A Dreamer Walking

Influences

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on February 16, 2015

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.

The Long Take

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on February 3, 2015

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.