Who the Hell am I Talking to?: Mastering the Many Languages of Motion Pictures

Kimmy and Jamal sat quietly on a cheap dorm room bed. Gerri, the film’s director, had just called “cut,” and was shuffling around the cramped room.

“We’re ready for another take,” Kimmy said. “Do you have any notes?” Gerri looked up from her script (she’d been staring blankly at the first page of the scene) and said, “Yeah. Just act… better.” The actors looked at each other briefly, exchanging expressions of thinly-masked dismay. “Uh… OK!” said Kimmy, as brightly as she could manage. Although I was also a director and former actor, on this project I was producing. And as producer, it was my job to handle logistics, not artistry. So I slipped out of the room and went to help craft services make smoothies.

I’ve changed everyone’s names in this little anecdote because the facts are unfortunately, embarrassingly true. The director actually said out loud, “Just act… better.” And the worse part is, she actually thought she was communicating effectively with her actors.

It goes without saying, she was wrong. But it’s unfair to put all the blame on her without putting her plight in context. Gerri was relatively new to filmmaking, and directing is incredibly complex. Truth be told, there is no such thing as adequate communication on set. Our industry incorporates no fewer than eight distinct, insular, jargon-dense “languages,” and to direct well, you have to master them all. Some departments share common concepts, but all use discrete terminology that a director needs to understand if she wants to have a constructive dialogue with everyone on her team. And fruitful communication isn’t just a matter of memorizing definitions. The only true way to master the languages of production is to master the concepts. You must know everything you can about cameras, production design, finance, visual effects, computers, sound, music, electricity and acting in order to communicate with each crewmember on a show.

A director needs to be able to talk lighting with a cinematographer, and needs to understand the electrical implications of an aesthetic choice so his cinematographer can relay that information to the gaffer. She needs to understand the language of location audio to reduce the complexities of dialogue editing in post. And above all, she needs to communicate performance choices to actors if she intends to sculpt a performance effectively. As an independent filmmaker, you’ll probably also be raising your own money, which requires you to communicate with investors, bankers, and attorneys. If you’re starting to think that the list of dialects you have to learn seems long—if not endless—you’re right.

However, as I mentioned earlier, memorizing terminology isn’t the solution. Surface-level communication will quickly expose your lack of true understanding. I’ve met directors who say, “I only shoot my movies in ‘Scope,” not realizing Cinemascope was phased out in 1967. Is the director speaking about a widescreen format? Sure, but which one? (This is one of the reasons I’m a stickler for using numbers when talking about aspect ratios; you can avoid miscommunication with exact figures like 1.77, 1.85, and 2.39.)

Whenever I hear someone talk about “method actors,” I cringe. There’s no such thing as “The Method.” “The Method” is nothing more than a term invented by journalists in the 1950s, and its (unfortunate) persistence in the lexicon just leads to—you guessed it—miscommunication. When people say “The Method,” they might be referring to actors who’ve studied Lee Strasberg. But look at the Wikipedia page for “Method Acting” acting and you’ll find references not only to Strasberg, but to Uta Hagan, Sanford Meisner, and Stella Adler—four master acting instructors who formed four disparate theories on their craft. Again, there’s no such thing as “The Method.” The are only “Methods.”

At this point, you’re probably starting to feel daunted. “How will I ever learn enough?” you might be asking. Well, while there are no short cuts, there are straightforward solutions. Between Google’s search engine and Amazon’s impossibly vast bookstore, you can delve into each of these disciplines at your own pace. When I begin a new project, for instance, one of the first tasks I undertake is making a book wish list. If you’re a new filmmaker, look for books that give overviews of the specific disciplines. For advanced filmmakers, dig even deeper into areas you already feel you’ve mastered (you haven’t mastered them, by the way). If you’re doing a movie about American Special Forces, then read the US Army Special Forces Handbook, published by the Department of the Army and available to Kindle owners for 99¢. If you’re shooting a film based on a Jane Austen novel, it might be wise to also read Jane Austen’s Guide To Good Manners by Josephine Ross.

Know of What You Speak

Avoid jargon whose etymology you don’t know. Cryptic, insider language says, “I’m part of the club and you aren’t.” For instance, I can’t help but roll my eyes every time I hear someone ask for a “C-47” instead of a clothespin. Calling an electrical cable a “stinger” doesn’t help a novice PA bring you an extension cord any faster. You may need to know these terms (because, sadly, there are filmmakers who’ll judge your directing abilities by whether or not you know what an Abby Singer is ((hint: it’s the second-to-last shot of the day)), but that clubby language doesn’t have anything to do, fundamentally, with being a good filmmaker.

On the other hand, there are terms related to the nuts and bolts of filmmaking that you need to know. “Striking” is not only grounded etymologically in the science of light and electricity, it’s also the industry term for turning on a light. When an actor refers to her “sides,” the word might have an antiquated origin (it actually refers to the pages of the script held by a stagehand in the wings of the theater). But if you ask your actors, “Do you have your ‘pages?'” you’ll probably get a blank stare in return.

If you’re wondering how to differentiate between arcane-but-useful terms (“Foley pit,” a sound effects recording booth named for sound pioneer Jack Foley; “off book,” the term for having your day’s sides memorized) and silly, useless ones (like “buff & puff,” for sending an actor to hair and makeup; or “helmer,” a synonym for director), there are a few rules to keep in mind. If a term doesn’t have a more precise synonym (for example, “striking”), use the jargon. Otherwise, you risk miscommunication. But if a term has a lot of synonyms, you don’t need some fancy term of art. Saying “helmer” when you mean “director” doesn’t aid communication; it just confuses neophytes.

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Understanding a broad range of filmmaking jargon is a crucial directorial ability. Photograph by Jon Betz

What to Read

I’m reluctant to give a reading list because it’s impossible to create one that’s appropriately comprehensive. To direct is to communicate with everyone, and therefore the body of knowledge you must understand has no limits. With that in mind, if you’ve read many of the books listed below, or disagree with my preferences, then congratulations; you’re already well on your way to understanding these concepts. But if you’re just starting out, here’s an introductory list:

ACTING:

  • Sanford Meisner on Acting by Sanford Meisner, Dennis Longwell &
  • Sydney Pollack
  • Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen
  • Acting in Film (Revised Expanded Edition) by Michael Caine
  • A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Mellisa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeleine Olnek & Nathaniel Pollack
  • An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski

VISUAL EFFECTS:

  • The VES Handbook of Visual Effects edited by Jeffrey A. Okun & Susan Zwerman
  • Special Effects: The History & Technique by Richard Rickitt & Ray Harryhausen
  • The Green Screen Handbook: Real-World Production Techniques by Jeff Foster

SOUND DESIGN:

  • Practical Art of Motion Picture Sound by David Lewis Yewdall MPSE
  • The Sound Effects Bible by Ric Viers

FINANCE:

  • The Wall Street MBA by Reuben Advani
  • The Fundamentals of Corporate Finance by Stephen A. Ross, Randolph Westerfield & Bradford D. Jordan
  • Green Weenies and Due Diligence by Ron Sturgeon

COMPUTERS & SOFTWARE:

  • Dictionary of Computer & Internet Terms by Douglas Downing Ph.D., Michael Covington Ph.D., Melody Maudlin Covington and Catherine Anne Covington
  • Beginners Guide To Adobe Photoshop by Michelle Perkins
  • After Effects Apprentice by Chris & Trish Meyer

NONLINEAR EDITING:

  • Nonlinear Editing: Storytelling Aesthetics & Craft by Bryce Button
  • Dialogue Editing for Motion Pictures by John Purcell

CAMERA PLACEMENT:

  • Film Directing Shot by Shot by Steven D. Katz

GENERAL FILMMAKING:

  • The Filmmaker’s Handbook by Steven Ascher
  • The DV Rebel’s Guide by Stu Maschwitz

MUSIC:

  • Basic Music Theory by Jonathan Harnum
  • Understanding Basic Music Theory by Catherine Schmidt-Jones

WEAPONS, WARFARE & MILITARY TACTICS:

  • Weapon: A Visual History of Arms and Armor by Roger Ford
  • Special Forces Guerrilla Warfare Manual by Scott Winberley

STUNTS:

  • The Secret Science Behind Movie Stunts & Special Effects by Steve Wolf
  • Fight Choreography by John Kreng

QUICK GUIDE TO FILM TERMINOLOGY:

  • www.imdb.com
  • www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_crew MM

This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2013.

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