A Dreamer Walking

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Pupil

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on November 26, 2014
Kurosawa#4

Kurosawa (left) Yama-san (right)

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.

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Innovator

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on November 18, 2014

Kurosawa #1Akira Kurosawa is one of the most highly acclaimed filmmakers of all time. He put Japanese cinema on the map with Rashomon (1950). He created a movie many consider the greatest of all time with Seven Samurai (1954). And at a time most directors are long washed up he made a masterpiece in Ran (1985). These movies are great because he constantly worked to innovate the medium of film. Kurosawa was an innovator from the very beginning of his career to the very end. His crew attested to his willingness to go against the grain and try new things even on a movie like Kagemusha (1980); where he had gone five years without making a film and was in danger of his career ending if the movie was not a success.

I am interested in understanding how Kurosawa became one of the great innovators in medium of film. What makes one so great? Is it natural talent, luck, or strength of will? I think most would agree it takes all these things. Kurosawa was truly lucky to be in the right place at the right time when he first got into the film business. He had a natural eye for composition and a strong intuition for story structure. And I do not think there was a man with a stronger will to put his vision onto the screen then Kurosawa. However, what made Kurosawa able to be confident in taking the risks needed to be one of history’s greatest filmmakers was something more then talent, luck, and strength of will. What gave Kurosawa the confidence to do things never done before was an unbelievable understanding of all the aspects of filmmaking. In his book, Something like an Audiobiography, Kurosawa defined exactly what he felt made a great film director,

Unless you know every aspect and phase of the film-production process, you can’t be a movie director. A movie director is like a front-line commanding officer. He needs a thorough knowledge of every branch of service, and if he doesn’t command each division, he cannot command the whole.

This vast knowledge of the medium of film did not come to Kurosawa overnight. In the mid 1930’s Kurosawa was hired by P.C.L. (Photo Chemical Laboratory) Studios to be an assistant director. In Japan during this time the assistant director’s job was to help in any aspect of the production that was running behind or overwhelmed with work. Kurosawa needed to have a thorough understanding of location scouting, costume design, set dressing, editing, and camera operation. He also needed to understand how to communicate with the people who worked in these areas so he could get them to do precisely what the director needed.

The man most responsible for training Kurosawa in all the details of filmmaking was Yamamoto Kajirô, but more on him in another post. Suffice to say Kurosawa hit the ground running when it came to being a assistant director. He quickly climbed ranks from third assistant to chief assistant behind Yamamoto. And even with his overloaded schedule Kurosawa somehow found a way to write. He studied the emotional beats of the literature he read. He kept journals on the big and little things that emotionally resonated with him. Kurosawa claimed those who say they don’t have time to write “are just cowards”. No matter how long the day was Kurosawa made himself write at least a page of a script before he went to bed. As Kurosawa said, this might not sound like much but at the end of the year he found he had a 365 page script written.

Yamamoto also allowed Kurosawa into the editing room where the young pupil truly flourished. Many film historians today consider Kurosawa the greatest editor to ever live. If you study his movies you can tell Kurosawa had a deep knowledge of Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory; where the edit wasn’t about matching action to obtain the seamless cut as much as it was about triggering emotional responses through the cut. He learned to cut film like a poet. And like any poet Kurosawa developed a fundamental understanding of his film’s language in order to master it.

During his career Kurosawa broke many established rules of filmmaking. Pointing the lens directly into the sun, using multiple cameras to capture a piece of drama, and shooting pieces of action in slow motion are just a few of the countless ways he revolutionized the language of film. What sticks out the most to me however is his stories and how fearless he was at saying exactly what he wanted to say with them no matter how politically incorrect or noncommercial the ideas were. This confidence came because of Kurosawa’s deep understanding of each aspect of the film medium. He was a prime example of someone who knew the rules so well he could break them at will. And through the breaking of many of these rules he made some of the most innovative movies in the history of cinema.

Brad Bird- An Observation- Character Animation

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on September 1, 2011

Brad BirdAll the Pixar films have moments of brilliant animation. However, I am always blown away by the animation I see in Brad Bird’s films. Bird’s films have an appeal and timing that gives the old silent greats, such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, a run for their money. Because of his animation background Brad tries to create scenes for his films he would like to animate himself. The legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl mentored Brad Bird. Bird was also lucky enough to work at Disney when Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas were there. These great animators helped develop Bird’s eye for quality animation. I believe Bird is the best animator out of all the Pixar directors, and because of this most animators love to work for him. Bird pushes his animators to think outside the box and he knows the techniques of animation so well he is able to give his animators the kind of criticism that allows for them to create their best possible work.

Bird’s first project for Pixar was his original story The Incredibles. The Incredibles was a risky story to tell for multiple reasons. The movie required the Pixar artists to dive into an extremely challenging type of animation, human animation. Humans have always been some of the hardest things to animate. We observe how humans move constantly in everyday life so if the animator makes a mistake with animating a human character the audience will know. Yet, Bird felt the Pixar artists were up to the task and he gave them colorful characters to enhance their animation.

The Incredibles is about an over the hill superhero in Mr. Incredible who wants to relive the glory days. There are five Incredibles total and the whole family has superpowers. Bird’s genius was making the superpower for each Incredible directly reflect who the characters were on the inside. Mr. Incredible is the man of the and feels he has the responsibility to provide for the family, so Bird gave him super strength. Mrs. Incredible main purpose is to keep the peace and she feels stretched through trying to satisfy all the members of the family, so she is given the ability to be super flexible. The Incredibles oldest child Violet represents the “unconfident teen” who does not want to be noticed and creates barriers so she won’t get hurt by what someone says or does, so she has the ability to disappear and create force fields. Dash, the Incredibles middle child, is a ball of energy who is set on being the best in whatever he competes in, so what better superpower to represent him then super speed. And finally we have the baby Jack. Jack is a big “?”, he is too young for us to know what he will end up being. His powers reflect who he is by being miscellaneous. He can turn into metal, burst into fire, or transform into a demon, all depending on his mood at the time.

The next film Brad Bird directed and wrote for Pixar happens to be one of my favorite animated films of all time, Ratatouille. The animation in Ratatouille is phenomenal. The whole premise of the movie relied on getting the audience to believe a rat could cook. This was no easy task yet Bird executed the idea perfectly. Here is a great example of Bird’s brilliant direction in the movie:

Understand first the animation is all being driven by the personalities of the characters. This is actually the main reason the scene is so wonderful to watch. We have the human character Linquini who does not have a clue what is going on. You can see it through his facial expressions when Colette is reading off the ingredients and even more so when she leaves frame to set the dish up. We are also given a shot of Remy thinking about the ingredients Colette is reading off. These are very subtle pieces of animation but they are setting up the cooking scene. When the cooking starts Remy takes charge and the music begins. Notice how well the music blends with the animation. Each movement seems to hit curtain beats – Linquini reaching for the first spices, Remy bending Linquini to smell the sauce, Linquini going to get more ingredients. The more involved Linquini and Remy get with cooking the more expressive the music gets. There is a delicate balance between us realizing Remy is the one making Linquini cook and Linquini trying to maintain some kind of control. The humor actually comes from the battle for this balance. All the efforts Linquini makes – saying “thank you” to the cooks, telling them he needs some of their material, and trying to explain himself to Colette – make the scene all the more entertaining. Follow Linquini’s facial expressions while he is controlled by Remy. The animation is all about action and reaction on Linquini’s end. Also, notice how Bird and his animators do not hesitate in getting Linquini physically involved with the things around him. One of the hardest things to do in computer animation is have characters interact with other objects or people. Yet, Linquini is grabbing and moving objects around and he is reaching through a cooks arm to grab some things behind him. Linquini also hits some brilliant extreme poses in the scene. Animation is all about extreme poses and exaggerating movements not possible to do with live action acting. The animators need to make sure Linquini moves like a human, but they also have the responsibility to exaggerate his poses so they are easy for us to read. Linquini reaching for the spices, lifting his leg to start his walk around the kitchen, and reaching his arm out to stop Collete, are all examples of great poses where the animators are pushing their animation to the limit in order to communicate to the highest potential the action and essence of the character.

Brad Bird has never shied away from risky storytelling. He believes in the characters he creates and the animators who bring them to life enough to push the storytelling to the limit. It was no easy task to make a film about rats cooking. Before Bird came onto the project the artists shortened the rats’ tails and made them walk and act far more like humans. The Pixar artists did this because they were afraid an audience would be too appalled with more realistic rats. However Bird believed the idea of rats cooking would only be believable if the rats looked realistic. So he made the artist lengthen the tails, study the anatomy and the rats’ movements so they looked and acted in a more realistic way. Realize Bird did not make them look completely realistic, they do have a much softer design and more colorful look then real rats, but they were changed enough for the audience to buy into the illusion. The result was a movie that on paper looked like it could never work (I mean who in their right mind would like to see a rat in the kitchen, let alone cooking?) yet through brilliant character animation and subtle design changes we not only become okay with Remy the rat cooking, we ended up rooting for him to succeed.

Bird’s films make me realize how phenomenal the medium of animation really is. The characters Bird creates could not possibly be expressed in as complete a way in any other medium. How the animation reflects the character within is what is most important. Bird’s animation sticks out because the animators are on top of their game when working with him. Bird is a very enthusiastic and dedicated man. One of his sayings is, “Film is forever; Pain is temporary”. Bird is not the easiest director to work with. He will ask for a lot. But I believe most of his artists see the results are well worth it. I believe the artists working with Bird know he has conviction in the characters he creates. They are real to him and he will not stop pushing his artists until he sees the heart and souls of his characters come alive on screen.