[REVIEW] 2015 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Short Films

OSCARS03This year’s Oscar-Nominated Live Action Short films are a solid bunch. The group of them ranks second among the three short film categories for me this year. Number three are the animated group and a clear number one is the documentary shorts. All of these categories find brilliant filmmaking – especially because telling a robust story in such a compact time is no simple task. Here’s how the live action short films made me feel. I’ll write about each of the films I saw in the order in which I saw them and then give my selection at the end.

1. Parvaneh by Talkhon Hamzafi and Stefan Eichenberger (A-)

A young Afghan girl living in the Swiss Alps is working so she can send money home to her family who are still living in Afghanistan. The emotion our title character is palpably on display after asking, “How much?” and then saying, “OK, I’ll send the money.” It’s brilliantly wonderful acting. I felt her persistence and was immediately on board with her. That idea right there sets a solid foundation for the story. Of course there are bumps along the road. She’s rejected from being able to send money because of identification issues. She seeks the help of strangers in her broken German and finally finds an unlikely assistant in a rebelliously dressed punk girl. Parvaneh takes some serious risks to do good for her family. She shows that stepping out of one’s comfort zone can be uncomfortable, but taking the risk can sometime be fruitful.

2. The Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak) by Hu Wei and Julien Ferét (D)

The whole movie is from a single vantage point. What’s in front of the camera changes however. The vantage point is that of a family portrait photographer. Each family who is shepherded into frame has a different background selected – which is lowered into place by one of the photographer’s assistants. There is small interaction between the photographer and subjects until the photo is snapped and then a new family is on screen and a new background is lowered into place. If there is any sort of social commentary here, it’s lost on me. I think smart films that have subtle commentary are fun to watch. But if the commentary is too subtle? Well then I feel nothing and don’t enjoy it. It’s an interesting gimmick and pretty well shot which saves it from failing.

3. The Phone Call by Mat Kirkby and James Lucas (A)

A help-line call center worker named Heather (Sally Hawkins) makes her way into work one day to receive a phone call from a distressed man named Stan (Jim Broadbent). Her trip into work is boring and cold. A long panning tilt finds Heather sitting and waiting for a bus reading a book. When she arrives to work, the call center looks like a re-purposed elementary school classroom. Her desk is wooden and spartan. Atop the desk is only a phone, notebook and bottle of water. One other person is working this day, but he’s busy on a call. Heather’s phone quickly begins ringing and she sets to work. This phone call will occupy Heather, and the viewer’s heart and mind, for the rest of the film. It’s pitch perfect and the acting is superb. After the sadness clears the film’s purpose becomes clear. It’s about the small moments we overlook as humans. The Phone Call is a simple title and a simple movie. But the depths of the story are an abyss of profundity that play your heartstrings like Jimi Hendrix plays the guitar. There’s lots of distortion and feedback, but melody and beauty remain supreme.

4. Aya by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis (A)

Of the two live action short films I gave A-rating to, this one is my favorite. It’s complex and is a film I just didn’t want to end. I’m glad this film was made because the subject is so smart and engaging. Here’s the story: A young woman is waiting for someone at an airport. She standing among other private car drivers who are waiting for their passengers to arrive. They’re all holding signs with the name of the person for whom they’re waiting. One of the drivers needs to leave so he asks Aya if she’ll hold his sign just until he returns. She reluctantly agrees. In the next few moments the man whose name is on the sign appears. The story unfolds beautifully from there. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. I think the idea of fear of strangers has been perpetuated into our souls too much. Don’t let that get to you. Happenstance meetings can be a beautifully positive thing too.

5. Boogaloo and Graham by Michael Lennox and Ronan Bailey (B)

Without a doubt the funniest of the nominees happens to bring the audience to one of the least funny places in the world: Belfast, Ireland. A soft-hearted father brings home two young chickens for his two sons to raise. Drama ensues when the mother demands changes be made to the household. This is a really cute story that is heartfelt and upbeat despite its location.

Here’s my ranking.

1. Aya

2. The Phone Call

3. Parvenah

4. Boogaloo and Graham

5. Butter Lamp

[SELECTIONS] 2015 Academy Awards

OSCAR-PICKSThis year I’m writing a blog post especially for all of my picks. This way you can see just how much – or little – I know about the awards. My selections this year are my selections. In the past I’ve tried to game the system by trying my best to infer how the Academy will vote. I did this so I can win the Oscar pool I compete in with my family and friends each year. No more! I’m often disappointed if my speculation goes awry and the Academy selects differently than how I presumed they would. I might lose drastically this year, but at least I’ll know I picked the winners according to how I think.

To save you from droning on like the Academy Award show usually does, I will only provide my picks for the major categories. I’ll provide brief reasons why as well. I promise to leave right when you queue the music!

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Foxcatcher

What a great film! This film deserves top honors, but unfortunately it’s buried in a group of films for which there are not enough superlatives. The screenplay meshes together years of events and does a masterful job of articulating character traits that left me wanting more.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Whiplash

Like Foxcatcher, Whiplash is a stellar film that has the unfortunate fate of being on the same plate as some truly magnificent films. This is a great story and eloquently elucidates the highs and lows one experiences along the musical career path.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Leviathan

This is a tricky pick for me. Timbuktu is a beautiful film and tells a highly relevant story about how people of high morals and integrity clash with marauding religious extremists. The symbolism is rich and blanketed me in warm – but scratchy – blankets. Leviathan goes a little bit further. It’s just as beautifully shot as Timbuktu and the symbolism is heaped on as well. Both films detail acts of courage by common people in the face of terrible odds. What sets them apart is that the people whom Leviathan is picking on are educated and cultured enough that they should see this film for what it is: a glaring indictment on the current Russian State. The people whom Timbuktu is calling out will never see this film. It’s offensive symbolism will be completely misunderstood. But, the people whom Leviathan is calling out do have the intellectual prowess to grasp what the director has done. The fact that they don’t and the fact that this film can receive the blessing of one of the Russian ministries is astonishing. The director managed to artfully conceal his intent in reams of subtext. Music by Philip Glass clenches my vote.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: CitizenFOUR

This year’s selection is a no-brainer for me. I correctly picked a film that became nominated for Best Documentary last year – The Act of Killing. It didn’t win, but it sure should have. It was one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen. CitizenFOUR achieves this feeling in my gut again. Laura Poitras has done a remarkable job of making three films exposing how Americans behave during the aftermath of September 11th . This film along with My Country, My Country and The Oath complete her three-film series dealing with the subject. And oh what a way to go out! CitizenFOUR is timeless. It details Edward Snowden’s decision to leak classified documents detailing the inner-workings of American intelligence gathering practices. It’s chilling and made me want to change all of my passwords immediately upon exiting the theater. It also caused me to look at people I passed in public differently. I would look at them and think to myself in a slightly judge-y way, These people don’t know. They don’t understand how they’re being surveilled. That’s a scary feeling to have and one I’m sure Snowden encounters on a daily – if not hourly – basis. It’s shot really well, too, and it details a story in real time. Obviously it’s not live and obviously we now know who Edward Snowden is now, but at the time this film was made, he was completely anonymous. Poitras, Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald worked soberly and diligently to reveal a truth that is vital to the safety of all Americans.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: The BoxTrolls

Stunning to behold, you will quickly forget it’s old-fashioned stop-motion filmmaking. The filmmakers remind you at the end during the credits though. This is a delightful story that is laced with a couple of one-liner jokes for the adults in the audience. Song of the Sea is a close second for me. It’s also a delightful story told with magically colorful animation.

BEST DIRECTOR: Alejandro Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

I defy anyone to come away from this film who doesn’t feel a tingle of awe. The style and precision with which this film is shot is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen on the silver screen. The level of detail that has to be conveyed between Iñárritu and his cinematographer is almost absurdly intricate. The length of takes and perfection with which the cast deliver their action and lines is magnificent. Just remember that the protracted camera shots are not rehearsed ad nauseam. They are simply explained. And then they are executed by both those in front of, and behind, the camera. Linklater might have been able to coordinate a group of people once per year for twelve years, but coordinating action sequences that involve shooting in Times Square and on Broadway takes a special kind of genius. 

BEST ACTRESS: Julianna Moore, Still Alice

Julianne Moore is stunning in her role as a woman confronted with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her performance is riveting and completely necessary. Marion Cotillard’s performance in Two Days, One Night is exemplary as well, but I think Moore gets the nod based on her body of work.

BEST ACTOR: Michael Keaton, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Michael Keaton gives a career defining performance as Riggan Thomson in Birdman. What sets him apart from the other actors nominated in my mind is that he is the only one who is acting as a character from someone’s mind. The other four actors are simply mimicking a person who exists, or has existed, in reality. I feel compelled to give the award to someone who creates a character from scratch and plays him so convincingly. Steve Carell’s performance is the best of the mimic bunch for sure. Like Julianna Moore, I think Keaton deserves the award based on his outstanding body of work.

BEST PICTURE: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman is a film that will be on my best films list for years to come. It’s genius, plain and simple. It’s a vehicle that levels cutting criticism at both the Hollywood elite and the Broadway upper crust. The writing is superb; the acting groundbreaking; the directing precise and unique. It’s the best picture of 2015 by a large margin.

 

Climate March 2014

On Sunday, September 21st, 2014 I marched through the streets of Manhattan with hundreds of thousands of people. It was a thrilling event and I’m proud to say I was a part of it. To get a sense of the march, you should watch the video I created above. A friend who marched with me is responsible for capturing the audio. Below, you’ll read my opinion on what will hopefully be a march that will affect change.

327A1224Frankly, I’m disappointed by the lack of media attention this march has received. I’m also bummed by an article entitled, “The People’s Climate March May Have Been Huge, But It Wasn’t Historic” written by a woman whom I respect, Natasha Lennard. In the article she notes that she did not attend because she prefers “protests to parades” and “scowled at adverts aimed at drawing numbers to march” while riding the subway. I see her point. I suppose I’m still just a bit naive to think these adverts are incredibly cool. When I first saw them, I didn’t think about the vast amount of money it must have cost to plaster trains in New York City with ads.

I’m consoled by the thought that this is natural for movements of any kind. Civil rights still haven’t taken a firm grasp on people’s hearts and minds despite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts of decades past. Sure our nation has made some progress, but as evidenced by the recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO we still have a ways to go. Gay rights are making progress too. Many states are now recognizing same sex marriage and all of the corresponding benefits thereof are beginning to be endowed to couples who have been together for many years. My point here is that these fights – civil and sexual orientation rights – have been a long time in the making, but the people behind these movements have no choice but to fight. I agree with them. Were I to be in their situation I would do all I could to make sure my country and my government respected me and those of like orientation. I think these people are on the right side of history. I believe in my heart that they are doing the right thing.

327A1056

Without binding legislation from the United States, and the world for that matter, humans won’t be around long enough to make sure the other social issues are resolved for our descendants to witness. It will all be for naught. I don’t like that this is even a possibility. Because I want to see the human race begin to at least understand this is a defining issue for all, I am committed to learning how I can become a squeaky wheel. The first step for me was to march and interact with people of like mind. I became inspired. Watching the video above helps me relive the moment and remember why this is important.

Lennard closes her article by saying, “[W]e should not foreclose the possibility of an exciting political moment emerging, rooted to climate activism and undergirded by anti-capitalism.” She finishes by admitting she is hopeful that this is not the last event to protest the current handling of climate change policy. It seems to me Lennard is asking for more less-organized, police-friendly protests. I agree with her. While it is a shame that marches of this magnitude are less historic than just a few thousand people dressed in blue causing havoc on Wall Street, it’s true and protestors need to understand that.  I refuse to become jaded by the fact that this issue isn’t currently capturing by the media. That shouldn’t be a reason to give up.

A very powerful line was at the beginning of a documentary film about Climate Change I saw called Disruption.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

Frederick Douglas said that during a speech he gave in 1857. The title, ever-so prescient is, “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress.” Then here’s to the struggle friends! Please join me in raising your voice to make sure we let our elected leaders know precisely where we stand on this issue. We may not have the kind of cash that moves the needle of influence, but together we have votes, and when mobilized, that will always be more powerful.

327A1146

Not Just Another Wedding Film

Bleibaum/Mallott Wedding from Brandon Smith.

Bowers/Thomas Wedding from Brandon Smith

Most independent filmmakers cringe at the idea of making a wedding film. And for good reason. Generally, all creative control on the filmmaker’s behalf goes out the window in favor of how the bride and groom want the end product to look. Not the case with my friends Amanda and Aaron, Todd and Kathy. Here’s the skinny: each couple saw the work I did for my other long-time friends Lance and Jenny and wanted something similar. It’s certainly not uncommon to receive RFP’s from friends based on recommendations from other friends when you’re in the freelance game. It’s a tough line to walk when mixing money and friends though. Fortunately, both couples had money set aside in their wedding budget to pay me, but one of the most important parts was this line in an email I received from Amanda: “I just want something on video to watch years down the road of one of the best days of our lives. Can you help us out?” I was intrigued. What filmmaker doesn’t want to make something timeless? Add in the fact that both couple were willing to let me follow my own vision with how I wanted to capture the day and I was sold. Giving me their trust was a huge compliment. I felt free to shoot, unfettered by any restraints. When I started to edit, their trust gave me the confidence that what I was doing was right because I was expressing myself using their wedding as a platform. I felt engaged as an artist. One of my biggest problems with wedding videos is that they’re generally pretty unwatchable for anyone but the couple and the couple’s immediate family. So I challenged myself to make something that would be palatable to an audience outside of each couple’s inner circle. Also, I wanted to use it as a calling card for the world that I’m willing to shoot your wedding if you’ll give me complete creative control. You have to trust me. If you want to be able to make suggestions and have any sort of control, hire a videographer. If you want something that’s going to be timeless and interesting to your grandkids and beyond, hire a filmmaker. So did I succeed? Let me know in the comments.

The Power of Human Connection – Kasasa Gas Giveaway

Kasasa Gas Giveaway from Brandon Smith on Vimeo.

Campaigns that help people connect with one another are right up my alley. When I first got in touch with Jenna from CSG PR in Denver, Colorado I knew this would be a great fit for my skill set. Jenna and her team were very well-organized and made capturing the mood and tone of the event a breeze. Plus, watching folks learn that they were going to be getting twenty bucks worth of free gasoline was quite a joy.

Since I already knew the strategy behind the piece, I just had to execute it on screen. It had to be lighthearted, but it also had to show the power of using face to face meetings in a branded way to create a memorable experience for potential consumers. I think the combination of warm smiles, a sunny day and upbeat music struck the right chord.

I shot this using my new Canon 5D, Mark iii set up and I enjoyed every minute of it. The workflow is easier than I’m used to with the Panasonic HMC-150 and the picture just jumps off the screen.

Do you need a video like this? Call me, let’s chat. I’m sure we can make it happen.

Long Form Content Is Finally Hip

A while back, my friend Kym Perfetto approached me about doing a demo reel for her. I’ve done demo reels for myself before, but never for someone else. Kym has an array of talent and the potential to become a household name before the next tachyon violates causality. I was excited about the possibility of furthering someone’s career that I believe in. It would also be an opportunity to promote the fusion of digital strategy with documentary-style editing, a style that I wish to see more of in the world. It looks as though it’s a trend that is catching on, too. Both Forbes and Tech Crunch have recently featured stories about the rise of long-form content on the web.

It’s no secret that the question of how to captivate an ever-diminishing public attention span keeps digital media strategists awake at night. The same can be said for an actor trying to break through. The public has never been more saturated with content and I’ve heard directly from friends in the PR industry that casting directors know exactly what they’re looking for before they even start sorting through video reels. If they don’t see “it,” they’ve often moved on before the video has even finished loading.

If that’s the case, what difference does it make if the reel is two minutes long or eight minutes long? Not. One. Bit. So, I chose to approach Kym’s reel in a radically different way. I chose to go long form and create a more comprehensive, artistic profile.

During a Q and A session after a screening of Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris mused “If you already know the answer to a question, then why ask it?” If talent scouts and agents are looking for something in particular, then why do people even go to the trouble of creating reels? It seems like a futile effort at addressing a question the powers that be already have an answer for.

For comparison’s sake, check out these examples of reels that are available on the web:

Savvy websites have taken this cue by creating a place where they write and produce work for you to show. Nevermind the weird binary lighting that strikes the subjects with harsh blues and reds and the other low-rent production values. The second part of Jonathan Ohye’s reel(second, above) where he speaks with a heavy, unidentifiable Asian accent is reprehensible and works to perpetuate stereotypical casting that we should be moving away from.

This style of reel doesn’t fit Kym’s current career arc. Kym has been on shows that these actors are trying to break into like The Wire and Homicide. She also has an ever-expanding list of credits on IMdB including a role in a major production called Premium Rush starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. She’s trained many notable A-List celebrities with her own brand of fitness at Soul Cycle and her band, No Way Josie had over 40,000 downloads of their debut EP in its first week.

So positioning her is tricky. She’s got mainstream experience in supporting roles, but she’s looking for something where she’s featured more prominently. If I was going to present her as the next big thing, I had to be bold. One of the boldest things about going long form is eschewing the present day standard of bowing to the almighty page view. While I think this metric is a great way to measure resonance, I don’t believe that quality is determined by page views alone. I’m not the only one looking for different ways to measure quality. Pinterest co-founder Ben Silbermann championed forging new paths during a panel discussion at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin last week.

“I think it was my days at Google that inspired my audacity of thought. I was inspired by their boldness.”

I share Ben’s idea that quality is something that you achieve by tinkering endlessly before you feel comfortable that you put the best product forward. Quality is something that gives you a sense of pride about your own work. Quality is telling great stories in a way that connects with an audience.

“The idea of communicating who you are doesn’t get old and shouldn’t be randomly accessed. Every company cuts it’s own path but there’s always a lot of pressure to look like the last successful company. It’s hard to have the boldness to be different,” Ben added.

So with that in mind, I offer you Kym’s reel. My guess is that it’s drastically different than the other reels floating around Los Angeles right now. Who cares? I think it tells Kym’s story. And if you’ll indulge my boldness, I believe that you won’t mind spending a little bit of time watching it.

Think I’m off my rocker? Let me know in the comments below.