Filmmaker, Video Editor, Motion Graphics Designer, and Photographer in Cairo, Egypt.
Keeping notes to remember.. You may consider it some sort of Documentation.

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Part 1 | Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen


Major Highlights from Sheila Curran Bernard's book, "Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen".

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CH1: Introduction

DEFINING DOCUMENTARY

Documentaries bring viewers into new worlds and experiences through the presentation of factual information about real people, places, and events, generally—but not always—portrayed through the use of actual images and artifacts. But factuality alone does not define documentary films; it’s what the filmmaker does with those factual elements, weaving them into an overall narrative that strives to be as compelling as it is truthful and is often greater than the sum of its parts. “The documentarist has a passion for what he finds in images and sounds—which always seem to him more meaningful than anything he can invent,” wrote Erik Barnouw in his 1974 book, Documentary. “Unlike the fiction artist, he is dedicated to not inventing. It is in selecting and arranging his findings that he expresses himself.”

Story is the device that describes this arrangement. A story may begin as an idea, hypothesis, or series of questions. It becomes more focused throughout the filmmaking process, until the finished film has a compelling beginning, an unexpected middle, and a satisfying end. Along the way, the better you understand your story, even as it’s evolving, the more prepared you’ll be to tell it creatively and well. You’re likely to identify characters and scout locations more carefully, and the visuals you shoot will be stronger.
Perhaps surprisingly, you’ll be better prepared to follow the unexpected—to take advantage of the twists and turns that are an inevitable part of documentary production, and recognize those elements that will make your film even stronger.
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DOCUMENTARY AS A SUBSET OF NONFICTION FILM AND VIDEO
At their best, documentaries should do more than help viewers pass the time; they should demand their active engagement, challenging them to think about what they know, how they know it, and what more they might want to learn.
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CREATIVE NONFICTION ON SCREEN
Consider this list of the “five characteristics” that make nonfiction writing creative, as described by author Philip Gerard in his book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life:
  • First, it has an apparent subject and a deeper subject...
  • Second, and partly because of the duality of subject, such nonfiction is released from the usual journalistic requirement of timeliness...
  • Third, creative nonfiction is narrative, it always tells a good story 
  • Fourth, creative nonfiction contains a sense of reflection on the part of the author. It is a finished thought.
  • Fifth, such nonfiction shows serious attention to the craft of writing.

How does this evaluation apply to documentary films?

An Apparent Subject and a Deeper Subject
There may be a deceptively simple story that organizes the film, but the story is being told because it reveals something more. Sound and Fury, on the surface, is a documentary about a little girl who wants a cochlear implant, an operation that may enable her to hear. But in telling that story, the filmmakers explore the world of Deaf culture, what it means to belong to a family and a community, how language is acquired, and more.

Released from the Journalistic Requirement of Timeliness
Even when documentaries are derived from news reports, they are not bound to tell the story while it’s still “news.” Instead, they take the time to consider events and put them in more detailed and often layered context. The financial meltdown of Enron; the abuse of prisoners at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guanta´namo; the suicide of writer Hunter S. Thompson—all, at one time, were news stories, for example, and all have been used as fodder for enduring, thought-provoking documentaries by director Alex Gibney.

Tells a Good Story
This means that a filmmaker uses the tools of creative writing to identify and shape a good story, one that accurately represents the truth. It does not mean inventing or distorting characters or plots or conflicts for the purpose of enhancing a documentary’s appeal.

Contains a Sense of Reflection on the Part of the Author
A documentary is not a news report. It is a thoughtful presentation of a subject that has been explored, researched, weighed, considered, and shaped by the filmmaker over a period of time, and then communicated outward in a voice and style that are unique.

Shows Serious Attention to the Craft of Film Storytelling
Craft is about wielding the unique tools of a chosen medium to the full and best advantage, without going too far. Told well, a story will feel seamless and inevitable, fully and actively engaging the viewer.
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STORYTELLING, NOT WRITING
  • Before they shoot, while they shoot, and throughout the process of editing, filmmakers routinely address story issues: “Who are the central characters? What do they want? What are the stakes if they don’t get it? Where is the tension? Where is the story going? Why does it matter?”
  • Our stories depend not on creative invention but on creative arrangement, and our storytelling must be done without sacrificing journalistic integrity.
  • Understanding what story is and how it works to your advantage is a step toward finding your own creative and ethical voice as a filmmaker.
  • It’s not about the technology. Too often, filmmakers get caught up in the tools of storytelling. The best equipment in the world, even the best shots in the world, won’t save a film from a lack of focus.
  • Story does not have to mean three-act drama, and it definitely does not mean artificial tension that is imposed from without. Story comes organically from within the material and the ways in which you, the filmmaker, structure it.
  • Think easier. Some of the best documentaries made recently are built on a narrative train that is very basic; that’s often what allows for their overall complexity.
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CH2: Story Basics

A story is the narrative, or telling, of an event or series of events, crafted in a way to interest the audience members, whether they are readers, listeners, or viewers. At its most basic, a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It has compelling characters (or questions), rising tension, and conflict that reaches some sort of resolution. It engages the audience on an emotional and intellectual level, motivating viewers to want to know what happens next.
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SOME STORYTELLING TERMS
Exposition
Exposition is the information that grounds you in a story: who, what, where, when, and why. It gives audience members the tools they need to follow the story that’s unfolding and, more importantly, it allows them inside the story. 

The trick to exposition is not to give too much away too soon, and not to withhold information that’s necessary. There’s an art to giving out key information at the right moment. Too soon, and it will not seem relevant and will be quickly forgotten. Too late, and the audience will either have figured it out for themselves or grown frustrated with the filmmaker for withholding facts they feel the need to know. Offered at the right time, exposition enriches our understanding of characters and raises the stakes in their stories.

Theme
In literary terms, theme is the general underlying subject of a specific story, a recurring idea that often illuminates an aspect of the human condition. “Theme is the most basic lifeblood of a film,” says filmmaker Ric Burns. “Theme tells you the tenor of your story. This is what this thing is about.”

Themes may emerge from the questions that initially drove the filmmaking. Understanding your theme can help you determine both what and how you shoot.

Arc
The arc refers to the way or ways in which the events of the story transform your characters. In pursuing a goal, the protagonists learn something about themselves and their place in the world,
and those lessons change them—and may, in fact, change their desire for the goal.

In documentary films, story arcs can be hard to find. Never, simply in the interest of a good story, presume to know what a character is thinking or feeling, or present a transformation that hasn’t
occurred. If there is change, you will discover it through solid research and multiple strands of verifiable evidence.

All of these transformations occurred over the course of filming, and the filmmakers made sure they had the visual material they needed to show them in a way that felt organic and unforced.

Plot and Character
Films are often described as either plot or character driven. A character driven film is one in which the action of the film emerges from the wants and needs of the characters. In a plot-driven film, the characters are secondary to the events that make up the plot.

As mentioned, the difference between plot- and character-driven films can be subtle, and one often has strong elements of the other. It’s also true that plenty of memorable documentaries are not “driven” at all in the Hollywood sense.

Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries are elegantly structured but not “plotted” in the sense that each sequence makes the next one inevitable, but there is usually an organizing principle behind his work, such as a “year in the life” of an institution. Still other films are driven not by characters or plot but by questions, following an essay-like structure; examples include Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Daniel Anker’s Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust.

Some films merge styles: Super Size Me is built around the filmmaker’s 30-day McDonald’s diet, but to a large extent the film is actually driven by a series of questions, making it an essay. This combination of journey and essay can also be found in Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect.

Point of View
Point of view describes the perspective, or position, from which a story is told. This can be interpreted in a range of ways. For example, point of view may describe the character through whom you’re telling a story. Imagine telling the story of Goldilocks and the three bears from the point of view of Goldilocks, and then retelling it from the point of view of Papa Bear. Goldilocks might tell you the story of a perfectly innocent child wandering through the woods who grew hungry and went into an apparently abandoned house, only to find herself under attack by bears. In contrast, Papa Bear might tell you the story of an unwanted intruder.

By offering an unexpected point of view, filmmakers can sometimes force viewers to take a new look at a familiar subject. Point of view can also be used to describe the perspective of the camera, including who’s operating it and from what vantage point. Point of view can also refer to the perspective of time and the lens through which an event is viewed. There is also, of course, “point of view” of the filmmaker and/or filmmaking team.

Detail
Detail encompasses a range of things that all have to do with specificity. First, there is what’s known as the “telling detail.” A full ashtray next to a bedridden man would indicate that either the man or a caregiver is a heavy smoker. The choice of what to smoke, what to drink, when to drink it (whisky for breakfast?), what to wear, how to decorate a home or an office or a car, all provide clues about people.

They may be misleading clues: That African artwork may have been left behind by an old boyfriend, rather than chosen by the apartment renter; the expensive suit may have been borrowed for the purpose of the interview. But as storytellers, our ears and eyes should be open to details, the specifics that add layers of texture and meaning.

We also need to focus on detail if we write narration. “The organization grew like wildfire” is cliched and meaningless; better to provide evidence: “Within 10 years, an organization that began in Paris with 20 members had chapters in 12 nations, with more than 2,500 members worldwide.”

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A “GOOD STORY WELL TOLD”
In their book, The Tools of Screenwriting, authors David Howard and Edward Mabley stress that a story is not simply about somebody experiencing difficulty meeting a goal; it’s also “the way in which the audience experiences the story.” The elements of a “good story well told,” they write, are:
  1. This story is about somebody with whom we have some empathy.
  2. This somebody wants something very badly.
  3. This something is difficult, but possible, to do, get, or achieve.
  4. The story is told for maximum emotional impact and audience participation in the proceedings.
  5. The story must come to a satisfactory ending (which does not necessarily mean a happy ending).
Although Howard and Mabley’s book is directed at dramatic screenwriters, who are free to invent not only characters but also the things that they want and the things that are getting in the way, this list is
useful for documentary storytellers. Your particular film subject or situation might not fit neatly within these parameters, however, so further explanation follows.

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Who (or What) the Story Is About
The somebody is your protagonist, your hero, the entity whose story is being told. Note that your hero can, in fact, be very “unheroic,” and the audience might struggle to empathize with him or her. But the character and/or character’s mission should be compelling enough that the audience cares about the outcome.

The central character doesn’t necessarily need to be a person. In Ric Burns’s New York, a seven-episode history, the city itself is the protagonist, whose fortunes rise and fall and rise over the course of the series. (Throughout that series, however, individual characters and stories come to the fore.) But often, finding a central character through whom to tell your story can make an otherwise complex
topic more manageable and accessible to viewers.

What the Protagonist Wants
The something that somebody wants is also referred to as a goal or an objective.—that drives the film’s story.

Active versus Passive
Storytellers speak of active versus passive goals and active versus passive heroes. In general, you want a story’s goals and heroes to be active, which means that you want your story’s protagonist to be in charge of his or her own life: To set a goal and then to go about doing what needs to be done to achieve it. A passive goal is something like this: A secretary wants a raise in order to pay for breast enhancement surgery. She is passively waiting for the raise, hoping someone will notice that her work merits reward. To be active, she would have to do something to ensure that she gets that raise, or she would have to wage a campaign to raise the extra money she needs for the surgery, such as taking a second job.

An exception is when the passivity is the story. In The Thin Blue Line, for example, Randall Adams, locked up on death row, is a passive protagonist because he can’t do anything to free himself, as no
one believes him when he claims to be innocent. In general, though, you want your protagonist to be active, and you want him or her to have a goal that’s worthy. In the example of the secretary, will an audience really care whether or not she gets larger breasts? Probably not. If we had a reason to be sympathetic—she had been disfigured in an accident, for example—maybe we would care, but it’s not a very strong goal. Worthy does not mean a goal has to be noble—it doesn’t all have to be about ending world hunger or ensuring world peace. It does have to matter enough to be worth committing significant time and resources to.

If you only care a little about your protagonists and what they want, your financiers and audience are likely to care not at all.
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Difficulty and Tangibility
The something that is wanted—the goal—must be difficult to do or achieve. If something is easy, there’s no tension, and without tension, there’s little incentive for an audience to keep watching. Tension is the feeling we get when issues or events are unresolved, especially when we want them to be resolved. It’s what motivates us to demand, “And then what happens? And what happens after that?” We need to know, because it makes us uncomfortable not to know. Without tension, a story feels flat; you don’t care one way or the other about the outcome.

So where do you find the tension?

Note that conflict can mean a direct argument between two sides, pro and con (or “he said, she said”). But such an argument sometimes weakens tension, especially if each side is talking past the other or if individuals in conflict have not been properly established to viewers.

If we don’t know who’s fighting or what’s at stake for the various sides, we won’t care about the outcome. On the other hand, if the audience goes into an argument caring about the individuals involved, especially if they care about all the individuals involved, it can lead to powerful emotional storytelling.

Weather, illness, war, self-doubt, inexperience, hubris—all of these can pose obstacles as your protagonist strives to achieve his or her goal. And just as it can be useful to find an individual (or individuals) through whom to tell a complex story, it can be useful to personify the opposition.

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Worthy Opponent
Just as you want your protagonist to have a worthy goal, you want him or her to have a worthy opponent. A common problem for many filmmakers is that they portray opponents as one-dimensional; if their hero is good, the opponent must be bad. In fact, the most memorable opponent
is often not the opposite of the hero, but a complement to him or her.

As stated earlier, it’s important to understand that you should not in any way be fictionalizing characters who are real human beings. You are evaluating a situation from the perspective of a storyteller, and working with what is there. If there is no opponent, you can’t manufacture one.

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Tangible GoalAlthough difficult, the goal should be possible to do or achieve, which means that it’s best if it’s both concrete and realistic. “Fighting racism” or “curing cancer” or “saving the rain forest” may all be worthwhile, but none is specific enough to serve as a story objective. In exploring your ideas for a film, follow your interests, but then seek out a specific story to illuminate them.

Born into Brothels illuminates the difficult circumstances facing the children of impoverished sex workers in Calcutta, but the story’s goals are more tangible. Initially, we learn that filmmaker Zana Briski, in Calcutta to photograph sex workers, has been drawn to their children. “They wanted to learn how to use the camera,” she says in voice over. “That’s when I thought it would be really great to teach them, and to see this world through their eyes.” Several minutes later, a larger but still tangible goal emerges: “They have absolutely no opportunity without education,” she says. “The question is, can I find a school—a good school—that will take kids that are children of prostitutes?”
This, then, becomes the real goal of the film, one enriched by the children’s photography and exposure to broader horizons.

Note also that the goal is not necessarily the most “dramatic” or obvious one. In Kate Davis’s Southern Comfort, a film about a transgendered male dying of ovarian cancer, Robert Eads’s goal is not to find a cure; it’s to survive long enough to attend the Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta, a national gathering of transgendered people, with his girlfriend, Lola, who is also transgendered.

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Emotional Impact and Audience Participation
The concept of telling a story for greatest emotional impact and audience participation is perhaps the most difficult. It’s often described as “show, don’t tell,” which means that you want to present the evidence or information that allows viewers to experience the story for themselves, anticipating twists and turns and following the story line in a way that’s active rather than passive. Too often, films tell us what we’re supposed to think through the use of heavy-handed narration, loaded graphics, or a stacked deck of interviews.

Think about the experience of being completely held by a film. You aren’t watching characters on screen; you’re right there with them, bringing the clues you’ve seen so far to the story as it unfolds. You lose track of time as you try to anticipate what happens next, who will do what, and what will be learned. It’s human nature to try to make sense of the events we’re confronted with, and it’s human nature to enjoy being stumped or surprised.

Telling a story for emotional impact means that the filmmaker is structuring the story so that the moments of conflict, climax, and resolution—moments of achievement, loss, reversal, etc.—adhere as well as possible to the internal rhythms of storytelling.

Audiences expect that the tension in a story will escalate as the story moves toward its conclusion; scenes tend to get shorter, action tighter, the stakes higher. As we get to know the characters and understand their wants and needs, we care more about what happens to them; we become invested in their stories. Much of this structuring takes place in the editing room. But to some extent, it also takes place as you film, and planning for it can make a difference.

You want to avoid creating unnecessary drama—turning a perfectly good story into a soap opera. There’s no reason to pull in additional details, however sad or frightening, when they aren’t relevant. If you’re telling the story of a scientist unlocking the genetic code to a certain mental illness, for example, it’s not necessarily relevant that she’s also engaged in a custody battle with her former husband, even if this detail seems to spice up the drama or, you hope, make the character more “sympathetic.” If the custody battle is influenced by her husband’s mental illness and her concerns that the children may have inherited the disease, there is a link that could serve the film well. Otherwise, you risk adding a layer of detail that detracts, rather than adds.

False emotion—hyped-up music and sound effects and narration that warns of danger around every corner—is a common problem, especially on television. As in the story of the boy who cried wolf, at
some point it all washes over the viewer like so much noise. If the danger is real, it will have the greatest storytelling impact if it emerges organically from the material.

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Raising the Stakes
Another tool of emotional storytelling is to have something at stake and to raise the stakes until the very end. In the hands of a good storyteller, even small or very personal stakes can be made large when their importance to those in the story is conveyed.

Stakes may rise because (genuine) danger is increasing or time is running out. In terms of your role as the storyteller, stakes also rise because of the way you structure and organize your film: What people know, and when they know it, what the stakes of a story mean to your characters and how well you convey that—all of these play a role in how invested the audience becomes in wanting or even needing to know the outcome of your film.
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A Satisfactory Ending
A satisfactory ending, or resolution, is often one that feels both unexpected and inevitable. It must resolve the one story you set out to tell. Say you start the film with a problem: A little girl has a life-threatening heart condition for which there is no known surgical treatment. Your film then goes into the world of experimental surgery, where you find a charismatic doctor whose efforts to solve a very different medical problem have led him to create a surgical solution that might work in the little girl’s situation. To end on this surgical breakthrough, however, won’t be satisfactory. Audiences were drawn into the story of the little girl, and this surgeon’s work must ultimately be related to that story. Can his work make a difference in her case? You need to complete the story with which the film began. With that said, there is never just one correct ending.

Suppose, for example, that your film is due to be aired months before the approval is granted that will allow doctors to try the experimental surgery on the girl. Make that your ending, and leave the audience with the knowledge that everyone is praying and hoping that she will survive until then. Or perhaps the surgery is possible, but at the last minute the parents decide it’s too risky. Or they take that risk, and the outcome is positive. Or negative. Or perhaps the doctor’s breakthrough simply comes too late for this one child but may make a difference for hundreds of others. Any of these would be a satisfactory ending, provided it is factual.

Ending a film in a way that’s satisfying does not necessitate wrapping up all loose ends or resolving things in a way that’s upbeat.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Part(4) - Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less


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Part (1): here.
Part (2): here.
Part (3): here.
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EXECUTE: How to Make Execution Effortless

There are two ways of thinking about execution. While Nonessentialists tend to force execution, Essentialists invest the time they have saved by eliminating the nonessentials into designing a system to make execution almost effortless.

Once you’ve figured out which activities and efforts to keep in your life, you have to have a system for executing them. You can’t wait until that closet is bursting at the seams and then take superhuman efforts to purge it. You have to have a system in place so that keeping it neat becomes routine and effortless.


BUFFER: The Unfair Advantage

GIVE ME SIX HOURS TO CHOP DOWN A TREE AND I WILL SPEND THE FIRST FOUR SHARPENING THE AXE.  —Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

The reality is that we live in an unpredictable world. Even apart from extreme events such as famines, we face the unexpected constantly. We do not know whether the traffic will be clear or congested. We do not know if our flight will be delayed or canceled. We do not know if we’ll slip on a slick road tomorrow and break our wrist. Similarly, in the workplace we do not know if a supplier will be late, or a colleague will drop the ball, or a client will change his or her directions at the eleventh hour, and so on. The only thing we can expect (with any great certainty) is the unexpected. Therefore, we can either wait for the moment and react to it or we can prepare. We can create a buffer.

The Nonessentialist tends to always assume a best-case scenario. We all know those people (and many of us, myself included, have been that person) who chronically underestimate how long something will really take: “This will just take five minutes,” or “I’ll be finished with that project by Friday,” or “It will only take me a year to write my magnum opus.” Yet inevitably these things take longer; something unexpected comes up, or the task ends up being more involved than anticipated, or the estimate was simply too optimistic in the first place. When this happens, they are left reacting to the problem, and results inevitably suffer. Perhaps they pull an all-nighter to make it happen. Perhaps they cut corners, hand in an incomplete project, or worse, fail to get it done at all. Or perhaps they leave someone else on the team to pick up the slack. Either way, they fail to execute at their highest level.

The way of the Essentialist is different. The Essentialist looks ahead. She plans. She prepares for different contingencies. She expects the unexpected. She creates a buffer to prepare for the unforeseen, thus giving herself some wiggle room when things come up, as they inevitably do.

Essentialists accept the reality that we can never fully anticipate or prepare for every scenario or eventuality; the future is simply too unpredictable. Instead, they build in buffers to reduce the friction caused by the unexpected.
SUBTRACT: Bring Forth More by Removing Obstacles

TO ATTAIN KNOWLEDGE ADD THINGS EVERY DAY. TO ATTAIN WISDOM SUBTRACT THINGS EVERY DAY. —Lao-tzu

A Nonessentialist approaches execution in a reactive, haphazard manner. Because the Nonessentialist is always reacting to crises rather than anticipating them, he is forced to apply quick-fix solutions: the equivalent to plugging his finger into the hole of a leaking dam and hoping the whole thing doesn’t burst. Being good with a hammer, the Nonessentialist thinks everything is a nail. Thus he applies more and more pressure, but this ends up only adding more friction and frustration. Indeed, in some situations the harder you push on someone the harder he or she will push back.

Essentialists don’t default to Band-Aid solutions. Instead of looking for the most obvious or immediate obstacles, they look for the ones slowing down progress. They ask, “What is getting in the way of achieving what is essential?” While the Nonessentialist is busy applying more and more pressure and piling on more and more solutions, the Essentialist simply makes a one-time investment in removing obstacles. This approach goes beyond just solving problems; it’s a method of reducing your efforts to maximize your results.

Produce More by Removing More
Aristotle talked about three kinds of work, whereas in our modern world we tend to emphasize only two. The first is theoretical work, for which the end goal is truth. The second is practical work, where the objective is action. But there is a third: it is poietical work. The philosopher Martin Heidegger described poiesis as a “bringing-forth.” This third type of work is the Essentialist way of approaching execution:
An Essentialist produces more—brings forth more—by removing more instead of doing more.
  

PROGRESS: The Power of Small Wins

EVERY DAY DO SOMETHING THAT WILL INCH YOU CLOSER TO A BETTER TOMORROW.  —Doug Firebaugh

The way of the Nonessentialist is to go big on everything: to try to do it all, have it all, fit it all in. The Nonessentialist operates under the false logic that the more he strives, the more he will achieve, but the reality is, the more we reach for the stars, the harder it is to get ourselves off the ground.

The way of the Essentialist is different. Instead of trying to accomplish it all—and all at once—and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.

FLOW: The Genius of Routine

ROUTINE, IN AN INTELLIGENT MAN, IS A SIGN OF AMBITION.  —W. H. Auden

The way of the Nonessentialist is to think the essentials only get done when they are forced. That execution is a matter of raw effort alone. You labor to make it happen. You push through.

The way of the Essentialist is different. The Essentialist designs a routine that makes achieving what you have identified as essential the default position. Yes, in some instances an Essentialist still has to work hard, but with the right routine in place each effort yields exponentially greater results.
  
 
FOCUS: What’s Important Now?

LIFE IS AVAILABLE ONLY IN THE PRESENT MOMENT. IF YOU ABANDON THE PRESENT MOMENT YOU CANNOT LIVE THE MOMENTS OF YOUR DAILY LIFE DEEPLY.  —Thich Nhat Hanh

Nonessentialists tend to be so preoccupied with past successes and failures, as well as future challenges and opportunities, that they miss the present moment. They become distracted. Unfocused. They aren’t really there.

The way of the Essentialist is to tune into the present. To experience life in kairos, not just chronos. To focus on the things that are truly important—not yesterday or tomorrow, but right now.

Essentialists live their whole lives in this manner. And because they do, they can apply their full energy to the job at hand. They don’t diffuse their efforts with distractions. They know that execution is easy if you work hard at it and hard if you work easy at it.

At this point you might expect me to start talking about the evils of multitasking—about how a true Essentialist never attempts to do more than one thing at a time. But in fact we can easily do two things at the same time: wash the dishes and listen to the radio, eat and talk, clear the clutter on our desk while thinking about where to go for lunch, text message while watching television, and so on.
What we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time. When I talk about being present, I’m not talking about doing only one thing at a time. I’m talking about being focused on one thing at a time. Multitasking itself is not the enemy of Essentialism; pretending we can “multifocus” is.

How to Be in the Now
What can we do to be fully present on what is in front of us? Below are some simple techniques to consider.

1- FIGURE OUT WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT RIGHT NOW
When faced with so many tasks and obligations that you can’t figure out which to tackle first, stop. Take a deep breath. Get present in the moment and ask yourself what is most important this very second—not what’s most important tomorrow or even an hour from now. If you’re not sure, make a list of everything vying for your attention and cross off anything that is not important right now.

2- GET THE FUTURE OUT OF YOUR HEAD
Getting the future out of your head enables you to more fully focus on “what is important now.” In this case, my next step was to sit down and list those things that might have been essential—just not right now. So I opened to another page in my journal. This time, I asked myself, “What might you want to do someday as a result of today?” This was not a list of firm commitments, just a way to get all of the ideas out of my head and on paper. This had two purposes. First, it ensured I wouldn’t forget about those ideas, which might prove useful later. Second, it alleviated that stressful and distracting feeling that I needed to act upon them right this second.

3- PRIORITIZE
After this I prioritized each list. Then I worked on each item on the “what is essential now” list one at a time. I just calmly worked through the list and erased each item when it was complete. By the time I went to sleep I had not only done all the things that needed to be executed at that moment, but I had executed them better and faster, because I was focused.
  

BE: The Essentialist Life

BEWARE THE BARRENNESS OF A BUSY LIFE.  —Socrates

There are two ways of thinking about Essentialism. The first is to think of it as something you do occasionally. The second is to think of it as something you are. In the former, Essentialism is one more thing to add to your already overstuffed life. In the latter, it is a different way—a simpler way—of doing everything. It becomes a lifestyle. It becomes an all-encompassing approach to living and leading. It becomes the essence of who we are.
 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Part(3) - Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less


Major Highlights from Greg McKeown's book, "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less".


*****
Part (1): here.
Part (2): here.
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CLARIFY: One Decision That Makes a Thousand

For one, there is a heavy price just in terms of human dynamics. The fact is, motivation and cooperation deteriorate when there is a lack of purpose. You can train leaders on communication and teamwork and conduct 360 feedback reports until you are blue in the face, but if a team does not have clarity of goals and roles, problems will fester and multiply.

When there is a lack of clarity, people waste time and energy on the trivial many. When they have sufficient levels of clarity, they are capable of greater breakthroughs and innovations—greater than people even realize they ought to have—in those areas that are truly vital.

We do a similar thing in our personal lives as well. When we are unclear about our real purpose in life—in other words, when we don’t have a clear sense of our goals, our aspirations, and our values—we make up our own social games. We waste time and energies on trying to look good in comparison to other people. We overvalue nonessentials like a nicer car or house, or even intangibles like the number of our followers on Twitter or the way we look in our Facebook photos. As a result, we neglect activities that are truly essential, like spending time with our loved ones, or nurturing our spirit, or taking care of our health.

when it comes to achieving clarity of purpose, inspiration does matter. When we think of inspiration, we often think of lofty rhetoric. But while rhetoric can certainly inspire, we need to remember that concrete objectives have the power to elevate and inspire as well. A powerful essential intent inspires people partially because it is concrete enough to answer the question, “How will we know when we have succeeded?”

Essential intent applies to so much more than your job description or your company’s mission statement; a true essential intent is one that guides your greater sense of purpose, and helps you chart your life’s path.

Creating an essential intent is hard. It takes courage, insight, and foresight to see which activities and efforts will add up to your single highest point of contribution. It takes asking tough questions, making real trade-offs, and exercising serious discipline to cut out the competing priorities that distract us from our true intention. Yet it is worth the effort because only with real clarity of purpose can people, teams, and organizations fully mobilize and achieve something truly excellent.
 
DARE: The Power of a Graceful “No”

The right “no” spoken at the right time can change the course of history.

MAKE YOUR PEACE WITH THE FACT THAT SAYING “NO” OFTEN REQUIRES TRADING POPULARITY FOR RESPECT. REMEMBER THAT A CLEAR “NO” CAN BE MORE GRACEFUL THAN A VAGUE OR NONCOMMITTAL “YES”.

Saying no is its own leadership capability. It is not just a peripheral skill. As with any ability, we start with limited experience. We are novices at “no.” Then we learn a couple of basic techniques. We make mistakes. We learn from them. We develop more skills. We keep practicing. After a while we have a whole repertoire available at our disposal, and in time we have gained mastery of a type of social art form. We can handle almost any request from almost anybody with grace and dignity. Tom Friel, the former CEO of Heidrick & Struggles, once said to me, “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’ ”

UNCOMMIT: Win Big by Cutting Your Losses

Nonessentialist:
- Asks, “Why stop now when I’ve already invested so much in this project?”
- Thinks, “If I just keep trying, I can make this work.”
- Hates admitting to mistakes

Essentialist:
- Asks, “If I weren’t already invested in this project, how much would I invest in it now?”
- Thinks, “What else could I do with this time or money if I pulled the plug now?”
- Comfortable with cutting losses

EDIT: The Invisible Art

Jack Dorsey is best known as the creator of Twitter and as the founder and CEO of Square, a mobile payments company. His Essentialist approach to management is a relatively rare one. At a dinner I attended recently where he spoke, he said he thinks of the role of CEO as being the chief editor of the company. At another event at Stanford he explained further: “By editorial I mean there are a thousand things we could be doing. But there [are] only one or two that are important. And all of these ideas … and inputs from engineers, support people, designers are going to constantly flood what we should be doing.… As an editor I am constantly taking these inputs and deciding the one, or intersection of a few, that make sense for what we are doing.”

------
About Film Editor:
An editor is not merely someone who says no to things. A three-year-old can do that. Nor does an editor simply eliminate; in fact, in a way, an editor actually adds. What I mean is that a good editor is someone who uses deliberate subtraction to actually add life to the ideas, setting, plot, and characters.
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Editing aids the effortless execution of the Essentialist by removing anything distracting or unnecessary or awkward. Or, as one book editor put it: “My job is to make life as effortless as possible for the reader. The goal is to help the reader have the clearest possible understanding of the most important message or takeaway.”

Nonessentialist:
- Thinks that making things better means adding something
- Attached to every word, image, or details.

Essentialist:
- Thinks that making things better means subtracting something
- Eliminates the distracting words, images, and details

When making decisions, deciding to cut options can be terrifying—but the truth is, it is the very essence of decision making. In fact:
The Latin root of the word decision—cis or cid—literally means “to cut” or “to kill.”

A Nonessentialist views editing as a discrete task to be performed only when things become overwhelming. But waiting too long to edit will force us to make major cuts not always of our choosing. Editing our time and activities continuously allows us to make more minor but deliberate adjustments along the way. Becoming an Essentialist means making cutting, condensing, and correcting a natural part of our daily routine—making editing a natural cadence in our lives.

#Their Problem Is Not Your Problem:
We all have some people in our lives who tend to be higher maintenance for us than others. These are the people who make their problem our problem. They distract us from our purpose. They care only about their own agendas, and if we let them they prevent us from making our highest level of contribution by siphoning our time and energy off to activities that are essential to them, rather than those that are essential to us.

#DON’T ROB PEOPLE OF THEIR PROBLEMS
We should serve, and love, and make a difference in the lives of others, of course. But when people make their problem our problem, we aren’t helping them; we’re enabling them. Once we take their problem for them, all we’re doing is taking away their ability to solve it.

Whoever it is that’s trying to siphon off your time and energies for their own purpose, the only solution is to put up fences. And not at the moment the request is made—you need to put up your fences well in advance, clearly demarcating what’s off limits so you can head off time wasters and boundary pushers at the pass. Remember, forcing these people to solve their own problems is equally beneficial for you and for them.

#BOUNDARIES ARE A SOURCE OF LIBERATION:
When we don’t set clear boundaries in our lives we can end up imprisoned by the limits others have set for us. When we have clear boundaries, on the other hand, we are free to select from the whole area—or the whole range of options—that we have deliberately chosen to explore.

#FIND YOUR DEALBREAKERS
Make a list of your dealbreakers—the types of requests or activities from that person that you simply refuse to say yes to unless they somehow overlap with your own priorities or agenda.

Another quick test for finding your dealbreakers is to write down any time you feel violated or put upon by someone’s request. It doesn’t have to be in some extreme way for you to notice it. Even a small “pinch” (to use a description I think is helpful for describing a minor violation of your boundaries) that makes you feel even a twinge of resentment—whether it’s an unwanted invitation, an unsolicited “opportunity,” or a request for a small favor—is a clue for discovering your own hidden boundaries.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Part(2) - Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less


Major Highlights from Greg McKeown's book, "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less".

*****
Part (1): here.
*****

ESCAPE: The Perks of Being Unavailable

WITHOUT GREAT SOLITUDE NO SERIOUS WORK IS POSSIBLE.  —Pablo Picasso

Before you can evaluate what is and isn’t essential, you first need to explore your options. While Nonessentialists automatically react to the latest idea, jump on the latest opportunity, or respond to the latest e-mail, Essentialists choose to create the space to explore and ponder.
An Essentialist focuses the way our eyes focus; not by fixating on something but by constantly adjusting and adapting to the field of vision.

LOOK: See What Really Matters

WHERE IS THE KNOWLEDGE WE HAVE LOST IN INFORMATION?  —T. S. Eliot

In every set of facts, something essential is hidden. And a good journalist knows that finding it involves exploring those pieces of information and figuring out the relationships between them (and my undergraduate degree was in journalism, so I take this seriously). It means making those relationships and connections explicit. It means constructing the whole from the sum of its parts and understanding how these different pieces come together to matter to anyone. The best journalists do not simply relay information. Their value is in discovering what really matters to people.

Being a journalist of your own life will force you to stop hyper-focusing on all the minor details and see the bigger picture. You can apply the skills of a journalist no matter what field you are in—you can even apply them to your personal life. By training yourself to look for “the lead,” you will suddenly find yourself able to see what you have missed. You’ll be able to do more than simply see the dots of each day: you’ll also connect them to see the trends. Instead of just reacting to the facts, you’ll be able to focus on the larger issues that really matter.

Essentialists are powerful observers and listeners. Knowing that the reality of trade-offs means they can’t possibly pay attention to everything, they listen deliberately for what is not being explicitly stated. They read between the lines. Or as Hermione Granger, of Harry Potter fame (an unlikely Essentialist, I’ll grant you, but an Essentialist in this regard all the same), puts it, “Actually I’m highly logical, which allows me to look past extraneous detail and perceive clearly that which others overlook.”

Nonessentialists listen too. But they listen while preparing to say something. They get distracted by extraneous noise. They hyperfocus on inconsequential details. They hear the loudest voice but they get the wrong message. In their eagerness to react they miss the point. As a result they may, using a metaphor from C. S. Lewis, run around with fire extinguishers in times of flood.4 They miss the lead.

In the chaos of the modern workplace, with so many loud voices all around us pulling us in many directions, it is more important now than ever that we learn to resist the siren song of distraction and keep our eyes and ears peeled for the headlines. Here are a few ways to tap into your inner journalist.

PLAY: Embrace the Wisdom of Your Inner Child

A LITTLE NONSENSE NOW AND THEN, IS CHERISHED BY THE WISEST MEN.—Roald Dahl

Play, which I would define as anything we do simply for the joy of doing rather than as a means to an end—whether it’s flying a kite or listening to music or throwing around a baseball—might seem like a nonessential activity. Often it is treated that way. But in fact play is essential in many ways. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, has studied what are called the play histories of some six thousand individuals and has concluded that play has the power to significantly improve everything from personal health to relationships to education to organizations’ ability to innovate. “Play,” he says, “leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity.” As he succinctly puts it, “Nothing fires up the brain like play.”

Play expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in a new light. It makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged. Play is fundamental to living the way of the Essentialist because it fuels exploration in at least three specific ways.

Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.

SELECT: The Power of Extreme Criteria

AN INNER PROCESS STANDS IN NEED OF OUTWARD CRITERIA.  —Ludwig Wittgenstein

In a piece called “No More Yes. It’s Either HELL YEAH! Or No,” the popular TED speaker Derek Sivers describes a simple technique for becoming more selective in the choices we make. The key is to put the decision to an extreme test: if we feel total and utter conviction to do something, then we say yes, Derek-style. Anything less gets a thumbs down. Or as a leader at Twitter once put it to me, If the answer isn’t a definite yes then it should be a no.” It is a succinct summary of a core Essentialist principle, and one that is critical to the process of exploration.

You can think of this as the 90 Percent Rule, and it’s one you can apply to just about every decision or dilemma. As you evaluate an option, think about the single most important criterion for that decision, and then simply give the option a score between 0 and 100. If you rate it any lower than 90 percent, then automatically change the rating to 0 and simply reject it. This way you avoid getting caught up in indecision, or worse, getting stuck with the 60s or 70s. Think about how you’d feel if you scored a 65 on some test. Why would you deliberately choose to feel that way about an important choice in your life?

Making our criteria both selective and explicit affords us a systematic tool for discerning what is essential and filtering out the things that are not.

If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.

Applying tougher criteria to life’s big decisions allows us to better tap into our brain’s sophisticated search engine. Think of it as the difference between conducting a Google search for “good restaurant in New York City” and “best slice of pizza in downtown Brooklyn.” If we search for “a good career opportunity,” our brain will serve up scores of pages to explore and work through. Instead, why not conduct an advanced search and ask three questions: “What am I deeply passionate about?” and “What taps my talent?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” Naturally there won’t be as many pages to view, but that is the point of the exercise. We aren’t looking for a plethora of good things to do. We are looking for the one where we can make our absolutely highest point of contribution.
 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Part(1) - Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less


Major Highlights from Greg McKeown's book, "Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less".

*****
It took courage, as it always does, to eliminate the nonessential.

The way of the Essentialist isn’t about setting New Year’s resolutions to say “no” more, or about pruning your in-box, or about mastering some new strategy in time management. It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference—learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential.

Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.

Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.

Essentialists spend as much time as possible exploring, listening, debating, questioning, and thinking. But their exploration is not an end in itself. The purpose of the exploration is to discern the vital few from the trivial many.

ESSENCE: What Is the Core Logic of an Essentialist?

Essentialism is not a way to do one more thing; it is a different way of doing everything. It is a way of thinking.

There are three deeply entrenched assumptions we must conquer to live the way of the Essentialist: “I have to,” “It’s all important,” and “I can do both.” Like mythological sirens, these assumptions are as dangerous as they are seductive. They draw us in and drown us in shallow waters.

To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to,” “Only a few things really matter,” and “I can do anything but not everything.” These simple truths awaken us from our nonessential stupor.



CHOOSE: The Invincible Power of Choice

“If you could do only one thing with your life right now, what would you do?”

We often think of choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice—a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do.

The ability to choose cannot be taken away or even given away—it can only be forgotten.


DISCERN: The Unimportance of Practically Everything

Working hard is important. But more effort does not necessarily yield more results. “Less but better” does. It’s true that the idea of a direct correlation between results and effort is appealing. It seems fair. Yet research across many fields paints a very different picture.

The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.


TRADE-OFF: Which Problem Do I Want? 
Trade-offs are real, in both our personal and our professional lives, and until we accept that reality we’ll be doomed —stuck in a “straddled strategy” that forces us to make sacrifices on the margins by default that we might not have made by design.

In the simplest terms, straddling means keeping your existing strategy intact while simultaneously also trying to adopt the strategy of a competitor.

It is easy to see why it’s so tempting to deny the reality of trade-offs. After all, by definition, a trade-off involves two things we want. Obviously, when faced with the choice between two things we want, the preferred answer is yes to both. But as much as we’d like to, we simply cannot have it all. 

A Nonessentialist approaches every trade-off by asking, “How can I do both?” Essentialists ask the tougher but ultimately more liberating question, “Which problem do I want?” An Essentialist makes trade-offs deliberately. 

As painful as they can sometimes be, trade-offs represent a significant opportunity. By forcing us to weigh both options and strategically select the best one for us, we significantly increase our chance of achieving the outcome we want.

Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?” The cumulative impact of this small change in thinking can be profound.
“You have to look at every opportunity and say, ‘Well, no … I’m sorry. We’re not going to do a thousand different things that really won’t contribute much to the end result we are trying to achieve.” 

Ignoring the reality of trade-offs is a terrible strategy for organizations. It turns out to be a terrible strategy for people as well. 

Trade-offs are not something to be ignored or decried. They are something to be embraced and made deliberately, strategically, and thoughtfully.

EXPLORE: Discern the Vital Few from the Trivial Many

One paradox of Essentialism is that Essentialists actually explore more options than their Nonessentialist counterparts. Nonessentialists get excited by virtually everything and thus react to everything. But because they are so busy pursuing every opportunity and idea they actually explore less. The way of the Essentialist, on the other hand, is to explore and evaluate a broad set of options before committing to any. Because Essentialists will commit and “go big” on only the vital few ideas or activities, they explore more options at first to ensure they pick the right one later.

To discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Animated Counting Numbers in After Effects With Comma





The Code:
var num = effect("Slider Control")("Slider")
num = Comma(num);
[num]

function Comma(number)
{
number = '' + Math.round(number);
if (number.length > 3)
{
var mod = number.length % 3;
var output = (mod > 0 ? (number.substring(0,mod)) : '');
for (i=0 ; i < Math.floor(number.length / 3); i++)
{
if ((mod == 0) && (i == 0))
output += number.substring(mod+ 3 * i, mod + 3 * i + 3);
else
output+= ',' + number.substring(mod + 3 * i, mod + 3 * i + 3);
}
return (output);
}
else return number;
}

References: https://forums.creativecow.net/thread/2/1013878

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Thinking as a Film Editor: Ahmad Hosam's Demo Reel


2017 started with a quite interesting editing challenge, when my friend Ahmad Hosam decided to trust me and put me in charge of editing a demo reel for his experimental films. Was a bit surprise that he asked me to do it, he's kinda I-like-to-do-it-self guy. Yet, I didn't hesitated for a second.

Here's it:



For YouTube lovers: youtu.be/DSwsJUO6ZaQ
Ahmad's full films could be found on his YouTube or Vimeo channels.

*****

So the challenge was: To sum 10 short experimental films, into one 1-2 minutes video, that highlights Ahmad's filmmaking skills.

Challenge Accepted!

The Process:

# After downloading the 10 films, I sliced them all up. Scanning each one, and split whenever there's a cut. This aims to simplifying the selection process for my editing. Each cut is now like a separate independent footage/clip. Besides, training my eyes to carefully examine the movies, by watching closely almost every frame.
    Click to enlarge.

    # Now it's time to make a list of the top qualities Ahmad has shown in his films, Technical, artistic, and conceptual qualities and skills. That's the main purpose of having a demo real, right?

    Before start cutting he reminded me with Kees van Dijkhuizen Jr. [the films of] demo real series that I've seen long time ago. Here's one of my favorite:



    So the question is: What's Ahamd's main qualities? (I won't answer that question here. Will leave it to your own judgement ;)

    # Knowing what I have in hand, and what I wanna achieve makes the cutting pretty easy at this stage. So, It's time to tell a story. A bit classical start-middle-end one. That's what I'm believing in when to comes to editing. Not a random cut'n'past process, but a storytelling one. 

    The trick was in identifying the qualities to be highlighted, and to convey them  as they are. Given that Ahmad's way of thinking and style is not that similar to mine when it comes to films making. It's like putting myself in his shoes and think as he might do.

    I'm pretty much satisfied with the experience and the final result (despite tiny little flaws in the sounds ins'n'outs). And glad that he's satisfied too :)

    Wednesday, March 9, 2016

    In a Blink of an Eye - Book Highlights (3)


    In a Blink of an Eye - Walter Murch
    Walter Murch's book, "In a Blink of an Eye" was a great reading for me through the last coupe months. The best part of the book was how the write emphasized on "How to think as an film editor" Here's the major highlights I liked. 

    -----
    Part (1): here.
    Part (2): here.
    -----

    Dragnet

    If it is true that our rates and rhythms of blinking refer directly to the rhythm and sequence of our inner emotions and thoughts, then those rates and rhythms are insights into our inner selves and, therefore, as characteristic of each of us as our signatures. So if an actor is successful at projecting himself into the emotions and thoughts of a character, his blinks will naturally and spontaneously occur at the point that the character’s blinks would have occurred in real life.

    To that same end, one of the disciplines I follow is to choose the “out point” of a shot by marking it in real time. If I can’t do this—if I can’t hit that same frame repeatedly at twenty-four frames per second— I know there is something wrong in my approach to the shot, and I adjust my thinking until I find a frame I can hit. I never permit myself to select the “out point” by inching back and forth, comparing one frame with another to get the best match. That method—for me, at any rate—is guaranteed to produce a rhythmic “tone deafness” in the film.

    Anyway, another one of your tasks as an editor is this “sensitizing” of yourself to the rhythms that the (good) actor gives you, and then finding ways to extend these rhythms into territory not covered by the actor himself, so that the pacing of the film as a whole is an elaboration of those patterns of thinking and feeling. And one of the many ways you assume those rhythms is by noticing—consciously or unconsciously—where the actor blinks.

    If you’re observing a dialogue between two people, you will not focus your attention solely on the person who is speaking. Instead, while that person is still talking, you will turn to look at the listener to find out what he thinks of what is being said. The question is, “When exactly do you turn?”

    There are places in a conversation where it seems we almost physically cannot blink or turn our heads (since we are still receiving important information), and there are other places where we must blink or turn away in order to make better sense of what we have received. And I would suggest that there are similar points in every scene where the cut cannot or must occur, and for the same reasons. Every shot has potential “cut points” the way a tree has branches, and once you have identified them, you will choose different points depending on what the audience has been thinking up to that moment and what you want them to think next.

    For instance, by cutting away from a certain character before he finishes speaking, I might encourage the audience to think only about the face value of what he said. On the other hand, if I linger on the character after he finishes speaking, I allow the audience to see, from the expression in his eyes, that he is probably not telling the truth, and they will think differently about him and what he said. But since it takes a certain amount of time to make that observation, I cannot cut away from the character too early: Either I cut away while he is speaking (branch number one) or I hold until the audience realizes he is lying (branch number two), but I cannot cut in between those two branches—to do so would either seem too long or not long enough. The branch points are fixed organically by the rhythm of the shot itself and by what the audience has been thinking up to that moment in the film,10 but I am free to select one or the other of them (or yet another one further on) depending on what realization I want the audience to make.

    In this way, you should be able to cut from the speaker to the listener and vice versa in psychologically interesting, complex, and “correct” patterns that reflect the kinds of shifts of attention and realization that go on in real life: In this way, you establish a rhythm that counterpoints and underscores the ideas being expressed or considered. And one of the tools to identify exactly where these cut points, these “branches,” may be is to compare them to our patterns of blinking, which have been underscoring the rhythm of our thoughts for tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of years of human history. Where you feel comfortable blinking—if you are really listening to what is being said—is where the cut will feel right.

    So there are really three problems wrapped up together:
    1. identifying a series of potential cut points (and comparisons with the blink can help you do this),
    2. determining what effect each cut point will have on the audience, and
    3. choosing which of those effects is the correct one for the film.
    I believe the sequence of thoughts—that is to say, the rhythm and rate of cutting—should be appropriate to whatever the audience is watching at the moment. The average “real-world” rate of blinking is somewhere between the extremes of four and forty blinks per minute. If you are in an actual fight, you will be blinking dozens of times a minute because you are thinking dozens of conflicting thoughts a minute—and so when you are watching a fight in a film, there should be dozens of cuts per minute.


    Your job is partly to anticipate, partly to control the thought processes of the audience. To give them, what they want and/or what they need just before they have to “ask” for it—to be surprising yet self-evident at the same time. If you are too far behind or ahead of them, you create problems, but if you are right with them, leading them ever so slightly, the flow of events feels natural and exciting at the same time.

    That brings me back to one of the central responsibilities of the editor, which is to establish an interesting, coherent rhythm of emotion and thought—on the tiniest and the largest scales—that allows the audience to trust, to give themselves to the film. Without their knowing why, a poorly edited film will cause the audience to hold back, unconsciously saying to themselves, “There’s something scattered and nervous about the way the film is thinking, the way it presents itself. I don’t want to think that way; therefore, I’m not going to give as much of myself to the film as I might.” Whereas a good film that is well-edited seems like an exciting extension and elaboration of the audience’s own feelings and thoughts, and they will therefore give themselves to it, as it gives itself to them.

    ****
    Astronomical Numbers

    If you had fifty-nine shots for a scene, which is not at all unusual, you would potentially have as many possible versions of that scene as there are subatomic particles in the entire universe! Some action sequences I’ve edited have had upwards of 250 shots, so you can imagine the kind of numbers involved.

    Now, the vast majority of these versions would be complete junk. Like the old story of a million chimpanzees at a million typewriters, most of what they banged out would make no sense at all. On the other hand, even such a “small” number as 40 followed by 24 zeros is so huge that a tiny percentage of it (the potentially good versions) will still be overwhelmingly large.

    So the queasy feeling in the pit of the stomach of every editor beginning a project is the recognition— conscious or not—of the immense number of choices he or she is facing. The numbers are so huge that there is no possibility of turning film editing into a kind of automated chess game, where all of the different options are evaluated before making a move.

    The hard truth, though, is that easier access does not automatically make for better results. The accompanying sense that “anyone can do it” can easily produce a broth spoiled by too many cooks. All of us today are able to walk into an art store and buy inexpensive pigments and supplies that the Renaissance painters would have paid fortunes for. And yet, do any of us paint on their level today?

    ****
    Digital Editing

    The editor has some immediate control over two perceptual issues in the editing room: the amount of detail that is visible in the image and the size of the image itself. Both of these can affect the rhythm of the film.

    Television is a “look-at” medium, while cinema is a “look-into” medium. You can think of the television screen as a surface that the eye hits and then bounces back. One of the functions of music videos and commercials is to attract your attention and keep it. While watching television, you’re usually looking at a small screen some distance away for a short period of time. Visual competition is all around: The lights are on, the phone may be ringing, you might be in a supermarket or department store. Television has to make things collide within that tiny frame in order to catch your attention because of the much narrower angle that the image subtends compared to theatrical film—hence the quick cuts, jump cuts, swish pans, staggered action, etc.

    There’s a completely different aesthetic when you’re in a theater: The screen is huge, everything else in the room is dark, there are (hopefully) no distractions, you are there for at least two hours; you can’t stop the film at your convenience. And so, understandably, feature editing has to be paced differently than music-video or commercial editing.

    ****

    It is important to remember that, as with all computerized systems, the creative decisions about what to do with the sound are held in a separate place from the sound itself. Only the decisions are being exported from Avid to ProTools. The sound, uncut and unmanipulated, is present on the hard drives of both systems.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2016

    In a Blink of an Eye - Book Highlights (2)


    In a Blink of an Eye - Walter Murch
    Walter Murch's book, "In a Blink of an Eye" was a great reading for me through the last coupe months. The best part of the book was how the write emphasized on "How to think as an film editor" Here's the major highlights I liked. 

    -----
    Part (1): here.
    -----

    Methods and Machines: Marble and Clay

    Editing is a kind of surgery—and have you ever seen a surgeon sitting to perform an operation? Editing is also like cooking—and no one sits down at the stove to cook. But most of all, editing is a kind of dance—the finished film is a kind of crystallized dance—and when have you ever seen a dancer sitting down to dance?

    And when you make a film, you are trying to learn a foreign language—it just happens to be a unique language that is only spoken by this one film. If you have to articulate everything, as you do with a random-access system like video/computer or Moviola/ assistant, you are limited by what and how much you can articulate and how good your original notes were.

    Well, many times in the re-editing, what you thought was originally unusable may come to be your salvation. You are learning something new about the material as you search for what you think you want. You are actually doing creative work, and you may find what you really want rather than what you thought you wanted.

    I would always review the material twice: once at the beginning, the day after the material was shot, noting down my first impressions and including any notes the director cares to give me. And then when I was ready to cut a particular scene, I would collect all the relevant material and review it again, making notes in more detail than the first time.

    When you look at rushes the second time, you have evolved and the film has evolved. You will see different things than you saw the first time, because you may have assembled scenes that hadn’t been shot the first time you saw the material, and strengths or problems may be emerging with characters and events as they unfold.

    In an ideal world, what I would like to do is assemble a first cut and then stop and just look at all the dailies again, fresh. Whether I would ever actually be able to do that is another question: The present schedule of films, at any rate, prohibits such a thing.

    In the actual editing of a scene, I will keep on working until I can no longer “see myself” in the material. When I review my first assembly of a scene, more often than not I can still vividly (too vividly!) recall making the decisions that led to each of the cuts.

    But as the scene is reworked and refined, it reaches a point, hopefully, where the shots themselves seem to create each other: This shot “makes” the next shot, which “makes” the next shot, etc. In this way, the Walter Murch who decided things initially gradually recedes until, finally, there comes a point where he has become invisible and the characters take over, the shots, the emotion, the story seem to take over. Sometimes—the best times—this process reaches the point where I can look at the scene and say, “I didn’t have anything to do with that—it just created itself.”

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    Test Screenings: Referred Pain

    Rough screenings would be for small groups of about ten people whom the film director knew, mixed with two or three people who were strangers. The strangers would have no previous idea of what this film was about, and he would question them afterward, on a one-to-one basis, to compare their opinions to the reaction of the people who did know about the film.

    Even with technically finished films, public previews are tricky things. You can learn a tremendous amount from them, but you have to be cautious about direct interpretations of what people have to say to you, particularly on those cards they fill out after the screening.

    You shouldn’t blindly follow what you learn from these test screenings any more than you should anything else. What can you learn from the differences between the previous screenings and this one? Given these two headings, where is the North Pole? Test screenings are just a way to find out where you are.

    There was one procedure on Julia that, unfortunately, I have never seen repeated. We had a person sitting at a table in the lobby of the preview theater with a sign in front of him that said, “If you want to talk to us on the telephone after a few days, leave your number here.” And then those conversations were transcribed and added into the survey. If you are going to do previews and listen to what people have to say, that’s the way to do it—after they have had a day or two to let the film sink in. Don’t look at what people write in the heat of the moment—you get a reaction, but it is a skewed reaction. There’s a lot of what is medically called “referred pain” in that process.

    When you go to a doctor and tell him that you have a pain in your elbow, it is the quack who takes out his scalpel and starts to operate on the elbow. Then you wind up with not only the original pain but probably a pain in your wrist and your shoulder as well. Whereas an experienced doctor studies you, takes an x-ray, and determines that the cause of the pain is probably a pinched nerve up in your shoulder—you just happen to feel it in your elbow. The pain in the shoulder has been “referred” to the elbow. Audience reactions are like that. When you ask the direct question, “What was your least favorite scene?” and eighty percent of the people are in agreement about one scene they do not like, the impulse is to “fix” the scene or cut it out. But the chances are that that scene is fine. Instead, the problem may be that the audience simply didn’t understand something that they needed to know for the scene to work.

    So, instead of fixing the scene itself, you might clarify some exposition that happens five minutes earlier. Don’t necessarily operate on the elbow: instead, discover if nerves are being pinched somewhere else. But the audience will never tell you that directly. They will simply tell you where the pain is, not the source of the pain.

    Editing decisions become particularly acute in the last days before the film is released, since changes made now will be permanent. If you, as the editor, have a particularly strong feeling about something at this stage, you should try to make your point as forcefully and convincingly as you can—perhaps you stay late and do a test version of your idea, sketch something out—but you also need to have discretion, a sense of who you are dealing with, and present your ideas to the director or producer in the right context. And how you go about this has to do with your whole working history, how you were hired, how much you respect the director, how much the director respects you.

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    Don't Worry, It's Only a Movie

    So why do cuts work? Do they have some hidden foundation in our own experience, or are they an invention that suits the convenience of filmmakers and people have just, somehow, become used to them?
    Well, although “day-to-day” reality appears to be continuous, there is that other world in which we spend perhaps a third of our lives: the “night-to-night” reality of dreams. And the images in dreams are much more fragmented, intersecting in much stranger and more abrupt ways than the images of waking reality—ways that approximate, at least, the interaction produced by cutting.

    Perhaps the explanation is as simple as that: We accept the cut because it resembles the way images are juxtaposed in our dreams. In fact, the abruptness of the cut may be one of the key determinants in actually producing the similarity between films and dreams. In the darkness of the theater, we say to ourselves, in effect, “This looks like reality, but it cannot be reality because it is so visually discontinuous; therefore, it must be a dream.”

    The problem with all this is that the comparison of films and dreams is interesting, probably true, but relatively barren of practical fruits: We still know so little about the nature of dreams that the observation comes to a stop once it has been made.
    Something to consider, though, is the possibility that there may be a part of our waking reality where we actually do experience something like cuts, and where daylight images are somehow brought in closer, more discontinuous, juxtaposition than might otherwise seem to be the case.

    “To me, the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes, and your eyes were projecting it themselves, so that you were seeing what you wished to see. Film is like thought. It’s the closest to thought process of any art.

    “Look at that lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Look back at that lamp. Now look back at me again. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know that there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me.”

    So it seems to me that our rate of blinking is somehow geared more to our emotional state and to the nature and frequency of our thoughts than to the atmospheric environment we happen to find ourselves in. Even if there is no head movement, the blink is either something that helps an internal separation of thought to take place, or it is an involuntary reflex accompanying the mental separation that is taking place anyway.

    And not only is the rate of blinking significant, but so is the actual instant of the blink itself. Start a conversation with somebody and watch when they blink. I believe you will find that your listener will blink at the precise moment he or she “gets” the idea of what you are saying, not an instant earlier or later. Why would this be? Well, speech is full of unobserved grace notes and elaborations—the conversational equivalents of “Dear Sir” and “Yours Sincerely”—and the essence of what we have to say is often sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion. The blink will take place either when the listener realizes our “introduction” is finished and that now we are going to say something significant, or it will happen when he feels we are “winding down” and not going to say anything more significant for the moment.

    And that blink will occur where a cut could have happened, had the conversation been filmed. Not a frame earlier or later.

    So we entertain an idea, or a linked sequence of ideas, and we blink to separate and punctuate that idea from what follows. Similarly—in film—a shot presents us with an idea, or a sequence of ideas, and the cut is a “blink” that separates and punctuates those ideas.

    At the moment you decide to cut, what you are saying is, in effect, “I am going to bring this idea to an end and start something new.” It is important to emphasize that the cut by itself does not create the “blink moment”—the tail does not wag the dog. If the cut is well-placed, however, the more extreme the visual discontinuity—from dark interior to bright exterior, for instance—the more thorough the effect of punctuation will be.

    At any rate, I believe “filmic” juxtapositions are taking place in the real world not only when we dream but also when we are awake. And, in fact, I would go so far as to say that these juxtapositions are not accidental mental artifacts but part of the method we use to make sense of the world: We must render visual reality discontinuous, otherwise perceived reality would resemble an almost incomprehensible string of letters without word separation or punctuation.

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    To Be Continued...