Dialogue as action, whatever the language: ‘CODA’

Much of the dialogue within CODA is spoken through sign language and not verbally. Sign language is based on feeling and physical movement. The most poignant moment comes when Ruby and her father are sitting on the tailgate of the family truck after the school concert. Frank asks Ruby to sing. Frank’s ‘dialogue’ is sign language and his ‘listening’ to Ruby sing is feeling, also with his hands touching her neck to feel her voice. The spoken dialogue in the scene are the song lyrics which carry the emotional subtext about Ruby’s love for her family. The blend of verbal and signed dialogue is unique to the story. It comes directly from the scenes and the characters.

 


References

Heder, Sian. 2021. CODA [Film]


Dialogue as Action: Portraying dementia in ‘The Father’

Anthony: “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves, one after another.”  (The Father 2020)

Dialogue within The Father performs a unique function. It is through the film's dialogue, that we assume everyday pieces of life are happening in reality, only to be shown that they are not. We are put within Anthony’s mind, experience his confusion, and Anthony’s final speech twists the emotional knife within a film that has been constructed to confuse. Anthony remembers his mother and suddenly wants to go home, as tears overwhelm him, and he says “I feel as if I am losing all my leaves, one after another.” This is a great example of how a single poetic line of dialogue placed at the end of a film can bring the narrative to a powerful and emotional climax.

 


References

Zeller, Florian. 2020. The Father [Film]


Implied Readership: Memory and Time in ‘Arrival’

As Louise stands outside a secluded lake house remembering her daughter’s short life, we witness the birth, life, and death of a young girl. Villeneuvre knows we will deconstruct this sequence and assume it is a flashback. The scene is immediately followed by Louise at work, seemingly mourning the death of her daughter, and the meaning we attach to her is derived from the opening sequence. The entire film hinges on the juxtaposition of these two scenes and the way in which we read them. In considering the implied reader, Villeneuvre misdirects the audience and sets up the narrative for the final twist, in which the flashbacks are in fact premonitions.

 


References

Villeneuve, Denis. 2016. Arrival [Film]


Deep structure: Structuring the Tone in ‘Arracht’

Arracht is an Irish language drama about a fisherman whose life is plunged into darkness following the arrival of the potato blight and a violent stranger. Each act serves a particular function. Through its tragic tone, act one sets up Colmán as a person who loses everything. The narrative jumps forward two years to the peak of the famine’s devastation as, in act two, Colmán finds the strength to keep going in taking care of Kitty, a vulnerable orphan. Although not quite a revenge tragedy, the story ends with vengeance, as act three brings the story to its bloody denouement, and we are left asking ‘Will Colmán and Kitty survive the famine?’

 


References

Ó Súilleabháin, Tomás. 2021. Arracht [Film]


Active Questions: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier…Who is Spy?

The main question driving Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is “Who is the spy at the top of the Circus?” and we watch knowing the puzzle will be solved and traitor revealed. Driven by the active question “Who is the mole?”, Act one sets out the pieces of the puzzle and introduces George Smiley. Driven by the active question “Will Smiley uncover the mole?” act two is woven round a series of flashbacks and shady manoeuvres within the Circus. Smiley roots out the mole, and, driven by the act three active question “Will Smiley catch the mole?”, he sets a trap, confronts Hayden and is reinstated in the Circus as Control.

 


References

Alfredson, Tomas. 2011. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [Film]


Audience identification with character: Empathising with the ‘Other’ in ‘The Shape of Water’

Del Toro’s Amphibian Man is the emotional centre of the story. Initially presented as the archetypal B-movie monster, lashing out at its captors, he is shaped into the romantic lead alongside Elisa, the first who recognises his humanity and refers to him as ‘him’. While a reptilian creature is not something an audience can relate to, the outsider who finds love and takes action is clearly identifiable. His natural curiosity, underdog vulnerability and love for Elisa endear us to him, until we see the soul beneath the scales of this strangely human character and empathise with the loneliness of those born different.

 


References

Del Toro, Guillermo. 2017. The Shape of Water [Film]


Character Analysis: Lee Chandler’s tragic burden in ‘Manchester by the Sea’

As soon as Lee Chandler sets foot in Manchester it becomes clear he has a past that made him notorious. Seething with rage at himself and the world, Lee performs his role as guardian for his dead brother’s son in spite of the unbearable burden of inner coldness and emptiness. Lee’s conflict is internal. The flashbacks slowly reveal the devasting backstory surrounding the deaths of his children. The tragic character’s action are consistent with the irreparable personal loss he is suffering. In the end, Lee leaves his nephew with his brother’s friend. The burden of guilt leaving him unable to move on.

 


References

Lonergan, Kenneth. 2016. Manchester by the Sea [Film]


Analysing theme and tone: A meditation on womanhood in ‘Proxima’

A personal drama with the ‘desire for validation’ theme, Proxima explores issues of womanhood, family and separation. Sarah has to prove her competence in the male-dominated world of space flight, where her motherhood is seen as a weakness by male colleagues. The dramatic tone drives Sarah’s journey through the narrative, as she struggles to care for and nurture her daughter while undergoing a punishing astronaut training schedule. Mother and daughter grow physically and emotionally apart, only to reconnect on the day of the launch. Reminding us that for women like Sarah, balancing two lives can be an exhausting experience that takes its toll.

 


References

Winocour, Alice. 2020. Proxima [Film].


Deconstructing genre: Subverting the domestic drama in ‘Lady Macbeth’

Lady Macbeth subverts genre by infusing the classic period drama with elements of the thriller. Trapped in a loveless marriage and confined to a gloomy house, Katherine rebels against her position in the family as the demure, submissive wife. Her affair with Sebastian shifting the story from one of validation to the morality of individuals. Driven by her refusal to be broken, Katherine becomes a lethal, unrepentant killer, eliminating everyone who comes in her way as mistress of the house. The thriller elements lift the film above a typical domestic drama, turning it into a brutal meditation on the limits of power and position.

 


References

Oldroyd, William. 2016. Lady Macbeth [Film]


The encoding and decoding of meaning in visual texts: The nightmare duality of black and white in ‘Black Swan’

The opening dream sequence establishes the surreal style of the film and hints at Nina’s internal conflict, embodied by the white and the black swans she strives to express in her dancing. Nina’s hallucinations take the form of her painful transformation into the black swan, as she pulls black feathers from her body. In the night club she pulls a black top over her white top, consciously choosing to relinquish her innocence. Nina literally destroys herself through the desire to be perfect. The duality of black and white demonstrates how colour can be used to portray the theme and tragic tone.

 


References

Aronofsky, Darren. 2010. Black Swan [Film]


Keeping producers and screenwriters in sync

I think Ross Lincoln's article 'How to Keep Screenwriters and Producers in Sync - Produced By' hits the nail right on the head. Some of the most fruitful and enjoyable conversations I've had with friends and colleagues about my own screen ideas have often been about the nuts and bolts of the story, how it is built and the practical problems with it.

Although I have meet a few film producers, I have not yet been in the position to work with a producer on an idea. When I do get the opportunity to do so, I would hope that they are as passionate about film as I am. That not only do they enjoy the creative process of developing a screen idea and bringing it to the screen, but that are "specific and knowledgeable" in the notes they offer, enabling us to be on the same storytelling page.

I particularly like the comparison between producer and writer being like that of director and actor. I think that sums it up nicely.

 

References

LINCOLN, Ross A. 2015. 'How to Keep Screenwriters and Producers in Sync - Produced By', Deadline [online].
Available at: https://deadline.com/2015/05/produced-by-conference-screenwriters-producers-1201435124/
[Accessed 8 November 2021]


The short film

I make a point of watching short films quite regularly, from all over the world. I love the way they can express so much emotion within such a small space of time.

A short film isn’t simply a condensed version of a feature film, but a different narrative form altogether. It is an art form in its own right, with a much freer form of storytelling than feature length narratives. I think they have more strengths than weaknesses as a storytelling model. One of the differences between shorts and features is that the short may or may not have conflict between characters. Some of the best shorts I have seen have had no conflict, while others have had some degree of conflict. It is also a cinematic form that lends itself to wordless storytelling. As a form that does not necessarily need dialogue, character arcs or conflict, the short film is a non-standard narrative, open to a wide degree of variation and experimentation.

I think the short film offers a different storytelling experience for the viewer. Where the feature film feels like a full-on gaze, the short is a glance. A brief moment in time. A small window into the world.


Reflections on being a screenwriter

I guess I see the role of the screenwriter as storyteller. As the one who gets the ball rolling, as it were, generating and shaping ideas into something that looks and feels cinematic, that is compelling and solid enough to be made into a film.

Before starting the MA, I thought I knew what a screenplay was, but now I realise that it is so much more than text on a page. Screenwriting is about process rather than product. So I see my role as screenwriter as a collaborator, in whatever production scenario I might find myself. Sharing and responding to ideas as the story evolves.

I think I read somewhere that writing a screenplay is like sculpting in clay. Except, unlike the solitary sculptor working away at their block of clay, a film requires a team of 'sculptors' with a shared vision, drawing upon complementary skills, as they shape their work of art together. For me, that's where the fun is!


Deadwind, Season 1, Episode 1: ‘The Widow’ – Review

DEADWIND (2018) – Netflix Original Series Season 1, Episode 1: ‘The Widow’

A Nordic Noir television series in the same vein as Danish TV’s The Killing and The Bridge, the Finnish crime drama Deadwind follows the story of a gruesome crime and a troubled police officer who is put in charge of solving it.

Just months after the tragic loss of her husband, Detective Sofia Karppi returns to work in the Helsinki Police Department. On her first day back, she is assigned a new partner, Sakari Nurmi, who specialises in financial crimes. It’s not exactly a match made in heaven. Their first case begins as a routine disappearance. Following the discovery of women’s clothes near a lake, Sakari assumes the woman had simply gone for a swim and drowned, and suggests they call in the divers. Karppi is convinced there is something else at play and calls in the police dog team. Her hunch leads them to a body buried in a shallow grave with flowers in her hands. From there the case quickly escalates into a puzzling homicide.

Holding firmly to the principles of Nordic Noir, Deadwind is a character- and setting-driven story, in which we participate in the slow piecing together of a bigger picture. It’s a realistically grim portrayal of investigators trying to bring some semblance of order to a chaotic world. The subject matter is depressing, but the storytelling is good.

Much like her predecessors in the Nordic Noir genre, the main protagonist is a strong female character. Like Lund in The Killing and Saga in The Bridge, Sophia Karppi is portrayed as a smart detective with an obsessiveness in the cases she investigates. We are also introduced to Karppi’s complicated homelife, where she is struggling to cope with two children in her hours off. However, while there is enough intrigue to move the story forward, there were several inconsistencies within the episode that left me wondering how the police knew where they were meant to go.

One of the main weaknesses of the episode for me was the lack of sufficient attention to the procedures of the investigation. Unlike The Bridge, in which the detectives’ thought processes and the investigative connections they make are clearly shown, the narrative within Deadwind skips along without supplying sufficient procedural detail to support the actions the detectives are making. Which threatens to undermine the story’s plausibility and the procedural nature of the series.

Although the pilot episode of Deadwind closely resembles other crime dramas in the genre and the emphasis is upon the chase, rather than the protagonist’s emotional journey, I think there is plenty of potential in the story to justify greenlighting the full series.


Fitting into the writers room

I have always enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with other people on creative projects. Whether as a drama teacher working with students on devised and scripted plays, as a theatre director, or as part of a camera crew on a TV drama, it has been an exhilarating experience. Collaboration for me has always been about the process of bringing an idea to fruition with a group of like-minded people.

I think one of my main strengths lies in my ability to remain flexible and open-minded, to be able to improvise and adapt my way throughout a project rather than become stuck rigid on an idea that may or may not be working. It's important to embrace all the ideas that come our way within a group - the more people, the bigger the brain. Another strength is my commitment. I'm always prepared to go above and beyond to complete a project. Once I'm onboard with something, I won't let go.

My weakness lies in my confidence. My self-doubt can undermine me at times.

Writing for television was not something I had considered before starting this module, and I have to admit to feeling a little out of my depth with this. While it is a challenge that I am very much looking forward to, it is a mode of storytelling that is outside my comfort zone.


Rebooting the X-Files

The simplicity of The X-Files format has to be its greatest strength. The FBI investigative procedural gives a credibility to the story world that adds a sense of realism to the paranormal stories. Other strengths include the dual-protagonist dynamic between skeptic and believer in their search for the truth, the element of surprise built into each episode, and the string of intriguing, sometimes enigmatic characters we encounter throughout the series.

I would find it difficult to discard any of these elements as they are so central to the success of the storytelling. The change might be less in terms of components and more in terms of refreshing the narrative structure of the series to suit today’s tv viewing habits. It might be possible to balance the ‘monster-of-the-week’ with an extended seasonal narrative.

In terms of what audiences would be looking for in an X-Files reboot, I think they would be looking for the same thrilling encounters with paranormal phenomena, character-focused storylines, and probably a nostalgic nod to the original series while being relevant to today’s world.


How I watch television

If it’s a good story and the characters grab me, then I’m easy about how I watch a show. Both season-binging and watching weekly episodes work for me. I rarely watch terrestrial TV anymore, so I will often binge watch two or three dramas at a time, watching several episodes of each, rather than an entire season in one sitting. I still like to spread the viewing experience out over a period of time.

I don’t have a preferred streaming platform. I dip into Amazon Prime, Netflix, Apple and NowTV in equal measure. Though I do gravitate towards MUBI for films. With platforms offering their own original content, I tend to flick between platforms in the same way I used to flick channels on TV. So, what I watch and the way in which I consume it has changed significantly over the past few years.

I don’t see a great difference between shows distributed seasonally or weekly. They both embrace similar long-form narrative models structured around an overall season arc. And they both feel more like 6 to 10 hour movies. The main difference seems to be in the method of distribution. What strikes me about today’s television dramas is that, for me, these extended narratives are far more satisfying than single, self-contained episodes. As such, they offer an exciting storytelling opportunity for screenwriters looking to explore deeper themes and ideas and challenge the viewers’ perception of both TV and the world in which we live.

Exciting stuff! I can’t wait to start exploring this aspect of screen storytelling.


Third draft

Working on the third draft of Night Shift this week has not only been very productive creatively, but it has also been revealing in what I have discovered about myself as a writer and the way in which I tell my stories for screen. In particular, my use of visual metaphor within the script to encourage metaphorical insight in the viewer.

Windows, mirrors, glass is a motif I have used before in my writing. Though up until now, I have not given much thought to how and why I might be using it in my screenwriting. The motif appears throughout the script, at key moments within the story:

    • a woman looks through an office window;
    • a woman sees her reflection in a mirror;
    • a woman stands in a shop doorway, framed by a large window;
    • a woman breaks a glass bottle;

An arrangement of recurring images, inserted subconsciously as I assembled the rough draft.

What strikes me about this is not so much the fact that I have, once again, drawn upon this motif in my writing, but the effect it appears to have within this particular screenplay. Deciding to redraft the script from a purely visual perspective enabled me to engage with the story at a cinematic level, to redraft it with my mind's eye, as it were.

Cumulatively, these images of the woman and windows, mirrors, glass, build up into a composite portrait of a young woman trapped, struggling to break free. The image develops over time (Carroll 2001: 352) through repetition and variation, leaving a subliminal impression upon the viewer's imagination. The motif of 'window, mirror, glass' is being used as a way of prompting insight within the viewer, rather than stating it in language (Carroll 2001: 365).

After pondering the windows, mirrors, glass motif within Night Shift, I have discovered a meaning within the story that hadn't occurred to me as I was drafting the script: that Lanya is confined, hermetically sealed within her own glass bubble. She may feel safe within her bubble. But in the end, she must break the glass and set herself free.

 


References

CARROL, Noel. 2001. Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


Making a pitch video

We were set the task of recording a three minute pitch video for our screen concept, using the premise, character development and writer's statement for our project.

This was a very challenging task. Recording myself explaining the film concept was so different from what I had imagined it would be. I had incorrectly assumed that I could take passages from the premise and writer's statement, and assemble them into a concise pitch. But this resulted in a weak and incoherent presentation. I found it difficult to gather my thoughts and express them verbally. This made me question whether my approach was the right one. The failure of the first recording helped me realise that I needed to better understand my screen idea. So I went back over my screenwriting documents and revised them for greater clarity.

The breakthrough came after watching a fellow student's pitch video, in which she mentioned her influences. This was something I had overlooked in my own pitch. I thought about Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy and how the film's meditative style was influential in my own writing. Thinking about this gave me a greater insight into my own screen concept. Not only do I now have a broader context within which to articulate my screen idea, but I have also found a more personal way of communicating the dramatic potential of the film's concept.

 


References

REICHARDT, Kelly. 2009. Wendy and Lucy [film].


Second draft

Although rewriting the rough draft was has been a very challenging experience, it was a time in the screenwriting process when I saw myself as a 'screen-wright', crafting and shaping a script. I began to see the story take on a life and form of its own. It was also a time when I had to be sure to keep an open mind, and let the ideas come to me unhindered, as I read and re-read what I had written.

I started by printing off the script and looking at it as a separate object. As a text that exists outside my computer, away from the ease and temptation to delete lines and change words on the screen. I took time to sit down and read it, first as if I was the audience, then again making notes on the script, as I identified issues within the scenes that I felt needed addressing, such as scene headers, scene descriptions, characterisation, dialogue, scene structure, cinematic qualities, and so on.

I went back over the key plot points, and adjusted the end of act climaxes and turning points to create a stronger framework for the story. John Finnegan's webinar on deep structure and the 'Story Structure Masterclass' handout were particularly helpful here.

There were times during redrafting when I couldn't find satisfactory solutions to the problems I had identified within the script. The first act seemed to set up the world and tone of the story, and introduce the protagonist and the initial problem effectively, but the second and thirds acts were patchy and incomplete. I have also spent a lot of time this week worrying about fitting the plot points to a rigid structure. What seemed to work in both the treatment and the step outline has proven difficult to achieve while writing the actual screenplay.


Finding the story

Sitting down to write the script this week was very daunting. So, rather than launching straight into writing the rough draft, I have decided to mull over and clarify a few things before putting pen to paper. Alongside the premise, treatment and step outline, I also have pages of notes, character profiles and ideas about how all of this could be assembled into the makings of a screenplay.

I started with emotion: isolation, loneliness, disconnection. Feelings that lie at the heart of the story. I looked for ways to make these emotions playable on screen through action, behaviour, events and images (Batty & Waldeback 2019: 123), prepared a list of situations in which we see the main character isolated, and made a list of reasons why she is alone and disconnected. This helped me expand upon the step outline and build it into a more fully realised visual story.

I have also been looking at the protagonist's character arc and how it connects to the three-act structure. I labelled each act with a quality representing the stages she goes through, from 'victim' (setup) to 'saviour' (complication) to 'friend' (resolution). This enabled me to identify and focus in on the key stages in her emotional journey as she moves from isolation to connection within the story.

In theory, the structure within the treatment and step outline seems to work. Though I will only know if it works once I have completed writing the rough draft next week.

 


References

BATTY, Craig and Zara WALDEBACK. 2019. Writing for the Screen: Creative and critical approaches. London: Red Globe Press.


On writing the step outline

This week's task was to write the step outline for Night Shift. This required looking for the main information within the story and focusing on what the each of the scenes are trying to achieve. Creating the bare bones of the story and summarising each scene in one or two sentences.

Through a process of drafting and re-drafting, I assembled each step until I arrived at a satisfactory shape for the overall story. The first draft was assembled from scenes within the treatment. But the result was loose and lacked coherence and structure. Before re-drafting the outline again, I prepared a bare bones outline of the story corresponding to the stages within the 19 point story map. Re-aligning the story in this way helped create a more coherently structured story, which was easily shapable into a step outline. I also redrafted the phrasing of each step description to improve its clarity and sense, ensuring each step was between 3 and 4 lines.

Writing the step outline also helped me to define the purpose of each scene within the story. While creating the step outline, I also made changes to the story. I haven't been happy with the fight scene towards the end. So I relocated the scene to an inner city squat, changed the characters from a street gang to a group of squatters, and changed Roisin's motivation from responding to an emergency text message to her making her last delivery of the night. This opened up the story in several new ways. Roisin agrees to help Lanya on the condition that Lanya agrees to come with her to make the delivery. As a result, Lanya is being forced to move further into the environment from which she wants to escape, and being taken inside a building within the neighbourhood, which leads on to the struggle in which Lanya rescues Roisin from assault.

Writing the step outline has helped to give me an overview of the whole film. Using it as a planning document enabled me to map out the physical and emotional journeys within the story, to play around with the structure and arrange the various elements within the story into as effective a screenplay as possible.


The evolution of screenwriting practice

The screenplay has undergone a fascinating evolution since its introduction in the early cinema. After the arrival of sound in the 1920s, screenplays took on a form similar to theatrical plays, containing the main elements of dialogue, narrative sections between dialogue, text divided into scenes, scenes subdivided into shots and visual sequences, and a concise use of language throughout. This form has remained fairly constant throughout the 20th century and is still found in screenplays today.

The function of the screenplay as a written text designed to inform its own performance and guide a film through the production process, has also remained fairly constant. As early cinema evolved in the 1910s and 1920s, complex storylines, multiple-shot scenes and budget constraints forced filmmakers to plan the shape and structure of their films in advance of filming. Giving us a model that has been used in film production for over a century. However, with regard to the evolution of the screenplay within the film production process, I think Kevin Boon makes an interesting point when he suggests that 'the film has undergone more changes to its form since the introduction of sound than the screenplays, new technologies and cinematic innovations being responsible for the majority of the changes' (2008:20). This suggests that while film production process has evolved through the introduction of digital technologies and innovations, the screenplay followed its own path, moving away from its early form influenced by the layout of the theatrical play, into an autonomous literary artefact with a more refined storytelling style.

As the craft of screenwriting evolves into the 21st century, I wonder if our role as screenwriters will become more specialised, with some of us working on games, others on films, and others on more niche or experimental approaches yet to be discovered. Maybe we will also become more multi-skilled as screenwriters, like the early cinema practitioners were, and draw upon a range of mixed media to tell our stories, and maybe even drawing upon the skills of artists, designers, musicians, editors and directors when putting these screen stories together. It looks like the screenplay has always been in a state of flux and rather than its role in production becoming diminished or obsolete, it is becoming more broadly defined as an artefact.

While the form of storytelling for the screen will evolve and change, the fundamentals of narrative won't and we will still need writers to provide shape and structure to these stories.

 


References

BOON, Kevin Alexander. 2008. Script Culture and the American Screenplay. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

PRICE, Steven. 2013. A History of the Screenplay. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


On gathering ideas

Gathering raw material into a notebook, the events, fragments of conversation, impressions of places, random jottings and observations, the 'Stuff' that Robin Mukherjee talks about, has always been part of my writing process. This week my focus was on generating ideas around the protagonist, Lanya. It involved creating a backstory for her, making notes on the turning points in her life, the trauma that affects her behaviour, her wants and needs, her fears and dreams. All of which helped generate a picture of who she is and why she does what she does.

Mukherjee's statement that 'story isn't just things happening to someone, but very much about how those things bring about change' (2014:84) was particularly helpful. It changed the way I think about ideas and how I work with them. By refocusing my attention away from simply looking for a series of events that could happen to Lanya, to thinking about how those events could bring about a change within her, I found myself looking at these ideas within the context of her emotional journey.

'Night Shift' is a story about someone who is an outsider within their community. It's about the indifference that people living and working on the margins of society are faced with, as part of their daily routines. As an arena, the environment in which Lanya finds herself throws up a series of obstacles that she must overcome in order to reach home safely. I think going into the field and undertaking research into this environment will benefit the writing process. It will give me a sense of the geography of the story and its settings, and help me to enrich the atmosphere of the places in which Lanya finds herself.


Finding the idea for ‘Night Shift’

The story for Night Shift came from a very simple idea: someone falls asleep on the metro and wakes up at the end of the line. It is the kind of thing that could happen to anyone at the end of a long day in any European city with an underground or metro system - Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Vienna. I wondered what would happen if someone missed their stop and found themselves in an unfamiliar neighbourhood at night. What it would feel like to wake up in a city that was sleeping and at its darkest and most uneasy.

I was reminded of Christopher Thomas's photo book New York Sleeps, a collection of haunting images of Manhattan before dawn, devoid of people, and pictured someone walking alone through the empty streets. Someone who was in the city at night for a reason, such as a night shift worker. I came up with the character of Lanya, a Kurdish immigrant working on a corporate cleaning crew, who is asked to do one last task before finishing her shift. She falls asleep on the last metro and misses her stop. She is then faced with a series of obstacles preventing her from getting home.

I originally thought of introducing a convenience store cashier, who's closing the shop for the night, who Lanya meets while walking through the empty streets. But it didn't feel quite right, as I need someone else in the margins, who appears out of the shadows and changes the course of Lanya's journey. Recently, there have been news reports of Deliveroo cyclists being attached by gangs around Dublin, often having their bikes stolen. So I have created the character of Roisin, a food delivery cyclist, who's also a night shift worker.

Two 'outsiders', Lanya and Roisin, strike up an unlikely friendship in a sleeping city. I think this is the type of story in which I could explore themes such as solitude and separation.

 


References

THOMAS, Christopher. 2009. New York Sleeps. New York: Prestel.


Idea generation

Where do I get my ideas from? I haven't really thought about this aspect of writing until today. I have always left the generation of ideas to chance and expected something would come along when I've needed it.

I see myself as a gatherer, a gleaner, foraging for anything that attracts my attention, that pulls me out of the ordinary and takes me elsewhere - an observation, a picture, a feeling. I like ideas that pop up out of nowhere, while I might be doing or thinking one thing and suddenly there it is, demanding my attention.

I usually find ideas come to me when I have no agenda, no pressure to do anything other than 'be' - walking the dog, sitting in a cafe, staring at the sea, visiting a new city on holiday. Sometimes I just take a walk through the National Gallery and visit my favourite paintings and an idea will pop into my head.

I can't schedule looking for ideas. Searching for ideas at my desk, completely cold, never works for me. I've come to realise that being confined to my desk when doing this is a recipe for failure. I find it a very difficult approach to take and it usually ends up with me wasting a lot of time and getting frustrated with myself. Being at my desk is where I develop an idea once I have something to work with. So I gather ideas before I go to the desk.

I have a box of 'inspiration' with bits of paper, photos, newspaper clippings, postcards, jottings, all sorts of stuff I have collected. It's a box of apparently insignificant things that may germinate into something sometime down the line. My whole approach to getting ideas at the moment is quite random and disorganised. I'm not sure if it's the best way to go about it, but I do have a box of 'stories' waiting to be told.


What exactly constitutes a script?

As an artefact, the screenplay extends beyond film and television into other screen media, such as web series and video games. It's a vital component in the screen-making process, the culmination of a series of additional documentation starting with premise and outline, through treatment and step-outline, to screenplay. All screen media needs a story. The screenplay fulfills that need. But what exactly is the script? Is it a technical document, or an autonomous literary work?

What my reading has shown me this week is that there is considerable debate around what constitutes a screenplay. Osip Brik says 'the script is a system of cinematic images and devices' that is 'purely and simply a memorandum to the director indicating the sequence of scenes and episodes' (Brik 1974, cited in Nannicelli 2013). Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) argues that screenwriting 'is not an art form, because screenplays are an invitation to others to collaborate on a work of art.' Dudley Nicholls says it's 'the composition of original material specifically created for screen' (Nichols 1943, cited in Maras 2009). It's also often referred to as a 'blueprint' for a film. Blueprint, invitation, memorandum, original composition: I think each of these definitions are, in some ways, equally valid and show some of the ways in which screenwriters and filmmakers view the script.

In order to write a screenplay that truly works for the screen, I think you also need to have a good understanding of film grammar.  So I would agree with Schrader again, that as screenwriters we are also ‘half a filmmaker’. For me it’s this wonderfully cinematic fusion of words and imagery within a screenplay and the visceral effect it can have upon an audience that I find so fascinating and enjoyable to work with. A screenplay is also a text that requires a considerable amount of creative collaboration in order to bring it to the screen. So I really like the notion that the script is an ‘invitation to others’ to collaborate on a project, because that is probably where the magic really happens in the filmmaking process, where one idea sparks another and then another, and so on, until what was initially the spark of a screen idea becomes a unique, standalone work of art.

 


References

NANNICELLI, Ted. 2013. A Philosophy of the Screenplay. New York: Routledge.

MARAS, Steven. 2009. Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice. London: Wallflower.


Premise for a screen idea

At the heart of this week’s study was the conception of a 40-50 word premise for a short screen idea. I started by looking for ideas that would challenge me creatively, yet be practical enough to make into a 15 minute short film. In particular, I was looking for ideas that were grounded in real-life situatlons, preferably involving some kind of life struggle that would translate into an authentically told story on screen.
Of the ideas I came up with, the one I chose felt the most filmic and also had the potential for being a moving character study. Focusing on the protagonist and her goal of crossing the city on foot at night, I used the four questions within the task brief to help frame the premise. This was a particularly fruitful approach to my writing. Reading the chapter ‘Why?’ in John Yorke’s Into the Woods had a profound effect on my understanding of storytelling as I worked on this task. It opened my eyes to why we tells stories. That they act as maps, helping us create order out of the chaos of human existence. In particular, his statement that ‘every tale is an attempt to lasso a terrifying reality, tame it and bring it to heel’ (2014: 230).
As I worked on the screen idea, I realised that the story encapsulated in my premise was a metaphor for something much deeper than I had originally imagined. Something primal, mythic – a woman wakes up in the woods, surrounded by wolves and ogres. What is the ‘terrifying reality’ in the premise? How is it to be ‘tamed’ and ‘brought to heel’ by the story? Two questions I shall explore next week as I start work on the story outline.

 


References

YORKE, John. 2014. Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them. London: Penguin Books.


What storytelling means to me and why I’m interested in being a storyteller for the screen

Storytelling for me is about taking something fundamentally true about the human condition and exploring it through the imagination.

We process experience through storytelling. Through stories we are able to share passions, fears, joys, sadness, and we are able to find common ground with other people. I like the way in which stories transport us into different worlds and open our minds to new experiences and perceptions of other people and the way they think and feel. Stories provide a link with mythic archetypes, they connect us to universal truths about ourselves and the world. They allow us to transcend time and place, shape our perspective of what it means to be human.

When you enter a story, something magical happens, and for me entering a story on screen is where the greatest magic happens. Watching a film can have a profound effect upon me. Film at its highest level is close to the condition of dreaming, it connects at a subconscious level through the movement of images and sounds. All of that, and the fact that writing screenplays is simply just great fun and immensely satisfying.


Thoughts on making ‘Mother and Daughter’

‘Mother and Daughter’ (2018)
Running time: 10′ 51″

Format: DCI 4K
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Camera: Sony PXW-FS7
Lenses: Samyang Cine Primes 24mm, 35mm, 85mm


 

The idea for this story was inspired by an anecdote on the Humans of New York website, in which a mother told how, on discovering a letter saying her daughter had missed the application deadline for university, served the letter up for dessert after dinner, and they had started arguing.

See my notes on how I found and developed this story in my blog posts ‘Assignment 3 – finding and developing the story’ (Salisbury, 2018) and ‘Assignment 3 – screenplay’ (Salisbury, 2018), including how I gathered potential ideas, developed the story for ‘Mother and Daughter’ through log-line and step outline, and drafted several versions of the script.

There are two glaring errors in the film.

The first error occurs towards the end of the car sequence (01:44 – 02:02) in which the daughter gets out of the car and crosses the road to the school gate. This was filmed as a single master shot. I cut this part of the car sequence to show the daughter getting out of the car and crossing the road, an angle on the mother watching her daughter cross the road through the car window, then back to the daughter entering the school gate.

In hindsight, I now realise that I should also have filmed a POV shot from the mother’s perspective inside the car looking out, back at the daughter as she walks through the school gate. This would have put the viewer directly into the moment, through the mother’s subjective perspective. It would also have created a far more cinematic sequence of edits than simply cutting back to a very weak end segment of the master shot.

The second error occurs in scene 5 (05:31 – 06:12), in which the mother tells the daughter her father will be calling by to collect some things. This was the first dialogue scene we shot for the film and I was still finding my feet directing the actors. I had begun the day by filming non-dialogue scenes so as to help the actors settle in to the location and feel at ease with their roles. Lydia, who plays the mother, has both stage and TV acting experience. Leila had no experience acting for camera before making this film, other than a single class as part of her performing arts course last year.

Visually, this scene feels too static and a little awkward. In hindsight, I should have given Leila something to ‘do’ while delivering her lines, such as pouring herself a glass of water. Also, the framing feels too tight. A wider shot would have worked better here, with a slightly lower camera position to reduce the amount of kitchen counter in the foreground, and placing more emphasis on the actors’ performances rather than on the chopping of the vegetables. Maybe using this as the establishing shot and then cutting to medium shots as the conversation develops would have given the scene more life.

Fig. 1

Both of these errors could have been avoided. Adding the POV shot in scene 2 and giving the actor some screen business in scene 6 would have improved the overall feel and flow of the film.

Several shots in ‘Mother and Daughter’ where designed in response to films I have seen recently. For example, I was particularly interested in the way Kurosawa had framed characters in two separate rooms within a single shot in The Bad Sleep Well (1960). This gave me the idea of using a similar composition in scene 5, to show the daughter arriving home and seeing her mother in the kitchen preparing dinner.

Using a composition like this enabled me to show the two characters in separate rooms simultaneously. It also enabled me to draw the viewer’s attention to the daughter’s expression. I closed the scene with a push focus, from daughter to mother, drawing the viewer through to the next room, preempting the next scene in the kitchen.

     

Fig. 2 & 3

When storyboarding the film, I was continually thinking about how I would edit shots together.

For example, in the final shot of scene 7 and the first shot of scene 8 I designed a very specific cut between two shots of the daughter, where she sits up on the bed and where she is sitting at the dining table (06:30 – 06:52).

   

Fig. 4 & 5

In the first shot, she starts from a lying down position and moves into a sitting position, ending up in the right third of the frame. In the following shot in which the two characters are at the dinner table, she is still positioned in the right third of the frame.

This has the effect of holding the viewer’s gaze on Leila from the bedroom scene and into the following scene with her mother. Therefore maintaining the viewer’s attention on the daughter’s expression, out of one scene and into the next. So as we cut of one scene and into the next, our attention is already on the daughter.

This has demonstrated to me how easily you can manipulate the viewer’s attention within frame and drive the emotional emphasis of a scene forward in a particular way.

I also looked at ways of introducing visual motifs into the film. One idea I had was through the use of glass. Something which the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, for instance, uses to great effect in Decalogue (1989) and Three Colours (1993-4).

I decided to place the mother behind glass twice, alone with her thoughts. The first in scene 2, after dropping her daughter off at school, and the second time in scene 3, after she discovers the letter in her daughter’s pocket.

     

Fig. 6 & 7

Both shots use window glass in similar ways to help add emotional depth to the respective scenes. The glass signifies a transparent barrier between the mother and daughter. In both cases, the mother is on the inside, with the outside world superimposed in reflection on the glass. It’s as if she is trapped inside her own world, while her daughter is on the outside, about to fly the nest.

With only one and a half days available for filming, I was conscious of the need to be fully prepared and to keep things moving on set.

Storyboarding was a key part of the process. I used A4 sheets of paper with five 16:9 shaped boxes down the right side and lines for notes on the left side. Each shot was sketched out and annotated with details on how that shot would be executed – e.g. shot types, pans, key lines of dialogue that occur in the shot, etc. A simple, but very effective visual road map of the film. The pages were inserted into a ring binder alongside the shooting script. Each shot was ticked off once it had been filmed. Shots that were omitted were given a cross.

Fig. 8

I also made copious notes in a large, soft covered journal bought specifically for this project.

Fig. 9

The journal was the first stage in planning the film shoot. On one double page per scene, I used it to plan blocking, camera positions and moves, to make rough sketches for the storyboards and for gathering reference images from other films to give a sense of how the scene will look.

I also used the journal for making notes on how I would light each scene.

 

Fig. 10

The journal was always kept close to hand when preparing each camera set up. Not only did this save time throughout the day, but it was also a great way of communicating how I was going to film each scene to my fellow crew member, who helped set up lights and operate the boom.

Interestingly, having already prepared and made notes on each shot in advance meant I could think quickly on my feet when things did not work out as planned and required a different camera position or lighting setup than expected.

Not only did I feel confident on set with my notes to hand, but the cast and crew seemed confident that things were organised and running smoothly.

The most complicated scene to shoot was Scene 8, in which the mother serves up the pavlova to her daughter and they argue. Although blocking the actors was very straightforward, finding the best camera positions for telling this part of the story was difficult.

The opening shot of Scene 8 was inspired by the dinner scene in Delicatessen (1991), which gave a nicely framed two shot of the characters at the table.

     

Fig. 11 & 12

From there I panned right, following the mother as she moves to the sink. This created an interesting composition, in which we see the two characters physically at odds with each other – the daughter in the lower left corner of the frame, with her back to her mother.

   

Fig. 13 & 14

Building up the scene in this way enabled me to use the kitchen counter as a metaphorical ‘obstacle’ between the two characters, across which they argue.

My choice of lenses for the film was based on a tip the Irish film director Ronan O’Leary gave me a few weeks ago while attending a filmmaking course in Dublin. He said, when using 35mm movie cameras you only need to use three lenses: 35mm for wide shots, 50mm for two shots and 85mm for close ups.

Transposing these focal lengths to the sensor size inside my Sony FS7 camera, this equated to the Samyang 24mm and 35mm lenses for the wide shots and two shot/medium shots respectively, and either a 50mm or an 85mm for the close ups. For close ups I decided on the longer of the two, as it gave a more intimate feel to the close up shots and threw more of the background out of focus.

This was very helpful advice when it came to selecting which lenses I would use in the film. Using three primes lenses for specific shot sizes seems to have resulted in consistent results visually and helped to give ‘Mother and Daughter’ an overall filmic style. A style that is appropriate to the film’s genre and content.

Most of the interior scenes required additional lighting. For this I used two Astra 1×1 LEDs, one as key light the other as fill, to help enhance the ambient lighting in the room in which we were filming.

In Scene 5, for example, we used two LED lights to help enhance the available daylight within the hallway. The first LED was placed in a room off the hallway to throw light into the far end of the corridor in order to light Leila as she entered the house and took off her jacket. The second LED was placed in the kitchen pointing back at the hallway, providing key light on Leila’s face when she stands in the doorway.

     

Fig. 15, behind the scenes Scene 5, and Fig. 16, behind the scenes Scene 8.

In Scene 8, we used two LEDs to enhance the available light coming from the practical lights in the dining area. Lighting this was fairly straightforward. First I exposed the camera for the practical light in the corner of the room, so as not to overexpose the light bulbs. I then added a key light, positioned near the practical light, to raise the exposure a little on the actors faces. Finally, I positioned the second LED on the other side of the camera and added some fill light to reduce the shadow area in the actors faces. This combination of practice lights and LEDs resulted in a natural looking interior night shot.

One thing that struck me about making this film was how wonderfully fruitful collaboration can be. Once I had written the script I decided to step back and give the actors room to make the characters their own. Rather than dictate a rigid vision of how I thought they should be on screen, I wanted to let the characters take on a life of their own. Trusting the actors with the characters has resulted in very authentic performances.

Also, on my suggestion at the script read through, Lydia and Leila created backstories for their characters, which generated some very interesting discussion during rehearsals on who the characters were, what they were like and, more importantly, what the dynamic between them was like.

One of the unexpected outcomes of allowing the actors enough room to build their own characters was the music I have used at the beginning and end of the film. It was great to discover that Leila was also a musician and that she wrote her own songs. While filming her scene in the daughter’s bedroom, she sang one of her songs on camera for us. When it came to editing the film, I was delighted to find that the song’s lyrics and style were a perfect fit for the story. So I decided to include Leila’s own composition rather than use generic music from a stock library. This has added greatly to the overall feel and authenticity of the film.

 


List of references

Salisbury, P. (2018) ‘Assignment 3, finding and developing the story’. Peter Salisbury Moving Image 1 Setting the Scene, August 25, 2018 [blog] At:  https://petersalisbury.com/movingimage/settingthescene/assignment-3-finding-and-developing-the-story/

Salisbury, P. (2018) ‘Assignment 3 – screenplay’. Peter Salisbury Moving Image 1 Setting the Scene, September 4, 2018 [blog] At: https://petersalisbury.com/movingimage/settingthescene/assignment-3-screenplay/

 

List of illustrations

Fig. 1 – Screenshot ‘Mother and Daughter’, scene 6.

Fig. 2 – Screenshot ‘Mother and Daughter’, scene 5.

Fig. 3 – Screenshot, The Bad Sleep Well (1960) Dir. Akira Kurosawa.

Fig. 4 – Screenshot ‘Mother and Daughter’, scene 7.

Fig. 5 – Screenshot ‘Mother and Daughter’, scene 8.

Fig. 6 – Screenshot ‘Mother and Daughter’, scene

Fig. 7 – Screenshot ‘Mother and Daughter’, scene

Fig. 8 – Storyboards for scenes 6 and 8.

Fig. 9 – Journal, notes for scene 2.

Fig. 10 – Journal, lighting notes for scene 5.

Fig. 11 – ‘Delicatessen’ (1991).

Fig. 12 -Screenshot ‘Mother and Daughter’, scene 8.

Fig. 13 – Screenshot ‘Mother and Daughter’, scene 8.

Fig. 14 – Screenshot ‘Mother and Daughter’, scene 8.

Fig. 15 – Behind the scenes, scene 5.

Fig. 16 – Behind the scenes, scene 8.


Cinematography: Composition and framing

The use of the frame is pivotal to a good film. A frame cannot simply be a representation of what’s in front of you. It must have three-dimensionality. It’s got to mean much more than what is shown on screen.

When composing and framing a shot, ask yourself:

  • How can I make this image more poetic?
  • How can I say more about the emotional state of that character in this film?

For example, in the film ‘An Education’ there’s a scene in which a girl is being driven by an older man. She finds him very exciting. He stops the car, gets out and goes across the road and sees a black family. She’s observing all of this.

      

This could have been shot very conventionally. But instead, it is shot in a more poetic and simple way. The scene is really about her and what she’s reflecting on, who this man is and what he is doing. The scene cuts from outside the car and a view of the street to her in the car looking at the scene. The car window is closed. So, it’s just a reflection of the black family with the man reflected in the glass. She is just behind it, thinking about it, creating a superimposition.

It’s just a question of using the focus puller to create the poetry of the shot – looking one way, looking the other way, and back again. It’s all done in one image – simple, concise, effective.

It can happen through the choice of locations.

The trick is in finding ways of creating scenes that imply more than the scene itself.

You can over edit a scene – where you are telling the audience what you are thinking about, as opposed to leaving it and letting the viewer decide which part of the shot they want to look at – are they looking at the background? The foreground? What exactly is the character's emotion and who they are with?

 


List of references

John de Borman (2015) ‘Composing and Framing – Cinematography Masterclass’ CookeOpticsTV https://youtu.be/W8V6GJdT_Bg(Accessed on 20 November 2018)


The quadrant system of composing a frame

What makes a film visually interesting? It’s not just the story or the actors, it’s in the frames themselves.

In his article ‘The quadrant system: a simple composition technique explained’, Justin Hayes (2015) refers to the film Drive (2011) and the way in which almost every shot has a compositional balance – between left and right, top and bottom – a quadrant.

 

At first this might seem restrictive. But it allows a director to take a conventional shot and do unconventional things.

 

   

In this scene, the driver enters in the top left quadrant. We assume the next shot will have another person in the top right quadrant. But instead, she is in the bottom right quadrant.

When the camera moves closer, we get two shots in which the characters are short sided with tons of space behind them.

   

By emphasising different quadrants, you can create shots that are both tightly composed and weirdly unpredictable.

Play around with quadrants – they are an old, simple tool. All you need are top, bottom, left and right – and the good sense in how to put them all together.

 


List of references

Heyes, Justin (2015) SLR Lounge https://www.slrlounge.com/the-quadrant-system-a-simple-composition-technique-explained/(Accessed on 16 November 2018)


Subjective and objective character perspective

Cinematic techniques can be executed in a way that gives the audience something more than simply the information presented in front of them.

We react viscerally to the screen.

The camera functions like the human eye – it sees, and it presents what is put in front of it to the spectator on the other side of the lens.

So, why is it that the lens the filmmaker uses, the angle we see the shot from, and the rapidity of the edits, affect us in emotionally captivating ways some of the time, but other times it leaves us disengaged or unactivated?

In his video essay, Travis Lee Radcliffe says:

  • A lot of credit has to be given to what the camera sees – the performances of the actors, the power of the story and script all have an enormous impact on how we are affected.
  • How the camera sees plays a decisive role to those materials.
  • A big part of the effectiveness of the way these tools are deployed is the strategic use of objective and subjective perspectives.

This can be a confusing concept to filmmakers when first introduced to it.

  • An objective perspective is the use of cinema’s visual language just to convey information, as if from an outside point-of-view, with very little emotional emphasis of any character’s perspective.
  • A subjective perspective uses the visual language of the scene to convey an emotional impact that grounds the scene in the mental or emotional ‘perspective’ of a particular character.

But what does this mean in practice?

The filmmaker has several creative decisions at their disposal:

  • Angles – the angles you’ve written the scene from
  • Lensing – the millimetre of lenses you use
  • Camera movement – the use or absence of camera movement
  • Editing – how the scene is cut together

Every decision could be screened through the question of whether or not you are injecting a subjective perspective or grounding the scene in an objective point of view.

Whose perspective is it?

    

The camera begins with a Close Up (CU) on a young woman asleep in bed. It then pans left across the room, revealing another woman sitting smoking a cigarette in a Wide Shot (WS). The camera follows the second character as she stands, walks to the window and opens the curtains. The camera cuts back to the first character in bed as she sits up (CU). Then cuts to the same character looking through a window in the follow scene (CU).

    

Fig.1 ‘Carol’

The use of the camera, the position, the lenses, and the framing, they all contribute in both subtle and not so subtle ways to the emotional vantage point within the scene.

Fig.2 ‘There Will Be Blood’

From an objective perspective, we observe the action from a distance. The camera may remain separate from the headspace of any of the participants in the scene. This tool can be used creatively to create dynamic, impactful storytelling.

    

Fig.3 ‘A Nos Amours’

Scenes can begin in an objective perspective. A Medium Shot (MS) of two characters, Suzanne and her father. The camera expresses an emotional distance and puts us as the audience in an observational place. Then a beat happens. The camera frames Suzanne in an over-the-shoulder Close Up (CU). Followed by a reverse angle on her father. The scene has radically changed. We experience the emotions of the scene much more vividly and through the perspective of Suzanne.

The subjective perspective is not a POV shot. These are two completely different things.

  • A POV shot shows explicitly what the character sees.
  • What is unique about the POV shot is that while it manages to convey information that is useful and impactful, it is actually quite alienating on its own.
  • Not quite subjective or objective.
  • When we are in a POV shot for a long period time, we find that we have no real insight into the mental or emotional perspective of the character whose eyes we are supposed to be seeing through.
  • The loss of seeing the emotions of the character on screen through the visual language of the camera and the editing somehow distances us from the experience.
  • Seeing through the eyes of a character in a POV shot is alienating. Films that use the POV throughout never manage to provide the audience with the same level of engagement with the characters that traditional cinema has sustained.

The POV shot is useful for conveying emotions. But primarily where it is used in short intervals and juxtaposed with a good objective perspective shot.

For example, in Vertigo, the POV shots function to give you information about what the character would be seeing.

No matter what the scene is, there is a dimension of objective and subjective perspective always at play.

While character perspective is a valid tool and is one way of analysing how the visual choices are working in any given scene, there are always other ways of looking at the same tools and choices that are available to the filmmaker.

Many filmmakers choose to think purely in terms of visually exciting imagery and design their story to facilitate a kind of visual spectacle.

Some filmmakers focus totally on the performances of the actors. The camera work and visual language is there only to facilitate the performance and does little to create perspective on the part of the characters in the scene.

These choices are just as valid as a tool to create emotional perspective.

Each filmmaker in each film establish their own rules for how visual language should work on the audience.

Think of a film as an interior dialect within the larger language of film grammar.

The role of the filmmaker is to determine how those rules will work and how they will interact with the story they are trying to tell.

In an Ozu movie, the visual language will always obey strict rules – the camera will refuse to move, it will remain close to the ground, frames will always seek balance and harmony, a 50mm lens will often be employed. We might call these frames objective and observational. The impact of the moments when Ozu breaks his own rules and moves his camera are all the more intensely felt because of the austerity upon which he has built his cinema on.

If your goal is to reach your audience on an emotional level, you have to think carefully about the tools you have at your disposal and what those tools do beyond creating a frame.

These choices have a psychology to them. And when combined together in unique ways, they have an impact that rises above individual merit.

 


List of references

Ratcliff, T. 2017 ‘What is character perspective?’ On: Vimeo At: https://vimeo.com/219223876 (Accessed on 29 October 2018).


Widescreen framing

I’ve been experimenting with widescreen format in my recent film projects.

‘Widescreen cinema creates a different visual impact than 1.37 ratio. The screen becomes a band or strip, emphasizing horizontal compositions’ (Bordwell 2017 p.183).

‘By offering more image area, a widescreen format offers bigger challenges about guiding attention than does  the 1.37 ratio.’ (Bordwell 2017, p.183).

But how do you compose for wide screen?

Bordwell suggests that while it is an obvious format for sweeping spectacles such as westerns, travelogues, musicals and historical epics, it raises questions about its use for ordinary dramatic conversations and more intimate encounters between characters.

One common solution has been to fill the frame with a face. The wide screen format challenges directors to design more screen-filling compositions. ‘They can’t be as compact as the deep-focus compositions of the 1940s, but they can achieve pictorial force’ (Bordwell 2017, p.183).

But wide screen compositions can build up significant depth, even in a confined space.

Director’s multiply points of interest within the frame – requires care with staging and timing actors’   performances.

 

Gradation of emphasis

In his essay ‘CinemaScope: Before and After’ (1963), Charles Barr offers some interesting ideas about widescreen film. One of which he calls the gradation of emphasis:

‘The advantage of Scope [the 2.35:1 ratio] over even the wide screen of Hatari![shot in 1.85:1] is that it enables complex scenes to be covered even more naturally: detail can be integrated, and therefore perceived, in a still more realistic way. If I had to sum up its implications I would say that it gives a greater range for gradation of emphasis. . . The 1:1.33 screen is too much of an abstraction, compared with the way we normally see things, to admit easily the detail which can only be really effective if it is perceived qua casual detail’ (Quoted in Bordwell 2008).

Bordwell(1985) argues, when using widescreen format ‘the good director will not flaunt the ratio itself…the composition should enhance the narrative situation. As for participatory freedom, the widescreen allows the viewer to notice nuances of character interaction by virtue of the director’s gradation of emphasis’ (p.18).

 

Key points for me

  • Wide screen format creates a different visual impact than 1.37 ratio.
  • It emphasizes horizontal composition.
  • Can achieve pictorial force.
  • Can contain multiple points of interest within the frame.
  • Enables complex scenes to be covered more naturally – integrating detail in a more realistic way.
  • Contains a greater range of gradation of emphasis – while the 1.37 screen is too abstract compared to the way we normally see things.
  • The widescreen frame offers the viewer an experience in which they can see nuances of character interaction.

 


List of references

Barr, C. (1963) ‘Cinemascope: Before and After’ Film Quarterly, 16, 4, pp.4-24.

Bordwell, D. (1985) ‘Widescreen Aesthetics and Mise en Scene Criticism’ The Velvet Light Trap Review of Cinema No 21 At: http://www.davidbordwell.net/articles/Bordwell_Velvet%20Light%20Trap_no21_summer1985_118.pdf (Accessed on 19 October 2018).

Bordwell, D. (2008) ‘Gradation of emphasis, starring Glenn Ford’ At: http://www.davidbordwell.net/2008/11/13/gradation_of_emphasis_starring_glenn_ford (Accessed on 19 October 2018).

Bordwell, D. (2017) Film Art New York: McGraw Hill


John Smith – ‘Playing with the Power of Language’

The Girl Chewing Gum 1976

Artist filmmaker John Smith began making films when he was 18, at a time when ‘people were wanting to make work which was in opposition to mainstream cinema and particularly undermine the illusionism of cinema, and were reminded in whatever way that you were watching a film.’

 

The Girl Chewing Gum (1976)

He simply recorded what was going on in the street and then wrote a script which added voice-over directions to the film. I appears as if the actions you see in the film are being directed by an unseen film director.

  • ‘A film like The Girl Chewing Gum is in one way fitting into the ideas of that time. But it’s also playing with the power of language to condition how we actually see images, and that has a kind of humorous outcome…although it is a very, very serious film.’
  • ‘When I am editing, in my head I’ve got two parallel things going on, one is the image and one is the sound.’
  • ‘The dynamics of the film come from that relationship between image and sound, how one can be dominant at one point and one can be dominant at another…It’s completely intuitive. It’s just to do with how it feels, those balances between different things.’

Hotel Diaries (2001-07)

He was eager to take on the possibilities of the spontaneity of using handheld video cameras. Something that had not been possible when working with film.

The six year series of videos came about by accident while in Ireland for the Cork Film Festival. Britain and the US had just started bombing Afghanistan. He switched on the TV in his hotel room to find the image had frozen

  • ‘something which was possibly just a technical glitch was actually…I was finding traumatic…in my head I was thinking just how different my reality was from the innocent people in Afghanistan who were having bombs dropped on their heads.’
  • ‘having these contradictory things going in my head, I just got my camera out and just filmed the TV screen and had this stream of consciousness.’
  • ‘I really wanted to make work that looks like anybody can do it. I thought if I can make something which looks like a home video and I just forced myself to actually not edit it at all, so I’m going to say stupid things that I’m going to regret, I’m going to mess things up, and stuff like that, this should undermine any kind of potential didacticism.’
  • ‘and the work kind of intended to be conversational on an equal level with the audience, so like a lot of my work really, those videos were saying I’m bothered about this, what do you think?’

Dad’s Stick (2012)

His father showed him a cross-section of a stick he used to paint the house with, so you could all the different layers of paint.

  • ‘I found it really poignant. In a sense I felt like there was a whole history, an important part of someone’s life, that were encapsulated in this tiny little object.’
  • ‘When I put the stick in front of a magnifying lens, it become even more poignant for me, because I realised I was looking at colour that I remembered from fifty years ago.’

In recent years, his work has become shorter.

‘I like to think that I’m sort of distilling things down, that I’m making haikus now. But it might just be that I haven’t got the energy…’

 


List of references

TateShots (2018) ‘John Smith – Playing With the Power of Language’ At:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CciUtECXXNk (Accessed on 15 October 2018)


Reading: ‘Seeing with your ears – Spielberg and sound design’

There are three ways you can build up tension in a scene – camerawork, pace, music.

Films have two ways into your brain: eyes and ears. When you are watching a film, these two senses are interconnected.

The visual side of the film gets the most attention because it is in front of you. But the visuals are in many ways the ‘face of the operation’. The sound ‘is actually the puppet master, the one that really holds the power.’

Sound affects what you see and from what perspective you see it.

As soon as the audio starts, you should be placed within a perspective. The sound design picks specific sounds out to tell the story within the scene.

In film, you see with your ears. The power of sound design is its invisibility behind the image. If dialogue sounds close, then the viewer is close to the person that is speaking, wherever they are.

 

Example: Munich (2005) dir. Stephen Spielberg

The Assassins arrive outside an apartment building to detonate a hidden bomb.

The 4′ 50″ scene is without music and almost entirely without dialogue. How is the tension built within the scene?

By building a bed of constant, noisy, city ambiance, and singling out and stringing together like beads on a wire, key noises that the tell the story.

The background that Eric Bannagh and his team are going to assassinate a man in his home by getting him to answer a phone they have secretly installed a bomb in.

The string of isolated plot sounds

  • the car with the assassins arrives
  • the dialogue of the targets wife and young daughter, and their car going away
  • the coins and rotary phone that make the call
  • the priming of the detonator
  • the truck passing by

The first moment of trouble in the scene comes in sound. Up until this point in the scene, isolated noises represent the steps of the plan going smoothly. The truck passing by represents a break in that chain and a hitch in the plan. At this point the ambience outside starts to take on some strange qualities. There’s a high pitched whine, like a train stopping, on top of everything. Just like the moving truck blocks the assassins view, the movers talking keeps them from hearing the daughter’s car returning back to the apartment. We hear her footsteps, not her voice this time, which continue indoors. In the apartment the ambience is quiet. The incredible thing about this scene is that Spielberg builds the tension, not by working towards a great crescendo of noise, but by gradually subtracting elements. While the daughter is in the apartment, the danger is signalled by a single sound effect, the rotary dial of the telephone. The climax to the scene is silence. It’s a silence that works so well because it anticipates the noise of an explosion to come. At this point, the ambience has become really impressionistic. When it comes back in, it has echo that reverbs the hurried footsteps and an anxious siren. The whole sound universe corresponds in a way to the assassins, to their feelings and their nerves.

This scene is made with no dialogue, no music, just camera work and sound design.

 

Key points for me

When making a film, I always ask myself ‘what do my ears see?’ Because sound affects what the viewer sees and the perception from which they see it, it is important that you build scenes using camera work and pace, and a sound design that carefully picks out key sounds to tell the story.

 


Nerdwriter (2018) Aeon At: https://aeon.co/videos/from-shifting-perspectives-to-shaping-scenes-how-sound-design-can-carry-a-film(Accessed on 14 October 2018)


Project 13: Soundscape – “…and you can go inside if you want to”

Soundscape: “…and you can go inside if you want to”

NOTE: For full effect, please listen through headphones


Feeling very much out of my depth with this project, I jumped straight in by recording a variety of short and long sounds for the soundscape. The idea of manipulating  these sounds for the soundscape felt very alien to me. I couldn’t see how pulling and twisting them was going to produce a pleasing result.

Collecting sounds

All the sounds were recorded using the SoundDevices 633 mixer/recorder with Rode NTG-1 shotgun microphone. Except for three stereo sounds, ‘traffic’, ‘wind in trees’ and ‘a breath’, one of which I planned on using for the background track. These stereo sound tracks were recorded using an iPhone6 with a Rode i-XY stereo microphone attachment (see post ‘Field recording with the Rode i-XY‘.

Short sounds

  • light switch
  • footsteps on tarmac
  • footsteps on leaves
  • door squeak
  • wine glass
  • fridge door closing
  • metal gate slamming shut
  • dripping tap
  • chair scraping floor
  • an exhale of breath (stereo recording)

Long sounds

  • conversation (on radio)
  • inside fridge
  • kettle boiling
  • wind in trees (stereo recording)
  • traffic (stereo recording)

Not all the sounds were used in the final soundscape.

Editing in Pro Tools

I have decided to purchase a twelve month subscription to Pro Tools, as I know I will continue to use the software for sound editing. Having not used Pro Tools before, I needed to get to grips with the basic functions. The layout and controls are very different to what I am used to when mixing sound in Media Composer. Again, I feel a little out of my depth using Pro Tools.

My first attempt at assembling the soundscape was very poor. It felt shallow and uneventful, nothing more than a simple, joined-up sequence of sound effects with Delay and EQ. Something was missing, but I didn’t know what. So I began experimenting with the placement and juxtaposition of the sounds. Each sound was ‘treated’ with an EQ to remove high or low frequencies and a Delay for reverb effect. Pro Tools comes with a wide range of plugins for this. A range of factory presets within each plugin provides great creative flexibility when applying Delay and EQ to sounds. Through trial and error, I was able to create some unusual, but effective sounds.

The turning point in my investigation came when I realised I could create a ‘sound space’ – by first laying down one of the long stereo sounds for atmosphere, allowing it to run for the full length of the soundscape and applying the techniques suggested in the project brief (slowing it down to half speed; adding reverb and reducing the volume so it sat in the background) and then adding other sounds on top. So the whole thing would work together as one cohesive piece.

I also discovered I could blend two or three short sounds together, end to end for effect, or overlay two sounds to create a new one with a greater depth of character. It was only through trial and error like this, that I made any progress with the project.

As I was creating a soundscape with no corresponding picture, I realised I needed to treat this as a sound composition. Letting the sounds bounce off each other. Creating a sense of movement through the juxtaposition, blending and pace of sounds. Treated with a range of different EQ and Delay settings.

Sound selects and treatment

Audio 1

  • Track: ‘traffic’ (stereo)
  • Plugin: Time Compression Expansion; Ratio: 1.5  – reduced to half speed
  • Plugin: AIR Dynamic Delay; Preset: Stereo
  • Plugin: AIR Kill EQ; Preset: Kill and Boost Low
  • Gain: -3.8 dB

Audio 2

  • Track: ‘T16 – light switch’
  • Plugin: AIR Reverb; Preset: Basic Large
  • Gain: 0dB

Audio 3

  • Track: ‘T15 – fridge interior’
  • Plugin: Modulation/SciFi; Preset: Dirty Drums
  • Gain: +6dB

Audio 4

  • Track: ‘T06 – metal gate slamming shut’
  • Plugin: AIR Dynamic Delay; Preset: Chaos After Loud
  • Gain: 0dB
  • Track: ‘ T07 – footsteps – shoe on tarmac’
  • Plugin: Air Dynamic Delay; Preset: Chaos After Loud
  • Gain: +2.6dB
  • Track: ‘T08 – footsteps – shoe on leaves’
  • Plugin: Air Dynamic Delay; Preset: Chaos After Loud
  • Gain: -12dB
  • Track: ‘T18 – kettle boiling’
  • Plugin: AIR Dynamic Delay; Preset: Chaos After Loud
  • Gain: 0dB
  • Track: ‘T19 – fridge door closing’
  • Plugin: AIR Dynamic Delay; Preset: Chaos After Loud
  • Gain: 0dB
  • Track: ‘T23 – chair scraping floor’
  • Plugin: AIR Dynamic Delay; Preset: Chaos After Loud
  • Gain: 0dB

Audio 5

  • Track: ‘T11 – conversation on LyricFM’
  • Plugin: EQ3 7-Band; Preset: Telephone-1
  • Gain: +6dB

Audio 6

  • Track: ‘a breath’ (stereo)
  • Plugin: Time Compression Expansion; Ratio 1.5 – reduced to half speed
  • Plugin: AIR Reverb; Preset: Cathedral
  • Gain: -6dB

Audio 7

  • Track: ‘traffic’ (right channel only)
  • Plugin: Time Compression Expansion; Ratio 1.5
  • Gain: +8.6dB

Master Fader

  • Plugin:AIR Reverb; Preset: Basic Medium

Finally, I applied a little reverb to all the sounds by adding the Reverb plugin to the Master Fader, and using the ‘Medium sized room’ preset. This has helped to gel them together and sound like they are all in the same acoustic space. The finished Soundscape was output as an MP3 audio file.

It’s amazing to think this soundscape has been made out of a handful of very ordinary sounds.


An exercise in listening

One of the most memorable sound effects I can still hear even now, is the twang of the swinging door of the dining room in the hotel in Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953). A very distinct sound, caused by people walking through as it swings back and forth, closing with a whoomp. Sound effects like this help bring a film to life by building a sound picture of the story space.

Space 1: Attic office

Sounds:

  • ticking clock
  • passing cars
  • room ‘tone’ (?)

This space gives the impression of being a quiet room. The ticking clock adds to the atmosphere of the room, giving a strong sense of place. I had not expected to hear the sound of cars passing on the main road outside the estate. This shows clearly how no room is totally silent. I was also aware of some kind of room ‘tone’. This shows it that there is always some kind of background sound in a room, however quiet it might seem.

Space 2: Woods and stream, beside Edmondstown Road

Sounds:

  • water flowing
  • traffic – cars and lorries
  • a dog barking
  • breaks squeaking
  • birds
  • aeroplane

Surprisingly loud background sounds. Although varied, they were predominantly cars and lorries. Standing in the woods beside the stream, I had expected to be surrounded by woodland sounds (water, trees, birds). But, with the headphones on, I was surprised to hear how loud the road sounds were. Our brain filters out certain sounds, depending on our perception of the place in which we are standing.

This has been a very useful exercise, for several reasons.

It has shown me that every location comes with its own range of background sounds. Some expected, others not. That it is important to listen carefully to the sound space of a location in order to get a full picture of the place I would like to portray on film.

It has also shown me that relying solely on an ‘atmos’ track may not be the best thing to do, as it may contain sound elements that are irrelevant to the picture or are simply just distracting. A sound space is designed. This requires the recording of separate sound effects, that will then be manipulated in post-production to create the desired effect on the viewer’s experience of the film.


Field recording with the Rode i-XY

To get great sound you need three things:

  1. Good microphone capsules.
  2. The ability to provide enough ‘gain’ to the microphone capsules, so that they can record an accurate representation of the original waveform.
  3. High quality analog to Digital (A/D) conversion, so that the fidelity of the source sound is preserved when it is saved in a digital format.

Combining an iPhone6 with the Rode i-XY cardioid condenser microphone attachment integrates all three of these things into a pocket sized high fidelity field recorder.

 

Rode i-XY stereo microphone

The Rode i-XY is a professional grade stereo microphone designed for the iPhone, with the ability to record at 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution. It uses a matched pair of 1/2 inch cardioid condenser capsules, fixed in a 90 degree ‘near-coincident’ alignment. Which results in immersive, true-to-life recordings that are captured in extremely high detail.

The theory behind recording stereo sound seems quite straightforward. There are several approaches to recording stereo sound, one of which is the X/Y technique used by the Rode i-XY.

Fig.1 XY pair

The X/Y setup is known as a coincidence stereo technique, in which two microphones are arranged with the capsules positioned at the same point. The most common X/Y set-up consists of two cardioid microphones positioned at 90 degrees to produce the stereo image.

Cardioid microphones are directional, so the two capsules point in different directions to the left and right of the immediate area to capture the stereo field. The stereo image is not as wide as a spaced pair of microphones, but it is a simple and effective setup.

As it’s true X/Y stereo pattern allows you to record exactly what you hear, it is particularly suited to capturing high resolution sound effects and stereo ambience.

The input levels are set using the Rode Rec app, which is quite straightforward to use.

However, I am unable to work out how to monitor the recording with headphones. So, although the Rode i-XY records amazing sound, my preferred method of recording sound remains my SoundDevices 633 mixer/recorder.

 


List of references

Rode (n.d.) ‘Stereo Microphone techniques’ At: http://www.rode.com/blog/all/stereotechniques (Accessed on 10 October 2018).

Sound Training College (2017) ‘Stereo recording techniques’ At: https://soundtraining.com/stereo-recording-techniques/ (Accessed on 10 October 2018).

 

List of illustrations

Fig.1 XY pair, ‘Stereo recording techniques’ At: https://soundtraining.com/stereo-recording-techniques/ (Accessed on 10 October 2018).


Sound in the Cinema

‘A quiet passage can create almost unbearable tension, while an abrupt silence in a noisy passage can jolt us’ (Bordwell, 2017).

Sound offers the filmmaker plenty of possibilities. The filmmaker judges which sounds to use based on how they suit the film’s overall form and how they shape the viewer’s experience of the film.

We tend to think of sound as an accompaniment to the moving image. This assumption enables sound engineers to create a story world without the viewer noticing.

Sound is a powerful film technique, in that 'it engages a distinct sense mode’ (p.264).

Eisenstein – “synchronisation of senses” – ‘making a single rhythm or expressive quality bind together image and sound’ (p.264).

‘If a sound and image occur at the same moment, they tend to be perceived as one event’ (p.265)

Sound can ‘actively shape how we understand image’ (p.265).

The viewer will construe the image depending on the sound.

‘Sound summons up an unseen space’ (p.265).

Sound guides our eye and mind.

Three examples:

Letter from Siberia (1957) dir. Chris Marker

  • Demonstrates the power of sound to alter our understanding of what is on screen.
  • Marker shows the same footage three times, each time the footage is accompanied by a different sound track – first affirmative, second critical, third a mix of praise and criticism.
  • The viewer will construe the same images differently, depending on the voice-over commentary.
  • Shows how sound ‘can steer our attention within the image’ (p.265).

Blow-Out (1981) dir. Brian de Palma

  • ‘exploits the guiding function of sound’ (p.265).
  • Sound reveals a clue – Jack studies his DIY film made from magazine photos; synchronises his sound tape with the image track; when the two play together, the blowout sound matches a flash from the bushes near a fence post.
  • The flash was visible in the replayed footage, but it needed the sound track to make Jack and the viewer notice it.

Babel (2006) dir. Alejandro Inarritu

  • When the deaf teenager enters the disco, the club music is about to climax.
  • Instead of subjective sound, we get subjective silence.
  • This sharply dramatises the teenager’s isolation from what is happening around her.

‘Sound gives a new value to sound’ (p.265).

 

 


Bordwell, D. (2017) Film Art: An Introduction 11th edition New York: McGraw Hill


Reading: Interview with cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine

Notes from an interview with cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, published in ‘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 creative team with which you are working, 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 the most. 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)

 

‘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.

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)


‘Samsara’ (2012) dir. Ron Fricke

 

Samsara is a Sanskrit word used in eastern religions to denote the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. Filmed in twenty five countries over five years, visiting sacred sites, disaster zones, industrial sites, cities and natural wonders, the film fuses together the ancient and the modern. There is no dialogue. There is no text. It is not a documentary in the traditional sense. Instead, the viewer is encouraged to draw their own interpretation from the flow of images and music.

The film adopts a circular structure, bookended between scenes of a group of monks forming and erasing a powder representation of the ‘wheel of life’, an emblem of the ‘transcience of the phenomenal world’ (Bitel, 2012). Between these scenes is a kaleidoscope of oppositions, such as nature and culture, spirituality and materiality, wealth and poverty, war and peace.

There is a noticeable absence of people in many of the film’s opening scenes. For example, in the fields of temples there is no one in sight; the empty expanses of desert; the sand filled rooms of an abandoned house in the desert; the derelict, storm damaged lounge, bedroom, supermarket, library and classroom in an abandoned town; the empty cathedral.

The film becomes more populated as it moves on. Such as the office employees, the African women, the tattooed man with a baby, the two spectacled employees, pole dancers, a geisha. Where people are present, the picture is not always a rosy one, such as the teenagers scavenging in a rubbish dump, men quarrying for yellow rock, the family at a funeral, men standing proudly with their guns. These images of materiality, poverty and war, of people in disparate parts of the world, are contained within the bookend images of the monks forming and erasing the ‘wheel of life’, reinforcing the idea of birth, death and rebirth, and giving a sense of hope in an otherwise bleak picture of the planet.

However, I think it is important to ‘read’ the film in much the same way you would read a poem. As a meditation on nature and humanity. The images flowing through a series of associations, like the imagery within a poem.

A.O. Scott (2012) describes the film’s structure as ‘like that of a poem or a sonata, a complex tissue of rhymes and motifs’. Like a poem, with its ‘complex tissue’ of rhyme and images, it’s only when you get to the end of the film that you have a sense of the full picture. Then, when it’s just within your grasp, you go back to the beginning and ‘re-read’ it again, maybe several times more, in order to get the most out of it.

Scott (2012) makes another very interesting point about the film. Referring to Susan Sontag’s plea for ‘an ecology of images’ (Sontag, 1979), he suggests that Samsara ‘presents a visual argument for slow looking, for careful meditative attention to what is seen.’ I like the idea of ‘slow looking’ and the need to pay ‘careful meditative attention’ to what is seen through the viewfinder.


References

Bitel, A., 2012 ‘Samsara’. Sight and Sound Number 22 Issue 9, page 110.

Samsara 2012 Directed by Ron Fricke [DVD]

Scott, A.O. 2012 ‘Around the World in 99 Minutes and Zero Words’ In: The New York Times At: https://nyti.ms/P54fr2 [Accessed on 15 June 2018]

Sontag, S. 1979 On Photography London: Penguin Books, page 180


Colour & Story

"A sunny, hopeful yellow. An introspective turquoise. An arresting, violent red. When you see a color in a film, what you see is no accident — filmmakers carefully compose each frame and make color decisions that affect your experience of watching." (Kate Torgovnick May, 2017)

Following on from earlier research into the use of colour in films, I discovered an article by Kate Torgovnick May, in which she identifies four ways a filmmaker uses colour to deepen the narrative of their films:

  1. Colour simplifies complex stories
  2. Colour makes the audience feel
  3. Colour shows a character’s journey
  4. Colour communicates a film’s ideas

Colour simplifies complex stories

  • Using different tones can help the viewer follow stories that jump between characters and locations.
  • Different tones can signal different time periods in films with multiple story-lines.

Colour makes the audience feel

In discussing the impact colour can have upon the way in which an audience feels when watching a film, Torgovnick May refers to the work of Danielle Feinberg, a director of photography at Pixar. Some of the key points that I found interesting are:

  • Lighting and colour are the backbone of emotion.
  • Colour can be used to hint at a character’s emotion (e.g. dull and grey to convey depression).
  • For each film, Pixar creates a ‘colour script’ that maps out the colour hues for each scene, so they fit together in the overall story arc. The aim being to make key moments feel appropriately vibrant or sombre.
  • Colour amplifies important moments within a film.

Colour shows a character’s journey

  • Colour can be used to show the evolution of a character. If the story is broken up into distinct parts, a different colour can be used for each part to indicate the way in which the character is changing at key moments within the film (e.g. childhood, teenage years, adult).

Colour communicate’s a film’s ideas

  • Colour reveals a film’s meaning.
  • For example, the repetition of a specific colour is often associated with an idea. When the colour changes, the concept has changed.

I found these I ideas very helpful, because it shows that the use of colour within a film plays a vital role in the filmmaker’s storytelling. It can be manipulated to highlight a character’s emotions, amplify key moments within a film, or reveal the ideas within a film.

I like the idea of using the repetition of a specific colour to communicate a particular idea.

I also like the idea of creating a ‘colour script’ for mapping out the hues for each scene.


References

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


Challenging the Hollywood ‘model’

The Hollywood ‘model’, the tried and tested template for writing screenplays, builds its stories around a series of major turning-points leading up to an inevitable all-or-nothing climax.

To me, this seems a contrived a way of writing a screenplay. So, I was delighted to stumble across a recent article by Robert McKee on the rising trend of one-act films, in which he notices ‘a drift toward minimalism and a focus on inner conflict’ (McKee, 2018).

McKee refers to a number of recent films, two of which I have already seen: Lady Bird (2017) and Paterson (2016). In both cases, I was totally blown away by the storytelling. He also mentions a few films I have not heard about: A Fantastic Woman (2017), The Florida Project (2017) and Columbus (2017).

McKee asks: ‘if a writer wants to tell a full-length work in only one-act, the first problem is how to hook and hold interest for up to two hours while the film paints a portrait of silent inner conflict?’ He argues that stories of inner conflict, like those found in one-act films, ‘build around a life dilemma and end on the protagonist’s choice to change her mind in one direction or the other’ (McKee, 2018).

When watching these films, he suggests substituting the idea of ‘suspense’ with one of ‘discovery’. When I read this, it made perfect sense. Where the three-act structure builds up the suspense within a story through a series of jeopardies and the raising of stakes, all of which lead to a final climactic outcome, the one-act film follows a different pattern, based on ‘discoveries’.

I have always be fascinated by films that don’t follow conventional Hollywood formats; that allowed me to watch and discover, to encounter a world inhabited by people and things that are completely new to me.

McKee likens watching one-act films to picking up stones on a beach: ‘Full-length one-acts offer the pleasure of discovery, defined as the seeing, hearing, and vicarious living in a fascinating world filled with people, things, and more you’ve never known before. These fresh encounters pull the audience through the telling because each one delivers a new pleasure. Like picking up beautiful stones on a beach, we want more and more’ (McKee, 2018).

The dilemma for me is how to dramatise inner conflict and maintain the viewer’s interest in the story. The solution, McKee suggests, is in the creation of ‘fascinating, utterly original, vivid details’ (McKee, 2018).

It’s in the ‘vivid details’ that the viewer’s interest is hooked and held.

McKee’s descriptions of the details in the films shows how fundamental they are to the portraits of inner conflict rendered on screen.

A Fantastic Woman – ‘various passive/aggressive tactics used by the police and her dead lover’s family to humiliate her.’

Lady Bird – ‘the tactics she uses to give herself prestige are delightful: a new name, a phoney address, and verbal putdowns of her mother.’

Columbus – ‘the silent beauties and varieties of modernist architecture found in an unlikely place: Columbus, Indiana.’

The Florida Project – ‘the myriad ways she makes something out of nothing: the fun and adventure she creates while playing in a crumbling motel and the shrub lands that surround it.’

I was interested by some of the ideas in McKee’s article. Clearly, there are some valuable points here that I can draw upon in my own practice. However, I would question the idea of the one-act feature length screenplay.

For me, the ‘minimalist’ screenplay offers a way of telling stories that are genuine and more authentic; that are so much more in keeping with my own view of the role moving images play in expressing the human condition.


References

McKee, R. 2018 ‘The Rise of One-Act Films’ In: McKee Seminars 25 March 2018 [Blog] At: https://mckeestory.com/the-rise-of-one-act-films [Accessed on 4 May 2018]


Analysis of the Union Station shoot-out in ‘The Untouchables’

The Union Station shoot-out scene in The Untouchables (1987) is probably the most stand-out scene within the movie.

The scene shows the main protagonists Ness and Stone finding Al Capone’s book-keeper Walter Payne guarded by several gangsters. A gunfight breaks out on the lobby steps, resulting in the gangsters being killed and Payne being captured.

The action begins with Ness turning and seeing one of the gangsters drawing a machine gun. He shoots and kills the gangster. At the same time, the woman beside him lets go of her pram, which sets off one cinema’s most effective gunfight scenes. What follows is very carefully choreographed.

Ness identifies a second gangster drawing a gun from beneath his coat, takes aim, shoots and kills him. While, at the same time, Ness’s partner Stone runs through an upper floor of the station towards the steps, Ness accidentally brushes against the pram, sending it down the steps, and we see the baby reacting as the pram moves through the frame.

A third gangster, standing beside the crouching Payne, has also drawn a gun and is shooting at Ness, who shoots back wounding him, drops his shotgun and draws a handgun from inside his coat. As the same time, a fourth gangster at the foot of the stairs aims a machine gun at Ness, but is shot from above by Stone. Simultaneous with this action, the mother reaches out after the pram, which continues rolling down the steps.

Ness sees the pram and runs after it down the steps. At the same time, the wounded gangster shoots at Ness, killing a bystander and a sailor in the cross-fire, and Ness is confronted by a fifth gangster standing beside a pillar at the foot of the steps. Again, simultaneous with this action, we see the pram rolling down the steps and the baby’s reaction as the pram moves through the frame.

Ness is now under fire from two directions and trying the save the pram and baby. A second sailor gets killed in the crossfire while trying to stop the pram. Ness runs out of ammunition. The pram continues rolling down the steps. Stone runs towards the steps, throws Ness a gun and slides along the floor, just in time to catch the pram as it reaches the bottom step.

Ness shoots and kills the fifth gangster, and the scene ends with Ness leaning over the pram looking at the baby and Stone lying on the floor beneath the pram, while aiming his gun at the last gangster.

The sequence, which lasts for 2 minutes 15 seconds and contains 105 edits, uses slow motion to help increase the perception of duration within the scene, over-lap shots and shows simultaneous events happening to the various characters within the scene. As a result, an otherwise short event has been stretched out and lengthened for dramatic purposes.

I think there are a number of reasons why this sequence is so effective in expanding time.

Slow motion – Time has been manipulated as a result of filming at a higher frame rate. Increasing the frame rate from 24 fps to 48 fps, for instance, would double the screen time in which the action takes place. As a result, we experience every movement in more detail, both actions and reactions.

Over-lapping shots – We are also drawn into the action as a result of over-lap shots. For example, shots 1, 3 & 5 of the gangster watching Ness and the woman approach the top of the steps are over-lapped with shots 2 & 4 of Ness and the woman walking towards the top of the steps. These over-laps continue as the action at the tops of the steps unfolds, with shots 6 & 8 of Ness taking aim at and shooting the gangster over-lapping with shots 7 & 9 of the gangster getting shot.

Simultaneous events – The pram is the magic ingredient in the sequence. Ness’s accidental brush against the pram’s handle sets in motion a parallel line of action to the gun fight. Now, not only are we wondering how Ness will cope with the gangsters, but we are also left wondering what will happen to the baby in the pram. These two simultaneous events are carefully woven together, so that the gun fight follows the pram’s path down the steps. So we are now rooting for the survival of both Ness and the baby. For example, shots 14, 21 & 23 of one the gangsters at the top of the steps over-lapped with shots 15, 18, 20 & 22 of Ness are all over-lapped with shots 16, 17 & 19 of the pram rolling down the steps.

Shot sizes – Most of the shots within the sequence are Medium Close Up and Close Up, such as Ness taking aim, a gangster getting shot, the woman reaching out after the pram, and the baby in the pram. These shot sizes help direct the viewer’s attention to specific key areas of the action. There are also a few wide shots, which help the viewer maintain a sense of the geography within the location and locate the physical relationships of the characters as they move through the scene. For example, shot 24, halfway down the steps looking up at the action; and shot 93 at the foot of the steps as Stone makes a dive for the pram.

 

I particularly like the way in which the Union Station sequence refers to the ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence in Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potempkin’. This is particularly clear in the way it uses shots of a baby in a pram and reaction shots of different characters to engage the viewer with the unfolding action.

Reverse-engineering the Union Station shoot-out in this way has been an eye-opener for me. It’s a great way of seeing how a sequence like this has been put together, both in terms of framing and editing.


Inspired by a master, I send a (video) postcard from a beach in County Mayo

 

 

Logbook 3, pages 219-220

Inspired by Jonas Mekas and the video postcards he occasionally posts on his website jonasmekas.com/diary, I recently found myself discarding the complexity of the Super 35mm digital cinema camera (+ peripherals) for the simplicity of the pocket-sized iPhone. So, how did this happen?

Flashback: Last weekend…On a beach in County Mayo. I raised my iPhone, framed up a simple landscape shot, pressed record, and let it run for 60 seconds – One frame. One size. One shot. One minute.

Part in homage to Jonas Mekas, part an act of personal ‘note-taking’, I recorded a moment in time. I was so transfixed by the sheer beauty of the place, that I loosely framed the view around the rule of thirds and let the smartphone do its job, capturing the light, the colour, the movement, the line, pattern, shape and texture of the view before me. Nothing more; nothing less. There is nothing creatively or technically extraordinary about the recording. Yet, when I look back at it, I realise that what I have captured is just as valid as any other type of filmmaking.


Screening: Experimental moving image works at IMMA

‘Unlikely Correspondence’ – IMMA Screening & Talk / Irish Artist Experimental Film – Saturday 16 September 2017 / IMMA

‘In conjunction with the exhibition Vivienne Dick, 93% STARDUST at IMMA, Alice Butler, film programmer and co-curator of AEMI, presents a talk and screening of artist and experimental moving image works by contemporary Irish artists who are foregrounding new ways to work independently, redefining the limits and potentials of cinema across a range of formats. Butler’s talk will refer to and explore the history and development of artist moving image practice in Ireland.’

I thought I would jot down my thoughts around an epiphany I had recently about my direction as a moving image maker. I have been voraciously reading books and watching films by and about many experimental filmmakers and video artists (most notably Jonas Mekas, Vivienne Dick & Doug Aitken). It has been wonderful to discover so much amazing work by so many moving image practitioners from around the world, none of whom I had heard about before starting this course. Over the summer, for instance, reading through Michael Rush’s Video Art (2003) I discovered a whole world of moving image practice that was so powerful and stimulating I still can’t stop looking back at the book for another fix of art.

Last month my wife and I went to a screening and talk about contemporary Irish experimental film artists. Fractured, confused and non-the-wiser; frustrated; disappointed; in free-fall…all of the above. I just couldn’t connect with the films. They weren’t easy, nor were they particularly enjoyable. And perhaps that’s the point. Art isn’t meant to be easy. Nor does it have to be likeable in order to get something out of it that’s of value in your own life and work. Anyway, I’ve had time to think and let the dust settle for a while, so here are a few thoughts on where I think I may be heading in my own work as a moving image practitioner.

It was strange and unexpected, but the strongest feeling that came over me that evening as I came away from the event at the Irish Museum for Modern Art was knowing that my own calling as a moving image practitioner was very clearly heading towards that of making narrative films. What form these narrative films will take is unknown. But one thing is for sure, they will capture a story. I love people. And I love the way in which the stories we tell can bring people to life. Whatever the narrative form. Fact or fiction. I simply love experiencing a story unfold on screen. Not those simple, poorly thought out stories masquerading as narrative films. But the well wrought works of art that feed the imagination and mind with images and ideas that resonate in some way long after the film has finished. The type of films that engage me; that demand I contribute something of myself in return. If you know what I mean.

I like the ideas Alice Butler talked about – the correspondences between historical reality and fiction, and between art and nature, and the notion of ‘the talk’ and the ‘role of the expert’ in artistic expression. But, even now, a few weeks on from the screening, I still feel frustrated and disappointed in the works I saw that evening. Even at an abstract level, I couldn’t connect with them in the same way I could a painting by Rothko or Klee, for example. For In which the artist ‘speaks’; the viewer ‘replies’.

That disappointment has nothing to do with the works themselves. They were works of video art; well made. The frustration and disappointment was very much within myself, in my own personal response to those works; or, more accurately, my surprising lack of response to them. But that’s not the point here. What really fascinated (and surprised!) me during the event was the clarity, the absolute clarity, with which I saw myself as a moving image maker, wide awake and craving; moving towards narrative form.


References

Michael Rush (2007) Video Art London: Thames & Hudson


Filming in Black & White

Filming in black-and-white is something I am very keen to try. So I have carried out some research into various approaches adopted by several cinematographers. The main issue identified by these cinematographers is the need for creating separation and depth in a black-and-white shot.

Conrad Hall, best known for his work on films such as Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002):

‘Black-and-white only concerns itself with the grey scale from white to black. And separation has to do with depth and using these values against one another creates depth. You have to understand that you want to create depth to get reality…You don’t want things to blend into one another. So you have to create separation and depth’ (Schaefer & Salvato, 2013:156).

Hungarian cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, best known for his work on Easy Rider (1969), Paper Moon (1972), New York, New York (1977) and Ghostbusters (1984):

‘Black-and-white is difficult because you have the grey tonalities from black to white and you have to create an image which includes depth and separation. In color a brown head will separate from a beige wall naturally but in black-and-white they may run together. You must create a lot of simple compositional elements in black-and-white… The lighting creates everything: the tone, images, texture and mood. It is so important that those elements are harmoniously put together in order to serve the visual impact’ (Schaefer & Salvato, 2013:192).

Gordon Willis, best known for his work on Francis Ford Coppolla’s The Godfather series, many of Woody Allen’s early films including Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1977), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982) Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976):

‘When you’re shooting in black-and-white, all you’re dealing with is values so…you do have to separate an actor from a wall. Whereas if you’re in color and you have an actor and a colored wall, then you get automatic separation’ (Schaefer & Salvato, 2013:306).

What’s clear from this is the need to create a sense of depth that helps to separate the actor from the background. This can be achieved by creating ‘simple compositional elements’ within the frame that will work in black and white.

John Alton expands upon the idea to create depth and separation when shooting in black-and-white in his book Painting With Light(2013).

Logbook 3, pages 215-216

Logbook 3, pages 217-218

Alton’s definition of the perfect black and white picture as a combination of a foreground in which each surface has a different brightness and a background of a different tone is helpful.


References

Alton, J. (2013) Writing With Light. Berkeley: University of California.

Schaefer & Salvato (2013) Masters of Light: Conversations with Cinematographers. Berkeley: University of California.


Camera Settings: Shooting in SLog3

The primary benefits of shooting in SLog3 are:

  1. SLog3 captures footage at the camera’s full 14 stop dynamic range.
  2. Capturing footage in SLog3 will allow me to convert the clips into black & white at the post-production stage using LUTs designed specifically for this process.

Logbook 3, pages 187-188

The camera settings noted above are fairly standard for shooting in SLog3. My rationale for selecting this base setting and format/codec combination is that it will help me to achieve the best possible image quality with the FS7 camera. Although it’s not something with which I am very familiar with, I like the idea of using SLog3 because it provides me with more options in post-production when it comes to colour grading. Particularly when it comes to editing the film, as I will be using a LUT to help me produce the black and white image.


Elementary Illumination

 

 

Key point for me

There are two basic steps to lighting for film:

  • finding the best angle – photographing the subject from an angle that puts most surfaces in view of the camera
  • lighting the object – the illusion of depth can be enhanced by separating foreground and background; each surface should have a different brightness; the background should be of a different tone

 


Alton, J. (2013) Writing With Light. Berkeley: University of California.


Reading: ‘Notes on the Cinematograph’, Robert Bresson

While browsing through the bookshelves of the Irish Film Institute bookshop this week, I discovered a copy of Notes on the Cinematograph by the French film director Robert Bresson. Although I have been aware of his name for many years, I am not familiar with any of his films.

Notes on the Cinematograph contains a series of brief notes and fragments that Bresson wrote to himself while making films over a period of several decades between 1950 and 1974. On the back of the book, John Semley says ‘Half-philosophy, half-poetry, Notes on the Cinematograph reads in places like The Art of War for filmmaker’, a point which became very apparent as I began reading. At less than ninety pages, this is a book that can be read in one sitting, but demands that the reader invests far more time and thought than this to fully appreciate what is being said.

A distillation of his theory and practice as a filmmaker, the Notes on the Cinematograph is full of cryptic aphorisms and practical, common sense advice on all aspects of filmmaking, from cinema, writing and working with actors, to photography, sound and lighting.

Below are just a few of the many ideas in the book that I found particularly inspiring.

‘My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living person and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water’ (Bresson, 1986:11).

‘Not to use two violins when one is enough’ (p.13).

‘The noises must become music’ (p.16).

‘The cinematographer is making a voyage of discovery on an unknown planet’ (Bresson, 1986:18).
I find Bresson’s idea that filmmaking is a process of self-discovery for the director/filmmaker, who’s role on set is ‘not to direct someone, but to direct oneself’ (p.5) a very interesting approach to making films.

‘Catch instants. Spontaneity, freshness’ p.19).

‘Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins (ellipses)’ (p.21).

‘Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way’ (p.21).

‘Forget you are making a film’ (p.24).

‘Unbalance so as to re-balance’ (p.25).

‘Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden’ (p.25).

‘Music takes up all the room and gives no increased value to which it is added’ (p.28).

‘The soundtrack invented silence’ (p.28).

‘Things made more visible not by more light, but by the fresh angle at which I regard them’ (p.29).

‘Bring together things that have never been brought together and did not seem predisposed to be so’ (p.29).

‘Dig into your sensation. Look at what there is within. Don’t analyse it with words. Translate it into sister images, into equivalent sounds. The clearer it is, the more your style affirms itself. (Style: all that is not technique)’ (p.35).

These are just a few of the ideas that woke me up to the essence of what it means to make a moving image.

This is a wonderful book to discover so early on in my own journey on this course. I now need to watch some of Bresson’s films in order to fully appreciate what are, to me, quite radical and eye-opening ideas.

 


Bresson, R. (1986) Notes on the Cinematograph, Introduced by J.M.G. Le Clezio. New York: New York Review of Books.


Into The Woods Installation Shots, Ellie Davies

I recently discovered the work of photographer Ellie Davies, whose work has opened up a new perspective on how the forest setting could be used to great effect within the moving images.

Her approach is very immersive and involves spending time getting to know and feel the forest before starting work on an image. Talking about her process, she says ‘each series will start with walking, sketching and note-making. Walking allows me to familiarise myself with different areas of the forest and select places that suit each image I am hoping to create. I carry a lightweight kit and I usually sit for a while to get used to the space before starting work, listening to the birds and seeing how it feels to be there. You start to hear the leaves falling and the trees creaking’ (Bradbury, 2016).

She then spends hours hand making or painting props and attaching them to the trees, before capturing the perfect image. The resulting shots challenge the viewer to ‘consider mankind’s relationship with nature and to explore our cultural perceptions of forests in popular culture, folklore, literature or film’ (Bradbury, 2016).

Fig. 1. ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ 2010

 

Fig. 2. ‘Stars’ 2014-2015

 

Fig. 3. ‘Come With Me’ 2011

 

Fig. 4. ‘Between the Trees’ 2014

The magic within her work is in ‘her knack of turning reality into a dream-like vision that verges on hyper-reality’ (Bradbury, 2016).

In some of her projects she introduces elements into the scene, such as clouds of smoke, painted trees, fern pathways, or even galaxies of stars, superimposed over forests. There are no people or animals in her photographs. The landscape itself is the character.

In her artist statement, she explains how her work ‘explores the ways in which identity is formed by the landscapes we live and grow up in’ (Davies, n/d) and that the landscape images she creates ‘are a reflection of my personal relationship with the forest, a meditation on universal themes relating to the psyche and call into question the concept of landscape as a social and cultural construct. Most importantly they draw the viewer into the forest space, asking them to consider how their own identity is shaped by the landscapes they live in’ (Davies, n/d).

Like Davies, I too am interested in identity and how it is formed by the environment in which we live and grow. I like the way in which she creates images that are reflections of her personal relationship with the landscape. I also like the way she describes her work as ‘a meditation’ on universal themes. In some way, I would like to create moving images that do the same: that reflect my interest in identity and place; that are reflections of my personal relationship with specific places; that are meditations on universal themes.

 


References

Bradbury, N. 2016 ‘Ellie Davies’ In: Sodium Burn [website] At: http://www.sodiumburn.com/interview/ellie-davies

Davies, E. ‘Statement’ At: https://elliedavies.co.uk/statement/

‘Stars’. In: Lens Culture [website] At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/ellie-davies-stars

 

List of illustrations

Figure 1. ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ 2010

Figure 2. ‘Stars’ 2014-2015

Figure 3. ‘Come With Me’ 2011

Figure 4. ‘Between the Trees’ 2014


Examples of Editing Techniques

Look for examples of time being contracted or expanded in movies and write up your analyses of these on your blog.

I looked at a range of editing techniques used by filmmakers to represent the passage of time.

Transition wipes in ‘Star Wars’ (1977)

George Lucas uses transition wipes throughout ‘Star Wars’ to show the transition of time. He uses a range of wipes that give the film a comic book effect, like turning a page between scenes.

    

Shot 1 – Long shot of Luke Skywalker climbing aboard landspeeder
Shot 2 – Long shot of land speeder

Lucas uses a straightforward wipe from left to right across the screen to skip from Luke Skywalker climbing into the land speeder and to him racing through the landscape a few moments later. This helps keep up the momentum of the action, moving things quickly along from one scene to the next. The direction of the wipe, from left to right, follows the movement and pace of the land speeder, wiping across the first shot of C-3PO and R2-D2 watching Luke get onto the vehicle.

    

Shot 1 – Long shot of sandscrawler
Shot 2 – Medium Long Shot of stormtroopers

Lucas uses a clock wipe between two scenes to show the passage of time between night and day. The wipe sweeps clockwise around the scene, revealing the Imperial stormtroopers searching for C-3PO and R2-D2 in the desert. The clock wipe is provides a comic-like transition showing the passage of an extended period of time, from C-3PO and R2-D2 inside the sand crawler to the stormtroopers int he desert.

Foreground wipe in ‘Stranger Things’ (2016)

  

Shot 1 – Close up of character centre frame, looking at laptop
Shot 2 – Close up of character centre frame, from behind

A more recent use of the transition wipe. In the first shot, we see Eleven looking at the screen of a laptop. The camera tilts down, filling the screen with the back of the laptop. From there, the camera tilts up, revealing the back of a chair in another location in which Eleven is sitting. She is still seated, in close up, though in this shot she is seen from behind.

The technique is used here to transition into a flashback, a different time zone entirely. This is not simply the representation of the passage of linear time. It indicates an important shift in time and place, around a single character, revealing a scene in which we discover a little more about the character’s back story.

Transition cutaway in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1965)

    

Shot 1 – MS/two shot
Shot 2 – Close up
Shot 3 – MS/two shot

David Lean uses a transition cutaway as a way of showing the passage of time and change of location.

Loud noise cut in ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973)

  

Shot 1 – Close up
Shot 2 – Close up

 

 

Transition cut in ‘Seven’ (1996)

  

Shot 1 – ELS
Shot 2 – MS/two shot

An example of a straight cut to show the passage of time within the same setting.

In the first shot, we see detectives Somerset and Mills on a sofa in the precinct hallway. This cuts to the next shot, in which we see the same two characters asleep on the sofa.

The transition indicates the passage of several hours. This is reinforced with the title card indicating we are now into Thursday, the next day of the investigation.

Fade to black in ‘Fitzcarraldo’ (1982)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Towards the end of ‘Fitzcarraldo’, Herzog uses a fade to black to indicate an extended passage of time. Do Aquilino offers to buy Fitzcarraldo’s ship. Fitzcarraldo tells the crew that Aquilino is the new owner of the ship. Fitcarraldo takes the Captain aside and hands him some money and asks him to buy to items, then whispers an instruction in his ear.

It is clear that a significant amount of time has passed between Fitzcarraldo’s conversation withe the Captain and the arrival of the boats from Iquitos. The fade to black at this point in the film also acts as an important structural device within the overall narrative. It marks the end of the main bulk of the story, Fitcarraldo’s failed business venture into the jungle and his attempt to take the ship overland between two tributary rivers. It marks the beginning of the final sequence, in which Fitcarraldo fulfils his dream of bringing opera to the native indians.

Transition dissolves in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

John Ford uses the dissolve in the opening sequence of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, in which we see Tom Joad travelling home on foot following his release from jail. The film opens with an extreme long shot (ELS) of Joad walking towards camera along an empty highway, with crossroads in the foreground.

The shot is cut and dissolves into a second shot from the same camera position, this time showing Joad approaching and walking through the crossroads we had seen in the previous shot. The dissolve indicates a short passage of time. The second shot pans with the character as he walks through frame, revealing a roadside restaurant with a truck parked outside.

Transition dissolves in ‘Dr Zhivago’

A wonderfully composed sequence demonstrating an economy of shots. In this sequence there are nine shots, covering a screen time of 3 minutes 18 seconds.

This example shows how you can develop a narrative covering an extended period of time with only a handful of shots.

The sequence, starting in Yuriatin Park and ending in Varykino, contains three transition dissolves:

  1. between shots 1 and 2
  2. between shots 6 and 7
  3. between shots 8 and 9

The first dissolve indicates a fairly short passage of time, between Lara and Yuri leaving the park and arriving in the lane leading up to Lara’s apartment.

Shot 1 – LS of the two characters sitting on a bench in the park. They stand and walk through frame, from right to left.

Dissolve – creates an overlay of white graffiti and a red star painted on a wall

Shot 2 – as the dissolve completes, the two characters enter the frame from the right, creating an MS/two shot. The camera pans with the two characters as they walk along the lane away from the camera, creating a Long Shot of the characters. The camera holds for a few seconds, then tilts up, revealing the window of Lara’s apartment in MS.

Shot 3 – cut to interior of Lara’s apartment.

The first dissolve in this sequence contracts time, cutting out the bulk of their walk from the park to the apartment.

It also creates in interesting graphic quality, hinting at the turmoil of revolution underpinning the story.

In the second dissolve, the passage of time from Lara and Yuri entering in the apartment to waking up the following morning, cutting out the intervening evening and night.

Shot 6 – MS of the two characters, centre frame, kissing

Dissolve – creates an overlay of the rooms of the apartment

Shot 7 – MS of Lara’s apartment. Through an open door in left of frame we can see movement in the bed and the sun rise through the bedroom window. We can also see a vase of daffodils on a table at the right edge of the frame, presaging the field of daffodils two shots later.

One thing I have learned from my analysis of the ‘transition’ as an editing technique is that it needs to be seen within the context of the whole sequence in which it is employed.

The dissolve, for instance, is not simply a cross-fade between two shots. It is much more than a decorative way of joining two images within a film together.

With the opening sequence of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, the three dissolves are key to portraying the progression of time within the narrative flow. They allow Ford to contract time within the opening of the film, by skipping the irrelevant events and emphasising the important moments of Tom Joad’s journey home on foot: Joad walking along the dust highway; Joad hitching a ride in a truck; the conversation between Joad and the truck driver; and Joad meeting Cory at the roadside.

The three dissolves in the ‘Reunited’ sequence in ‘Dr Zhivago’ perform a similar function, contracting time in order to emphasise the key moments within the scenes at this point in the story: Yuri’s first impressions of Lara’s apartment; and Yuri and Lara in bed the following morning.

I think these three dissolves also perform a secondary graphic function in the way that they link the scenes together: the barren patch of ground across which Yuri and Lara walk, overlaid with graffiti and the red star; the symmetrically framed couple kissing, overlaid with the empty apartment from a different angle; the close up of the couple in bed, overlaid with a field of yellow flowers.

Contracting time, whether through a transition or any other editing technique, is fundamental to moving image storytelling.


‘Archipelago’ (2010) Directed by Joanna Hogg

In the context of some work I have been doing on a short film, which focuses on the creation of a strong sense of atmosphere and emotion, I looked at Joanna Hogg’s film Archipelago (2010).

I was impressed by Archipelago, right from the beginning. Hogg’s shooting style is very economic, both in terms of image and sound. Most of the shots are static, wide and lingering. The sound, both ambient and dialogue, is natural, punctuating the silence in which it occurs. It reminded me of the tone and style of the films of Eric Rohmer.

In the opening sequence we are introduced to the location, four of the characters and the family relationship between three of these characters. Within only a few shots, we are taken from the landscape, to a family reunion and to the rented holiday home in which the family are staying. It’s a sequence in which every shot counts and contributes to moving the narrative forward.

                              

Fig. 1.

What is particularly striking about the opening sequence is the way in which Hogg uses long, lingering shots. The film opens on the canvas at which an artist is working, then moving out to show both the artist and the landscape in which he is working, which helps set the geographical context for what follows.

There is then a close up of the artist working his brush in the paints. From there we cut to another view of the location, possibly the road below the artist’s elevated position. A solitary bicycle moves slowly along the empty road. We watch as the bicycle gets further away, while at the same time we hear the sound of an approaching helicopter, which eventually comes into frame in the distance.

In the following shot, the helicopter has landed on an airfield and the passengers are disembarking. One of the passengers is greeted at the gate by his sister and mother. Their dialogue is drowned out by the sound of the helicopter. Instead of hearing their conversation, we watch as the characters greet and embrace each other. Their body language telling the story.

The use of body language continues into the next three shots, as the characters make their way along the road, the young man in the back of a small lorry, smiling at his sister and mother who are cycling behind, smiling back. This joy of this moment is very endearing. The wide shots, although moving, adopt the same pattern and pace as the preceding long, lingering shots.

We then cut to an exterior shot of the two bicycles leaning against the walls of the rented holiday home. This is quite a long shot, in which nothing happens. A single static wide shot of the scene. At which point I got the sense that this was going to be the general style and pace of the whole film.

We then cut to an interior scene, in which the three characters are standing on the upstairs landing discussing sleeping arrangements. It’s an awkward conversation, in which the young man is reluctant committing himself to choosing a particular room. Again, the action unfolds within the frame of a single static wide shot.

Hogg adopts this approach throughout the film; allowing the action to happen within single static wide shots unhindered by the constant cutting from shot to shot that we are familiar with in most films.

After watching the film, I carried out some research in order to gain a greater understanding of Joanna Hogg’s approach to filmmaking. An online search of the UCA Library using the keyword ‘joanna hogg’ provided me with a list of eleven articles, mostly from Sight and Sound magazine, that discuss her three films Unrelated (2008), Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013).

Hogg’s approach in Archipelago is one in which the artificiality of shooting master and coverage shots for a scene is removed, leaving the viewer to watch the action within the frame unhindered by the usual conventions. In an interview with Graham Fuller for Film Comment, she says: ‘I don’t like to repeat a scene from different angles. I’ll do a primary master shot, so to speak, but then I don’t want to then re-create artificially with a close-up what I’ve just managed to capture very naturally’ (Fuller, 2014).

Hogg goes on to say that ‘it’s also about my interest in body language. The movement of a body in space often tells you more about a person and what they’re feeling than a close-up. I think you feel more by seeing things from a certain distance’ (Fuller, 2014).

This is an interesting idea and one that places the viewing experience of the film in a similar sphere to that of watching a stage play. Watching the whole body moving in the space in this way on screen, in a single wide shot, uncut, was unexpected and a little strange to watch at first. However, it soon became apparent that watching this film was meant to provide the audience with a different viewing experience than they would be familiar with. The long wide-shots and lack of close-ups contribute to that experience.

Of Hogg’s cinematic style, Jonathan Romney says: ‘the still camera and long takes create a sense of analytical detachment, but this is countered by a lovely looseness in the dialogue. We feel we’re spying on real people with their defences down’ (Romney, 2010:27).

Another feature of Hogg’s film is its visual texture. The characters are framed in a ‘downbeat natural palette [and] the house’s aquarium-like grey-green semi-darkness matching the tones of the surrounding country’ (Romney, 2011:49).

I was interested to discover that art is an important influence within Hogg’s work. Archipelago is ‘distinctive in its interiors, echoing the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi. His muted, claustrophobic rooms provide models for images such as a shot of Edward at Patricia’s bedside, head turned three-quarters from the camera, daylight touching his neck – a concise picture of intimate desolation’ (Romney, 2011:49).

Fig. 2.

Vilhelm Hammershoi used a limited colour palette of greys, desaturated yellows, greens and other dark hues in his paintings. His pictures record the simplicity of everyday life. The figures are often turned away from the viewer.

Fig. 3. ‘Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor’ (1901)

Fig. 4. ‘Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30’ (1901)

I’m also interested in Hogg’s very different approach to screenwriting. She says: ‘the writing I do is not conventional screenwriting. I have endless notebooks on the go and rather than translate these into a neat screenplay, which would kill my ideas stone dead, they get poured straight into the film as it is being made. This is via a document that reads more like a piece of prose or fiction, illustrated by my photographs’ (Hogg, 2011).

While I like the idea of preparing a ‘document’ based on endless notebooks and illustrated by photographs, I think I’ll still go that one step further and write a screenplay which then becomes the blueprint for a moving image.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable film and the research I have carried out in response has given me the confidence to look beyond the obvious and conventional. Joanna Hogg’s approach to filmmaking is definitely one I will consider when planning my own moving images – the notebooks and illustrated ‘document’; looking at artists for inspiration; and cinematic style.


References

Archipelago (2010) Directed by Joanna Hogg [DVD] UK

‘Interview: Joanna Hogg’ (2014) Fuller, G. In Film Comment At: https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-joanna-hogg/ (Accessed on 15 August 2017)

Hogg, J. (2011) ‘A very ordered image’ In: Sight and Sound 21 (3) p.49.

Romney, J. (2010) ‘The Scilly season’ In: Sight and Sound 20 (11) p.27.

Romeny, J. (2011) ‘Island records’ In: Sight and Sound 21 (3) pp.48-49.

 

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Archipelago (2010) Directed by Joanna Hogg

Figure 2. Archipelago (2010) Directed by Joanna Hogg

Figure 3. ‘Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor’ (1901) Vilhelm Hammershoi

Figure 4. ‘Interior with Woman at Piano, Strandgade 30’ (1901) Vilhelm Hammershoi


Screening: ‘Out of Body’ – Irish Film Institute, Tuesday 25th July, 2017

    

Last night I attended a screening of nine experimental films from 1943 to the present day at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. Curated by Irish artist and filmmaker Susan MacWilliam in response to the exhibition As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics currently showing at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Out of Body presented a selection of films that explore the psychic and physical spaces of body and landscape.

The theme of ‘physical spaces of body and landscape’ is of interest to my own practice as a filmmaker, particularly in light of my own short experimental films ‘Blue Jacket’ and ‘Ataraxis’, in which I was exploring ideas of person and place, though not as effectively.

The nine films screened, of which only Maya Deren and John Smith were names with which I was familiar, were:

Psychic Edit, Susan MacWilliam, 2008, Ireland, DCP, 14 second looped

Witch’s Cradle Outtakes, Maya Deren, 1943, USA, Digibeta, 10 minutes

State of Mind, remix #4, Mairéad McClean, 2005, Ireland, DVD, 10 minutes

Faint, Susan MacWilliam, 1999, Ireland, DCP, 4 minutes

The Black Sea, Jordan Baseman, 2010, USA/UK, Blu-ray, 3 minutes

Mountain Mist, Susan MacWilliam, 2002, Ireland, DCP, 8 minutes

Om, John Smith, 1988, UK, 16mm, 4 minutes

Ray Gun Virus, Paul Sharits, 1966, USA, 16mm, 14 minutes

The Last Person, Susan MacWilliam, 1998, Ireland, DCP, 11 minutes

Although the ‘psychic’ aspect of the theme of last night’s screening doesn’t entirely resonate with me as a filmmaker, the nine films were excellent examples of experimental moving image practice between the 1940s and today. Using a variety of techniques, the films challenge our perception of the physical body and physical place/landscape.

One particularly interesting technique that figures in many of the films is the use of repetition and pattern. For example, the 14 second looped Psychic Edit (MacWilliams, 2008) establishes a pattern of images that repeats over time, building into a repeated extended sequence of family footage and a woman’s smile; a female figure repeatedly fainting beneath a tree in Faint (MacWilliams, 1999) establishes a pattern of movement and action that builds into a mesmeric, trance-like sequence; the single-shot of moving waves in The Black Sea (Baseman, 2010) generates its own graphic repetitions and patterns which, over time, appear to take on the appearance of a living, breathing form; and, by contrast, the highly charged sense of pattern and repetition that is established in Ray Gun Virus (Sharitts, 1966) exerts a strange hold over the viewer in a trance-like retinal experience that seems to engage with your own body in a way that none of the other films do.

In Mountain Mist (MacWilliams, 2002) the use of time and space plays a key role in the film’s structure and form. In a single-shot, in which the camera is locked down on a view of a mountain side covered in trees, space remains constant throughout, while time is manipulated through the use of time-lapse. We see birds flying, mists dispersing and rain storms passing in real-time, intercut with changes in the landscape such as clouds passing, fluctuations in light, and a sunset, in time-lapse.

Some of the films have no sound attached to them at all, such as Witch’s Cradle Outtakes (Deren, 1943) and The Last Person (MacWilliam, 1998). As a result, the absence of sound places all the emphasis on the visual experience of watching the movement and action within these two films. Even to the point that you become more acutely aware of the sound of your own body in the silence of the room.

To see these nine films in the original formats in which they were intended to be viewed on screen was a real treat. Particularly, the 16mm prints of John Smith’s Om (1988) and Paul Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus (1966), which was a rare privilege.

This screening has left me with plenty of food for thought. Once again, as with my discovery of Vivienne Dick’s work a couple of weeks ago, a whole world of moving image practice has opened up for me.


References

As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics, Exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, 13 April – 27 August 2017

Faint (1999) MacWilliam, S. http://www.susanmacwilliam.com/faint (Accessed on 26 July 2017)

Psychic Edit (2008) MacWilliam, S. http://www.susanmacwilliam.com/psychic-edit (Accessed on 26 July 2017)

The Black Sea (2010) Baseman, J. http://www.jordanbaseman.co.uk/the-black-sea (Accessed on 26 July 2017)

Ray Gun Virus (1966) Sharits, P. https://vimeo.com/17173209 (Accessed on 26 July 2017)


Exhibition: ‘Vivienne Dick, 93% Stardust’ – Irish Museum of Modern Art, 16 June – 15 October 2017


Vivienne Dick, Augenblick, 2017, Production still, HDV, 14 mins. © Vivienne Dick.

‘For Dick, the title of the exhibition 93% STARDUST, suggests that we are moving into a new age, following the age of Enlightenment, where man is no longer the centre of the universe’ (Exhibition Guide, IMMA).

Yesterday I went to the ‘Vivienne Dick, 93% Stardust’ exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Vivienne Dick is an Irish artist and filmmaker, who was a key figure within the ‘No Wave’ movement, a short-lived avant-garde scene in the late 1970s in New York, led by a collective of musicians, artists and filmmakers including Nan Goldin, Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, James Chance and others.

The exhibition at IMMA presents some of Vivienne Dick’s early Super-8 film works from late 1970s New York, including Guérillère Talks (1978), Staten Island (1978), She Had Her Gun Ready (1978), Beauty Becomes The Beast (1979) and Liberty’s Booty (1980), alongside her recent film works The Irreducible Difference of the Other (2013), Red Moon Rising (2015) and Felis Catus (2016) and the world premier of her latest film Augenblick (2017), which was made while on IMMA’s Residency Programme earlier this year.

Having never heard of Vivienne Dick until now, this exhibition was a wonderful discovery. Her New York films focus on female sensibilities. Guérillère Talks, for example, presents a series of portraits of women associated with the ‘No Wave’ music and art scene. In Liberty’s Booty, Dick makes use of real-life footage, personal testimonies and acted-out scenarios in a film which examines the commodification of the female body through the perspective of prostitutes. Filmed in Super-8, these early films have the look of home movies, with the grainy picture, rough sound and handheld photography we associate with home movies.


Images of exhibition courtesy of Irish Museum of Modern Art

In her latest film, Augenblick, ‘different realities, seemingly disconnected, flash by, from an imaginary virtual world to a frozen landscape’ (Exhibition Guide, IMMA). From Jean Jacques Rousseau ranting about society, to three female actors recounting the story of human beliefs in animism, God and the digital world through quotes from Rumi, Harari, Gramsci and Hildegard Von Bingen, to the same three women chatting spontaneously around a table.

There were a number of things I particularly liked about this moving image. Such as the way in which she blends acted-out scenarios, unscripted conversations and landscape images together in the film; her use of lines quoted from older texts; and the moments of silence interspersed with 18th century music. All of which helped to give the film an organic, spontaneous feel. Techniques which I shall explore in my own moving image making.


Tone and Colour

A martial arts epic set in ancient China, Hero (2004) tells and re-tells one story three times. Two versions of which are false and one is true.

A nameless warrior is being honoured for defeating three of the King’s most dangerous enemies, the assassins Long Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow.

  

As Nameless recounts his battles with the assassins, the King begins to question the truth of some of the details of the warrior’s tales, interjecting his own take on the suspect version of events. The framing tale which opens and closes the film is dominated by shades of black.

     

Within this opening frame, Nameless recounts his encounter with the assassin Long Sky. Where the two characters meet in battle, the scene cuts to black and white.

     

The first story in red, is told by Nameless, who recounts how he defeated Falling Snow. He tells how Falling Snow had cheated her lover Broken Sword with their friend Long Sky, and how, after Sky’s death, Broken Sword has slept with his servant Moon out of jealousy. Broken Sword is then killed by Falling Snow, also out of jealousy.

     

The red theme continues into the fight sequence between Flying Snow and Moon. This is a visually stunning scene, which reaches its climax when Falling Snow dodges Moon’s sword, which goes on to embed itself into a nearby tree trunk, which starts bleeding. At which point the entire landscape transforms from autumnal orange to blood red, as though the very land itself was bleeding to death. The change of atmosphere within this scene is from life to death.

As a consequence of killing Broken Sword, Falling Snow is too emotional to fight properly and is killed in battle by Nameless in front of the King’s army.

  

The second story in blue, the love story, is told by the King, who suggests Falling Snow died willingly after wounding Broken Sword to prevent him from stopping her sacrifice herself.

 

The third story in white tells how Falling Snow was willing to sacrifice herself, but that her death faked. It also tells how Broken Sword opposed Falling Snow and Nameless’s plan to kill the King.

  

The flashback in green presents the failed attempt by Broken Sword and Falling Snow to assassinate the King.

Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer on Hero, said the choice of colours was aesthetic, not symbolic, and that the coloration itself becomes the movie’s theme: ‘Part of the beauty of the film is that it is one story coloured by different perceptions […] I think that’s the point. Every story is coloured by personal perception’ (Mackey, 2005).

 


References

Mackey, R. (2015) ‘Cracking the Color Code of Hero.’ In: The New York Times [online] At:  www.nytimes.com/2004/08/15/movies/film-cracking-the-color-code-of-hero.html (Accessed on 29 June 2017)

Hero (2004) Directed by Zhang Yimou. [DVD] China: Miramax.


Hero (2002) Dir. Zhang Yimou

A martial arts epic set in ancient China, Hero (2004) tells and re-tells one story three times. Two versions of which are false and one is true.

  • A nameless warrior is being honoured for defeating three of the King’s most dangerous enemies, the assassins Long Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow.
  • As Nameless recounts his battles with the assassins, the King begins to question the truth of some of the details of the warrior’s tales, interjecting his own take on the suspect version of events. The framing tale which opens and closes the film is dominated by shades of black.
  • Within this opening frame, Nameless recounts his encounter with the assassin Long Sky. Where the two characters meet in battle, the scene cuts to black and white.
  • The first story in red, is told by Nameless, who recounts how he defeated Falling Snow. He tells how Falling Snow had cheated her lover Broken Sword with their friend Long Sky, and how, after Sky’s death, Broken Sword has slept with his servant Moon out of jealousy. Broken Sword is then killed by Falling Snow, also out of jealousy.
  • The red theme continues into the fight sequence between Flying Snow and Moon. This is a visually stunning scene, which reaches its climax when Falling Snow dodges Moon’s sword, which goes on to embed itself into a nearby tree trunk, which starts bleeding. At which point the entire landscape transforms from autumnal orange to blood red, as though the very land itself was bleeding to death. The change of atmosphere within this scene is from life to death.
  • As a consequence of killing Broken Sword, Falling Snow is too emotional to fight properly and is killed in battle by Nameless in front of the King’s army.
  • The second story in blue, the love story, is told by the King, who suggests Falling Snow died willingly after wounding Broken Sword to prevent him from stopping her sacrifice herself.
  • The third story in white tells how Falling Snow was willing to sacrifice herself, but that her death faked. It also tells how Broken Sword opposed Falling Snow and Nameless’s plan to kill the King.
  • The flashback in green presents the failed attempt by Broken Sword and Falling Snow to assassinate the King.

In a New York Times article, Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer on Hero, said the choice of colours was aesthetic, not symbolic, and that the coloration itself becomes the movie’s theme: ‘Part of the beauty of the film is that it is one story coloured by different perceptions […] I think that’s the point. Every story is coloured by personal perception’ (Mackey, 2005).

 


List of references

Mackey, R. (2015) ‘Cracking the Color Code of Hero.’ In: The New York Times [online] At:  www.nytimes.com/2004/08/15/movies/film-cracking-the-color-code-of-hero.html (Accessed on 29 June 2017)

Hero (2004) Directed by Zhang Yimou. [DVD] China: Miramax.


Light and Colour

Cinematographer Darius Khondji makes some very inventive use of light and colour in the films ‘Seven’ (1995), ‘The City of Lost Children’ (1994) and ‘Delicatessen’ (1991).

Seven (1995)

In ‘Seven’, a dark psychological thriller about two detectives, Detective Lieutenant William Somerset and Detective David Mills, on the trail of a vicious serial killer, the lighting matches the dark, moody, threatening mood of the film.

The opening sequence begins with a shot of Somerset in his kitchen. The shot contains mixed light, daylight through the kitchen window and florescent light either side of the window. This helps set the context, early morning.

The scene cuts to Somerset in his bedroom, again with mixed light, this time mixing daylight from the window with artificial light from a lamp beside the bed.

  

In an example of the logical change of light within a scene, the camera pans right, following Somerset as he reaches across and switches off the lamp on the beside table. The source, a table lamp, is shown in shot.

City library. The sequence of shots within this scene represent the abstract state of the dark world into which Somerset has entered, the dark inner world of the mind of a serial killer. A fitting setting for this point in the film, the book stacks and empty tables of an empty library. A storehouse of knowledge.

As Somerset attempts to penetrate the dark recesses of the serial killer’s mind, decode what the killer is doing and why.

      

Wide Shots – following Somerset as he enters the empty library reading room, searches the book stacks, and sits alone at a desk reading. The solitary searcher.

Close Up – offers a more intimate shot of Somerset as he reads his way through a stack of books, drawing us into the moment, a moment in which he is immersed in thought. The shot also makes use of shallow focus, placing the character within tiny pools of white and green light. The light becoming part of an abstract design framing the character.

A third scene,set in the chief of detective’s office, is again a dimly lit scene set during daytime. The blinds on the main window behind the Chief’s desk are down and partially closed.  The office is ‘lit’ by several small lamps.

The different shots within the scene maintain the logic of light levels, direction of light and colour balance within the space.

          

What I found particularly interesting about the lighting in ‘Seven’ is Khondji’s use of multiple small lights on walls and tables throughout the film. This scene is an example of this, with four different lamps visible within the scene.  These four lights are also arranged to give the impression they are providing the key light for the three characters in the room. For example, the lamp on the desk provides key light for the Chief and the lamp stand provides key light for Mills sitting opposite the desk. The use of multiple small lights within scenes such as this helps to give the film is stylistic look.

The City of Lost Children (1994)

‘The City of Lost Children’ contains numerous examples of continuity and logic of light.

  

The children point their torches at One as he opens the door and enters the room. Cuts to a Close-up of One shielding his eyes from the light.

 

Beam of light from the lighthouse is cast across the harbour. Cuts to a Close-up of character smoking in his chair, closing his eyes as the light falls on his face.

There is also a playful sequence of light changes in the sequence in which an engineer fuses a street light outside the nightclub, setting off a chain-reaction across the city.

     

Here we see the light bulbs fuse and explode in the engineer’s face. This is followed by a domino effect of different lights going out in various locations across the city. In each case, the source is shown in shot before it goes out.

An interesting use of colour and light which contributes to the look of ‘The City of Lost Children’ is found in the sequences in the city’s streets at night, particularly in the scenes of One and Miette running through the alleyways. The result is very film noir, with its high contrast and deep shadows, similar to that found in film noir classics such as ‘The Third Man’ and ‘Odd Man Out’.

  

Delicatessen (1991)

The continuity of light in opening sequence of ‘Delicatessen’. The light and colour establishes the mood of the film as a whole, with its dark, shadowy, burnt orange, post-apocalyptic setting. Beginning with establishing the shop in its semi-derelict neighbourhood. The only light source is that coming from within the shop itself.

     

Camera approaches the butcher’s shop. The light inside the shop casts a pool of light onto the street outside.

The logic of light levels and direction of light is maintained throughout the sequence, as the camera moves in closer to the shop front and enters the through the door, revealing the butcher sharpening his knife.

‘Delicatessen’ also contains examples of shots representing the emotional state of a character.

 

The light in the scenes featuring Clapet represent a dark, sinister character. Lit from below his face, he appears sinister and threatening. By contrast, the light in the early scenes featuring Louison are bright and evenly lit, representing a character who is innocent of the world into which he has stepped. The lighting in both cases matches the contrasting nature of the two characters.

Another example of continuity and logic can be found in the workshop scene. Visual continuity within the scene in the workshop is maintained through the logic of light levels and direction of light as we cut from shot to shot.

  

In the shot of Roger at the drill, light appears to be coming from the left of the frame, illuminating the right side of his face. In the following shot of Robert Kube, testing toys at the table behind Roger, the light appears to be coming from the right of the frame, illuminating the left side of his face.

The logic of the light direction in these two shots is apparent in the following wide shot of the interior of the workshop, in which we see the large window, the source of the light within the scene.

An example of the light source being shown in shot.

  

In the closing scene, Louison is seen climbing onto the rooftop of the apartment block during a thunder storm. In tho shot we see the lightening flash as the character climbs the ladder and steps onto the roof.


References

The City of Lost Children (1994) Directed by Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet [DVD] France: Canal+

Delicatessen (1991) Directed by Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet [DVD] France: Miramax

Seven (1995) Directed by David Fincher [DVD] USA: New Line Cinema


Composition: The Rule of Thirds

Some examples of frames composed according to the rule of thirds, composition balanced between shots, the rule of thirds being broken, tension created by upsetting the balance and other distinct meanings suggested through visual balance.

I printed out screenshots, drew grids lines on the images and made notes on how the rules of composition and balance have been applied in the following films:

  • Breathless (1960)
  • Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2014)
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2011)
  • Amelie (2001)
  • Manhattan (1979)
  • 12 Years A Slave (2014)

Logbook 2, pages 23-24

 

Logbook 2, pages 25-26

 

Logbook 2, pages 27-28

 

Logbook 2, pages 29-30

 

Logbook 2, pages 35-36

 

Logbook 2, pages 39-40

 

Logbook 2, pages 41-42

 

This was a fascinating exercise.  What was particularly revealing was how the apparently simple idea of dividing the frame into a grid can have such a profound effect upon the way in which I looked at the various shots. We take moving images so much for granted and are unaware of the principles underlying what we are looking at. But when viewed as canvases, divided into sections, their hidden beauty suddenly becomes evident.

Placing the shots from ‘Breathless’ alongside the shots from ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ and ‘Manhattan’, for instance, was quite revealing. The differences in composition became so much more apparent when seen collectively than when looking at them in isolation.

This task has shown me that watching and re-watching films is a task that pays dividends in revealing how cinematographers go about composing their shots, and that looking at the way in which cinematographers use the rules of composition within their work is a vital part of my work as moving image practitioner.

Composition and balance help infuse an image with beauty. For me, this is an important element in making a moving image. However, I have often felt that the ‘beauty’ of a shot has eluded me. This exercise has gone some way in helping me solve that problem in my own practice. It has also shown me that most shots within a film are composed according to the rule of thirds, while others vary slightly from the rules, or break quite strikingly from the rules for more pronounced effects.

One particularly interesting example was composition balanced between shots. Maintaining the continuity of composition between shots in a dialogue scene is key to drawing the viewer into the scene and can add considerably to the intimacy of such scenes.

Coming from a documentary background, where there is often little or no time to consider the composition or balance of a shot before capturing footage of an event, I feel much more informed in how cinematographers compose their images so that significant objects, divisions and units of space correspond to the grid lines identified by the rule of thirds.

Composition and balance are important tools in the cinematographer’s toolbox. I shall be using what I have learnt here to plan new learning experiences, by incorporating the analysis of composition and balance into the planning of future moving images and by making study films with specific goals in mind for exploring specific techniques. For example, by making study films that practice basic techniques of composition and balance; by making study films that attempt to break the rules; and by attempting to replicate shots that inspire or intrigue me in the work of other practitioners.


The Long Take

'The only great problem in cinema seems to me, more and more with each film, when and why to start a shot and when and why to end it.’ Jean-Luc Goddard (Bordwell 2017, p.211).

What guides a director in deciding how long to let a shot last?

Functions of the Long Take

In the films of Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, Orson Welles, Carl Dreyer, Miklos Jancso, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Bela Tarr – shots may last for several minutes. One shot in Andy Warhol’s My Hustler lasts for 30 minutes.

‘It would be impossible to appreciate the artistry of these films without considering what the long take contributes to form and style’ (Bordwell 2017, p.211).

A long take – a protracted shot; an alternative to a series of shots.

Directors can choose between presenting a scene in long takes or a series of shots.

Most films are rendered in a mix of edited scenes and long takes – ‘This allows the filmmaker to bring out specific values in particular scenes, or to associate certain aspects of the narrative or non narrative form with the different stylistic options’ (Bordwell, p.211).

Hunger (2008) dir. Steve McQueen – Most of the scenes, including violent confrontations between prisoners and guards, consist of several shots. A vivid instance of the long take occurs halfway through the film, when the plot starts to focus on Bobby Sands and we begin to understand his motives and plans. The key scene begins with a shot lasting 18 minutes, a balanced view of Sands and an old friend who visits him. There is no camera movement in the shot. The effect is to rivet the viewer on the character’s dialogue during the turning point in the action.

Editing can have great force in a long-take movie – ‘after a seven- or eight-minute shot, an elliptical cut can prove quite disorientating’ (Bordwell, p.211).

Elephant (2003) dir. Gus van Sant – traces events around a high school shooting rampage; presents most scenes in long takes following students through the hallways; plot does not present events in chronological order; narration flashes back to show other school days, the boy’s lives at home and their preparations for the killings – ‘When a cut interrupts a long take, the audience must reflect for a moment to determine how the new shot fits into story chronology. The effect of the editing is usually harsh, because the cuts tend to break the smooth rhythm of the sustained traveling shots’ (p. 211).

Digital technology has made full length films consisting of one long take possible.

Russian Ark (2002) dir. Aleksander Sokurov – an experimental historical drama consisting of a single shot nearly 90 minutes long, as the camera follows over 2,000 actors in period costume through St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace; takes us through several eras of Russian history, culminating in an immense ballroom dance and a crowd drifting off into the wintry night.

Birdman; Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014) dir. Alejandro G. Inarritu – software blends shots undetectably; presents an apparently continuous shot that lasts the full length of the 100 minute film.

The Long Take and the Mobile Frame

The static long take in Hunger is unusual – most long takes rely on camera movement – ‘Panning, tracking, craning, zooming can be used to present continually changing vantage points that are comparable in some ways to the shifts of view supplied by editing’ (Bordwell, p.212).

Frame mobility breaks the long-take into smaller units.

Sister’s of Gion (1936) dir. Kenji Mizoguchi – one long take shows a young woman luring a businessman into becoming her patron; there is no cutting; the camera and figure movements demarcate important stages of the scene’s action.

Long takes tend to be framed in long or medium shots rather than close-ups – the viewer has more opportunity to scan the shot for particular points of interest.

Steven Spielberg – ‘I’d love to see directors start trusting the audience to be the film editor with their eyes, the way you are sometimes with a stage play, where the audience selects who they would choose to look at while a scene is being played’ (Bordwell, p.213).

Another important feature of the long take – the shot reveals a complete internal logic – a beginning, middle and end.

‘The long take can have its own formal pattern, its own development, its own trajectory and shape. Suspense may develop; we start to ask how the shot will continue and when it will end’ (Bordwell, p.213).

Touch of Evil (1958) dir. Orson Welles – example of how the long take can constitute a formal pattern in its own right in the opening sequence; offers an alternative to building the sequence out of many shots; stresses the cut that finally comes, occurring at the sound of the explosion of the car; we expect the bomb shown at the beginning will explode at some time and we wait for that explosion through the long take; the shot establishes the geography of the scene, the border between Mexico and the US; the camera movement weaves together two lines of narrative cause and effect that intersect at the border station; Vargas and Susan are drawn into the action involving the bombing; our expectation is fulfilled when the shot coincides with the offscreen explosion of the bomb; the shot has guided our attention by taking us through a suspenseful development.

The long take can present a complex pattern of events moving toward a goal in a single chunk of time.

 


List of references

Bordwell, D. (2017) Film Art New York: McGraw Hill


The One-Take Shot

Cinematographer Emma Kragen describes six types of long take:

  • The establishing long take – immerses the viewer in a film’s environment and introduces a lot of different characters and their interactions to one another; for example, in ‘Boogie Nights’ you get a feel of what it’s like in the 1980s, in restaurant scene in ‘Goodfellas’ you get a feel of what it’s like to be a part of the mob.
  • The tracking long take – a character driven tracking shot; based on either how the character affects the environment or how the environment affects the character.
  • The exposition long take – used a lot in TV (e.g. ‘The West Wing’); used out of practicality in that it keeps a scene on its feet; serves partially as a transition scene; and partially as a way of getting a lot of exposition across.
  • The action long take – propels the action of the scene, while still making you stay with the actors; focuses on increasing the visceral nature of on screen action; makes the viewer sit with the drama of the moment (e.g. ‘The Revenant’).
  • The stationary long take – e.g. Hunger (2008); Woody Allen uses it a lot – for example in ‘Manhattan’ (1979) there’s a scene where the characters are moving in and out of frame and sometimes you can’t even see them, and he uses sound as another method of telling the story (we hear dialogue even though we can’t see the character whose taking).
  • The ‘fake’ long take – e.g. ‘Birdman’ (2014) uses extensive hidden cuts to appear like a single take film; the methods used – you can either under expose to create a cut point – e.g. use a black frame or a white frame as the end of one shot and beginning of the next shot; you can do the same with colour – a colour grade match cut; you can also use whip pans – you don’t notice a cut when it’s in the middle of a pan; can also use composites to create a graphic match that isn’t actually there.

List of references

Renee, V. (2016) ‘Here are six different kinds of long takes you can use in your film’ At: https://nofilmschool.com/2016/10/here-are-6-different-kinds-long-takes-you-can-use-your-films (Accessed on 10 June 2017)


Camera Angles: Creating atmosphere & meaning

Camera angles are an important component of storytelling within the moving image. They are used primarily to create atmosphere and alter the meaning of a scene or shot.

The choice of camera angle can affect a scene or shot in five ways:

  • Viewpoint – by indicating a specific POV
  • Relationship – by changing the viewer’s relationship with the character
  • Status – by indicating the status of the character
  • Suspense – by creating suspense, tension or expectation
  • Mood – by creating a particular feeling or mood

For example, in these two shots from Witness (1985), the camera angle is integral to  the storytelling.

      

In the first image, a high angle shot looking down from a statue in the ceiling of Grand Central Station, uses the height of the building to show the character as a small, insignificant figure. In this way, the viewer sees the young Amish boy Joseph Lapp as a fish-out-of-water in the unfamiliar surroundings of the city. It also infuses the scene with an edge of hostility. Foreshadowing what is to come.

In the second image, taken from later in the film, a low angle shot of a car slowly edging into view on the crest of a hill is used to help give a sense of foreboding. Although no characters are visible in the shot, we know that whoever is inside the car is a threat to John Buck and the Amish family.

 

Low Angle

  

Images: Die Hard (1989), Shutter Island (2010), Terminator (1984)

Framed below the subject’s eye line, the Low Angle shot is used to create a sense of threat from within the scene, possibly from the character within the shot.

 

High Angle

  

Images: North By Northwest (1959), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010), The Shawshank Redemption (1995)

Framed above the subject’s eye line, the High Angle shot is used to create a sense of weakness, in which the character within the shot seems less significant or powerful, or in which there is an implied threat from a greater force.

 

Canted Frame

  

Images: The Third Man (1949), Twelve Monkeys (1995), 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)

Used for dramatic effect, the Canted Frame (or Dutch Tilt) is used to help create a sense of unease, disorientation, intoxication or madness within a scene or shot. Canted Frames range from slight tilts (5°) to extreme tilts (90°).

 

Overhead Shot

Images: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2012)

The Overhead Shot can be used to make the subject harder to identify or empathise with, and to emphasise emotional distance within the scene.

 

The camera angle is an important element within the design of a shot. It can draw the viewer’s eye into the frame in a particular way, giving subliminal clues about a character’s status, building suspense within a scene or creating a sense of expectation. It also helps to manipulate the viewer’s emotions as they watch the moving image by influencing the mood or atmosphere within the scene. A slight tilt upwards, downwards or sideways can greatly influence the way in which the story is told.

However, camera angle does not work in isolation from everything else within the frame. One thing I’ve discovered from this exercise is that camera angle and lighting are very closely tied together in the creation of atmosphere and meaning within a scene.


References

Die Hard (1989) Directed by John McTiernan

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2012) Directed by Michel Gondry

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010) Directed by David Yates

North by Northwest (1959) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The Shawshank Redemption (1995) Directed by Frank Darabont

Shutter Island (2010) Directed by Martin Scorsese

The Terminator (1984) Directed by James Cameron

The Third Man (1949) Directed by Carol Reed

Twelve Monkeys (1995) Directed by Terry Gilliam

Witness (1985) Directed by David Lean

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Directed by Stanley Kubrik


Reading: Cinematography Robby Muller (2013), Van Deursen & De Vries

Linda Van Deursen & Marietta De Vries (2013) Cinematography Robby Muller. Zurich: JRP Ringier


I discovered Deursen & De Vries’ book Cinematography Robby Muller while browsing through Ashley Lauryssen’s Open College of the Arts study blog. Robby Muller was a Dutch cinematographer, whose inventive use of lighting and approach to composition were consistent elements within films by directors such as Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. As a fan of both these filmmakers, II felt compelled to locate a copy of the book and find out more about this cinematographic auteur.

Organised thematically, the book collects together hundreds of shots from fourteen films Muller worked on during his career with directors such as Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Peter Bogdanovich and Lars von Trier.

Rather than analysing and discussing the techniques Muller used within individual films, the authors present a series of film stills, organised around several key themes found in Muller’s cinematic practice; such as filming road movies; filming in natural light; filming at different times of the day; filming lens flare. Most of the stills are accompanied by captions, in which some of the directors and technicians Muller worked with offer a brief comment on the images, providing a pithy insight into the way in which he worked.

The book contains stills from fourteen films on which Robby Muller worked as cinematographer, of which only Paris, Texas (dir.  Wim Wenders) and Down By Law (dir.  Jim Jarmusch) are familiar to me.

Alice in den Stadten (1974)
Falsche Bewegung(1975)
Im Lauf Der Zeit(1976)
Der Amerikanische Freund (1977)
Die Linkshandige Frau (1978)
Saint Jack (1979)
Repo Man (1984)
Paris, Texas (1984)
Down By Law (1986)
Barfly (1987)
Mystery Train (1989)
Dead Man (1995)
Breaking the Waves (1996)
Dancer in the Dark (2000)

What struck me about the film stills contained in the book, is the way in which Muller uses light to convey a mood. His ability to use both natural and artificial light in a way that appears so natural to the location. This is summarised nicely in the caption to the stills from Saint Jack (1979), in which Theo Bierkens, the best boy on the film, says ‘He [Muller] always looked carefully at what a location had to offer and enhanced that. Not in a dogmatic way, but more intuitive’ (Duersen & Vries, p.89).

Together, these film stills are a wonderful resource on the creative practice of a cinematographer who is passionate about light, how it works and how it falls within a scene. It’s the kind of book I can browse through, look at a single shot or a series of shots, and see exactly what Muller saw when his eye was to the viewfinder. It’s a book I shall be returning to again for advice and inspiration when lighting my own moving images.


References

Van Deursen, L., & De Vries, M. (2013) Cinematography Robby Muller. Zurich: JRP Ringier


The origins and history of video art

The origins and history of video art is a fascinating subject. Up until a few weeks ago, it was a subject about which I knew very little, if anything, of any substance. Rather than rewrite my notes, I thought it might be more interesting to share a few pages from my research journals, and let the ideas speak for themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Rush, Michael (2007) Video Art London: Thames & Hudson

Salisbury, Peter (n.d.) Research Journals, 2017


Reading: Video Art (2007), Michael Rush

Video Art (2007), Michael Rush

‘The story of video art embraces all the significant art ideas and forms of recent times – Abstract, Conceptual, Minimal, Performance and Pop art, photography, and digital art. The story also departs from art-historical categories into a new domain, that of the technological, which has its own referents and language’

(Rush, 2007, p8).

 

 

 

 

Video art is an all embracing art form

  • multiple ways of constructing a history of the medium of video art
  • history of video art so far concerns three generations of artists
  • video artists ‘spontaneously adopted a massive communications medium for their own purposes, turning an implement of commerce…into a material for art’ (Rush, 2007, p.8)
  • two difficulties for critics: (1) the language used for video art is borrowed from film; (2) there are no convenient ‘themes’ or ‘schools’ of artists to help organise critical discussion

Blurring the boundaries

  • video art emerged when boundaries between traditional art forms were becoming blurred
  • painting, performance, dance, music, film, writing, sculpture combined in single works of art
  • early video art emerged from or reacted to post-Abstract Expressionism
  • the physical and the conceptual were linked from the start in video art – remain linked today
  • performance – principle material in the medium

A hybrid art form

  • video used in combination with film, computer art, graphics, animation, virtual reality, all types of digital applications
  • video is rarely the ‘pure’ medium of a work – more often a mix
  • is video art obsolete?
  • ‘We live in a time when ideas – and not specific media – are central to artists’ (Rush, p.11)

Key points for me

There are no obvious ‘themes’ or ‘schools’ of video artists. Today’s video artists are interested in the manipulation of time and breaking the boundaries between the material used and the medium of its creation. I don’t know how I plan to use what I have learned here. Though I do have one question: how do you create something new through the medium of video in a world so saturated with moving images?

 


Rush, M. (2007) Video Art London: Thames & Hudson


Building a story – Take two

As in my previous attempt at this exercise, I found a picture of a scene, identified several frames and put them together in a sequence to create a new story. This time my canvas was ‘Triangular’ (1962), a black & white photograph by Chinese photographer Fan Ho. I found this picture interesting for its use of high contrast lighting and the intriguing dark-clothed figure standing with his back to the viewer, lit by sunlight streaming into the subway from the street above.

Before selecting the frames for the story, I cropped the picture down, creating a new master shot that further emphasised the standing man in the background and the lower half of a walking man in the foreground.

I selected three frames, of three figures rendered in different degrees of light and tone. Then added captions to each image to help tell the story.


Fig. 1. Fan Ho (1962)

 

Frames

1. The Standing Man
2. The Sunlit Man
3. The Hidden Man

 

 

 

 

 

 

Captions

1.

The Standing Man
steps serenely, upward
into the morning crowds

2.

The Sunlit Man is in
no hurry to catch the
eastbound train across town

3.

From a distance, the
Hidden Man watches as
people pass by like spirits.

 

This was a very satisfying exercise to do. Where the frames in the previous attempt at this exercise appeared looser, a little disconnected, and even slightly surveillance camera in style, the frames in this attempt are tighter, connected and more cinematic, and there is a stronger sense of character and place.

This time I looked for a way to incorporate shot size into the selection when framing the images. Frame 1 is a medium shot (MS); Frame 2 is a medium shot (MS); Frame 3 is a wide shot (WS).

What this exercise has shown me is that the connection between how you convey information, meaning, feeling, ideas within a frame and your choice of shot size can have a strong impact on the way in which an audience views a moving image.

So, how can I use this to plan for the future? By asking which shot size works best for each frame, as well as thinking about conveying information, meaning, feeling and ideas, when making my own moving images.

And how can I use this to plan new learning experiences? By looking at how other moving image practitioners and cinematographers use framing to portray information, meaning, feeling and ideas within their work; by experimenting with ideas using the same exercise through moving images; and by using this exercise as a follow up to exercises 7 & 10 on developing ideas.

 


List of Illustrations

Figure 1. ‘Triangular’ (1962) Fan Ho


Building a story


Fig. 1. Chris Yunker (2008)

Exercise Brief:

  • Choose a picture of a wide scene.
  • Identify a series of frames within the picture that you can use to create a new story.
  • Place your new images in order and accompany them with notes outlining your new story.

A wide shot of pedestrians walking in ones, twos and threes along a street in Milan provided the large canvas for this exercise on directing attention in a scene. The bright, overcast sky casts a diffused, even light throughout the street.

The five images selected from within the wide shot were chosen for the different ways in which the characters were portrayed within the scene. The images were cropped to exclude other people where possible, so as to direct the focus of attention to the main characters within the frame.


Logbook 11/4/2017

Each frame was also given a caption that described in some way the character within the image.

The frames were then sequenced according to an implied direction of movement within the images and the number of people within the image.

Frames 1, 2 & 4 imply a left to right movement; frame 3 implies a movement towards the viewer; frame 5, though static, implies a movement from right to left, which acts as a bookend to frame 1.

The number of people within the opening frames increases sequentially from 1 to 2 to 3. The final two images have one person within the frame, with the final one again acting as a bookend to the first frame.

 

Frames

 

Frame 1. ‘The unobservant man…reflects on peaceful times’

Frame 2. ‘The two colleagues…persue the benefits of stone’

Frame 3. ‘The man in a black suit…extols the virtues of his wealth’

Frame 4. ‘The woman glancing sideways…quietly rejoices’

Frame 5. ‘The pensive man…conceals a fear of rain’

 

Reflection

I am pleased with the result in isolating five frames from the original picture that are different in content and meaning. I’m also pleased with the way in which the captions add an imaginative dimension to the result.

This exercise taught me that the primary function of the frame is to define what the audience sees on screen, and that to achieve this I need to carefully select frames that present information, convey meaning, create feeling and express a feeling within the scene.

If I was to do this exercise again, I would crop the picture selections using a 16:9 aspect ratio. This would help give a better sense of how directing attention through framing can affect the look of a shot on screen.

By asking myself what information needs presenting, what meaning should be conveyed, what feeling should be created and what idea needs expressing within each frame, I have become more rigorous and creative in my approach to framing shots. In future, when planning shots for a moving image, I can ask these questions of each frame to help define what the audience sees.


List of Illustrations

Figure 1. October afternoon on Via Dante in Milan, Italy (2008) Chris Yunker. [Flickr website] At: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chris-yunker/13583927 (Accessed on: 10 April 2017)


Dad’s Stick (2012), John Smith

Dad’s Stick features three well-used objects that were shown to the artist by his father shortly before he died. Two of these were so steeped in history that their original forms and functions were almost completely obscured. The third object seemed to be instantly recognizable, but it turned out to be something else entirely. Focusing on these ambiguous artifacts and events relating to their history, 'Dad’s Stick' creates a dialogue between abstraction and literal meaning, exploring the contradictions of memory to hint at the character of “a perfectionist with a steady hand” (John Smith).

 

‘Dad’s Stick’ is a tribute to the artist’s father. It opens with what appears to be an abstract multicoloured image of colours layered like stratified rock. It is then superimposed by the text: ‘My dad did a lot of painting.’ In the background we can hear the sound of knocking; wood on wood, maybe. The film goes silent for a few seconds as see some more frames of the abstract multicoloured layers, superimposed with texts. Then we cut to a series of plain coloured frames (beige, green, brown, off-white, black) superimposed with further captions, starting with ‘Dad’s colour preferences changed over the years.’ Eventually, we cut to an image of a stick, superimposed with the text ‘Shortly before he died he showed me one of the sticks that he used for stirring paint.’ It’s at this point we realise that we are looking something completely different; the cross-section of his father’s painting stick. It’s a wonderful moment.

Smith’s ‘Dad’s Stick’ is a delightful film. It’s a playful game with images, words and meanings. What at first seems like an abstract painting is in fact the cross-section of a wooden stick his father used to mix household paint before applying it to the walls of his house. What appeared to be an abstract multicoloured image is in fact the layers of paint that became encrusted on the stick over decades of painting the house. Our expectations are completely overturned by the insertion of one image, the stick.

What I like about this film is its simplicity. There are only a handful of static shots, a few superimposed captions, a couple of sound effects of knocking on wood and stirring in a teacup, and the artist’s voice in the background, singing. Yet, it’s within so few images and sounds that our perceptions are challenged and, more importantly, we are drawn into the film space and asked to recall memories of our own parents.

As I was watching the film it got me thinking about my own father and an item that once belonged to him; his large, brown tape measure, that travelled all over Cheshire with him whenever he went on site as a Cheshire County Council architect.


References

‘Dad’s Stick’ (2012), Smith, J. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rx2hPQ2S08k (Accessed on: 6 April 2017)

Smith, J. ‘Dad’s Stick’ At: johnsmithfilms.com/selected-works/dads-stick/ (Accessed on: 11 April 2017)


Video art by Lucy Purrington

I look at the work of Lucy Purrington, in particular at the way in which she uses humans within the landscape.

I began by looking at her video MVI 1893. The video opens with an outdoor shot of a grey, concrete surface. After a few seconds, a hand slowly crawls into shot from the right of the frame. The fingers move across the surface of the concrete, dipping momentarily behind a ridge in the ground, before slowly crawling back out of shot leaving an empty frame.

Fig. 1. Lucy Purrington (2017)

At first, I wasn’t sure what this video was trying to do. So I watched it again, looking for any distinctive patterns or ideas within the video. This time I saw what appears to be quite a clear ‘narrative’ in the way in which the hand moves across the surface of the ground. The hand crawls into shot, finger tips feeling the concrete surface; the hand rolls over on its back, again feeling the surface of the ground; the hand briefly claws at the ground, before forming a fist and thumping at the hard surface. It’s as though there is a change of emotion here. From benign and inquisitive to anger. The hand then spreads out its fingers, its palm slapping the concrete surface. Another change of emotion, perhaps frustration. The hand claws at the surface again, before dropping out of sight behind a ridge in the ground, leaving an empty frame.

I also noticed that the shot had been carefully framed so that the hand appeared in close-up, moving roughly in proportion to the rule of thirds. Which produced a satisfying composition. I was also more aware of the audio track, which is simply an ambient recording of the landscape in which the camera is set. We hear birdsong and the sound of the hand as it moves across and interacts with the landscape.

Fig. 2. Lucy Purrington (2017)

I then found another video, 29 03 17 1 overlay, in which she overlays several different ‘hand’ videos, including MVI 1893, over a shot of an empty area of ground. Interestingly, having just seen the previous video, this one made more sense on first viewing it.

What I find particularly interesting about her approach in these two videos is the way in which she has set up the camera to record a single, static shot, in much the same way a photographer would capture a still image. This is not something that would immediately occur to me as a videographer used to capturing a narrative through action and movement. It has certainly opened my eyes to the possibility of using the video camera in a different way than I have been used to so far.

What these videos have also shown me is that video art requires a different way of interacting with the moving image. Watching Lucy Purrington’s videos required me to find a way of observing her moving images that was different to that of watching a film in the cinema, for instance. It also required several viewings in order for me to appreciate the full picture. In some ways it was like watching a play by Samuel Beckett. This was quite an eye-opening experience.


References

MVI 1893, Lucy Purrington (2017). www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMx5cRAAzDg (Accessed on 10 April 2017)

29 03 17 1 overlay, Lucy Purrington (2017) www.youtube.com/watch?v=6srXHLvxEGE (Accessed on 10 April 2017)

 

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. MV 1893 (2017) Lucy Purrington

Figure 2. 29 03 17 1 overlay (2017) Lucy Purrington


Selections from Film Culture magazine (1955-1996)

Following on from my first look into the work of Jonas Mekas, I went in search of further references to Film Culture, the New York based magazine founded in 1954 by Jonas and Adolfas Mekas. Film Culture magazine evolved into the primary voice of independent and avant-garde cinema, publishing a total of 79 issues between the years 1955 – 1996.

Most of the magazine’s writers shared a belief in the poetic and ‘painterly possibilities’ of the film medium, defining cinema in lyrical or abstract terms rather than in terms of the narrative form of mainstream cinema.

I discovered twenty three articles from Film Culture magazine available on UbuWeb, a non-profit online resource of all things avant-garde.

Selections from Film Culture magazine (1955-1996)

The selection includes articles on experimental film, interviews with avant-garde filmmakers, transcripts and reports on symposiums, personal reflections, and a statement by Luis Buñuel.


References

Selections from Film Culture magazine At: http://www.ubu.com/papers/film_culture.html (Accessed on 6 April 2017)


Experimental filmakers in mainstream cinema – some notable examples

Experimental film or avant-garde cinema is a mode of filmmaking that re-evaluates cinematic conventions and explores non-narrative forms and alternatives to traditional narratives or methods of working in filmmaking. Many experimental films relate to arts in other disciplines, such as painting, literature, poetry and dance.

An experimental film is generally characterised by:

  • the absence of a linear narrative
  • the use of abstracting techniques
  • the use of non-diegetic sound
  • the use of a non-narrative, impressionistic, poetic approach to structure

with the goal of drawing the viewer into a more active and thoughtful relationship with the film.

Many experimental filmmakers have also made feature films.

Some notable examples include Lars von TrierNikos NikolaidisJean-Luc GodardSteven SoderberghKathryn BigelowAndy WarholPeter GreenawayDerek JarmanJean CocteauSally PotterDavid Lynch, Jørgen LethPatrick BokanowskiPier Paolo PasoliniSimone Rapisarda Casanova and Luis Buñuel.

However, the extent to which these filmmakers take on mainstream commercial aesthetics appears to differ widely in their work.


Notes on Classical Narrative Techniques

Basic techniques of progression, clarity and unity

  • a narrative is a chain of events occurring in time and space, linked by cause and effect
  • basic principle of Hollywood cinema – a narrative should consist of a chain of causes and effects that is easy for the viewer to follow
  • clarity of comprehension is basic to all responses to films, particularly emotional ones
  • most Hollywood films tend to be easier to understand than art-house films; they lack the ambiguities and symbolism that make art-house films  fascinating
  • strength of Hollywood system is its ability to allow writers and directors to weave intricate web of character, event, time and space that can seem transparently obvious to the viewer – unobtrusive craftsmanship
  • Hollywood favours unified narratives – a cause should lead to an effect that in turn should become a cause for another effect; an unbroken chain of cause and effect across the film
  • effect does not always need to immediately follow cause – the ‘dangling cause’, information or action which leads to no effect or resolution until later in the film (e.g. Witness – John Book remains hidden on Amish farm; Book learns his partner Carter  has been murdered and must save himself and the Amish family from the corrupt cop; Carter’s investigation acts as a dangling cause that eventually results in his death; that effect causes Book to reveal himself to police; the line of action initiated by Carter has been put on hold until needed); a typical dangling cause; stitches classical narrative together
  • ambiguous, open endings often characterise art-house films
  • Hollywood films achieve closure in plot-lines and subplots
  • unity and clarity require everything in the film to be motivated, whether in advance or in retrospect (epilogue) – each event, object, character trait, narrative component should be explicitly or implicitly justified by other elements within the film
  • lack of justification – a plot ‘hole’ – distracting; runs counter to narrative linearity and unity
  • generally, the characters provide most of the motivations in a film – these motivations are based on character traits; these traits last throughout the film, the characters act consistently
  • if character behaves contrary to their traits, the classical narrative will offer an explanation (e.g. Jaws – chief Brody is scared of water, yet he goes out as assistant in Quint’s boat and ultimately kills the shark; the implication is that he does something uncharacteristic because of his strong desire to protect his family and community; his fear of water is still present; during the shark hunt is more afraid than the shark hunter Quint and scientist Hooper and does not enter into the fight with the same level of delight as them)
  • characters with sufficient traits to be interesting and sustain the causal action of the film are central to Hollywood filmmaking
  • in most cases, the main character in a classical Hollywood film desires something, and that desire provides the forward impetus for the narrative
  • Hollywood protagonists tend to be active, to seek out goals and pursue them rather than having goals simply thrust upon them
  • the protagonist’s goals define the main lines of action; there are usually two lines of action, making a double plot line another distinctive feature of Hollywood cinema
  • Romance is central to Hollywood films, so one line of action follows that; the other line deals with another of the protagonist’s goals; the goals are usually linked (e.g. Tootsie – Michael Dorsey’s first goal is to get work as an actor, so as to earn money to produce his friend’s play; winning the love of a woman is the second line; The Silence of the Lambs – Clarice’s two goal are both professional: first, she wants to become a special agent for the FBI, specifically with Crawford, second, she wants to catch the serial killer before he murders his next victim; both goals are tightly intertwined, in that we assume he success in saving the victim will ensure her the job with Crawford)
  • goals may not provide the main forward thrust in all films – some films set up a series of questions, in which the protagonist does not know what they want until well into the film (e.g. The Graduate – the whole thrust of the story is for Benjamin to find a goal); but such protagonists are very rare
  • most protagonists have two goals, maybe equally important
  • some films are use another strategy, not goal-orientated – European art cinema; characters often act because they are forced to, not because they want to (e.g. L’Avventura – protagonist has goal but seems unable to pursue it actively; involves both a search and a romance, but the film concentrates on the psychological inability of the characters to follow through on these goals)
  • one thing that sets art-house film narrative set apart from classical-style films – the protagonist is under little time pressure to accomplish their goal; in Hollywood films, both forward impetus and temporal clarity are provided by the inclusion of one more deadlines; the deadline may last across the entire film (e.g. His Girl Friday – the opening scene reveals Walter Burns is under pressure to obtain a reprieve for Earl Williams before the execution the following morning), or only a brief while (e.g. Alien – at the end of the film when Ripley sets the spaceship’s self-destruct mechanism and has only ten minutes to escape)
  • Hollywood films tend to convey information about deadlines, character traits and other story factors redundantly – i.e. the same event or character trait may be mentioned or reiterated several times, so viewer can absorb the information and follow the plot

Keeping the narrative progression clear:

  • one potential source of complexity – the medium’s ability to move about freely in time and space
  • intercutting may link characters who are widely separated; locale may shift in the instantaneous change provided by a cut; an interval of time, whether a few seconds or many years, may be elided in the same blink of an eye
  • most modern drama consist of over 800 shots or more; faster action thrillers can include over 2000 cuts – this creates challenge for filmmakers to maintain clear, comprehensible, causality, space and time within a film
  • the form of a film is not a continuous entity, but an assembly of blocks represented by shots and scenes; the filmmaker must search for connecting elements within the story in order to avoid interruptions to the continuity
  • narrative disruptions can occur either within a scene or at the transitions between scenes
  • stylistic devices – to achieve clarity – include placing a distant framing of the action (establishing shot) early in a scene to establish the locale and who is present in it
  • the analytical editing system – breaking the space into closer framings makes the action more comprehensible by enlarging the salient visual elements
  • matches on action – at the cuts – to promote a sense of temporal continuity
  • compositions – usually centre the most important characters or objects, ensuring the viewer will notice them
  • shot/reverse shot conversation – characters are often balanced in a gentle sea-saw of slightly off-centre framings
  • design techniques – bright clothing or staging calls attention to moving characters

Recent changes to classical Hollywood style:

  • fast cutting and occasional jump cuts
  • lighting and tonality tend to be darker, even outside the realm of film noir
  • dissolves to soften scene transitions have disappeared; fades only used to mark a few important scene changes
  • startling sound bridges are common
  • special effects are more prominent
  • however – shot/reverse shot still used in conversation sequences; the axis of action obeyed; faster editing accompanied by simultaneous simplification of composition, to keep shots legible

Other issues and techniques:

  • spectators are most likely to lose track of time, space, or the causal chain during the progression from one scene to another – one reason why the establishing shot is crucial for maintaining a clear sense of locale
  • most basic source of temporal and causal clarity is the dangling cause
  • one simple technique is to leave a cause open at the end of one scene and immediately pick it up in the next; such a transition is known as a ‘hook’
  • frequently at the end of a scene a character will mention what they are going to do and them will immediately be seen doing it early in the next scene – the ‘dialogue hook’
  • another means of providing temporal clarity from scene to scene and across stretches of the narrative is the appointment – the appointment may act as a dialogue hook that reveals the time interval that the next scene transition will pass over
  • a film can achieve overall unity and clarity by means of motifs – auditory or visual

Key points for me

There is a clear distinction between European art-house films and classical Hollywood films, each one employing their own variations on progression, clarity and unity.

Classical narrative technique is an effective means of visual storytelling, though lacking the ambiguity and symbolism associated with art-house films.

As a means of cinematic storytelling, classical Hollywood cinema uses tried and tested techniques designed to create a unified narrative capable of weaving an intricate web of character, event, time and space that can seem transparently obvious to the viewer.

 


Thompson, K. (1999) Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Black Mirror (2011), Doug Aitken

I have been looking at Doug Aitken’s short film ‘Black Mirror’ and it’s like someone has just opened the faucet to my imagination. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking. I’m watching it thinking ‘That’s It! That’s It!’ His use of sound, picture, voice, his approach to narrative form, it’s all there, just what I’ve been looking for. It’s a well-wrought example of a short film that experiments with narrative form in a way that I connected with on first watching. I was completely entranced by his use of character and setting, the way in which he juxtaposes images, and the way in which he disrupts the narrative flow.

 

 

 

 

 

‘LIFE in the 21st century can feel like an infinite loop of security checkpoints, rolling luggage and brief electronic exchanges, at least to a constant traveler like the artist Doug Aitken, whose latest work, a video installation called “Black Mirror,” explores the placelessness and alienation of people in nonstop motion.’ (New York Times)

It’s the type of approach I would like to try to adopt in my own filmmaking. But I’ll need to study 'Black Mirror' in much more detail to find out what Aitken is doing, how and why. Only then will I be able to develop my own ideas in a meaningful way that is both challenging and inspiring.

Last night I was looking at Jonas Mekas’ films. Amazing! Today I was looking at Doug Aitken’s Black Mirror. Amazing! A whole new way of looking at the moving image has opened up in front of me.

 

Images: Stills from Black Mirror, 2011 © Doug Aitken


References

Black Mirror (2011) Doug Aitken [YouTube website] https://youtu.be/lmUijQlBBNE?si=41AGumUdqw9geBL3 (Accessed on 2 April 2017)

Spears, D. (2011) ‘Can You Hear Me Now?’ In: The New York Times [online] At: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/arts/design/black-mirror-video-by-doug-aitken-in-greece.html (Accessed on 2 April 2017)


Jonas Mekas

Fig. 1.

“When one writes diaries, it’s a retrospective process: you sit down, you look back at your day, and you write it all down. To keep a film (camera) diary, is to react (with your camera) immediately, now, this instant: either you get it now, or you don’t get it at all.” Jonas Mekas

Born in Lithuania in 1922, Janos Mekas left home during the Soviet invasion in 1940. He and his brother were confined in a labour camp in Germany. They were brought to the United States in 1949 by the UN Refugee Organisation.

After arriving in New York, Janos became involved in the avant-garde art scene. He frequented Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16. Then arranged his own screenings and began making his own films. His early films include Guns of the Trees (1961) and The Brig (1963), which won Grand Prizes at the Parretta Therme and Venice Film Festivals respectively. It was during the 1960s and 70s that he developed his signature diary style in films such as Walden (1969), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) and Lost Lost Lost (1976).

During the 1950s he founded the journal Film Culture, which became the voice for American avant-garde cinema. He also ran the influential ‘Movie Journal’ column for Village Voice and established institutions such as the Film-Makers Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives.

Diaristic Film

He began making videos in the late 1980s. His 365-Day Project, in which he recorded a video every single day of his life for a year, was made in 2007. Talking about his 365-Day Project in an interview with Natasha Kurchanova in Studio International, Mekas says ‘I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments.’ These films, each of between 4 and 10 minutes long, present small, personal moments about his life and the life of his friends.  As we watch these short diaristic films, we see what he sees while he is filming, we see the way his eye moves and the way his body moves with the camera, we see the details upon which he focuses.

Mekas used a small Sony video camera to make these films. Talking about his filming and editing processes, he says: ‘When I film, I never know how a particular situation will end. So, I just go along with it, follow it with my camera, and permit this flow. […] I do almost all of my editing during the filming. My filming is like when one paints: all decisions of hand or brush movements are decided during the process of painting. […] For me, if I failed to get the essence of the moment during the filming, no amount of editing is going to get it.’

Figs 2 to 4

With his films, Jonas has given us a direct personal response to the world, keeping the direct contact between his camera and the moment preserved.” Martin Scorsese

What makes Janos Mekas such a fascinating filmmaker for me is his search for the essence of a moment as it happens, and the approach to filming and editing he adopts in achieving this goal. What’s interesting in his approach is that there is no obvious planning or design within his diaristic films in a conventional sense. Rather than having an idea of where a film will go, he just starts and sees where it leads him. I looked at three of his films, I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009), A Walk (1990) and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000). All the three were fascinating examples of his diaristic style. Together, they embody what Martin Scorsese calls ‘a direct personal response to the world’. Yet, individually, they are quite different from each other in their responses to the moments that are captured and ‘preserved’.

One film that stood out for me, in terms of Mekas just starting and seeing where it leads him, is A Walk (1990). A Walk is exactly that, a record of a walk Mekas made in Soho, New York. It is also his first attempt at creating a single-shot film. Completely unrehearsed and unedited, the film captures an hour long walk in the rain he made starting from Wooster Street, where he was living at the time. Accompanying the film is an equally unrehearsed and unedited monologue, in which he shares musings, recollections and poetry in response to the ambience of the streets through which he passes. Whatever comes to his mind as he walks. What fascinated me most about this film is the unrehearsed, unedited, meandering nature of the film in both picture and sound. The way in which he has captured a moment in time as it happened. A moment in time that was not predicted and that will never be seen in that way again.

I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009) is a wonderfully poetic piece of filmmaking. Filmed in 1967, in black & white, it shows Jonas Mekas leaving Chelsea Hotel and walking towards 7th Avenue. While watching the opening shot, we are led to believe that this is a simple record of him stepping out of the hotel with a stack of journals under one arm and a duffel back slung over the opposite shoulder and walking along the street. In actual fact, it is a sequence of shots repeating the same event; Mekas leaving Chelsea Hotel. Mekas manipulates time, presenting us with the same ‘event’ several times, with minor variations between. Yet, as the picture builds, it still feels fresh and unrehearsed. It’s like a memory recurring in thought, over and over. Which maybe, in a way, it is, as it was edited 40 years after being filmed.

Jonas Mekas is a fascinating and very endearing filmmaker, whose work I have quickly grown to admire. Having never heard of him or his work before, I am keen discover more about the way in which he and his films work.


References

Bogdanovich, P. (2015) ‘Jonas Mekas’ In: Interview Magazine [online] At: http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/jonas-mekas [Accessed on 1 April 2017]

Kurchanova, N. (2015) ‘Jonas Mekas: I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments’ In: Studio International [online] At:  http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/jonas-mekas-interview-365-day-project-microscope-gallery-brooklyn [Accessed on 1 April 2017]

A Walk (1990) Jonas Mekas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qj-LMIsM8c&t=6s (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Paradise (2000) Jonas Mekas www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOwescpyMqQ (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009) Jonas Mekas http://jonasmekas.com/online_materials/#I_leave_chelsea_hotel (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

 

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Jonas Mekas in New York (2015) Craig McDean, Interview Magazine, October 27, 2015

Figure 2. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

Figure 3. I Leave Chelsea Hotel,(2009)

Figure 4. A Walk (1990)


Complex representations: Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (1977-80)

Fig. 1. Untitled Film Still #21 (1978)
Fig. 2. Untitled Film Still #3 (1977)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I first encountered Cindy Sherman’s work in the Tate Gallery, London, in the 1980s. It was a colour photograph of a young woman sitting in front of a mirror. The title of which I can’t remember. My first impression of the photograph was of its cinematic qualities. Although clearly staged, the image could easily have been a still from a movie or tv drama. The young woman’s body language and facial expression was such, that you felt you had walked into a scene mid-action. Who was she? Where was she? What had just happened before I arrived? I knew there was something unique about this image, but couldn’t put my finger on it. It left me guessing. I had to fill in the blanks for myself, in an experience that has remained with me ever since.

Now, thirty years later, I feel more able to understand what Cindy Sherman is doing in that image I discovered in the Tate Gallery, and her inspiring black and white series ‘Untitled Film Stills’ from the late 1970s.

When seen as a whole, you quickly become aware that in these images Sherman has assembled a series of cliches, in which the fictional ‘blonde bombshell’ enacts a range of cultural roles, such as the housewife, the career girl, the chic starlet, the sophisticated woman. What’s particularly significant about the way in which Sherman renders these roles within the images is that, rather than simply using them as raw material or subject matter, she draws upon ‘a whole artistic vocabulary, ready-made’  (MoMA, exhibition notes). That’s what fascinates me most about Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’. The way in which she uses a ready-made artistic vocabulary drawn from popular film culture to communicate something quite profound about female identity within a still image.

While the pictures can be appreciated individually, much of their significance comes in the endless variation of identities from one photograph to the next. As a group they explore the complexity of representation in a world saturated with images, and refer to the cultural filter of images (moving and still) through which we see the world.” (MoMA, interactive exhibition guide)

The first thing I saw when looking at Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ were the cinematic techniques employed within the images: the lighting, framing, camera angle, etc. All of which make up a relevant component of the images, but not the main one. It wasn’t until after carrying out further research into the series that I realised how complex these images really were (both collectively and individually) and that, in making the artist the subject of these images, each of Sherman’s stills embody and represent much more than the replication of a promotional still for a movie.


Reseach Journal

 

EXT. DAY – NEW YORK
‘Untitled Film Still’ #21

As with all good filmmaking, what you see inside the frame has been put there for a reason. Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ are no different. In ‘Untitled Film Still’ #21 we have a frame which could easily pass for a transitional shot in a 1960s movie. In the foreground, a woman in suit and hat is separated from the background, a Manhattan-style skyline, through the controlled use of shallow depth of field. A low, slightly tilted camera angle places her in the centre of the image, looking at something beyond the frame in what might be fear, anxiety or disgust, we’re not quite sure. The head and shoulders shot, a close up, also reveals enough of the background to set the context and tone of the image. However, although we have character and setting within the image, that’s as far as it goes. There are no more narrative signs within the sparsely composed image, other than the sophisticated woman standing on what could be a Manhattan street.

INT. DAY – KITCHEN
‘Untitled Film Still’ #3

‘Untitled Film Still’ #3 offers a similarly sparse, but controlled composition, also in the style of a 1960s movie still. In a carefully constructed wide shot, in which the various visual elements within the composition are placed in a banal domestic setting in accordance with the rule of thirds, we see a woman wearing an apron standing at a kitchen sink. Surrounded by household items (a dish washing bottle, drying rack and a spice jar on a shelf) she looks back over her shoulder at someone or something out of frame, while holding a hand to her stomach. A shallow depth of field throws a pan handle and small container in the foreground out of focus. Again, the character’s gaze suggests an unknown narrative.

Both images raise questions around the issue of female identity. Particularly around the question of whether female identity is culturally imposed or freely chosen. Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ challenges the way in which we view the role of being a woman. Through the act of turning the camera on herself, and directing and photographing the images through a vocabulary of popular film culture, she shows that being a women is a masquerade, a performance, something that you can freely choose and construct for yourself.

Looking at Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ in this way has shown me that both still and moving images are highly complex representations. It has shown me that rather than using the moving image as a way of merely representing issues on screen, I can actually engage with and define my own view of those issues through the moving image. It has also opened up the potential of creating meaningful non-narrative, poetic films within my own filmmaking practice.

 


References

Museum of Modern Art (1997) The Complete Untitled Film Stills Cindy Sherman. At:  https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1997/sherman/ (Accessed on: 24 March 2017)

Museum of Modern Art (2012) Interactive exhibition guide. At: https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/gallery/2/mobile.php (Accessed on: 24 March 2017)

Museum of Modern Art Learning (s.d.) Untitled Film Still #21. At: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/cindy-sherman-untitled-film-stills-1977-80 (Accessed on: 24 March 2017)

 

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Untitled Film Still #21 (1978) Cindy Sherman. [Film still] Museum of Modern Art, New York

Figure 2. Untitled Film Still #3 (1977) Cindy Sherman. [Film still] Museum of Modern Art, New York


Ideas from life

Search, practice, discover, gather!

The starting point for this exercise was to generate ideas from my own life: the people around me, the places I am connected to, the social or philosophical issues I am passionate about or inspired by, my dreams, imagination and visions.

Curious to see where this would lead, I began by making a quick-fire list of ideas straight off the top of my head and noting them down in my notebook. It’s difficult not to self-censor yourself when doing something like this, so I decided to write down whatever came to mind, however mundane or unusual the ideas seemed. The result was a mix of ideas from ‘my family life’ (no surprise there) to ‘the colour blue at 40,000 feet’ (where did that come from?). Other ideas included homelessness in Dublin, the Northern Ireland peace process, my interest in fairy tales and Greek drama, and a quote by Andrei Tarkovsky that could lead anywhere.

The exercise required me to find two ideas and develop them into no more than 250 words. Again, I tried not to self-censor my choice and go with my gut response to the list of ideas. So, after glancing through all the options on the page, I decided to play it safe with ‘my family life’ and go off the wall with ‘the colour blue at 40,000 feet’ (yikes!).

 

‘My family life’

My family has expanded greatly since moving to Ireland ten years ago. I now have an Irish mum, sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces, who we see at various times throughout the year. My wife and I are both self-employed and work from home in our newly-converted attic space at the top of the house, lined with poetry books and journals. One of the benefits of working from home is that during the summer months we can have lunch together in our garden. We share our house with a very sweet border collie, who takes us for walks two or three times a day and entertains us with his squeaky toys, often in the middle of business calls.

 

‘The colour blue at 40,000 feet’

If, when I die, I was invited to take one image of my time on earth with me into the next life, I would choose the sky. Seven and a half miles up. Where, from here, the troposphere extends out towards the edge of space, and, confined inside this small pressurised cabin with two hundred fellow humans, I imagine my hand reaching out beyond the perspex window, touching the fringes of the colour blue. The pale blue, through which we travel west across the Atlantic, hanging by a thread on aerodynamic laws; and the dark blue, beyond which other worlds like ours exist, governed by laws we know nothing about.

 

I found this a very helpful exercise in developing ideas. As a strategy, starting out from my own life is clearly an effective way of searching for and discovering new ideas. In this initial exercise alone, I jotted down eleven possible ideas, two of which I went on to develop above. As I was writing up these two ideas, I became aware of the emergence of several potential characters and locations.

My new mantra? ‘Search, practice, discover, gather!’


Experimental film

“You can make an experimental film through improvisation, or a mathematical plan, or just letting nature take its course.”

Bordwell & Thompson (2007)

In their book Film Art: An Introduction, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson identify two main types of experimental film:

  1. films based on abstract form
  2. films based on associational form

 

Abstract Form

It is possible to organise a film around colours, shapes, sizes and movement in the images. These visual qualities within a film can be organised through an abstract pattern of theme and variations: a motif is introduced, followed by a series of different versions of that motif, often with such extreme differences that the original motif becomes difficult to recognise.

Designing Form in an Abstract Film

Bordwell & Thompson (2017) outline five ways in which the form of an abstract film can be designed:

  • An introductory section showing the kinds of relationships the film uses as its basic material.
  • Other segments go on to present similar kinds of relationships, but with changes. The changes may be slight, but soon differ sharply from the introductory material.
  • Bigger contrasts emerge; sudden variations help the viewer sense when a new segment has started.
  • Similarities and differences won’t be random if the film’s formal organisation has been created with care.
  • Some underlying principles run through the film.

(Film Art, p. 372)

” Experimental filmmakers often start by photographing real objects. But the filmmakers then juxtapose the images to emphasise relations of shape, colour, movement, and so on” (Film Art, p. 372).

The viewer of an abstract film is forced to use their senses in an unusual way. They don’t need to use their eyes for practical purposes. Rather, the abstract within the film becomes interesting for its own sake. The viewer becomes more aware of pattern within an abstract film.

 

Associational Form

An alternative experimental approach is associational form, in which a film is organised around the assembly of images and ideas that may not have any logical connection. In the same way as poetry uses language and metaphor to convey meaning, associational form in film uses patterns of imagery and sound to suggest associations and connections that bind the ideas and emotions within the film together.

Basic Principles of Associational Form

Bordwell & Thompson (2017) suggest the following principles operate within a film designed around associational form:

  • Images are gathered into distinct sections (a principle also found in abstract form).
  • The film creates variations from part to part; for example: changes in tempo – a fast section followed by a slow one.
  • Use of repeated motifs to reinforce associations.
  • Associational form “strongly invites interpretation, the assigning of general meanings to the film” whereby the viewer draws conclusions based on their own interpretation.

(Film Art, p. 379)

Associational form generally avoids explicit statement. Filmmaker’s using this form tend to create films composed of a series of unusual and striking combinations of images, leaving the viewer to use their imagination to find meaning within the film.

Abstract and associational forms are fascinating approaches to filmmaking. They are not something I was familiar with until now. The idea of creating films out an abstract pattern of theme and variation or disrupting a narrative in such a way that the viewer is left to draw their own interpretation of the film has opening up a whole new visual landscape for me.

 


References

Bordwell, David, & Thompson, Kristin (2017) Film Art: An Introduction, 11th edition. New York: McGraw Hill


Cindy Sherman, Roman Signer & the Stanford Prison Experiment

The clothes people wear have a specific character and they say something about roles and purposes. They tell us about age, class, culture, profession and history. They also inform creative ideas and influence artistic choices. Here are three contrasting representations of clothes, and the roles that are attached with them.

‘Doll Clothes’, Cindy Sherman (1975) 

Short black and white animated silent film by American artist Cindy Sherman.

Doll Clothes presents a photograph of the artist – Cindy Sherman – as a paper doll that has come to life, trying on multiple outfits before a mirror. After each costume change a hand intrudes from the corner of the screen, putting the doll and her dress back in their plastic album sleeves. The repetition of posing followed by powerlessness reflects Sherman’s ongoing fascination with the politics of identity and representation, particularly in relation to women.’

(Tate Gallery label, 2011)

 

Roman Signer, performance works

Performance related work using hats and sheets by Swiss artist Roman Signer.

     

A black hat and a pink sheet are fired into the air using small rockets and explosives. Taken out of their original context and used within a performance context, they are seen as abstract objects rather than items of clothing and bedding.

 

Stanford Prison Experiment

A simulation of prison life conducted in 1971 at Stanford University. The experiment was terminated after only two weeks because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated.

“In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” (Professor Philio G. Zimbardo, www.prisonexp.org)

“I began to feel I was losing my identity […] I was 416. I was really my number.” (Prisoner 416, www.prisonexp.org/conclusion)

_______________

In her short film 'Doll Clothes', Cindy Sherman uses paper cut-outs of various blouses, jeans, jumpers and dresses, organised in several plastic album sleeves. Through a repeating animated sequence, a paper doll (a photographic representation of the artist) comes to life, dresses in the cut-out clothes and poses in front of a mirror on a dressing table, before being stripped of her clothes by a disembodied pair of hands and replaced along with her clothes back into the plastic album sleeves.

In Roman Signer’s performance works, hats and sheets are used as objects to be propelled into the sky. In one work, rows of yellow hard hats are fired simultaneously into the sky, creating a random scattering of colour before falling back to the ground. In another work, a man standing wears a black woollen hat covering his head and eyes. The hat, attached to a small rocket by a length of string, is fired into the sky. The man looks up, following its upward trajectory. In a third work, one end of a pink sheet is fired into the sky, its full length spreading out, before falling back to the ground in a crumpled heap. In each example, it is less about the original functional purpose of the clothing than about the action of the artist firing them into the sky and an audience watching the random movement created by their trajectory.

By far the most extreme of the three representations of clothing, the Stanford Prison Experiment shows two groups of student volunteers participating in the simulation of prison life. One group of students were given uniforms and took on the role of prison guards. The second group of students, systematically searched and stripped off their clothes, complied with the role of prisoners. Each prisoner was given a prison uniform with their respective ID number printed on the front and back to make them feel anonymous, and an ankle chain. The consequence of which was the rapid erosion of personal individuality and a passive compliance with institutional rules.

The representation of clothes and gender in Cindy Sherman’s Doll Clothes, the abstract representation of clothes in Roman Signer’s performance work and the role of clothes in defining behaviour in the Stanford Prison Experiment offer three very distinct notions of identity and the use to which clothes are given within the artistic representation of these notions of identity.

 


References

Doll Clothes (1975) Cindy Sherman. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUJlYsvdV7I (Accessed on: 10 March 2017) Revised: https://youtu.be/y83nQoSJ-F8?si=vdTfbSOgexCwS-LN (Accessed on: 7 November 2023)

Installations by Roman Signer (s.d.) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CU-KKe54ao (Accessed on: 10 March 2017)

Stanford Prison Experiment, http://www.prisonexp.org (Accessed on: 10 March 2017)