Excerpt from Measuring Artistic Vibrancy – Sooner & Later.
In Issue three of LUMINA, the AFTRS Journal of Screen Arts and Business, (May 2010) producer/director Robert Connolly posed a challenge to Lumina readers to find better ways of measuring the success of Australian feature films.
He argued that there are considerations, other than gross box office, which might be worth taking account of before we praise or damn the products and performance of the Australian film industry. One of these factors is ‘artistic vibrancy’.
This excerpt from a longer essay in Lumina 6 (Jan 2011) takes up the challenge of looking at how we might measure artistic vibrancy, proposing processes that will allow us to measure success and outlines one specific tactic: Onscreen Drafting.
Making Onscreen Drafts.
It is possible to use a digital camera and laptop as a sketchpad.
For a radical way of building ‘measuring success’ into process, I propose that we set up a system whereby we can begin to measure success early in the process, before a movie is in production.
The proposal is for a funding system that creates onscreen drafts – sketches, if you will - of our movies, and measures their success in the medium in which they will ultimately be realised, rather than as a theory on paper.
Here’s how it would work: Screen Australia would set aside a fund of $500,000 through which it can fund ten filmmakers a year to make a $50,000 ‘sketch’ of their feature film.
The sketch is shot with a skeleton crew as an onscreen proof of concept. They cut together the work that has so far only been on paper, to see how well it holds up on screen. As a screen story does it entertain, enlighten, stir or excite? If not, where does it fall apart? They revise and shoot again.
It is possible to use a digital camera and laptop as a sketchpad. No masterpiece of visual art is created without first making sketches. Great orchestral scores start out as ideas sketched on one piano. Why wouldn’t we,now that we have the tools to do so, sketch cinema? Cinema is an art of performance, dynamics, images and sounds, not of words on paper.
A draft of a screenplay does not have to be finished to be sketched – sketching onscreen can actually be a part of re-writing and refining the script. In this way, the ‘sketch fund’ encourages risk taking, allows for testing wild or unusual ideas, approaches, methods, and media.
At the end of the year, Screen Australia has ten feature film sketches for a $500,000 investment. One or two of these sketches will be so good that they warrant re-making with full production. Another two or so will be good enough that they warrant post-production funding for grading, music, sound, vfx and possibly some extended pickups. The other six have been worthwhile investments: they have developed the skills and talent of people who may go on to produce even better ideas.
The onscreen drafts idea is a variation on a system that is in place in Israel – one of the world’s most successful non-American cinemas.
Katriel Schory, Executive of the Israeli Film Fund, spoke at Screen Australia in September 2010, about a system operating in Israel whereby ten teams a year get $50,000 to make their feature films. They get 300 applications a year for this ‘open door’ fund and they usually get a couple of good films out of it.
Dr Ruth Harley, Executive of Screen Australia, noted in that conversation that our industry is not structured in such a way as to make such low budget filmmaking possible. Our unions, crafts people, and distributors don’t function in that way.
However, if we were to make $50,000 sketches, like script drafts but on-screen, rather than finished products, then it would be possible to sustain the high level of craft skills and production values our industry can achieve. In fact, to put them to even better and more robust use by applying them only to films which have already demonstrated that they are worth making.
Further, we would be able to put the inexpensive digital technology, which is so powerfully shaking up traditional production methods, to good use. ‘Low-end’ gear could become a tool to help us make high-end productions better.
There was one other inspiration for this proposal for onscreen drafts, which is our current historical moment. It has been a truism of the industry for at least 20 years that the most important element of a movie is story.
While I make no attack whatsoever on the importance of story, I would just like to pause briefly to note that this truism has not always been absolutely true.
From roughly 1910 to the late 1950s movies were, in America, a producer’s medium. The vast majority of films were made by studios and the most important factors were stars and genre. If the producer knew his stars and his genres then he (invariably he, never she) would know, in rough terms anyway, his story. It would unfold in a certain way, affirm certain things, have set pieces to entertain, and the absence of these things would mean the film wouldn’t be made.
As Matthew Campora describes in his essay: Financial Crisis, Depression and Other Uplifting Moments in the History of Cinema in this issue of LUMINA, a change to the structure of the industry in 1948, threw the studio driven system into crisis and made room for something else: a director driven system.
The influence of the French New Wave films and theories had a tremendous impact on what got made and why. In the book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind, very entertainingly chronicles how the first graduates of American film schools were concerned with story (which they also learned the theory of) but their primary concern was their directorial vision for screen storytelling.
The revolution was in mise-en-scène, images, sound, performance, realism, message, iconography, meaning, cultural challenge – these took precedence over ‘story’. The writers were not the engines of storytelling, rather the directors were the auteurs.
Further, given the changes in culture and distribution modes available to them, these movies – Blow-up (Antonioni, 1966), Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967), The Godfather (Coppola, 1972), Easy Rider (Hopper, 1969), and so on, made money.
About the time Hollywood shifted away from auteur driven movies, screenwriting manuals began to be published which declared the primacy of story and prescribe, step by step, ‘how to’ make a successful story.
Since then we have found ourselves working within the notion that story is the most important factor in filmmaking, not mise-en-scene, director’s vision, genre, or stars.
But as Matt Campora’s article points out so elegantly, change is a constant in our industry, and times are once again, or still, changing. The idea for onscreen drafts addresses the possibility that the factors which have each had dominance in the last 100 years – genres, storytelling and stories – might now all come together to be worked in as part of the drafting process. Making onscreen drafts may be a way to acknowledge that great movies are a product of all three.
Making onscreen drafts adds to our arsenal of methods for measuring success by creating the possibility of measuring early, while it can still be useful to the production to know how it is working. It minimises the risks involved in creating something fresh and original by encouraging risk to happen in a draft stage, which is an inexpensive stage and a stage where, if something doesn’t work, it can be tried again differently.
If we measure artistic success at draft stage, then we will be making the process of measuring success directly useful to filmmakers, at a time in their process where they can still do something about it.
Karen Pearlman is Head of Screen Studies at AFTRS.
The full essay (available through http://www.aftrs.edu.au/explore/lumina.aspx) makes four specific suggestions – two for measuring sooner and two for measuring later.