A Dreamer Walking

The Rewards of Taking Away

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 19, 2011

When an executive producer looks at a film and thinks it is not working usually what first comes out of his mouth is, “We need more!”. More visual effects, more duologue, more sound effect, and more cuts. It is a typical impulse for us to think our film needs something added when it isn’t working. The problem is more is not always better. Executive producers know very little about the art of film. They are usually part of the project because they want to make money. When you have a non creative person calling the shots you usually get a film packed FULL of worthlessness. Stuffing more stuff into a movie when it is not working is like telling a kid to eat more cake when he or she complains about feeling sick. In reality, if you truly feel you have a good theme for your story and it is still  not working thematically, the problem usually has more to do with things that are in the film that should be taken away.

Films don’t need nearly as many visual effects, sound effects, cutting, complex camera moves, music, or  duologue as we often think they do. Great artists know the art of taking away. Charlie Chaplin did it with many of his movies, specifically his film Modern Times (1936). In Modern Times Chaplin uses sound effects extremely selectively, only when he is trying to make a point. Because all but the essentials are taken away we as an audience are more aware of the sound we do hear. In 1993 Steven Spielberg came out with Schindler’s List. For some reason the movie was in black and white. Obviously Hollywood had converted to making their movies in color a long time before Schindler’s List, yet Spielberg felt there was a benefit to taking the color out of the film. Spielberg was also known for using the camera in many complex and playful ways, giving us vast crane shots, huge special effects sequences, and flashy cuts. Yet, in Schindler’s List Spielberg took almost all his signature film style away. He took away the steady cams, the crane shots, and the zoom lenses, to give us a more realistic feel. He simplified everything so we had a very realistic and very straight forward look at the Holocaust.

Another benefit to taking away is the emphasis that comes with putting what you took away back in. Because Spielberg gets the audience use to seeing Schindler’s List in black and white he is able to use color to really emphasize one of his key points of the film. There is one key scene in Schindler’s List where among a huge amount of destruction we see a girl with a red coat walking through the ghetto. While dozens of Jews are running around in the streets getting gunned down by German soldiers we see this girl in red walking through the city unharmed. The only color on screen was the red coat. Spielberg drew us into the movie and immediately connected us to the character because he used color so sparingly.

You can make greater statements in your film if you use the big effects, complex camera moves, and grand scale music sparingly. If you have a film full of action all the way through, none of the action will likely stick out. With each film you take the audience for a ride. You do not want to go a hundred miles per hour all the way through. Like any good roller coaster ride you need to have times of quietness and suspense in order to make the huge drops and triple loops feel more satisfying.

An important thing to understand is that many elements of cinema can just be distracting. First you need to understand the essence of your scene and then you need to know what tools to use and what tools to leave out in order to emphasis that essence. Will the scene work better with several cuts or just one master shot? Is music needed? Is even sound needed? Take out whatever needs to be taken out in order to draw the audience closer. Let the audience connect some of the dots themselves.

Pixar’s Up does a fantastic job with their beginning montage where we see Carl and Ellie go from childhood friends to an old and happily married couple. In the montage the director Pete Docter took away the dialogue and sound effects. This allowed us as the audience to give our complete attention to the music and visuals. The visuals and music gave us everything we needed. We were able to fill in the blanks. We as an audience understood their emotions without needing to know exactly what they were saying. We fall in love with Carl and Ellie in the first sequence and it sets the rest of the film up perfectly.

There is a danger in taking away. When you take something like sound, dialogue, or music away, you need to make sure you are using the other elements of cinema to perfection. In the movie Wall-E director Andrew Stanton said he knew making the main character not be able to speak English was risky, especially for a film that kids would watch. He knew he needed to put more emphasis on expressing the character Wall-E through sound and acting. They looked into all the Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films of the silent era. They studied how these two legends expressed their story with no dialogue and usually no sound. What taking away forces you to do is be more creative. You need to figure out how to express more with less and that is always risky. And, I admit there are times where you do need all the elements of cinema to express your point. You need to walk a fine line as a filmmaker. The audience will get bored if they are always told what to think and not given the opportunity to connect the dots. However, they will leave if you don’t give them enough information to see how the story connects.

It is not good enough to just take risks. You need to know what you are doing. You need to know the rules in order to break them. Know the benefits of sound before you make the decision to take it away. Know what you can communicate with a medium shot and close up before you choose to just stick with the master shot. We have more tools then we ever have had before in cinema. We shouldn’t be afraid to use them if needed. However, with all the technology and high quality visual effects we have now I do not think you could make a movie like Steven Spielberg’s E. T. (1982) any better. I don’t think I could enhance the quality of Frank Capra’s 1939 black and white film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with the technology we have today. There are simply times where less is more.

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