HDSLR Artistry: 'Idiot With a Tripod'

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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.

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 Idiotby 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.'”



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