Miss Jiwaku’s Film

I’ve never really participated in a filmmaking project involving people who knew what they were doing, and who wanted to make a successful film; I did teach a pilot class where students made a pseudo-documentary, but some of the people involved had lukewarm interest in the project, and none of us were properly trained in filmmaking. However, this weekend I participated (as a camera operator) in the filming of a short film (written and directed by Miss Jiwaku). I feel like logging my impressions, as well as what I learned from the experience; but since that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll pop it in an extended section of this post, and just note that for now, I’m thinking of writing up a script involving some Lovecraftian horror set in Korea. Oh yeah.

But that’s in the future, and I want to talk about last weekend…

So for the last few months, Miss Jiwaku has been taking a film course at a very neat organization in Seoul, set up to help promote, and educate people in the making of, independent films. She had already made one short (~10 min) documentary film about makeup and identity in Korea, but her second (and final) assignment for the course was to make a short fiction film, going all the way from scriptwriting to directing and editing it together.

She decided on a script about job interviews, which reflected a few bizarre questions she was asked when she submitted a resume for a short-term job as a translator, I think it was, with one of those big huge Korean conglomerates for which she would almost never, ever be willing to work long-term. (The questions included things like her weight, her parents’ and siblings’ jobs, and even more invasive stuff. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say they were asking about bra cup size over the phone… an exaggeration, yes, but Miss Jiwaku said she felt as if she had been a piece of meat, undergoing an on-the-spot consumer-grade assessment.)

So, obviously, she went with satire. The language is a bit above my head, but only a bit, and the parts I could follow were hilarious. (It was even funnier when I figured out a little more, and had other bits translated for me.) The interview basically features an male interviewer (who is very much the mindless petit-bourgeois type of mid-level Korean manager-type who has, at least seemingly, bought into the messed-up system), and three women: an “elite” woman, who has a stomach-churningly, satirically-exaggerated “perfect” background, a “desperate” woman who lacks many of the assets of the “elite” woman, but seems like she would be a hard worker… if only she could be given a chance, and a “sassy” woman who doesn’t hide her feelings about what a joke the interview, and life in corporate Korea, is.

Anyway, she shot the film almost completely a few weeks ago, with a few classmates working the cameras, and a cast of friends and one relative, plus an aspiring actor (an excellent, excellent guy) found through a website online. After we looked at the rough footage, she was pretty unhappy with some of it, and struggled in deciding whether to shoot again, or to just go with the inferior footage (and in one case, acting) and just do a rough impression of the film she wanted to make.

After a little thought (and some prodding by me) she decided to reshoot, and that, of course, is when things fell apart completely: the relative who had acted in the film had sprained her wrist and was now not only sporting a huge cast, but also in pain and ill to boot. The inevitable scheduling conflicts were pretty dire, with one actor unable to arrive before 4:00 pm, and another unable to stay beyond 6:00 pm. And finally, Miss Jiwaku had to fill in for the relative, acting her part, and that left only one person to focus solely on working cameras — me. (Miss Jiwaku also did cameras, but in between shots, setting up stationary shots and doing handheld shots when she wasn’t in frame.)

The result, though, was a lot more satisfactory than the original footage, and I think one reason was that the set — my office — was basically empty except for people acting, and me. The first time around, a bunch of people came to “help” — to track takes, to hold a boom (which we discovered was unnecessary), to give advice, and so on. The result was a room full of people, and some distracted camera people, actors, and director.

The second time round, the only non-actor in the room was me. A lot more flexibility with setting up shots was possible, since we didn’t need to worry about providing seating space for people and could move things around rapidly. Nobody was distratced about setting up shots, and so we caught and averted a lot more goofs ahead of time, and took more risks with the shots, which resulted in more interesting footage. There was, indeed, only one scene in which extras would have been useful–a hilarious karaoke room scene–and even so, that scene works well as it is, too.

The other day, we shot the scary opening footage, since all it required was Miss Jiwaku and an unseen person following her in dress pants and dress shoes; the fact that it snowed a few inches helped us out, though it’d have been nicer if it had been a little less cold (so we could have pulled off a few more shots).

Anyway, Miss Jiwaku is fighting a deadline, so she’s in Seoul now, working on one of the consoles at the film center, and trying to get a final edit (for the main footage, anyway; I’m not sure if she’ll be doing credits and so on, since the real screening of the film will be in mid-February).

As for what I learned, here are a few things:

  • Reading Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art was a major boon for me. It gave me a sense of how shots can be framed, about how cutting from one “shot” to another ought to work, and thus how things could be framed and shot in such a way as to make the work easier for the editor. I don’t mean to say I directed all the shots, but Miss Jiwaku gave me pretty free rein with some of them, and with those, I used some of what I learned from McCloud in setting the shots up and considering transitions.
  • Shots aren’t just about images. They’re about emotions. Indeed, it seems to me that shots achieve a lot of what adjectives and introspection achieve in fiction. That is to say, one really needs to consider the psychology of the character when setting up the shot. Which is funny, because this was actually pretty evident to me pretty quickly, but when I looked at the footage shot at the previous shooting, by people actually taking a film class, this awareness seemed incompletely-formed.
  • Continuity and goofs are almost unavoidable, unless you have a budget. We have only one goof I know about, where some jackets appear in a spot where they shouldn’t, for about a half-second or so. Not so bad, if you ask me, though none would be nicer, of course.
  • When someone is a really good actor, they really do change right before your eyes. They “become” the character, and it’s a fascinating thing to watch them assemble a few gestures in the space of a couple of takes, and then repeat those gestures. This is an insight that can be related to fiction writing, namely, that characters are not made up of internalized feelings or ideas: characters are made up verbs–actions which define them and illustrate their interiority for us.
  • It is just as difficult to be truly, on-the-spot funny in front of a camera as it is to be funny in writing. When someone manages it, that’s what we call magic.
  • When talking to actors, it’s important to make sure they know the overall arc for the character within a scene, but that said, because they know what’s coming, you need to watch them carefully to make sure they understand the micro-emotional shifts within a specific shot, too.
  • When you’re working on a series of shots from a single scene for a long time, it pays to  break things up with something different and fun. (Miss Jiwaku had three exterior flashes to integrate into the film, and she used two of them to break up the otherwise all-in-on-space series of interior, office shots. This had a very positive effect for everyone involved.)
  • Making visual media is pretty hard work… but it’s also really fun. I can definitely imagine doing it week in and week out… as long as there were some long holidays, and good pay, involved.

I mentioned above that I’m kicking around an idea for a short film script working with Lovecraft and Korean history. In addition to that, Miss Jiwaku also wants to make a series of short films for Youtube, satirizing common bad Korean behaviors (say, the pushing and shoving and other stupidity on the subways, or horking and spitting on the street, or the stares that non-Koreans constantly get, and so on) as a kind of object lesson for Koreans, as well as a pressure valve for non-Koreans living here. We’ll see how that works out, but it looks like it could be a fun project.

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