Thursday, October 29, 2009

“Film School Follies: Parts 7 & 8 – Two For Twice the Price”

By ScottDS

The first day of photography class was like the first day of school all over again. We were finished with our core classes and now the film curriculum proper would begin. A good 2/3 of the students were strangers – I knew the two Mikes and a couple others and that was it. This class excited me since photography was one of those hobbies I’d tell people I’d like to take up one day but, as of this writing, it still hasn’t happened.

“Photography: The One Who Got Away”

I honestly can’t recall the teacher’s name or the names of the various lab assistants and I couldn’t find my notes for this class so I’ll be flying blind here for a page or two. It was our understanding that we would spend much of the time in the school’s darkroom developing our own photos. It’s safe to say that mine is the last generation to be raised with film; I’m sure my dad’s sixth grade students know only of digital technology.

We were given 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras. In short (courtesy of, when you look through the viewfinder of a camera, the image that you see is the result of light being filtered through the lens. Inside the lens, glass elements focus the light into a tiny beam that shines into the camera. The beam of light strikes an angled mirror, reflecting upward and through a prism that filters it into a viewable image for the viewfinder. When you press the shutter-release button to take a picture, a device within the lens (aperture) partially closes to control the amount of light that enters the camera, preventing overexposure of the film. Next, the angled mirror lifts out of the way, creating a short moment of darkness within the viewfinder. Then the shutter quickly opens and closes, briefly exposing the film to the light. The mirror and aperture then return to their normal positions. As light hits the film, it activates a “silver halide salt” coating, converting it into metallic silver, which forms an inverse of the image upon the film (the picture is reversed to its proper form when transferred from film to photo paper).

Most SLRs offer interchangeable lenses and offer a variety of ways in which to manipulate the aperture and shutter speed. (Hard to believe there was a time when you couldn’t do this!) Basically, the focal length is the distance between the lens and the film. The longer the focal length, the narrower your field of view and vice versa (a telephoto lens would have a focal length of, say, 600mm whereas a wide angle lens would have a focal length of 28mm). The aperture is the opening in the lens that controls how much light reaches the film. The size of the aperture is measured in F stops which correspond to fractions of the focal length of the lens. An F2 is half the focal length, an F4 is a quarter, etc. Oddly, the higher the F number, the smaller the aperture. The shutter speed is the length of time the shutter is open. The slower the speed (measured in fractions), the longer the exposure time, and vice versa. I can continue with technical jargon but, in all honesty, this was the first class to really frak with my head and even most of the material above came from elsewhere. I highly recommend how-to books by John Hedgecoe if you’re interested in the inner, outer, and meta workings of photography.

The highlight of this class was our trip to St. Augustine, almost two hours each way. It was Mike and me, along with a few new friends: Gema (from South Florida; had already earned a Bachelor’s from FSU), Ryan (from Maine, and currently freelances as a professional photographer), and Matt (from Indiana, and I haven’t spoken to him in two years). Luckily, it turned out to be a beautiful day. It was also very cold: I know, we live in Florida, but the winters can still get plenty chilly! We visited and took photos of the beach, the docks, a cemetery, a lighthouse, Flagler College, the Casa Monica Hotel, the Castillo de San Marcos, and a few other tourist spots. It was one of the first days where everything seemed to click (pun intended) and we all had a good time.

We also went to downtown Orlando at night (unthinkable today with the high crime rate) to take photos. We literally parked in front of City Hall on Orange Avenue and just walked around. We also went to downtown Winter Park one night as well. A few of us stepped into a church and it was actually my first time inside a non-Jewish religious building. We had to assemble portfolios but I had to fudge some of the figures. We were supposed to note our aperture, F stop, etc. but, as I indicated, it was all very confusing for me (this was one of those classes where good math skills would pay off). I got a decent grade but some students’ work was simply outstanding. One day, we poured our photos onto the teacher’s desk and he presented them to the class on the overhead. One student (Gary, but he wanted people to call him “Scoot” – God knows why) had taken a self-portrait: my memories are spotty but I vaguely recall a knife and some fake blood. Yeah… A couple other students (two fun, hard-working brothers from Kansas) actually parodied Scoot’s photo and had it presented during another class!

The darkroom was an interesting experience. I have to say I enjoyed the red lighting (I referred to it as Hunt for Red October lighting). In total darkness, we would have to open the film canister, cut off the end tab to make a straight edge, insert the edge into a slot on a small reel, and then thread the film, cutting off the film from the spool. Then we would drop the reel into a small tank and, in the light, pour eight ounces of developer into the tank, slowly agitating it. After pouring out the developer, we’d pour in a stop bath (to ensure termination of the development process). Then we’d pour in a fixer (which removes the unexposed silver). After all this, we’d rinse the film and hang it up to dry. Then we’d cut the film into strips and make a contact print. Using an enlarger, we would then expose each strip and from that we’d make prints utilizing roughly the same process described above. (I am not doing justice to this process at all.) We did practice darkroom procedures in class so we wouldn’t fumble around too much in the dark. I enjoyed this whole process but it does require patience and an eye for detail. Patience was also required when I attempted to ask one girl to see the nude photos she had developed…

“Screenwriting: The Write Stuff”

…I later found out they weren’t completely nude but still rather risqué with her arms placed strategically across her chest. In screenwriting class, which was being taught concurrent with photography, Mike walked in one day and said, “Scott, I happened to be standing next to Claudia when she was developing her nude photos.” Claudia – the girl with the “I (Heart) Nerds” shirt from an earlier blog – was already the apple of my eye but, per usual, I was too chicken to do anything about it. Sometime after my catatonia ended, I saw the photos (albeit the size of postage stamps) and I simply feigned interest in the technical aspects while mentally drooling and cursing my timidity. One classmate (who is hovering just north of the big 4-0 and considered an “elder statesman” of the class) referred to Claudia as “the prize.” She was attractive, had a lovely smile, and was into anime – all the girls I like seem to be into anime for some reason. I don’t get it!

Anyway, screenwriting was taught by a geeky fellow named Dustin Lee (he reminded me of the short guy from the film Baseketball) and, for some reason, many students didn’t like him. I feel this was a mistake but, if you didn’t want to write a script, you had the option of writing a report on a film. About a third of the students chose this option. I decided to write a script – your typical “boy meets girl” story. I cringe as I recall trying to work in a joke at the expense of my old rabbi (he was arrested for online solicitation of a minor). Mike, on the other hand, was working on a story about kids and had even written a foodfight scene but soon realized it would’ve been completely impractical to stage one with our limited resources. The way it worked was that the teachers would get together and choose what scripts would be filmed – one in digital, four in 16mm, and three in 35mm. Most of the students wanted their scripts shot in 35mm simply because we would have (slightly) more time and access to locations. Mike and I soon combined forces.

One fateful night, we accompanied a friend of ours from the audio curriculum to a tattoo parlor. Standing outside Chrome Lotus on Colonial Drive, we brainstormed and soon came upon an idea: a schlub and his two friends sneak into a school darkroom to get a glimpse at a girl’s nude photo. A few hours later, we had four pages completed… and a title: In the Nude. If memory serves, our scripts were to be only eight or so pages long. Mike would walk around or lie on my couch as I fiddled on my laptop, utilizing a program called Final Draft. The next phase would involve a critique from the teacher. Thankfully, Dustin liked the script (he even recognized the Star Trek reference) and said our first draft resembled most students’ third drafts. I also took Claudia to lunch to get her opinion – since the story was “inspired by true events,” I wanted her approval. Thankfully, I got it and she even insisted on paying the bill. I offered to take her out to lunch again so I could return the favor. I still kick myself for not making a move.

Screenplays are blueprints, not the final product. All motion picture scripts (and I mean all of them) consist of a front cover (heavier card stock), a title page, the script itself, and a back cover (ditto), all three-hole punched and bound with two brass fasteners. Most scripts are 90-110 pages. Some cardinal rules for beginners: no fancy covers, artwork, or illustrations; don’t number the scenes (this is done later); only 12-point Courier or Courier New font (NO exceptions); don’t justify the right margins; don’t indicate what draft it is; don’t indicate camera movements or edits unless absolutely necessary; and spelling, grammar, and punctuation need to be perfect! Left margins are set at 1.5 inches, dialogue at 2.5 inches, character names at 3.7 inches, and parentheticals (actors’ instructions, like “holding the phone”) at 3.1 inches. Page numbers appear in the upper right corner and most scripts begin with FADE IN. A typical scene heading indicates interior (INT) or exterior (EXT), along with the location (SCOTT’S BEDROOM) and time of day (usually DAY or NIGHT but I’ve also seen DUSK, MIDNIGHT, etc.)

We had the shy “Scooter” who pined for “Anna” and, with his two friends “Matt” and “Ronnie” in tow, would sneak into their school’s darkroom to get a glimpse at this holy grail photo. We started the action in the darkroom where the boys overhear Anna’s friends talking about “nude photos.” The fire alarm goes off and everyone leaves the room. Anna admits she left “that photo” in the room but her friends convince her not to worry – the room is locked and won't be opened until class the next day. The boys overhear this and decide to take action. Yes, we resorted to the old cliché of crawling through air ducts. They reach the photo lab, Scooter falls to the ground, goes over to Anna’s station and finds her photos – they’re not nude photos; just nice self-portraits, complete with Anna’s beautiful smile. Scooter decides to leave the photos but Matt comes running up behind him, grabs the photos, and makes a run for it. He manages to get back up to the air vent but Scooter falls again. He sees the top photo of Anna (which fell out of Matt’s pocket) and says, “Maybe there won’t ever be an us, but if there ever is, I’ll know I never had to lie to you.” On the outside, Matt and Ronnie thumb through the photos until they come across the last one: a nude photo… of Anna’s boyfriend. Whoops!

Mike and I were (and still are) very proud of our work. It’s not Citizen Kane but, hey, it’s something! Much to our delight, the more classmates who found out what we were writing, the more they wanted to work on the film, assuming the teachers selected it to be produced. The cliché of student films is that they’re all dark and depressing stories about tortured souls. We took a somewhat lighter approach. Another student (Ryan) wrote a script about a Canadian corporation and the attempts to frame the lone American employee (this script would later become the bane of my existence). Gema wrote a script and Mike remembers asking her, “What the hell are you doing?” And Mike #2 couldn’t come up with an idea so a bunch of us went to his place and came up with a ridiculous alien encounter tale. Five of us literally improvised it on the spot just so he would have something to bring into class the next day!

Bloggus Interruptus

I was recently selected to be a test subject for a NASA study. It’s a long story but I will be flying to Texas next week where I will be staying in a hospital (UTMB in Galveston) for 57 days. I’ll still be able to post comments but I most likely will not be able to continue blogging. I don’t know my schedule and I won’t have any of my notes. So this will be the last Film School Follies entry for 2009. Again, I’ll still be around – I simply won’t be able to devote 110% of my attention to the blog.

Recommended Reading:

Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade. New York: Warner Books, 1983.

Goldman, William. Which Lie Did I Tell?. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Hedgecoe, John. The New Manual of Photography. New York: DK Publishing, 2003.

Trottier, David. The Screenwriter’s Bible: 4th Ed. Beverly Hills: Silman-James Press, 2005.


AndrewPrice said...

Sounds like you had a lot of fun!

Congratulations on the NASA gig. Best of luck. Don't take any Martian Nickels!

ScottDS said...

Thanks! I leave next Wednesday and I fly back New Year's Eve. And you know there's no such thing as Martian nickels! Every space-faring civilization either: a.) has no money, or b.) uses something generic like "credits." :-D

(Or was that a Duck Dodgers reference that went over my head?!)

As for the classes, like I mentioned in the e-mail, this is where things got interesting. We were out of the core classes and finally together with the other film students who started the same month.

A few bits edited for space:

-"Scoot" (Gary) asked me to help him write a script - some stupid comedy he was working on. I gave him my number so he could call me over Thanksgiving break but, thankfully, he never did. He ended up leaving the school due to lack of $$$.

-In downtown Orlando at night, we were forced to use the bathroom at the luxurious Grand Bohemian hotel across from City Hall - thankfully they let us in!

-To this day, I wish I knew what other scripts people had written. I only know what my friends wrote and what was eventually shot. Judging from the instructors' tastes, something tells me more than a couple great scripts ended up in the reject bin.

LawHawkSF said...

Best wishes on your entry into NASA. I hope you'll check in with us and let us know how you're doing.

The mechanics of what happened at film school are so different from what I experienced, and yet I realized so much of it sounds like the adventure part isn't a lot different no matter what your chosen curriculum. Part of the fun of college is quick lessons in becoming an adult, without your parents watching you. LOL

ScottDS said...

LawHawk -

I'll certainly be checking in. But the NASA gig is just a study - I'm not training to be an astronaut (and I wouldn't be eligible anyway). :-)

Ya know, I think you're right. To a certain extent, college is college, regardless of what your major is, though there was a little more geekiness involved at Full Sail: midnight screenings of Lord of the Rings and The Matrix sequels, seeing your classmates at Best Buy on new release Tuesday and they're all buying Kill Bill on DVD, students watching anime on their laptops in the hall, etc.

Writer X said...

Scott, you're gonna make me wait till January to learn more about the girl who got away, the nude photos, and the sleazy rabbi?? Not fair!

Best of luck with the NASA gig. Will you get to check out those cool zero gravity thingys where you get to fly around in a room? I'm jealous.

ScottDS said...

Writer X -

Ha! No zero-g for me but if you want to read about the experiences of someone who did a similar study last year, check out

I hate to say it but not much more happened with the nude photos. The photography teachers framed one of them and put it in the photo lab for all to see (I assume with her permission!).

As for the rabbi, it was a shocker at the time but I have no idea where he is now. It was simply a joke I was trying to work in. (As a writer, you know sometimes you have to kill your darlings!)

And the girl... to be continued. Same Bat time, same Bat channel!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I prefer quatloos to credits.

Was there a length limit on the screen plays? In other words, did anyone create a "real" movie or were these all effectively shorts?

ScottDS said...

Quatloos!? How could I forget about those?! You're talking to someone who has Memory Alpha (the Star Trek wiki) listed in his Safari bookmarks bar an inch above this text box! :-D

All of the student films were short films. I can tell you the 16mm short I worked on was 9 pages long and In the Nude was anywhere from 9 to 14 pages long, depending on what draft we were working on. And Natural Born Canadians might've been a page or two longer depending on what draft it was (the unfunny draft as opposed to the unfunnier draft... stay tuned).

Some students did attempt to produce a feature-length film (or at least a film longer than our shorts - maybe an hour or so) but I'm not sure it was ever finished. I remember a student editing it on his laptop during a class lecture - ain't technology something...

And some students who were unhappy with one of the 16mm films rebuilt the set and filmed a new version of it over a weekend (it still wasn't good... more on that later).

Anonymous said...

Is there anything you can do with film that you can't do with digital photography today?

ScottDS said...

Digital photography is much more flexible when it comes to instant feedback and manipulation but film still has greater, it's sort of hard to explain... depth and density than digital. Also a fine grain structure and I've read film prints are easier to archive - negatives can last for a hundred years (if stored properly) whereas experts believe hard drives won't last that long.

And digital can make people lazy - knowing you can simply fix something later. Not to mention the pleasant surprise of seeing a photo (on film) you thought would turn out badly come out pretty good in the darkroom (which is what happened to me).

MegaTroll said...

Good luck at NASA. Did you get a lot out of your experience at film school since you're not in the film business?

StanH said...

My oldest brother did work as a professional photographer for several years after college in the late ‘60s to early ‘70s. He started a business where he had a half dozen photographers including himself, and would travel around town, taking photos of people at expensive restaurants, conventions, etc. Our middle brother was his darkroom tech, he enjoyed the darkroom ambiance as well. He did quite well, but became disillusioned at the factory pace, and sold the business. He thought he would be the next Ansel Adams coming out of college, oh well.

Scott, talk to the girl!

Good luck with NASA.

ScottDS said...

MegaTroll - Thanks!

I won't lie. While I don't regret the experience (I've been asked before), in retrospect, I wish I had focused more on learning one specific aspect of the trade (like editing or lighting), instead of being hellbent on writing and directing a film. If I had simply focused on, say, editing, I could have developed my skills and worked as a freelance editor out in LA (I assume).

I learned the basics like everyone else - and I enjoyed the process and I think we did a good edit job on the films I worked on - but not enough to call myself "an editor."

I'll be talking more about this in later blog entries. And I'm still sort of torn between working in the biz and finding a more stable career in another field. Every time a remake is announced (they're doing a new Short Circuit for God's sake!), I find myself just slightly less interested!

ScottDS said...

Stan -

Thanks, but I think that ship has sailed. :-)

We watched a Ken Burns documentary on Ansel Adams. It was one of those things where I wish my brain could appreciate the aesthetics of a photo and not just the technical aspects (this applies to films, too). I recently recognized this as a big problem I have. This is paraphrased from a blog entry I wrote for another site:

"I don’t know if this inability to suspend my disbelief is due to my (currently dormant) filmmaking aspirations (i.e.: I’m always wondering what I would have done instead), or symptomatic of a much larger problem (i.e.: an inability to appreciate artistic works on their own terms). Is there a medical phrase for this or am I simply reading into it?"

The people being interviewed would talk about how Adams' photos "transcend space and time" and other psychobabble and I'd be sitting in class thinking, "It's just a good photo!"

StanH said...

A cynical eye is not unusual, one of the favorite comments from an untrained observer, “my two year old could do that.” This is always an educational moment. As you know frame layout is what makes a good piece, or triangulization of design. Get out your favorite art book, whether it be sculpture, paintings, photo (still or moving) and draw an “X” from corner to corner, then divide the piece in even thirds, up and down, and across. All “great” visual artist uses this discipline, whether conscious or unconscious. You will find the action lies without exception on this grid, thus pleasing to the eye.

ScottDS said...

Stan -

We learned about the "rule of thirds" but I had to delete that from the blog for space reasons.

I realize there are certain "rules" (for lack of a better word) to follow but sometimes I think people read just too much into things. At FSU, one film teacher made a big deal about how a shot looked a certain way and how it was supposed to represent x, y, and z. My only thought was, "What if that was the only place they could put the camera?" :-)

A couple blog entries from now, I'll be talking about how shots are framed, close-ups vs. wide shots, etc.

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