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Re: Was I asked a trick Question?

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Boyd McCollum
Re: Was I asked a trick Question?
on Jun 16, 2008 at 8:32:55 am

I wouldn't just assume that the gaffer was being rude or condescending to you or just out to embarrass you. Perhaps he was just frustrated that you weren't as prepared as you could have been.

"1. Now, first of all...I was originally taught that focal length was the distance between the focal plane on the camera/lens to the Subject in focus. If I am wrong, I apologize, but this is a film school! We are aloud to fail. If I wasn't correct, someone please correct me. "

As has been covered in this thread, the question is really an issue of framing, e.g., wide angle, telephoto, etc.

"2. How could we have determined focal length without a camera set up? We dont have any viewfinders in our class.

This was probably the crux of you issue and it's a lesson that you need to learn, not just the gaffer or the DP. You don't need a camera set up to tell framing. You don't need a viewfinder. That's what pre-visualization is for and it's a key element of what a director needs to learn how to do. You should already have broken down the script, done a blocking diagram with a general idea of camera placement, a rough storyboard of the scene, and a shot list. Even in the context of your class, you should have done this, at the very least, when the set was being built.

3. Was it right for the cinematographer to just stand there and allow me to be embarrassed? He never asked about the focal length.

He may have been just as curious as the gaffer was. As a director, you need to learn to have a thick skin. Why are you embarrassed? Why blame the DP? You are all learning.

4. Why does the gaffer need to know the focal length?

For framing. It tells him how much of the set needs to be lit. DPs usually don't hang lights, the gaffer and his crew do. And this takes time, and it waste time when you are waiting for the camera to be brought in and set up first. It's about time management. If you're some artiste director, do what you want, but most directors need to be aware of time constraints and making things happen - especially in film school.

Not to mention that if your DP wasn't very helpful to you, he may not have been offering any guidance to your gaffer. Is your gaffer a lighting student? Is he a fellow directing student? You should consider other things outside of your own viewpoint.

5. Was the "focal length question" a serious, innocent question of importance? Or did this gaffer ask simply to throw me off base? He never asked anyone about focal length before. Why was he so concerned? Is focal length EVER determined before the director or cinematrapher even turns on the camera and puts it in place? "

Yes, ALL the time. Maybe not in beginning film classes, but in real life. And film school is the time to learn how to do this. For instance, you're shooting in a bathroom in tight quarters. Based on the blocking, you know you are going to need a wide lens. Do you wait until you are ready to shoot with your camera to realize that that 25mm lens isn't going to cut it? Is that the time to call for a wide angle converter or another lens? It doesn't mean you don't look at what you are getting and change your mind, but it is considered in advanced.

Even more importantly, focal length is an aesthetic tool critical to conveying key emotional and story elements of a film. Different focal lengths will have different psychological impacts on an audience. It's an invaluable tool in the director's arsenal. Focal length comes into play even before you even have sets. Some directors don't care at all about focal lengths (Penny Marshall comes to mind), others (Stanley Kubrick) are very specific. When directors leave it up to the cinematographer, the DP will think long and hard on the focal lengths he/she will use and incorporate it into their visual storytelling ideas.

"This class is full of competitive sneakiness that makes me sick to my stomach. People have been contradicting and disagreeing with eachother solely for the purpose of ego, with nothing to do with "right or wrong." the size of ego's and the amount of thick headedness in our class is absurd for a film school. "

And you are standing outside of all of this? I've been in film school, and it can be dysfunctional at times, but I wasn't immune to that dysfunction. Part of the learning process is to understand what's going on and try to influence it in other directions. So the question is "was your gaffer trying to embarrass you or were you just embarrassed and instead of confronting your own embarrassment, you're blaming the gaffer,and to a lessor extent, the cinematographer?" If you're embarrassed, then that means your ego is involved, too. As a director, you need a strong ego, as in a strong sense of yourself. You might want to look at your own insecurities. We all have them. As for other students, just ignore it or use it as a lesson in understanding human nature. Remember, preparation goes a long, long way to the smooth running of a film set. It is the rare director that is really as prepared as they can be. Stay focused on being as prepared as you possibly can be and don't worry about things outside of your control.

I'd also really recommend that you go and chat with the gaffer, not in a blaming way, about what happened and how he was feeling or what he was thinking. You could say something like "hey, about that situation, I didn't give you want you needed, but I'm still learning. What do you think I should have done?" This isn't a reality show where someone's getting voted off, is it?

In a larger sense, a director is like a servant to everyone on the set. He/she plays the father, the mother, the maid, the psychologist, the minister, etc., in addition to making the film.

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