Archive for the 'Documentary film' Category
Sometimes you sense that a film is made especially for you, and you expect to enjoy and admire it well before you see it. This happened, I guess, with millions of people and films like Star Wars, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. I didn’t share those viewers’ hopes, but I knew from advance publicity that I would be keenly interested in the new documentary, Tim’s Vermeer.
Why? It involves Penn & Teller, two demigods of mine; it’s about art and technology; and it investigates the possibility that a painter used optical devices to create glowing, mysterious images. In the process, it reawakens the controversy around David Hockney’s thesis in Secret Knowledge that many old masters were employing lenses and mirrors to render nature with unprecedented richness.
I wasn’t disappointed. It was the most intellectual fun I’ve had at the movies in the last year.
It’s hard to explain technical stuff clearly, and even harder to dramatize it so that audiences are engaged. Tim’s Vermeer teaches you a lot about art, technology, and human will and skill. The personality of the central figure makes the tale engrossing and funny, often suspenseful, and at moments a little wistful. At the same time you get to study one of the greatest paintings in the western world in a thoroughly unpretentious way.
There, I’ve made my recommendation. Stop now if you want your experience completely unsullied. But you’ve perhaps read other reviews, and nearly everything I mention in what follows is mentioned in at least one of those. Sony Pictures Classics has kindly put the screenplay online, so there really are no secrets if you’re determined to know it all. I want merely to convey some of the excitement the film gave me. It explores a fascinating problem in art history through one man’s patience, ingenuity, and determination.
Tim Denison, a wealthy software innovator, is a polymath—musician, tinkerer, and fan of art. He is not a painter, but he works with images constantly; part of his fortune derives from Video Toaster and other postproduction software. He comes across as articulate, avuncular, and gifted with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
In 2001 Tim learned of two recently published books, Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters and Vermeer’s Camera, a more academic investigation by Philip Steadman. Steadman made a strong case for Vermeer’s use of a camera obscura in painting his pictures.
The camera obscura is a box that uses a small hole and lens to project an image of the scene outside the box. The image appears, inverted and flopped side to side, on the wall opposite the lens. Project the image onto a drawing surface, and you can trace it, although it’s difficult and requires a lot of practice.
The photographic camera is such a device, using film stock or a chip to fix the image. Amateurs used portable camera obscuras for some centuries before photography, and there’s evidence that Canaletto and other major artists employed them. A camera obscura (or “dark room”) can be any size, and it’s possible to set one up as a booth in a parlor. This is what Steadman suggested Vermeer did. Features of the paintings, such as perspective convergence and certain visual distortions, were characteristic of camera obscura images.
Hockney made bigger claims. He proposed that use of the camera obscura, along with convex mirrors and other optical gear, went far beyond Vermeer and a few other image makers. Caravaggio, for instance, seemed to him a master of staging tableaux vivants in his cellar and then copying what his array of gadgets yielded—in effect, creating a photographer’s studio.
Hockney’s proposals created a storm of controversy, with art historians, optical scientists, and cultural critics driven to fury. A common ad hominem complaint was that Hockney didn’t draw well himself and used photography to help him, so he would naturally denigrate a draftsman of genius. You can see some links to the debate in this entry’s codicil.
Steadman, a historian of architecture, used the perspective presented in the paintings to calculate the dimensions of the room and the placement of the camera obscura, and as a result he could measure the size of the projected images, which uncannily matched the size of the finished paintings. Tim took another direction.
By reflecting the camera obscura image into a hand mirror that he could position just above the picture in progress, Tim found that without training or talent he could copy a scene with astonishing accuracy. He started without a camera obscura, just using the hand mirror to paint an image from a photo of his father-in-law. The result encouraged him to go farther—much farther.
Tim’s Vermeer documents Tim’s painstaking process. He used 3D mapping to plot the space shown in The Music Lesson. He then built the room and furnished it with life-size replicas of the furniture and fittings. He ground authentic versions of the pigments and lenses used in Vermeer’s era. He even found models to stand, fixed in place by clamps, while he painted, with infinitesmal slowness, the image caught by his lens and hand mirror. By trial and error he found that adding another mirror helped even more. He was painting from a three-dimensional scene, as captured on a camera obscura.
The entire project consumed 1825 days. Documentaries always document more than they intend to, and part of the film’s attraction is its portrait of a man driven to the limit to test his hunches. His presence adds a human narrative to what could have been considered a dry academic debate. You have to wonder what Herzog would have made of this multimillionaire spending years trying to replicate a masterpiece.
Tim’s obsession yielded a remarkably exact version of the scene done entirely by hand, eye, and optical devices. The film shows Hockney and Steadman approving Tim’s picture as a valid “proof of concept,” as he calls it.
The film is carefully clear about what Tim’s demo didn’t prove. He hasn’t shown that Vermeer did it this way. We have in fact no written documents concerning how Vermeer produced his pictures, so our inferences are based wholly on the paintings and the historical circumstances. For example, Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, celebrated microscopist, lived in Delft at the same time and served as executor of Vermeer’s estate. But no documents indicate that they discussed lenses, or even knew one another.
Nor has Tim proved that he’s as good as Vermeer. Hockney insists that paintings are marks and “machines don’t make marks.” Vermeer’s touch may be inimitable and owe nothing to optics.
And Tim hasn’t supported Hockney’s suggestion that there’s no other way Vermeer could have gotten his distinctive look. Admittedly, thanks to perceptual psychologist Colin Blakemore, Tim found that Vermeer’s pictures include visual phenomena that aren’t available to our unaided eye, such as fine gradations of light on a pebbly surface. Still, perhaps Vermeer was familiar with optically generated images and imitated them, freehand, in his pictures. Perhaps he used a camera obscura simply as inspiration and a guide to visual discovery.
What Tim has shown is that a simple knowledge of how light behaves in mirrors and lenses–knowledge that was available in Vermeer’s milieu—could enable someone to produce images of extraordinary accuracy and detail, if he or she were willing to expend a hell of a lot of time and trouble.
Lawrence Gowing suggests that to Vermeer the drudgery that Tim underwent was exhilarating.
It was in the camera cabinet perhaps, behind the thick curtains, that he entered the world of ideal, undemanding relationships. There he could spend the hours watching the silent women move to and fro.
Maybe Vermeer was, as Tim suggests, an ancestor of today’s CGI geeks, toiling over his picture for days and weeks, though without the benefit of pizza and Mountain Dew. There are thousands of such people today. Were they around then too? Was Vermeer the first keyboard monkey?
The outsider’s risk
Here are some objections to the Hockney-Steadman-Denison line of argument. I don’t think they’re insurmountable.
There are always crank theories around. But although the public discussions of Hockney’s thesis came close to calling him nuts, it’s worth listening to an artist’s conception of how another artist might work—especially when the skeptics aren’t practicing artists themselves. Hockney isn’t proposing the sort of numerological theories we get, say, in the film Room 237, or the “secret geometries” line of argument that prove that every line and mass proves the artist was a Rosicrucian or a Freemason. Hockney’s theory may be wrong, but it’s not wacko.
Denison is a naïve dabbler from outside the art world and lacks certified expertise. Again, it’s not a matter of who floats an idea but how valid the idea is. Why couldn’t a computer-graphics expert come up with enlightening ideas about pictures? Craftsmen in any domain often spot fine points that lay people can’t.
Besides, insiders can be mistaken. Forgers have long fooled connoisseurs. The Smiling Girl picture above was shown as a Vermeer at London’s Royal Academy in 1929, but now it’s regarded as a fake.
It’s too easy. If this were all there were to painting lifelike pictures, you might say, any kid could do it. Well, not many would have the patience. Tim spent 130 days painting the picture and he nearly gave up. It was stressful, hard on his back, and strewn with unexpected obstacles. He had to take frequent breaks. Freehand drawing is a lot easier, not to mention faster. Although Tim is no painter by training, he clearly has a careful eye and extreme fine motor control in his fingers. I, who can scarcely draw a straight line with a ruler, couldn’t do what he did.
It’s too hard. Tim’s painstaking dabbing is laborious, others might grant, but it’s donkey work. His conception of art is “difficulty of doing,” but there are lots of things that are hard to do, like building ships in a bottle, and they aren’t art. But all art requires discipline, and in those times experts labored for days over bits of the canvas that hardly anybody would notice. As a craft, painting is inherently hard, but we can scarcely imagine the amount of energy invested in the voluptuous images of Vermeer’s period. Damien Hirst can whip up high-priced paintings fast for today’s market, but conditions at that time would slow him down. He’d probably have to catch his own shark.
It’s too reliant on technology. But art has used mechanical devices for centuries. The best examples, very relevant to Vermeer, are all the drawing aids associated with perspective, including not just straightedges and protractors but complex gadgets like Durer’s famous converging-string setup that allowed him to draw curved volumes.
Such devices are shortcuts to deploying the geometry of the system. As Steadman says in the film, “Perspective is an algorithm.”
Later eras have given us much art dependent on technology, from tubes of oil paint to Hockney’s own Polaroid- and iPad-assisted imagery. And of course film and video art wouldn’t exist without machines. Hockney puts it well from the standpoint of the practicing painter:
[Raphael] would have wanted to make as vivid a portrait as he could. As a professional painter, he had a job to do and would have used all the tools at his disposal, including, if he thought they would help, lenses. He would not think, “I’m a great artist at the height of the Renaissance who should disdain such methods.”
Hockney and Steadman report that practicing artists they’ve encountered have been far less hostile to their ideas than art historians have been.
It insults greatness. I suppose this is what Susan Sontag meant by saying, “If David Hockney’s thesis is correct, it would be a bit like finding out that all the great lovers of history have been using Viagra.”
Actually, the copying of a camera obscura image isn’t as mechanical as one might think, but even if it were, would it be devastating? We allow photographers, with their mechanisms for intercepting light rays, the status of great artists.
The objection rests on a valid point. We do need to know something of how an artwork was made in order to understand and judge it. But in this case I don’t think that discovering that Vermeer used mechanical aids would minimize our appreciation of the pictures. It might, however, change our sense of how he relates to the traditions that followed. This change in our understanding is something Hockney and Denison hope to bring about.
It dispells the mystery. This is the toughest argument to counter because it assumes that we want mystery in our art. It seems to me ultimately a religious way of thinking about art. I’m enough of a rationalist to hope that in any area, research can turn some mysteries into puzzles, then turn puzzles into problems, and maybe solve some of the problems.
There’ll always be a residue of questions we can’t answer. Given the feeble progress we’ve made in understanding art, no one should worry. We researchers nibble at the edges, and the Big Mysteries aren’t going away any time soon. In the meantime, we can ask whether Tim, along with Hockney, Steadman, and others, has answered some worthwhile questions about how Vermeer made his pictures.
My wish list
Here are some matters that a longer film would probably have been able to tackle. I’d love to see a version that did.
How does Vermeer fit into the broader history of art? The painting traditions in which Vermeer worked—genre scenes, portraiture, perspective–aren’t articulated in the film. In addition, the use of the camera obscura by other painters could be brought out. Perhaps the assumption is that Hockney covered that territory.
Still, to avoid certain accusations, it might have been better to grant that artists blend talent, training, and hard work with selective knowledge of what earlier artists have done, and what rivals are up to. E. H. Gombrich emphasizes the various factors involved: the tasks that artists undertake, their tools, their techniques (including inherited visual patterns, or schemas), the problems inherent in a project, and the artist’s circumstances, such as competition with other artists and the fluctuating tastes of their audience.
The exactitude of Vermeer’s interiors, for instance, is in tune with contemporary Dutch paintings of household routines (so-called genre painting) and of still-life paintings of foods glistening on a tabletop. There was a taste for meticulous presentation of everyday life at the time, and this probably impelled Vermeer toward his unique brand of realism. Was he trying to top his rivals? The film suggests that his delicacy and precision surpass what’s on display in contemporaries like Pieter de Hooch.
What counts as realism? Vermeer’s pictures look fantastically accurate, and have for some time. But he selects only certain dimensions of reality to capture. Other painters focus on movement, which is all but absent from Vermeer’s images. There’s a snapshot quality to Baroque representations of figures in action, which look scarily realistic. And many other painters render details that impress from a distance or even close up; Jan Van Eyck is probably the most famous.
What about the lenses and mirrors? Tim goes to great lengths to mimic the features of Vermeer’s room and to mix paints as he might have. The film is mostly silent, though, about his optical devices. What focal lengths were the lenses in camera obscuras? We know that different focal lengths render perspective in differing ways. Some of the distortions commentators have found in Vermeer’s picture seem to proceed from wide-angle coverage. Moreover, Tim’s hand mirror and convex mirror seem to be modern ones. Are these enough like what Vermeer would have had available?
Did Vermeer alter the perspective projection he obtained? Many painters who calculated perspective felt free to adjust it or confound it for the sake of expressive effect. Famous pictures are full of inconsistent vanishing points, often masked by figures or items of setting. Tim’s painting obeyed what his camera gave him, but perhaps Vermeer adjusted his image. Consider, below, some details from Vermeer’s picture (left) with Tim’s (right). (Ignore color differentials, since the reproductions of the original vary so much.)
Did Vermeer fiddle with what the camera showed? I’m not thinking so much of the disparities in the placement of the figures above, which are probably to be expected; we’d be shocked if Tim’s setup worked exactly the same as Vermeer’s. I’m more concerned with the way in which Vermeer seems to have cheated perspective with respect to the reflection.
It looks as if Tim tried to match the reflection, but to do that he had to have his daughter turn slightly to the right. Yet Vermeer’s young woman faces the mirror head-on, while the reflection shows her in high-angle three-quarter view. Was the mirror slightly tipped on the left edge? And did it hang out from the wall slightly more than in Tim’s chamber? I wonder if Vermeer simply wanted to have it both ways–a head turned squarely away from us, a reflected face that wouldn’t be gazing straight out but rather pensively downward. Classic pictures often contain such expressive compromises with geometrical exactness.
Do we overrate the clean image? Tim, coming from the computer-graphics world, seems to have accepted the current assumption that the most faithful and attractive image is razor-sharp. He’s fascinated by the undeniably exact textures on the fabric and the wood and plaster surfaces. He thinks that Vermeer ‘s images resemble “a video signal” and that they glow like the images on a movie screen (that is, nowadays, a digital image).
But Tim’s High-Def aesthetic plays down some of painting’s traditional resources, notably sfumato. And art historian E. H. Gombrich notes that Vermeer’s precision retains “mellowed outlines” and doesn’t seem harshly photographic. Going back to the details above, to my eye, Vermeer’s image isn’t as sharp as Tim’s. The faces are sketchier, and the shadows have softer contours.
Gombrich and others have made much of the crucial role of suggestion and incompleteness in painting, especially paintings that are seen at a distance. Our perceptual systems fill in dashes and blobs with specific features, but Tim’s algorithm may chop too fine. The difference should give comfort to the people who emphasize Vermeer’s idiosyncratic paint handling. It would be worth seeing if Tim thinks he could recalibrate his pictorial mesh to soften the image somewhat.
Problems and solutions
Tim’s Vermeer is an entertaining lesson in how rational inquiry into the arts proceeds—posing a problem and then using inference and evidence to frame possible solutions. The film also shows how a problem usually has many facets, which sometimes have to be dealt with piecemeal.
A piecemeal approach is particularly pertinent to reconstructing Vermeer’s methods. Many art historians would grant that he, like others, might have used a camera obscura to imagine or sketch out the basic composition of the piece. But the crucial later phases of painting would have been carried out by eye and hand unaided. What is characteristic of the Hockney—Steadman—Denison line is they try to indicate how much of Vermeer’s practice can be accounted for by optical aids.
Assume that Vermeer used a booth-type camera obscura. That device could yield general contours. Steadman charted other features of the camera obscura that show up in the master’s paintings, such as variable focus, light scattering, and perspectival distortion characteristic of lenses. He went on to build a scale model of the room depicted in The Music Lesson and other pictures, and showed that Vermeer might have used a booth-type camera obscura. With the cooperation of the BBC, Steadman built a life-size model of the system he discovered.
Reading Steadman’s brilliant book when it appeared, and then visiting his website where things are spelled out a little more, pretty much convinced me of his argument. But I didn’t think much about lighting or color.
Vermeer’s “mellowed outlines” are often given by minute shadings of tonality rather than firm outlines. Yet when you’re in the booth, it’s so dark that you can’t determine color accurately. This is where Tim Denison comes in. What sort of optical device could yield such gradations of color?
Tim discovered that a small mirror mounted on a rod over the drawing surface would allow an artist to build color patches, as well as masses and contours, by slightly shifting her gaze from the mirror’s reflection of the camera’s image to the picture being made. You’ve achieved the right tonality, Tim points out, when the edge of the mirror seems to disappear. In this image, the disc you see isn’t clear glass but rather a mirror reflecting the camera obscura’s image, which is outside the frame.
Dim light in the booth doesn’t matter because both the image and the color you match are illuminated uniformly. The result, in the film, shows a remarkable degree of similarity.
But the optical projection remains a bit pale and lacking in detail; more concentrated and focused light is needed. Teller’s film shows how Tim hit upon the idea of focusing and brightening the camera image by projecting it onto a concave mirror rather than a flat plane. A mirror is also a projecting surface, and its reflection can amplify the camera lens’s image. With this array of lenses and mirrors, you don’t need to work in darkness and you don’t need a barrier between you and the scene.
At this point, Tim’s demo has demolished the darkened chamber itself. Maybe this is what Vermeer actually used, although if he wanted to hide his methods, the booth with its wall or curtain would have been preferable.
Another lesson in rational inquiry: Controlling for variables can encourage anomalies to pop out. In drawing the harpsichord in the picture, Tim had assumed straight edges, which he outlines with a ruler. But in painting the undulating seahorse motif on the surface, he discovered that his lens rendered the motif as very slightly curved. When you check the painting, you find that Vermeer’s motif does the same thing.
The curve, which Tim dubbed “The Vermeer Smile,” is characteristic of the distortion yielded by a lens. Your eye and brain don’t see it that way, however, and painters working freehand would automatically make the seahorses prance in a straight line.
In short, just as Vermeer’s lens may have allowed him to make discoveries about the behavior of light, Tim’s lens gave him a new insight into Vermeer’s art.
Photography without film
Suppose we buy the whole package. Assume that Vermeer used Tim Denison’s hardware. What then does his art consist of?
In Film Art: An Introduction we distinguish four areas of cinema technique: mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound. Editing and sound aren’t relevant to Vermeer (though Eisenstein might make an argument for “montage” operating within the master’s “shots”). But the other techniques are, if we imagine him making unmoving movies—that is, photographs.
Mise-en-scene involves what is photographed. Vermeer controls the setting, picks the props, and costumes, and arranges the lighting. He determines the color within the scene. He also stages the action, although there isn’t much movement. Gombrich calls his paintings “still lifes with human beings.”
Cinematography has an equivalent in Vermeer’s art too. He must select a lens for the camera obscura, and he has to focus it. Most commentators agree that painters who used the device focused on different areas of the scene as they needed to paint them. Vermeer doesn’t use film, of course, but he does have paint, and the properties of that medium have to be taken into account. In Tim’s words, as he sits brushing in tiny strokes, “I’m a piece of human photographic film.”
Vermeer also has to frame the scene, which is a bit tricky because the camera obscura doesn’t yield a rectangular image but rather a circular one. Here is Steadman’s reconstruction of the camera’s visual output, flipped to match the painting and reproduced in black and white.
Vermeer has to crop the projected image in advance, much as a cinematographer today has to visualize the image’s final shape as seen on the viewfinder or monitor.
Staging and framing in The Music Lesson yield an unusual composition. What’s the subject of the painting? The woman playing? She’s turned from us, seen from afar, and quite decentered. True, she’s reflected in the mirror. But Steadman shows that this mirror is ambiguously drawn. It also seems to be angled so as to conceal the opposite end of the room—a ploy familiar to scholars of early cinema, when such tipped mirrors hide the movie camera.
Thanks to the oddly empty space in the left half of the picture, our attention drifts often to the empty space separating window, furniture, and people. Vermeer is in effect painting the journey of light hitting various surfaces. The streaming sunlight endows a patch of the rug, the bottom of the viola, and the upholstery tacks with a glow and brightens the woman’s sleeve. Then it thins into a more diffuse illumination before hitting the jug as a brilliant pictorial climax.
Perhaps he’s painting how air looks.
Vermeer’s zones of choice and control overlap with those of a photographer or a filmmaker. Or those of an illusionist. As stage magicians, Penn and Teller know the classic putdown: “Aw, they do it with mirrors.” The film might be their answer: “Yeah, and it works.” They and Tim Denison have created a landmark film that ponders the interplay of science, tools, and artistic creativity.
Special thanks to Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics and Merijoy Endrizzi-Ray of Sundance Madison. Thanks as well to Kristin Thompson, Diane Verma, and Darlene Bordwell for conversations about the film.
The controversy over Hockney’s theses can be traced in the Wikipedia entry The Hockney-Falco Thesis. My quotation from Susan Sontag comes from Wyatt Mason on ArtKrush. The camera obscura image of The Music Lesson comes from Philip Steadman, Vermeer’s Camera, p. 123, as does my Lawrence Gowing quotation (p. 165). I’m grateful to Steadman on many levels, not least because his website encouraged me, in 2002, to set up the one you’re visiting now.
For further information on the general research area, see Martin Kemp, The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat. Kemp corresponded at length with Hockney, and portions of their exchanges are included in Secret Knowledge.
Hockney has defended the film and explained further. Kurt Anderson has offered a valuable overview of the making of Tim’s Vermeer in Vanity Fair. Several video interviews cast light on the process as well. Here Teller, Penn, and Denison discuss the film with Kent Jones at Lincoln Center. David Poland sits down for a 30-minute interview with Penn and Denison. Philip Steadman discusses how Tim’s ideas build on his book in this University College London video.
One reviewer considers Tim’s theory “wackadoodle” but misunderstands it, saying that “Vermeer might have created his masterpieces by putting his models in a camera obscura.” Then he told them scary stories in the dark, I guess. More attentive reviews of the movie include one by Peter DeBruge in Variety and another by Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter.
Team Vermeer: Standing: Philip Steadman, Teller, Tim Denison. Seated: David Hockney, Penn Gillette.
PS 12 March 2013: Painter Jane Jelley has proposed a way that Vermeer could have made his pictures using a camera obscura but without mirrors. She reports success replicating that method herself. Her article and some background to her experiment are available here. I thank Ms. Jelley for writing me with this information. The controversy continues, which makes me happy.
Even while tempting us with many, many films, the Vancouver International Film Festival runs an event that could all too easily lure us away from viewing and into the world of film-industry gurus: the Film and Television Forum. Its website describes it as “four days of professional development for senior and emerging professionals, from financing to production, to marketing and distribution, to storytelling and engagement.”
In an ideal world, we would attend all of the sessions, but they run concurrently with as many as eight films showing elsewhere. Two talks were particularly appealing, though, given our interest in the practice of making films within the mainstream American industry. I slipped away to hear master-classes by Terry Rossio (screenwriter for all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films) and Walter Murch (editor of Particle Fever, shown at the festival, and sound designer on many films, including Apocalypse Now).
Rossio’s modest title was “Revisions,” though his discussion ranged far beyond advice on how to rewrite a script. He immediately won over the audience, clearly many of them professional or aspiring screenwriters, by passing around a flash-drive and inviting anyone with a script-in-progress on their laptop to put some pages on it. He would end the session by making some impromptu revisions of those pages.
I’m not secretly working on a screenplay or even aspiring to write one, but if I were, I think I would have gleaned some valuable tips from Rossio’s talk.
Most panels and seminars tend to be too general, he said. They “focus on the business side, tell personal anecdotes,” and so on. He feels that it is probably impossible to teach screenwriting: “No, the better question is, can writing be learned?” Yes, but people must teach themselves.
Writing and revising
To Rossio, one crucial thing to learn is that finishing a story is not the end. One should have both doubt and faith: doubt that a story or scene is good enough, and faith that it can be better.
Revision, according to Rossi, is “talent reapplied.” One may have a limited amount of talent for writing, but it can be stretched by reapplying it over and over during the revision process.
Rossio is a big advocate of succinctly creating a strong visual sense in each scene. Even on Rossio’s desktop he comes up with a distinctive icon for each folder (see top): a Rubik’s cube for “Screenwriting,” a little gramophone for “Music,” and so on.
For Rossio, each scene should consist of:
- Opening image
- Key moment (character revelations, reversals, etc.)
- Throw (i.e., the setup for the next scene)
Apart from visual imagery, writing should be situation-based: “Every scene you write must be an obvious situation.” A screenplay is a string of situations, which creates a compelling interest in the scene. His example was two people discussing an important deal in a car on the way to a meeting. The dialogue might become boring because of the static setting, but the writer could make them experience car trouble and have their discussion outside the car while worrying whether they will make it to the meeting: “The easiest way to create interest is through some sort of dilemma.”
One important technique of revision is what Rossio calls “performance dialogue.” Writers tend to compose speeches in full, grammatical sentences, but that doesn’t sound natural in spoken dialogue. Rossio takes these complete sentences and starts to eliminate words: “Less words allows for performance the actor will be performing in between the syllables.” He adds, “If you give an actor a very long line, they can’t manipulate that into an emotion. But a shorter line allows them to express the subtext or nuance of what’s going on.”
This advice led to a question from the audience about how a writer can convey to the director and actors what he or she intended the nuances of a scene to be. Rossio suggested three possibilities:
- Become a director. The director is the one who puts things on the screen. The writer makes suggestions about what to put on the screen.
- Negotiate having the power to be on set during shooting.
- Annotate the screenplay.
The third point caused quite a bit of interest and is an unusual approach that Rossio himself has recently adopted. He writes a normal script, fairly compact and easy to read. But he includes endnote numbers that refer to a separate document, a list of annotations. These might be something like an indication that a certain moment in the film is a reference to the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark or suggestions about special camera angles. Rossio has not used this tactic often enough to gauge whether directors in general would appreciate it, but he did have a good response to the first annotated script he provided.
Rossio dislikes all the screenwriting software on the market, but he showed off a system that he devised himself. The screen below shows the list of scenes for his current project, Masters of the Universe. Each scene is identified by a single word, such as “Vengeance” or “Snake.” The ones that are finished are highlighted in color. (I don’t believe Rossio mentioned the difference between the purple and the yellow highlighting.) The scenes can be switched in order with their labels automatically re-numbered.
One advantage of this system is that the author opens only one scene rather than the whole script. Dealing with something that may be about four pages long is less overwhelming. Rossio also finds that his system facilitates sharing drafts of scenes with a collaborator.
Tips for pitching
In keeping with his emphasis on the visual aspects of a screenplay, Rossio recommends that writers make up a brief pre-viz that captures the essence of the script’s premise. Increasingly, software is becoming available that would allow technically adept writers to create demo clips on their own. For writers unable to do this, Rossio suggests that in a highly competitive market, they should get an effects house to do the job for them. These days even some directors are using this approach in trying to get a job.
Rossio was asked a question about pitching to get a job revising an existing script. He had four suggestions.
First, read the script that is to be revised. Surprisingly, not all writers do that. If it’s based on a literary property, read that, too. A lot of writers just wing such pitch meetings.
Second, take along a presentation board. It can be used for breaking down the script or drawing images.
Third, write a recap of the script as it exists and be ready to discuss specific possible changes.
Fourth, go to the trouble of having two or three specific images ready to show. If the VIPs like the images, they can get access to them only by hiring the writer.
I think if I were a scriptwriter, aspiring or otherwise, I would consider that Rossio packed a lot of useful information into his 75-minute presentation. He also chose two of the script excerpts submitted by audience members and gave their authors some quick and helpful suggestions for revisions.
As far as I could tell, Murch’s talk had no title, but the concept he threw out early on was “fungibility,” one meaning of which is being capable of changing easily. The example he gave was a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. Murch was referring to the digital revolution in film editing. This was not so much a how-to talk as an attempt to demonstrate the dramatic changes that have come about as a result of rapidly changing technologies.
Murch showed a photo of himself struggling with 35mm film strips in editing Apocalypse Now in the 1970s (above). Now, of course, there would be no such physical sorting and splicing. He then pointed out the sheer weight of film, which has been entirely eliminated:
As the graphic shows, a single 1000-foot reel of 35mm film weighs 11 pounds. The strips of Apocalypse Now in the photo above were part of workprint material totaling 7 tons. If Murch’s latest film, Particle Fever, had been edited on 35mm, he would have had to deal with far more, 16 tons of film. It simply would have been impossible to edit such a quantity of footage. (Would a hard-drive with a complete feature film on it weight measurably more than a blank one? he wondered.)
For Particle Fever, Murch used Final Cut Pro 7–an statement that led to scattered applause from the audience. Like Murch, users of that program are loyal to it, but as he pointed out, a 32-bit program simply can’t keep up with modern demands for memory. While editing, he kept running into situations where there was no memory left, and he had to use elaborate and time-consuming methods to free up storage space. (The film ended up with 18 terabytes of material stored.) On his current project, Tomorrowland, he is using a 64-bit Avid program and has had no problem running out of memory.
(Tomorrowland is being made here in Vancouver, which is presumably why we had the privilege of Murch’s participation in the forum.)
Murch showed a timeline graphic for Particle Fever, with multiple image track, dialogue tracks, effects tracks, musical tracks, and so on. Each small horizontal line represents a separate track:
Even while working on this level of complex technology, however, Murch sticks to simple methods for some of his planning. He creates a “scene board” using cards coded with colors, sizes, and shapes . The little green triangles create a chronology, giving the years covered by each set of scenes:
As with Rossio’s system of storing his scenes in a way that allows him to change their order, Murch can move the cards around if the structure of the film changes. Murch put it this way: “I would suggest reversion to kindergarten.”
He also showed some photos of his workspaces for various projects. One was intriguing for indicating how important perspective is for editing. One workroom contained a 50-inch monitor for playing back scenes as he edits them. (See bottom.) Note the little white figures of a man and a woman at the bottom corners of the screen. Murch wanted to keep scale in mind, and the figures represent normal-sized people at the proportionate size they would appear if the monitor were a forty-foot theatrical screen.
This photo inspired someone during the question session to ask whether the increasing tendency for people to watch movies on very small digital screens has influenced Murch’s editing decisions. He replied that it has to some extent, though from the beginning of his career at the end of the 1960s he has had to keep the smaller television screen in mind. Yet he does not edit primarily for the tiny images on mobile devices: “If you cut for the big screen, it will work for the small screen. If you cut for the small screen, it won’t work as well for the big screen.” The Master speaks. So far, the theatrical experience remains the basis for moviemaking.
The Guardian has a video interview with Walter Murch discussing Particle Fever.
A monitor in Walter Murch’s workspace, with two white human figures at the lower corners to indicate scale.
The Missing Picture (2013).
The Vancouver International Film Festival, known to all as VIFF, has been undergoing some big changes. It lost its primary venue, an ageing but cozy multiplex surrounded by pubs, creperies, music clubs, and other marks of downtown culture. Alas, the Empire Granville 7 is now shuttered, to be renovated as a retail space. VIFF must spread its bounty more widely.
As before, films are shown at the Cinematheque and the Vancity media center. The new venues include the Vancouver Playhouse, the Rio Theatre, three screens at the Cineplex Odeon International Village, the Vancouver Centre for the Performing Arts, and the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at Simon Frazer University. All the ones we’ve visited have been excellent screening spaces.
Everything we’ve seen has been on some form of video—excuse me, “digital cinema.” Apart from the occasional 35mm or HDCam show, DCP projection, after a couple of years of teething pains, is the norm. Not that this guarantees uniformity. Albert Serra’s Story of My Death, a peculiar portrait of the elderly Casanova, still looked (probably intentionally) like it was shot on VHS. The furor about festivals’ conversion to digital formats, discussed in this 2012 blog entry and extended in my little e-book, belongs firmly to history. Henceforth film festivals will be file festivals.
Genres plain and fancy
As usual at VIFF, the range is wide. At one end of the scale is a feel-good dramedy like The Great Passage, Japan’s Academy Award entry. The central character is Majime, a shy and unworldly young linguist who is drafted to help create a dictionary of Japanese as a living language. An otaku when it comes to words, he soon devotes his life to fulfilling the mission. Over the years he manages to find a girlfriend and earn the respect of the elders steering the project and the friendship of a ne’er-do-well colleague who prefers alcohol to etymologies. The dweeb Majime, despite his sweater-vests and sleeve protectors, becomes moderately sociable, while his pal acknowledges that his own commitment to a geeky endeavor shows he’s not as cool as he thought.
The English title is misleading; a better one might be Crossing the Sea of Language, since the central metaphor is that of charting the ebb and flow of usage. The process is dramatized by setting the start of the project in 1995, before Internet 2.0. The professor overseeing the project points out that the arrival of the Web speeds up language change. The Net works its way into the plot, as card-based research gets replaced by algorithms and word searches. A lot of the film’s humor arises when sequestered scholars, like those in Ball of Fire, have to figure out what this younger generation means when it calls something bad (i.e., good).
Ishii Yuya, who brought to VIFF Sawako Decides (2010) and Mitsuko Delivers (2011), tells his heart-warming story in a trim, efficient manner. His composure could teach our Hollywood directors a thing or two. I didn’t see a wasted shot or gratuitous camera movement, and you might miss Ishii’s virtuoso handling of a crowded office space as volunteers pack in to beat the deadline.
You can often spot a director’s skill in delicate touches. Here, I admired a gentle hook between two scenes. Majime has written a florid, anachronistic letter to Kaguya declaring his fondness for her. At the end of one scene he walks away from the camera clutching the note, which the framing centers on. Cut to a distant shot of him with Kaguya, the letter a small detail alongside his left leg.
Most viewers, I’m convinced, scan to find the letter and then wait with an amused tension for Majime to awkwardly offer it. It’s a good example of gradation of emphasis: No need for a close-up at the start of the second scene. This sort of unforced, easygoing presentation of a plot with a serious point—the quiet heroism of committing yourself to something of value to your community—makes The Great Passage as much worth exporting to North America as Departures and Shall We Dance? have proved in years past.
A more offbeat genre film is El Mudo, a Peruvian quasi-thriller, quasi-comedy from Daniel Vega and Diego Vega. After a day of dreary complaints and insults, the magistrate Constantino finds his car window smashed. What else is new? Soon after, he’s driving through traffic and is apparently wounded by a sniper. He loses his voice but becomes doggedly determined to uncover what he thinks is a conspiracy.
Constantino is not your raging rogue investigator. His muteness only increases a fixed, slightly scowling demeanor that suggests stoicism, boredom, or emotional vacuity. He refuses to perform the exercises that might strengthen his voice, as if he welcomes the loss of one more channel of expression. Everyone else seems normal, but Constantino (played superbly by Fernando Bacilio) might have walked out of an Aki Kaurismaki movie. The filming is in tune with the protagonist–static and prolonged shots, shrewd but unemphatic angles that simply wait for something to happen.
The result is an anti-action film. The assassination attempt, if that’s indeed what it is, is merely a bump in what is otherwise a drab long take filmed from the back seat of Constantino’s car. After waiting for a traffic light to change, he proceeds and suddenly slumps sideways as we hear four faint cracking sounds and watch the car drift onto the curb.
When the case is solved (perhaps) during a police raid, poor Constantino waits outside and so merely glimpses the stunt that would get visceral treatment in another movie. By the end, he finally smiles with pleasure, revealing himself as at a memory of maternal affection; he’s a mama’s boy after all. Il Mudo is a continuous pleasure throughout and is to be recommended to any fan of deadpan grotesque.
Many missing images
We’ve suggested, in both Film Art and elsewhere on this site, that a documentary film can be highly artificial. As long as it purports to make claims about the nonfictional world, the film can stage scenes and even use animation to support its points. A new test of this idea has come along in the form of Rithy Panh’s muted but powerful memoir of Khmer Rouge atrocities, The Missing Picture.
It employs some documentary conventions, like newsreel footage and voice-over commentary, but it seeks to present what was never put on film at the time. Panh’s family is shipped out of Phnom Penh, sent to forced labor and starvation in the countryside. Medical experiments are conducted with humans. Children are forced to pound out fertilizer and haul bodies to burial pits. The Party cadres, of course, eat well. Western intellectuals may have praised the Khmer Rouge as disciplined Communist idealists, but “the revolution they promised exists only on film.” How do you show what was never shown, not even widely known?
To provide a counter-film, Panh fills tabletop tableaus with carved clay figures. By the hundreds, these little effigies populate toy settings of work camps, hospitals that are merely storehouses for the dying, and landscapes that call forth children’s fantasies of escape and memories of happy family life. The figures themselves, squat and chunky, wear emblematic clothes–most often, gray work pajamas–and bear hollow-eyed expressions hinting at sullen fear or merely numbness. Panh’s childhood self is clothed, against all orders, in a pink shirt with yellow dots, which not only lets us identify him but suggests his yearning for the world of color that the Khmer stamped out.
As The Missing Picture proceeds, it becomes more reflexive. The Khmer officials show their propaganda films to the camp audiences, and Panh takes the opportunity to show his figures gathered and obediently watching. At the end, he reminds us that those who resisted are still wandering among us, like ghosts. Some things, he grants, should not be seen or known. “But should any of us see or know them, then he must live to tell of them.”
VIFF may be living in many new houses, but it’s definitely living, and as splendidly as ever.
The Empire Granville 7 was the last remaining movie house on Vancouver’s Theatre Row, which at one time had over twenty theatres. On the Granville 7′s future as retail space, a story is here. This article mentions that the Granville 7 originally absorbed a theatre called the Coronet. Cinema Treasures supplies more details of Granville 7 history. Images of the interior demolition of the house are here.
A fan’s tattoo, from Dear Mr. Watterson (2013).
Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, was probably the best cartoon draftsman since Carl Barks and Walt Kelly. His versatile line could be thick or thin, fluent or jagged. His coloring was rich, his layout experimental in the Herriman vein. His energetic picture stories provided zany humor and an unsentimental look at childhood imagination. If Schulz treated kids as miniature adults, complete with obsessions and neuroses, Watterson saw Calvin as an adolescent in a child’s body, a rebellious teenager-to-be surrounded by adversaries and fools. Schulz’s Peanuts kids suffer in thin, wriggly lines, but Calvin’s mood swings from rage to rapture are rendered by manic exaggeration in the classic cartoon tradition. Meanwhile Hobbes, contrary to his name, exercises a gentling effect, becoming a tolerant Superego to Calvin’s Id.
Watterson was the Pynchon of cartoondom. His studio in Chagrin Falls, Ohio yielded a solitude rare for a publishing celebrity. He almost never appeared in public and seldom answered mail. In one of his rare public gestures, he criticized syndicate power, the tired old strips put on life support, and the scramble for licensing deals. Accordingly, he permitted no merchandising beyond book collections. Any Calvin and Hobbes toys or T-shirts or decals you see around you are DIY handicraft. After ten years Watterson simply halted the strip, an abnegation that drove his millions of admirers to despair. And he has remained reclusive.
Dear Mr. Watterson, which won a Golden Badger award at our Wisconsin Film Festival, sprang from Joel Schroeder’s fondness for the strip. He realized early on that interviewing Watterson wasn’t in the cards. So he set out to find ordinary readers who would testify to their love for Watterson’s creation. He found plenty of eloquent ones, but the movie is no mere fanboy indulgence. Schroeder’s travels took him to many of today’s top cartoonists, from Berkeley Breathed to Stephan Pastis, as well as critics and syndicate executives. By outlining the shape of Watterson’s achievement in comics history, Dear Mr. Watterson mutes its admiration with regret, and not merely because Watterson quit at the height of his popularity. The film shows that, as one interviewee puts it, Calvin and Hobbes is very likely the last great comic strip.
Why? The conditions of publishing have a lot to do with it. As newspapers got thinner and smaller, the space allotted to comics shrank. Complex compositions and spacious storytelling became difficult in the slots allotted to Sunday strips, while the daily panel formats were minuscule. Only the sketchiest drawing survives the reduction. The squeeze was starting in Schulz’s day: Peanuts was the beginning of the “minimalist” look of Cathy and Fox Trot. Watterson’s bold drawing style and appetite for scale posed problems for publishing. Ironically, as Schroeder pointed out in his Q & A, the sort of freedom and flexibility Watterson sought would become available a decade later on the Net.
Something else suffocated comics creativity. Just as tentpole films need an array of ancillaries, a successful cartoon demands the womb-to-tomb merchandising that Watterson foreswore. Children need to be hooked on the franchise before they can read. Garfield clothes and toys introduce infants to a pudgy beast that will stalk them throughout their lives, on lunchboxes and calendars and mugs and mousepads and refrigerator magnets and TV shows and “Is it Friday Yet?” placards for office cubicles. Watterson realized, I think, that being surrounded forever by leering images of cute creatures was one version of Hell.
Schroeder, a graduate of UW—Madison, has made a smart, touching movie. It deserves wide circulation and even, I should say, a PBS airing. It’s at once a tribute to a fine artist, a probe into comics history, and a revelation of how integrity can be maintained in the era of Monetization. Turning down hundreds of millions of dollars, Watterson in effect said something that almost no one imagines possible today: I don’t need that much money.
One observer comments that when Calvin and Hobbes ceased, many critics expected its fan base to dwindle, because it wouldn’t be maintained by all the spinoffs. Instead, parents pass down their Watterson paperbacks as family heirlooms. Fans have the lavish three-volume compendium of the strips, which is selling briskly on Amazon, while school libraries are replenishing their holdings of the slim anthologies. Our children are following the adventures of the hyperkinetic brat and his imaginary tiger in the best way: By reading books.
P.S. 2 May: Chris Blunk of Through a Glass Productions writes this followup:
Coincidentally, this past Sunday I met John Glynn, who works at Andrews/McMeel promoting their properties to Hollywood (such as Garfield and Over the Hedge). He was at the Free State Film Festival in Lawrence, Kansas where he showed the Sundance-boosted Small Apartments, also based on an Andrews/McMeel property. He was the first person I’d ever met who has any kind of semi-regular contact with Watterson. Though Watterson retains nearly all ancillary rights to his characters, A/M-Universal consults him on book printings, electronic distribution, etc.
While there were several tidbits that thrilled a fan like me, one item he mentioned particularly pertained to your article. He claimed that traffic at the Universal comics website (www.gocomics.com) is by and large driven by the Calvin and Hobbes classic – i.e. rerun – strips. The majority of visitors to all other comics on the site – including popular current strips like Get Fuzzy, Pearls Before Swine, Dilbert, etc, – arrive through Calvin and Hobbes.
So in addition to being propagated through handed-down book collections, as you pointed out, Calvin has managed to attract new fans and dominate comics circulation even in the new frontier of the web that grew into being long after Watterson’s retirement. And this with no new strips published in the past 20 years.
He told a couple other anecdotes that were similarly surprising. Such as a time in the early 90s when Spielberg was involved in some animation projects (Tiny Toon Adventures, Family Dog, Animaniacs, etc) and made inquiries about the rights to Calvin and Hobbes. According to Glynn, Watterson turned down a direct phone call with Spielberg himself reasoning they had nothing to discuss.
Thanks to Chris for his thoughts and information, and for reading our blog.
P.P.S. 16 July 2013: Gravitas Ventures announces that it will be releasing Dear Mr. Watterson on theatrical and VOD in November.
Dear Mr. Watterson.