Filmmakers’ Sketchbooks: Capturing Daydreams On Hard Drives

by S.D. Katz

Now that MiniDV and HDV make shooting and dropping the footage into a timeline a very simple routine there is no reason not to keep a digital sketchbook. Painters and draftsman have always kept notebooks of quick studies from life or the imagination and writers often collect files of ideas for plots, phrases, incidents or experiences that intrigue them. These fragments are not ends in themselves, they are the side effects of the process of making art.

One of the reasons some new filmmakers tense up as a shoot approaches is that they are not comfortable with their craft. Craft is the sum of your ability to stage action, compose shots and edit sequences and have some understanding of the results before they happen. Not in the sense that the results are canned, but rather, that you can shape the process or the outcome with meaningful results. Chance is part of the process, mistakes are often fortuitous, accidents can be wonderful, but somewhere in the chaos an artist is present asserting a point of view. So your craft is a dramatic sense, or a sense of composition or pacing, or all of these. Craft develops by doing.

Musicians practice. Scales, repertoire, rehearsal—all those things. What do filmmakers do? Well, you could be shooting your thoughts, moments, moods, riddles—anything that makes two consecutive shots more powerful then the same shots separately. These don’t have to be official projects. In fact, you will probably work more freely if they’re not.

You don’t need actors. In your apartment, bedroom, dorm: Shoot. The subject: sunlight, shadows, rain, wind, your foot, your reflection in a mirror, showering, preparing dinner, phone conversations (a great source), the calendar, things you write, receipts. Ok, well stop here. Receipts: The Movie. You bought a few things at the QuickMart. You got more receipts at the gas station and then KFC. That’s a structure. Shoot CUs of the receipts. Where they collect on your bureau or desk or kitchen countertop. Go back to each of the locations and shoot three shots of each location, the KFC, QuickMart, gas station. While you were at each of these places you were thinking about something. You may have been thinking about what it was you were buying, but admit it, your mind wandered. A lot of other things were going through your head. This will be your narration (in Final Cut Pro you can do this in real-time over an edited sequence as it plays).
A stain on the carpet. I once had a friend who was an artist and was desperately trying to make a living from his art (he eventually did) so he took a job with a cleaning service a week before he was to complete his doctorate (he never did). On his first day on the job he had to clean up the remains of someone who killed themselves at home. You have a camera. You have a carpet. You must have some spots. How did they get there? This time your story is about the spot and cleaning up the spot. What is the story behind this seemingly insignificant visual detail. A suicide or just spilled coffee? Talk about the spot. Why you can’t rest until it’s gone. Days are going by and no matter what you do, it won’t come out. Shoot a picture of your house from the same position at night and during the day. Alternate them under the narration. This worked in Macbeth. Have you noticed my sentence fragments are becoming narration?

Your movie should be no more than two-minutes. Or it can be 20 seconds. Actually, I don’t care how long the sketch is unless the scope of the project prevents it from happening. A filmmaker should be making these story fragments and sketches all the time and working on their instrument.

Fragments don’t have to be fiction. You can do sketches that are documentaries. Someone you see everyday: At the toll booth, the diner, KFC (you already have footage from KFC). Question them. You: “What happened today that made you laugh?” There are better questions, but that’s the documentary. These are everyday life sketches, so if your favorite subject is science fiction, you will have to adapt. Two minutes, that’s all. The idea is to be writing, shooting, and cutting. Your workflow from DV to hard drive to FCP, Avid, Premiere Pro, Vegas iMovie, should be transparent. The same thing with CDs and MP3s. Don’t let technology get in the way. Keep it direct.

Make it even simpler. Just 15 seconds of disparate images. Take two subjects and mix them up. I remember a film my high school experimental English class made. The subject was road/street signs, and a balloon that was allowed to blow around in different locations, but staged to look like a journey. It shouldn’t have made sense but it did. The street signs we found had been defaced and graffiti had been added, not gang graffiti, just spray painted obscenities, bad jokes, and political rants on buildings and under bridges. We got lucky and found just the right words. The balloon was taken into the woods and when it became windy it bounced along the ground and into sharp brambles and sticks. We kept expecting it to pop. The action was surprisingly exciting. The short was a little over three minutes long. The cutting kept getting faster between the three stories. It worked.

As you can see, this was all done without actors. I’ve described things that tended towards formal structure, figures of speech and cross-cutting or comparative editing. But that’s because I don’t know you. Digital sketches can and probably should be personal.

If you are working on a script, you can refine the sketchbook ideas to be back stories of the characters. Again, you don’t need the actors, but that certainly works too. V.O. tends to be prominent in sketches, but it doesn’t have to be. Perhaps you are further along with an actual project. You are planning your movie. You are beyond the sketch stage and you need to plan actual production.
Now we’re going to look at previz. A popular subject these days. Storyboards, photoboards, diagrams, and MiniDV are all good ways to work out a scene. If actors are available, even if they’re stand-ins, that’s the most direct way to work. You don’t need to be in the actual location although atmosphere is inspiring. Last year I produced an animated feature in China. We had 300 CG animators and great illustrators in the art department. I was also the visual consultant and for several months we made changes to the movie after the director had left China. We had very little time and so we went outside and using three animator/actors we shot several fairly complex scenes. I had drawn thumbnail sketches a little smaller than a business card. We shot the footage and edited the sequences in one day. The finished scene was almost identical to the live-action version that we shot.

If you are at the funding stage and doing location scouting or are already casting actors, shoot whenever possible. This is not always practical, but casting sessions or call backs can be a good time to set up a scene with one or two MiniDV cameras. Don’t overshoot. Just having a master shot tells you a great deal about your actors. Also, and this may sound odd, backlight the scene if possible. Take away the bluntness of bright front lighting. This will force you to use more of your imagination and not be locked into the specificity of the location. Use a lavalier. On camera mics, even for a casting session, take you out of the scene. The more you watch your actors framed on video or film the more you will be prepared to work with them.

As it turns out Da Vinci’s notebooks and similar informal studies by artists are some of their most compelling creations. That wasn’t the goal of their creators, and it shouldn’t be yours either–liberation from self-criticism has its place. Artistic freedom is a gift we give to ourselves. With digital storytelling tools, this is easier than ever.

S.D. Katz is a filmmaker. His most recent short film is “Protest,” and he recently produced the feature, “Through the Moebius Strip” in China. He’s currently making color sketches for his next film.

(Published in StudentFilmmakers Magazine, August 2006.)