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The Sky Is Not Falling: Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System // submit a post -- nelson@nelsoncarvajal.com

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Feast or Famine: Living as an Independent Digital Filmmaker

It's never easy. We all know that.

Fiscally speaking, the life of the independent digital filmmaker is about as rewarding as playing the lottery. Week in and week out we take chances, quietly hoping that this gig or project or music video could be the winning ticket to a staggering amount of dollar signs. In reality, most of us will never reach the lifestyles of the rich and famous. And that's okay. We're artists after all.

What's not okay is not learning to cope with all the in-between stages, which makes up about 90% of our life. It's the the day-to-day, the hustle, the grind. I usually try to avoid the cliche "tough skin" speech but it's getting harder and harder to soften it up for peers today. To succeed--and by succeed I mean, to stay (somewhat) gainfully employed AND creatively challenged--in this niche business of passions, you need to have a killer instinct. Yes, some days are better than others but everyday that you wake up you're still faced with the same task: To reinvent the wheel.

And how does one do that?

Well, the first step is understanding what "the wheel" is. In the case of the independent digital filmmaker, "the wheel" is your role/voice in this ever-changing new media landscape. Case in point: Earlier this year, amidst all the hub-bub of Kodak filing for bankruptcy, the disappearance of film projectors and the cavalcade of digital filmmaking instruments, I went ahead and curated a free video art exhibit called "Film Is Dead." Of course, I'm not the first voice in that specific dialogue; what's important is that I made a visibly public stand on an industry issue. The value behind such an action is that it forces viewers/followers/supporters to re-gauge their valuation of me. Some did not agree with the "Film Is Dead" concept and they left my "support group." On the other hand, this led to me gaining new viewers/followers/supporters. These are people who up until that point, had never heard of me. But now they know who I am.

And therein lies the through-line for surviving as an independent digital filmmaker. It's not just staying "visible" in the public eye--it's staying "relevant." It can be the difference-maker down the road for a prospective for-hire gig or dream project. Don't forget: Potential employers have access to information (the Internet!) too.

In other words, it's not about you having the most Twitter followers, it's more about HOW your Twitter followers are interacting with you. You need to be able to convey the kind of impact you are making in your specialized areas of concentration. If artists are a dime a dozen, which artist is going to land that contract with an employer? I'm willing to bet it's the artist who's making a splash or shaking some bushes.

Being able to position yourself as a valuable figure isn't easy science--but you'll be surprised at how thorough you can be in quickly developing your online voice (a.k.a. public identity) when push comes to shove. Especially if your back is pressed up against the wall with financial stress...

But that's just the "action" of reinventing "the wheel." Behind every move, there needs to be core fundamentals. The most important fundamental (and what is basically the backbone of FREE CINEMA NOW) is the ability to embrace the changes in our industry. It's about understanding and accepting that the theatrical exhibition system continues to shift toward the DIY micro audience model. It's about accepting the idea that entities like YouTube will in fact affect how our films are seen--and in turn understand what that means for content creation. And the list goes on.

Finally, if the whole "accepting industry changes" thing STILL bothers you, I suggest you try listening to an Oscar-winning filmmaker explain it in laymen's terms.

Friday, September 7, 2012


That moment when it feels like someone--or something--is standing behind you. But then you turn around and find nothing.

For the cinematic narrative, the point of view (POV) shot is a high-powered filmmaking aesthetic that thrusts the viewer from omniscient viewer to dynamic player within the context of the screen. Whether it's a subjective POV (where the camera/our field-of-view takes the place of the screen figure's own line-of-sight) or an objective POV (where the camera/our field-of-view exists alongside the screen figure, a la "cheek-to-cheek"), the POV shot invades the frame's axis, breaking the 180-degree rule, taking the visual rhetoric of the film to the next level. And as technology and filmmaking tools (e.g. the advent of 3D) continue to push the boundaries of audience-to-screen immersion, one thing remains constant: the audience sure enjoys their God's eye view in the universe of the movie.

Which is why the follow shot (sometimes called the "tracking shot") is such a special filmmaking technique; the camera is behind the screen figure and helplessly follows this figure forward into unknown screen space. It's the one time when the viewer loses most of his or her "God-like" viewing power, in relation to the screen figure. [For the sake of this discussion, we'll omit the found-footage film, which technically--and ironically--exists as a visual artifact and not as its intended "real time" movie experience.]

From Tarr to Kubrick to Van Sant, the follow shot has taken both dreamlike and harrowing routes. In Gerry, the follow shot is dreamlike (the camera follows Casey Affleck through a beautiful and mysterious landscape). On the other hand, in The Shining, the follow shot is harrowing (having already been established as a scary location, we cringe as young Danny rides down the empty hallways of the Overlook Hotel on his Big Wheel). Sometimes the follow shot is used as a perfunctory visual cue (it gets the screen figure from one place to another) but most of the time, especially in the hands of skilled directors, the follow shot serves as a narrative device that best blurs the line between the viewer's world and the film's world. When the follow shot is done right (and thus powerfully), neither the screen figure nor the viewer can anticipate what lies ahead--or behind them for that matter.

Friday, August 17, 2012

VIDEO ESSAY: Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"

"He's making all this up as he goes along."

NOTE: I was fortunate enough to attend a rare 70mm screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master on Thursday August 16, 2012 at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. In attendance were writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and one of the film's actors, Kevin J. O'Connor (both of whom are pictured with me here).


The key to the success of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master doesn't come in its mammoth achievement of being shot on 70mm film or its carefully constructed parallel origin story of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology practices. Rather, that success is embedded in an intimate scene: a single shot close-up on alcoholic war veteran Freddie Sutton (an unforgettable Joaquin Phoenix) during a "process of time" session with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in prime Hubbard form). Up until this scene, the character of Freddie dutifully performed the task of delivering the film's dark laughs (from publicly jerking off on a beach to using department store photographic developer liquid to concoct strong drink cocktails). But when this initial "process of time" scene--and more importantly that single shot close-up of Freddie--begins to unfurl, Anderson's true concerns with his seductive material (the patterns and rhetoric that make up a cult) immediately beam with vitality. As Lancaster relentlessly asks Freddie a laundry list of broad and repetitive psychological questions (e.g. "Are you thoughtless in your remarks? Do your past failures bother you?"), Freddie unravels in front of Anderson's camera. Desperately holding tears and blinks back, Freddie is absolutely riveting during these moments. And Phoenix the actor achieves a level of devastation and shattering power that cements his performance here as one for the ages.

In a strange way, The Master is both Anderson's most straightforward story (a disillusioned veteran in 1950 suffers from alcoholism and accidentally slips into following a religious cult) and his most off-putting; off-putting because it is Anderson's least "cinematic" attempt. The extraordinary 70mm cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (who photographed 2009's best film, Tetro) is striking to look at but since almost all of the film revolves around stationary shots of people in conversation, the scope of the movie never feels grandiose. Gone are the underwater shots from the pool party in Boogie Nights or the impressionistic artwork transitions from Punch-Drunk Love. The Master does an impressive job of capturing the look and feel of the 50s but its slow churning plot prevents the film from embellishing in any substantial visual panache.

And about that subject matter: Anderson never utters the word "Scientology" in his script (in the film the religious practice is referred to as "The Cause"). Still, Anderson is obviously skeptical (or at the very least concerned) with the power and functionality of religious organizations; a few lacerating scenes at some dinner parties of the wealthy show the cynical underpinnings behind such operations. The Master sometimes feels like a continuation of Daniel Plainview's outcry from the end of There Will Be Blood, a searing look into religious practices as being nothing more than a serious joke. This is not to say that Anderson is spiteful of any believers. The climax to his best film, Magnolia, literally called on some biblical exodus, with frogs raining from the sky.

Again: consider the character of Freddie. After that initial soul cleansing (or soul crushing?) processing session, this unusual world is deflected and misshapen through Freddie's eyes--and therefore our own eyes. A brilliant, Kubrickian scene shows Freddie sitting in the corner of a rich dinner party and when the camera switches to his point-of-view (POV), we suddenly see all the female members of the party completely naked (that includes the pregnant and the old too). Because Freddie was already a lost soul when we first met him, his spiral into hypnotic loyalty and eventual disillusionment with "The Cause" is just as disorienting for us as viewers. If Anderson is trying to say anything with the Freddie character, it's probably that he is the extremity of our deepest yearning to act on impulse, with no inhibition. Ironically, that kind of blind fearlessness is what makes Freddie such a fresh and ripe target for "The Cause." Regardless, the character of Freddie, because of Phoenix's staggeringly compelling performance, is the lifeline throughout Anderson's period drama. As of this moment, Phoenix is the frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar.

Some last second thoughts: The brilliant composer Jonny Greenwood (who also scored There Will Be Blood) achieves such unusual sound schemes, at times it feels like the film itself is an act of hypnosis. It's also good to see a strong female character in Amy Adams' Mary Sue Dodd, the behind-closed-doors Lady Macbeth to Lancaster. Finally, I really do admire The Master and feel it's one of the year's best films. I just don't know if it'll find its right and true audience anytime soon. The Master can be for Anderson what Eyes Wide Shut was for Stanley Kubrick's filmography: an important work of art in retrospect but not upon initial viewing.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Now Sunless World

RIP Chris Marker (1921-2012)

"Marker is unclassifiable because he is unique...The French Cinema has its dramatists and its poets, its technicians, and its autobiographers, but only has one true essayist: Chris Marker." - Roy Armes, Film Theorist


Chris Marker's influence is evident in of some of my visual poems/essays.

Monday, July 16, 2012

"You'll Never Work In This Town Again!"--And Why That Really Shouldn't Bother You

There was a time when the movie theatre--a temple for the cinema--was a physically domineering social hub for people; up until the 1960s filmgoers would catch up on their world news via short subject newsreels that preceded the movie and sometimes even congregated at after-parties to discuss or argue over that night's feature film. These days, with dark auditoriums glowing with mobile phones and tablet devices, that's a hard concept to grasp. Still, it's nothing to be disheartened by. The moviegoing "social hub" has migrated from the offline experience to the online experience and that's okay. Besides, most people get their world news from YouTube anyway.

I start with this point because there (again) exists some misguided fear--disgust, even--driven by culturally-disconnected gurus and so-called media "experts." Is it really an earth-shattering revelation that new generations of moviegoers expect more technically savvy films, up-to-date news feeds and exciting, dynamic ways to interact with movies/content? In the morosely titled "Millennials seem to have little use for old movies," Neal Gabler writes of today's young moviegoing crowd and their supposed disdain for the classics. Gabler: "They find old movies hopelessly passé — technically primitive, politically incorrect, narratively dull, slowly paced. In short, old-fashioned." Sure, I'm willing to agree that the moviegoer who plans his entire week around the midnight premiere of Fast and Furious doesn't really give a shit about a restored print of Jacques Tati's Playtime. But that has ALWAYS been the case. Before Millennials were born, there just as many moviegoers who did not know who Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky was. 

Broad summations that paint a weakening neo-moviegoing culture are dangerous. They're dangerous to up and coming independent filmmakers, content creators, producers, screenwriters and actors. It's like a dagger to one's artistic and moral life. As if it wasn't hard enough for struggling artists to make films AND eat, these influential gatekeeping pundits and gee-whiz sociological Cineastes are all but encouraging a white flag in the air that says one thing: Don't even bother.

I say the opposite. 

Post after post, I encourage my readers (aspiring filmmakers to be sure) to embrace the changes in the new media landscape as they come along (at lightning fast speed). Consider the above example. If we're to believe that EVERY person born from this point on will be glued to their iPad, curating their own social media feed and will only look forward to new and future films...well, then LEVERAGE THAT!!! If we're to approach the movie theatre/social hub/offline vs. social media platform/social hub/online example, I'd say us indie filmmakers/content creators have the upper hand. If the theatrical model is becoming less appealing for people and more viewers are turning their heads six inches down toward their mobile device, I say bring it on. Do you really want to compete with the current, hard to break into theatrical exhibition system? I'd recommend you take your chances with Vimeo. (Note: Unless you're an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker whose name alone can draw a tidal wave of attention.)

All signs point to a new, undefined, scary and exhilarating independent frontier. Don't be discouraged by the bitter industry players who used to have a handle on things. They're on their way out.

Monday, April 30, 2012

"The Professionalism About Movies Will Be Destroyed Forever"

Hollywood has produced its fair share of disaster movies. How about one where the independents destroy the archaic financing, production and distribution methods of Tinseltown? I'm sure Roland Emmerich could throw something together there. 

As we continue to grow and mature as a new generation of innovative digital filmmakers, we're learning more about crowdfunding, are chiseling out bare truths behind film distribution and are solidifying ourselves as trendsetters in a social media-heavy world.

Considering all of this, it's (very, very!) invigorating to step back and see this larger, historical narrative play out. Consider the following two filmmaker interview clips.

(1991: Francis Ford Coppola, from Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse)

Here Coppola imagines a world where the filmmaking tools have been democratized. We all know this would eventually happen. And because this has happened, it wouldn't be incorrect to jump off Coppola's thoughts and expand his hope for the future of filmmaking: a democratized level of exposure--if not opportunity for content accessibility and distribution.

 (2008: Paul Thomas Anderson, from Variety Q&A at the Arclight for There Will Be Blood

Anderson shares a story about utilizing the YouTube platform to distribute his own, non-studio theatrical trailer. After the studio's initial rage, they warm to the overwhelming response from the focused, enthused online audience. A filmmaker who came up mainly through the studio system, Anderson digresses on the amazing new opportunities for filmmakers today. He calls platforms like YouTube a "filmmaker's fantasy."

Somebody connect the dots please.

Friday, March 2, 2012

"Remember: The Less He Eats, The Better He Hunts"

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to draw the analogy between Canelo and today's DIY filmmaker. If you haven't already seen Luis Bunuel's Viridiana, then watch the clip below and discover some profound truth.

You always know how to cut to the core of me Bunuel.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Camera Simply Watches: The Real Concerns Of The Director

At a recent social gathering, I found myself debating in dialogues about the "craft" of directing, the approach to acquiring cheap/free/affordable actors and the ability to single out strong screenplays. Mind you, those are all valid and very real concerns for the "Director." But what struck me during these debates was the vernacular coming from this pool of artists. Most indie filmmakers that I meet are deeply obsessed with the textbook language that comes with "directing"; almost to the point where I'm turned off by each of them as individual artists. Is that unfair? Maybe. But what has always stimulated me about the cinema and its iconic directors, were their projected sensibilities, their ambition and their ideas that were announced BEFORE the cameras started rolling.

I guess in today's circumstances, the act of "filmmaking" has grown to be a towering, romantic pedastal for most novice filmmakers. I can't tell you how many times a fellow filmmaker has spouted off to me their festival goals, projected budgets and what kind of "star" is circling around their project. And during all of this, my only thought is: So what? Ultimately, as a director, you are (hopefully) steering a ship of ideas...somewhere. But what are those ideas? What drives you? Who are you as an individual? As an artist? What are you trying to share with the world?

I suppose for any director, in order to answer these small but monumental questions, one has to consider the primary weapon: the camera. Whether it's a film camera, digital DSLR camera or your cell phone, the purpose of a director is to have a passionate vision for something. No matter what camera instrument you have at your disposal--what the hell are you trying to show me? Or provoke in me? Why should I watch your images?

On a fundamental level, there is perhaps no stronger example than the late Alan Clarke, a British filmmaker who specialized in social realism. Consider Clarke's brilliant short film Elephant. For over half an hour, Clarke's camera simply watches a series of cold-blooded killings. After a while, the effect of the film is pretty startling. From a production standpoint, yes, Clarke at some point had conversations regarding call sheets, location releases and that damn "budget." But all of that is trite without Clarke's declaration of his vision, followed by his conviction for bringing these unusual and unnerving ideas to the screen.

In summation, if you're a director, don't get lost in the logistics of "being" a director. Remind yourself and then the rest of us, why you deserve to have the camera in your hands. And don't forget: the camera simply watches.

It's going to be your fervor and sense of purpose that points the camera toward something worth showing.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Film Is Dead: Edges Of The Digital Frame

Friends and followers, I have an upcoming video art exhibit at the I AM Logan Square Gallery in collaboration with filmmaker Amir George, curator at The Cinema Culture.

Press Release:
FROM: I Am Logan Square
773-278-4257 / info@iamlogansquare.com


Film Is Dead: Edges of the Digital Frame
A Radical Video Exhibition That Celebrates the New Wave of Underground Cinema

“Film Is Dead: Edges of The Digital Frame” is a radical video exhibition that celebrates the new wave of underground cinema. Incorporating aspects of video appropriation, off-kilter narratives and culturally conscious video mash-ups, the works of Nelson Carvajal and Amir George represent an underexposed avenue of truly independent filmmaking—one that steers clear of traditional “film school” tropes and textbook rhetoric.

Film Is Dead: Edges of the Digital Frame, a video exhibition that celebrates the new wave of underground cinema, will open on Thursday, February 2nd from 6 to 8:30 pm, at the I Am Logan Square Gallery, located at 2644 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Revolution Brewing will be providing its signature bacon fat popcorn and seasonal beer for the reception accompanied by delicious treats by Paper Moon Pastry.

Carvajal, the exhibition’s curator and featured artist, helped launch Cinefile, a niche online networking platform for independent filmmakers. His handheld camera technique was a topic point in Jim Emerson’s (editor of RogerEbert.com) essay “Screw the Tripod” earlier last year. George is the head programmer behind the Cinema Culture. His festival platforms have included the likes of the Seen and Heard Music Video Showcase (in collaboration with Chicago Filmmakers) and guest curating a Salonathon video event for the Chicago Underground Film Festival.

Additionally, Carvajal will be a special guest at I Am Logan Square’s upcoming Industry Night on Tuesday, January 31st, centered around the film industry.

The guest line-up will also include esteemed industry professionals Shayla Kloska, Marketing Director of the Logan Theater and David Schmüdde, Executive Producer of EarthCircle Films LLC and Associate Professor at the Illinois Institute of Art. IALS’s Industry Nights, designed to connect established and emerging arts professionals, take place the last Tuesday of every month from 6-8pm at Café con Leche/D’Noche, located at 2710 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Film Is Dead: Edges of the Digital Frame will be on display through the end of February. The gallery will be open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, from noon to 6 pm.

IALS hosts monthly gallery exhibitions of works by local artists and accepts exhibition proposals on a rolling basis. Participating artists and/or curators must either live or work in Logan Square to exhibit their work and priority will be given to group or collaborative shows.

About I Am Logan Square

I Am Logan Square is a local, non-profit organization that promotes and increases awareness of the arts while enhancing cultural development in Chicago’s vibrant Logan Square neighborhood. In addition to serving as Chicago’s number one resource to discover and explore the ever-expanding arts offerings and events in the Logan Square neighborhood, I Am Logan Square presents a series of arts, networking, and other special programs including the annual Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, featuring curated art exhibitions in pop-up galleries and in establishments as well as arts activities, music, and performances along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor between California and Kimball in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. The 2011 Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival was presented from July 29 to July 31 and dates for 2012 are presently to be determined. 
# # #
For additional information please contact I Am Logan Square at
773-278-4257 or info@iamlogansquare.com

Film Is Dead: Edges of the Digital Frame from Nelson Carvajal on Vimeo.