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St. Martin's Press
Big Picture: Lessons from a Life in Filmmaking / Edition 1

Big Picture: Lessons from a Life in Filmmaking / Edition 1

by Tom Reilly


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Film production veteran Tom Reilly has worked on the sets of critically praised films and commercial blockbusters for more than three decades—including seventeen years alongside director Woody Allen. In The Big Picture, he explores the art and the craft of filmmaking from the vantage point of someone actually running the movie set. Using examples unlike any of those in other books on film, Reilly exposes not only the power and the personalities, but the secrets of the pros. He shares the insights he gleaned while working with more than sixty Oscar-winning professionals—from Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Vanessa Redgrave to Sydney Pollack, Sven Nykvist, and Barbra Streisand.

In these fifty entertaining, illuminating short essays, Reilly invites you to join him on the film set. What is it like to shoot a love scene? How do you do a full body burn? What is it like to film in the Everglades or in a morgue? What is blocking or matching, and how long should a script be? How do you decide when to build a set? Why is the color palette so critical? Is night shooting worth the suffering?

The Big Picture delivers the surprising answers to these and other fascinating questions about what it takes to make a feature film, offering a glimpse into what it’s like when the lights are bright, the camera is rolling, and the moviemakers are calling the shots.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312380380
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/12/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 8.54(w) x 5.82(h) x 0.91(d)

About the Author

TOM REILLY is a member of the Directors Guild of America and has worked in the motion picture industry for the past thirty years. Veteran of more than forty films, Reilly worked with Woody Allen on classics such as Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Hannah and Her Sisters, Purple Rose of Cairo, and Zelig. He has also been assistant director on other major motion pictures such as Big, The Prince of Tides, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Pick-up Artist, Sabrina, and Great Expectations. He is married, has three children, and lives in Westchester County, New York.

Read an Excerpt



IT'S three o'clock in the morning. I'm standing on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, a community on the New Jersey shore that has seen better days. It is twelve degrees out, and though I am clad in Gore-Tex and goose down and fleece, the January wind off the ocean is cutting right through my clothes and skin.

I am surrounded by a seventy-five-member film crew, tons of equipment, and have only four hours and eighteen minutes until the sun comes up. Despite the cold, I am holding a walkie-talkie in my bare hand because I can't press the "talk" button down or turn the knobs with my gloves on. When I make the call, "First team's ready," a thought flashes through my mind. It is not "Will the camera freeze?" or "Will the dialogue be audible above the wind?" It is not "Will Robert De Niro and James Franco be able to navigate the icy boardwalk and deliver a performance in these conditions?" It is far more self-indulgent. At this moment, steeped in exhaustion and biting cold, I ask myself, How did I end up here? And I realize it is because I didn't want to wear a necktie.

When I got out of college and my peers headed off to Brooks Brothers and Wall Street, I knew only that one thing: that I didn't want to wear a tie to work. So I started reading Variety and noticed a small ad in the back announcing a training program offered by the Directors Guild of America. A few phone calls and a written application landed me in New York City, where I took a series of entrance exams given by the Directors Guild for a spot in a two-year training program for assistant directors. I had only a vague sense of what an assistant director did, but it sounded promising.

Of the nearly one thousand applicants, only seven of us were selected, and I was assigned to the first film to start up in New York that autumn. When I walked into the production office on day one in my white shirt and creased pants, I still wasn't wearing a tie, but I did feel something tightening around my neck. Not silk perhaps, but apprehension. I knew I had a lot to learn.

Film students and filmmakers often talk about the language of film — the lenses, method of framing, and shot selection — mat are the brick and mortar of our trade. But I didn't learn this vocabulary and grammar from textbooks with pages of diagrams depicting camera angles, or by discussing blocking, aspect ratios, and the benefits and limitations of standard coverage while sitting in a classroom. I wasn't inundated with essays enumerating the mechanics of screen direction or the philosophy behind New Wave cinema and Jean-Luc Godard's use of close-ups, or Hitchcock's high angles, Kurosawa's preference for long lenses, or Fellini's brilliance. Instead, I learned what is referred to as the vocabulary of film in the total immersion of a film set.

I learned about long lenses and depth of field not from the course material handed out second semester, or during a day spent at the library with film journals, but from the syllabus of a long string of ten-week shoots on the streets of New York. My education occurring not over a few semesters, but over a few decades. Taught to me, not by professors in a classroom, but by filmmakers with dolly track at their feet and their eye to a viewfinder. My understanding of the differences between the styles of European and American filmmakers, explained not in the theoretical secondhand words of a textbook, but by the thick, accented voices I can still hear in my head; Lajos Koltai, Miroslav Ondrícek, Juan Ruiz Anchía. ... The Europeans' love for the zoom lens; its simplicity, its versatility and freedom, the fluidity of a single shot demonstrated as I witnessed its use in the hands of Giuseppe Rotunno and Sven Nykvist. Then there's Woody's masterful blocking, Emmanuel Lubezki's inspired lighting (Great Expectations), Carlo Di Palma's camera movement (Hannah and Her Sisters), and Gordon Willis's framing and technique (Stardust Memories).

I discovered the converging and dichotomous styles of the American and British cinematographers firsthand. The years and pictures come streaming back in the voices of Billy Williams (Going in Style) and Gerry Fisher (Lovesick). One could argue that the British style of working, where the director of photography (DP) has less involvement in actual shot design than an American cinematographer would, and is more of a lighting director, leaving the operator to work with the director designing shots, may not be the best system. But a quick look at the bodies of work of the great British DPs and the argument fades. Think about Billy Williams and Gandhi, or On Golden Pond and Eleni.

Which brings me back to Asbury Park and that boardwalk in New Jersey. The movie is City by the Sea and I am the assistant director (AD). Which doesn't mean I'm the guy fetching lattes for the director. It means I am the filmmaking professional running the set and managing the day-to-day operations of the movie. My job begins several months prior to shooting, in preproduction, when the movie is nothing more than a director, a script, and possibly a leading actor. As the cast and crew are hired, I break down the script, dissecting every scene into its component parts — location, actors, props. Then I schedule the film, scout locations, and, in coordination with a team of production people, create a plan to bring the project from conceptual idea to physical execution, from movie script to movie screen. On day one of shooting, I become a field general of sorts as we take over entire city blocks with a virtual army of talent and trucks and equipment.

Early in my career, Wolfgang Glattes, another assistant director, took a moment to explain about the compression that occurs with a long lens, creating the illusion that two objects are closer together than they really are. Two boats on a river, two cars on a street, can be made to appear to almost collide without ever coming very close to each other. In that instant, with that tiny piece of film vocabulary, a mere fraction of what I would need to know about the 150-mm lens, I learned that drama, which is so often the result of an actor's performance and delivery of lines, can also be created by a camera lens. Think of the impact, the independent and combined effect that blocking, number of frames shot per second, field size, camera height, and editing techniques can have on the drama, the suspense, the comedie timing of your story. What lens do you want on the camera? What filters? How is the camera mounted? What happens if you dolly in and zoom in simultaneously, or dolly in and zoom out? If you don't know, you will find your choices limited. I recall Alfonso Cuarón's (A Little Princess, Y Tu Mamá También) simple observation that if you're filming on an ugly set, go to a long lens. Only the actors will be in sharp focus and everything else will be soft.

I learned screen direction, knowing who should be looking camera right or camera left and why, while standing just a few feet from a camera, next to some of the greatest cinematographers in the world. The absolute necessity of matching an actor's visual direction is as significant as the choreography of a fight scene, where glances, rather than punches, are laid out with precision. Think of the complicated screen direction mandated by a sequence with multiple actors sitting around a table conversing. Then consider the brilliant shot in Manhattan Murder Mystery as the camera circles five actors around a table at Elaine's, all covered in a single 270-degree shot. The scene photographed in a way that gave complete freedom from the necessity to match for screen direction. The next time you are watching a film or television commercial, notice how often directors get the eye lines wrong. The sloppy work evidenced by actors looking the wrong way when the footage is cut together.

From both the explicit and the tacit knowledge gleaned from hundreds of professional filmmakers, I acquired a fluency and competence in the language of film. I can diagram a scene like a writer can diagram a sentence, because I know both the proper grammar and the street slang of film. I know the lenses, their depth of field, and when or when not to use them.

Whether you learn the vocabulary of film sitting in a classroom or standing on a set, your goal should be technical fluency. Once this is acquired, you then have the freedom to break the rules of perfect grammar, as Jean-Luc Godard did in 1960 in Breathless when he cut out small pieces of film, removing frames at odd moments, leaving the timing visibly off and a little jarring. The editing of Breathless is analogous to a visual arrhythmia, a sentence fragment for the screen, or a syncopated jazz line, a little ragtime for the eye. Or consider something as mundane as mounting a camera on a couple of two-by-fours and creating what Barry Sonnenfeld called the "whacky-cam" on Big, when he wanted to create a shot that amounted to a paddleball's "point of view" as it flew toward a cement wall. Two grips ran with the camera mounted on the two-by-fours, fitted with an extremely wide-angle lens to eliminate any jiggling — as the camera traced the ball's path.

Then examine the handheld camerawork designed by Woody and Carlo Di Palma for Husbands and Wives and look at Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, the revolutionary work produced when a group of Danish filmmakers (Dogme 95) decided to break all the rules and change the vocabulary of film. Or perhaps you will become fluent enough to be able to recognize a roughly translated piece of the vocabulary of film outside of a movie screen, as director Arne Glimcher (The Mambo Kings, Just Cause) theorized he did when he noticed a parallel between elements of early cinema and the development of Cubism. He saw a striking similarity between the signature jumpy and fragmented movement of the cinematograph used in the early days of the Paris movie houses and what had emerged on the sketchpads and the canvases of Braque and Picasso. This led him to speculate that the jagged and jarring images of early film might possibly have been a contributing factor in the development of this revolutionary new style of art and the "fractured" movement seen in the work of these early Cubist painters. An impossible observation to make without a fluency in the vocabulary of film.

Each of these respected artists is contributing something of their own, something unsettling, unexpected, unconventional, controversial, to the vocabulary and the art of filmmaking.

The job of a filmmaker is to take a story and translate it into the language of cinema. Without a fluency in the vocabulary and grammar of filmmaking, it is an overwhelming task. So if you want to be a filmmaker, learn the language of film, the lenses, screen direction and blocking, shot composition and editing techniques. Learn it in the classroom or on the set, or begin to learn it here in the pages of this book, but learn it so well that eventually you can break some of the rules, leave the punctuation off, and follow the path of the great filmmakers and write something new.



THE first time you step onto a movie set may leave you feeling like you have just landed in a foreign country. Not only because of the unfamiliar terrain of the set, the strange landscape of equipment and personnel, of cables and trucks and costumes, but because of the distinct language spoken there. Although initially recognizable, it is oddly incomprehensible, despite the litany of familiar words. What emerges is an unusual dialect, peppered with the hybrid language of film. A redhead, a blonde. Not what you think. A trombone, a banjo. Clearly not musical instruments. A doughnut, a pancake, a quarter apple. Obviously not references to food. A bazooka, a finger, a pigeon, a fish pole, barn doors, a giraffe, an elephant ear. Not a single one of these words decipherable in the context of how it is being used.

As you try to navigate around these terms, you then stumble upon a whole new set of completely unfamiliar words and odd utterances. The technical speak, the idiosyncrasies and jargon of our motion-picture patois.

The words: an inky-dink, a basher, a Winnie, a wigwag, a scrim. Italian track, flocking paper, a gyro. Duvetyn, a cookaloris. The phrases and questions: Check the gate. Do you want the split diopter? Is sound going with lavaliers? Go down five points on the Variac. How about a Mole fan or a Ritter? Where's the Ubangi? Trace the 5 K.

You find yourself linguistically lost in the banter of the set — F.D.R., Count Bassie, sex and travel — and awash in technospeak — HMIs, tungsten, Keno flos, ultra-Dinos. A tourist in a foreign land where everyone seems to be named "Moe," you are left baffled by the seemingly dysphasic, expressive language disorder that is spoken on the set.

Like most other languages, the origin of this one is found, unquestionably, in inherent isolation. Rather than the geographic isolation that is often at the root of language diversity, the language of film production stems from professional isolation. The community of filmmakers is comprised of a self-selected, relatively small population that migrates from project to project and works in close quarters. The result is a sort of linguistic drift from English to movie parlance. It is a language that is built on terse dialogue, acronyms, fabled phrases, movie slang, and profanity: a highly specialized Creole developed not from the endemic, insular intermixing of a European and African language, but one stemming from the collision of the individual vocabularies of sound and camera and electric. Further refined by a coupling of street language and the dialogue of film schools, distorted by the influence of international crews, with their requisite slaughtering of phrases. Crew members who worked with the Czechoslovakian cinematographer Mirsolav Ondrícek knew exactly what he meant when he used the word chicken for kitchen, or when he said, "Seventy-six the monkey." Not English, not Czech, just a hybrid, colloquial film idiom.

Throw in some terms from the theater, the dialect of acting coaches and studio executives, toss it about with the highly technical and specialized jargon of each department, and we have a whole new language. It is idiomatic and idiosyncratic. Sometimes lacking any type of linguistic form and syntax, the words and phrases typically shortened and pared down. Often uttered in brief unstructured statements lacking the flourishes and patterns of normal speech. The language of the set, more a string of commands, and questions, a collection of simple acronyms, and abbreviated statements of fact. We're in. Take the china ball down five points. M.O.S. Put a double net over all and drop a half single in the deuce. A language and vocabulary built on the strange mutated lexicon of film production.

It is also regional, stemming from the geography separating East and West Coast filmmakers, creating a partial linguistic bifurcation. A splintering of east coast and west coast dialects and phraseology. A vocabulary, passed down from generation to generation and set to set, a byproduct of the oral history of filmmaking on each coast.

At the end of the shooting day, the crew slips into a sparse, almost laconic linguistic pattern, a dialect with a brevity and gruffness rooted in exhaustion, fueled by little more than the spartan hope that soon they will hear the words that announce the "Abby Singer," the second to last shot of the day, and then the fabled, long-awaited words declaring that final shot. Referred to interchangeably as either the martini (West Coast) or the window (East Coast); in the vernacular the L.F.S. — last f — king shot. While blatantly profane, it is aptly descriptive, an acronym that plays out like a long-awaited bugle call heralding the wrap.

But remember that before you get anywhere near the end of a day, and even before you start tripping over the diction of this foreign tongue, if you are a first-time director, the first thing you will hear on the very first day of shooting from the assistant director is the very clear, the very concise, the simple, straightforward English words, "So, what do you want to do?"

They are at once completely comprehendible yet undoubtedly the most baffling words of all. Neither technical nor profane, not abbreviated or slang, yet they stop you in your tracks. Just like a simple phrase spoken to a tourist who knows only pigeon French, the question "So, what do you want to do?" can leave you feeling dumbfounded, your mind rendered blank. It is in that single moment that you know you can't possibly respond in even the most simplistic way until you learn not only the vocabulary of film but the language of the set, as well.


Excerpted from "The Big Picture"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Tom Reilly.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Learn the vocabulary of film.,
2. Learn the language of the set.,
3. Pick your ten best shots.,
4. What is a shot, anyway?,
5. If it's not in the shot, it doesn't matter.,
6. Stories don't have to be linear. Consider creative ways to warp time.,
7. Don't leave money on the editing room floor. Size matters.,
8. Don't underestimate the power of a single line.,
9. Move the walls, not the trucks. Building a set gives you total control.,
10. Know your way around the marketplace as well as the palace.,
11. Great cinematographers are worth their weight in gold.,
12. Seal the deal with a great operator.,
13. Shoot on a low floor.,
14. Shoot in flat light.,
15. ... Unless the sun plays a role in the film.,
16. The color palette is critical.,
17. Move into your car.,
18. The strip board is the Rosetta stone of filmmaking.,
19. What should be in your back pocket when you show up on set.,
20. Face the realities of the budget. Even fifty million won't seem like enough.,
21. Fifty-three shooting days. Now what? How to schedule a movie.,
22. Shoot a short day.,
23. Blocking is overlooked and undervalued.,
24. The background action: how to keep it real and why to get it right.,
25. Matching for continuity: why it's critical.,
26. Working between the sheets: The only thing "hot" is the lights.,
27. The wisdom of the unrehearsed scene.,
28. The actors don't always have to be in frame.,
29. Consider stealing some shots.,
30. A film is a work in progress.,
31. Expensive toys aren't always worth the money.,
32. Don't use a flamethrower when a match will do.,
33. Forget about the monitor.,
34. Move the camera. They invented the dolly for a reason.,
35. Then let it stand still: virtues of the static camera.,
36. The absolute brilliance of the single master shot.,
37. Assume nothing.,
38. Night work: Know when the suffering is worth it.,
39. Earth, wind, and rain: You can't ignore the fundamental elements.,
40. Fire and brimstone: full-body burns and the impossible shot.,
41. The set has a chemistry: Big egos ... Big money ... Big art.,
42. Magic hour, magic moments.,
43. ... But it's not all autographs and sunglasses.,
44. "Poor man's process": Consider ways to go "cheap.",
45. Sweat the small stuff — routinely.,
46. Filmmaking is always about both the art and the money.,
47. Or is it? The auteur filmmaker versus the gun for hire.,
48. If you're not in a union, you probably won't get to work on a feature film.,
49. Hire the best crew. The teamsters matter.,
50. Always have a nice lunch.,

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