Thursday, September 29, 2005

Visual Structure

Before I get into this week's focus, I want to write something about the directing fellows at AFI. What's so fun about all this is the bond growing between us directors. I feel like I will continue to be friends for life with these people. We have directors from Switzerland, Denmark, Holland, Finland, Puerto Rico, Israel, Serbia, and of course now Jordan. The rest come from New York, Chicago, LA, and Detroit. I feel really proud to be representing Jordan, and being a postitive contributor to the fun environment we have. It's just a damn good feeling to be here! Okay, now on to Visual Structure...

It's been an exciting week with Bruce Block, Producer of movies like Father of the Bride, and visual consultant for films like As Good as it gets and Spanglish among numerous others. He's an amazing teacher, and this week has been one of immersion into dissecting the screen and desiging visual rules for films. We've had three-hour daily sessions with him. I don't even know where to begin in an attempt to relay the immense amount of information we've been taking into our brains. I don't see movies the same way anymore.

We've been training our eyes to recognize deep space and flat space, the use of tone, texture, contrast of shapes in visual composition and why so, how to use them to affect the audience. The understanding of movement and motivation. Movement of camera, movement of objects, how this affects visual communication to the audience's subconsciense. Color. The whole idea of color association and audience conditioning. For all those great movies that become classics, so much thought has gone into designing visual themes. It's fascinating when you see examples from movies that you've seen and suddenly realize or understand why the film or scenes had a certain effect on you. I'll giv eyou an example. To dramatize the impact of blood on a screen, an effective method it to get the audience's eyes callibrated to see Blue. So let's say you look at a scene where for a whole minute or two, the screen is loaded with blue. Then when you hit the audience with the red blood, the intensity of this red is enhanced because the eye has callibrated itself to blue. This is a very simple example of the use of principle of contrast and affinity to manipulate the audience. Blue is the complimentary (sort of like the opposite) color to red. Next time you watch a good movie, go back to it and look for consitency of visual motifs. Horizontal, vertical, and diagonal motion... the use of lines and recurring shapes and certain motifs and their associations with themes or characters to create a visual structure...etc. I don't think I can do a good job of summing up what we've learned this week here in a blog. But I will say this: if you're serious about wanting to study filmmaking, then the AFI is the place to be. I can't praise it enough. What I know now is so much more than what I knew four weeks ago.

We also had a great session with and Executive from Focus Features, Joe Pichirallo. He gave us advice on strategizing for the future and making one's first film in Hollywood. Great stuff to know ahead of time. Some days are long. You go to school at 9 a.m. and don't come home till 11 at night. Others are lighter, in which I read books and write between classes. I am fully immersed. It's also fun to have discussions about films with my peers. I have a long list of movies that I still need to see. Next week we begin our classes on directing performance. I can't wait.

Saturday, September 24, 2005


This week we focused on the importance of delegating. As a director, really you're only supposed to communicate with five or six crew members while shooting. Those are the Cinematographer, the Script Supervisor, the First Assistant Director (First AD), the Production Designer, and the Producer. That's it. The rest of your time should be focused on working wih the actors.

The Cinematographer gets your vision and camera direction and executes this with the gaffers (electricians) and grips (the people who move things around). You let them worry about the technical matters.

The Script Supervisor takes constant notes on every little detail while shooting. This includes continuity and blocking, lens used, direction of light...etc. At what line did this actor take a sip of water, at what line they take a drag of a cigarette...etc. The script supervisor also takes notes from the director between takes. I liked this bit of performance, I didn't care for that... etc. Those notes are handed to the editor along with the material shot for the day. A good supervisor is extremely essential. All the details are his/her responsibility.

The First Assistant Director is the guy running the crew. He worries about scheduling, logistics, meeting deadlines, getting things done, getting the crew fed, making sure the set is safe... anything and everything that revolves around the logistics of making the every day things happen.

The Production designer typically has a close relationship with the director and cinematographer. This is the person who does anything from building the set from scratch to overseeing the look of the location being filmed (inside and out). The designer also oversees the art director, costume design, and set dressing.

The Producer oversees the big picture. Getting locations, dealling with problems, getting the money...etc. The producer is ultimately the person held responsible for all the problems and headaches that involve making the movie happen. This includes the shitload of paperwork and beauraucracy invovled.

The director must not allow himself to be strecthed too thin. That is why it is essential to trust and rely on the other department heads to get things done. He tells them what he wants, and they get it done with their people. Sounds like fun, yes? Well, there's more to it than that. The ultimate responsibility of the director is to pull the vision together through the performance of the actors.

If the performance is weak, nothing else matters. No matter how good the lighting, how smooth the special effects, how loud the music... the performance is what communicates the story effectively or ineffectively. So as a director, you better be prepared to pull the best you can pull out of your actors. This is what I will be focusing my energy on over the next two years.

So having said all the above, we put these things into practice Thursday as we shot our bootcamp scenes. We completed the edit by Friday. Our scene came out beautifully, a full minute of awkward silence as a guy tries to buy flowers from a girl. It's a very funny scene. We shot it from seven different angles, each angle motivated by a certain though. I'll talk more about working with the actors in a different blog.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Paul Newman: The Verdict

1982's "The Verdict"...

What a brilliantly performed, written, shot, and directed film.

There are some amazing screen legends that I am rediscovering with great joy. There's a reason why they are screen legends, and I encourage you to discover them with me if you haven't already. People like Paul Newman, James Mason, Marlon Brando, and Burt Lancaster have presence, whether troubled or joyous, that remain timeless, decades later.

Last week I got into Brando with On the Waterfront and Streetcar Named Desire. Such troubled, magnificently detailed characters.

Now, I am amazed by Paul Newman. Check out "The Verdict". It was written by David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet. A courtroom drama with all around brilliant nuances. Instead of telling you why Newman and Mason are brilliant, I'll tell you to simply check out the movie and see for yourself. I'm inspired!

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Paperwork & Technology

This week was probabily the end of the series of general seminars reargding the logistics and legalities of the filmmaking process. We went over everything form Insurance to Location management, permit processing, and all that legal jargon surrounding the film industry. Makes you miss being able to pick up the camera and just film anything anywhere.

Because Los Angeles is a city revolving around the film business, everything requires paperwork. Everything has to go through a process. The formal (professional) movie-making process requires that you have a shooting permit even if you're going to film in your own house. And you have to have separate insurance policies covering general liability, equipment, third party location...etc. Here's something ironic, you can't get insruance to film inside your home or any member of the cast and crew's home. Reason? Back a decade or two ago, Mel Gibson destroyed a Malibu home he was renting/living in, and had a big conflict with the insurance company over coverage, so they created an industry-wide standard that exempts insurance coverage on filming in your own living quarters as a filmmaker.

Everything has to be documented, photographed, and covered because people are lawsuit-happy in LA, and you always want to cover your ass as a production.

Learning all these details really makes you think twice. Why does it have to be so complicated? I guess it makes sense when you have a gazillion productions going on around the same time, and filmmaking tends to be a messy process with big trucks and heavy-duty equipment hauled around residential areas. I'll get used to it. Here's good-bye to the days of hauling the camera around in one hand and tripod in the other.

Other things we got into were general Cinematography and Editing discussions. A couple of films worth checking out, all yee aspiring filmmakers: for Cinematography get "Visions of Light" and for Editing, get "The Cutting Edge". These are two documentaries that will solidify your appreciation for the respective professions and the art of each discipline.

A couple of hands-on things we did were a Sound workshop working with mixers, mics, and booms, as well as started our casting process for our films.

Casting is a fun process. We have headshots in our casting office from some 3,000 actors and actresses. Of course the first folder all the male directors and producers jump to is the "Engenues" (aka. the pretty girls). And there's a really nice role for a pretty girl in my film. Next week we'll be shooting a warm up scene with a couple of actors just to test the new cameras (Sony DVCAM 450) and get into the groove. The shooting of my film "Obsession" will be from October 22 to 26. Right now we're scouting for locations and doing some research on flowers.

Instead of posting the script on the web, I'll say this, if you're interested in reading it, send me an email to and I'll send you a copy. This way you can try to interpret it, then you'll see the actual film in a month or two. I will only put it on my web site for a day or two as I'm not really supposed to publish it anywhere on a public forum.

So that's my summary for week 3.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Week 2 Summary

Week 2 has been very productive in two ways. One, we got our script finished and we love it! I seriously think this will be one of the more impressive cycle films of the year if I get my vision translated onto the screen the way I see it in my head.

Luckily, I got an excellent Cinematographer, Liz Heinlen, the girl behind all those famous Revlon commercials you've seen on TV. So I'm really pumped about our collaboration. The movie is a romantic comedy with lots of flowers. Flowers are one of the 3 main characters of the film. It's going to be great. So now I need to get good actors, and my producer needs to find and lock a nice location. We shoot from October 22 to 26. In the meantime we prepare and shoot a bootcamp scene as a warm up.

We also started delving into something that really opened my eyes to films in a new way. Point of View. It's one thing to talk about point of view in general, but here we got into technical decisions that shape how point of view is delivered. Every movie is told through some point of view (POV), be it the main character, multiple characters, or an external observer's perspective. We got into camera placement and motion, actor blocking, and cutting on looks (based on the eyes of the performers - who's looking at who and when). Now when I watch a film, I'm more aware of POV choices and how we get there. I found this to be very fascinating, and am going to incorporate some of these things into "Obsession", my cycle one film.

Other things we spent a lot of time on this week were safety rules and regulation, Screen Actor's Guild unions rules, and a load of paperwork. I'm glad I'm not a producer. It's unbelievable how much paperwork filmmaking involves.
It's going to be great for the directors because we get to focus on performance, camera, and making the film without worrying about the non-creative elements.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Walk the Line - brilliant!

Come November, everyone will be talking about this amazing new film, "Walk the Line", based on the life of legendary musician, Johnny Cash. The film will sweep some Oscars, as Juaqine Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon delivered some amazing performances, and the director, James Mangold (Copland, Kate & Leopold), created a masterpiece. I loved this film!

It was written by our AFI instructor, Gill Dennis, the man who keeps drilling in our head that it's all about story story story. And he's absolutely right. So today Gill and James Mangold got up after this special showing of the film and discussed the process of bringing Johnny Cash's life story to the screen. I'll watch this film again and again as it really communicated Cash's pain, his struggle, and finally redemption, in such a profound way. I felt that "Ray" was a great film, but this one here was better yet. The film never dragged. It took you from Cash's childhood, his struggles with his father, to his family, and final love, June Carter. The man was haunted with guilt. I don't want to give anything away to ruin the movie. I'll just say it now, so that when this movie wins all the Oscars come February, remember you heard it here first.

Walk the Line comes out around the US in November.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Composers: Gabriel Yared

Gabriel Yared, the brilliant Lebanese composer, is one of my very favorites. He's been writing music for films for some 20+ years, but primarily in Europe until recent years. I was introduced to his work with his score for The English Patient. I liked the score. Very emotional, full of sadness and beauty at the same time. But I fell in love with his music with two unexpected scores: "Autumn in New York" and "City of Angels". His music is very romantic. Long drawn out melodies, deep textures, colorful orchestration...

City of Angels is only available as a full score on an isolated track on the DVD, so I got a copy of that, and listened to it on my trips to Chicago and Jordan. The element that I fell in love with is that deep low-register electronic stuff, like angels lurking on a different plain that can't be touched by melody, but only sensed by vibrations. Meanwhile, the human character was represented by accoustic guitar and funky electronic rhythms, like there's a beat for life. And of course the emotional stuff was represented by high strings with the melody accompanied by Celli counterpoint (playing another theme under the main theme at the same time). It's one of those scores best appreciated when you're on an airplane in a different mental state between wake and sleep.

"Autumn in New York" has one of the most romantic film melodies played by different instruments like piano, clarinet, and oboe. Oh, so beautiful. Nobody writes lyrical melodies in Hollywood today like Gabriel Yared. These long extended melodies that take unpredicatble turns that your ear can't wait to get to every time you listen to them. You know what I mean? He does this with all his melodies. Always taking unexpected surprising turns.

Yared also wrote the excellent scores for The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, and most recently, the unused score for Troy, for which he spent a year writing the music, only to be tossed out and replaced by a 10-day hack-job from James Horner, the plagirizing craftsman.

The big non-musical thing that I learned from Yared as a person is the value of formal training. Even though he was a popular working musician (self-taught) at the age of 29, writing for big name singers and musicians, he still felt that at 29, to become a brialliant musician, he had to go back and get formal training. This really inspired and encouraged me in my pursuit of my direcitng fellowship at AFI. Art is more brilliant when it's created with craftsmanship. And Gabriel Yared is a testament to this.

His web site is

Friday, September 02, 2005

Story Story Story

You can have a flashy looking movie with great images, but without story, you have nothing. This is pretty much the biggest thing at the AFI. From the cinematographers to the directors and writers, the emphasis of every discipline is on how to tell the story. Elements like point of view, premise, plot, character... how they all revolve around the story.

I think for the next two years, my blog may be boring to some, but it should be interesting for anyone interested in learning about filmmaking. I will try to sum up the things I'm learning. And it looks like everything will be focused on story.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Brotherhood of the fellows

I have a break this afternoon, before going back at 7, so I will take the opportunity to write a couple of things. First, it's been a lot of fun. I am going to my dream school. We're all like one big family of creative minds. Very friendly. Even though we're in each others' faces in school 12 hours a day, we're still gathering outside of class for a drink tonight. It truly is a brotherhood/sisterhood environment. Here it doesn't matter if you are Jewish, Arabic (I'm the only Arab in there), Asian, European, or Black. We're all close friends already, the future of cinema.

As far as what we're doing now...

We've been divided into groups to work on the first film projects. We had to choose ideas for the Cycle 1 films, and the team selected one of my ideas. So now we're divided into little teams of Director, Writer, and Producer. We work on the idea together and form a 15 page script to pitch to the Cinematogrpher, Editor, and Production Desingers. They will then decide which ideas they like best and we form our six person team to prepare for production. Once we go into production, memebers of other teams act as crew on our film and vice versa.

I have a pretty cool producer on my team. He was actually one of the composers on the movie, American Psycho. He's from New York, and very cerebral. Our Screenwriter is from South Africa. He was a journalist and has directed short films of his own. A very pleasant group.

More on all this later...