The Humanity of Dunkirk—Review

Nolan_at_CameraChristopher Nolan has another success on his hands with Dunkirk. While it won’t drive the box office like The Dark Knight, audiences will marvel at the humanity of self-sacrifice demonstrated. But before I say much more, I have to warn you that this film requires a lot of thinking and possibly a second viewing to fully comprehend.

Nolan’s artistic choices, which will not surprise fans, were spot on and amazing. However, his decision to tell three complete stories simultaneously, which all converge in act three, forces the audience to pay close attention during the entire two-hour film. This is not the type of film you’d want to excuse yourself from to take a call, get a refill, or use the restroom.

The story is about the actual events in May of 1940. Germany advanced into France and trapped Allied troops on the beaches of Dunkirk. British and French forces provided air and ground cover, while troops were methodically evacuated using every naval and civilian vessel that could be found.

The orders were to evacuate 30,000 men leaving the rest as acceptable losses, but the man in charge demanded 45,000. Thanks to the self-sacrificing actions of many that evolved into heroes as the events unfolded, about 330,000 French, British, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were actually evacuated.

BeachThe movie opens with no credits and what appears to be a boring scene, until you realize it was one of the few lulls in an intense battle that catapults you back to the reality of World War II. The film alternates between three stories told from the perspective of land, air and sea. Each story focuses on only one hero in the making based on the significant self-sacrificing choices made.

While the film has little dialog, due to the circumstances that prevail on screen, each story rises in intensity to the point where you demand to know the outcome. You soon realize that your body is contorting in a rhythm that cheers on each protagonist to make the right choice, not the safe one. Warning: No one under five feet tall should ride this intense emotional rollercoaster.

I can’t remember a film that caused me to flinch, duck and squirm in synchronicity with the protagonist for some time. And when my favorite of the three storylines climaxed, my heart felt every pounding second of contemplating the young man’s decision. He did what was right for the war efforts, not what was right for his own soul. His self-sacrifice gave rise within me to rejoice at the epilogue of that storyline—and, determine for myself to consider the greater good of those around me over my own need for survival.

Dunkirk was a stirring and uplifting film worthy of an Oscar. But, most who attend the screening will get lost in the braided stories and wonder what I saw in the film. To them I heartily say, “Watch it a second and third time until you get it.” Yes, it is worth your time. But, if you only enjoy movies where you don’t have to think, avoid this one no matter what the cost. The value of this film only rises out of thought and ones ability to relate to one of the three main heroes.

AirMy friend emotionally clicked with the air story and I related to the sea story. But both of us took much needed time after the film to discuss what we saw, as the film’s complexities were similar to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Our discussion allowed us to better comprehend what we missed and the other had caught.

If it weren’t for the difficult-to-follow braided storylines, I’d give this film a 5-star rating, but its complexities reduces it to a solid 4-star rating. However, for those who don’t struggle to follow the three intertwined stories, you’ll certainly give it a 5-star rating, no questions asked.

As we reflected on the film my friend said, “I’m not sure what we just watched, but it’s obvious it was something really great. I think this is the kind of film you can watch over and over again, picking up on all the subtleties you missed in previous viewings.” I agreed. Dunkirk will be as great as you can keep up.

© 2017 by CJ Powers
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Abandon the Faith-Based Label

The Passion of the ChristThe Hollywood Reporter printed a guest column by Mark Joseph. The title was “’Faith-Based’ Is Not a Film Genre” and the column opened with a quote from the author. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the label is both untrue and unhelpful, and should be abandoned.”

Joseph is a marketing expert that has worked on the development and/or marketing of 40 films including, The Passion of the Christ, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, I Am David. His article opposes his success stories being lumped together with the myriad of bad Christian movies that, based on its significant volume, created the Faith-Based label.

I understand his concern, since in Hollywood the term “Faith-Based films” is synonymous with “bad Christian movies.” When a producer approaches a distributor and presents a Faith-Based movie for consideration, the distributor immediately tells him not to expect any revenue from the limited release. The shoddy contract supports the statement.

However, Joseph’s article fails to mention that marketing must label product in order to properly promote it. This is why most Oscar winning films are genre specific, which is easier to market. It’s not possible to market a film that is “sort of this and kinda like that, with a twist and biblical message.”

The real problem isn’t that the large number of Faith-Based films forced Hollywood to group the movies into a single label that preempts the audience with its consistently bad storytelling and lack of artistic prowess. The real problem is that those making Faith-Based films actually think what they’re making is high quality and they see no reason to improve their craft.

I’ve had several opportunities for funding that required us to add a handful of elements to satisfy the religious investor, which would destroy the storyline and artistic expression of the film. Having a history of making artistic story rich shows for most of the major networks, my integrity didn’t allow me to accept the terms and I  suffered the consequences of not being funded. Several fund worthy friends had similar experiences and we’ve all scratched our heads wondering why bad films are funded and great ones are not. This made me wonder if investors don’t truly understand how great story in film impacts society.

Some producers tried to re-label their Faith-Based films for a general release, but because the investor funded elements were present, the story was destroyed and the film received the unwanted label – Forcing the film’s failure in the marketplace. Not only did the films fail as predicted, but it also positioned the producers as liars.

Today, the only way to avoid the Faith-Based label, which alerts the audience that a film is bad, is to make a universal story picture for the general public. As for the biblical message, it can be lightly salted into the theme, where based on the art form, would have the greatest impact. This will also push the film to the largest number of people in each market, placing the message before millions worldwide.

Now, I understand that there is one other way to change the Faith-Based label to something meaningful that draws a new audience, but it requires those who participate in Christian films to judge and categorize each film’s actual level of quality. Bad films have to be called bad and compared to the good films, which must be called good. And, for those few great films, they too must be called great. Then, and only then, will marketers be able to clearly articulate the differences between Faith-Based films, recreating the meaning of the label.

Since most Christians don’t want to suggest that a film carrying a message from God is bad, this will probably never happen. Instead, the funds will eventually dry up and Faith-Based films will disappear until the next generation can find a way to make the films self-sustaining. I’d wager a guess that within the next ten years a new breed of filmmakers would step into the limelight and change the definition of Faith-Based films forever.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

3 Types of Inborn Leaders and Subcategories

A friend of mine is a leadership expert that consults with 250 plus CEOs every year. He helped me to understand that there are more than just two kinds of leaders: the good; and, the bad. I’m not talking about the types of leadership processes, skills or styles, but rather the inborn brand of leadership birthed within a given leader.

A recent Forbes magazine suggested another way of looking at that inborn leadership. The article clarified the differences of leadership types from the typical interpersonal leader who inspires and enables.

ARTISTIC LEADERS inspire by influencing emotions. They help people to see things from new perspectives and encourage the taking of new approaches. These leaders are all about creating new stories and art, with little interest in ruling or guiding. They only want to change perceptions.

SCIENTIFIC LEADERS inspire by influencing knowledge. They develop their ideas with consistent thinking to create new technologies, conduct research, and teach their well thought-out ideas. Using data, analysis and logic, these leaders create structure that helps others solve problems.

INTERPERSONAL LEADERS inspire by influencing behaviors. They rule, guide and inspire teams, organizations and political groups.

Within each type of inborn leader, there are subcategories of leadership colored by personalities.

MASTER CRAFTSMAN is really good at what he does. At his core is a desire to learn. He can be either a scientific or artistic leader, but many times are introverted. On the negative side, he dies inside when over managed.

CHAMPION strives to be the best. He is the overcomer in spite of he situation. He usually is forthright and opinionated. He shows up as the assertive person leading sales and political campaigns. On the negative side, he dies inside when hindered.

THINKER is a problem solver. He is project-oriented and an interpersonal leader. On the negative side, he dies inside when over loaded.

GIVER is the person who leads within the ranks. He is a great team player and loyal. Many times he shows up working at headquarters or in customer service. On the negative side, he dies inside if he’s not taken care of.

The Artistic, Scientific and Interpersonal leader all face matters differently. If asked, “What matters?” The Artistic answers, “perception,” the Scientific answers, “solutions,” and the interpersonal answers, “cause.”

If asked how they connect, the Artistic answers, “by touching the soul,” the Scientific answers, “by touching the mind,” and the interpersonal answers, “by touching the heart.”

The impact made by their work is also different. They know that their impact was successful if the presentation or product moved or changed the audience’s feelings (Artistic), knowledge (Scientific) or behavior (Interpersonal).

Most importantly, if you ask each leader what it takes to win, they will reply differently. The Artistic answers, “new approach,” the Scientific answers, “better thinking,” and the interpersonal answers, “rally team.”

There are even differences in how issues are explored. The Artistic explores media, the Scientific explores problems, and the Interpersonal explores context.

This new vantage point of leadership gave me a new perspective on how we address issues and develop products/art. It also helped me understand the various leadership styles present on movie sets. Can you picture the various leadership styles within the roles of a motion picture company?

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

Story, Structure and Style

© ktsdesign - Fotolia.comMentoring in the moment is an important function of giving back. Not only does it give me an opportunity to help new upcoming filmmakers move up a level in the business, but it also gives me a fresh perspective on what unforeseen industry changes might be slowly approaching.

In a recent conversation with a young female director, I was asked, “What are the three most important things that a director brings to a script?” After answering, I realized that there are indeed three specific things a director brings to a script that determines the success of a film.

STORY

The director brings the story to life by attaching his vision to it. He is responsible for finding the holes in the story and making it whole. He also has the power to determine how it is to be told and position it so the audience can easily understand and embrace it. If the story fails, it’s the director’s fault.

One first time director argued the point with me by suggesting he was not at fault, but his bad writer was to blame. I asked him if he was sure and he confidently defended his position. Once I could see that he put his entire defense into the bad writer, I asked why he chose to make the film when he knew the writing was so bad. His argument proved him to be either a bad director or a foolish one for shooting an unworthy story.

STRUCTURE

The director determines the beats of the film and the visuals that will best depict the story. He is responsible for the development of the characters and the emotional highs and lows of the picture. He even holds the responsibility to inspire his team to perform admirably within the confines of the budget.

An experienced director with 35 plus features under his belt told me that he left the structure of the film to the writers and director of photography, while he focused solely on the actors. I asked him how the film was translated from the page to the screen without his artistic touch. He suddenly realized that he had given up his artistic choices to chance happenings – When the written word happened to match well with the visual depiction.

STYLE

All directors have an artistic style that evolves into something that few can replicate. When a person watches a Woody Allen movie, everyone knows it’s his, even if his name was left out of the credits. Just sharing director names at a party immediately invokes the look, feel and overall style of his work within the person’s mind. Consider Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Nolan. It’s hard to say those three names without seeing their style show up in your mind’s eye.

I recently chatted with an up coming director who was struggling with his first short film. Every time someone helped him improve his story, he lost interest in it and started over. I realized that something about the suggestions must have spun the style of his show within his mind to become something he was no longer passionate about. This was disconcerting since directors always spin the suggestions into their own version that matches their stylistic vision.

Directors put their fingerprint on everything they do. It shows up in the perspective from which the story is told to the structure of its emotional beats to the overall look and feel that is presented. The director owns the success of a film and has the three key tools that place his fingerprint onto his work.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers

Over Cranking Beauty Shots

Hop On The ChestHave you ever wondered why the female lead always looks stunning during an intimate heartfelt moment in a Hollywood film, but not in an independent film? It has a lot to do with the type of director at the film’s helm – artistic or techie.

There are several clear distinctions between the talents of a director with a techie background and one with an artistic background. The techie guy typically has a history of using technology to glitz up his film with cool imagery, while the artistic guy focuses on story, emotions, and rhythm.

When its time for close-ups, the techie director uses the same lighting and lens set up as he used for the medium shot or the over the shoulder shot. The artistic director hates to see the camera team just tighten the shot and instead suggests a significantly heightened set up to explore the feelings of the moment.

One of my favorite techniques is over cranking the film. Or, for those with a video only background, shooting more frames per second. The technique is ideal for those heartfelt moments when the director needs a beauty shot or a graceful close up of the female lead.

I tend to ask my DP (Director of Photography) for a more muted lighting set up to help enhance the over cranking shot. The softer lighting bends gently around the woman’s face and diffuses any harsh shadows that would otherwise be present. A soft filter might also be added to the camera to makes sure that there are no sharp edges.

If the camera is shooting at 24 fps (frames per second), I have the DP bump it up to 32 fps. This increases the clarity of the shot, while taking off the rough edges. By clarity, I’m not referring to sharpness of image, but rather the avoidance of extra blur inherent in capturing motion.

More importantly, by adjusting the speed by about 30% the image is captured with more detail within the actor or camera’s motion. This translates to an image with a great fluid movement during playback. Directors all have their own set of percentages for capturing a beauty shot, but I’ve found mine to be emotionally effective for all audiences.

In post-production, the 32 fps are then played back at 24 fps to generate a far more graceful shot of the female lead than was present on set. That ideal graceful cinematic shot can only be achieved with special diffused lighting, slightly soft focus lens and adjusted speed of film with readjusted playback.

The techie director tends to avoid the elaborate set up for the beauty shot by just slowing down the image in post. However, he can never get close to capturing that same dreamy and graceful effect that comes from the in camera artistry created on set by the camera team.

This one difference between a techie director and an artistic director is magnified when considering all the other techniques artists master that techies rarely learn.

The cumulative sum of these parts or production elements is what creates the uniquely different look between a Hollywood produced picture versus an independent picture. This focus on detail requires time and a budget for talented people in order to capture the beauty shot that everyone remembers from the film, but can’t explain why.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers