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HDSLR Artistry: 'Idiot With a Tripod'

Idiot With A Tripod - Trees 2  

The
short Idiot With a Tripod demonstrates the creative
possibilities enabled by HDSLR shooting.

By Iain
Stasukevich

On December 26, 2010 the five boroughs of New
York City were bracing themselves for a “snowpocalypse.” Meanwhile,
Queens-based filmmaker Jamie Stuart was getting ready to shoot a film.
He didn't know what it was going to be, only that it would involve being
outside in the freezing snowstorm. “Plenty of times I've just picked up
the camera and gone outside to shoot, especially once I got the Canon
7D,” says Stuart. “I just go out with my eyes peeled. You see something,
set up the camera and shoot it.”

By the next day he'd finished
editing Idiot With a Tripod, a three-and-a-half-minute tone poem
to the snow-covered neighborhood of Astoria.

Stuart had honed his
on-he-fly approach – working without scripts or storyboards – by
shooting promos for IFP's Filmmaker magazine. It's not that he
has something against preparation: “I used to be really strict about
storyboarding everything, but a good filmmaker should be able to step
into a situation and immediately find a half a dozen compositions.”

If
he had any kind of roadmap to follow, it was Dziga Vertov's 1929
experimental film Man With a Movie Camera. In the opening titles
Vertov explains that his film is an experiment: a film without
intertitles, a script, actors, and sets. “This experimentation is
directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute
language of cinema,” it concludes.

Idiot With A Tripod - Dog

Stuart was exposed to
experimental filmmaking through the music videos of directors like Mark
Romanek, Spike Jonze and David Fincher, who filter the offbeat ideas and
styles of filmmakers such as Vertov, Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner
into their own work. He points out that the fear of cinema becoming to
reliant on theatrical and literary tropes is just a prevalent today as
it was to Vertov and his fellow avant-garde Kinoks.

Stuart
reveals a quiet beauty in the snowstorm that almost shut the city down
for the following two days. Set to “Painted Sun In Abstract” from Trent
Reznor and Atticus Ross's Oscar-winning soundtrack for The Social
Network
, Idiot With a Tripod is filled with lingering static
frames of geometric patterns and shapes in the urban environment. When
the camera does move, it dollies and booms on a steady and confident
path, leading one composition into the next.

“Early on, I used
macro diopters for the close-ups during the day shots and also, a
70-300mm zoom for the rooftop shots,” he write to film critic Roger
Ebert, who championed Idiot by calling it Oscar-worthy. “I was
more limited at night because of the weather conditions, so I stuck with
my 24mm, 50mm and 85mm — all of which are manual Nikon lenses. In the
middle of that maelstrom I was changing lenses, wiping off the lenses
and manually focusing [and] adjusting each shot.” Knowing that the 7D
does a 1.6 crop on the camera's APS-C sized sensor in video mode —
restricting the angle of view on a given lens — Stuart also kept a
wide-angle adapter on hand.

Idiot With a Tripod brings the
Kino-Pravda movement full circle in that a man and his movie camera are
brought together by the somewhat Marxist idea that anyone can make a
beautiful film without spending tens of thousands of dollars on
equipment and support. For the shots where smooth camera operation was
called for, Stuart used his tripod as a handheld stabilizer (the shots
were later stabilized further in Apple Motion) and his handmade slider
was a wooden board with a tripod head that moved across two aluminum
rods.

“If I had the money I'd buy an ARRI Alexa or RED,” says
Stuart. “But to really invest in a kit like that I'd have to spend
almost $25,000 for the body, and then I'd have to start thinking about
lenses, which sometimes cost as much as or more than the camera itself.
Then there's the expectation of putting it to work.”

Idiot 
garnered its director a lot of interest from every corner of the
industry, but while bigger plans are certainly on his horizon, Stuart is
keen on doing more visual and less narrative projects in the vein of
the filmmakers who inspired him.

“I'll get into arguments with
people who say that movies are all about dialogue,” Stuart recalls. “To
them, a film is solely about the idea, and I'll say, 'Yes, but you don't
have a motion picture without the picture.'”