On Carving a Whole Film Out of Stone

We tend to think about filmmaking as a cumulative art that combines different art forms and creates something out of thin air (and a budget, if you’re lucky). You take a camera, you put two actors across from each other, you give them lines, props, and costumes, and you watch them play. Once you’ve captured your footage, you add sound and music. You make a poster and you release the finished piece as a film – a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

If we take a closer look, filmmaking to me resembles more the abstract and equal parts nebulous and precise practice of carving a sculpture. Seeing a sculpture come into form is one of the most awe-inspiring artistic processes I have seen. Sculpture, as a form, is an art of subtraction rather than addition.

You don’t add more material but instead, begin with a solid piece of stone. Before you begin doing anything to it, you close your eyes and visualize the shape and dimensions of the sculpture you are going to create. Then, with your chisel you begin carving away at it, taking out small bits piece by piece, until the gorgeous view reveals itself before your eyes. This poses a challenge because you have envision every curve, bulging muscle, and draped fabric in negative before you reveal them. You have to have a strong sense of anatomy and physics to ensure that where you choose to eliminate the material doesn’t cause any structural problems. It’s very fine work that pushes your creativity and challenges you as an artist to go in a roundabout way toward achieving the image you had in your mind.

While in writing, you can say what you mean, sculpture challenges you to imagine what you want to convey and then adapt it to the negative form of the stone block you have in front. In an unexpected way, filmmaking is the same.

Once we have our script, we then let the film reveal itself before our eyes. During our script read, we begin to see images, faces, shots, and even music that feels part of the universe of the film we are about to embark on. We let our own memories of friends, family, and lovers inform how we see and understand the characters we are reading on the page. Our life experiences reveal how we will interpret our protagonist’s actions and whether we will find them likable or challenging.

Once we have the actors for our film confirmed, their own interpretation of the script will then reveal another layer of understanding of the source material. By this point, the casting choice has already set the course toward discovering the core of the film, and during this ride, we will uncover the sights of how the film wants to be shot through our eyes and through our lens.

In the process of collaboration with our creative team, we will uncover other truths and quirks about the film we had no idea about when musing on our own. We will discover what are the non-negotiables, why this character needs to wear a pair of white briefs, or what their apartments look like. Through conversations, sometimes pointed, or production constraints, we will figure out what we can let go of and still maintain the identity of the film and the core of its meaning.

From there, once we’ve shot all the scenes, the editing process becomes its own exercise in discerning meaning and narrative from a series of discreet clips. The edit is where the film comes alive and becomes one living, breathing piece, like a life-like sculpture with its bulging muscles and movement frozen in mid-air. The edit is where we see which sections of the film carry this life force, and where it sags and breaks the continuum of reality. Even when watching a film and realizing it is a recording, there are certain rules that we as humans adhere to if we want the film to maintain continuity – a term for consistency of story across time and physical location. By the time have finished the edit, the film seems to have almost revealed itself fully.

Then, in post-production, we add a color grade, sound design, and visual effects that further enhance the film emerging through all the layers of work, through the time we’ve spent planning and creating it, and through all the collaborators that have made their stamp on it. It’s a lot more collaborative than carving a sculpture in a studio, but it feels like a method of discovering just as sweet.

Sticky Notes Lesson #7: Metaphorically speaking by Cole Schafer

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