Sunday, August 3, 2008

Arts & Sciences.

As I expected, John the Scientist (who is a friend and shall remain so after we finish thrashing each other soundly), responded to the prior post by cheering new rules that exclude film trucks from Chinatown in Manhattan. I'm not going to debate all of his points because, among other things, most of them are a matter of perspective. Also, I don't feel like getting involved in a bunch of minutiae on a Sunday afternoon.

The fact is, John is a very smart guy (both in education and innate intelligence). There are very few subjects I'd consider myself prepared to debate with him. Basically, you should figure he'd hand me my ass on most topics. I will, however take exception to one comment he made.

How many films need just the right grittiness of Chinatown? That's the art director's ego talking, isn't it? Like I said, no one outside of NYC natives or people like me who frequent the neighborhood from out of town will likely notice.

So, here are some pictures of Chinatown in Manhattan. I'm sorry. I didn't bother to hop in the car to get you some good pics, I just grabbed some screenshots off of GoogleStreet. Even so, you get a pretty good idea. Notice the narrow streets, the fire escapes and vertical signs everywhere you look.

And here's Chinatown in Flushing.

I'll leave it to you guys to tell me that nobody outside of NY would notice the difference. And if anyone thinks I was just being selective with the pictures to prove my point, go look at GoogleStreet yourself. The Manhattan neighborhood can be found by searching GoogleMaps for "Pell Street at Doyers Street, NY, NY" and the Flushing neighborhood is just south of "Main Street at Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing, NY".

Move the little dude around all you want and find me a match for Manhattan.


John the Scientist said...

Nathan, I'm not arguing that no one would notice the difference if you laid them side by side. What I'm arguing is that for the purposes of the stories in most films, the width of the streets and the age of the buildings have absolutely no impact on the credibility of the story being told. I'm arguing that the fact that the director wants Chinatown is because he's heard about Chinatown or seen it in other movies, not because the writing is so precise in the description of locale that it has to be in the Chinatown. Well, that and he's afraid of the nitpickers on IMDB. :D

John the Scientist said...

And Nathan did not cook the books here, I'm familiar with both neighborhoods, and streetwise, there are only a couple of narrow streets in Flushing that might double for Manhattan. But for all of you not living in Manhattan - if you had not seen Nathan's Chinatown pics first, and I showed you Flushing with it's Chinese signs, would you immediately yell "that's not Chinatown"?

I thought not.

Well, unless you can read Korean, and saw the Korean signs side-by-side with the Chinese ones on Northern Blvd. :D

Nathan said...

First of all, I wondered how long you'd take to respond. 33 minutes including the time it took to type it. Not bad. LOL.

We may just have to disagree over this one. Chinatown in Manhattan is unique and lends production value to a movie that you don't get anywhere else. Flushing is a better match for Chinatown in Toronto than it is for the one in Manhattan.

Would just any old street full of Japanese signs have the impact of The Ginza?

Do all bodies of water have the same visual impact? The mountains in Colorado and in Alaska are both really big. Does that equal interchangeable?

Right now, I'm looking for a particular type of street for the film I'm on. For a number of reasons, the ones that really look like what we want aren't really practical for us to use. I wouldn't get the cooperation I need and I'd have difficulty getting permits. I'm looking for alternates where the basics already exist and we can just add set dressing to have the street we want.

Visuals really do tell a lot...and they have to tell what you want at a glance. They have to tell their part of the story without the need to grab you by the nose and look at the part the Director wants you to see.

I guarantee you'd notice if care wasn't taken in selecting "just the right locations" for a movie...even if it's shot in a place that's unfamiliar to you.

John the Scientist said...

Yeah, I get that care is needed. But I could substitute parts of Shibuya or Shinjuku for the Ginza, for many things. Not for all, which is why I don't think the moratorium ought to be non-negotiable. And why doesn't the city share a little of this alleged benefit with the store owners?

If you look face on here at the street you posted a picture of, you definitely get a Chinatown vibe. Is not some of this that directors are used to getting their way in every little thing, and not willing to compromise?

There has to be a dialogue, and like I said, I think you ought to be able to negotiate. But we were just heading through that area on our way to the ambrosia of the demons of the Daoist underworld, and there were those damn orange signs I've come to loathe. I completely understand the store-owners' position.

Random Michelle K said...

Sorry John, but I have to agree with Nathan that even for those couple of pictures the first location has an ambiance the second location seriously lacks.

The second picture reminds me of driving through Chinatown when I went to Houston and friend took us out for dim sum. I definitely felt that I (white American girl) was out of place, but the streets were wide and the light poured in. That's what the second set of pictures reminded me of.

The first location looks like even on sunny days there are dark corners that don't ever see the light.

I like looking at the first location. I'd prefer walking down the second.

John the Scientist said...

"The first location looks like even on sunny days there are dark corners that don't ever see the light."

That's mostly an artifact of the camera angle.

But Nathan's right in that you could never get that angle in Flushing, except maybe for a couple of blocks on side streets that run from the West side of Main street - 40th Road to about Maple Ave.

Nathan said...

If you look face on here at the street you posted a picture of, you definitely get a Chinatown vibe. Is not some of this that directors are used to getting their way in every little thing, and not willing to compromise?

That's what's called a location without a 'reverse'. If I'm just tracking with a character, looking at them 'side-on' as they walk down the block, that's fine. If we're shooting a conversation or an action sequence, we have to be able to point the camera in multiple directions. For the first situation, we find "good enough" all the time and it works fine. For the second, you need a location with 'good' in every direction.

Nathan said...


If finding all of this stuff was easy, I'd be out of a job.


John the Scientist said...

Yeah, I realize that. Do you ever shoot on Canal Street proper, or would they never give a permit for that?

Google Map 258 Canal Street (which is very close to the McDonanld's) and pan around. That looks a lot like Flushing, there.

John the Scientist said...

Oh yes - is it easier to get a permit for an over-used area if you're a major Hollywood studio, versus a Lifetime cheese-fest?

Nathan said...

I've only shot Canal Street with 2nd Unit or something otherwise tiny. It's just totally uncontrollable unless you're talking about shooting a night scene after 10 or 11.

And getting a permit for a Lifetime Cheesefest is much easier than the major. The smaller the production, the easier the permits.

If you've never seen "The Hard Way". It's an OK movie that I worked on. I did all of the Chinatown stuff for that (three weeks of prep for three nights of shooting IIRC).

John the Scientist said...

And getting a permit for a Lifetime Cheesefest is much easier than the major. The smaller the production, the easier the permits.

Well, that really undermines the "top of mind advertising"" argument for allowing production in the City, doesn't it?

John the Scientist said...

OK time to hit the pavement. Gotta work off that tsou dofu. :D

See, if you and I ran the City, we'd come to a good compromise right quick, wouldn't we? ;)

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I'd agree with you. Getting an approximate look, something that might be ok if you edit your camera angles - yeah, then Flushing (or Cincinnati) might work. But a look that stands alone, that becomes almost a character itself in the movie - for that you probably do really need Manhattan's Chinatown. Or SanFran's.

John the Scientist said...

Nathan - linked ya from my soapbox on the Chicagoboyz. Prepare the Gas Grill! (Just kidding).

Jeri - I'm not debating that point. What I'm asking is how many of the many piddly shoots that so annoyed the residents of Chinatown really needed the set to be another character? And now a lot of Lifetime cheese-fests have run out a major motion picture. That seems counter-productive to me.

Nathan said...


I wasn't talking about the quality of the show, just the size of it. A show with three vans and a crew of 20 has an easier time getting permits than an extravagaza with 120 people and 15 tractor trailers.

I don't think the piddly ones are causing anyone major agita. (sp?)

John the Scientist said...

Hmm, maybe not. Then who's shooting there so much?

Nathan said...

I don't know the answer to that one. And BTW, they haven't given permitted parking in the narrower streets of Chinatown for years. Maybe on Baxter. Maybe on Mulberry. Not Mott.

Usually I would put trucks on Bowery and haul everything in from there.

Frankly, I don't know who's shot there recently.

Eric said...

Okay, a more serious reply.

John, if the best look for the movie doesn't require a specific location, of course the movie's going to shoot somewhere that's simply "good enough." But I'm sure you've seen movies where you could just tell the location was wrong, that the movie wasn't where it was supposed to be.

Indeed, it's sort of a hallmark of not-very-good low-budget movies that they "make do" with locations and it erodes the credibility of what you're seeing. It's a no-brainer that you're in Vancouver, not the Bronx, or my hometown (Charlotte) and not Boston. The "Hey, it's not like the audience will notice the difference" approach was a director's trademark of Ed Wood--not exactly your revered filmmaker (or revered in the way most directors and producers would want to be, at least).

So yeah, it makes a difference. And if it didn't, it wouldn't.

(Oh, and still seriously: if you don't believe the movie industry can boom or bust a town: Wilmington NC isn't belly-up by a long shot--they're still on the beach, for one thing--but they're certainly not booming the way they were before the industry caved in. Film crews spend money. Tourists do show up to see where their favorite movies "took place." If the movie industry left New York, there are a lot of places that would be happy to adopt it.)

John the Scientist said...

Eric - the movie industry can boom or bust a town. It just can't boom or bust NYC. The fact that NYC has so much else going on is at the root of this problem.

I still think the film office fell down on the job by not talking to the merchants of Chinatown. Let's put it this way - I'm in Chinatown about one Saturday a month and I noticed this problem.

What Nathan and I are circling around is how to come to a compromise before the area calls in the Councilman and the nuclear bomb gets dropped, which is what happened. The film commission has some sort of algorithm for shutting down areas, and obviously it thinks that algorithm is a good substitute for actually talking to the people in the neighborhood after a few shoots.

Nathan said...


I'm pretty sure the algorithm equals the day the Film Commissioner gets a call from the powerful person in the neighborhood who actually has the clout to make her life miserable.

Sad, but that's what I think it it.

John the Scientist said...

Heh, so do I.

Nathan said...

There's one too many 't's and one too few 's's in that previous comment...but you knew that didn't you.