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FILMMAKER: Ryan Oksenberg
STORY: How I Used Rhythm to Make Better Creative Decisions on My Latest Short Film
Many say it’s imperative for directors to be literate in the language of writing and editing. I could not agree more.
When you’re out shooting and a line doesn’t feel authentic, you may have to suggest a new line, or cut the line entirely.
When it comes to production, sometimes you have to make tough editing decision on the fly when running out of time.
But one thing I don’t hear about often is the need to understand rhythm, and how it influences all stages of filmmaking.
Rhythm played a major role in how I wrote, shot, and edited my latest short film, Damage Control. So let's add that one to the unofficial list of things directors should attune themselves to.
First, a little background. I’ve been playing percussions for a long time. Self-taught. It’s a hobby and also a release.
Oftentimes when I’m sitting on my butt all day tied to Final Draft or Adobe Premiere, I get up and play on my drum kit or djembe. I think about what I’m working on and translate it into beat and establish a pace. It’s a nice relief (and distraction), yet surprisingly helpful…
Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can tune your brain into the music you listen to, and discover the mechanics behind it.
Ask yourself, what exactly is it that makes a song catchy, or makes us dance or feel something? How do people talk and relate information to each other? How long do we take to process good news and bad news?
It’s all rhythm.
Sure, it’s an abstract concept, but I realized how much rhythm helped me wrap my brain around the execution of my latest short film, Damage Control.
The film is driven by its pacing and tone, and that's how it builds suspense.
The whole story takes places in a single moment. So I had to establish a rhythm that propelled the story forward and not lose momentum. It needed movement, which comes from whether characters onscreen were staggered, flowing, chaotic or syncopated.
Same with the camera. It could be slow, jerky, or prowling—as if the character was being followed. There was something measured about it, something musical, and I just had to figure out how to hit the right notes.
Don’t be afraid to read your script out loud to find its rhythm.
I know, I know... you’re not an actor, so why should you recite the words you’ve written? Because when you’re sitting alone with your script, the only way you know if the writing really works is by reading it out loud to yourself (or ideally someone else as well).
I was reticent to do this in the past, but ultimately, you can catch a lot of mistakes reading out loud to people. You'll find things like overly expository dialogue, dialogue that lacks a point-of-view, dialogue people would never speak, or in the case of rhythm, how people talk and process information.
Maybe the person you’re reading to gets bored or confused. That's when you know to take a beat, add, subtract or even add by subtraction.
Plus, by acting out your writing, you’re already giving yourself a leg up in the editorial process. You can imagine while reading how long the shot needs to last in order to register to the audience—or if it even needs to be there at all.
They say the golden rule is one minute a page but you’ll only know its true rhythms by reciting them out loud and imagining it.
With Damage Control, it’s only an eight-minute film, and I didn’t have enough time to flesh out the couple’s relationship However, I realized on set that we might have stripped away too much dialogue in the beginning. So I relied on the actors to convey the dynamic of the couple through their behavior.
Most actors love to play around and improvise so long as you create an atmosphere that makes them comfortable going off book.
Right there, I discovered what Drew and Alison’s relationship was. This yielded charming and funny dialogue that felt real. That stuff couldn’t be written. As the great Elia Kazan said, the directing is in the casting.
One word of warning while improvising: keep the ship on course. You know the material best, so if the actor is writing dialogue in the moment, follow their rhythms and make sure words don’t repeat with later or past dialogue.
That’ll be a pain to cut. If you like something they say, take mental notes—or actual notes—so you remember to tell the actor to repeat the line when it’s time to shoot coverage.
Shooting to the beat.
Each actor speaks in their own cadence and has their own unique flow when it comes to performing. Same goes with the camera. You have to find a balance and fluidity between these elements to match what you’re asking the audience to feel.
If you look at masters of suspense like Alfred Hitchcock, he uses long takes to create tension—there’s no cut to relieve us from what is brewing.
I wanted the same for Damage Control.
Since I was going to be cutting the picture, I foresaw how the tempo of the timeline sequence should be: long takes at first, followed by a series of edits that cut finer and finer, and then diced by the end.
There was something musical about the long mysterious build that intensifies and starts to reveal itself up until the climax.
You could equate the structure of it to an anthem or a drone.
The long takes were a challenge to pull off on a shoot that relied on available light during winter. Plus we only had two days to shoot. We didn’t have any rehearsal time with the actors prior—but we just went for it and even shot the blocking in case.
There are a few minute long takes that are handheld, moving along different parts of the property, where actors have to appear and disappear as if we were shooting live theatre. The camera, the performance and all the other moving parts had to magically dance in harmony for this one moment.
Think of it as an orchestra and you are the conductor. When do certain instruments come in, when do they come out and when do they all play together?
When we shot these long takes I wasn’t necessarily focusing on the actor missing a line or changing a line, but the time spent on each beat. The best acting I have realized is when the actor takes the time to go through the emotional logic of the character, the switches in their eyes or body language.
I forgot about that in the editing room. I had fifteen versions of minute long takes and I was looking out for best performance and best camera. I realized that I couldn’t have it all. What I needed to do was split the difference between the two and prioritize what the audience should be feeling and how they will be processing the information.
It could have been so easy to just chop up the take and try to hide the edits but then I would lose those long-gestating rhythms that I was going for. Edits obscure an audience's sense of time, but the real-time aspect of the long take makes you stressfully aware of the seconds ticking by.
One other noteworthy rhythmic choice we made was with camera distances.
For the first half of the film, when Drew is surprising Alison with their new home, we are meant to feel hopeful… until Drew’s sordid past catches up to him.
We chose short, wide-angle lens for these scenes to create an aloof POV, as distance can minimize the effect of movement and make them feel like they’re being watched.
This was later contrasted when the apparition in the shed confronts Drew. We chose longer lenses for close-ups, which heightened the impact of movement and drama when Drew is forced to confess his wrongdoings.
Editing to your own music.
Apocalypse Now editor Walter Murch has a really cool technique for finding the right moment to cut.
He lets the footage run and hits pause right on the exact moment to make the edit. He’d then put a marker down, and try again and again and again. If he was on the same mark each time, he knew that was the moment to cut.
Editing can be extremely delicate—a single frame can make or break a moment. It’s completely musical.
For instance, let’s say an extra drumbeat was added or subtracted from your favorite song. I bet you’d hear the difference, and it would be jarring.
It may seem antithetical, but Damage Control was the first time I edited without any music.
For past projects, I made the mistake of letting temporary music I wasn’t even using to dictate my edits. I’ve also become very attached to music I’ve edited to when I knew I wasn’t going to get it in the end.
There were also times when an edit felt off and I only realized when I muted the soundtrack that it wasn’t the picture that was tripping me up, it was the music.
This time around, I did all the dialogue editing and laying down room tone myself, and used that quiet as my own personal metronome.
Cutting this way allowed me to take my time holding on character’s reactions and consider what I wanted the audience to feel.
I was establishing my own rhythm and my own pace that my composer would later translate into music.
Then this whole other phenomenon occurs once we complete the score, where it’s impossible to tell whether I was cutting to the score or he was scoring for me.
I feel it makes for a more organic process for both editor and the composer, who now has the freedom to create from a blank slate. (But that’s a whole other article!)
Rhythm is your toolbox.
Rhythm is not limited to the aforementioned.
Look at any Kurosawa film. Within the frame, characters are staged in different areas of the focal plane, some moving, some static, and then in the background there’s usually weather, like rain, wind or a fire. It all works in tandem to create a singular feeling, a visual rhythm.
So what’s the lesson learned?
There are so many tools a filmmaker can pick up to convey something to the audience. In the case of Damage Control, the genre inspired me to try out new techniques this time out to best tell the story.
For each film I make and you make, we grow as directors and our literacy expands by finding new ways to convey feeling.