When I was a kid I suddenly wanted to go to school wearing a red cape. “People don’t go to school wearing a cape, Tito…” I didn’t care.
Getting a haircut was always a stressful process (I still haven’t figured out why), so when I was ten I decided I would let my hair grow – and for the next two years I didn’t get it cut. On multiple occasions I was mistaken for a girl. Then I got tired of the long hair but I didn’t wanna lose it all, so I left a little wisp at the back of my head at full length and cut the rest of it short. That was a call for jokes from all sides. I still didn’t care.
My mom constantly complained about how under-dressed I was, or how old my clothes were/looked. This was a recurring comment until I moved out. I never really took it as criticism, but as an observation.
All these examples involve engagement from my parents and I’m grateful they didn’t force me into anything – even the things they didn’t agree, like dressing nicely. Thank you! This intro is running a bit long, so let’s get to the point. There is a common thread between all these stories and the title of this post.
I have a serious issue with keeping up appearances, or, the way it’s popular among artists, “Fake it until you make it”. This implies that to get anywhere you have to play pretend, dress a certain way, avoid this or that subject, go to all the parties (“the parties are where all the business happens, man!”), always be ready to speak about how great you are and how your art is gonna change the world. Writing this already got me wound up.
All these “suggestions” and “guidelines” of “how to succeed” (notice the great number of irony quotation marks here) make me laugh and think “how the heck did I end up in this art thing?”, then I remember it was because I care about my work and not my looks. I grew up hearing “if you love what you do, work will come your way” from my parents and, honestly, that is one of the truest things in life. Not “if you pretend to care, people will care”.
Summarize a party for me, would you kindly? “Loud music, small space, lots of people, alcohol”. Does that sound like a recipe to success for you? If yes, I’m betting you’re an extrovert. This is the second part of why I hate so much faking. I’m an introvert – and I know I’m not the only one in this industry. If the gold standard of success is the number of people you know, I’m failing hard. The less extra noise I have in life, the better I feel. So I’m not about getting someone’s card, saying “I love your work” even though I have no clue what their work is, and “I’ll be in touch!”. I’m happy with five good friends. I like getting to know people. I like long talks about deep subjects. I like working with someone before I commit to them. These things don’t happen at parties. Plus I don’t drink, so after half an hour of being immersed in a sea of “look at me! look AT ME! LOOK AT ME!!!!!!” I’m ready to go to bed.
I feel as a group we’re too concerned with form and very little into function. It’s easy to prove that point just by bringing up a graph for explosions vs box office for Michael Bay’s movies. Before you ask: yes, more explosions equal higher profits. We live in a time in which one explosion isn’t enough to solve a problem. It’s all about being brighter and louder. I don’t see that as healthy and I will not play by these rules. That comes as big challenge but I’m used to not having things easy, so I know I’ll be ok.
What bothers me the most is these things are taught in school. I took this class twice – once at VFS, then again at Langara – so I know it wasn’t a one-off weird aspect of a specific program. Guess what happens when you try to tell a bunch of people to fake their feelings and act like something else? It’ll stick for a little bit, then it wears off with the wonderful “what am I doing with my life?”, quickly leading into a career change. Out of both my VFS and Langara classes, I’m pushing it if I say half of them are still into making films. Why do you think that happens? We also have a lot of depressed people. Does it sound random?
Lastly, an analogy with 2008’s economic crisis. In short, people bought and sold their stocks based on assumed value and claims that everything is perfect. But they lied and the whole world got screwed. So let’s assume we’re making this film and I’m faking that everything is going well on my department. When the other heads of department see that I’m doing fine, they don’t want to cause trouble so they say everything is great on their end too, and this keeps on going. The film is going flawless. Then one big problem lands front and center. Everyone is so full of problems they refuse to admit that no one can tackle that extra problem. “It’s not my department”, “So and so said they had this under control”, or the classic “We’re waiting for the funds to come through”. That causes everything to crumble to pieces and the project is put on hold forever.
It’s not healthy and it’s hard to break through. I’m happier with my small victories than doing things I don’t agree with in the hopes of being picked up to fame and fortune. I couldn’t care less about fame.
There’s a thing of beauty about sunny and hot days. Back home – in Brazil – those used to be my default, but in Vancouver temperatures only rise above 25°C a handful of times through the year (usually packed in a few weeks in July).
We’re on the third in a row of these days today. I spent all three of them wandering outside. Not “doing things outside”, just moving from place to place either on foot or biking. After every couple of hours I’d settle on a patch of grass, or a beach, or a park bench and simply exist there.
That’s usually a challenging task for me. My mind is constantly racing with the things I need to get done, or bubbling up with new ideas, questions and reflections. In these sunny days it all quiets down and, just like my cat, all I need is to move somewhere without a roof over my head and lay there.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but my mood is directly related to how sunny each day is. There’s not much that could be better today.
When I went to Japan earlier this year, Ari and I went to a temple to get our fortunes. The one I got is the title of this post. At first I was confused on what that could mean, but as I read through it, my fortune couldn’t be more right – and it sucked. Here are the exact words:
“You will be suffering from disease and get depreciated by other people. You are always attacked by danger, so you can’t get through everything. When spring comes, you may meet a happiness. You should make a perfect and good plan and wait for a good chance, with patience.”
“*Your request will not be granted. *The patience will get well in a little while. *Lost article will not be found. *The person you wait for arrives late. *Building a new house and removal are both well. *Now is a good time to start a trip. *Both any kind of marriage, and new employment are medium fortune.”
“But Tito, if you’ll get what you want in the end, why does it suck so much? At least it’s not a bad fortune!”
You know what? Maybe a bad fortune would’ve been better. I’d at least know that NOTHING would work out and just let go of all worry and stress. The fact that things eventually get sorted is what sucks, because they don’t get sorted out by themselves: I have to do it all myself. It’s not like this is something new that I just read or thought about. Ask my parents, my sister, ask my therapist, or my girlfriend! For as long as I can remember I’ve always got to where I wanted, but the costs to succeeding have always been way higher than expected or planned for. Not like $50 or $500 kind of higher but “Tito-you’re-dying-and-you-should-get-some-sleep-or-look-for-a-doctor” higher.
This led me to become a very negative person for almost everything in life. This is what I’ve experienced so far: if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. If something is surefire to work out, luck will find a way to mess it up and it will go wrong. I’ve never had anything work out in the first try. Hell, most times I get to the tenth try and things are still broken. But I can’t relax and accept things weren’t meant to be because in the end they will work out as I die trying.
Do you want some examples? Here’s a couple.
1 – I’ve been making videos on YouTube for three years every week. In the beginning of each video I say my name. The channel has my name and last name in writing. To this day, it’s hard to come by someone either saying or writing my name right – and not just online. In my graduation ceremony they said my name wrong as I walked across the stage – they had a phonetic spelling! Remember how luck always finds a way to mess up surefire solutions? Anyway, English’s doesn’t have the right phonemes for people to say my name properly without trying hard, so I got used to people calling me anything that vaguely resembles my name. This week a big photo/video portal published a review that pointed to my channel. Needless to say they misspelled my name. Is there even a point in trying to get it right?
2 – Last week I bought some lights from China. They shipped through the fastest option provided by DHL. The package was supposed to arrive on Tuesday evening. I’ve grown used to my packages being delayed or disappearing for long stretches of time for no reason – all companies that tried have failed (UPS, CanadaPost, FedEx) – so to give DHL a better shot at success I stayed home all day. All they had to do was show up. I even signed a form that allowed them to deliver without getting a signature so if they tried the classic move of knocking too lightly, they’d still have to drop off the box at the door. At 7pm I checked tracking for it and it was marked as delivered. I walked out the door to get it but the box wasn’t there. So I went to the front door – as some delivery folks are too lazy to go through the back – and it wasn’t there either. I checked with our landlord and she had nothing for me.
Of course it was already too late to call their customer service, so I sent a message on their website. At 9am I get a response saying they’ll call me with updates in two hours. You guessed it right. The call never came. So I gave them a few more hours just to make sure and then I called in. No updates, they guaranteed they’d have something for me the next day by 2pm. You also know where this is going, right? Next day, no package, no call. I called, they said the driver informed he delivered the package to the landlord, some guy named “R. Scott”. Then I go “well, there’s no R. Scott in the house I live”. “Are you sure?”. Dammit, phone person, I’ve lived here for more than a year. You think I wouldn’t know? “Yes, I’m sure. I just asked my landlord once more and she said there were no packages delivered”. “Oh, okay. On Monday we’re telling the driver to go back and pick up the package wherever he dropped it”.
And down the drain went my hopes of using these lights on the project I’m about to shoot, starting on Monday. Plus, how would I manage the issue from set? I just resigned to accepting failure.
Then, Saturday evening comes around and I get a text from my landlord saying that a gentleman two blocks down received the box by accident and brought it back to us. I can’t believe my luck. After one week of trying hard, I finally succeeded – and not thanks to DHL. Fifteen minutes later I realize my wallet has jumped out of my pocket. Two hours looking for it yield no result. I am now without any documents, bank cards and money. I can’t get a new card because I need ID, I can’t get new ID because I can’t go anywhere this week since I’m on set. It’s gonna be a fun week. I figured the best way to save money is to have no access to it at all. Let’s see how that goes.
I just want a break. You know, for things to go well, or to go as planned, or even to go in a “phew-that-wasn’t-impossible” way.
DISCLAIMER: I know there’s tons more of people who are in a much harder situation and don’t have the privilege I have to be where I am – but I still have the need to vent. This is a blog, and this is one of the most personal entries in a while. :)
This is an endeavor I’ve been working on and off for the last two years and now I can see the finish line.
It all started when I stumbled upon a post on Craigslist from a guy selling his Contax Zeiss set. It had five lenses: 28/2.8, 35/2.8, 50/1.4, 85/1.4 and 135/2.8. The price was pretty good and I’m the type of person that can buy something just because the price is good. Speaking of good prices, many links in this post will take you directly to eBay searches of each specific lens!
So far, I had no previous love for Contax and a little bit of prejudice against Zeiss for making lenses too clean. As a reference, my main set of lenses at this time was a Soviet kit that I put together because of their imperfections and organic look. Also because Soviet glass was super cheap.
Original Contax Zeiss set on the left, Soviet set on the right. Easy to see which one I loved the most back in 2015
After I got the five Contax I went to look for more info and found Nick Morrison’s Contax Zeiss Survival Guide at REDUser. That’s where my obsession started. These lenses thread the fine line between organic and sharp, a line as thin as depth of field on an 85/1.2 wide open, only second to Leica. The main difference being that a normal human can afford Contax Zeiss but not Leicas.
If you wanna follow this path, there’s no way to dodge reading the Survival Guide. It’s been there for quite a while and I have checked up on it countless times to help me make decisions. Here are some things I got from it:
Contax Zeiss lenses were designed for 35mm full frame, which means they’ll cover all the way up to Vistavision sensors on modern cameras and anything smaller. As they were designed for photography, they have clicked stops, which has to be dealt with, but they all feature non-rotating front elements, which is a very valuable feature these days with vari NDs.
The lenses were made in two generations. The first one is AE and the second one is MM. It’s agreed that MM lenses perform better and have cleaner results than AE lenses, they’re also less prone to flaring. AE lenses also show ninja-star bokeh when stopped down, which is a major turnoff for some folks. You can tell them apart because MM have their last aperture number painted green, and they have a small tab on the mount that doesn’t exist on AE’s.
The tab and the last stop in green that mark MM lenses
One last note on their generations, MM’s were mostly made in Japan, so they’re called MMJ’s, while AE’s were made in Germany and named AEG’s. But Zeiss was so precious about these lenses that some of them were only made in Japan and others in Germany. This means that not all MM lenses are made in Japan. There are MMG lenses out there – I was weary of that for quite a while, since it’s not mentioned clearly anywhere. You can also tell their place of manufacture based on what’s written on the lens! On my set some were MMJ, others AEG. It was not a problem as a starter set.
Back to the story. I started using these lenses casually. It was a time when I didn’t shoot much, but I went on long bike rides. I always took the 135 with me and some of my favorite photos come from that time.
Canon 5D3 + Contax Zeiss 135mm f/2.8
Slowly I fell in love with them. Whenever I started thinking the Soviet lenses were sharp, I’d pop one of the Contax on the camera and stare in awe.
Momentum picked up and I saw myself getting ready to DP a webseries pilot. The Soviets were good enough for my own projects, but I needed something more reliable on this one. So far I had been using adapters on them, and they sucked. That’s when I learned of Leitax and their mount replacements.
Leitax mount on the left, original Contax/Yashica mount on the right
They are made in Spain, cost about 60 euros each and you install them on the back of the lenses using the provided screws. This turns the original C/Y mount into a solid EF mount that won’t budge for nothing.
I’m a fan of DIY, so I decided to install the mounts by myself. That was probably one of the most stressful experiences of my life with lenses. The screws on the back of the lenses are tiny, and if you strip them, you can’t get the new mount into place. Luckily for me, out of the five lenses I only messed up really bad on one (the 85mm, which was also the first one I tried). So I kept using an adapter on that one (the best adapter I had).
Horribly stripped screw on the 85/1.4
Still on the DIY train, a friend and I had just bought a 3d-printer, so I started making my own focus gears. I didn’t think too much about them when designing, they just needed to fit around the ring, and our printer was painfully slow (M3D, I’m looking at you). The process turned out alright and the gears worked great, but later on I learned some useful tricks.
When designing your focus gears, keep the number of teeth constant for all the lenses. This will ensure a constant outside diameter, which means you don’t have to adjust your follow focus every time you change lenses.
To fit the barrel of the lens, use a caliper and be precise about it. I like to add 0.3mm to the measurement to give me a little wiggle room after printing. In my experience, the gears never fit on the first try. So I sand the inside down a bit and try again. Another trick is to heat them up with a blow dryer or even your house heater. They dilate quite a bit and fit much more easily.
Plus, fitting these is never a “one-slip move”. You have to keep wiggling them slowly, side by side, until they are in place. The rubber grip on the focus ring of the lenses is awesome because it prevents the gears from sliding, but it’s also a pain because it makes the fitting a lot harder. Be patient, use heat and sandpaper, and you’ll get there.
Last point on the focus gears: the same way you always want to have a constant outside diameter, you want to place them on the lenses at the same distance from the mount. See the photo below! This is another trick to make lens swaps faster, since you won’t need to adjust your follow focus back and forth on the rig. You know, like a cine lens!
The last thing I did was add step rings to normalize all their fronts at 58mm, to make my life easier when swapping ND’s and other filters – or anamorphic adapters in my case.
For a little over a year, this was enough. But then work started picking up and I saw that as the perfect opportunity to upgrade. I returned to the guide and started eBay hunting. I went for the fastest lenses and snuffed out the AEG’s I had, in favor of the prettier bokeh of the MMJ’s. Lucky for me my 50 and 85/1.4 were already MMJ.
I started with the 28mm. The f/2.8 never really impressed me, even though it’s regarded as one of the best budget 28mm out there. Every time I had to pick a lens I went for the 35mm f/2.8 instead. After I read stellar reviews about the 28mm f/2.0 “Hollywood”, I went looking for one. These are way more common in AE, but I was lucky enough to find a MM coming straight from Japan. This was a game changer. The Hollywood is indeed a star and the image that comes out of it is much more appealing than the 28/2.8. It’s also a big change in size and weight, almost doubling its predecessor.
28mm comparison: 28/2.8 on the left, 28/2.0 “Hollywood” on the right
Next up was the 35mm, two stops faster at f/1.4. Standard lens, can’t really make a set without a 35mm in it, right? I’m gonna stop saying these lenses are sharp, because at this point it’s just standard! Impressive performance and also the fastest 35mm I ever owned. Also almost twice as big and heavy as the previous one.
The 135mm f/2.8 was a great lens. It’s the one I always took with me and it gave me gorgeous shots. There’s a lot of discussion whether the 135mm f/2.0 has a clear advantage over the f/2.8, especially when you take into account the price difference. I needed the one extra stop of light though, for consistent f/2 or faster through the main set. My favorite lens switched to the 85/1.4 after that, though. Not saying the 135/2 isn’t worth it the investment, it’s just much heavier and harder to carry as a walk-around lens.
I then redesigned and printed new focus gears for these and ordered more Leitax mounts and that was good for another five months. It’s a gradual process, guys.
Then, near the end of last year I decided to round out the set and make it suitable for renting. That meant getting a few more lenses and upgrading various aspects I had neglected so far.
The 21/2.8 was a must. It’s regarded as one of the best 21mm ever made, and to this day they still use the same formula for the 21mm f/2.8 ZF/ZE primes. This one was only made in Japan and it doesn’t exist in AE, just MM. It was the most expensive lens in the set and it shares a lot of the beautiful look of the 28/2 “Hollywood”.
Next came the 60mm f/2.8 Macro. I almost went for the wrong one with my MM obsession, but I was warned by my followers on Instagram about the edge the AE had over the MM. The 60/2.8 AE can do 1:1 magnification, while the MM can only reach 1:2. The downside of such magnification is that the focus ring travels a lot, pretty much doubling the physical length of the lens. For that reason I had to make a super tall focus gear that would not slip off when travelling from infinity to minimum focus.
Contax Zeiss 60mm f/2.8 Macro AEG: Infinity focus on the left, minimum focus on the right
I know I stopped mentioning how sharp these lenses are, but the 60mm is worth highlighting. Yes, it’s one step slower than the its siblings, but it definitely crushes them with razor sharp focus and a beautiful transition into bokeh.
The last decision I had to make was between the 18mm f/4 and the 15mm f/3.5. I took this question to Instagram again and got really good arguments for both sides. The 18mm is almost one fourth of the price and half the weight of the 15mm, plus it fits along with the other MMJ’s in the set. At this point the price argument was adding a lot of weight. These babies were bleeding me dry.
The 15/3.5 took the cake though. 18mm is way too close to 21mm, plus lots of reviews mention its not-impressive performance. The 15mm is a gorgeous rectilinear super wide angle, it shares the same optical formula as the Leica Super-Elmar 15mm f/3.5, with different coatings. It’s also quite similar to the modern 15/2.8 ZF/ZE offered by Zeiss, just a 2/3 stops slower. It also has built-in color filters which I freaked out when I realized how to turn them. I still don’t know when to use them, though!
This wraps the first step in building a set of lenses: getting the glass. Now I’m gonna move into streamlining it for shooting and making it the best possible lenses to handle on set.
I already talked about the mount replacements and focus gears, so I’m left with standard fronts and de-clicking.
Conveniently – for me – as I was finishing the set, SIMMOD Lens came into the picture, with very competitive prices, impressive customer service and super high-quality products. I got all my standard 80mm fronts from him, as well as slip-on lens caps. For a while I didn’t understand the need for 80mm fronts, so I’ll share what I learned so others won’t live too long unknowing like me!
80mm diameter Cine rings by SIMMOD Lens and 77mm filter threads
80mm is the outside diameter of the rings, and that number is so specific because it’s a standard size for clip-on matteboxes. Since the filter threads across the set are wildly different (from 55 to 72mm), standardizing the filter threads to 77mm allows you to own one single set of filters which can quickly switch lenses without the need for tons of step rings. So all you do is get a Cine Ring with the rear thread of your lens and that’s gonna make it standard!
It looked neat, but from my experiences as 2nd Assistant Camera, I was constantly being asked how fast so-and-so lens was, or what’s its minimum focus. That information was usually written in the lens case, and the focal length was on a sticker attached to the lens cap. I was not impressed, so I decided to make my own.
My custom made front caps with focal length, f-stop and minimum focus distance
First I measured the slip-on caps I got from SIMMOD and created a Photoshop template with that size. I plugged in the focal length in white so they’re easy to read in dark sets. I also added the f-stop for each lens and its minimum focus in meters and feet. Then I sent that to be printed at StickerYou in vinyl stickers. Each page with eight stickers costed me about $10. You have to admit they look sexy.
The issue that came up from was the stickers were having a hard time sticking to the material of the lens caps and were peeling off on their own. To fix that I took the stickers off, added a thin layer of glue, put the stickers back in place and let it all dry overnight.
I repeated the technique for the rear caps, this time with only the focal length written on them. These I ordered from MOO, because they offered me more variety at a much lower price.
Focal length marked on the rear caps as well
For declicking, I read a lot of posts from people saying it’s a super easy process on Contax Zeiss lenses, but I didn’t have the guts for it. I shipped all of them to SIMMOD for declicking and a quick checkup. Ron also offers the full mod service for great prices, including focus gears and lens mounts. I was just ahead of the game, so it wasn’t necessary on my case. You can use the code CINE at check out for a nifty discount!
After aperture was made smooth and clickless I still had my 3d printer hanging around, so I printed aperture gears as well. I haven’t tested these much yet, and I ended up not doing standard outside diameters. If I have a motor on the iris, it’ll have to be adjusted every time the lens is swapped.
Iris gear on the 35/1.4
This gave me a great set of lenses ready for action, all I missed was a way of getting them to said action. All I ever had so far was a Canon backpack and that is not a safe way to transport this grade of gear everywhere. I needed a proper case!
I reached out to David at Hardcases.ca and got both a Nanuk 918 with padded dividers and a Nanuk 904 with foam to fit these babies. On the 918 I keep the main six lenses of the set plus variable NDs and other filters. The two “specialty” lenses – the 15/3.5 super wide and 60/2.8 macro – go on the smaller 904 case. This makes life easier when grabbing gear to go out and renting it as well. If I know I’m not gonna need either the 15 and the 60, I just don’t take their case with me. Having them separate also gives me versatility on pricing, since the main set can still go out without them for a more accessible price.
The 6-lens set in a Nanuk 918 Case and the two specialty lenses
Building this set was a great experience throughout. I met amazing businesses with folks that really know how to deal with their customers, I did try out mindblowing glass and I was humbled by all the feedback I got when asking questions about what would be my best options in the middle of the process and posting updates of what I was working on.
Fluorescent paint to make markings easier to spot in the dark, by Moritz Schierenbeck
Contax Zeiss lenses are the gems for sharp yet vintage glass. They’re fully manual – focus and aperture -, have solid metal construction, long focus throw, and a great feel overall. They’re much cheaper than modern lenses, yet share similar designs and performance. They cover full frame, are super easy to adapt to many other mounts and never lose their value. You have a wide range of lenses to pick from and equally different price tags. You can either build a $1500 set or a $10000 set and you’ll always impress with the results.
They’re killer tools for video, but in order to achieve maximum performance, there’s a number of steps and procedures to tackle. This is a guide for people that love handling gear and tweaking little things here and there. If you want something ready to use from the get-go, I’d say this is not for you.
Lastly, just for curiosity’s sake, Carl Zeiss has a specific nomenclature for his lens designs – and you can see some of them written on the ID ring of these Contax Zeiss lenses. Distagon, Planar, Sonnar, Tessar, Biogon and Hologon. Here’s a very interesting article by Edward T. that summarizes tech papers published on these designs and their differences, pros and cons.
Every time I mention I don’t really want to be THE Director, people start losing their minds. “BUT WHY NOT?! Don’t you wanna be the boss?”
That’s exactly the point. There’s no desire deep inside of me to be the boss of anyone. As I mentioned on my Mentors post, I have a problem with authority and it would be hypocritical of me to want to tell others what to do.
Let’s see if we’re on the same page: when you think of the director’s role in the making of a film, what comes to mind? Is the director a genius who comes up with every single great idea you see on the screen; a person that single-handedly runs the film and has answers for every question during pre-production, production and post? Is the director a star; someone to be feared and honored to simply be in their presence? I think you can see where I’m going. When portrayed this way, it’s easy to notice how many expectations exist surround the figure of the director.
It makes me wonder why we encourage this archetype of director. While in film school I was taught the director is like “The King of the Film”, and all the kids are hyped to sit on that throne. The word “king” to me sounds more like a tyrant than a fair ruler. Being told you’re the “king” and you have limitless power is more likely to bring out your best or your worst? Historically speaking, it’s been the worst. Tyrannical regimes benefit a select few while the majority labors away – and we’re taught this is the way things work.
I don’t believe this is the way things are supposed to be. I believe this is how things have been so far: the Director is the Man in Charge. This is why I didn’t want to be a Director. I don’t wanna be telling everyone else what to do, I don’t wanna give orders, I don’t want to impose my way of thinking onto others. I don’t want the glory or the fame, I just want to make movies and movies are not made by one person. They’re made by groups of people. Large groups of people.
Groups don’t need bosses, they need leaders. People that inspire each other to go further, to think harder, to be more creative. People that won’t punish each other when things go wrong, but will share the blame, people that are more comfortable putting themselves at risk than putting others. I dream of a film set where impossible things come true and nobody gets hurt in the process; that the cast and crew will go home after shooting and think “that was an awesome day and I’m happy to be here again tomorrow”.
At Langara, I went into the directing stream. On the second semester my displeasure with what was expected of a director was at new heights. I just didn’t want to be that person. Being told I had to only made me more disappointed. It got to a point when I scheduled a meeting with Sara, our Advanced Directing instructor, to openly tell her about my directing crisis. What I heard from her played a big part on how I faced directing after the meeting and motivated me to write this post, months later, while continue to pursue being a director.
Collaboration is key. There’s simply no way one person has all the good ideas. As directors we need to be open to listening to our department heads, just like they must be open to listening to the folks under them. During the pre-production meetings for “Up & Away” there were plenty of questions I didn’t have an answer to, and each of those was a different problem. Acknowledging I didn’t have a solution made more people rally up to fix the problems and work it out together. “Directing is asking questions” is a common sentence to hear when it comes to working with actors, but for me it turned out asking questions has been the solution in every front. “How can we get this many people?”, “can we really light flares under a covered area?”, “do you feel safe building this structure?” and, most of all, “can you guys give me a hand with this?”.
Asking questions makes the people around us think and ask other questions in return. It makes us all listen. Listening to our team and trusting their judgement will get the set running on its own. Also, how could we not trust our team, right? We picked them personally! Listening and thinking are underrated traits these days. There’s an urge for knowing all the answers from the get-go. there’s shame for asking questions in fear they are stupid, and and an unhealthy eagerness in being told what to do. It empties us from responsibility. If it goes wrong, “it was so-and-so that told me to do it”. It’s scary to be responsible for something because suddenly you have to care about it.
There are many advantages to this shared-responsibility style of directing but I’ll only mention one: when things go wrong – and they will -, instead of everyone looking up at us, “THE Directors”, to give them a solution, they’ll start solving the problem themselves because they know we trust them. The problem is this is still a very distant dream. I can count in one hand the number of sets I’ve been that people worked like this.
One of the obstacles in the way of a mindset change is education itself. Lots of aspiring directors want to be stars, want to be the next Tarantino or Scorcese. They want to call the shots and school says “this is what you’re gonna be when you come here!”. Learning institutions should focus more on the process than the result, as hard as that might be. Outside of school, it’s our job not to take all the credit if a film goes well. It fills me with joy when I tell people I didn’t have a clue of how we were doing certain scenes in “Up & Away” and my co-producers came up with brilliant solutions, or when the sun was dipping behind a building, killing our key light, and our gaffer saved the shot by finding us sunlight after we told him to let it go. Unfortunately you didn’t get to see the smile on everyone’s faces on set for these spontaneous efforts that elevate the quality of the film. I did see them though. It’s a collective high and it outshines being the head of the project. If we start to make films people are happy to work on, I believe other people will be happy watching them too.
It was only after “Up & Away” was done and delivered, after I got feedback from multiple people on the team about how production went, and after a few more long conversations with Sara I figured I want to be a director because I like working towards dreams. Don’t you?
If you have ever worked for free, this might be of your interest. I’ve lived and breathed film long enough to learn how to tell bullshit from honesty, and we all know there’s bullshit everywhere. The reason we all know is because we come up with our own crap, all the time. If you don’t think so, better stop now – either stop with the bullshit or stop reading this post.
We have all had more than one account of someone coming up to you and saying “this is gonna be a great opportunity in your career”, or “this will look great in your portfolio”, or “there’s gonna be others after this one”. These are all versions of something I’m gonna call “the deal of a lifetime”. By promising you the future, your employer convinces you the present is no big deal. We’re all poor right now, aren’t we? It feels good to dream of a plentiful future while we toil away. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. We pride ourselves in the stories of the money we’re owed (and unlikely to be ever paid). That’s our elusive future, the one we’re constantly promised yet never delivered.
We do things we hate in the hopes of being handsomely rewarded for it. We keep thinking these sacrifices are gonna pay out one day. Our desire for this future to be true, combined with the stories of success that populate our surroundings, is what perpetuates the cycle. EVERY film school tells stories of underdogs who rose to fame and fortune, of nobodies that turned millionaires overnight. “Film is an inclusive industry” you’ll hear over and over. The film industry is the American Dream that failed to die. Actually, that’s not true. The film industry is the failed American Dream that has enough money to disguise its shortcomings and repeated failures. It’s cheaper for the business as a whole to spend money advertising that all is well and continue to siphon dreamers like us, underpaid and overworked, than to admit its flaws and reward people properly. Later on, this environment will allow you to exploit someone else, the same way you were exploited throughout your career.
As I went through film school once more, less dreamy this time, I struggled trying to understand why our environment is so based on the concept of “you trying to sell how YOUR project is important to ME while I know full well that you don’t really mean what you say”; I know you’re the one getting the better deal; I know that, in your head, my role can be replaced while yours can’t; I know in the end, when reward comes, you’re the one reaping it while I watch from the distance. I don’t understand if I pretend to believe you as a way of justifying my poor choice – this bad investment of my time – or, if after being hammered over and over that this “is good for my career”, I actually believe it might be my big break.
It has taken me ten years of no big breaks to figure out some things for myself when it comes to work: Deals of a lifetime don’t come dressed as deals of a lifetime. It drives me crazy whenever someone tries to sell me their project as such deal for my career. I’ll know it when the time comes – IF it ever comes. I’m not too eager for the deal of a lifetime and this is why I prefer the honest take on work. If you want my services for little money, be upfront about it and let me decide if I want to join the team or not. Don’t try to convince me with some bullshit reason because we all know it’s a lie. Make sacrifices too. The last two sets I worked on, my superiors were getting less money than me because they cared more about the project, and that made me respect them tenfold.
I see a film set as a tiny functioning society and I don’t feel like putting my chips on a society that is the same or worse than the one we have on our daily lives. By that I mean a society in which there’s the top dog who eats steak for lunch and gets paid by the minute while some kid stays up for fifteen hours in the rain so they can get minimum wage. I believe the hierarchy is necessary on a film set and I know some jobs are more stressful or require more prep than others, but I don’t believe in the current wage gap. The system as it is only favors the type of competition in which people sabotage each other and don’t own up to their mistakes because they’re afraid of being fired or, even worse, blacklisted.
There’s a culture of putting your head down and trusting the system that your time will come. This only perpetuates the issues we have now. The unraveling we witness today is a consequence of empowering people who were silenced in the past. These aren’t new problems. They’re entrenched in our industry, remnants of a period based on inequality. Keeping your head down doesn’t encourage discussion or change. Discussion and change are the future, and much needed in the film industry.
I love film and I don’t want to change the magic that shrouds it. I am changing my approach to making films though, and so should you if want a better working environment for the years to come. When we’re the ones making the rules, let’s not repeat what we were told and what we went through. Let’s question it; Question how things can be improved and made better for everyone involved. Let’s bring to set the same magic we experience when watching a good film because, let’s face it, we spend way more time making films than watching them.
This year I went to film school. Again. If you know me in person or if you follow this blog for long enough (since its creation), you’ll know this is the third time I’m doing it. Each one of them was very different due to my approach and focus. The common aspect of all three is I met amazing people that taught me and inspired me to be better at my craft and a better person overall.
People that challenged the status quo and what was expected of the students. People that were open to unusual lines of thinking and an incredibly questioning student (the one writing this) with authority issues. I’m not gonna say there were lots of these people everywhere. There was one or two of them for each time.
The first time, at University of Sao Paulo, I was mentored by Fernando Scavone, who encouraged me to write a graduation paper unlike any that came before. A unique blend between theory and practice that was gonna turn into template for future classes and projects (I didn’t know that at the time). I also had Luli Radfahrer, who has a unique view on how to teach basic photography and was so open to my questioning that he let me teach one of his classes to see if I could prove a technical point we disagreed on.
The second time, at Vancouver Film School, my savior and mentor was Werner ten Hoeve. To this day, I still don’t know exactly why we bonded so well. I was going through the hardest period of my life, but I still kept my no-bullshit attitude of not taking orders without question and accepting that some things are just “meant to be”. Ultimately, I think Werner liked me because of how I took ownership of my final project and never complained about the challenges he gave me.
The third and hopefully last (at least for a while) time, at Langara College, I had Janin Palahicky, the key instructor when it came to dealing with gear and technical questions. I honestly don’t know how he put up with me since the beginning of the program while I questioned the cameras we used, the lenses we had, the software used and other basic level instructions. Nowadays we have a group chat and talk about both work and mundane things.
The other important person at Langara was Sara McIntyre. When I went into the film program, I was set on cinematography. Cinematography was a part of the directing stream which involved, among other things, directing a couple of short films. You see, I never wanted to be a director (we’ll get back to that in the future), I didn’t have the traits I believed were required to be a director. After a semester of Sara’s Advanced Directing classes my resolve in not to be a director was a little shaken – she is a director and her views on pretty much everything that a director represents went the opposite way of this director archetype I had in my mind. In multiple occasions I came to Sara with this subject and we discussed what it meant to be a director. She changed my view on the film industry, from simply accepting what’s already there, into fighting for what you think is right – and there’s plenty of things in the film industry that need to be made right.
Weaving through this process, from all the way back at University of Sao Paulo to the present days, there’s Bruno Nicko. We made a webseries together, we lived together more than once, and whenever I decide to learn something new, he’s there to support me – many times by teaching me. The same way Nicko comes aboard for my crazy ideas, I always jump in to help and encourage him on his. Among the shared qualities: my bike is the same model as his – he got it first -, we started riding fixed gear together and we don’t really like big crowds of people or social events. Sometimes we don’t see each other for quite a while but every time we chat, it inspires me to grow and see things under a different light.
After this last time in film school – and two years of weekly therapy sessions – I found some connections between all the people mentioned above. They are the ones that didn’t try to stop me from doing something that had never been done before simply because it had never been done before. They are the ones that instead of fighting back against my questions, were open to listening and talking about said questions. The point was not “who was right and who was wrong”, but the conversation itself. The outcome was not as important as the process. They were the ones that didn’t simply accept things that “are”. They saw potential for change, for doing things differently.
These folks are my compasses and I’m extremely lucky they’re just a phone call or email away.