This week, Suri Krishnamma’s multi-part review of books on practical directing continues with a report on Mike Figgis’ Digital Film-Making.
In the last instalment, Suri examined Alexander Mackendrick’s On Film-Making: An introduction to the craft of the director. You can read the report here.
DIGITAL FILM-MAKING by Mike Figgis
“…there is no reason to prevent anybody from making a film…the entire equipment to make a film can go in a couple of cases and be carried as hand luggage on a plane.”
Mike Figgis began his filmmaking career in the 1970s and works across all moving image platforms at a wide range of budget levels. His films include the Oscar nominated Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and the experimental Timecode (2000). A keen photographer and musician, he is passionate about guerrilla filmmaking and encouraging emerging visual artists. He is a founding patron of Shooting People. Among his other achievements, he is the inventor of the multi-purpose camera support system, the Fig Rig.
Figgis’s book contains eleven chapters covering key areas of the filmmaking process, from preproduction, through shooting, and into post-production.
In the early chapters, Figgis shows his passion and love of the camera which, he recommends, should always be altered in some way by the owner to personalise it, even if it’s the simple act of cutting the strap off. He describes in detail his move from film to digital recording, from his early experiences with super-8mm, through to 16mm and then digital, using a range of amateur and professional cameras. He describes how he moved from editing with the original film super-8mm to VHS and Betamax formats.
In the chapters on pre-production, Figgis suggests there are two types of directors – the ‘Napoleons’ and the ‘Artists’, ‘Napoleons’ being those who stand by a crane with a large crew, then suggests that digital filmmaking is more suited to the ‘artist’.
He stresses the importance of knowing your budget and its limitations and suggests there are a variety of ways to finance a film – but the bigger the budget the less you can control it, creatively. Pre-planning, he asserts, is everything, and recommends that in pre-production you make a list of all that can go wrong; then in post-production, he suggests you make a list of all that did go wrong once it’s over!
In the chapters on lighting and camera movement, Figgis urges the reader to use the camera’s own effects to experiment with. Although passionate about lighting, he suggests that in digital filmmaking, where you can see the image as you shoot and manipulate later, the role of the director of photography is almost redundant. A strong advocate of camera movement, Figgis suggests that the early days of cinema, when cameras were cumbersome, movement was difficult, but that is no longer the case, and movement, he argues, was the real birth of cinema. But, he cautions, too many people fall in love with moving the camera without knowing why they’re moving it.
On the process of directing actors, Figgis describes the different challenges of working with trained vs. untrained actors: a trained actor can help with more technical issues whereas an untrained actor cannot. He suggests the director should try acting themselves – even if just standing in front of a group and reciting text, to get a sense of how hard it is. Good actors will seem to achieve their performances effortlessly, but directors must not be seduced into thinking that that means it’s easy.
In the sections on post-production, Figgis suggests the filmmaker should be considering the requirements of the cutting room while shooting, keeping a careful log of all material and urging that the editor be on board from as early as possible. He strongly recommends the editor work in the same environment as the rest of the crew.
Figgis writes from a strong, experiential base, with a clear voice and a generous desire to share his passion for filmmaking with others, in particular his passion for cameras and photography. Because he eagerly moves with the times (super-8, 16mm, analogue video and digital) his writing still feels fresh and relevant in today’s multi-format, multi-platform world.
A little dogmatic at times, especially for someone so keen to support original work, the reader should not be put off by Figgis’ insistence that you MUST keep your camera with you at all times and you MUST know it inside out, creatively and technically.
On acting, Figgis urges the director to do whatever they can to make sure the best performance is saved for the take. One way to ensure this is not to over-rehearse, so as to avoid the actor doing something they like in the rehearsal and then trying to copy it for the take. At best, the result will be an imitation of the original rather than something fresh and authentic.
On giving notes to an actor, and in particular when considering a scene that isn’t working, Figgis cautions the director to remain calm and think about the following to help work your way free:
- What is the point of the scene and what do we hope to achieve by the end of it?
- What material do we have and why isn’t it working?
- What do we do about it? What can we do to achieve this goal?
- Based on the above, perhaps improvise your way out of the problem?
Figgis urges the filmmaker to spend as much time as they can with cameras, but also that it doesn’t matter what the equipment is – it matters who the artist is. Working on set, Figgis urges directors to be leaders, but if they lack that innate external quality or can’t ‘act’ it, then you need to rely on your 1st AD to lead – it has to be one or the other.
Written for the student with the specific purpose of passing on his experiential knowledge and therefore demystifying the filmmaking process, Figgis’s book offers a personal view on practical filmmaking, educating the reader whilst written in an entertaining style, making it easy to recommend to young filmmakers. His journey from celluloid formats to the rapidly changing digital world give valuable historical context for the modern filmmaker. Unafraid of challenging traditional film industry views (such as advocating the editing software ‘iMovie’ over more ‘professional’ applications such as ‘Final Cut Pro’ or Adobe’s ‘Premier Pro’) he reveals refreshingly anarchic attitudes.
Famously rejected from the National Film and Television School, he is a self-promoting example of how to succeed without the support of elite institutions. His encouragement of independent, guerrilla filmmakers will excite readers who are looking to carve a unique, individual path – his generous spirit might even allow us to forgive him for inventing the ‘Fig-rig’!
Figgis, M. (2007) Digital Film-Making, London: Faber & Faber