Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Roots and Branches

By Tom Inglesby

The old adage “Everyone has to start somewhere” is both obvious and somewhat profound. In the digital age, however, the “where” sometimes gives the starter a false sense of accomplishment before it is earned. What I mean is, the Internet is filled with videos “produced” by people with cameras who become celebrities and instant filmmakers without the traditional training and experience. If anyone with a camera is a filmmaker, where will professional filmmakers work?

Ages ago, I learned the trade incrementally. Back then, we actually had apprenticeships, learning opportunities at the bottom of the stack. I had a background in radio and educational TV from my college days before I landed my first real filmmaking job, as an audio engineer—the sound guy—for Encyclopedia Britannica Films, the premier educational film producer. In the late 1960s, I developed their in-house recording studio and found myself going on locations to record everything from natural sounds to voices with a Nagra tape recorder.

By working with the producer and crew in the field, I was learning by observation. And being there when something went wrong—these were, after all, basically documentaries and we know that things go wrong in docs—gave me both a chance to see how to deal with problems and be available to help solve them. There is nothing scarier than having a respected producer yell at you, “Hey, kid, get on that second camera and get to work.” Especially when you’ve never touched an Arriflex before.
Back in the studio, we dubbed the voices and sound effects on magnetic film so the editor could match it to the visuals using a Moviola. It was primitive compared to today’s digital editing, precluding easy entry by those with interest—and often talent—who didn’t have access to the resources. And that, perhaps, is where the traditional methods let us down. Professionals came up through the ranks before getting their big chance; classic story line. But talented people found many doors closed if they didn’t go down the university path or union apprenticeship. Another old adage: “You need experience to get experience.”

The cost and ease of entry today marks a change, one that lets talent be the driver not experience. But ease of entry also builds, it seems, an uneasy relationship between professionals and wannabes. When we have film festivals honoring the value of shooting a feature with an iPhone, those who labor long hours with an F65 might feel a little dishonored.

Some companies in the business understand the need to get more opportunities for talent to come forth through education. VideoBlocks is one, sponsoring a College Film Contest. Filmmakers at the undergraduate and graduate level are eligible to win a first prize of $5,000 by sending in an original piece that incorporates VideoBlocks content. Four runner-up prizes of $1,000 will also be awarded, in addition to a $1,000 prize for the sponsoring professor of the first place winner—a total of $10,000 in cash prizes.

Cinematographer and director Arthur Albert will judge the contest. Albert has served as director of photography for Breaking Bad, ER, The Blacklist, Better Call Saul, and numerous other film and television hits. The contest is an initiative to support the artistic development of the next generation of directors, cinematographers, and producers.

As one with his roots in educational films, I applaud VideoBlocks for their efforts and look forward to seeing the results.