William Eubank was on a path to join the U.S. Naval Academy and train to become a pilot when all of a sudden, he decided that he hated math and wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking. And even though he didn’t have any contacts in the film industry, Eubank approached filmmaking the same way that he approached getting into the Naval Academy: methodically. “I broke it all down and I was like well, these are the elements that lead to a movie. And not knowing anybody really, I’ll go to film school, I’ll try to get an internship,” he said.
Eubank went to film school, but it wasn’t the kind of film school you might expect a director to emerge out of, especially in the post Film School Brat era. Eubank’s tenure at Panavision, however, where he worked on a range of commercials and films as a Digital Imaging Technician (DIT), provided him with a practical education in filmmaking that helped hone his ability to think and problem solve creatively.
“The Signal,” Eubank’s sophomore feature, is a science fiction drama starring Laurence Fishburne, Brenton Waites and Olivia Cooke, and Eubank’s world-building through visual and aural manipulation is so meticulous that it’s hard to believe that the film was shot on a $4 million dollar budget in just 27 days.
Earlier this week, Indiewire hopped on the phone with Eubank to ask him how he managed to work with such a small budget and how his technical background has helped with directing.
Here are five of the most salient points — hacks if you will — from our conversation that filmmakers, no matter what stage they might be at in their career, might considering applying.
Despite the speed at which camera technology is changing, you can still count on certain elements of filmmaking — namely lenses, framing and aspect ratio — to stay the same for the most part. When Eubank started working at Panavision in the late 1990s, the film industry was at a critical crossroads, in the midst of transitioning from film to digital, which actually worked in favor for the aspiring young director, as it provided him with a unique point of entry. “The crazy thing that was happening at that time was right, just right then, the Sony F900 had come out, which was a CineAlta brand of camera,” said Eubank. The F900 is the digital camera George Lucas used to shoot Episodes II and II of the “Star Wars” franchise — the former being the first film to have been shot entirely using digital technology.
“Digital was just starting to take over and I kind of saw an opening. It was kind of a great leveler all of a sudden,” Eubank continued. “It’s one of those rare times when all of a sudden is reeling in the industry and I just found an opening and I figured the more that I was an expert on something, the more valuable I would be, the more likely I would be able to get on set and try to start learning how to do this shit.”
It didn’t take long for Eubank to realize that the pace at which camera technology was advancing would almost always end up outpacing his ability to learn about it. “I realized I needed to learn other things in order to take that to directing,” he said. “So I guess what I mean is I realized that the lenses would stay the same, I realized the framing and the aspect ratios and all these things that dictate a shot — whether it’s a shot in a modern movie or a shot in an old western, or even framing in cartoons. I realized that there are certain elements that will remain true during the whole process.”
“The distance between the camera to the character, and then that modified by the lens choice, is going to change everything.” It may sound like filmmaking 101, but, as Eubank points out, “It’s really easy for people to get wrapped up in some 1’s and 0’s and forget why something is happening a certain way or why the tech is being used in a certain way or why a certain lens or certain distance.” Citing the 2011 film “Drive” as an example, Eubank explained how director Nicolas Winding Refn “uses really wide lenses, but stays super close to the camera so the background falls off and so you just feel Ryan Gosling’s face. And it’s all like right there in your face. The background is just gone.”
Think of storyboarding akin to writing a comic book. At least, that’s how Eubank approaches it. He buys a book, draws out every frame of the movie and incorporates clippings from his favorite film, anime and comic book sequences. Anime and comics, he says, are particularly instructive when it comes to crafting action sequences. In Eubank’s own words, anime artists draw “lean” action. The artists for “Dragonball-Z,” “Evangelion” and “Akira,” Eubank believes, “find different ways to utilize the frame” because they don’t want to draw hundreds of shots.
Slow motion will save you money. Eubank has never directed a commercial in his life — although a lot of people seem to think that he has, based on how often he uses slow motion in “The Signal.” According to Eubank, “The slo-mo is only there because it’s kind of like a way to get something to feel heavy and intense and emotional or visual when I don’t really have the money to do the action like six different times with six different cameras.” Slow motion, he says, allows him to “turn a moment into an actual moment when it’s just a fraction of a second.” For a science fiction film like “The Signal,” where time and point-of-view are constantly being manipulated, slow motion plays an integral part of building the conceit.
“Make it, bag it, keep going because at some point somebody is going to like one thing that you did and they’re going to want to know what else you have.” Eubank derived this philosophy from his “film godfather” Bob Harvey, who is a top executive at Panavision. While at the digital center at Sundance one year, a man came by the Panavision table with his film that he had been trying to get people to watch for the past two years. After the man left, Eubank remembers Harvey turning to him and saying, “Don’t ever be like that. You need to shoot until your eyes are bleeding, you need to just keep going. Don’t ever stop on one project and try to get people to pay attention to it.” Taking Harvey’s advice to heart, Eubank made as many fake commercials and music videos as he could.
“The Signal” premiered at Sundance back in January and opens in theaters this weekend.
Special thanks to IndieWire