one day, it was like a light switch -- suddenly it was no big deal.

And as you say, I've met many attorneys (some who have appeared in court many times) who still fall apart the moment they're called upon to speak.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I've mentioned this before and I'll be talking about it in a future blog but I don't think Full Sail managed to find the right balance between hands-on experience and theory. There were students who only wanted to play with the toys but didn't care why a shot should look a certain way or why a scene should be cut a certain way.

Without the theory part (and believe me, a bad theory class could put me to sleep) I simply felt there was a slight lack of context at times.

Writer X said...

Scott, it sounds like maybe other than your class with Ms. Strudgeon (I'm picturing a skinny, tall woman who looks like a female Mr. Limpit?), your learning, even for a first year program, was pretty practical? Were there any classes you didn't have for first year that you wish you had?

ScottDS said...

WriterX - If I read your question correctly...

The first-year class (Behavioral Science) was, like most of our other classes, just one month long. Remember, Full Sail is a bit more accelerated than other schools. I can't recall anything that I wish I had learned in that class but if you ask most of my friends from school today, most of them'll have the same reaction: "I don't remember a thing!"

One quick recollection about this class - I remember an exercise where we all had to line up against the wall and the teacher says, "Okay, everyone whose parents are still married, walk into the center of the room." From my spot in the center, I could see that 2/3 of the class was still against the wall! Sad...

As for the other classes, we had one class that was interesting but should've been placed elsewhere in the curriculum: Media and Society, which I won't be blogging about. We were in between production classes and the adrenaline was rushing - everyone wanted to go back on stage and shoot - we didn't have time for some class with homework and books! The teacher was a young Moroccan woman and most of the guys were fixated on her extremely tight pants (guilty as charged).

Other than that, everything was pretty practical... except for one class - Pre-Production and Casting - which I'll be writing about later. Some words come to mind: repetitive and wasteful. We were about to go into 35mm and trouble reared its ugly head. More on that later... :-)

ScottDS said...

And your description of the teacher is -almost- the total opposite of reality! :-D

Writer X said...

Scott, what do you expect with a name that sounds like something you'd fish out of Lake Superior!;-)

StanH said...

It sounds like a blast. If I could do it over again, what fun.

Tennessee Jed said...

Good stuff, Scott. I too like Danny Elfman, most recently enjoying the soundtrack to "The Kingdom" which has a definite "Explosions in the Sky" feel to it.

I first remember the Nagra recorder being used by "Bear" (Owlsley Stanley) to get some fantastic small San Francisco venue live recordings of the bluegrass group "Old and In The Way" which featured Jerry Garcia on 5 string banjo.

The material on foley process was fascinating, I'm sure.

ScottDS said...

Stan -

It was fun but it was also quite difficult at times, not to mention the "high school mentality." We had cliques and gossip and all the usual BS. During the production of our 35mm films, I was totally convinced I and a few others would be fired from our positions (more on that later). On my Facebook profile, under "education" I mention that I majored in film and minored in egotism. :-)

ScottDS said...

Tennessee Jed -

Thanks! I enjoy Elfman though personally I think his best days are behind him. My favorite film composer is the late great Jerry Goldsmith. I also enjoy Elmer Bernstein (also R.I.P.), Michael Giacchino, James Horner, John Williams, and Alexandre Desplat.

I'm trying to confirm this but I swear I read that the person who introduced the Nagra to America was Jerry Lewis!

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