Reading: Interview with cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine

Notes from article ‘The Light We Live In’ by Manu Yanez Murillo

  • Jose Luis Alcaine has over 100 film credits – including ‘El Sur’ (1983) dir. Victor Erice, and ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (1989) dir. Pedro Almodovar.
  • Regarding Asghar Farhadi’s vision of Spain in ‘Everybody Knows’ (2018) – he was ‘focused on doing justice to the narrative complexity and the choral structure of the film through the image, something that is not very common in contemporary cinema’ (Murillo, 2018).
  • He says many film directors today ‘come from the advertising or television worlds, and when they shoot, they are thinking in small-screen terms. They tend to employ only open diaphragms that drive the viewer’s attention toward one character, leaving everything out of focus.’ – although this can be beautiful and impressionistic, he thinks it is ‘stealing something from the viewer.’
  • He believes ‘cinema should invite the audience to embark on an active experience’ – too many films today are over simplified and spoon-feed the viewer.
  • In ‘Everybody Knows’ there are many shots of an entire family sitting at a table or at a party, ‘with all the characters in focus, so the viewer can choose who and what sub-plot to focus on.’
  • In the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock claims he has the entire movie visualised in his head before shooting the film.
  • Alcaine believes ‘that presupposes that the movie has no life of its own’ – he thinks ‘when dealing with emotions, some movies…find their form along the way thanks to the collaboration between the director, the actors, the DP, and the rest of the crew. That’s the life of a film.’
  • Alcaine says ‘people associate the quality of a film’s photography with the number of beautiful sunsets. Those sunsets have no narrative value.’
  • He believes that it’s important to ‘avoid indulging in landscape vistas’ and focus on ‘capturing the expressions of the actors.’
  • ‘When lighting a face, the goal is simple: to make visible the emotions of the actor or actress is trying to convey.’
  • ‘In theatre, acting starts with the power of the voice and the body, but in cinema the main source of expression is the transparency and subtlety of the actor’s gaze.’
  • Before starting work on a film, he asks the director the exact time at which each scene in the script occurs – ‘This should translate to the screen the feeling of a story that unfolds through time, of lives lived.’

 

Key points for me

A film has a life of its own. Rather than being over prescriptive and forcing predefined, rigid ideas upon a film, it’s important to collaborate with the team, to be open to ideas as and when they happen during the filming process. One of my aims is to work towards making films that show a story unfolding through time and in which we see lives being lived.

Watching a film is a very personal experience. Although we may be surrounded by many people in a cinema, it is on a one-to-one basis that a film communicates. Often the films I have enjoyed the most are those in which I feel as though I have actively experienced the story. I don’t like being spoon-fed. Photography plays a major role in how the viewer experiences a film. As our attention is mainly on the characters and how they respond to each other, lighting the actor’s face and capturing the subtlety of their gaze is crucial to good filmmaking.

 


List of references

Murillo, M. (2018) ‘The Light We Live In’ In: Film Comment 54 (4) pp.16-17.

 

Screening: ‘Agnes Varda: Gleaning Truths’, a retrospective at the Irish Film Institute, Dublin, 8th – 19th September 2018

‘Although a key figure of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda’s importance has been eclipsed somewhat by the legacies of her male contemporaries, Godard and Truffaut et al., and it is only recently that her status as a pioneering figure is being reclaimed – last year she was awarded an Honorary Oscar for her contribution to cinema’ Irish Film Institute (2018).

I attended two of the six films screened at the Agnes Varda retrospective at the Irish Film Institute this month, ‘La Pointe Courte’ (1955) and ‘One Sings, The Other Doesn’t’ (1977). Neither of which I have seen before.

‘La Pointe Courte’ is set in a Mediterranean fishing village, and chronicles the complex relationship of a young married couple, played by Philippe Noiret and Sylvia Monfort. A native of the area, the man tries to understand his Paris-born wife’s feelings of dissatisfaction and isolation.

‘One Sings, The Other Doesn’t’ tells the story of two women, Pomme (Valérie Mairesse) and Suzanne (Thérèse Liotard), who form a close bond when Pomme helps Suzanne secure an illegal abortion. Varda explores their contrasting yet parallel lives over the years – Suzanne runs a family planning centre while Pomme sings with a campaigning, feminist folk group.

The full programme of films included:

‘La Pointe Court’ (1955)

‘Cleo from 5 to 7’ (1962)

‘Le Bonheur’ (1965)

‘One Sings, The Other Doesn’t’ (1977)

‘Vagabond’ (1985)

‘The Gleaners and I’ (2000)

Two of the films I have on DVD, ‘Cleo from 5 to 7’ and ‘The Gleaners and I’, so I was keen to see as many of the others as possible.

 

‘La Pointe Courte’ (1955)

Black & White, 86 minutes

‘La Pointe Courte’ seems to set a precedent for what we find in the New Wave films of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Goddard and Alain Resnais a fews later. Particularly in her working outside the mainstream film industry, shooting on location, and mixing professional and non-professional actors.

The film’s dual structure is comprised of two disparate, alternating narrative strands, which appear to have no connection with each other, other than the two stories take place in the same location: the young married couple wandering the fields, canals and beaches, talking about their troubled relationship; and the fisherman attempting to evade the coastal patrols, while life goes on as normal in the village.  This disconnection is further emphasised by Varda’s filming style. With the detached theatrical acting style of Sylvia Montfort and Phillipe Noiret on the one hand and the ordinary, naturalistic acting style of the villagers on the other.

For me, what makes this film so exciting to see, is its stunning visual style. It reminds me of the photographs of Eugene Atget, Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She seems to catch the reality of the setting and its unique strangeness. From the opening shot as the camera roams through the village, probing shadowy corners and drifting through interior spaces, to the documentary-like shots of the village that appear to have little to do with the actual narrative, but everything to do with conveying a sense of the location. The result is a film that portrays a wonderfully vivid sense of place.

 

‘One Sings, The Other Doesn’t’ (1977)

Colour, 120 minutes

A very different film to ‘La Pointe Courte’ in theme and style, ‘One Sings, The Other Doesn’t’ follows the trajectories of two female friends in the context of women’s struggle for the legalisation of contraception and abortion. Uses two women with contrasting temperaments to evoke different approaches to the struggle. Pauline is a young activist with an upbeat personality. Suzanne is a melancholy single mother who finds herself pregnant again. When the film starts in 1962, Pauline is a teenager, wanders into an art gallery run by photographer Jerome, and discovers that his partner is her former neighbour Suzanne. Pauline agrees to help Suzanne get an abortion by tricking her parents into giving her money. Suzanne finds her way in the world running a family planning centre. Pauline renames herself ‘Pomme’ and travels France as part of a feminist consciousness raising folk group.

The action jumps to 1972, to an abortion rights demonstration in Paris. It’s clear that this is not simply a fiction film. Varda also uses a documentary style, bringing specific moments alive with an air of spontaneity – as in the faces of women waiting for abortions in Amsterdam or the apparently real crowds gathered around the touring folk band. Turning the film from what could easily become a women’s buddy movie into a film that actively engagements with the contemporary struggle for abortion rights. The film ends in 1976, with signs pointing to a hopeful future.

 


Lots of interesting things to think about after seeing these two films. Very relevant to the studying I have been doing on visual style and my interest in the sense of place within the moving image.

Certain filmmakers jump out for their innovation and creative vision. For me, these two films by Agnes Varda are a great find. Seeing them on screen, as they were intended to be viewed, was a wonderful experience and I am very drawn to the way she sees and thinks about the world.

 


List of references

Irish Film Institute (2018) Agnes Varda: Gleaning Truths At: https://ifi.ie/agnes-varda-gleaning-truths/ (Accessed on 8 September 2018)

A3: Visual reference material

I began by looking back at some films that might fit with my film’s message and captured screenshots of things that stood out for me.

I have a general sense of what I am looking for, but working in this way is helping me to refine the vague picture I had in my head. Interestingly, it has provided me with options I hadn’t thought of before.

This is a time consuming, but extremely fruitful process.

I also looked at Christopher Kenworthy’s series of ‘Master Shots’ books. There are currently three books in the series, each one a thorough manual on how to think about cinematic storytelling from the camera’s perspective.

Taking the script as my blueprint for the moving image, I went through each scene in my screenplay looking for ways to tell the story in a way that would be visually interesting and compelling for the viewer.

 

Opening Scene (scene 1) – Two women on a sofa

One idea I have for the opening scene is to shoot the entire action in one long take.

Using a wide shot and shooting a long take would allow the viewer to read the subtext behind the action without the camera telling them where to look and who to look at.

Some notable examples of this style can be found in films by Roy Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Joann Hogg.

 

Car Sequence (scenes 2, 3 & 4)

I also looked at more specific ways of designing the shots for the car sequence at the start of the film, by looking at some of the ways in which other filmmakers have approached shooting dialogue scenes in cars.

I think it would be nice to match shot the image of the mother and daughter on the sofa (scene 1) with them in the car (scene 2). Mother on the left and daughter on the right. Both silent, locked in their own individual worlds.

Fig. 1

The first was a two shot through the windscreen. A fairly common camera set-up. But it was only after placing two shots from two films by Richard Linklater side by side, that I realised the shots (fig. 2) contained very subtle differences in camera set-up.

At first glance, you could be mistaken for thinking the camera was placed in the centre of the car’s bonnet. On closer analysis, it becomes clear that the camera is placed to one side of the bonnet. While the actors are positioned symmetrically within the frame, the shot itself is not a full-on symmetrical image. There is a slight angle on the z-axis. This subtle shift in camera placement changes the emphasis of the image.

In the shot from ‘Before Midnight’, the camera is positioned on the left side of the bonnet, in line with the passenger. While in the shot from ‘Boyhood’, the camera is positioned on the right side of the bonnet, in line with the driver. This results in a subtle difference in the feel of each shot. As a viewer, I felt ‘closer’ to the actor in line with the camera.

In ‘Before Midnight’, we are listening to the female character, while watching the male character’s reactions to what she is saying. In ‘Boyhood’, we are watching the male character’s response to the female character talking. In each case, the emphasis is placed upon whichever character is ‘closer’ to the camera. A very subtle difference in camera set-up, resulting in a specific emotional response in the viewer.

However, to set-up this shot would require using a car-mount on the bonnet.

An alternative way of shooting dialogue scenes inside a car, suggested by Christopher Kenworthy (2012), is to place the camera in the back seat and position the camera on the opposite side of the car to the actor (fig. 3).

Fig. 2

This camera set-up avoids the need for a car-mount on the bonnet. When framing these shots, the driver needs to be framed hard on the left, and the passenger needs to be framed hard on the right. Kenworthy suggests giving the actors ‘plenty of motivation to look at each other; this shouldn’t be a casual chat, but a conversation that forces them to make eye contact’ (Kenworthy 2012, p.160).

Fig. 3

The car sequence in this assignment film ends with the daughter getting out of the car and the mother calling her back. Again, Kenworthy suggests a way of shooting a scene in which one character is inside the car and the other is outside (fig. 4).

 

 

The Look

A film with a similar look and feel to that which I am aiming to achieve is Certain Women (2017), directed by Kelly Reichardt. I re-watched the film paying particular attention to Reichardt’s approach to composition and her use of colour and light.

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

 

 

 


List of References

Kenworthy, C. 2011 Master Shots Volume 2: 100 ways to shoot great dialogue scenes Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions

Kenworthy, C. 2012 Master Shots: 100 advanced camera techniques 2nd edition. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions

LaRovere, N. [n.d.] ‘The visual planning process that will make or break your film’ On: filmmakerfreedom.com At: https://filmmakerfreedom.com/blog/visual-planning [Accessed on 31 July 2018]

Torgovnik May, K. 2017 ‘How color helps a movie tell its story’ On: Ted, April 5, 2017 [Website] At: https//ideas.ted.com/how-color-helps-a-movie-tell-its-story [Accessed on 31 May 2018]

Van Duersen, L. & de Vries, M. 2013 Robbie Muller: Cinematography JRP Ringier

 

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Visual reference material. Annotated screenshots from ‘Before Midnight’ (2013) and ‘Boyhood’ (2014) Dir. Richard Linklater.

Figure 2. Visual reference material. Annotated screenshots from ‘White Oleander’ (2002) Dir. Peter Kosminsky.

Figure 3. Visual reference material. Annotated screenshots from ‘Murder by Numbers’ (2002) Dir. Barbet Schroeder.

Figure 4. Still from Certain Women (2017) Dir. Kelly Reichardt. At: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4468634/mediaviewer/rm3608941824 [Accessed on 2 September 2018]

Figure 5. Still from Certain Women (2017) Dir. Kelly Reichardt. At: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4468634/mediaviewer/rm3608941824 [Accessed on 2 September 2018]

 

A3: Screenplay

Background

This screenplay captures a single moment in time in the lives of a single mother and her teenage daughter. A moment in which things don’t go quite as expected for either of them.

The assignment brief required me to ‘create a short narrative film with a clearly defined conflict showing the main protagonist attempting to overcome or solve the conflict.’ At five and a half pages, it’s a very short screenplay. Everything takes place in a single day. But, all the structural elements are there (opening image, theme stated, set-up, catalyst, midpoint, climax, final image) and the conflict is clearly defined, in that both characters objectives are clearly stated: Mother wants her daughter to finish school and go to university; Daughter wants to take a gap year. We also see the main protagonist (Mother) attempt to solve the conflict, if in a somewhat unusual way.

I have intentionally left it open-ended, in that we don’t know what will become of Mother and Daughter, though we are aware things may never be the same again. It is also a narrative which I think captures the essence of the short film’s ability to ‘deliver a short, intense burst of emotion’ (Nash 2012, p.110).

What captured my imagination about this idea is Mother’s response to finding the letter in Daughter’s pocket – on discovering the deceit, she lets her daughter have a nice meal, then serves the letter up in a dessert specially prepared for the occasion. It reminds me of Ernestine Ulmer’s quote ‘Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.’ I can’t remember where or when she said this, but I have since seen it on the walls or pavement boards of several Dublin cafes.

I like the idea of combining the ‘uncertainty’ and the ‘dessert’ in some way, of making a moving image that taps into both the concrete and the less tangible, abstract aspects of life – ‘Eat dessert’ is a fairly concrete action; while ‘Life is uncertain’ is an existential outlook on what it means to be human. If that makes any sense.

I have chosen pavlova for the dessert because, although a simple recipe, it is often something that is served during celebratory and holiday meals. I think this will add an element of irony to the scene as, in Mother’s eyes, there is nothing celebratory about the meal.

I see this script as just a blueprint for the finished moving image. I have purposely kept descriptions to a minimum, giving only the basic information needed to help the reader to get a sense of the story – characters, locations, actions. A lot will depend on how well I can stage the actors, light the scenes, and compose and frame the shots.

Looking back over the script, I notice there are several ways in which ‘uncertainty’ is embodied within the text: none of the characters are given names; the father’s presence is vague and undefined; why Mother decides to ‘confront’ Daughter with a dessert is unclear; the subtext beneath the Mother-Daughter relationship is vague; the open-ended ending leaves the viewer wondering what will happen between Mother and Daughter. All of this will add to the sense of ‘uncertainty’ within the film.

 

Screenplay (final draft)

 

Revision – 21/09/18

I put the screenplay up for peer review.

One observation about the ending was particularly interesting, in that the reviewer said she ‘knew what the mother might do, but the daughter is more unknown’ (Emma 516689, 2018). Her suggestion ‘I wonder if it would be worth investigating the daughter’s reaction at the end, rather than the mother’s’ made me re-think the effectiveness of the ending.

This was very helpful. I added another scene to the end of the film, in which we see the daughter’s reaction to the events at home.

 

To accommodate this change to the ending, in which we see the Daughter at the bus stop reading the letter, I altered the description at the end of the kitchen scene to show her picking up the letter as she storms out of the room.

 


List of references

Nash, P. 2012 Short Films: Writing the Screenplay Harpenden, UK: Camera Books

OCA Critiques Discussion Forum (2019) https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/can-anyone-critique-my-script-for-moving-image-assignment-3-on-conflict-please/8140/7 (Accessed on 16 September 2018)