Archive for the 'FILM ART (the book)' Category
The 2011/12 school year is staring us in the face, and that means it’s time for another summary of which recent blog entries might be useful for teachers who assign Film Art: An Introduction in their classes. We’ve amassed 443 posts since we launched Observations on Film Art in late September, 2006, so browsing through them might seem a daunting prospect. You can also consult previous entries in this annual series for 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.
Chapter by chapter
Chapter 3 Narrative as a Formal System
Launching from an anecdote about a three-year-old watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we speculate about the conventions of narrative closure and how we learn them in “Molly wanted more.”
In discussing narration, we describe one of its characteristics as the “range of knowledge” the spectator is given. Often we’re limited largely to finding out what one character knows, as with Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. We examine this idea in more detail in “Alignment, allegiance, and murder.”
Chapter 3 has a “Closer Look” box that talks about the recent vogue for narratives that play games with time and causality, including the forking-path story. We examine another example in “Forking tracks: Source Code.”
We also discuss parallel plots, which in some cases involve protagonists who never meet. “Julie, Julia, & the house that talked” offers two examples, Julie & Julia and Enchantment.
Our main example in this chapter is Citizen Kane, which helped popularize flashback-based narratives in the 1940s. Some less familiar but equally baroque examples feature in “Chinese boxes, Russian dolls, and Hollywood movies.”
And for more on flashbacks in movies new and old, see “Puppetry and ventriloquism.”
Chapter 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
Louis Feuillade’s silent French serials of the mid-1910s are masterpieces of subtle staging in depth. David analyses the wonderful serial Fantômas in “How to watch Fantômas and why.”
Students are especially keen to talk about acting, but it’s one of the hardest aspects of film to pin down and discuss. The chapter deals with it alongside the three other aspects of mise-en-scene, make-up/costumes, lighting, and setting. For those who want to teach it in more detail, we provide a discussion of the acting in The Social Network, concentrating (as filmmakers tend to) on the eyes and eyebrows of the two main actors. See “The Social Network: Faces behind Facebook.”
Chapter 5 The Shot: Cinematography
We discuss the most common screen ratios (the height of an image compared to its width) in this chapter. Some films have been released in two different ratios, widescreen and Academy. We demonstrate how important small differences in framing can be in Fritz Lang’s films in “Ratio-cination.” By contrast, “A Matter of ‘Scope” considers how Japanese and Chinese filmmakers use the 2.35 ratio.
The use of 3D has expanded considerably since we revised Film Art for its current edition, the ninth. Whether the technique will continue to expand or will simply be used for blockbusters and inexpensive genre films is still a subject for debate. We have followed the debates and the box-office fortunes of 3D in three entries this year: “Has 3D already failed? The sequel, part 1: RealDlighted,” “Has 3D already failed? The sequel, part 2: RealDsgusted,” and “Do not forget to return your 3D glasses.”
Chapter 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
After noticing some incorrect definitions of “graphic match” appearing in print and on the internet (including Wikipedia), we decided to clarify the matter. We devised the term “graphic match” back in the mid-1970s, so we try to explain it in “Graphic content ahead.”
Chapter 8 Style as a Formal System
In “Bond vs. Chan: Jackie shows how it’s done,” we talk about how staging, framing, and editing can be used to make a clear, understandable fight scene (Jackie Chan) or a clumsy one where half the action isn’t there on the screen (Tomorrow Never Dies).
For more on clarity in staging, framing, and editing, see our comparison of Shanghai and Tampopo, “Direction: come in and sit down.”
Wouldn’t you know it? Our most popular entry ever was written by a guest blogger! Tim Smith, who researches how our eyes and minds perceive films, contributed “Watching you watching There Will Be Blood.” He was following up on an earlier entry by David, “Hands and faces across the table,” which analyzed a lengthy take in There Will Be Blood, suggesting how the staging and gestures direct our attention from one point on the screen to another. Tim followed up by using eye-tracking devices to show precisely where eleven viewers were looking from instant to instant. The entry included a video clip of the scene with the eye movements shown with moving circles.
This entry was posted in February and has racked up hundreds of thousands of views, on our site and others. About a hundred people still click on our entry every day. It even helped inspire a story in the New York Times by Manohla Dargis.
Tim’s post was less directly a follow-up to one we wrote on how eyes move across paintings: “The eye’s mind.”
The rediscovery of the great early silent French director Albert Capellani doesn’t exactly fit into Film Art, but we think everyone should be aware of this important figure. “Capellani trionfante” outlines the basics of his distinctive style. Greater than Griffith? For the pre-World War I period, at least, we think he may be.
Mainstream movies are more fast-paced than ever these days. We celebrate the merits of films with a slower rhythm in “Good and good for you.” Perhaps adventurous students will be intrigued.
Chapter 10 Documentary, Experimental, and Animated Films
Documentarist Errol Morris is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and this past year he visited for a few days, bringing his new film Tabloid with him. We profile him in “Errol Morris, boy detective.” This entry could be assigned along with the analysis of The Thin Blue Line in Chapter 11.
We were blogging from New York in February, when Christian Marclay’s The Clock was creating a sensation at a downtown gallery. It’s a 24-hour compilation video made up of shots from a huge variety of existing films, all showing clocks that register the time at which the viewer is seeing those shots. We discuss it in “Time piece.”
Animation sometimes turns up in unexpected places. The makers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 decided to render the story Hermione Granger reads from The Tales of Beadle the Bard as a short animated film. We discuss this imaginative segment and its director in “Three minutes of ‘Three Brothers.’”
Chapter 12 Film Art and Film History
Film history is a living presence on our blog: We talk about cinema from the silent era onward. So great is our commitment to early film that we don’t post a list of the ten best films of the year. Instead we decided to promote old films by discussing the ten best films of exactly ninety years ago. This time it was “The ten best films of … 1920.” If you teach a unit on film history, this entry and its predecessors might give you some ideas about what to show in class. The most recent one contains links to all the earlier entries. Some titles will be familiar, some less so, and some, alas, are still awaiting release on DVD.
One section of Chapter 12 deals with the development of Hollywood continuity style in the 1910s. We go into more detail concerning editing and staging during this period in “Looking different today?”
Anyone interested in going beyond Chapter 12’s section on Hong Kong film history will find plenty more information in this year’s entries. To celebrate the second edition of David’s Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, available here, there is a seven-day blogathon about stars, stories, and styles in Hong Kong cinema. That week starts here, with a list of 25 essential movies. There’s also David’s annual report from the Hong Kong International Film Festival, launching, appropriately enough, with an entry called “Bullets from the East.”
The last section of the chapter deals with modern Hollywood cinema. Our review of Sidney Lumet’s career deals with changes in mainstream moviemaking that occurred from the 1950s on, in “Endurance: Survival lessons from Lumet.”
About once a year we post an entry in our series, “Beyond praise: DVD supplements that really tell you something.” These offer suggestions for supplements that offer substantive information on filmmaking. Our fourth “Beyond praise” post, with links to the first three, is here.
We attend a small number of film festivals regularly and blog about the movies we see there. We’re not linking to every one of our festival reports, but they do contain brief commentaries on recent films and restorations of older ones. Teachers who happen to be screening one of these films might find what we say useful. There are links for festivals in general and specific festivals in the Categories list in the right margin, or try typing specific titles into the search box. We also have added a lot of new categories, including individual filmmakers and festivals.
When we started our blog, we didn’t expect that it would provide the contents for a book. Still, when the University of Chicago Press suggested that we propose a collection bringing together some of our popular entries, we thought it worth a try. The result was published this year as Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking. Naturally, in a case of circular synergy, we blogged about it in “A new book, more or less accidental.”
Real products (I think).
Recently I received the June issue of Empire magazine. After the shock of realizing that, Ack! It really is almost June, I turned to the letters to the editor. I received an even worse shock when I read this one:
I recently discussed 2001: A Space Odyssey with my Film Studies teacher (I’m an A-level student), and mentioned (what the back of the DVD case says): “One of the most mind-blowing jump cuts ever conceived.” He told me the bone to satellite scene is actually a match cut. I then read issue 262 of Empire, and was very happy to see a Stanley Kubrick special. I noticed you also called it a “stunning jump cut”. After being told what a jump cut and what a match cut is and seeing a few examples (the jump cut at the start of Don’t Look Now, and then the match cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey), I am now confused as to why the DVD and Empire would call it a jump cut when it is a match cut.
Robby Burke, via email
It is a match cut. The offending writer has been put into a small room with only Eisenstein films for company. The moral of this story is always listen to your teachers, kids. And good luck to Owen Robinson on your Kubrick Film Studies unit. This is turning into hospital radio.
No wonder Mr. Burke is confused. His teacher and Empire both gave him answers that I would consider wrong, or at best imprecise to the point of vagueness. This rather surprised me. I enjoy reading Empire, which has somehow managed to keep itself fat and glossy when magazines like Entertainment Weekly have shrunk to the size of brochures. It even has occasional useful articles, like its retrospective section on Back to the Future in the April, 2010 issue. (As far as I can tell, this section has never made its way to the Empire website.)
The term “match cut” is, out of context, virtually meaningless. There are different kinds of match cuts, and not specifying which type one is referring to will leave Mr. Burke and the rest of us clueless as to what the teacher and the unnamed staff member for Empire mean.
Thinking I was missing something about the term “match cut,” I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered that the teacher and the Empire staff member might have gotten their misinformation from the entry on that phrase. Its definition of a “match cut” is:
A match cut, also called a graphic match, is a cut in film editing between either two different objects, two different spaces, or two different compositions in which an object in the two shots graphically match, often helping to establish a strong continuity of action and linking the two shots metaphorically.
While the Empire use of “match cut” was only vague, this definition is simply inaccurate. The author goes on to say:
Match cuts form the basis for continuity editing, such as the ubiquitous use of match on action. Continuity editing smoothes over the inherent discontinuity of shot changes to establish a logical coherence between shots. Even within continuity editing, though, the match cut is a contrast both with cross-cutting between actions in two different locations that are occurring simultaneously, and with parallel editing, which draws parallels or contrasts between two different time-space locations.
I’ll agree that continuity editing is designed to smooth over the potentially disruptive quality of cuts. Matching anything within a scene is definitely different from cutting from an action in one place to a different action in a different place. But graphic matches are neither synonymous with “match cuts” nor the basis for continuity editing.
I also discovered that the “Further Reading” list at the bottom included two items, one of which was Film Art: An Introduction. One of those good news/bad news situations. The good news is, if you read the book, you will find out what graphic matches, and matches in general, really are. The bad news is, if you don’t, you might blame us for the contents of the Wikipedia entry.
A little detour into history
Most people don’t realize this, but David and I invented the term “graphic match.” As we recall, this happened in 1975. David was teaching a course that involved screening Yasujiro Ozu’s second color film, Ohayu (1959), a wonderful comedy about television, farting, and small talk. We had never seen the film before and were watching a 16mm print of it.
When the two shots below passed before our eyes, we both gasped and lunged for the projector. We ran the film back and watched the cut again. There was no doubt that Ozu had deliberately placed a bright red sweater in the upper left quadrant of the frame in one shot and a bright red lamp in the same basic position in the next shot. We didn’t know what to call this technique, so we dubbed it a “graphic match.” Two years later, when we started writing Film Art: An Introduction, we included the term as one technique of film editing and used Ozu’s match on red as one example. By now “graphic match” has been picked up to the point where we occasionally see it used in print.
If people, however, are tossing that term and “match cut” around so inaccurately–and even equating the two–then some definitions and examples seem in order.
“Match” as applied to editing simply means that some element is carried over from one shot to the next. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this element creates a sense of continuity.
In general, “continuity” means that a coherent space and time are continuing over the cut, so that the spectator’s understanding of a story isn’t disturbed by a sense that bits of time have been left out or that characters have changed positions at the cut. Most people watching a mainstream narrative film probably aren’t even aware of the editing, especially in conventional conversation scenes.
More specifically, “continuity” means a set of guidelines or loose “rules” that American filmmakers devised, mostly during the 1910s, to allow them to help create that clarity of narrative action in time and space. Within a scene, the most basic of these is the 180-degree rule or “axis of action,” the invisible line that runs through the scene perpendicular to the camera. If the camera stays on one side of that line, characters will stay in a consistent spatial relation to each other. Character A will be on the left in every shot, Character B on the right—unless one of them walks to a different part of the setting. In other words, the axis creates consistent screen direction.
The most basic kinds of matches are on appearance, position, action, and eyelines. Everyone knows that if a character is wearing a blue hat, showing her wearing a red one after the cut is a continuity error. Her appearance has not been matched. The same is true if she is resting her cheek on her hand in one shot, but has both hands flat on the table after the cut. If she is walking in one shot, she should not be running or standing still in the next. Even if the shots are made with a single camera and the actress repeats her actions, her position and movement should ideally be repeated so precisely that her action appears continuous. That’s a match on action, one of the most common continuity devices.
Smooth matches on action are difficult, especially if, as often happened in classic studio filmmaking, the two shots are made hours or even days apart. Even a supreme technician like Hitchcock can err. Here is a flagrantly mismatched passage from Suspicion. In the long shot, Johnnie (Cary Grant) reaches for the teapot with his left hand and starts to pour.
But then Hitchcock cuts in axially, the teapot is back where it was, and Johnnie once more reaches for it. By the time he’s pouring now, Lina has turned to watch him.
Editors traditionally like an overlap of 2-4 frames when they’re matching action on cuts, but this is a much longer overlap, something on the order of four seconds. Why we don’t usually notice such things is a source of considerable discussion in film circles.
The eyeline match is also very common. If a character looks at something offscreen, a cut shows us something in a different space, and we tend to assume that the character is looking at what we now see. Screen direction is important here, since if the character looks off right, when the next shot appears, we assume he is now offscreen left.
Not all continuity devices involve matches of these kinds. Crosscutting and flashbacks may move the action away from the space and even the time of a scene, but there are other cues that help us keep track of the ways in which these new spaces relate to the storyline.
None of this requires what we would consider a graphic match. Of course, if we see the same characters in the same setting from shot to shot, there will be an overall graphic consistency. They’re wearing the same costumes, and the background colors probably won’t shift greatly. But precisely because of that general consistency, we probably won’t notice the graphic qualities of the scene as being that important as elements of the editing. We’re busy following the story.
Graphic matches precise enough to be noticed as such tend to jolt us a little out of our smooth concentration on the story action. They are not the basic of continuity, as the Wikipedia definition claims. On the contrary, they often appear in films outside the continuity tradition. Abstract films often play on the graphic similarities (matches) or contrasts (mismatches) among shapes from shot to shot. Such abstract play is, in effect, their subject, and we pay attention to the pictorial flow as we would pay attention to story in a conventional narrative film.
When close graphic matches or jolting graphic contrasts appear in narrative films, they may or may not play a narrative role. The famous bone/spaceship cut in 2001 is a graphic match. It’s not a match on action, since two different objects in completely different times and places are shown. It’s not a jump cut for the same reasons.
Here the graphic match is not really very close. The sky is bright and blue behind the bone, while it is dark behind the spaceship. Similarly, the bone is light in color, while the spaceship is initially dark, though it does brighten slightly as it moves. The only graphic element matched is the general shape and motion of the two objects.
The function, I assume, is to jolt the audience with the dramatic transition across millions of years and from earth into space. Thus here the graphic match has a narrative function, though it does not create the smooth movement from one scene to another that classical films tend to have. It’s more like what is sometimes called a “shock cut,” one which startles the viewer. The cut to the screeching cockatoo in Citizen Kane is one of the most famous examples, though it primarily involves sound and a strong graphic contrast.
A transition somewhat similar to the one in 2001 occurs early in Aliens, an example which we use in recent editions of Film Art. A dissolve moves from a close-up of Ripley’s sleeping face to a view of part of the earth seen from space. Again there is a passage through time and space, though the interval is presumably only a few months. Here the graphic match is much closer than in the 2001 transition, with the colors as well as the shapes being kept fairly consistent. This graphic similarity and the dissolve that emphasizes it ease us from one scene to another rather than jolting and surprising us.
In the hands of an experimental filmmaker or of an unconventional director like Ozu, who avoids obeying Hollywood’s continuity guidelines, graphic matches don’t necessarily play a narrative role. They are included as an extra layer of engagement for the viewer. We don’t, or at least shouldn’t, expect to be able to interpret them. I would contend that the link between the red sweater and the red lampshade is there for pure pleasure. You can come up with an interpretation of the graphic match if you try hard enough—but if you do, please don’t tell me about it. I suspect it would interfere with my enjoyment of that scene when I next watch Ohayu.
I don’t think the cut serves even so modest a function as establishing space at the beginning of a scene. Here’s the shot that actually begins the scene and leads to the sweater and lampshade shots:
And here’s the one that follows the lampshade shot:
The woman is a minor character. She and her husband live in the suburban housing complex where the much of the action is set. They are more modern in their habits than their neighbors, wearing western clothes rather than kimonos and owning the only TV in the complex. They function primarily to introduce the two young boys in the central family of the story to TV, since they hospitably let the local kids visit them to watch it. The scene following the graphic match shows the wife packing to move. Their absence will precipitate a crisis when the boys demand that their parents buy them a television. The strife among the family members forms the basis for much of the rest of the action.
So the packing scene is important. Yet Ozu uses two shots that he wouldn’t need, thus delaying the scene’s beginning. The extreme long shot of the housing complex doesn’t tell us which house will form the setting for the upcoming scene. The red sweater is in the distance, but barely visible. We certainly wouldn’t notice it or get any clues about the narrative from it. Yet Ozu cuts to a closer view of the sweater and a towel. The houses in the background are all identical, and we don’t know which one belongs to which characters or which we will enter in the next shot.
The first interior view would be a logical establishing shot for the scene. The modern furnishings and especially the television box let us know where we are, and the boxes might hint that the inhabitants are packing to leave. So we are not surprised when we see the modern wife in the subsequent shot. But Ozu puts in the other two as part of his typical series of transitional shots that show the spaces between locales where action occurs.
The graphic match, I would suggest, is simply part of Ozu’s distinctive style. It’s playful and fits in with the general graphic beauty of his films, which includes bright splashes of color, careful compositions using the lines of the sets, and precise placements of props.
Returning to the Wikipedia entry for “match cut,” there is a section that mentions several examples, including the one that inspired Mr. Burke’s letter:
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey contains a famous example of a match cut. After an ape discovers the use of bones as a tool and a weapon, there is a match cut to a spacecraft or satellite in orbit. The match cut helps draw a connection between the two objects as exemplars of primitive and advanced tools respectively.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale contains the influence for the 2001: A Space Odyssey match cut in which a fourteenth century falcon cuts to a World War II aeroplane. The sense of time passing but nothing changing is emphasised by having the same actor, in different costumes, looking at both the falcon and the aeroplane.
An early example comes from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane which opens with a series of match dissolves that keeps the lit window of C.F. Kane’s in the same part of the frame while the cuts take us around his dilapidated Xanadu estate, before a final match dissolve takes us from the outside to the inside where Kane is about to die.
Another match cut comes from Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) where an edit cuts together Lawrence blowing out a lit match with the desert sun rising from the horizon. Director David Lean credits inspiration for the edit to the experimental French New Wave. The edit was later praised by Steven Spielberg as inspiration for his own work.
How the author knows that A Canterbury Tale (see below) influenced 2001 is not clear. The site footnoted (here) simply says that the cut (below) “anticipated” Kubrick’s scene in 2001. The film was released in the U.S. in early 1949, so possibly Kubrick saw it and remembered the scene nearly twenty years later. By the way, Powell and Pressburger create a double graphic echo, roughly matching the two similar dark objects against a light sky and making the two shots of the men looking upward strongly resemble each other as well.
The Citizen Kane opening, with its precise placements of the one lit window from shot to shot, is a good example of graphic matches. I am not going to touch the question of what a “match dissolve” is.
The cut from the match to the Jordanian desert horizon in Lawrence of Arabia is a trickier case. The match is placed in the left half of the anamorphic widescreen frame, while the sun rises in the right half. Moreover, the match shot is very bright, while the desert scene is fairly dark, with the sun only beginning to glow above the horizon a short way into the shot. Graphically there is not much to link them, though I think the spectator does get a strong sense of a connection between the match and sun. I’d say it’s a conceptual link, not a graphic one. It’s a link that we make on the basis of two bright objects that are not compositionally or spatially matched but simply juxtaposed.
Mr. Burke, your inquiry was perfectly reasonable, and I hope I have helped clear up your confusion.
We supply two flagrant examples of mismatched action, figure placement, and setting in Bringing Up Baby in this blog entry. Interestingly, probably no one but a professional notices them, because the relative positions of the major figures are consistent, as are the overall compositions of the shots. But then, as Dan Levin points out, we are not that sensitive to continuity disruptions in the real world either!
A Canterbury Tale.
Update: Back in the spring we announced that the University of Chicago Press will be publishing a collection of our blog entries. Now that volume is in press and has a title: Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking. We’re due to see page proofs soon, and the plan is for the book to appear in April.
Every now and then our editors at McGraw-Hill, the publisher of Film Art: An Introduction, pass along some interesting feedback from users of the textbook. Recently we learned that a professor started using Film Art as a result of reading our blog. One person mentioned having the students follow the blog’s current offerings during the semester. Some recommend specific entries to their classes. Still others use the information we supply in creating their lectures. A few say they don’t incorporate the blog into their courses but would like to start doing so. That’s all good news to us. Although “Observations on Film Art” aims at a general readership, we also hope that our writings about the art, the industry, and the technology of cinema provide a resource for teachers in high schools, colleges, and universities.
Now it’s that time of year again, when professors polish up their syllabi for the beginning of a new semester. It has been a year since the last version of our series “Is there a blog in this class?” appeared. Here we offer some suggestions as to how the entries of the past twelve months might be useful in teaching. And for those of you general readers who have just discovered the blog, the following could serve as a handy guide in exploring more of its riches. Past entries can be found here, here, and here.It’s a huge site by now, though. This is our 356th entry! We’ve recently added a lot of categories to the menu on the right-hand column, but a lot of entries don’t fit neatly into a single category. So, as usual, I’ll go through chapter by chapter and point out entries from the past year that might be relevant.
Chapter 1 Film as Art: Creativity, Technology, and Business
Nearly everybody over 20 complains about Hollywood’s summer blockbusters with their multi-hundred-million-dollar budgets. But should they? Patriotic filmgoers might be surprised to learn that few products do so much good for our country’s lackluster balance of trade. See “Don’t knock the blockbusters.”
The release of Godard’s challenging Film socialisme on the festival circuit gave us an occasion to discuss the variety of venues in which different sorts of films are exhibited in “It takes all kinds.”
Chapter 2 The Significance of Film Form
This is the chapter where we talk about the kinds of meaning that we can attribute to films, including symbolic meanings. Whether you want to encourage or discourage your students from hunting for them in films, “Between you, me, and the bedpost” offers one take on the subject. Warning: it’s risqué—though in this day and age, only slightly.
It’s not an entry for beginning students, but grad students might be interested in “Now you see it, now you can’t.” It’s a report on how scholars are studying the ways in which we perceive movies and react to them emotionally.
Chapter 3 Narrative as a Formal System
“Watching a movie, page by page” examines the novels The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Ghost Writer to see whether the “acts” (or large-scale parts) of films can be found in the literary version. Of interest for teaching large-scale segmentation or if your course has a unit on adaptations.
“No coincidence, no story.” The title pretty much tells it all. Coincidences supposedly have no place in tight storytelling, and yet there are more of them in films than one might think. How do filmmakers get away with them?
Even as summer ends, discussion and disputation concerning Inception is still all over the internet. Our own entry on the subject was “Inception: Dream a Little Dream within a Dream with Me.” We didn’t try to do a neat, unified essay on the film, so it doesn’t fit well with Film Art‘s Chapter 11, our collection of film analyses. But we discuss topics that relate to this chapter: exposition, motivation, and embedded plotlines. We wrote a follow-up, “Revisiting Inception,” commenting on what Christopher Nolan had said about the film in interviews. This entry also compares Inception‘s narrative strategies with those informing Memento and The Prestige; the latter film receives several pages of analysis in the ninth edition of Film Art.
Chapter 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
We don’t often get a chance to write about set design, but art director William Cameron Menzies didn’t just design sets. He designed shots. He especially liked to create environments that almost forced the director to stage in depth. (This entry is also pertinent to the deep-focus section of Chapter 5.) See “Foreground, background, playground,” which is a teaser for a longer essay, “William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive, Idea.”
Every now and then an actor who has provided the motion capture for a digital film character is praised highly and mentioned as a possible candidate for an Oscar nomination. But where do the actor’s performance leave off and the special effects begins? We consider the question in “Motion-capturing an Oscar.”
We often find Film Art users saying they want more on acting. Our entry “The Cross” is about a kind of staging which seems to have been forgotten in this era of rapid cutting and close framing. This analysis provides a way of studying acting, since staging is one important component of performance.
Speaking of staging, we have long urged people to study the resourceful blocking of actors in the supposedly “boringly theatrical” films of the 1910s. “Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic” argues that the great Danish studio of the period harbored several directors who made subtle use of staging within the single fixed shot.
Master cinematographer Steven Box (Donnie Darko) lectured in Madison, and we blogged on his discussion of various aspects of film lighting, many of which tie in beautifully with what we say on the subject in Film Art. See “Light is a law.”
Chapter 5 The Shot: Cinematography
Looking for a way to get students interested in the long take? Maybe show them the films discussed in “2-4-6-8, whose lipdub do we appreciate?” Not only are they amazing pieces of amateur filmmaking by high-school kids, but they actually fit into a proud old tradition of cinematic technique.
Most feature films nowadays are wide-screen productions, and it’s useful to consider how compositions can be handled in the wide format. Some possibilities are discussed in the second half of the web essay, “Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong.”
Chapter 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
“Seed-beds of style” takes a close look at a technique called “axial cutting,” that is, editing that moves straight to a closer view—and often to a third, even closer one—without a shift of camera angle. The survey covers the history of the cinema and reveals that a technique that started in the 1910s is used a lot for The Simpsons. This entry also makes some pedagogical points about teaching a course on the history of film style.
Chapter 7 Sound in the Cinema
Film is a visual art, so filmmakers should try to make the images carry the story, right? Not necessarily. Lengthy monologues can be cinematic, too, as we argue in “Tell, don’t show.” This entry could be used for studying dialogue, but it provides some good examples of sustained acting as well. Moreover, although the scenes involved aren’t long takes, they provide good examples of very slow editing rhythms.
Chapter 8 Summary: Style as a Formal System
Interesting style is where you find it. In “Daisies in the crevices,” we take the occasion of Turner Classic Movies’ screening a bunch of restored Columbia low-budget films of the 1930s to reveal some unexpectedly sophisticated stylistic touches.
The Akira Kurosawa centenary has come and gone, but it has left nearly all of his films available on DVD. In “Kurosawa’s Early Spring,” we talk about some distinctive traits of his early style. Handy for teaching style in general or as an example of an auteur’s characteristic traits.
We’ve run across some teachers who make comparisons between graphic novels and movies in their classes. If you’re one of them, have a look at “Tintinopolis,” an analysis of the cinema-like style of Hergé.
Chapter 9 Film Genres
Several of the entries already mentioned comment on genre conventions. The most extended discussion involves romantic comedy but touches on melodrama too (“No coincidence, no story“).
Chapter 10 Documentary, Experimental, and Animated Films
“Sticky splices and hairy palms” does double duty. We talk about the stylistic traits of experimental films that offer challenges to archival restoration and also about some worthy but little-known films from the Los Angeles avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s.
Animated features are becoming ever more popular, given their financial success and broad appeal. 2009 was a particularly good year for such films, and we survey the best in “The other expanded Oscar category.”
Chapter 11 Film Criticism: Sample Analyses
The last year has seen a lot of teeth-gnashing about the supposed decline of serious film criticism caused by the internet. We have weighed in on this controversial topic in “Film criticism: Always declining, never quite falling” and “Glancing backward, mostly at critics.”
Chapter 12 Film Art and Film History
Historically, film styles have influenced much later filmmakers. Two of the movements we discuss in this chapter, German Expressionism and French Impressionism, have had a big impact of the style of one of the New Hollywood directors, Martin Scorsese. We demonstrate how in “Scorsese, ‘pressionist.”
Speaking of German Expressionism, the new, nearly complete version of Metropolis gave us an opportunity discuss how the latest restored footage affects this familiar classic, “Metropolis unbound.” We also examine an old warhorse and point out what’s interesting about it in “Der Golem: Revisiting a classic.”
Looking for good silent films that might actually convince your students that old films are worth watching? Every year we avoid posting a 10-best list of current films and instead concoct one for the year ninety years before. Our latest is “The best ten-plus films of …1919.” Most of this batch are available on DVD.
Some of the greatest silent filmmakers have recently been given the royal treatment on DVD. For information on new discs of Méliès, Lubitsch, and Vertov films, see “DVDs for these long winter evenings.” More recently, Von Sternberg got similar attention, as related in “Never too late silents.”
Teachers who use DVD commentaries in class or in preparing lectures may waste time sorting out the good from the bad. In “I am not Carl Dreyer, and I should shut up,” we recommend a particularly good one: director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) talking cogently about Carl Dreyer’s great horror film, Vampyr. He has some things to say that fit in well with Film Art’s analytical approach, such as “It is foolish to try to decode the symbols in Vampyr. It is important to understand the rhythm and the repetition of them.”
DVD making-of supplements can provide excellent teaching tools. On the other hand, those supplements can be mostly mutual praise-fests for the people involved in the film. Every now and then we write about the ones that seem solidly useful, the latest entry being “Beyond praise 3: yet more DVDs that really tell you something.” (We don’t include commentary tracks or we would be spending our entire lives on these entries.) We also warn about a few supplements that aren’t worth checking out.
Have a great school year!
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
Every now and then I discuss a few DVD supplements that teachers might find useful for their classes, though they might be of interest to others as well. Previous installments can be read here and here.
Darby O’Gill and the Little People (Walt Disney Video)
Yes, you read that right. I can’t claim credit for having discovered this disc’s excellent supplement, “Little People, Big Effects.” Shortly after the second “Beyond praise” entry, Dan Reynolds, who teaches at the University of California Santa Barbara, wrote to recommend it.
Darby O’Gill was one of the few Disney live-action films I missed when I was growing up in the 1950s. I acquired the disc and started by watching the feature. I must say that this is one weird movie.
The “little people” of the title are leprechauns, and the special effects used to make them look small are mostly achieved through forced- perspective techniques. In less than eleven minutes, this supplement demonstrates the use of glass paintings, mattes, false perspective, and even a revived Schüfftan process, most famously used for Metropolis, where scale is manipulated by shooting into an angled, partially transparent mirror. Careful calculations allow for over-sized sets in the background to be lined up precisely with normal-scale ones in the foreground, so that the foreground person looks much larger then the background one. Since the two characters, here Darby and King Brian, are supposed to be conversing face-to-face, a manipulation of eyelines, a term we use a lot in Film Art, is necessary. (Despite what my spell-check keeps trying to tell me, “eyeline” is one word in the movie business, as demonstrated above.) In explaining how the actors knew where to look in the shot illustrated at the top, the film shows that “station points” were placed on the floor so that the characters’ eyelines would seem to match up (below). These days actors alone against blue or green screens often have to look at tennis balls to make the direction of their gaze match correctly.)
Clearly some behind-the-scenes footage was made during the production of Darby O’Gill, and this is incorporated into a documentary that includes interviews with master effects expert Peter Ellenshaw, who died in 2007. Ellenshaw worked as a matte painter on half the British classics of the 1930s and 1940s, including Black Narcissus (which has perhaps the greatest matte paintings ever). He then moved to Hollywood in 1950 and began a string of films with Disney that won him an Oscar for Mary Poppins. It’s good to have even these short clips of him demonstrating and discussing his work.
“Little People, Big Effects” should give students (and just about anyone else) a better grasp of perspective and its importance in the representation of depth on a flat screen. I would definitely show it as part of a study of cinematography. If a fifty-year-old film seems a bit out of date, point out to students that, as the narrator mentions, exactly the same techniques were used in many scenes of The Lord of the Rings to make the hobbits and dwarves look small. Similar demonstrations are provided in the supplements to the extended DVD version of The Fellowship of the Ring (Disc 1, “Visual Effects: Scale”).
Elijah Wood sits further from the camera than Ian McKellen in order to make him appear as small as a hobbit
Zodiac (“2-Disc Director’s Cut,” Paramount)
At the end of my first “Beyond praise” entry, I complained about the lack of supplements on the initial DVD release of Zodiac. Then, after the two-disc set with the supplements appeared in early 2008, I forgot to include it in the second entry. Better late than never, so I’m tackling it here. (The supplements are apparently the same for the Blu-ray set.)
As the “DVD Talk” review says. “The self-congratulatory praise is kept to a minimum.”
The main supplement is a 53-minute film called “Deciphering Zodiac.” It’s a good, objective, chronological summary of the film’s production. A lot of talking heads are included, such as the producer, scriptwriter, set decorator. That’s usually a good sign, since it shows that care was taken with the making-of and that enough of the crew members are participating that the account will probably be rounded. There’s a 15-minute making-of specifically on “The Visual Effects of Zodiac.”
Zodiac was primarily shot on professional-level digital cameras, apart from the slow-motion shots, which still need to be done on 35mm due to limitations of the digital technology. Hence there’s a lot of information here on digital techniques. Most of these techniques are used in ways that aren’t necessarily obvious to the viewer. If you want to show students some material on digital effects, this might be a good choice, since it avoids the flashy, obvious effects that so many fantasy and sci-fi DVD supplements concentrate on.
“Deciphering Zodiac” has shots showing the digital camera attached to an elaborate rig around a car, which was used to follow moving cars, including the famous opening tracking shot along a suburban street. The video-assist monitor is often visible in the shots.
One change that digital filming has made in production has been the frequent use of “digital dailies” rather than dailies on film. (Dailies are the unedited takes just as they come from the camera(s); directors and other key creative people typically watch them at the end of each day.) Several scenes of the “Deciphering” documentary show raw shots and are labeled as digital dailies, something which doesn’t seem to be a common feature of supplements. It’s pretty obvious that the shot of Jake Gyllenhaal below would need to be manipulated in post-production. There’s also informative coverage of the methods used to match location and studio-shot footage, particularly for the scene where the killer shoots a taxi driver.
The visual effects documentary has good explanations of the early shot of a rapid move across the bay toward San Francisco as it looked in the period when the film’s action begins, a shot that was done entirely digitally.
Now that so many best-lists for the decade have included Zodiac, it seems to be an official modern classic. Perhaps a somewhat more dignified way of teaching special effects than using a Transformers movie.
The Dark Knight (Two-Disc Special Edition, Warner Home Video)
The supplements for The Dark Knight make a nice contrast with those for Zodiac. Here the makers of a spectacular action movie avoided digital special effects to a surprising extent. Instead they used practical effects, that is, effects accomplished via physical means while shooting rather than those done in post-production via laboratory or digital manipulation. Digital technology was used, of course, but often for rather modest tasks in planning and in erasure of unwanted elements. It’s also interesting as the first 35mm fiction feature to be shot partially on Imax cameras.
The main supplement is “Gotham Uncovered.” It begins by showing how the Imax camera was initially tested on a single action scene shot on location in Chicago. The results led to additional Imax scenes being added to the film. The advantages of Imax—primarily a huge gain in visual quality due to the larger size of the individual frames—are shown to be balanced against the camera’s limitations. The camera is much larger, making handheld shots difficult. It holds only three minutes of film and has a shallower depth of field. While interesting, this first section is surprisingly lacking in actual footage of the filming, often depending on still photos. We tend to assume that in this day and age, the making-of is taken into account from early on in a production. It’s surprising how often that turns out not to be the case.
A five-minute segment, “The Sound of Anarchy,” shows Hans Zimmer sitting at a computer and talking about the modernist, dissonant music for the Joker character. It’s mildly informative.
“The Chase” is perhaps the most useful section of the making-of. The decision was made to shoot the scene on Lower Wacker in Chicago. Here digital effects were kept to a minimum, with multiple cameras mounted on vehicles like the motorcycle below. These were special smaller Imax cameras. Only four such cameras existed at the time, though an accident reduced that to three!
One big moment in the chase has the Batmobile crashing into a garbage truck. Again, rather than resorting to digital effects, the crew built miniatures of the two vehicles and the set. The decision was also made to shoot a crash of an 18-wheeler on LaSalle Street using a real truck on location, and the scenes showing the practice sessions for this reveal the kind of planning that goes into the big action scenes that are so common in films these days.
A multi-vehicle crash scene was done with several cameras, which is common practice for unrepeatable actions. (Even on a big-budget film like this, no one would want to crash more than one Lamborghini.) The cameras often show up in each other’s shots, and the supplement shows the resulting footage and how CGI is later used to erase them—again, a very common use of digital tools. Here a camera on a crane is visible at the center left in the original footage of the crash:
In one scene, the Joker walks out of a hospital, which explodes behind him. A prime candidate for digital effects, one would think. Instead, the filmmakers opted to have a demolition company destroy a real building. CGI was used to plan the scene:
A shorter supplement, “The Evolution of the Knight,” deals mostly with the design process for Batman’s suit and the Batpod. Again the emphasis is on bringing reality into the filming. It’s pointed out that while much of Batman Returns was shot on sound stages, the team decided to try and shoot the sequel in the city streets as much as possible.
Beware of these
I have to admit, one reason that this series appears so rarely is that for every DVD with useful supplements that I find, there are two or three uninformative ones that I have to sit through–or at least sample. In addition to recommendations, let me warn you away from some of the ones I switched off.
I had expected the Slumdog Millionaire DVD extras to be interesting, given the mixture of digital and 35mm shooting, the location work, and so on. But obviously the filmmakers had no idea that the film would be a success, so they seem to have done little behind-the-scenes shooting as they made it. The result is a not terribly informative, bare-bones 18-minute making-of.
Supplements as praise-fests have not gone away. Musicals seem especially to bring them out. “Get Aboard! The Band Wagon” provides 36 minutes of mutual admiration. In “From Stage to Screen: The History of Chicago,” Chita Rivera unintentionally achieves a parody of the gushing movie star who lauds everyone she worked with.
David and I just watched Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. I had liked it when I saw it in first run, and predictably, David enjoyed it, too. It’s a clever, well-scripted, well-animated film. We hoped to learn something from its supplements, but the making-of seems to be aimed at children, and young ones at that. The co-directors and some of the other filmmakers look distinctly embarrassed to be participating, partly because a lame comparison of making a film to mashing food together forms a running motif. A pity, since the movie deserves better. As reviewers keep pointing out, the best animated films these days are made for adults as much as for children.