This past Sunday, as I headed to the Hilton in downtown Seattle to attend the Directing Motion Tour with Vincent Laforet, I had some trepidation as to whether it was going to really be worth spending such a beautiful day inside a dimmed conference room. When I emerged 10 hours later, there was no doubt that I had made the right choice. Vincent had set my brain on fire with an electrifying experience of in-depth directing knowledge.
Previously I’ve attended workshops with industry professionals like Walter Murch and Philip Bloom, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like what Vincent has put together, which has the complex execution of a well rehearsed Apple Keynote combined with the focused knowledge you’d get at one of the best TED talks. There were roughly 80 people in attendance. Everyone was sitting in rows of around five and each table had a large monitor hooked up to whatever was being shown (either from the laptop or the cameras) so there was no way you could possibly miss what was going on. There was a decent sized set that they had erected and lit on one side of the room and a number of full camera systems set up that were used both by the crew working with Vincent, as well as, the students when practical shoots were being done. A lot of the equipment had been donated from companies like Canon, Kessler, Marshal, Manfrotto and countless others. It was all set up, fully working, and entirely available for trying out before/ after class or on breaks. There was also representatives from companies like FreeFly Systems and Atmos in the back of the room which was another great opportunity to try out equipment and talk to reps from relevant industry companies.
Establishing The Fundamentals
One of the difficulties for teaching these types of one day, full on courses is that it’s impossible to know the overall skill level of those attending, so first thing on the agenda was to define the language of cinema. This covered all of the core terms such as tilt, pan, push in, zoom out etc. along with examples from a wide selection of films and demonstrations by Vincent with student volunteers. This was vital so that when the practical sessions were to be done later, everyone was working with and communicating to each other using the same vernacular. Vincent’s style of teaching was relaxed but focused. His Keynote presentation was solidly put together and it was easy to take notes as he went along. You could see that the team put a lot of time and effort into making it flow and the result was a steady amount of information being clearly delivered to everyone. (A good way to judge this was that the questions that people asked were informed and relevant to the topic at hand throughout the day.)
The Practical Side of Things
Vincent showed some great examples of camera coverage from his favorite films, had detailed motion diagrams to show how the scenes were shot, and then got a group of students to volunteer to come up and try shooting the exact same scenes using the set the crew had built and two actors that were brought in for the day. Most directors would have had a hard time directing an experienced crew to try and tackle these scenes, let alone direct a crew that didn’t know one another and had just seen the storyboard for the shot sequence. This is where a whole new level of learning was conveyed to the class simply by watching how Vincent approached working with everyone and communicated with them. He was hands on just enough to make sure things were moving forward, but never became overbearing with anyone. He was the Director, everyone knew this, and everyone was working with him to get the scene shot, and they did which was pretty amazing to see. If there was an issue, he would stop and talk with a student and help them to correct it before jumping back into the production.
Shoot and Review
A highlight of the workshop was an extended and complex shoot using some of the assistants and camera operators that Vincent has as his road crew. (These guys were amazingly friendly and very accommodating to people asking questions, especially when you take into account that they hadn’t slept more than a few hours since breaking down in Vancouver the night before and setting up in Seattle that morning.) The whole crew had obviously filmed similar scenes with Vincent in prior classes, but it was tremendously educational to see how he interacted with them (not all takes were successes and they did probably close to six or seven takes to get the scene shot. There was also one take ruined by some horrible actor in the front row). Vincent also switched up the equipment that was used on each take going from a Steadycam system, to a shoulder rig, to a MOVI, to using the dolly set up. During the night session, Bryan, one of the techs showed the class a quick edit out of Adobe Premeire for all three shoots that were done that day. Seeing the edited results of what we had all worked on, as well as, the larger shoot with footage from various takes cut together made everything Vincent had been teaching that day become crystal clear. It was all there. The edits had all of the techniques from the theory section applied exactly as he had explained them. By seeing these edits, I realized the tremendous impact that a skilled director has on a production and began to understand and more full apreciate the level of detail, preparation and knowledge required to become such a director.
Breaking Down The Nike Shoot
In December 2013 Vincent was involved with shooting a 90 second commercial for Nike. I’ll admit, the first few times I watched it, I was not overly wowed by the spot. It had top tier athletes doing what they normally do (showing amazing athletisism) and interesting looking Nike shoes and clothes in eye catching colors all cut to an in your face music track. However, during the evening session, Vincent pealed back the layers and showed the months of work that went into making the 90 second spot from the very first email through to final edit. He covered the logistical challenges, the depth of client communication required, the technical issues, and shared a tremendously insightful (and simple) solution to a unexpected disaster of a problem. Nike has been very accommodating and has let Vincent show some of the detailed pre-production work that was done for the ad. You’re not going to see cost figures, but you certainly get a good look at the days and weeks of pre-production involved. The amount of creative development, diagraming, budgeting, testing, reviewing, emailing, scouting, and praying are all gone over and I came away at the end with a truly new found respect for what it takes to shoot a commercial for such a client. (Note: be prepared to not sleep for several weeks/months and find the answer to thousands of tiny questions when working with clients at this level.)
One of the added bonuses for doing a workshop like this in the city you live in, is that you have an opportunity to meet people and make connections. During the lunch break I was invited by some of the other attendees to join them at their table which led to a lot of comparing and sharing of what was happening locally here in Seattle in regards to video and film production. Connections were made, details exchanged and new opportunities formed around the group. It’s important to be reminded that there are others out there doing the exact same thing, and that they might be able to help us at Pixel Bokeh, or we might be able to help them on their productions. I can easily say I came away with three or four really solid connections at this event.
The Take Away
So what did I get from this workshop? The easy answer is I came away with a ton of great information, but I’d break it down like this: First and foremost the realization of how important it is to shift focus to pre-production in order to really execute well on set. When you thoroughly analyze and prepare for everything that needs to happen, and effectively communicate that to the crew, then you have the right approach to directing where you make it look effortless and the results are professional. This workshop really helped me to know which areas I needed to focus on and plan for in pre-production in order to have production go smoothly. Second, I discovered a new found responsibility to making sure that my camera movement has a point and a purpose to progressing the story every step of the way. In the past, I could pretty quickly select which angle and framing I wanted for a scene (usually by referencing my storyboard) but now I will be actively thinking about camera position and coverage in a more layered approach to take into account things like the shot sequence for efficient overall production (don’t want to be paying that overtime due to poor sequencing), pre-determining when I can use stand ins for some shots which will allow for more time for getting better performances with the principal actors, and I will be hard at work, developing a layered long shot with relevant “eye candy” that really locks together great story development with high calibre production techniques.
Vincent and his crew have done a fantastic job of ensuring that you come away feeling like you got your money’s worth and then some. The Directing Motion tour has around another 20 dates to go and if it’s coming to a city near you, I would say it’s not to be missed. You can see tour dates here: Directing Motion Tour.