Fueling Creativity in the Classroom through Film: An Interview with Professor Paul “Bear” Brown

Posted: 02/19/2020

“I think because students are so used to instant results and gratification of digital, there is a love/hate relationship (with film), and not much in between. To some the physicality of handling film is a rush, but others find it frustrating because it takes practice and repetition. I tell students that is like learning scales for a musical instrument or drills in sports. You do this to be muscle memory and the more you do it the more natural it becomes”  – Prof Paul “Bear” Brown

“Do or do not, there is no try” – Yoda

Paul “Bear” Brown is Professor of Film and Television at Savannah College of Art and Design and a member of Who’s Who of College Professors. Professor Brown recently incorporated the LomoKino – a new hand-cranked motion picture camera that enables photographers to shoot a movie of up to 144 frames on any 35mm film cartridge – into his curriculum and agreed to speak with the FPP about the experience.

FPP:  Professor Brown, thank you for taking the time to speak with the Film Photography Project!  Before we get to your (and your students’) adventures with the LomoKino, we’d love to get a bit of background on your career – what prompted you to specialize in film and television, and how long have you been teaching?

Professor Brown: Growing up on comic books and cartoons, I started out majoring in illustration at Savannah College of Art & Design. I created storyboards for my friends who were studying filmmaking. Seeing my compositions move was fascinating, so I took a few classes in film and video and I was hooked. I never seemed to be interested in telling the actors what to do, but rather exploring what the frame could say instead, leading me on the path of Cinematography.

The next thing I know I’m teaching it. In my classrooms I approach the idea of shot selections as if illustrating a story or idea.

My main emphasis is Cinematography, but I also teach overall filmmaking from the freshman intro level to graduate thesis.

Now almost 25yrs later, with technology advancing so fast there is always something new to teach, #neverstoplearning!

FPP: As fellow film enthusiasts, we are interested in your decision to incorporate still and / or motion picture film into your curriculum.  Have you always taught film alongside digital, or is this a recent development?  If so, what prompted it (incorporating film)?

Professor Brown: When I first started learning about filmmaking, we mainly shot video, but had to take photography classes to understand lenses and exposure and this embedded the Zone System in my head. When it came time to shoot my thesis I knew I wanted to shoot on film, and was surprised to learn I was the first student to actually shoot their production on film instead of video. I bought a Beaulieu R16 and never looked back.

In some of my classes such as an advanced lighting course we shot on slide film for a lot of assignments and when I was working on some sets, the DP would use Instant film to check exposure before we shot, a practice I’ve re-introduced in my courses using Fuji instax.

I remember getting rolls of Kodak and Fuji motion picture stock and sending them to RGB color lab in California to see what motion picture film looked like and doing tests on those before buying 100’ rolls of 16mm.

I don’t like to get into a battle of film over Digital with my students but reflect on my illustration days when I studied different mediums and picked the best materials and techniques to do the job. I try to get my students to enjoy the process of filmmaking and in turn learn from their mistakes and success, but to always try something new or experimental, taking the sage advice from Yoda “do or do not there is no try”.

In my classes I teach everything from mobile device filmmaking to the Arri Alexa. I love to explore different mediums, cameras, lights... everything. Whatever I learn or discover I share with my students, past, present and (using social media) future students, hoping to provide inspiration.

FPP: Have your students embraced film as a medium?  How has working with film as a format impacted your student’s pre-production, production and post-production workflow?

Professor Brown: I think because students are so used to instant results and gratification of digital, there is a love/hate relationship, and not much in between. To some the physicality of handling film is a rush, but others find it frustrating because it takes practice and repetition. I tell students that is like learning scales for a musical instrument or drills in sports. You do this to be muscle memory and the more you do it the more natural it becomes, whether learning to load a Lomokino to loading a 400’ magazine on a S16 camera.

I try to convey the benefits of learning to use film and the technique it teaches you such as planning for shots based on a more limited amount of raw footage.

Also, in comparison to digital, film can be expensive but that forces one to be more prepared and think about every phase of the production.

I find for some students the financial issue of film isn’t a deterrent because they see raising funds as helping them to be more prepared for their professional careers and working together with students who have different specialties. Some love the challenge filmmaking brings and the prestige that has become attached to actually shooting a motion picture on actual film.

This goes back to my philosophy of learning to enjoy the process. Shooting on film and then transferring to digital for post introduces different challenges from resolution, color correction, aspect ratio that all must be a major decision in the acquisition.

If the story takes place outside, which film stock do you use? Based on the post workflow, how much control does one have?

Do we shoot reversal or negative, color or black and white, what ISO?

Based on the script, how much film will we need to shoot?

What is the director’s shooting ratio?

While all these are also considered in digital as well, there is a finite limitation with film.

Take shooting with the Lomokino, where 1 roll of film is 144 frames. The students must think about their post workflow from the beginning and consider what the playback speed will be. I recommend for them to consider about 6 frames per second as playback. And now, they get to do math! I must stop for a second because I chose an Art school for college to avoid math, but unfortunately math is everywhere. Back to Lomokino, 144 frames divided by 6 fps is 24 seconds.

So take a 1 page script, that is usually a minute per page screen time. Shooting that script Ed Wood style or one take wonders is about 3 rolls of 35mm (36 exp).

Students must take into consideration shot length, shooting ratio, shot number and shooting style.

I have them shoot storyboards on their phones before they select film to help plan, then the following days they shoot. This technique is continued when we are using digital, teaching to do as much pre-production as possible, for all but the crew. The director’s shot list and shooting ratio effects the cinematographer’s locations and exposure considerations. This all falls back on the producer to organize and be efficient with time and money for the script. Again, this is done in digital but shooting on film forces on students to slow down and really take each factor into serious consideration.

FPP: Do you and/or your students integrate film into digital projects, or working with film primarily as a stand-alone format?

Professor Brown: Students usually don’t mix the mediums during acquisition, but definitely explore the blending in post-production. I teach a class for visual effect students where we start by looking at films by George Melíes and how in-Camera effects gave birth to today’s effects. Shooting with the Lomokino allows them to think about the challenges of in-Camera effects, and when to consider whether using digital will make the effect better. This process also provides them with in-sight to the history of filmmaking. .

I have had some students mix the mediums for desired effects, for example if they want an 80’s look for their work. They consider the time that would be invested in trying to get those qualities from 4K digital vs just shooting on 16mm.

I remember listening to an FPP podcast where they mentioned the lens baby and how here we are today trying to create the same qualities in the image that were once looked down upon in low cost cameras and lenses.

The assignments I give usually focus on learning certain skills and I allow them to be creative with their ideas. I often place limitations on length and sometimes on their shooting time, for example if it has to be completed during class, but I encourage my students to be creative. I often tell them to shoot for the moon while simultaneously providing a voice of reason by challenging how they will get there.

FPP: How did you discover the LomoKino, and what about the camera appealed to you?

Professor Brown: I’m not really sure of when I first learned about the Lomokino, but I remember buying into the camera hook, line and sinker the moment I did. I bought one and just shot with it wherever I could. I brought it into my classes and shot a roll when my students did their shoots. Since I’m always bringing something new to class, they were intrigued. I remember my class was doing a remake of the chalk sequence from Fritz Lang’s M with an Arri Alexa, and the students were more interested in what the Lomokino footage was going to look like.

I started looking for Lomokino films shot on on Youtube or Vimeo. When I saw “The Incredible Story of Dr. Lomotnik” by Arnaud Martin I started to think of ways to get my students to do films like that. I loved the simplicity of the camera and knew that would appeal to students. It took me a few times to load the Lomokino correctly, but eventually I became fluent with it.  I think the part that most appealed to me was the look of a Lomokino film. It was like experimenting with paints or markers, I started to wonder what I could accomplish with it.

The incredible story of Dr Lomotnik from Arnaud Martin on Vimeo.

I started to share my test on Vimeo, doing side-by-side comparisons of different scanning options or shots from my classes.

FPP: Did the FPP’s decision to launch a film scanning & color grading department in its Fair Lawn facility influence your decision to work with the LomoKino?

Professor Brown: I am always looking for ways to enhance the filmmaking experience and was glad to see FPP offering Lomokino scanning services. We have been using film to digital scanners like the Wolverine Titan, or some students could still run the Lomography App on their phones, but I knew there had to be a better way. I had done a test with Kodak Film Lab in Atlanta and while the images turned out great, there was the problem of getting the frames to line up correctly, so I figured I give FPP a try. I really liked the result and have posted a comparison of the Wolverine Scanner vs the FPP scanning on my Vimeo. I have students do a transfer with the Titan for time, but if they really are encouraged by what they see, I recommend sending it to FPP for a better scan.

FPP vs Wolverine Comparison from Bear brown on Vimeo.

FPP: Any current or upcoming projects you would like to share with us?

Professor Brown: Over the summer I shot a test of about 12 different stock ISO 400 to 1600 on the Lomokino and I plan to do another looking at ISO 50- 200 stocks. I want students to see what options are out there for film and what the differences are between stocks. I’m always looking for short story or script ideas that I think will fit the style and look of the lomokino. I have a short script that I created years ago that I hand out for an in-class shoot that involves a sequence where someone is mysteriously trapped in a container and I leave it up to my students to figure out what technique to use. Maybe a jump cut, try some compositing, forced perspective, stop-motion - it can be anything, but the point is for them to use their imagination.

Lomokino Film Comparison part 1 from Bear brown on Vimeo.

FPP: Professor Brown, your philosophy on filmmaking and teaching methods are truly inspirational!  We look forward to incorporating many of your tips on pre-production and planning into our own projects and keeping up with you and your students as you continue to explore your imaginations through all mediums (but especially film).

If you too would like to keep up to date with Prof. Brown and his student’s achievements, you can follow him on Instagram @filmprofessorbear or Bear Brown on Vimeo
Photos courtesy of Instagram @filmprofessorbear 

About Paige Kay Davis - Paige is the Director of film restoration at Film Media and a regular contributor to The Film Photography Project


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