Nothing disguises meaninglessness more than a pretty picture.
This is actually a quote from yours truly. I just think this type of thing looks more legit when you put it up in stylized quotes.
In the past I have suggested we live in the most resourceful age of filmmaking in history. The kind of technology we have at our disposal is phenomenal. Where just 30 years ago a film student like me would go wild if he had a few minutes worth of film stock to use, today we have crystal clear digital cameras, easy to use editing programs and special effect technology, along with all sorts of other gizmos and gadgets to make our Youtube or Vimeo videos look that much smoother.
As you might assume from the quote however, I don’t consider all this stuff a good thing. In fact, in many cases I find our new obsessions with the newest technology to be unhealthy. More times than not I run into fellow film students who feel it’s the type of camera they use that makes their work worth viewing. Instead of talking to me about the story they are trying to tell or themes they are trying to explore they simply show me their footage and exclaim, “Can you believe how beautiful this looks in 4K RESOLUSION!!!” And sadly, more times than not I can’t help but look at that 4K footage and feel an overwhelming sense of emptiness.
The cause of the emptiness you may ask… An utter lack of individualism. But what should I expect?! Any type of individualism was knocked out of most of us at a very early age.
The cardinal sin of the education system is the absence of independence. School’s most impactful lesson is conformity. The environment we are taught in, the subjects highlighted, and the testing system used to measure our intelligence are all oriented around our society’s demand we stand in line and function with a set of well established rules.
Since most of us didn’t grow up giving value to individualism, we needed to create value in other places. One of the easiest places to manufacture a sense of value is in the polish of a product. Most of my professors and peers advocate for the clean image. We are taught how to hold the camera, the proper way to light a scene, and what makes for the strongest composition. In no way am I suggesting these things are not important to know. I spent the last several years studying the rules of cinema and looking into the reasons why the great filmmakers of the past, like Kurosawa and Bergman, chose to shoot their films the way they did.
But here is the difference between filmmakers like Bergman and Kurosawa, and the vast majority of student filmmakers out there; the masters of cinema learned the rules in order to break them. They did not find value in the picture itself, but rather they were interested in what the picture had to say. And often times it was through going against the traditional rules of cinema where the great filmmakers were able to say something unique. As much as the system we live in works tirelessly to have the majority in society toe the line, from the beginning of time it has been the rule breakers who change the world the most.
I have found a clean high definition image is one of the greatest enemies to a rule breaker. We are no more capable of breaking the rules of cinema today as we were 30 to 100 years ago. The only change is a development of technology. And technology has its dangers. As I said at the beginning of this piece, “Nothing disguises meaninglessness more than a pretty picture”. We are more capable of creating a “pretty picture” today then ever before.
I consider my papers on this blog to be a constant exploration the essence of cinema. And I am sorry if the title of the post mislead you into thinking I would somehow be able to tell you what cinema’s essence was. The point here is to tell you what cinema’s essence is not. The power of cinema can not be measured based on the type of camera you use. We must understand the value of an art is not measured by its paintbrush. What matters is the person holding the brush and whether he or she has something to say.
“I dream for a living”
This quote comes from one of my favorite filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. It speaks to the essence of why I want to make films myself. If you think about it cinema has more in common with dreams than reality. Not just in the stories that take place in galaxies far far away or lands full of mystical creatures and magic, but also in the very form of cinema. The language of cinema was never developed to replicate reality. Rather the technique of filmmaking is more reminiscent of dreams then anything else. Cuts, lenses, and music are all used to entrance the audience and give them an experience they could never have in reality.
As a child I was someone who loved to live in the dreams of people like Steven Spielberg and Walt Disney. The stories they told made me laugh, cry, and filled me with wonder. Their worlds were so enthralling I would explore them farther in the back yard with my brother. Eventually we began to create our own stories in our own worlds. Little did I know at the time, I had the keys to fairyland and was never happier then when I was able to play beyond these invisible gates.
The sad part is I grew up. And growing up seems to require one to wake up. The famous writer L. M. Montgomery wrote,
There is such a place as fairyland – but only children can find the way to it. And they do not know that it is fairyland until they have grown so old that they forget the way. One bitter day, when they seek it and cannot find it, they realize what they have lost; and that is the tragedy of life. On that day the gates of Eden are shut behind them and the age of gold is over. Henceforth they must dwell in the common light of common day.
The path to fairyland became harder and harder for me to find. Reality had too strong a grip on me.
I began to experience life; where the imagination was dwarfed by my struggles in school, inability to fit in, and the raw reality of the bigger picture. The world I actually lived in was overwhelming. Planes crashed into skyscrapers, countries declared wars, and governments had corruption in every corner. Who could dream in a place like this? The only result seemed to be nightmares. The ideals dreamt up by filmmakers such as Disney and Spielberg began to feel more like naive notions than anything else.
Still, throughout this time of growing up I never lost interest in telling stories and making movies. My gaze however turned from the idealists to the pessimists (though they would simply call themselves realists). Filmmakers such as David Fincher and Martin Scorsese caught my eye. At first I had a difficult time understanding my draw to them. I watched Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and couldn’t believe people hailed the movie as one of the greats. The main character was revolting and lacked any kind of arch. Fincher’s stories took place in a world of cynicism. The first movie I remember watching of his was Seven. The movie revolves around two detectives trying to find a serial killer who uses the Seven Deadly Sins as his catalyst to murder. Fincher never tries to deny these victims were guilty of these immoralities. Even the hero of the movie, played by Morgan Freeman, tells a woman she should have an abortion to keep her child out of the dark world they live in.
I soon realized Martin Scorsese and David Fincher interested me because they were unflinching in their mission to seek out the truth in the darkest corners of society. I resonated with the characters and worlds they created because I saw myself in them. Sure, I wish I could see myself as a flawless human being and the world I live in as this wonderful place where good always triumphs in the end. However, reality suggests differently and filmmakers such as Fincher and Scorsese were not afraid to highlight the dark side of this world; the side most of us would like to keep hidden.
Yet, even though these filmmakers looked at the world through a more cynical lens, they still kept a hold of the keys to fairyland. Scorsese and Fincher’s imagination was just as strong as my childhood inspirations in Disney and Spielberg. Their mission was never to reproduce the world we live in, rather a world where the truths of our society are seen even more clearly. With these filmmakers the camera was a paintbrush. And just like the great artists of the past their goal was to express humanity. Each cut, choice of lens, and use of music represented a stroke made to describe a greater whole.
The more my view of storytelling evolved the more I began to understand the words of writer Lloyd Alexander, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” Just because I had a stronger grasp on reality did not mean I needed to neglect my imagination. At the same time, I refused to get barred down by the dark truths of this world. My goal became to transform the society I lived in. For this is what I believe dreamers do best; they transform our reality through the visions they cast.
Here is where I must come back to the quote from L. M. Montgomery. It would be a true tragedy if she left her views about growing up on such a gloomy note. Yet she goes on from the quote above,
Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again; and blessed are they above mortals. They, and only they, can bring us tidings from that dear country where we once sojourned and from which we must evermore be exiles. The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.
As dark as Scorsese and Fincher’s worlds may be and as pessimistic a commentary on life as their story may have, they still play pretend for a living. There is nothing about an artist that is necessary for our society to survive. Yet the artist knows better then anyone, deep down we were not made to survive we were made to live.
I would like to leave you with the words of poet, D. H. Lawrence. He gets to the heart of where I want to live as a filmmaker. “All people dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind, wake in the morning to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people, for they dream their dreams with open eyes, and make them come true.” The greatest filmmakers are those who live in the world of the dream so they may cast their visions into the world of the real in order to inspire the world of tomorrow.
As someone who is determined to dream for a living, my greatest inspirations were filmmakers such as Spielberg and Disney. They taught me how to dream. Mentors such as Scorsese and Fincher helped give my dreams an edge. My task now is to cast my vision into the world and see what future my dreams hold
This is my fourth attempt. Maybe it’s because I didn’t really have a good outline. But I know I don’t really believe that. Outlines have never been much use to me. But, most of the teachers in my life didn’t really care to understand how I learned. For most of my teachers, writing always needed to follow a specific process which I was never able to walk out well. Honestly, it is pretty crazy I can write in any kind of legible way, at all.
If I am going to accomplish this unsung hero paper I think I need to throw the rules out the window. I am not going to concentrate on a thesis. I am not going to follow an outline. And, I am not going to give a crap about whether or not I am using proper grammar… wait a second… okay, out of respect to my unsung hero, I will try to use proper grammar. The bottom line is, the only teacher in my life who got through to me about how to write a proper paper and express my ideas in a comprehensible way, was my Mom.
My Mother homeschooled me for the first thirteen years of my life. Sadly after telling people this I have a huge urge to explain exactly what “homeschool” was for me. I get this feeling few people have respect for the concept. Let me explain in the best way I know how. When I eventually entered the public school system my mother taught English at my high school. My older brother and I would have friends come to us and ask how we could possibly survive living at home with the monster we called, “mother”. She was a taskmaster in the classroom and she bled all over the papers her students turned in.
Yes, I know I need to explain, “bled”.
So let’s start with the origin story. One of the great unsung hero’s in my mother’s life when growing up was her Grandmother. Great Grandma Ferguson was not the typical kindhearted grandma who always had fresh baked cookies when you came to visit. She was an independent woman who wanted to do something valuable in the world at a time when society said her job was to stay at home and take care of her house and family. World War II allowed her to break away from traditional roles. She taught English in North Dakota after she was married and had her own children. When she and her family moved to Montana she worked outside the home and opened a woman’s sweater shop. Great Grandma had an expectation for excellence and the determination to contribute to society which she wanted to pass on to those she cared about the most, such as her granddaughters.
My mom told me about the times she used to send letters to her Grandma. Where the typical Grandmother would take the letter and post it on the fridge or tuck it away in a treasured envelope, my Great Grandma would send them back… corrected. She would write all over my mother’s page, pointing out the grammar errors and suggesting ways to make the piece of writing stronger. This instilled a passion in my Mom that she has since passed on to me– the desire to express herself well. Where many would simply give up and stop writing, my mom became bound and determined to become a better writer. It’s no surprise she went on to teach English. She has always claimed she wasn’t the greatest at English, but my Great Grandmother instilled something in my Mother I believe she wanted to share with others.
So now we get back to the blood. When correcting papers my mother uses a red ink pen. She covers each page with notes and corrections and then sometimes has the gall to say, “You did well”. No wonder she became known as a “taskmaster”. I told most of the students who complained to me that the red ink was from the actual blood of her veins. I always felt the red pen was used for dramatic effect and when you first look at her corrections one does feel quite overwhelmed. Most students felt my Mom graded their papers too harshly. Those who were used to getting “A’s” on all their papers began to realize my Mom required more than proper grammar and correct mechanics. I remember her going over dozens of papers and spending forty-five minutes to an hour grading each one. She graded content, dictation, organization, and style. Now, imagine all this dedication going to just four students rather than dozens. That is how homeschool felt for my siblings and me.
Sure there were weak areas where my mother wasn’t the greatest teacher. However, by no means did we get away with being lazy. When homeschooling during my grade school and middle school years my mother concentrated less on English and more on developing a sense of independence in her children. She encouraged us to work in the areas we were strongest. She quickly realized all my siblings learned differently. She knew an hour of physical activity was necessary for my older brother if she wanted him on task when sitting down for math later in the day. She knew some one-on-one time with my little brother would make him more enthusiastic about spelling afterword. She understood I would be much better at understanding material if I verbally talked about it rather than simply read about it in a book. For some reason my Mom gave us extra time during recess when we wanted to continue playing pretend. Little did I know at the time, but playing pretend would do more to get me started on a career path than any class I ever took. Suffice to say, I left home feeling confident in myself, understanding I had many gifts to give the world.
You would think we would be fully ready for public school when it came around. My first year out of the house was 8th grade. I need to admit, my 8th grade year is in hot contention for being the worst year of my life. The problem was I didn’t know how to play by the system’s rules. It didn’t take long for the school system to decide there was something wrong with me. Actually, three out of my mother’s four older children were diagnosed by the school system as dyslexic. Because my siblings and I had a difficult time with reading and spelling we were immediately considered as less then. I was put into a class for the mentally challenged. Every minute felt like a bombardment of patronizing explanations from my teachers. My counselors spoke to me like I was some kind of lazy drug addict who didn’t know how to put one foot in front of the other.
My Mother would constantly meet with counselors and teachers to explain exactly what “dyslexia” meant. Unlike the vast majority of the teachers, mom did her homework when her children were diagnosed. She quickly realized dyslexia was NOT a disability. Rather it was simply a different way of thinking. She constantly needed to explain to teachers her kids did not need to be given easier material or be treated as if they were less than. What was needed was an understanding that dyslexics don’t think linguistically as much as they do visually, interpersonally, bodily kinesthetically, verbally, and aurally. When she spoke with my History teacher about my dyslexia and was bluntly told, “I don’t think your son has the capacity to understand my material”, my mom knew she needed to step in.
I was desperate to get out of the system. When I asked if my mother would consider homeschooling me my senior year, she jumped at the opportunity. What she didn’t realize was she was speaking to a kid who went through four years of mental abuse by the school system and wasn’t interested in traditional education. Not only did she need to deal with an insecure kid who questioned everything having to do with formal education, she also needed to deal with a school system and a father who felt she was making a major mistake. In fact, my grandfather told her quite bluntly she would be ruining my life if she chose to homeschool me again.
All this is what makes my Mother the hero I am determined to one day have the world recognize. It’s a moment you usually only see in the movies. The time when everyone else says it can’t be done. When the person who needs to be saved is all but gone. It’s here my mom came into my life and changed it forever. I went from a D grade student who didn’t know how to write a proper sentence to a 3.5 GPA college student who is now blessing you with the masterful piece of writing you see before you. My mom did not teach me by demanding I play by her tune or the school system’s tune. She worked tirelessly to figure out how I thought and what I felt. And, she used my strengths to build upon my weaknesses.
My mother gave me my voice. For this I am eternally grateful. The most unbelievable part is she is willing to do for all her student what she did for me. She devotes her blood, sweat, and tears to helping others learn who they are and how to express themselves. Sadly, in the vast majority of cases all she gets in return are frustrated students who feel she is too tough on grades. I can hardly stand it. But my mom, well, for her it is not about praise. The true hero only has one goal, and that is to help the other. I know of no person who helps others better than my Mom.
Far too often I find the reply most students have to the question, “What makes you want to make movies?” less then interesting. One of the main reasons I find them uninteresting is because everyone seems to have the same answer. There are a handful of movies almost every film student sight as the films that made them want to make movies. I want to think of my experience as more unique, but like it or not the first example I have is from that handful of movies.
My dad taught at a local college and brought my brother and me to the theater one night. I was about seven years old and really had no clue what I was going to see. All my dad said was it was a big movie when he was in school, which honestly turned me off because I had yet to find anything my dad did when he was “in school” interesting.
The theater was probably pretty small, though I had not seen anything like it. All we had at home was a black and white TV screen that could fit in the span of my dad’s hand. After a few minutes of watching my dad mingle with his friends lights suddenly went out. Everyone hushed. Words faded onto the screen, “In a galaxy far far away”. I couldn’t even read them all. And then it happened. Sound poured out from all corners of the theater. In a huge font the title, “STAR WARS”, blasted onto screen. I couldn’t read the words that came after that but I do remember the tiny ship flying away from the biggest ship I had ever seen. What can I say?! I was hooked. There was no turning back. I just wanted to have this experience again and again. I wanted to bathe in the glory of the epicness that was, STAR WARS.
Another theater experience I vividly remember was when my Grandfather took me to see The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, staring Jim Carry. Though now I can point to many flaws the movie had, back then I was too caught up in the spectacle to care. What truly blew my socks off was the very beginning where it was snowing and the camera went into a small snowflake to reveal a whole world of imagination. I was in awe. What other possibilities are there in this medium if it could do that? I wondered.
Other movies, full of spectacle, got me excited about the power of cinema. I remember falling in love with Indiana Jones and going to the original Spiderman movie about 20 times in the theater. But spectacle by itself would never have made me interested in making movies. Even then I needed something more. In movies like Indiana Jones and Star Wars I saw a little of that “something more”. I had an emotional connection with those movies. They didn’t just fill me with wonder they also made me care. When Darth Vader revealed to Luke Skywalker, “I am your Father”, I went through a whole range of emotions which literally took me years to figure out. My favorite Indiana Jones movie is The Last Crusade. The power of the movie did not come through the spectacular adventure Indiana went on as much as the simple relationship he had with his father.
Yet the film maker I found the most emotional connection to was with Disney. Walt Disney, the man, might be my greatest inspiration in cinema. I am well aware of the fact he is seen as more of a symbol than an actual person in the world’s eyes. And, I know many consider his films to not be very deep, and have a generic “happily ever after” stamp on the end. However, I would say few people know Walt Disney like I do. This might be a little presumptuous but I have looked into the man Walt Disney quite intensely for more than a decade now. What really got me interested in him was the book, Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas. Here, I realized the “larger than life” figure I had grown up with was an actual human being with many flaws. The flaws were what really interested me. I, along with the majority of the world, knew about his “greatness”. Understanding Walt had flaws made a crucial connection for me; it taught me you don’t need to be perfect in order to do great things.
I still believe some of Walt’s first movies such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi get to the core of what I consider great storytelling. Each movie’s characters affected me in ways that went beyond just the story I watched on screen. I found myself wondering what their lives were like outside the frames of the camera. Characters like Jiminy Cricket and Thumper were close friends who always brightened my day when I watched them. And, the most amazing part was the fact that these characters were not real. In the most basic sense I believe I knew this even in my childhood. They were just a bunch of drawings when put together created the greatest illusion of all, the illusion of life.
In many of Walt’s first features he was not afraid to show hints at the darker sides of life. He knew that great storytelling required not just happiness but loss as well. I cried when Bambi first lost his mother. I feared for the life of Pinocchio when he ventured out to save his father from the great whale Monstro. And I felt Dumbo’s longing when he visited his mother after she was locked up in a cage. All these movies produced very powerful and specific emotions from me even after the second, third, or twentieth time I watched them. I began to understand that cinema could go so much farther then spectacle and become something that touches the heart.
One more element is key to making cinema something I wanted to participate in for the rest of my life. The element is seen a little in movies like Star Wars and Pinocchio. However, it took a more mature kind of storytelling to really drive the element home for me. And now I get to the movie I consider the greatest of all time, Schindler’s List. I was far too young when I first watched this movie; so young in-fact that I didn’t really know all of what was going on. My parents thought I needed to know about a part or our world’s history that the movie covered, the holocaust. I remember being horrified as I saw hundreds of human beings get thrown out of their houses, treated like cattle, and killed for no reason other than they walked the wrong way on the street.
By itself I do not think the horror of the story would have done much for me. However, through the horror I saw a man, Schindler. At first I really didn’t like him. He wasn’t as mean as most of the Germans but I could tell he was taking advantage of the Jews. He was a married man who was selfish with his money and had sex with many women. But then something happened. I was able to see this man change right in front of me. He didn’t become perfect, but he did begin to care. He helped to save hundreds of Jews. What really moved me was a scene at the end of the movie.
Oscar Schindler needed to leave the Jews because the war was over and he now was considered a fugitive. As he was leaving his factory the Jews he helped protect gave him several small gifts. It was here Schindler broke down. He looked at all the people he helped save and all he could think about were the ones he didn’t. “I could have done more”, were the words that have stuck with me ever since. I couldn’t believe it. Here was this imperfect man who had done so much, yet still he wept for what more he could have done. It was then I realized the true power of movies. They could go beyond spectacle. They could take me beyond emotional relevance. Movies had the power to influence the direction of one’s life.
My life was changed after watching Schindler’s List. I thought if such an imperfect man could do so much and yet feel he could have done more, what could I do? I made it a goal to help those who were less fortunate than me. I wanted to make movies that brought up subjects like Schindler’s List and see if I could harness the power of cinema to influence others like the director of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg, had done for me.
The movies I have shared have most likely influenced many people. However, the older I get the more I realize the most important influence in any kind of artistic ambition must be one’s personal life. My personal story is where true inspiration comes from. My goal is not to copy the imagery I watched in movies like Star Wars, Bambi, and Schindler’s List. Rather what is most important is to try to understand the emotions these movies stirred up in me and where the roots of those emotions originate. The movies I have watched will be just what I have described them as being, Influences. My goal is to use those influences to create movies full of spectacle and emotion, and help change other people’s lives for the better like the great films of the past have done for me.
There are few techniques more cinematic in the great art-form of film then the long take. The great majority of directors we hail as masters of the craft have indulged in this film technique at least a few times in their career. Filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón and Joe Wright have made a career in perfecting the long shot. I remember watching Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and just sitting their with my mouth wide open in awe as I watched a single shot capture a touching scene between two long lost friends and then suddenly transition into a horrifying action sequence that left me, along with the rest of the audience, completely devastated. When done right long takes are able to completely immerse us into the world of the movie. They have the ability to ratchet up the tension of a scene and communicate volumes of information in a short amount of time. However, what I am curious about is how this film technique got started? After a bit of research the surprising thing is though we consider the long take to be one of the most innovative techniques in cinema today, you might say it was the very first type of shot created.
This is one of the very first shorts ever made and it consists entirely of one shot. The footage was shot all the way in the 19th century. And for quite a long time this was the standard type of shot in filmmaking. When cinema was first being developed the “cut” was hardly ever used. There was no such thing as the close up or even medium shot. One of the sayings back then was, “Why would I want a close up when I am paying the actor for his whole body?”. Even the great Georges Melies (director of the famous 1902 A Trip to the Moon) shot his movies in mostly long takes that consisted almost entirely of wide shots. The problem is very few of these long shots ever explored space or immersed us into the story. The camera just sat there, capturing the action as if observing a play. It took innovators such as Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith to really explore the power of the cut and close up. However, the long shot didn’t go away. Some filmmakers such as Buster Keaton began using the long shot to great dramatic effect, like in this clip.
I know, this is only 15 seconds long. However, the shot does show an evolution in how one can use a continues shot. Keaton was able to build a great amount of tension through keeping the shot going all the way through the stunt. The shot immerses us into the action in a way that wouldn’t have been possible through using cuts. This is just one of many movies during the 1920’s that really pushed the boundaries of what cinema could do. And then came sound. Believe it or not sound in many ways took cinema back a few decades. No longer did everything need to be communicated visually. This lead to lazy storytelling where dialogue was used to communicate story rather then visuals. One of the greatest problems that came with sound was the weighting down of the camera. The cameras became much heavier and the equipment needed to capture sound was expensive. Thus filmmakers did not have the ability to explore the environment in the way pioneers from the silent era, such as Buster Keaton and F.W. Murnau, were able to.
More then a decade went past before we really saw filmmakers explore the power of the long take again. Not surprisingly one of the people who was most interested in re-exploring this lost film technique was Orson Welles. Lets take a look at a clip from Citizen Kane (1941)
Though there still is a limit to how much the camera could move Welles was able to use this deep focused continues shot to explore his story in ways that were completely innovative at the time. In this scene Welles is able to connect young Kane playing outside with the mother’s choice to hand her boy over to the rich Mr. Thatcher; a choice that will result in the creation of one of the most tragic figures in cinema. Welles is able to create a wonderful and tragic contrast here, between the innocent Kane playing outside and the mother’s choice of taking that very life away from him.
Another great innovator of exploring just how much you could communicate in the long take was Walt Disney. His movie Pinocchio (1940) has a shot that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull off. Sadly I can’t find a clip of it, but in the movie Walt transitions from Pinocchio and Geppetto going to sleep to daytime. In one shot he goes from the town bells all the way through the town and too the front door of Geppetto’ where the enthusiastic Pinocchio is getting ready for his first day of school. Hitchcock is yet another filmmaker who wanted to push the boundaries of the long take and with his movie Rope (1948) he shot his 80 min movie in 11 seamless cuts.
During the fifties the long take was used by a few filmmakers to great effect. The main problem was the long shots at the time were extremely expensive because of the man power and equipment needed to pull them off. Orson wells is known for making the greatest long shot of the 1950’s in his famous opening shot of Touch of Evil.
All kinds of resources were needed to pull this off. However, you will find few scenes with more suspense then this. The whole time we are wondering when the bomb is going to blow. The car with the bomb in it lingers as we explore the environment. The shot again immerses us into the action in a way that no other type of shot could.
By the 1970’s, the decade many call the golden age of cinema, the long shot had been explored by greats such as Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. However, what truly re-invented the possibilities of the long shot was the steadicam. The steadicam was one of the first pieces of film equipment to be able to move the camera in a smooth a precise way without needing to spend a huge amount of time laying down tracks or spending a huge amount of money renting out a crane. One of the first movies to use it was Rocky in 1976. However, it took one of the true masters of cinema to really show the world the possibilities of this new technology.
In this shot from Martin Scorsese’ Goodfellas (1990) the camera completely submerges us into the world of Henry Hill and shows just how enticing the gangster life could be. We have gone all the way from the static shot of people exiting the factory in 1895 to a world where the camera can literally explore every little corner. This shot allows us to experience time unaltered, as if we are a companion of Henry’s as he goes into the club.
The advancement of digital filmmaking has only added to the resourcefulness of the long take. No longer do filmmakers need to worry about running out of film. TV and small indi films use the long take commonly now as a way to save time and explore aspects of the story that were not possible before. Advancements in post-production has also allowed filmmakers to seamlessly connect shots in order to pull off the illusion of long takes that frankly weren’t possible any other way. And that brings us back to Alfonso Cuarón. I consider him the great master of the long take. The reason he is so good is because you hardly ever realize how long he has held his shot. He doesn’t go for the long take in order to show off. Rather he submerges us into his world and makes us experience cinema in a way no other type of film technique could allow for.
While talking to Kim Masters, the host of The Business, director Alejandro González Iñárritu explained how hard it was to find funding for his latest project Birdman. The film revolves around a washed up actor who needs to get over his ultra-ego that takes the form of the superhero Birdman- the character who he became famous playing- in order to find new meaning in life. The movie was hard to finance because it was an original piece and gave a strong critique about our idolization of the “superhero”. Talking to Masters it was clear Iñárritu’s greatest beef about Hollywood was with the superhero movie. He stated many of the superhero movies Hollywood is creating have no soul and are without meaning. Iñárritu compared today’s common “epic” to fast-food; it may make you feel good now but in fifteen minutes you will be vomiting. His main point was we are so addicted to gore, violence, and explosions we have lost the patience to observe human nature. Iñárritu said even his kids are uninterested in the kind of films that taught him about humanity. The very thing that attracted someone like Iñárritu to filmmaking in the first place seems to be all but irrelevant in the world we now live in.
I personally think Iñárritu’s views are a little more cynical then mine. This would make sense since Iñárritu’s in his 50’s now and has made a career out of fighting the Hollywood system to get his films made, and I am a young naive film student just venturing out into the abyss some like to call “the film business”. But none-the-less Iñárritu’s comments are worth considering.
Where Iñárritu often goes the cynical rout, with movies like Biutiful and Babel, I am more drawn to an optimistic look on life and consider optimistic filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Walt Disney, and Frank Capra to be some of my greatest role-models. These filmmakers made a living by telling stories that resonated with a wide audience. The problem Iñárritu has with most movies which resonate with a vast audience is the way these blockbusters generate their appeal. When talking about the common epic Iñárritu said, “It’s a very black and white world where there is no interest in anybody’s gray-zone or complexity”. Iñárritu has a point. The common “good vs. evil” plot we see in most wide released films has a huge impact on the way we see the world. Iñárritu believes these exaggerated extremes in movies are responsible for the “you are either for or against us” mentality most of the modern world has. We don’t see humans as real people anymore. Rather they become good or evil. There is no middle ground. You can see this black and white mindset displayed in almost every political issue out there. You are either right or left, pro-war or pacifist, for immigration or against it. And depending on where you stand on any of these issues you are either an ally or the enemy. And we all know we can’t submit an inch to “the enemy”. NO WONDER NOTHING GETS DONE AROUND HERE! However, I digress.
In order to explore humanity we need to be able to see the “gray-zone”. What frustrates me about so many of the Superhero movies coming out of late is there is never a question about the hero’s morality. Let’s take a lovable character like Wolverine for instance. The guy is a killing machine. Those bad-ass claws inevitably end up cutting into numerous people in each movie we see. I remember watching X-Men 2, one of my favorite superhero films by the way, and seeing the clawed beast back stab two soldiers, armed with tranquilizers, and leave them lifeless on the floor. There was absolutely no reference back to the incident. The bottom line is killing people is way cooler if you don’t really think about the consequences. But X-Men 2 was way back in 2003. Studios have gone on to destroy whole cities with hardly any lip service given to the consequences after the fact.
Any kind of drama outside of the action scenes seems to be put there for the sole purpose of walking out the plot. The heroes morality is never really questioned to any extreme because the producers need to make sure the viewers’ butts are in the seats for the sequel (or should I say sequels). Iñárritu explained in his interview he was, “fascinated by the human complexity”. The problem is “complexity” is not a bankable concept in Hollywood. The deeper we go into a characters psyche the more chance we have of pissing someone off. Though I have already stated Frank Capra is one of my favorite filmmakers, I just read an interesting article slating him for creating characters who were “larger then life”- who speak with a greater eloquence, confidence, and rhythm then anyone we would see in real life. I, along with other Capra supporters, would say Capra gave us an ideal to strive for with his characters. However, I do think the point made by his critics – that his movie over simplify the problems and over idolize the heroes- is an accurate one. Though I am willing to give those tendencies a bit of slack for the 1930’s I am truly dismayed when I look at our tendencies today and see we haven’t gotten much better. In some ways we have gotten worse. At least it felt like Capra actually believed in the ideals he expressed in his movies. Today the “ideals” and “character growth” in big blockbuster films seem like an afterthought. Iñárritu said his kids forget what most of the movies they go to were just a week or two after watching them.
The bottom line is Hollywood wants to make it’s audience happy. They want us to be entertained. It makes for good business for the client to be satisfied. The only problem is the businessman by himself can’t satisfy. The product is what the audience wants. And in the medium of film the product has become stale. We know the difference between an original and recycled product. Film is a creative medium but most of the decision makers in the “film-business” don’t come from creative backgrounds. So all their decisions end up being made on the defensive. It takes creativity to be on the offensive. The stories end up being recycled both in name (the remake of the remake) and in themes (“Oh, look at that. Another happy ending.”).
I believe the greatest point Iñárritu’s made was about the school system and how many film-schools are teaching their students how to satisfy big companies rather then teaching them how to discover who they are and how to express themselves on screen. Cinema will truly be dead when the filmmaker’s main objective is to satisfy the moneymakers rather then one’s personal vision. I am not saying filmmakers don’t need to be financially responsible with making films. Filmmaking is the ultimate collaborative medium. It can literally involve thousands of people, all of whom need to make a living. But if we begin to try to make films that satisfy everyone we will end up satisfying no one. The audience will begin to grow tired with the simplicity that comes with black and white storytelling. To be honest they already have. Theater attendance is lower then it has been for two decades. What cinema needs, what our world needs, is storytelling that explores all the shades of gray and all the colors of the rainbow.
I don’t think there is any better time then the day of Christmas to introduce to you one of my favorite scenes of all time. The scene comes from the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But first I need to do a little set up.
This is considered one of the key scenes from the movie. In it you see the main character George Bailey at his happiest. He is filled with enthusiasm for the future and is going to “see the world”. You can also feel the sexual tension between two characters. Though George may be a little too high on his horse to understand it they both are deeply in love with each other. After this scene George finds out his father died and it goes down hill from there. Instead of going to see the world he gets stuck working at his father’s old business, The Building and Loan. His plan was to work there until his brother came back from collage. However, he finds out his brother got married and was offered a job with his wife’s father after school. Again, George is stuck in Bedford Falls working for his old run-down business. Now I have set it up, check out the scene displaying Frank Capra and actor Jimmy Stewart at the pinnacle of their game.
Never have I seen a scene so elegantly walk the line between humor and anguish. The tension is so potent from the beginning and only intensifies the futher along we go. Capra once said, “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” Capra’s greatest weapon against dullness in his movies was conflict. Conflict is one of the storyteller’s greatest weapons. Where the resolutions in a movie can only entertain for minutes or just seconds, curtain conflicts can keep an audience on the edge of their seats through entire movies. In fact the greater the conflict the more satisfying the resolution.
The main conflict finally concluded in this scene had been building since the beginning of the movie. As you saw in the first scene I showed, the tension between Mary and George was strong. In this scene it’s intoxicating. The audience desperately wants to see these two together and Capra knows this. So naturally he does everything in his power to stop them from being together. I mean it starts from the very beginning. George tries to come into the yard and he can’t open the gate. When it come to setting up conflict the audience will buy into pretty much anything you do to get us deeper into the hole. What are the odds that the gate wouldn’t open? Yet, we don’t think twice about it because it’s stopping George from getting to Mary. On the other hand, you need to earn your way out of the hole. The audience won’t buy into any quick fix solutions.
George and Mary’s demeanor at the beginning could not be further apart. One is upbeat and happy to be back home in Bedford Falls. The other is slumped in depression and finds the town of Bedford to be a prison. If you ever find yourself struggling with making a scene feel interesting, it’s probably because you have not created enough of a clash between characters. The two characters are at different ends of the spectrum on every topic they go into. Mary went to collage and chose to come back home because she missed Bedford Falls, George would like nothing more then to go to collage so he could leave Bedford Falls. Mary couldn’t be happier George is there to visit. George keeps on explaining how he wasn’t really planning on showing up. Mary puts out an illustration of the man lassoing the moon and puts on Buffalo Gals. George hardly gives these things any consideration. All this makes the audience cry out in frustration. We so desperately want them to come together and the tension is just killing us.
One of the beautiful things Capra does is add in sprinkles of humor through out the piece. Capra basks in the awkwardness of the conversation. This whole scene has less to do with what is said but rather focuses on what is communicated between the lines. George makes the comment when he sits down, “Well, I see it still smells like pine needles around here”. Mary, “….thank you.”. Neither we nor she think the comment was exactly a compliment but what else is there to say? Mary makes an effort to echo the sentiments the characters had years ago when walking home from the dance. She begins to sing the line, “And dance by the light of the..” and of course George doesn’t remember, another example of George missing the opportunity to connect with Mary. At this point of the scene the barrier between the two couldn’t be more obvious. However, Capra doesn’t yet want to let the audience off the hook. He knows he can go further but to do so he needs to throw in another factor.
In comes the mother. Mary’s mom forces the conversation to go to another stage. “George Bailey?! What’s he want!”. Finally Mary is able to get more direct. “What do you want”, she asks. This confrontation sends us into the final act of the scene. Mary starts to grow tired of George’s indifference. Her comment, “He’s making violent love to me, mother”, is probably the best laugh out loud moment of the whole scene. And before you know, it the two are separated. To add insult to injury Sam calls Mary, just another reminder to George of what he doesn’t have. The tension is shattered literally through Mary breaking the record. We think everything has been for not, and the audience is devastated.
BUT WAIT! GEORGE FORGOT HIS HAT!!!
Capra goes to an over the shoulder shot of Mary talking to Sam while George listens in. Look how flawless the staging is here. George seems to leave again and we watch as Mary’s mother comes into frame left. “He doesn’t want to speak to George”, she says. There is the small sight gag of George suddenly being right in front of Mary as she calls to him. Now Capra has set up a visual metaphor of the conflict at hand, Mary is in the middle of the frame with her mom to her right and George to her left. Who is going to win out?
The cut to Sam might not be needed but it does drive home the point even further. If we needed more of a reason to root for George this would be it. Sam has a girl right behind him while he talks, and he is dressed up in a high quality suit all the indications of a successful business man. George is everything Sam is not.
What is wonderful at this point is Capra finds a humorous and organic way to keep Mary and George together. Sam suggests George go on the other extension and Mary replies, “Mother is on the other extension”. This is yet another humorous moment. It also does a far more important thing; it forces Mary and George to stay together. At this point, when the tension is at its highest Capra cuts to the key shot in the whole scene. It’s a tight two shot with Mary and George talking on the phone. Capra refuses to cut from this shot. What really elevates this moment is the silence between dialogue. The gaze the two have toward each other are agonizing. We can hardly bear it anymore. We are crying out for them to finally connect, to express their love for each other. And finally at the time the tension is at it’s peak with George declaring his refusal to give in, the phone drops and George admits his love for Mary.
When writing or shooting a scene the big question needs to be about who your characters are and what they want. Then you need to find ways to stop those objectives from coming true. Make them work for their goal so in the end your moment is earned. The amazing thing about this scene is how simple it is. It doesn’t take place on an expensive set and there are no complex camera moves. Anyone can do a scene like this. It consists of two characters who are unable to communicate. You don’t need anything more then this to create wonderful drama. In this scene Capra allows the audience to realize just how powerfully George loves Mary by refusing to give in right away. The end result is so potent because Capra earned it. Every shot in the scene is thought out and draws us further into the moment. This scene continues to remind me what is most important about cinema. At its core cinema is an exploration of humanity.
Ollie Johnston happens to be my favorite animator of all time. His drawings seem to flow like water and they all come from the heart. He started working for Walt Disney in the mid 1930’s and quickly became one of Walt’s greatest animators. Johnston saved one of his greatest performances for his last. The last character Johnston was lead animator on from start to finish was Penny from the The Rescuers (1977). What is truly amazing is how Johnston was able to climb into the skin of a character of the opposite sex who was about sixty years his junior.
The true beauty of animation is you can animate anything. I have consistently maintained the animators at Disney were some of the greatest actors to ever live. Even Marlon Brando had his limits yet the actors at Disney could portray anything from little wooden puppets to fire breathing dragons with just the use of a few pieces of paper and a pencil. In reality human characters were some of the hardest characters to animate. The reason being everyone knows how humans move and act, thus one wrong line with the pencil might ruin a performance and stop making the character believable to the audience.
These drawings are an example of Ollie Johnston exploring the character of Penny and her cat Rufus. Johnston wasn’t the best draftsman at the studio, but each drawing expresses an emotion which shows the essence of who Penny is. In most of the poses Johnston seems to be intentionally turning Penny away from the audience. He expresses an extremely shy young girl which makes the audience want to love her all the more. When Walt was alive he communicated to all his artists the most important thing in animating a character were the eyes. By this time in his career Johnston has become a master at expressing emotion through his character’s eyes. With the drawings where we see her eyes they become the center piece of the pose, our eyes are drawn toward her’s and it’s clear Johnston builds the rest of the pose around them.
One of the coolest things about my studies of the animators at Disney is the discovery of the different styles they brought to their animation. One of the true beauties of hand drawn animation is the ability for the artist to use the pencil in different ways in order to bring to life a unified performance. Ollie Johnston was not the only animator of Penny. Animation is long and tedious medium. In today’s studios there are literally hundreds of animators working on a film and it takes them weeks in order to get just a few seconds of animation finished. In the 1970’s there were far less animators working on a project. However, it still took a whole team of animators to bring to life most of the key characters. As the lead animator Johnston needed to figure out a way to get his crew on the same page with the character Penny. Drawing sheets like this were priceless samples for other animators to study so they could keep in mind who the character was both in terms of design and emotion.
Johnston had a very soft style of animating compared to his peers. He was known to barely “kiss” the page with his pencil. First you didn’t even know what it was he was drawing and then a beautiful creature would start to come to life. You can see the soft lines in the drawings of Penny. The only thick areas are places where Johnston is trying to find the right shape or communicate weight. There is a flow to his drawings; no harsh angles and extremely pleasing curves. Glen Kean, one of Johnston’s pupils and a great animator in his own right, said Ollie treated the pencil like it was a living thing and let it guide his hand in order to find the pose.
The reason I consider Ollie the greatest animators wasn’t because of his draftsmanship or even his mastery of the principle of animation. I consider him the best because he made me feel for his characters. His animation made me completely buy into the illusion of a life. His drawings disappeared and beautiful characters emerged. I saw characters I could laugh with, be frustrated at, and cry for. One of the most potent scenes Ollie did was with Penny. Johnston animated the performance of Penny and Rufus in the clip below. In it you see Ollie’s mastery of the medium. The performance is full of restraint. He holds poses and communicates mountains of emotion through small subtle movements. I consider it one of the best pieces of animation I have ever seen. And the magic of it all is it’s done through a few pieces of paper and a pencil.
After his pupil, Akira Kurosawa, had made several global hits to put Japanese Cinema on the map, Kajirô Yamamoto was asked about his contribution to his once young assistant director’s career. His reply, “All I ever taught Kurosawa was how to drink”.
Kajirô Yamamoto has been described as one of the most humble men a man could meet. Kurosawa claimed he never got angry. While the other directors at P.C.L. (the production company Yamamoto worked for) had a reputation for dictating to their cast and crew what they wanted, Yamamoto chose to go the way of the teacher. His mission was to help his pupils learn to embrace who they were. Kurosawa maintained in his book Something Like and Autobiography, written after Yamamoto’s death, that Yamamoto’s films suffered because of his willingness to allow his Assistant directors to take the reigns.
Akira Kurosawa was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time with Kajirô Yamamoto. From the very beginning of his life Kurosawa possessed a will of iron. This did not help him in terms of being a teachable student. He was a problem child in school often playing pranks on his peers and instructors. He hated the majority of his teachers. In the mid 1930’s after just a few months of working for P.C.L. Kurosawa had it in his mind to quite. His career almost ended before it even began. The directors he worked for before Yama-san, as Akira called him, were control freaks and made Kurosawa do things he was completely uninterested in continuing. Yet Kurosawa’s friends convinced him to take another assignment assisting Kajirô Yamamoto. It’s because of Yama-san’s mentorship the young filmmaker flourished.
With Yama-san Kurosawa quickly climbed the ladder from third assistant director to chief assistant director. He was even put in charge of second-unit directing, editing, and dubbing many of Yama-san’ movies. Unlike most of his peers, Yama-san had a desire to involve his assistant directors creatively in how they wrote, shot, and edited his films. Yama-san and Kurosawa’s personalities could not be farther apart. Where Kurosawa directed with purpose and precise vision, Yama-san was completely reliant on others to give him inspiration and try new things. Where Kurosawa had a persona of great authority Yama-san had a persona of a humble professor who was more interested in his students then himself or even his films. Kurosawa maintained Yama-san would let his assistant directors do things he could do better in order for them to learn. He would even use second-unit footage he didn’t like so he could bring his assistant directors to the theaters and point out how the audience reacted to the shots and suggest ways it might be shot better the next time.
Like any good teacher Yama-san was great at seeing his pupils strengths. He quickly realized one of Kurosawa’s strengths was in understanding story. It was not too long before he began to encourage his young pupil to write. He would play a game with his assistants while traveling to a location shoot where they would create a short story on a specific theme. Yama-san taught his young disciples how to read literature critically and think about what the author was trying to say and how he or she was saying it. Filmmaking is a visual medium and Yama-san taught Kurosawa how to paint a picture with words. Kurosawa said he learned a tremendous amount from Yama-san over alcohol. Yama-san had a vast range of interests and would go into detail about them. This allowed Kurosawa to understand the key part in creating great stories was through experiencing life and finding a way to translate one’s personal perspective onto the screen.
Kurosawa realized even before Yama-san that the edit was “the process of breathing life into the work”. However, like many beginning filmmakers Kurosawa had the tendency to put too much value on the shots he labored over to create. In the cutting room Yama-san’s greatest lesson about editing was how to look at ones work objectively. Yama-san cut film so there was no excess. There are curtain scenes and shots directors feel they must have and they spend a tedious amount of time creating those scenes. In the editing room you begin to see a film in a completely different light. After shooting a film there is usually hundreds of hours of footage to choose from. Yet in the end these hundreds of hours need to be cut down to one or two hours of a final film. Yama-san would go into the editing room with a joyful look on his face and completely change the structure of a scene or sequence after a night of thinking about it. In order to find and keep the best footage for the story being told you need to be fearless in how you choose to cut. Kurosawa described Yama-san as a “bona-fide mass murderer” in the cutting room. By embracing this mindset Kurosawa became one of the greatest editors the world has ever seen.
The place Yama-san helped Kurosawa the most was in how to work with actors. Kurosawa described himself as “short-tempered and obstinate”. This kind of mindset does not work well with insecure actors. Yama-san made Kurosawa realize one can not demand a specific performance from his actors. He claimed, “If you as director try to drag an actor by force to where you want him, he can only get halfway there. Push him in the direction he wants to go, and make him do twice as much as he was thinking of doing.” It’s obvious Kurosawa embraced this philosophy. There is no better example then his collaboration with Toshirô Mifune who played some of the most iconic roles in Kurosawa’s films and was allowed enough freedom to redefine Japanese acting.
In his book Kurosawa said the best proof of Yama-san’s skill as a teacher was none of the work of his “disciples” resembled his. Kurosawa wrote, “He made sure to do nothing to restrict his assistant directors, but rather encouraged their individual qualities to grow”. This I believe is the definition to what it means to teach. Kurosawa would not have made the movies he has been so acclaimed for if it weren’t for a selfless man who was willing to take him under his wing. In many ways Yama-san was capable of doing something far greater then Kurosawa. Kurosawa had vision and he had a complete confidence in himself to make his vision become a reality. However, Yama-san had a heart of a teacher. He saw a young artist and had enough confidence in him to devote his time and sacrifice his own work in order to help the student become the master.