CREATIVE DIRECTION | DESIGN | FILM
© ERIC CHAMBERLAIN 2016 | 505.975.8597
Gyrus feature film
Production company: Angelic Engineering
Gyrus is not only a film property, but a platform to explore design and production techniques. The goal is to be simultaneously artistic and accessible. External site: Gyrus.
Synopsis: Gyrus is a fantasy/drama about the convergence of biological, technological and spiritual evolution. As a researcher and his subject attempt to access a newly discovered space in reality, they reveal the true nature of humanity. Against the backdrop of a world in tumult, the film follows the evolution of a lost and suffering protagonist into the heroic figure known as Gyrus.
In any endeavor we must first consider three overlapping trends as they pertain to a goal:
1. Social trends: Audiences are tired of being lectured by what they perceive as a leftist and depraved Hollywood culture that does not respect its audience. People are tired of reboots, remakes, sequels and prequels.
2. Technological trends: More consumers watch more material on smaller screens, while larger home screens are more affordable and widespread. Production equipment that can produce high-quality results is more affordable.
3. Industry trends: Hollywood is hobbled by the aforementioned social trends as well as by the weight and size of its own machinery; contemporary productions can produce greater results with fewer resources. The strategy of mass-producing movies in the hopes that one success will pay for the others is more inviable as budgets increase. Distribution is fractured. An openness to producing more creative films (Mother!, for example) is hindered by the social disconnect between Hollywood and the audience. The strategy of making profits internationally at the expense of respecting the domestic audiences puts money before culture and damages the art form.
Developing a property that is both artistic (required to establish my unique voice in the industry) and accessible (financial justification) is a difficult proposition. The following aspects may be considered:
1. Name. The name, Gyrus, is appealing, suggestive and, at two syllables, powerful and easy to remember. The name is represented in the film in several ways:
2. Logo. The logo for Gyrus, depicted above, visually describes the namesake of the film. The spiral represents both coming and going, while the outwardly radiating spokes imply perpetuity. At the center is a human life. As a whole, the logo symbolizes an evolution from a small human life into the radiation of power, as depicted in the film. The total form of the logo is that of a glyph taken from ancient tribes, the Gyrati and the Gydeshi, who recorded their knowledge of related phenomenon with their ancient language, of which this glyph is one symbol, or word. The logo is designed to be easily reproduced and appealing to fans regardless of their age or gender. It is easily recognizable and easy to remember. As you will read about below, the research corporation in the film, Vyrys (see external site), is also branded accordingly.
3. Tribes. The lore of Gyrus, something also mentioned in the film, includes two ancient tribes: the Gydeshi and the Gyrati. These are ancient people who were aware of the gyrus, what it is and where it leads. As for the brand and its future, the two tribes represent sides, or teams. Red versus Blue. Us versus Them. In other words, games. Gyrus, with its endless possibility for worlds to explore, lends itself to innumerable gaming platforms.
4. Timeless and vast. The connection to the ancient world, as well as the connection to our future as a species, has universal appeal. While no property can be all things to all people, the world of Gyrus has potentially wide-ranging entertainment applications. Furthermore the planar, otherworldly spaces to explore offer infinite potential for growth, for even more diverse audiences. Amazing characters and creatures occupy the discovered space known as the Shadotecture, while the near-future world of the early 2020s offers it's own compelling characters, devices and bots.
5. Aesthetic. As mentioned, the goal is to be artistic yet accessible. Contrary to popular belief, these two characteristics are not mutually exclusive. Gyrus is inspired in part by Neorealist and contemplative films, yet it has immediately compelling characters, is made with modern techniques and will show familiar concepts in heretofore unseen ways. By using such techniques as dramatic irony, counterpoint and the cinematic techniques listed below, Gyrus will enable the protagonist and his audience to learn together as a sublime reality is revealed.
6. Audience. Knowing and respecting the audience is the key to accomplishing the goals of the film. Unlike many filmmakers, I will respect the ability of the audience to make inferences, have revelations and, in essence, "do the math" on their own. Not only does this engender mutual respect, it increases the quality of the film via its avoidance of the clutter of needless exposition and the sin of explication. Furthermore, timely subjects such as walls, surveillance and division occupy the background environment without lecturing the audience and without distracting from the goals of the main characters.
7. Enhanced lore. External content that enhances the lore and drives interest in growth exists in the form of a fictitious corporation that exists in the world of the Gyrus. This corporation, known as Vyrys (see external site), is a conduit to the world of the film and its phenomena. Such content external to the film creates a sustained brand awareness for the property.
8. Different. Gyrus is different. Doing the same thing as everyone else, even when done well, means the greatest success that can be achieved is the smallest sliver of market remaining. Gyrus inherently defeats this pitfall and draws attention to itself by being different. Gyrus is not another space movie, not another superhero movie, not another zombie movie. It is an accessible work of cinematic art that lays the groundwork for a vast property on a global scale.
9. Outside interest. Given that I am writing, directing, producing and starring in the film, as well as playing multiple characters, composing the music and doing post-production myself, there is outside interest in the film. The film's trailer is streaming at the Santa Fe Network and Cinefex magazine has expressed interest in possibly doing a piece after the film is completed and achieves distribution.
10. Merchandise. The extended world, its interesting characters and creatures and the sustained brand of Gyrus lend themselves to merchandising and ancillary sales. Bots, wraiths and other creatures have been designed to be affordably manufactured.
Creative and technical strategy
The strategy behind using Gyrus as a design platform is based on using new cinematic techniques to both solve old problems and to break new ground. How would technology be designed if human anatomy was different? Anatomy drives technology drives aesthetic. How would changes impact our creative decisions? What would our sense of aesthetic be if we could think, move, act and react differently, many times faster than we do? What if our capabilities were much slower? These and other considerations follow.
Mechanical approach versus conventions
While I am familiar with octa-prorated page-per-minute screenplays, storyboards and shooting scripts I believe that these handicap the art form as follows:
Screenplays: While useful for large groups of people and larger projects, the nature of cinema as a flow of energy can not and should not be dictated by the geography of paper. Screenplays are open to interpretation, compromising the vision. You don't need to take my word for it; Werner Herzog, Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick should suffice.
Storyboards: Static images that mislead. What looks good static frame to static frame does not necessarily translate, through imagery, the desired flow of energy when it is live action or animated. Animatics are better, but animatics can be misleading if they are not drawn with the perspective associated with the proper focal length.
Shooting script: Time consuming to read; we may as well combine it with the shot list.
Solution: I write short stories in prose in order that everyone on the team knows exactly what feel, tone and aesthetic I seek. I use index cards for beats (as well as the beat layout in Final Draft), as a shooting script and to sketch visual ideas. I design shots in advance based on the necessary flow of energy, then adapt to the realities of the location, redesign and shoot. Shots that require complex blocking, staging and addition choreography or VFX considerations are mapped in a top-down view. A shot list is made, along with a schedule to accommodate.
Because I am executing the film myself a protocol is required to keep track of myriad elements and ensure consistency and quality. This is especially useful given that, during production, I must switch back and forth between the creative (acting) and the technical (cinematography and motion control) mindsets. I have wherefore developed a system acronymed ADAPT:
Arrange edit: know entry and exit edits first
Design shot: blocking and staging
Ascertain aesthetic: perpendicular considerations such as parallax, foreground objects, shadow and reflections
Photograph plate: shoot plate with no actors, with cinematographic changes as required, for post-production
Take shot: Execute the actual shot as planned
The aforementioned "sublime" (5, above) is an artistic concept associated with the transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism that refers to greatness in idea and form, beyond typical understanding or replication, and in a way that can be simultaneously beautiful yet terrifying. It literally means reaching up to the threshold of something beyond, which is precisely what Gyrus and Angelic Engineering are about. This is important because the backdrop of Gyrus is the dualistic nature of humans as creatures that can be both. This concept will be represented in the aesthetic of the film. For example, the apocalyptic nature of the exterior world will be wondrous and beautiful rather than the cliched dark and frightening visions we have seen countless times. Finally, the artistic aesthetic known as Tonalism will inform the grading of the film.
After experimenting with various aspect ratios I have decided that Gyrus will be shot for a 2:1 ratio. I began with a leaning towards 2.35:1 due to its well-known cinematic aesthetic. In fact, the original trailer material was produced in this ratio.
However after analyzing the interior locations, specifically near the beginning of the film, it became clear that 2.35:1 would be a detriment to compositional options, as there is only so much that can be done with foreground or midground subjects and depth, especially in a single room. The next ratio tried was 1.85:1. Although this was better it was too close to video (1.77:1, more below) for my taste.
Secondly were issues associated with lack of vertical depth. Once more going to the well of the sublime, Gyrus requires such vertical depth, specifically for exterior shots and mattes, in order to reveal the scope of phenomenon and our physical relation to it, metaphorically mirroring our spiritual smallness yet potential for growth, a major theme of the film.
Shown early in the film is a photograph, the back of which has angular pieces of black tape. Further along we see similar shapes made from paper. Later, when the actual forms are revealed in exterior shots, they need to be seen as whole, with full depth and grandeur of the sublime. The psychological impact of this initial revelation would be diluted by having to tilt the camera to reveal the scope of the structures. Also, a lack of tilting means less match-moving in post, saving time and resources. If necessary, I can still tilt for closer subjects.
The 2:1 ratio provides the necessary vertical depth to accommodate this need, as well as allowing for considerable atmospheric perspective, whereas 2.35:1 would lend itself to squashing such perspective due to its relation with the horizon.
Lastly, there is the psychology of the allegedly "cinematic" look versus video. While the "cinematic" look is more nebulous than most realize, it is, nonetheless, due to our prejudices, perceived differently than video. The 2:1 ratio provides the necessary vertical depth for sublime depictions while maintaining a powerful cinematic width (more than 1.85:1 but less than 2.35:1).
New techniques and technologies include:
1. Morph Reveal. Something, such as the environment, changes off screen and is then revealed when camera tracks, tilts, pans or dollies back to that position.
2. Morph Transition. Shot transition is achieved without a cut or whip pan, but is also not a single take.
3. Redundant rotoscopy. Rotoscoping actors (living or non) already shot in the desired environment enables the creation of temporal artifacts not associated with simple time-warping. It also enables "jump dissolves" in that the environment may change to some great or small degree without actually cutting the subject.
4.Multiple planes of focus. Interlaced fields of focus add another dimension of depth beyond the industry standard single plane associated with depth of field.
5. Multiple lanes of focus. Object focus that transcends depth of field. Imagine an object in an image that exists in the foreground, midground and background. The foreground and midground are out of focus, but the object in question is in deep focus. This may also be inverted. This technique allows a finer resolution of control over the psychological impact of focus.
6. Inverted depth of field. Rather than have the foreground and background out of focus and the subject in focus, the foreground and background are in focus while a subject is out of focus on a center plane. As with lanes of focus, inverted depth of field affords more control over the psychological and emotional impact of information.
7. Isometry and macro. Part of the Gyrus aesthetic includes turning small areas into architectural forms. On one hand I need extreme close-ups and on the other I need to make the forms appear larger and more massive by removing perspective. A regular macro lens accomplishes the former but without the latter. Obversely using a long lens accomplishes the latter but not the former. By combining a long lens with a macro extension tube, however, I am able to get close-ups of tiny spaces with less perspective, resulting in an aesthetic usually associated with masses and structures on an architectural scale.
I also use in these shots an oblique angle. Even though you fully understand you are looking at something mundane, such as a corner on a chest of drawers, the combination of isometry and oblique angles makes you feel like you are looking at something other than that at which you know you are looking. The point is not the original object, but a feeling different than that expected associated with something so mundane.
8. Rapid focus-racking. Focus racking is a well-known technique that is based on our ability to manipulate a focus ring with our hands or via a focus puller. This has a limiting impact on the aesthetic of pulling focus. Rapid, automated focus pulling opens doors to heretofore unknown aesthetic possibilities associated with changing focus, how it reveals information and what the psychological and emotional impact is. It also changes the nature of context from focal plane to focal plane and shot to shot.
9. Multiple points of focus. Points of focus that transcend planes or lanes of focus.
10. Multiple focal lengths. By this I do not mean using a zoom. By shooting repeatable moves with different lenses, and then compositing and scaling the footage from the longer lens on top of that of the wider lens, I am able to create compositions with different lines of perspective in a single shot.
11. Animated camera. Because I am shooting myself, I must find innovative ways of not only blocking and staging but also properly composing a shot. The motion control rig provides large-scale movement solutions. However I need to fine-tune the camera so that it is fluidly locked on a subtly moving subject. I accommodate this by reframing in 4K to precisely match minute character moves.
12. Extended Leitmotifs. Obviously in film we have musical and sound motifs for characters. These are common but not always crucial. In Gyrus, the leitmotifs are revealed to be harmonious or dissonant, based on the evolving relationship of the characters and their situations. Similar to counterpoint techniques, by combining and layering motifs I have more emotional and psychological control over the connection between the audience and the characters.
13. Energy flow. The flow of energy, itself, in film can be a component that is just as compelling as the characters and the world they inhabit. In fact, energy should be treated in the same way as the environment can be treated as a character. It should be designed rather than assumed. Energy is controlled not only by edits but by the relationship between the edits, what the characters are doing and what is happening in an environment. Think of energy as a serpent with a beginning, an end and infinite points in between. The flow of information can be jarring or it can be fluid. Designing the energy of the film is just as crucial as sound.
14. Sound. Sound itself is almost more important than most other aspects combined. Our sense of hearing is the most primal because it enables us to be aware of things in real time , even if we can't see them. It's quite miraculous, actually, and sad that we take it for granted as we do. Sound literally sculpts how we perceive the world around us and is therefore most psychologically connected to survival. In film, sound is the cosmic goo that creates and holds together the world of a film. It makes it believable which is important because, the more you believe in the world of the film, the more likely you are to believe in and care about what happens in it.
But sound is not only about environment. Sound is also a layer of communicating information to an audience and can be peripheral to or different than visual information on screen. So, like energy flow and character evolution, it must be designed in such a way that it works complementarity to other elements.
15. Making the world believable. I've described the importance of making the world believable with sound, but it should also be done through character. Keep in mind that the world has to be cohesive for the audience as well as for the characters in it. I will give three examples: Gladiator, Skyline and The Wolf of Wall Street.
16. Time. We perceive time in a flat, linear way with assumptions and definitions based on what we have seen throughout our lives. What if the scale of time was shifted? As with the species of manakin birds in the American tropics, that can move faster than the brain can filter and comprehend, new information is revealed in different scales of time. What if multiple scales of time could exist simultaneously? Imagine a wave in the ocean, perpetually changing and evolving. This matches our perception and scale of time, but what if it was viewed from another scale of time? What if a freeze frame of one peak of a wave was actually an eternity in another scale of time. The peak of the wave would be motionless, just as a mountain appears to us. Now imagine another scale of time in which geology appeared to flow like the ocean. What impact would these examples have on how we perceive visual information? What would be revealed or hidden? These are addressed in Gyrus with production and VFX techniques that reveal different information based on the apparent scale of time.
17. Motion control. Motion control has been used in film for some time. However Gyrus presents a unique challenge and opportunity. Because I must photograph myself, I rely on a motion control system to enable camera movement. This apparent disadvantage and limitation is actually an opportunity to see what new cinematic space can be explored and discovered when motion control is the only option for camera movement. I have three axes: track, pan and tilt, each of which are availed 256 keyframes with easing. Furthermore, the orientation of the pan and tilt motors can be configured in different ways, creating even more unusual possibilities. As you can see, the initially severe and potentially crippling obstacle of having to be both actor and camera operator has been turned into an advantage for new ideas not otherwise possible under conventional circumstances.
18. Problem-solving. As illustrated in the above example, Gyrus is a platform for solving problems. Problems are always seen as opportunities to find ideas and solutions that are superior to the original idea. No other attitude is allowed. The goal of doing the most with the least means that problems are actually a welcome indication that the universe is letting me know that something better than what I initially wanted is about to reveal itself. This approach has worked staggering wonders and has improved upon the original idea is countless ways. The solving of problems, married with serendipity, has caused Gyrus to be written down to it's core, essential ideas and forms. Every obstacle presents a fork in the road. To the left is an insurmountable problem. To the right is the perspective described above. By always choosing the right, no matter what, the film evolves in a better direction and continues.
Rather than simply going with what I know from years of music writing and production experience, I am treating the music of Gyrus as a brand new challenge. What does the audience need to hear, relative to the visuals, to understand the energy of the film? Given the otherworldly nature of Gyrus, I need something that reflects such, but without being so abstract that the audience is detached from its meaning.
The solution will be to use familiar structures and sounds, but with unfamiliar instrumentation. textures and timbres. For example a waltz will be featured at a later point in the film. Although everyone is familiar with the time signature of a waltz, it will be constructed not with typically classical instrumentation but with innovative sounds: bells with slow attack envelopes, insect shrills turned in choirs,granular angelic voices, and so on. Each is an example of something familiar yet new. I will also morph between familiar and otherworldly sounds. The combination of such with recognizable structures enables me to transport the audience to a new yet familiar place.
Gyrus takes place in the near future of the 2020s. In order to facilitate belief in this world I have designed concepts that make the world and its time seem like a believable near-future based on where we are now. The more the audience believes in the world of the film, the more likely they are to believe in and care about what happens in it.
Conventions exist because they are tried and make sense. The problem is that they make us content and lazy. We have an obligation to the art form to reach beyond conventions, something to which I have given considerable thought as I designed Gyrus. I want Gyrus to use convention where necessary but also to reach beyond it, to the gleaming edge of the sublime in film as a form of art.
1. Consider the establishing shot. It's usually a wide exterior shot of some place, from which we cut to a closer, more specific subject. Who says, however, that "establishing" has to mean broadly geographic or specifically spatial?
In Gyrus, my "establishing" shot is actually the exact opposite of a wide shot. It is a macro shot. Not only that, but it is a macro shot using a long lens rather than a wide lens. It shows the boundary between a wood floor and a carpet that is gradually becoming more frayed.
Why would I do this? Using a long lens on a far subject lessens perspective and creates isometry. It creates lines that we more associate with large massive forms, such as architecture. So why do this with a macro lens? Because making small forms seem larger than context would suggest is the cinematic representation of the idea that who we are as individuals might seem insignificant but is, actually, what defines our larger world.
In short, this single shot establishes the story of the entire film: the boundary between our reality and another has become frayed, and by our own doing. Now ask yourself something. Which is more interesting, compelling and philosophically poignant: my establishing shot or, what film school teaches, an exterior of some house?
2. Three Act Structure and character. In accordance with the stated goal of being simultaneously artistic and accessible, Gyrus indeed sticks to the formula of three acts. Each act has a climax. Where most protagonists must face antagonism in order to be forced to make choices that reveal who they are, our protagonist experiences an arc as he struggles against himself. What appears to be antagonism from another character is revealed to be something else entirely.
3. Exposition. I did a fascinating experiment wherein I watched a film, Mother!, I knew next to nothing about. The fascinating part is that I watched it dubbed in Russian, with no English subtitles. All I knew was that the film was controversial and that the poster reminded me of Rosemary's Baby, giving it a slight supernatural vibe. Upon watching my growing sensation was that some kind of supernatural event was occurring around the main character and that the rest of humanity was drawn, like moths to a flame, to this crazy convergence of inexplicable divine energy that resulted in chaos and destruction. Upon reading the plot afterwards, I realized that the explanations for what I saw were far more mundane, and that my apocalyptic interpretations, which I found far more compelling, were due to what I brought to the film, untainted by exposition.
In the spirit of in medias res, the audience will be dropped into a preexisting situation without explanation. There will be no Blade Runner voiceover or Star Wars crawl to explain. The audience will learn along with the protagonist as he tries to escape, finds his way home and then discovers the truth about himself and those around him, just as the audience will hopefully learn about themselves in the real world. The less is explained, the more the audience is immersed in, engaged with and vested in what happens as they learn more and more. The more is explained, the less engaging the film would be.
Theater versus cinema: acting
In my research I have noted that acting, as it pertains to dramaturgy, is necessary for theater but it is only an embellishment for cinema. Cinema, as a frame-based architecture of light and sound, is a platform where dramatic acting is only an option rather than a necessity. Tarkovsky, Bresson, Bergman and similar have studied this and reached the same conclusions long ago. My approach, having been validated by such luminaries, is to find individuals, rather than stars, who fit needed characteristics in normal conversation and life and then ask them to be themselves in the fictitious scenarios of the film.
It seems easy enough. However when confronted with my own having to act in a physically dramatic way I had to figure out how to reconcile dramatic acting in film, which may actually be a pollutant to the vision of the director, with what the aforementioned directors have established. In my case, because I am the writer, the director and the actor, it would seem that the problem has self-resolved.
However, there is still the issue of dramatic acting itself, as an embellishment, polluting the purity of the cinema; am I even good enough, as an actor, to execute this? Going back to my stated approach of telling actors to be themselves in fictitious situations, I did exactly the same. I had lost 60 pounds for the role, so I moved differently. My clothes fit differently and the white shoes worn by 8477447 I bought specifically one size too small so as to force uneven walking. I also shot myself walking backwards with the footage reversed. The combination of these approaches constituted my "acting" without my own falsehood corrupting the film. Such measures reduced the likelihood of overacting and made for a more natural performance when combined with my consciously limited physical approach.
There are no guarantees in life. Investment in this entertainment property is a risk just as it would be with any other. Having stated this, it is clear that Gyrus is helmed with vision, designed with respect for an audience and offers vast potential. As Will Rogers said, you have to go out on a limb if you want to get the fruit.