Paul Dudbridge is a British director, producer, cinematographer, and educator, making feature films, television, commercials and music videos. His work as a cinematographer includes the action thriller By Any Name, based on the best-selling book by Katherine John. As a producer and director, he helmed the science-fiction series Horizon, which won a number of awards at international film festivals, and earned Paul a Best Drama Director nomination at the British Royal Television Society (WoE) awards in 2016. Paul's new book, Shooting Better Movies: The Student Filmmaker's Guide, is brand new from Michael Wiese Productions. We spoke recently about the days of cameras everywhere, embedded ideas, and why story is king.
You can visit Paul's website here.
Dave Watson: First, congratulations on the book. Is this book aimed at student filmmakers of all ages?
Paul Dudbridge: Thank you very much Dave, it's been three years in the making and I'm pleased the book has found a home at Michael Wiese Productions. Yes the book is aimed at students of all ages. As a student of film, you might be a teenager just getting started, a film school graduate or even someone in their later years who just wants to start making films and telling stories.
DW: The book starts with scriptwriting. In these days of IPhones and IPads with cameras, do students struggle with this phase?
PD: It's certainly easier these days to start making films and with the quality on iPhones and iPads being so good, access to gear in order to shoot isn't an excuse any more. The script is the most important part of the process and it is sometimes overlooked. I've written so many scripts that were just rubbish, but you have to get all that bad writing and poor dialogue out of your system as soon as you can and you can only do that by writing and writing and more writing! There does seem to be a leaning towards pretty images from the students I've taught at a few universities, and not much focus on getting the script in the best place it can be. Other issues tend to be “embedded information” where they have information in the stage descriptions of the script that can't be photographed. Telling the audience what characters are thinking etc. I have a section on this in the book as I felt it needed telling.
DW: You started making films early, and write this book as if you are still discovering new ways of making films along the way. Are you? What have you learned recently in this filmmaking climate?
PD: I'm always learning! I don't think you ever stop. I have a cameraman friend of mine who even in his 60s is still learning new stuff on every shoot he goes on and I'm the same. I started making films when I was 11, with a first attempt at an Indiana Jones style adventure film and have been shooting ever since. I'm always learning new gear or what a different camera filter might give you in certain lighting conditions. That's the fun part. In fact, from interviews with production houses and working with other DPs, one of the biggest complaints about younger students entering the industry is that they feel they know everything and don't need to learn anything else. They should be a sponge soaking up everything around them, instead some are unwilling to accept where they are on the ladder. As for what I have learnt recently, always shoot wider than what you think you want whenever you are filming any sort of stunt or pyrotechnics. You don't want to be so tight that you miss the effect or the spectacle and you can always crop in slightly if you feel you're too wide.
DW: With technology changing, do you prefer film to digital?
PD: I've only had the pleasure of shooting film once, so the rest of my work has been digital. I'm fully behind the idea that story is king and the format, is a factor, but not as important as people can make out. I think digital is at the stage now where it's actually superior in quality now too. The audience don't care and after about 20 seconds of looking at an image, they think, “Okay this is what the image looks like, now what are they saying, what's the story?”. Consider the last two James Bond films; Skyfall was shot digitally, and was a hit with audiences and critics alike, and then Spectre was shot on film and was less well received. It was what was happening in the story that mattered. In the early days of digital, the image did look like TV news and a little pixelated but now you really struggle to tell the difference.
DW: Composition appears to be a theme in your book. How crucial is it?
PD: Composition is very important. What is in the frame or left out of the frame is the whole film. I have a quote from director Sydney Pollack at the start of the book when he says “It's important to learn the basic grammar first. Otherwise, it's like calling yourself an abstract painter because you cannot paint something that is real.” So I talk about composition so that students can learn how to frame something good first and make things look at good as they can be and once they've mastered that, they can then go on and push the boundaries and try new things. It's an important step to know when and why to break the guidelines or “rules” in composition. New films and TV shows are released all the time with these conventions ignored but they know consciously what they are doing and it isn't simply poor photography. Students just need to know the difference.
DW: Your book also uses examples from mainstream films. How does your book apply to lower-budget as well as big-budget films?
PD: The creative processes are the same for either low-budget or big-budget films so it all applies. Productions of all sizes still have to deal with lack of time, money, and the weather, so they're all fighting the same battle. Creatively, it might be matching shot sizes, orientation, cutting on action, or telling the mini story, all of these things have to be clear or maintained across all types of films. I wanted to use examples from a range of films that I like and that my readers might like to help demonstrate my points and cement the ideas.
DW: You’ve worked in TV and have a section on mini-stories. This facet of moviemaking, such as a mini-scene in the middle of or during larger scene, seems to be executed sometimes well and sometimes not, in larger-scale films. Would you agree? Why?
PD: I would agree. It's about making it clear to the audience so they can follow and keep up with the story. Directors sometimes make the mistake of not being able to see the story or plot point or mini story from the audience's point of view. The director, the DP, the editor or whoever it might be, know that the files have been mixed up or that the detectives are knocking on the wrong door or that the gun has no bullets left etc, but does the audience? I've been lost whilst watching a film before thinking why didn't XYZ happen when the star did that or how did the character find out where the bad guys were? The issue sometimes isn't resolved either because everyone's read the script and discussed it so the crew all know what is happening in the story and bring that knowledge to the screen when they watch it and it all makes sense, but the audience only has half the information. Coverage, camera angles and editing play an important part here to solve this issue as they are the tools to help make these points clear. I felt it needed discussing it in the book as I've seen many a student/low-budget (and big-budget!) film make this mistake.
DW: What’s next for you?
PD: I have just signed a second book deal with Michael Wiese Productions which I'm excited about. It's tentatively titled “Action, Stunts and Special Effects: Making your first blockbuster”. I have a lot of experience with action and special effects so I'm looking forward to getting started on that. Production wise, I'm developing a couple of features with a producer friend. We have a slate that we're looking to get off the ground late this year and early next year.
DW: What is your favorite cinematic moment? One that inspires you to this day? [This can be a scene, moment, or even a single shot. I find a clip and attach it at the end of the interview]
PD: Good question! Oh I have so many! It would either be the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy steals the idol and gets chased by the boulder, or, Marty driving towards the clock tower at the end of Back to the Future. My heart still races each time I watch those bits. I used to think as a kid that maybe someone snuck into my room and swapped out the film for one with a different ending! How can I possibly know the outcome AND still be so emotionally involved?! That's how much I get swept up in the emotion each time! Let's go with Indy...
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Dave Watson is a writer and educator. He lives in Madison, WI. His first book, Walkabout Undone, has just been published by HenschelHaus Books.