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MAP Master Series: Vincent Laforet on Directing Motion

By Jeff Wignall   Sunday June 15, 2014


Few photographers have jolted the filmmaking world the way Vincent Laforet has. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 2002, Laforet was named one of the 100 most important people in photography in 2005 by American Photo magazine. But then his career took a new turn. In 2009, he released a short film called Reverie,made with the Canon 5D Mark II. The film, notes photographer and writer Jeff Wignall. in today’s MAP Master Series sponsored by SanDisk, helped spark the DSLR filmmaking revolution. It also turned Laforet, who is a member of the SanDisk Extreme Team, a group of outstanding photographers and videographers, into an acknowledged leader in this emerging film world. (See below for information on special SanDisk offers.) This spring, Laforet launched a popular 10-week workshop tour called Directing Motion, and today he shares his insights into what makes a great shot, a great film—and a great director.

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In every profession and in every craft, there are events that can be pointed to as seminal—moments that change the future of those professions profoundly and forever. In the world of creative filmmaking, one of those watershed events was the online release of Vincent Laforet’s 2009 short filmReverie.It was the first 1080p video shot with a DSLR—a Canon 5D Mark II—and, in what seems to have come as a complete surprise to almost everyone, including its director, it received over two million views in just a few weeks.

That film not only ignited Laforet’s long-held ambition to become a motion-picture director, but also provided dramatic proof of concept for using still cameras to produce serious films. Just as important, it also demonstrated the power of social media as a career-building (and audience-building) weapon. The film’s release, says Laforet, was a “perfect storm” of technology and media, and it changed the way Hollywood thought about cameras.

At the time he made Reverie,Laforet was already an established star in the photojournalism world and at age 25 was the youngest photographer on the staff of the New York Times. While at the newspaper, he won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his coverage of post 9/11 events in Europe. His photos of Hurricane Katrina were among the most published images of that event. And in 2005, American Photo magazine named him one of the “100 Most Influential People in Photography.”

As a director, he has been honored with a Gold, Silver, and Bronze prize at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for his work on Canon’s groundbreaking Beyond the Stillcompetition. In addition, his blog has become one of the most read filmmaking and photo sites on the Internet, drawing more than three million readers a year.

This spring, Laforet launched a 10-week workshop tour called Directing Motion, which is making stops in 33 cities and drawing rave reviews from attendees. During a break in his shooting and workshop schedule, Laforet paused to talk with MAP about his rise to Hollywood notoriety and his personal goals, and to share some of his insights about the skills required to become a great director.

MAP: Was the idea of moving into motion pictures something that has been in your head for a long time?

VL: I have two fathers. My biological father, who I got to know when I was around five or six, happens to be a director. He directed Emmanuelle, which is one of the more famous French films. My other father, who brought me up, was a set photographer for Premiere magazine in France and a director of photography. My first memories in life were of being on a film set with my stepbrother.

So I always wanted to go into film, and when I was 18 I was accepted into NYU and USC, and I could have gone to the film programs at either school, but for some strange reason I chose journalism and went to Northwestern. I do wish I had that extra 10 or 15 years in the film business, and yet on the other hand I wouldn’t trade that time for anything in the world. The richness of what I got as a photojournalist and the people that I got to meet, from being in the Rose Garden in the morning with Bill Clinton and then photographing a homeless person near a train station on the same day, that’s an education that you really can’t pay for. So I know that strengthened me as a director.

MAP:What was your first experience in working with a serious piece of digital motion gear?

VL: When the 5D Mark II came out, I kind of absconded with it. It wasn’t meant to go to me, but I begged and insisted for four hours until I finally got my way and I got to borrow it over a weekend. Long story short, three months later I had about 50,000 Twitter followers that didn’t even know I’d ever taken a still image. It goes to show you how fast things can change. Most people today don’t even know that I was a still photographer, that I worked for National Geographic or the New York Times or won a Pulitzer.

MAP:Was it your short film Reveriethat brought you that attention?

VL: Yes, Reverie exploded it. And since then, I’ve been told by a lot of people in the industry that my name is now ingrained in a lot of people’s heads based on both Reverie and my short film Mobius. But I’ve never been one to rest on my laurels—I’m always looking at the next day. The person that told me that, by the way, was Michael Hissrich, who is the producer of the TV series Shameless and worked on shows like ER and the West Wing.

MAP:What do you think triggered your transition from still to motion? Was it a case of the right tools appearing at the right time, or was it also social media appearing at the right time?

                           A photo from the Beijing Olympics by Laforet

VL:
It was the perfect storm, it absolutely was. I had just started my blog a few months earlier because Newsweek was setting up to cover the Beijing Olympics, and they realized they weren’t printing an issue in the middle of the games, and so they asked their three photographers there to start blogging. They got one of the biggest responses ever, and my blog got very popular. Then a 5D Mark II fell into my lap, and those two things combined.

MAP:And because of that, an obscure film like Reverie brought you to the attention of Hollywood?

VL: Yes. In reality, it was a bad cologne commercial—you can’t even call it a short film. It was a montage of images. I’m still proud of it, for what it was; it had zero budget, and it was shot with three friends and no prep. But I don’t delude myself, the fact that these people know who I am and recognize the name while I still haven’t shot a feature film is interesting.

MAP:Your short film Mobius also received a tremendous amount of attention. It has a very tightly woven and carefully paced feel to it. Were you satisfied with the film?

VL: We made some critical mistakes on that film. We had three weeks from the time that we were asked to do it to the time that we actually shot it. So the script is quite weak, and the reason it’s so tight is that we had to cut it down for Canon to air during that initial launch. I think it had to be around seven or eight minutes, and it was about twelve. The problem in working so fast is that you lose all the connection to the actors and you don’t really care about them. I’m very happy about Mobiuson a visual level and on a directing level, but in terms of acting and dialog and story, I’m completely dismayed by it. So it was a good lesson.

MAP:As a director, has there been any distinct advantage from being a journalist who has a very reactive sense and training? Do you see things on set that someone who doesn’t have that background might not perceive as readily?

VL: What a good photojournalist becomes is a pocket psychiatrist. You’re constantly going into situations where you have zero budget and zero time, and you have to find a way to get your pictures. You have to learn to read people, to find people who are going to work with you to make that photo happen. Generally you do that by being very genuine and very passionate, but also very acute in understanding people and how to make them understand that what you’re doing benefits them in some way—whether you’re in Katrina or trying to get on the roof of a building in New York City.

Also, as a photojournalist you’re always trying to be a fly on the wall in a situation that isn’t really natural and to put people at ease. That also applies to not only creating the right environment for your actors and crew but also knowing instinctively what feels right when you’re staring at the screen, because that’s the director’s main job on set—to look at the screen and say, “Do I buy it?” And if not, “What can I correct?”

MAP:What else did you learn as a journalist that has come into play as a director?

VL: It’s interesting—I went to the Life magazine archive and I saw Cartier-Bresson’s original contact sheets, and I saw how it looks like he’s in a grabbed moment but actually he shot from that spot for about three or four hours, the exact same frame. You learn that the secret to a lot of this spontaneity as a photojournalist is actually patience and preplanning and pre-visualizing. Ironically, that applies directly to being a director, in that you want to your film work to be spontaneous, you want to create that environment, but while everyone on set may think it’s magic, you’ve planned every single thing effectively for months to make that moment happen. As a director, I spend 90 or 95 percent of my time prepping. People think that I do most of my job on set, but that is the easy part; it’s too late at that point to change anything major, and so being on set is the fun part of my job. I average about 10 to one: For every hour that I’m on set, I spend about 10 hours prepping.

MAP: What’s the biggest challenge been for you as you transitioned from stills to motion?

VL: It’s like going from paddling a kayak to managing a navy as the admiral—that’s a good analogy. You’re managing all of these sailors and all of these egos and issues and logistics and you have to learn how to become a leader. That’s been the biggest thing for me, going from working by myself with maybe one assistant to regularly managing anywhere from 30 to 100 people.

MAP:Do you have the ambition to direct a feature film?

VL: Absolutely. But the reality is that when you get this kind of visibility, you find yourself under the microscope, and I think in many ways it’s forced me to pull back and not release stuff that I thought was just good to OK.

I’ve been quietly, diligently working on some strong scripts, strong stories with a variety of writers literally from around the world. I’ve been working on episodic series, on shorts, on indie films and, further down the line, on feature films. So that when things do get started, when you do finally break out, they’ll come to you and say, “What do you want to do next?” Everybody makes the mistake of not having a few things lined up, but as everyone knows those things take a very long time to develop.

My next big endeavor will be a short or a feature in the next year or two.

MAP:Tell us more about the workshops—who are they aimed at and what can attendees expect to learn?

VL: I had three months to prep for this workshop tour, which will never happen again, literally. I had that time because I had a broken arm. I was the passenger in a dune buggy in Dubai, and it rolled and it snapped my arm like a twig. During the time it took to heal, I went through 100 films and I picked 650 clips out of them, and then I narrowed them down to about 150. So just doing that was about two months of work, to watch the film, take notes, and pick the scenes out.

MAP: It sounds like it was a lot of fun just preparing for the workshops.

VL: It was a guilty pleasure, and I knew the moment that I started that I had already benefited as a director just by doing this. I’m twice the director that I was prior to doing all of this prep for the workshop, because I took the time to actually dissect my favorite film scenes and really break them down. Until you do that, I’m not sure you really understand what the director is doing.

I put one of those FBI warning slides up on the screen that says, “Warning, when you attend this workshop you’re never going to watch film or television the same way again,” because you are going to go from being passive viewers—which is how most people watch films—to being an active dissector of films.

MAP:What is the goal of the workshops?

VL: Simply put, I want to make people understand how, when and why to move the camera, and to think about what’s in front of it. We look at every single camera move, and I illustrate what a push and a pull and a jib and a parallax and a dolly is, but I illustrate them with the best examples in history—whether Scorsese did it, whether Spielberg did it, or whether Terry Gilliam did it.

MAP: Can you give us an example?

VL: I explain to them things like why the camera pans away from Kevin Spacey’s head in American Beauty, because when the camera starts to move the audience knows that there’s no chance that the gun will pull away. If the camera stayed stationary there’s a chance the gun might shake and not shoot, but the moment that the camera starts to pan, his fate is sealed. And we talk about the psychology of the camera moves and how it relates to the way we move about in the environment ourselves. It’s a relatively deep look at each camera move and why directors use them. We also talk quite a bit about sequencing, about moving masters, about coverage principles. The attendees are given the formula so that they can shoot virtually any narrative scene regardless of the deadline pressures.

MAP: It sounds pretty immersive.

VL: There are lots of diagrams that were done painstakingly in After Effects that show the movements of actors and extras, as well as the camera’s movements, so that people can understand on a diagram level what’s going on within a scene, so that they can reproduce the scenes on their own, regardless of how they were cut. We end up by actually shooting scenes of a police foot pursuit with two cameras. The scene culminates in a hostage sequence in the classroom.

MAP:Is there filmmaking gear there?

VL: We’ve got a full set that we travel with—we’ve got a J. L. Fischer, we’ve got two cameras with cine zoom lenses, we’ve got MoVI stabilizers and Steadicams. But it’s a workshop; it’s not about the gear. I want people to step away from this obsession with 4K and frame rates and what camera you’re using and understand why we need these tools. I want them to focus on the craft of directing.

MAP:Can you talk a little about the importance of quality memory cards and why you rely on SanDisk?

VL: The reason that I rely on the SanDisk card is that, after putting years of your life into a project and all of the things that you can’t possibly mitigate in terms of problems that will arise given Murphy’s Law, the last thing you want to worry about is your data. Whether it’s corrupt or lost is just simply not an option because that sunset and that scene will never happen in the exact same way again, no matter how much money you have an no matter how many re-shoots you do. And the last thing you even want to have cross your mind is, “Is my data safe?”

Also when I’m copying disks from one thing to another, I want it to be fast, because I don’t want to spend an extra hour waiting for the copy at the end of the day. I want to go back and do more prep or get some sleep because I’m getting about four or five hours as it is, so that extra hour is worth gold to me.
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