A Dreamer Walking

Unconventional Filmmaking

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 28, 2012

A sad moment in film usually is expressed with a lot of shadow, somber music playing in the background, a cool color scheme, and a shallow depth of field. A joyful moment is usually expressed through playing happy music and having very worm colors in frame. Film language has been developed for more then a hundred years. Most professional filmmakers know the conventional way to shoot any type of scene. The question I want to pose in this blog post is, when does it become more effective to shoot a scene in a unconventional way.

Sometimes sadness is better expressed through showing beauty. Sometimes insanity is expressed best through calm and calculated shots. Some of the greatest moments in film are achieved through the director going the unconventional rout. Stanley Kubrick is just one director who often filmed in unexpected ways. In his movie A Clockwork Orange we see the main character Alex and his gang rape a woman while he sings “Singing in the Rain”. There is no emotion expressed through the way the camera is used. You would expect a lot of hand held movement, with harsh music playing, and a lot of close ups of the woman getting rapped, showing how hurt she is from the whole event. However, there really isn’t any of that. We know the immorality of what we are seeing on screen. We get a better understanding of Alex however through the direct contrast between his evil actions and his nonchalant attitude. Kubrick’s understated filming of the scene only amplifies the horror.

Another movie that does a fantastic job going the unconventional rout is Never Let Me Go. The basic concept of the story is nothing new. We are introduced to a world where cloning is used to create individuals whose sole purpose is to donate their organs so that the rest of society can have a longer lifespan. There are several conventional ways the filmmakers could have gone about telling this story. We could have had the typical storyline of clones who try to escape from their horrific fate. Then there is the big sci-fi aspect most filmmakers would try to highlight, showing the factory farms where the clones are created and how they are treated like dirt by the rest of the world. However, in Never Let Me Go the main characters don’t try to escape and the idea that these characters are clones is underplayed. Instead we see how the clones are manipulated to believe their organ donating is their purpose and duty in life. We are forced to come to the understanding that the main characters will be killed right in the prime of their lives. The story does not try to villainize the rest of society. Instead the movie concentrates on connecting us with the characters who will eventually be killed. The more we connect with the characters the more horrifying the understanding of their eventual death becomes.

Never Let Me Go could have been shot with a lot of cold callous colors. Instead the filmmakers chose to express beauty in almost every frame. The school the clones lived in as children is a gorgeous location, overwhelmed with vibrant colors. Every shot is a thing of beauty in Never Le Me Go. We are constantly reminded about the vibrancy of life and the magnificent world these characters are soon going to leave. The beauty we see along with our understanding of the clone’s fate creates a much deeper sadness then any dark shadowy composition.

You will have many critics if you choose to go a unconventional rout. Hitchcock was given a lot of grief when he committed to killing off his main protagonist half way through the movie Psycho. Yet, now the movie is considered by me and many others to be his greatest achievement in his magnificent film career. Don’t feel the need to shoot unconventionally for the sake of shooting unconventionally. The conventional film language has stuck around for a reason. Usually the best way to get the best reaction from an actor is by going to a close up. Usually the best way to express chaos is through quick cuts and loud sound effects. However, sometimes a long shot can capture an actor’s performance far more effectively then a close up. Sometimes you need to hold a shot and take away the sound to show the intensity of a situation. As filmmakers we must remember every story has a different way of expressing itself.

Invisible Strings

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 20, 2012

Filmmakers are puppeteers. We control pretty much everything. We create the story; deciding who is good and who is evil, who wins and who loses. Everything from writing the script, to framing the shots, to cutting the film is part of the complex process of creating the illusion of life for our audience to be entranced by. Some puppeteers are extremely literal in their stories; creating worlds and characters that are quite like real life. Some puppeteers however are quite abstract; creating worlds where fish can talk and balloons can fly houses. There are many talented puppeteers. Most of them like to show off their skill by creating characters who are basically capable of anything. By creating visual effects that completely blow the audience away. And by using their editing and camera skills to show off their magnificent skill as puppeteers. However, the greatest puppeteers, the puppet masters, are the ones who make their tremendous string work invisible to the audience watching.

Making one’s strings invisible does not mean you need to make your film completely literal. Animation  for example is an extremely abstract concept. Animation studios like Disney and Pixar do not even try to create literal copies of the world we live in. They create entire worlds of their own where kids can fly and toys come to life. However, all of their stories are reflections of emotional truths. They create characters that have feelings just like us. No matter if it is a robot trying to find love or a rat who wants to cook, their characters reflect each one of us and the obstacles the characters face are reflective of the things we face in every day life. Because the worlds and characters strike an emotional truth with us the audience, we forget about all the strings controlling them.

There are many basic things that need to be done right in order to hide one’s strings. For example, the reason why the invisible cut is so important is because you want to create a flow of motion through your cuts that does not distract from the story. Music needs to always be in service to the story being told. If it comes in at the wrong time or becomes too overpowering it can very easily take the audience member out of the moment. One of the greatest criticisms of 3D is that it creates the illusion of things coming at you and can easily feel intrusive rather then inclusive to the audience member. The reason filmmakers take so long getting a shot set up and edits just right is because they want everything to feel like it is a natural piece of a greater whole.

The most important things to get right in order to hide one’s strings is the story. The story needs to be structured in such a way that if feels real. Although a movie like Finding Nemo is about talking fish, the story is structured and executed in such a way that the story feels genuine. There are several elements about the fish that remind us of real life. The main fish character Marlin is a single parent who suffers from the insecurity of losing his son. His son Nemo has a birth defect which is reflective of what many people suffer from in our world. And, the core idea of a father trying to connect with his son is something almost all of us can connect with. The story also unfolds in such a way that the farther along it goes the more we get connected with the characters the world it takes place in. Marlin loses Nemo and sets out into the ocean to find him again.  The struggles Marlin goes through during his journey allow him to deal with his insecurities and understand more about the values of his son. Finding Nemo is just an illusion created by the filmmakers, yet their strings go unnoticed because we are so caught up in the story.

There are some filmmakers who don’t care about connecting you to there characters or making a plausible world. There only goal is to take you on a ride. However, these kind of filmmakers get old fast. The actions we see unfold begin to look cheesy because we have not bought into their stories emotionally. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a good example. The movie always felt like a story that was created in tribute to earlier films, not because it had something new to say. The actions that unfolded during the movie often felt too elaborate and overdone. It wasn’t enough that Jones got away from the bad guys lair he needed to also survive a nuclear explosion. One impossibly huge waterfall wasn’t enough Jones and the rest of the crew needed to survive three. Again and again visual effects and elaborate camera shots overwhelm us and make obvious the strings controlling the story. When we no longer feel what we are looking at is real we quickly lose any thrill in watching it.

The key to being a good filmmaker is not necessarily the extant of one’s knowledge of the vocabulary of film. Rather, it is how well we are able to execute what we know for the sake of the story. Sometimes elaborate camera work and spectacular visual effects is just what the story calls for. What the audience wants is to be entertained. They want the actions they see on screen to thrill them and that only happens if they are emotionally involved. When all the puppet masters strings are being used for the sake of the story they disappear. When the strings disappear film stops being a mere illusion for movie goers, it becomes real.

Andrew Stanton – An Observation – Writing Screenplays

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on January 17, 2012

I have started several screenplay’s in my life and have pretty much been scared off of all of them. Of course I tell myself I am going to come back, but usually I never do. I think a lot of it has to do with my insecurity as a writer. I don’t think I am good enough. I don’t think I can ever be smart enough to write for several different characters all of whom have different perspectives and intellects. I can never do enough research. I can never express myself in the poetic way I see so many other fine writers express themselves.

One of the writers I look up to is Andrew Stanton. He helped write the majority of the Pixar films. His stories are superbly structured. Everything is preparing the audience for the punch line. He knows how to put us in suspense through doing the unpredictable. He knows how to create characters with depth.  And his stories are always imaginative and unique while also being reflective of undeniable truths we see in everyday life. He has created two masterpieces himself in Finding Nemo and Wall-E while also helping directors like Pete Docter, Lee Ulkrich, and John Lasseter set their stories in the right direction. I don’t think anyone at Pixar would deny that Stanton is a great writer, except perhaps Stanton himself.

Knowing that Stanton is one of the lead writers for one of the most creative studios in Hollywood, you would most likely be surprised to hear that Andrew Stanton has said himself that he doesn’t really like to write and doesn’t consider himself to be very good. He dreads the time his screenplays are read out loud and he never feels like they are finished. He did not go to school for writing. His only experience has been on the job. The only way he feels it is good enough is through rewriting; not just once but rather dozens of times.

Stanton has never treated screenwriting like it was a piece of art. To him it is just a step to something great. When we treat writing as though it is just another step we are freed up to really try our best and fail miserably. Stanton has described screenplays as the screen authority that commands to be followed. It is a cinematic direction manual. It is not for the audience to see, it is for the people who are making the movie to see. His philosophy is to get something onto paper so he can begin to rewrite and refine his work. Once Stanton gets his work out there others are able to help. Pixar happens to have some of the best story helpers in the business. The Brain Trust is not afraid to be blunt with their writers and directors. They help Stanton’s writing go from good to great.

When starting a screenplay the only person you should try to satisfy is yourself. Create the story you want to create. You can read all the books there are on screenwriting, you can do months of research, and you can spend all your money on the most state of the art writing equipment. All of this however is not going to guarantee confidence. The value of writing is that it allows us to put what is in our head onto paper. Don’t treat screenwriting as anything more then a way to get your ideas out there, in a structured way, so you can improve them. After you have something you are able see and show others, you can start to refine. You will never know how good you are until you start doing it.

War Horse- Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 10, 2012

War Horse is a passionate tale that takes place during World War I. The only clear villain of the film is the Great War itself. We see stories unfold on both sides. The film is full of loss, but what sticks out is hope. Their is a sentiment to this film that makes many critics stop liking Spielberg as much as the Fincher’s and Scorsese’s of our time. However, the heart and emotion so openly expressed in this film is what draws me so deeply to Spielberg’s work. The Sentiment of this film does not feel fake. It is genuine because Spielberg believes deeply in what he is expressing on screen.

War Horse opens to a beautiful landscape. The land moves us in this film just as much as anything else. We see it in it’s glory with beautiful sunsets and warm colorful country sides. We are drawn in because of it. The innocents we see at the beginning of the film in the land and characters is even more cherished because they do not last. When war comes we see the land change. It gets corrupted by the evils of battle and bloodshed. The vibrant greens and warm reds slowly turn to gray. The land is cut into to create trenches. It gets infected by, machine guns, canons, and barb wire.

The land is a direct reflection of the emotional state of the star of the movie, Joey. He is a horse and we follow him from birth. He is foolishly bought by an old handicapped farmer named Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan). The true heart of the story begins when Joey is introduced to Ted’s son Albert, played by  Jeremy Irvine. For being his first big role Jeremy does a fair enough job. Everything relies on us buying into the relationship he creates with Joey. Unlike most Hollywood films these days Steven Spielberg is not afraid to take his time at the beginning of his movies. Spielberg spends a good half hour getting us connected with the relationship between Ted and Joey. We are sold with their relationship by the time Joey is sold away by Ted to a kindhearted English Captain (Tom Hiddleston). This starts a series of smaller stories we experience through out the rest of the film as Joey is pulled deeper and deeper into the Great War.

Through Joey we are shown the humanity of both sides of the war. The war is the only evil in the film and Spielberg does a delicate job expressing it’s cruelty. War Horse is the ideal film to introduce a younger audience to the evils of war. The film is not for all ages. However, it portrays war and violence in a much more bearable way then films like Saving Private Ryan or Glory. We see the war’s evil without needing to constantly turn our head from the screen. Spielberg knows the most impacting images often come from the imagination of the audience. Joey is found and treated well by both sides. However, the requirements of war come close to killing him several times in the film. Joey gives us plenty of reason to like characters who fight on both sides. We also see Joey’s profound influence of several characters in the film.

The images of evil are bearable because of the humanity Joey brings to this war film. Spielberg allows us to cherish Joey without making him seem too smart or mobile to be a real horse. My only criticism of the film would be that at times the acting feels a bit overdone and insincere. However, Spielberg more then makes up for this. The pace, visuals, and story of the film will remind many of old classics. Cutting is used sparingly. The film is mostly shot with wide angle lens’ and the story is in no hurry. Cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski’s work has never been better then in this film. Spielberg and Kaminski bend light in magical ways. The ending has some of the most touching shots I have ever seen. John Williams’ music flows as well as ever. It consumes us without ever feeling overpowering. The movie transports us back to the beginning of the twentieth century through the making of the film and the era it portrays.

War Horse is a instant classic it has all the elements of great storytelling, which would have been just as entertaining to those in the 30s and 50s as it is to us today. In the movie Joey represents the land itself. When war comes and the land is torn apart, Joey reflects it’s pain. The movie is a commentary on what it takes to make this world good. The land we live in can provide many good things if we are willing to come together and treat it well. If the world stopped caring Joey would die. Thankfully in this movie the world cares. At several points in the film Joey’s life is brought to the edge, but humanity wins. In the end War Horse is a sincere story about trying to find humanity in a time of war.

The Score

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 3, 2012

The score in filmmaking is such an abstract concept. Unlike sound effects or close ups, we never experience real life with a bunch of music playing in the background expressing our inner feelings. Even cuts are more realistic then musical scores. Even though we do not live life going from one cut to another our memory works that way; we can remember being in one place and then jump cut to a different memory in a different place. Yet, the musical score has been around almost as long as cinema. Way back in the early days of the silent era most movies were accompanied with someone in the theater playing on a piano.

The two main purposes of a musical score is to communicate to the audience the tone of the movie and the inner emotions of the characters. Most of the main characters in film have their own theme. The main score helps draw the audience into the world in which the story takes place. A world like the one in Avatar is completely different from that of Indiana Jones partly because of the contrast of the music score. Both scores thrill us with the adventure and characters of their worlds. Both enhance emotions crucial to selling the story.

The score helps develop the story. The movie August Rush is a great example. August Rush actually represents a rare occasion where the music is part of the reality of the story. The characters in the film actually do most of the playing of the music. At the beginning of the film we are introduced to the main character August Rush. He tells the audience through a voice over that “Music is all around us”. We see him listening to nature subtly create the slight hint of the theme song of the movie that will develop more and more the farther along in the story we go. At the beginning of the film August leaves his orphanage to find his father and mother. He believes the music will lead him to his family. Unknown to August we find out his father and mother were also musicians. We see how they first came together and conceive August. Every song we hear them play or sing tells us something about who they are. Even though the father is part of a punk rock band and the mother is a classical musician, director Kirsten Sheridan uses cutting to allow us to see how their different styles work together. Immediately we realize the two were meant for each other.

We see relationships come together and break apart in August Rush. Because they are all musicians they use their music to express what is going on deep within. August Rush continues to develop his main symphony with the belief that if he learns how to play the music his mother and father will hear it and come to him. In the end just that happens. August plays his symphony and draws in both his parents. Call the movie corny if you want but it is a perfect representation of what a score should do for a movie. We hear hints of the main theme all the way through the story, but it doesn’t come completely together until the end. We see how all the individual themes and styles of characters create a greater whole.

The movie Bambi is also a good example of how a score can drive a film. Everything in the film is expressed through music. Whether it is the characters, nature, or just the time of the year, music flows from it all and completely intertwines with each other. The world in Bambi seems like a never ending song, with all the elements of great entertainment including suspense, delight, and romance. The score helps drive our emotions and allows us to connect with the world and characters in the film.

While seemingly we are talking about two extremely different types of film the score works the same way. Its purpose is to contribute to the rest of the elements of the film. There are times where the score tries to compensate for poor story or bad camera work. It is important to understand that music will not make a bad movie good. You must have a good story in order to create a good movie. Music and all the rest of the elements of cinema are there only to enhance the story.

A common mistake in film is to have too much music. In most cases the score should be subtle, only a reality to our subconscious. It should not be used all the time, often you will find that the absence of music or even most sound is the best way to effect your audience. Even Bambi had a time where everything was taken away to create a much greater emotional effect. Bambi is completely saturated with music, yet when we hear the gun shot and young Bambi loses his mother everything goes silent. The score finally stops and we hear the painful cries of Bambi calling out for his lost mother. There in the quite Forrest Bambi runs into his father. “Your mother can’t be with you anymore”, the great stage says. This piece of dialogue is infinitely more effective because of the silence that surrounds it.

Composers are storytellers in their own way, developing the characters and plots one note at a time. Yet, the composers job is just as much about knowing when to stay silent as it is to play music. The score of a film draws us in and allows to understand the very soul of the characters and story we see on screen. If executed poorly we will feel manipulated and repulsed. However if it is done correctly the score can be the key which allows us to be completely consumed by what we see on screen.