A Dreamer Walking

Christopher Nolan – Director – The Dark Knight

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Screenshot Series by Jacob on September 9, 2014

Chrostopher Nolan

Here we have one of the most iconic images from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Each superhero movie needs it’s “hero shot” and this is Christopher Nolan’s version.  Nolan shoots Batman at a lower angle and has him standing on top of the rubble, as a sort of pedestal. Yet, the cold blues devouring most of the shot and the empty space around Batman seems to be saying something more.

It’s obvious Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer Wally Pfister knows how to work with light. The cold and warm colors create a wonderful complementary color scheme. Just enough light hits Batman in order to have him stick out so we understand his emotional state. This shot takes place right after Batman loses someone dear to him and saves someone who he believes is important to the city. Through this shot Nolan is showing the conflict between the two actions. The burning building is being used to reflect the inner battle Batman is going through. We are looking up to Batman in this shot and he is intentionally put on top of the rubble to suggest he is rising above the destruction. Yet, because of the blues, Batman’s stance, and the emptyness around him we do not see this as a triumphant shot. Instead it communicates a deep conflict between the hero Batman is trying to be and the inner conflict going on inside.

The reason Nolan’s Batman series rises above (excuse the pun) other superhero movies for me is because of shots like this one. All superhero movies show physical conflict but rarely do I see the emotional conflict in a superhero movie treated with such potency. For Nolan this movie was all about questioning our views on what makes a hero. And like the shot above Nolan leaves us with a a hero, but not the one we are so used to seeing. Instead, he turns our concept of what makes a true hero on it’s head and goes into a direction that forces us to see the “superhero” as a human being not immune to the evils of the world he fights in.

The Piano – Scene Study – The Beach

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Screenshot Series by Jacob on July 6, 2014

Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) is a dark and complex tale which had a hard time connecting with a broad audience. I however found the film to be full of interesting dynamics. The film was also beautifully shot. I especially appreciate director/writer Jane Campion’s unwillingness to simplify the narrative in order to be more politically correct. In essence we are given a love story without a prince charming. There are two men who fight for the main character Ada’s affection and both characters are full of flaws and bring to the for front the kind of sexism woman have struggled with since the beginning of humanity.

The Piano was chock full of wonderful scenes where the visuals were constantly used communicate narrative and emotional points. I wanted to concentrate on one of the scenes I believe best expresses just how much meaning Campion was able to imbue into each one of her shots.

This scene takes place during the transition from the first act of the movie to the second. The main character Ada and her daughter are able to convince George Baines to go back to the beach so she can play her piano. George is falling in love with Ada despite her already being married. It’s here where we truly get a feel of George’s affection and begin to understand just how much the piano means to the story.

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We first have this master shot with music playing in the background. The shot starts out with Ada and her daughter Flora walking from screen right to the piano. The emphasis is put on Ada’s need to play the piano. However, a second or two later George walks into frame connecting him to Ada and her piano. I think it would be easy to compare George to the rock on the horizon line; an object that is quite distant from the mind of Ada at the moment.

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The second shot is a pan starting first on the piano and then quickly revealing Ada playing the music we have been hearing in the background. This of course directly links the piano to Ada. Also the close up of the hands is a key element; making a point that the hands are what is making such beautiful music. Ada’s hands become a crucial plot point in the third act of the movie and they already being set up here. By having this be the second shot after the master Campion is communicating Ada’s playing is the focus point of the scene.

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This is part of the same pan shot. Campion is  directly connects George to Ada and her piano playing. This is one of the first shots showing George’s obsession of Ada and the piano. It helps to set up the idea of him wanting her to play for him later in the movie.

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The pan cuts to a close of Ada alone. It is key that the shot starts alone because it gives clarity to exactly what George is looking at. However, shortly after we see Ada’s daughter Flora run into frame and hug her mom. This moment represents Ada at her happiest. A long time goes by before we see her close to as fulfilled as we see her here.

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This cut of the daughter dancing expresses the spiritual connection between Ada’s music to her daughter. Jane Campion holds the shot for a good amount of time, trying to show how in-sink the two are at this point in the story.

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We have this cut to medium close up of George who in his own way is going with the music. The key is to show how Ada’s music is effecting George emotionally.

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This is one of the most interesting shots of the scene. Campion breaks the rule of thirds and frames Ada so the head is in the middle of frame. This is a wonderful example of a closed frame; nothing is important but what we are seeing in frame. The shallow focus stops the background from interfering in the shot; Campion wants us to only be seeing how Ada is reacting to the music. The rest of the world and all other sounds have faded away.

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I show two frames from this shot because the action inside the shot is what is really important. We first get this look from George as if he is entranced with the way Ada is being moved by her music. However, by turning his back George is in a sense denying that allure.

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Yet, in the end he turns back, unable to resist his need to see Ada playing. This is a wonderful foreshadow of what is to come between Ada and George.

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Here is another close up of Ada’s hands. Again, driving home the idea Ada’s hands are what are giving us this powerful music. The other important factor is seeing Flora playing with Ada. Right now in the story the two are working together, both are being physically and emotionally connected to each other with this shot.

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This is from the same shot, Campion goes all the way from the close up of both Ada and Flora playing to this wide where we get a feeling of a sort of distance between the two characters. I feel like Campion is making a comment about things to come.

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This last god’s eye point of view shot might be the most telling of the whole scene. It expresses the journey of the story. We first have Ada walking her own path. Flora quickly fallows and George contemplates for several long seconds before he chooses to follow suit. The shot is communicating whose story this is and the rout of some of the main characters who end up going on the journey with her.

Tyrus Wong – Background Artist – Bambi

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Screenshot Series by Jacob on June 8, 2014

Bambi #2

Center frame are two of my favorite characters in all of animation. I grew up with Bambi and Thumper. I watched Bambi (1942) dozens and dozens of times as a child and it moved me every time. This frame comes from near the beginning of the movie when Thumper and his sisters are showing the young prince around the Forrest. Not once during my childhood did I question whether or not the Forrest was real. Yet, if you really look at it the shapes making up most of the backgrounds in Bambi are but simple impressions of the real thing. As you can see in this frame the leaves, grass, and trees are void of much texture and lose almost all their detail at the edges of the frame. I personally consider Bambi to have some of the greatest backgrounds in all of animation because none of the background paintings detract from the characters and action but are able to completely transport you into the movie’s world.

Walt Disney spent a long time trying to figure out the look of the backgrounds in Bambi. With Snow White (1937) And Pinocchio (1940) Walt was much more interested in creating a look you would see in book illustration of the Brother Grimm tales. The movies were influenced by European painters from the 1800s. However, with Bambi Walt was shooting for a realism not seen before in animation. He wanted the animals in the movie to move like real animals you would see in the Forrest and so he had all kinds of Forrest animals brought into the studio to be studied by his artists in order to achieve this goal. Just look at the difference between 1937’s Snow White animals and the ones you see in Bambi, made in 1942. There is a strong attention to the anatomy of the animals in Bambi and there are only a few features exaggerated in order to have them relate more to the audience.

The animator Tyrus Wong said he never met Walt but it is clear Walt resonated with his painting style. Wong was an inbetweener animator responsible for doing the in-between drawings of finished animation in order to create the number of frames needed to have a scene move in a flawless way when played at regular speed. This was tireless and unrewarding work. Thankfully the research artist Maurice Day discovered Wong’s impressionistic paintings he had been doing on the side and brought his illustrations to Walt’s attention. Walt loved them. Not only did his impressionistic style not feel too busy, it seemed to transport Walt and the rest of the artist into the Forrest of Bambi. Wong captured the simplistic shapes within the environment of the Forrest. He also understood how light reflected off and filtered through it’s leaves and rocks. The hand drawn characters who move around in the environment had just enough detail to stick out from the backgrounds while also feeling at home in the frame.

If you look at this background painting without Bambi and the young rabbits inhabiting it, it would feel empty. The environment by itself is easy to overlook. It is made to be inhabited. I believe this should be a key philosophy for all animation backgrounds. Too often we see environments detract from the story taking place. Detail can easily become animation’s greatest enemy. The job of an animated film is not to reproduce reality but rather create just enough in order to make it feel emotionally genuine.

Tyrus Wong is still alive at age 103 and has been recognized by Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller and honored with a display of his work at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Fransisco California in 2013. It is a true shame Tyrus Wong left Disney because of the 1941 strike.

Adam Kimmel – Cinematographer – Never Let Me Go

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Scene Analysis, Screenshot Series by Jacob on March 24, 2014

Never Let Me Go 1:4

Here are a series of shots from a scene in the movie Never Let Me Go (2010) I wanted to critique. Kathy, our protagonist, just over-heard her closest friend, Ruth, and the boy she loves, Tommy, having sex and and chose to listen to a piece of music to take her mind off of what what is going on. The thing is she is listening to music Tommy gave her so we know her mind is still on Tommy. Her body language says a lot as well. She is almost hugging the tape recorder as if she wishes the take she is playing was Tommy himself. Notice how cinematographer Adam Kimmel and director Mark Romanek frame Kathy. They are using the rule of thirds, placing her eye line just at the top left third of the frame. This is known as an effective harmonizing way to frame a character. Usually the face is the center focus of a picture. If Kathy’s head was too high or there was a lot of empty space at the top of the frame the audience would be thrown off because the image wouldn’t feel balanced. Her face is lit with a nice warm light from the right. Though it is a dark scene we get the sense of peace and calmness Kathy must feel listening to Tommy’s song. Kathy opens her eyes and we cut to this next image.

Never Let Me Go 2:4

Talk about a haunting image. This is Kathy’s friend Ruth standing in the doorway. Right away the eyes is thrown off because the director and cinematographer go against the rule of thirds and place Ruth’s head at the very top and too far toward the middle of frame. Yet the eyes do instantly go to Ruth. The doorway is a great framing device and the top of the dresser and the wall frames direct our eyes to her position. The filmmakers hide Ruth’s face which throws us off even more because we can’t get a good read on her emotions. The wallpaper to the right and shambled looking robe Ruth is wearing only adds to the dark mood. From this image we can tell Ruth isn’t here to befriend Kathy. She is like a dark spirit from nightmare. Lets fast forward a few shots.

Never Let Me Go 3:4

Ruth has begun to talk to Kathy about how she will never be with Tommy. She is hurting Kathy at her core and the imagery reflects as much. Again the filmmakers put Kathy’s face in a much more balanced place then Ruth’s. Ruth’s face is completely in shadow and her head partly cut off at the top of the frame. The filmmakers are not afraid to work with darkness. The focus point of the image is Kathy’s eye. The light hits it just right. The eyes are the mirrors of the soul and we sense the effect Ruth’s cruel words have on Kathy emotionally. The only real color shown in the frame comes from the green wallpaper. The green compliments the toxic words spouting from Ruth’s mouth.

Never Let Me Go 4:4

The filmmakers cut to this shot while Ruth is still in frame. They get closer and closer as Ruth’s words become more and more painful. But we linger on Kathy after Ruth leaves. The darkness surrounds Kathy more then ever now. We can see the effect Ruth has had on her. Again Kathy’s eyes are able to say so much. She has been completely destroyed with Ruth’s monologue.

These represent a very effective set of imagery and the music and dialogue only enhance the scene. It is a good study on the effectiveness of limiting the lighting in the scene. As good as the production might have been we don’t need to see all of it. Our eyes are allowed to focus on the important parts because the other areas are shaded. This is the darkest scene dramatically in the movie. Kimmel and Romanek want to express the darkness visually and in every shot they do so.

(Visiuals courtesy of EVEN E RICHARDS)