A Dreamer Walking

The Frame – Restriction’s Power

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 20, 2017

blog exampleSo often I find what students of film think they need in order to make a good film are more resources. If only I could have the new GH5 camera to shoot slow motion. If only I had a drone to create scale. If only I had the after effects program to perfect my shot. Naively, we tend to believe more resources will allow us to make a better movie. Yet, in many ways I have found they do the exact opposite.

To understand where I am coming from you need to realize who my heroes of cinema are. Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, and Akira Kurosawa are all filmmakers I aspire to. They created films even at the time of conception were considered far less technically advanced than the other films of their time. Yet, today they stand heads and shoulders over their peers. Chaplin’s lack of sound, Bergman’s square aspect ratio, and Kurosawa’s black and white pictures are not signs of weakness in their storytelling, but rather strength.

We forget the essence of cinema is found in restraint. Throughout it’s history we have needed to deal with the unrelenting constraints of the frame. And yet, it is in this very restraint we find an endless number of possibilities. The frame is what creates the possibility for the vast majority of language we have developed for cinema today. Without the frame there would be no shot. The shot represents the filmmakers canvas.  We need those four edges to go from a wide to a close-up. The difference between a character who resides on the edges of the frame compared to the middle is extremely significant. The frame allows us to focus the eye through blocking all but the most important aspects of the story, out.

Now there is a movement coming. VR (virtual reality) breaks from the “restraints” of the frame and allows the audience to look anywhere they please. This is not a post trying to bash on this new technology. Even Chaplin, Bergman, and Kurosawa started to explore the power of sound, widening the frame, and color. Infact, some of their greatest masterpieces came from these newer cinematic resources. Yet, understanding the value of their perceived limitations is what helped launch their storytelling into another stratosphere. These were artists who if they were not provided with a paint brush, they would bask in the joy of being able to use their hands.

Less resources force us to value the tools one has. I can say this is extremely true for my current career. I have never owned a camera, lead a large crew, or owned any complex editing/effects software. However, I do not consider myself or the people who work with me any less capable of creating great art.

The resources we have at our disposal will all be inadequate soon. Luckily nobody cares about the chisel Michelangelo used when carving David or the pen Shakespeare wrote with for Romeo and Juliet.  When we have unlimited resources we are allowed to avoid looking into ourselves; we can hide our shallowness behind bells and whistles. However, the greatest measurement of an artist’s worth will always be time and it is the soul of one’s art time will reveal.

 

Charlie Chaplin- An Observation- Devotion to Perfection

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on December 2, 2011

How could  a man with a fourth grade education, who was raised in the slums, with a father who deserted him, and a mother who went mad, become one of the greatest stars in the history of cinema? Might those hardships be why he became such a great star? Charlie Chaplin was one who demanded an audience. His insecurities drove him to perfect his art form. He wanted the audience to feel for him, to love him. Every movement he made in his films was calculated. Chaplin wanted to control everything on screen. He obsessed on small things like the art of lifting a flower and the exact way the Tramp needed to have his hat tilted. He shot scenes hundreds of times- until the actions in his films flowed like water on smooth rock. Perfection is what Chaplin wanted and it is what he got. Movies like The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and City Lights represent film at  it’s height. They got there because the artist behind them would have nothing less.

Chaplin did not go to film school. He needed to learn on the job. You can see Chaplin learning the techniques of filmmaking through his shorts and early full length features. Slowly Chaplin began to understand the value of a long shot verses a close up. The value of camera movement and invisible cuts. Every day he arrived on set he was in search of a way to tell his story better. Chaplin never knew exactly what he was going to do. He wanted his films to have an organic flow. No matter how funny the gag might be it would be cut if it didn’t make sense to Chaplin and contribute to the story. I have said before, Chaplin’s crew all agreed that if he could Chaplin would cast himself for every character in his films. His crew needed to deal with a relentless amount of scrutiny. He acted out exactly what he wanted his actors to do. If you didn’t do it perfectly you would be in for a long day. Back in the 1910’s through the 1930’s Chaplin would consistently do twenty plus takes when the common Hollywood filmmaker would do three to five.

Chaplin’s classic The Circus was originated from an idea Chaplin had of a man on a tightrope running into several unforeseen obstacles in the middle of his act. The whole rest of the movie was developed from this idea. Chaplin spent months training on the tightrope so he could be prepared for the scene. When it came to actually shooting the scene he shot over seven hundred takes trying to perfect the act. The scene now is a classic in cinema. Chaplin keeps topping himself in it. First he loses his safety harness. Then he has a bunch of monkey’s attack him. He holds us in suspense while he weaves back and forth barely managing to stop himself from falling with his balancing stick. Then his pants fall off, yet still he somehow maintains control. All the while Chaplin gives us some extremely dynamic shots- showing the distance he is from the ground and the frightening perspective the audience has watching him at such a great height. Finally Chaplin tops it all with the greatest banana gag in the history of film when he trips on a peel that one of the monkey’s threw on the rope. It took months to perfect but the result was a flawless performance.

Ideas didn’t come easily to Chaplin. When asked how one gets ideas Chaplin said, “By sheer perseverance to the point of madness”. Chaplin’s unbelievable drive is what created classic scenes like the Tramp on the tightrope in The Circus, the Tramp seeing the blind woman for the first time in City Lights, and Chaplin making his great speech at the end of The Great Dictator. All these scenes have lasted and will continue to last through the ages. Why? Because every movement made in the The Circus and City Lights scenes were pure entertainment leading to a perfect climax, and every word said in The Great Dictator speech rang true to the heart of humanity. Chaplin’s perseverance to the point of madness is what allowed him to retake, refine, and rework his films in his quest for perfection.

Chaplin spent close to two years on most of his full length productions. This compared to the average Hollywood production, which was forty to fifty days, seems quite obsessive. Yet, Chaplin has just as many classics as anyone in film History. Three of his films, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Gold Rush, made it to AFI’s (America Film Institute) top 100 American films of all time. Chaplin was a man with many insecurities and many imperfections. His personal life for most of his filmmaking career was a mess. Yet, this imperfect man created several magnificent films. He told most of his stories with no duologue and hardly any sound. It was mainly through the visuals that he needed to communicate to his audience. So he dedicated himself to perfecting the visuals. And in many cases he did. He has brought a tear to my eye more then once. He created a character who started out as just a clown meant to make us laugh and slowly turned into a character who represented the essence of humanity. Chaplin wanted to speak to the yearning of the human heart. He always felt the need to do more. He had a grand vision for the art of storytelling and he would not settle for anything less then perfection.

Charlie Chaplin- An Observation- The Outsider

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on November 17, 2011

The Outsider In most of his films Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp is on the outside looking in. Might this be the very reason we like him so much? The huge amount of empathy Chaplin creates through his Tramp character is unmatched in the history of film. The Tramp is universal. Even now, more then seven decades after the last movie staring the Tramp was released, there are people all across the world who instantly recognize the character with over sized shoes, a tight coat, and a small bowler hat.

Most of the Tramp’s empathy is ironically created because he is an outsider. Chaplin knew this and wasn’t afraid to create stories where the Tramp never really became the insider. Not all of Chaplin’s movies end with the Tramp being accepted. Most all of Chaplin’s movies show the Tramp going through a huge amount of rejection even if eventually he is accepted. We can learn from the way Chaplin uses the Tramp. A happy ending is not always the best choice. Sometimes a character is accepted the most by an audience through being rejected in his own world.

One of Charlie Chaplin’s most memorable scenes is when he does the “Roll Dance” using potatoes for feet and forks for legs. Although executed extremely well, what creates the admiration and empathy for the scene is not the Tramp’s superb execution of the dance. The scene starts with the Tramp waiting for the girl of his dreams to accompany him for a new years eve dinner. She promised she would come. the Tramp put in a tremendous amount of work to get everything ready. The Tramp waits so long he falls asleep. Suddenly we go inside the Tramp’s head as he imagines the party in front of him. He is having a ball of a time and to entertain his imagined guests he performs the “Roll Dance”. After finishing everyone cheers and it is the happiest moment in the film. This is contrasted with one of the saddest images, when the cheers slowly fad away to the Tramp sleeping at the table alone. Right then we know nobody is going to come. The context of this “Roll Dance” scene puts the moment in a completely different and more profound light. We cherish the scene so much more because we realize we are experiencing something everyone else has missed.

So often in Chaplin’s films we see the Tramp choose to be the outsider. He rejects his hope for happiness in City Lights by giving the blind girl money to regain her eye sight, even though he knows it means he will be sent to jail. The Tramp excludes himself from the rest of his factory workers in Modern Times by rebelling and going on a crazy rant destroying many of the factory machines. He stands up against a whole nation in The Great Dictator when he makes his speech on the importance of democracy and putting values like love and humanity above dictatorship and innovation. Each step he takes away from the “in” crowd and each selfless act he makes for the sake of others, represents a connection he creates with the audience.

The truth is I don’t think Chaplin ever really felt like he was part of the “in” crowd. He was a British man living in an American society. He was targeted as a communist and anarchist early in his career. Eventually he was driven out of America because of his beliefs by J. Edgar Hoover in 1952. As early as 1925 when Chaplin came out with The Gold Rush he was accused of being too old fashion with his comedy and film style. No scene expresses Chaplin’s feelings of isolation better then the scene at the end of his 1928 film The Circus. Only months before The Circus came out Hollywood produced it’s first talkie film. Already silent pictures were being described as “a thing of the past”. Yet, Chaplin felt he would do a disservice to his global audience if he made the Tramp talk. The premise of The Circus is that the Tramp gets involved with a traveling circus and almost by accident becomes it’s greatest star. In the movie the Tramp meets a girl who he falls desperately in love with. He also makes the circus famous through his comedy routines, much like the fame Charlie Chaplin created for Hollywood through the Tramp. Yet, in the end Chaplin loses the girl. The final scene is of the circus moving out leaving Chaplin’s Tramp behind. I believe this represented the emotional state Chaplin was in at the time. He was watching a entertainment industry he helped create pass him by through the creation of sound. In the end, the Tramp walks away toward the horizon, alone, with some of his greatest silent films yet to come.

Our job as filmmakers is to go our own way. At times others will walk beside us. However, there will also be times when we make decisions both thematically and professionally that isolate us and make us and the characters we create feel alone, like the outsider looking in. Sometimes it is the outsider looking in who has the best perspective. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to change the direction of those on the inside. Chaplin changed our perspective. With his little Tramp he gave us an understanding of what it feels like to be rejected. What it feels like to love someone and yet not be loved in the same way back. What it feels like to stand up against something that is wrong even though everyone else is silent or rejects us. This little outsider represents one of the greatest reasons I want to be in the film business. He has shown me that sometimes it’s the outsider’s voice that comes out the clearest. Sometimes it’s the people who need to fight through rejection, isolation, and criticism who make the greatest impact.

Charlie Chaplin- An Observation- The Key to Comedy

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on November 6, 2011

You know if you threw all Charlie Chaplin’s gags into a montage you probably would be rolling on the floor laughing before it finished. However, many great gag artists filled the screens in the silent era. Critics credited Harold Lloyd  with just as much creativity in his gags as Chaplin. And, Buster Keaton in my opinion might have been better. Keaton did things that stuntmen these days wouldn’t do. The gag in and of itself didn’t make Chaplin stick out. Charlie was the best comedian of the silent era and one of the greatest comedians of all time because he was able to generate a huge amount of sympathy and affection for the gags he pulled off. Most of this sympathy and affection was directed toward the legendary character that he often portrayed, the Tramp.  The Tramp was not the everyman character Harold Lloyd tried to portray and he definitely wasn’t known to be a stone face like Buster Keaton. Chaplin’s character almost always was living on the edge just trying to survive. The Tramp drew immediate sympathy because he represented the poorest of the poor in our society. The childlike heart and the ability to wear his emotions on his sleeve is what won over our affection for the Tramp. Even in this generation, almost a hundred years since the Tramp first appeared on screen, few children or adults can avoid being entranced by the amiable smile the Tramp gives when trying to get out of trouble or the poignant image he creates when going through tough times.

Chaplin’s makeup and costume perfectly expresses the sympathetic character he wants to be to his audience. His face is perfectly framed with the dark eye shadow, centered mustache, and tilted hat. His costume is abstract, he wears over sized pants and shoes, and a too small hat and shirt. Even though he represents the poorest of the poor in our society, the Tramp tries to make himself look like an established gentlemen with the cane he carries, the ripped up gentlemens gloves he wears, and his black felt bowler hat. The Tramp creates for himself along with the unwavering optimism for life he has, attracts us to his character. We invest in the Tramp because he is both visually and emotionally appealing. When we are invested in the Tramp as a character we become all the more interested in the scenarios he gets himself into and the gags he is able to pull off.

Chaplin’s gags stand out because they often give us a greater understanding of who his Tramp character is. Gags like, the Tramp trying not to starve through eating his own shoe in the The Gold Rush or the Tramp trying to save the depressed rich man from suicide in City Lights, separate Chaplin from his peers. Even at the point of starvation the Tramp is still optimistic he will survive. He treats the shoe like an upper class dinner, taking it apart piece by piece until the man next to him becomes envious of how much Tramp enjoys himself. The irony that comes with a completely broke man- the Tramp, trying to convince a extremely rich man not commit suicide is funny in and of itself.

Chaplin found humor in more then how he could pull off a fall or sell a punch. Chaplin figured out you don’t need to be in danger to pull off a gag. Sometimes Chaplin found humor through completely changing our emotions in the middle of a scene. One of the Tramp’s greatest gags is in City Lights when he meets the blind flower girl for the first time. Chaplin first wins over our heart through creating sentiment with the revelation that the flower girl is blind. Then Chaplin goes a step further when his Tramp character, even though dirt poor, is willing to let the girl keep the extra money for the flower he just purchased. Not knowing the Tramp is still there the girl washes out her flower bowl while the Tramp simply gazes at her beauty. At the most romantic point of the scene Chaplin completely changes the scenario as the blind girl unknowingly throws a bunch of water into the Tramp’s face. Plenty of gags involve people getting splashed with water. The reason why this gag rises above is because of the way Chaplin sets it up. He created a sympathy and affection for the scene in general. We were completely involved with what was happening on screen, completly in love with both characters, before Chaplin went to the punchline.

Chaplin’s humor succeeds because it goes beyond just a good laugh. His humor gives us joy that warms our hearts. He created in the Tramp a character that represented a part of us all. We can relate to the low parts in the Tramp’s life and are encouraged and find joy in the Tramp’s optimism. In real life Charlie Chaplin was a multimillionaire. He owned his own studio, a huge mansion, and was one of the most famous men in the world. Yet, the real Charlie Chaplin was always struggling with insecurities. He was always deathly afraid of not being adored and he went through many marriages and even more affairs. I think Chaplin would even admit he was never as happy as the Tramp. The Tramp’s gags encouraged us and allowed us to realize that happiness does not come from money or fame. Rather, happiness comes from finding the light in the darkest of times and most stressful of situations. Chaplin’s key to great comedy was through not making the gag more important then the character or story he was telling. Gags can be repeated but there will never be a character like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp again.

Sound

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on October 25, 2011

You know Charlie Chaplin really has helped me understand the importance of sound in film. Watching his “silent” movies in the sound era is extremely interesting. Honestly the two silent films he made during the sound era, actually had sound. Just, the sound was used extremely selectively. There was no dialogue from the main characters and there were periods of time where we heard nothing except the score. But every once in a while Chaplin would bring in a sound to emphasize a point. He was quite funny with some of his selections. When you watch the beginning of City Lights the mayor of the city is giving a speech and all we hear from him is a bunch of gibberish. I am sure Chaplin is trying to say something about politicians in the scene, as though they talk only to hear themselves speak. In Chaplin’s next film Modern Times Charlie takes sound effects in his silent film one step further. He is almost intrusive with the sounds he expresses at the beginning of the film while the Tramp works at the factory. He is making a statement about modern times and how technology seems to be intruding into our peaceful world. Sound is never over used in Charlie’s films. Even when he made an actual sound picture The Great Dictator, there is an elegance in the way he uses the sound that makes it far more impacting most films we see today.

Simplification is one of the keys in using sound in films. No filmmaker tries to copy everything we would hear in real life. Instead most sound designers try to take away all but the essentials. I remember hearing one of the sound designers for Forrest Gump talk about how he approached the sounds of battle when Forrest fights in Vietnam. He explained that if he used all the sound you would actually hear in a battle like the one Forrest was in nothing would really register with the audience. There is such thing as having so much sound that it just begins to sound like static. So instead, everything was taken away but a few sounds of bullets whizzing past soldiers head’s, explosions, and selective pieces of dialogue from soldiers in the background. We were given just enough to place us into the situation that was taking place, but everything else was deserted. Sometimes the director wants to take us away from the environment so we can see what is going on from a different perspective. Steven Spielberg took away sound in his movie Saving Private Ryan when the soldiers were attacking Omaha Beach. There are just a few dozen seconds where the main character Captain Miller seems to go inside himself and the gun shots and explosions stop. All we hear are faint sounds coming from the places he is looking at. This kind of thing helped focus our eyes and it made us rely more on the visuals. Often in film sound just gets in the way.

The sound designer’s job is not to recreate the sound we would hear in real life. For instance, when someone pulls a sword from their holster it never makes a “SHRRING” sound like we hear in almost every movie. We don’t hear a big “POW” sound when someone punches another person in real life, yet we almost always hear something like that in the movies. The goal of a sound designer is to make us feel something when we hear their sounds. If using something unrealistic gets us farther into the story they will use the unrealistic sound. The sound designers I have heard talk say that they rarely use the actual resource material when creating a sound design for a movie.

Sound effects really have the ability to drive a story. A good example is the movie Wall-E. Even the characters voice’s are expressed through sound effects in Wall-E. The sound designer Ben Burtt also brought characters like R2-D2 and E. T. to life with sound. With R2-D2 he needed to create a whole character through a series of high and low pitched beeps. We owe much of our love for Wall-E to Burtt. We immediately registered with Wall-E’s emotions through sound. Burtt talked about creating a whole vocabulary for Wall-E when he was doing his sound design. He needed to know what sounded sad, what sounded happy, and how to focus those sounds and make them unique for each character in the movie.

Sound design has the potential to be as poetic as a music score or a piece of dialogue. You have an artistic license when it comes to the sound design of your film. The rhythm of the sound design is important. The sound effects in a film need to be able to flow with the soundtrack and they must not get in the way of dialogue. There are times you will find that sound effects are all you need in a scene and you can get rid of the music and dialogue. Chaplin used sound well because he knew how much of a gift it really was. He knew how to use just enough to draw us into the scene. He also knew the power of the image without sound. Understanding the power your film could have without sound is key to understanding the importance a piece of sound could bring to your movie. Sound in film should be used for the same purpose as all the other tools in filmmaking; to tell a good story.

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.