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Dabblings in Cinema

 

In October of 2004, the shooting of The Tears of Sisyphus, a 72-minute melodrama, was completed. It was the first fairly serious attempt at a form I call cinema null, the challenge of creating a movie of substantial length and complexity with absolutely no post-production. In cinema null, a movie is shot completely in sequence from beginning to end, using only the original camera for video. No electronic media, either picture or sound, may be introduced internally through the camera; the movie consists wholly of what the lens sees and what the microphone hears, including titles. There is no editing beyond the starting and stopping of the camera. Multiple takes are allowed to the extent that the filmmaker has the patience and skill to achieve them, carefully going back over what has already been recorded. Footage may be erased, but it may not be altered in any way, even to allow overdubbing of sound.

The purpose of cinema null is to rigorously test the imagination and to reward meticulous writing, planning, and performance in making a long movie. With no ability to edit later, everything that happens in front of the camera must be executed at a more exacting level, and scripts must be innovative enough to compensate for the fact that there can be none of the usual luxuries inserted later: no dubbing of sound effects or musical scores, no fine-tuned cutting, no visual alterations, no re-arranging or abridgement of scenes. A creator in this form must be very focused on telling a strong story and drawing an audience in, simply because most of the traditional filmmaking tricks and crutches have been removed. Cinema null's other goal is to reduce the entire universe of filmmaking to its most elemental components: a human being and a camera, in order to show that you don't need anything but a keen mind and the eye of the lens itself to come up with something that can entertain.

After finishing the first cinema null "dry run", a stark, primitive adaptation of I Recognized Your Screams which was nothing but a single actor relating a 104-minute monologue with only a few camera setups, The Tears of Sisyphus was shot in September and October of 2004 with a $229 Samsung Hi-8mm camera and a $10 microphone. The movie chronicles a day in the life of a man whose strange courier job has doomed him to spending his life's every waking hour traversing the same dead stretch of country landscape. A hitchhiker becomes the sounding board for his ruminations, confessions, and invented stories as he desperately unleashes an imagination whose immensity is the only thing that can free him from the prison he himself has constructed. The cast consisted of Arno Sennair and one other actor seen only in a single shot at the end of the movie, and there were a total of two people in the crew: the director and the cameraman. Concession after concession was made to adapt the story to this absurdly minimalist format; the movie is essentially a series of monologues opened up as much as possible, using several different locations and offering much to the eye as the characters travel west. While most of the movie came off looking and sounding relatively professional, the non-existent budget reared its head early and often. The title screens achieved merely by pointing the camera at a paper printout and lighting it in an unusual way. A musical score was prepared from cuts off several CDs but was ultimately not used. Had it been incorporated into the movie, it would have been necessary to physically play the music live during a take. Introducing the music through post-dubbing would have been "illegal". There were very few retakes, and visual effects were limited to whatever elemental features the camera possessed. Considering that each re-take threatens to eat further and further back into the previous shot, eventually even degrading the tape itself, a director can really only do so many in cinema null, unless he is willing to take the time to go back and re-shoot the perfectly good shots he has established on the tape already.

Making a long and complicated movie by the seat of your pants is an unusual gamble, and many things went wrong as The Tears of Sisyphus was shot. But it was also the most fun I've had making a movie. It was the difference between playing a slow, methodical, overtly strategic game of chess and playing a tense game of Monopoly in which you just embrace the fact that the random element of the dice is occasionally going to both make you rich and screw you over when you never saw it coming. Here we were suddenly dealing with forced single takes (even of long dialogue scenes), uncertain cuts due to the camera's not-so-perfect temperament, unpredictable sound levels (as well as out-of-nowhere car alarms and screaming babies), unforeseen light changes, and pacing that had to be crafted out little by little rather than refined long after shooting. Even the camera's white balance feature threw us for a loop, creating a slightly unusual effect in a couple of scenes that we decided to keep rather than roll the dice and try the shots all over again. It was rare that any one shot came out quite the way I thought it would, which often necessitated a very slight alteration to the following shot, and on a couple of occasions, improvised shots and lines of dialogue were necessary to correct flaws that just naturally got into the movie. Sometimes the flaws themselves made scenes quirkier and more interesting. In the past, I had been used to doing many re-takes, always looking to accomplish one that synced up perfectly with what I had envisioned when writing the script. Cinema null has made me better appreciate the fact that perfection can be dry and overly safe, and not always the best way to go.

The highlight of the project, which pretty much summed up the amusing what-the-hell-are-we-doing element of it all, was when the cameraman and I plotted out eight or nine consecutive shots which we wanted to shoot back to back with the camera being paused only briefly rather than shut down entirely after each, so that we could get our edit points more precise. Because each shot took place at a different spot on a rather big stretch of land, we had to jog quickly to the next location to set up the next shot in order to beat the three-minute battery pack shutdown feature: yes, if the camera were left on Pause for more than three minutes, the camera shut off automatically, forcing us to deal with a less exact edit point. It was absurdly amateurish....and kind of a blast. We wound up doing two or three takes of about twenty percent of the shots, mostly because of dumb mental errors on our part, the kind which you just ignore when you can do fifteen takes at your leisure but which are quite huge when you can't. All sorts of little accidents are there on the screen to behold, some of which were fortunate---an improvised camera movement which found better framing than I had foreseen, or the setting sun's chance silhouetting of a character's head, or an unguarded moment of reality when a line wasn't gotten quite right. Some blips were frustrating enough to make me think the whole project was doomed. The microphone's inability to deal with the wind at one point....an actor botching a word on take two when it was just too risky to try a third....dusk light that looked perfect in the viewfinder but which didn't work at all when the image was blown up on a big screen....more planning, discussion, and camera tests would have ironed out some of the kinks, but some were just a product of how cinema null made us work.

In the end, the final result that's preserved on tape is, in my opinion, not such a great success as a movie, mostly because of one critical flawed element which could easily be fixed in the editing stage---but because there can be no editing, will be frustratingly flawed forever. If the pace of the movie were as languorous as I had first wanted it to be, if I had not become more and more convinced that I needed to tell the story at a faster clip to keep the viewer's attention, and if I had dared to risk layering the movie with the quiet, atmospheric scenery I eventually decided would test the viewer's patience too much, I think it all would have clicked. But cinema null's no-editing rule had cemented the incorrect pace by the time I realized it was off, and the running time came up several minutes short of what I had envisioned....now, of course, there's no going back; the movie had to be set in stone as soon as the last title was shot. So The Tears of Sisyphus to me is a near-miss that very much made me want to work in this method again. The irreversible errors, the sudden moments of inspiration, the forced quick decisions, the brief thrill of first-take perfection.....somehow it was all more entertaining and more provocative than doing things the easier way.

Audacity is lacking in all art forms, and cinema null is a way to demonstrate it in filmmaking with virtually no budget. Truly great works are inevitably the results of intense tests not of technology but of imagination and dedication. Cinema null is difficult and limiting, and that's precisely the point. It's when the mind is required to find new ways to tell stories that ideas break out from the ordinary.

Isn't editing a movie in post-production one of the most creative aspects of filmmaking?

Absolutely. Editing also tends to be the most fun and most exhilarating part of the whole process. It really is true that a completely different movie comes out in the editing room. Ideas can flow even faster and more freely than during shooting. Cinema null simply requires a dramatic shift in when that creativity must come into play. It's much tougher to envision a whole movie when you don't have the tapes, the reels, the dailies in front of you, and can't play with them at all. You have to know what you're doing up front or else you're going to be in trouble. The importance of on-the-spot decision making is heightened. You won't have the luxury of sitting in the editing room, snagging the best take out of twenty, and laying it in. That choice must be made up front. Knowing that once you move on there's no going back without tripling your labor or even perhaps losing good takes forever, you must ask yourself exactly how happy you are with the most recent one.

In post-production, any movie can be greatly reworked at any point. In cinema null, once you've begun to dig your grave, so to speak, you must be prepared to lie in it. It rewards minds that have the vision and fortitude to look ahead and plan---or improvise in the middle of everything, changing the direction of the movie irrevocably.

Are there any other rules in cinema null?

For cinema null to be kept relatively pure, the camera itself must be no more sophisticated than what can be bought at any consumer store. The one used for The Tears of Sisyphus was the cheapest one I could find at a new price.

Most video cameras today can receive video and audio internally from exterior sources, and this must be forbidden as well; otherwise, it allows a director to prepare footage and cuts in advance and simply feed them in during shooting. Exterior microphones are allowed, as are prepared short musical and audio cuts, as long as they are introduced "live", without wires or cables fed into the camera.

Why not take the concept to its logical end, with no re-takes being allowed at all?

Without any opportunity at all for re-takes, egregious accidents and truly bad luck will make it into a director's movie, which seems unfair. All that should be on the screen is evidence of his or her skill in planning, not ruinous unforeseen glitches. That being said, you might say that a work of cinema null which uses no re-takes whatsoever is the movie equivalent of a pitcher's no-hitter in baseball....

Won't advancing technologies make cinema null obsolete when cheap consumer video cameras make it possible to re-arrange scenes within the cameras themselves?

Maybe, but with editing software so cheap and standard on computers nowadays, it's possible that camera makers won't even bother with such advances. If they do, I'll just make the rules even harder. The important thing is that cinema null should remain a more demanding kind of filmmaking, the sort of challenge only the boldest and strangest have the gumption to try, and one which perfectly levels the playing field between all filmmakers, regardless of budget and regardless of access to equipment.

 

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December 2005 saw the completion of Apparition Theater, a horror movie tracking two men on their separate day-long journeys into a small American town. While one re-discovers fond memories of his youth, the other arrives for a very different reason: to expose a hidden streak of supernatural menace which threatens to tear the place apart. Brian Winters, Arno Sennair, and Steve James played the lead roles. Shot in black and white, the movie was based on the story "Town With a Tranquil Name", which can be read at knifepointhorror.com.



In August of 2006, Your Voice Is Gone Because Your Story Is Done, a drama, was completed. Arno Sennair plays a man slowly taking his own life over the course of one long day, spending it in his home town haunted by memories of a time before he became a conflicted supernatural creature who has seen and felt too much to go on. Brian Winters, Deanna Miller, and Michael Tully (Cocaine Angel) played the other lead roles.