“The Fourth Kind” Makes Good Use of Cinema Verite

Cinema Vérité, a filmmaking style that became popular in France during the 1960’s, has come back in style in a big way. Used by the current blockbuster “Paranormal Activity,” this “film as truth” style tends to feature little-known actors, realistic settings and dialogue. The upcoming thriller “The Fourth Kind” also uses Cinema Vérité to help explain what happened to some missing citizens of Nome, Alaska.

Cinema Vérité and “The Blair Witch Project”

Although Hollywood has a tendency to beef up a good story with explosive special effects, “The Blair Witch Project” shows that Cinema Vérité can pack theater seats just as well as a big-budget popcorn movie. Unknown actors Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams play college students who have the same names as the actors. With the camera following their every move, the trio heads into the woods around Burkittsville, Maryland in search of the truth behind the Blair Witch, a local legend.

Captured by hand-held cameras, Donahue, Leonard and Williams had to improvise tense situations as realistically as possible. During post-production interviews, the actors said they received instructions from directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchéz in the form of small notes. For instance, Leonard could receive a note one morning telling him to start a fight with the other two students.

Though it took years for Myrick and Sanchéz to finish editing their piece, “The Blair Witch Project” ultimately broke box-office records and became a modern horror classic. The key scene where Heather Donahue reveals her fear privately to the camera is both an unforgettable moment and a perfect example of Cinema Vérité.

“Cloverfield” and the power of Cinema Vérité

Like “The Blair Witch Project,” “Cloverfield” begins with a frame explaining the origins of the film that the audience is about to see. In this case, the digital video footage was “discovered” in the rubble that once was Central Park. The story opens with scenes of happy people at a party, but smiles and laughter soon turn to terror as something horrible invades New York City.

The hand-held camera follows a small group of terrified survivors as they make their way across the city. The action takes a detour into the fantastic, with large bug-like creatures biting hapless human victims, whose bodies subsequently burst apart. Still, the shaky footage and realistic reactions make “Cloverfield” another great use of Cinema Vérité.

Factual evidence in “The Fourth Kind”

In the 1970’s, Steven Spielberg made sure everyone knew the meaning of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” A reference to the different kinds of alien encounters, “Third Kind” means actual contact with beings from another planet. “The Fourth Kind” describes a more frightening encounter, namely alien abduction.

This upcoming movie uses the fact that many citizens of Nome, Alaska mysteriously go missing each year as a jumping-off point. Using recorded interviews that are supposed to be with actual abduction victims, “The Fourth Kind” attempts to use Cinema Vérité to explain what has been going on in Nome for years.

“The Fourth Kind,” rated PG-13 for violent/disturbing images, some terror, thematic elements and brief sexuality, opens nationwide on Friday, November 6.

Talking to Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee

Screenwriting supreme Robert McKee has been lecturing for some 20 years. Made famous by Charlie Kaufman’s portrait of him in Adaptation, McKee continues to tour the world with his Story seminar motivated by the success of former students such as John Cleese, who wrote A Fish Called Wanda after taking the seminar, and Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind (a script he rewrote after attending the seminar and spending 10 unsuccessful years in Hollywood).

Though McKee has worked as an uncredited script doctor and consultant for years, his biggest credit is for a Turner TV Bible mini series, starring Richard Harris. I caught up with the guru in a Spanish restaurant on a sunny day in southwest London.

“I lived in the movies when I was a kid. I’ve always been immersed in story. I started in theatre, acting and directing. I was invited to give lectures at a private film school where Dustin Hoffman was teaching and acting, and Sydney Pollack was directing. I was a TV writer at the time. What I discovered was that people didn’t know their craft. It was trial and error – but there was more error. They would waste enormous amounts of time and their work would never reach the fullness that they would want because they really didn’t understand the craft.”

“Every time I offered these lectures, the population doubled. And I realised people didn’t understand story from the inside out, from the creative struggle. If you go to music school, you’re taught music theory, in art school, you learn to understand form. The education of the writer is different. You’re taught criticism, not creativity.”

“I’m teaching the fundamentals – the chemistry of story – and people were stunned. I realised there was a real lack of education for writers. So I was teaching the craft, the underlying principles of their art and they were thrilled by it. I realised there was a need for this.”

“If you want to be a celebrity, don’t be a screenwriter. Be an actor or director. Stanislavsky asked his actors, “Are you in love with the art in yourself, or yourself in the art? If you’re in love with yourself in the art, get out of here.” I tell the same thing to writers. They’re going to spend ten years of their lives struggling to master this very difficult art form. You’re going to go through such hell, the truth is you probably won’t succeed. Chances of success are not very good. If you’re doing it for money, they’re not going to survive. They better be doing it because they love writing.”

Film Directors in the 21st Century

Though film making is a field with a history of only a century, the film making industry has developed into a specialized art form that now dominates mass media and greatly affects the way society is educated and entertained. Films have challenged the way people have viewed the real world, and for the first time, they allowed people to experience other fictional worlds visually.

To bring the stories these movies portray to life, film directors use their creative, analytical, critical thinking, interpretive, and managerial skills to create their final product. With all these skills and responsibilities, a director’s work is long, hard, and sometimes thankless; however, a director’s toil is rewarded by having almost full creative control over a project, and the satisfaction of completing those projects.

The occupation of a film director is wrought with tight schedules, long hours, and mostly unpaid overtime hours. In many circumstances, salaries do not correspond with the hours put in. Regularly, days are filled less by the artistic aspect of the job than its technical element, yet ironically, this career still entices countless people every year who want to be part of the industry.

Prospective directors face great challenges in their pursuit to enter the motion picture industry; those who try often fail. Film direction is an artistically rewarding career, and through hard work it can also translate into a financially rewarding career path as well.

Film making began to blossom in the late 19th century with the invention of the film camera. Before then, inefficient, primitive means like Emile Reynaud’s zoetrope and the zoopraxiscope were the only way to create “motion pictures.” “The Zeotrope, a device developed in the 1830s, was a hollow drum with a strip of pictures around its inner surface.

When mechanically spun, images inside appeared to move” (“History of Motion Pictures” 2). Auguste and Louis Lumiere are credited with inventing the handheld camera in 1895; though, their invention was mainly an improvement on one of Thomas Edison’s earlier designs (“History of Motion Pictures” 2).

“The advent of recorded sound in the late 1920’s changed motion pictures forever” (“History of Motion Pictures” 7).

At first, the new sound synchronization technologies negatively affected film making. Cameras had to be enclosed in a box so their noise would not interfere with filming; consequently, directors could no longer move them freely (“History of Motion Pictures” 7).

“Actors’ movements were similarly contained because they could not stray too far away from microphones hidden on the set. Without freedom of movement, direction quality went down (“History of Motion Pictures” 7).

Other developments include color films and animation. The first color short films were developed less than a decade later, but it was not until the early 1950’s when they were accepted as a standard.

The first full length color film, also happened to be an animated film. It was called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and was made in 1937 (“History of Motion Pictures” 3).

Recent developments in the field of film-making include the invention of the digital video camera. Instead of using film, a digital video camera translates analog signals into digital signals that can be read by a computer. Thus, digital video can be prepared easily for post production, transferred, edited with computer programs all without the loss of image quality. Although this technology has not greatly affected the major motion picture industry, digital video has revolutionized the independent film world.

A director’s key responsibilities are creative, technical, and managerial. The director’s job is to interpret and develop scripts, choose key crew members and actors, scout shooting locations, manage a film’s budget and shooting schedule, decide visual aspects of the film, and supervise a film’s editing stage and post-production. In addition, some directors might also find themselves coaching actors and writing or consulting on scripts.

Along with the cinematographer and technical director, the director chooses camera angles and the way the story is told visually and aurally (“Kiwi Careers” 1). “When you’re out filming, before you even start rolling the first bit of tape, you do need an idea of how it’s going to look in the end” (“Kiwi Careers” 2). Along with the job of creating the film, directors are in charge of managerial tasks including coordinating schedules and the crew, hiring and firing crew members, and calculating and staying in the film’s budget.

There are no rigid educational requirements to enter the field of film direction. A high school, college, or film school degree is not required; however, it is helpful when breaking into the industry. Skills that are required to become successful in the field can be attained without higher education.

These include, “…story-telling skills, creative and artistic ability, strong written and spoken communication skills and research skills” (“Kiwi Careers” 1). If a prospective director does have a college degree, a production company might look at film analysis classes, creative writing courses, or general film making classes in addition to a portfolio when trying to scout for a director for their project.

More important than college, however, is film school, which serves a dual purpose to an aspiring director. Film school gives prospective directors a place to learn about and hone their skills.

Students make short films that create a portfolio of work that can attract the attention of major studios (“Film Director” 1). Film schools are also indispensable places for gaining useful contacts in the industry. In the independent film field, film school is one of the best credentials to have in order to entice prospective investors to fund a director’s project.

Most of the education required to be a successful director takes place in on the job training. In order to get into the industry, one must first go through one or several different positions in the motion picture field. It is almost impossible to become a director with a major production company without having both contacts and credits on a major film.

Careers in the motion picture industry that many aspiring directors start in include screen writing, acting, associate directing, or film crew positions; therefore, it would be in an aspiring director’s best interest to be skilled in several fields including business, acting, and creative writing. Also, many of the positions prospective directors take may require a high school and/or college degree, making a degree a de facto prerequisite to break into the industry.

There are two types of feature film director, salaried and freelance, and each position has its advantages and disadvantages. Salaried directors generally enjoy more job security and ease than freelance directors, but freelancers have more freedom and have the opportunity to make more money.

Hours and vacations differ between salaried and freelance directors. Salaried directors are given hours and vacations by their supervisors that coincide with the shooting schedule, and crew, actor’s vacations. Freelance directors make their own hours, though their hours and vacation scheduling is much more complicated than that of a salaried director.

Like salaried directors, a freelancers’s vacation has to coincide with the shooting schedule and actor vacations. Beyond that, some freelancers need to schedule their vacations around the rounds of funding, and all have to schedule them around the film’s deadline (“Kiwi Careers” 2). Busy freelance directors do not often take vacations as a result of hectic schedules.

“Directing is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining” (“Film Director” 1). Both salaried directors and freelance directors have long hard hours, but freelancers work many more hours of overtime, usually unpaid, to meet deadlines than their salaried counterparts. Directors are very busy, hard-working people, but often their long hours do not translate into high salaries. (“Actors, Producers, Directors” 4). “Those entering this career should be warned that twenty-hour days are not unusual” (“Film Director” 2).

Salaries vary vastly among directors. According to the 2002 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median salary for feature directors was $41,030 with the lowest 10% earning $21,050, and the highest 10% earning more than $87,770. The middle 50% are attributed with earning between $29,000 and $60,030 (“Actors, Producers, Directors” 6). These figures are optimistic due to the fact that they do not take into account the salaries independent film makers who finance their own projects and full-time freelance directors who are not working on projects.

“Most film makers cannot make even a subsistence living” (Cool Careers 29). Fourteen percent of New Zealand’s 756 directors make under $20,000, and a great majority of the 756 earn between $30,000-$40,000 (“Kiwi Careers” 2). The Wall Street Journal notes the average director salary at about $63,843 (“Entertainment Industry”, 1).

For most directors, however, their reward comes with the creative aspect of the job. Directors are given almost all creative freedom on a project, and as a result, a director can express him or herself artistically while making a living at the same time. There is great personal satisfaction in seeing one’s idea realized. Being responsible for managing a great number of people, and finishing a project like a movie gives a person a sense of accomplishment; therefore, this is one of the main draws to the field.

The field is expected to grow at a faster rate than average in the next decade due to expanding avenues for distribution making a need for new directors; moreover, a great number of positions will always exist in the field as a result of a high turnover rate each year (“Actors, Producers, Directors” 4-5). Many who join the field are discouraged and frustrated by the long hours, hard work, and low pay. People join the career with common misconceptions about the industry, and they realize that more often than not hours are filed with micro management issues and challenges need to be faced on set every day.

The research that went into this project has not drastically changed my perspective on the directing career. It has, however, enlightened me on the importance of film school. I have not learned much, but my research has defiantly helped me solidify the knowledge that I have already held about the industry. This would be a rather desirable job to be involved in, if the salaries were not so low, and there was more job security. I still would highly consider joining this career, even more so now that I know a little more about it.

Film directors face new and different challenges every day. From making short films in film school for little or no money, to beginning their movie careers in different areas of the industry, aspiring film makers work hard just to enter the industry. After that ordeal, prospective directors have to make the decision wether to work salaried or freelance; this can either positively or negatively affect the their financial and creative success. If a directors triumph over the adversity that they face, they will find that the job of film directing is rewarding in both its creative and financial aspects.