An expert in commercial film production, Film Connection
mentor Steve Carmichael
has played a key role for the past several years in training our film apprentices in the Atlanta area. Steve currently does production work with Rite Media Group
in Atlanta—a progressive film collective that (interestingly enough) was founded by one of his former students! In a recent conversation with RRFC, Steve shared a few key truths about the film business that he emphasizes with his students, along with a story or two to underscore his points. We thought we’d share some of these snippets with you.
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ON PROPER ETIQUETTE AND SET HIERARCHY (ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU’RE NEW):
“Be the fly on the wall, but know who you’re supposed to respond to. Pay attention, be present and aware and ready to move on a second’s notice. Then, the second part of that is, don’t be afraid to ask when you don’t know… If you don’t know where something is, what something is, if somebody sends you for a box of sprocket holes, ask what that is.”
ON LEARNING FROM NEGATIVE FEEDBACK:
“I have to get feedback on my students when they’re working on a production…Being alert and waiting for someone to get your attention, it’s not the same as being all over everybody. That’s one of the things that I have to impress on them. When I get feedback from a director or producer about, ‘Well, they were just in everybody’s face every minute,” I say, ‘I cautioned them about that.’ And then, I will thank them. I’m never scary when I give [my students] feedback, but their future depends on this, and I want them to do well. So I have to give them the feedback in a serious, respectful way.”
ON WHAT HE LEARNED FROM HIS OWN MENTORS:
“When I worked in California, I worked in set lighting [with] a gaffer who primarily worked at Universal. He loved being a mentor, and he would not only explain what things were but the principles behind it. His name was Doug. I use stuff that Doug taught me with these students all the time. It doesn’t have to be about lighting. I do use it for the lighting part of the course, but it’s also how you stand ready, anticipate what might happen, be ready for that, or anything else. It’s just a practice.”
ON HOW GREAT LIGHTING CAN IMPACT FILM, AND A RECENT EXAMPLE OF GREAT LIGHTING IN FILM:
“One is very recent, and it was nominated for best foreign film this year. It’s called Ida. It’s a Polish film shot in black and white on an ARRI Alexa [a digital camera]. I thought I was going to faint at the absolute beauty of it. I’ve never seen a film shot like this, especially black and white. I’m a lover of film, like so many people…It’s a very small film. You’d figure in the credits on the electrics crew, you’re going to see one, one, and five; gaffer, best boy, and three operators. It’s seven electricians on this film, on this tiny little film.
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING TO THE CLIENT WITHOUT PRIOR EXPECTATIONS, AND WHAT CAN HAPPEN WHEN YOU JUST LISTEN:
“I’ll give you an example. I had to do a short documentary on the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. I thought the client was to introduce a show of Russian iconic art, which was coming to Atlanta. I thought, ‘Well, they’re going to cheap out on this thing. They’re going to wait until the art gets here. We’ll shoot a lot of close-ups of it. I’ll write eight minutes worth of voiceover. We’ll find some Russian sacred music; done for 10,000 bucks.’ So I went into the first meeting with the client with that as an expectation, always a dangerous thing to do in this business. You never have expectations.
“By the end of the first meeting, they’re sitting there, and I’m not pushing that idea or proposing it; I’m kind of listening. That’s the most important thing in initial meetings with clients or producers, is to just listen. By the end of the meeting [they said], ‘Steve, we’re thinking we can’t do this film unless we send you to Russia. I’m sitting there. This a childhood dream I’ve had forever. I love Russia, its history, and culture. I know a fair amount about it, and I’m about to pass out. I don’t know what to do here. They said, ‘We’ll have a meeting again in a week. Why don’t you do a budget based on your going there, using a crew in Russia, and spending about three weeks there?’ I thought, This won’t come true. They’re going to see the numbers, and fire me…
“At the end of the second meeting, they said, ‘Well, you need to start making plans to go to Moscow.’ That was one of the happiest days in my life. I got to go there, work with a Russian crew, do a story that was different. It was a documentary format. Very short film, it was eight minutes long. It cost them $60,000. I started out at $10,000, staying in Atlanta. What a ridiculous idea. So their expectations were much higher than I thought they would be.”