A Dreamer Walking

Turning 30!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on November 4, 2019

I’m at another milestone. I’m 30. Just turned it yesterday. I made the mistake of looking back at a blog I wrote 9 years ago when turning 21. HOLY COW! I was talking about feeling like I don’t have much time then?!?! And now, with hardly any big achievement to attach my name to I am nine years older. Maybe the best choice now is to give up. This whole, “follow your dream” thing is just not working out very well…

Sorry, I’m being a little facetious. In all honesty, I’ve hardly ever considered giving up. This dream I have is just too precious. Sure, there have been times where I haven’t seen my direction as clearly. There have been times where I’ve slowed way down. And, there was once a time I really did think about dropping a big part of my dream because the weight felt too heavy to bear. Yet, one of the things I am most proud about is my ability to get back up and continue to plug away.

A good question might be, if you have been pursuing your dream all this time why the hell are you not farther at such an old age? Well first of all, my parents would be offended; I’m not that old! And sure, it would be nice to be working on bigger projects, getting some recognition, or at the very least living on my own by now. But despite the fact none of these things have happened, I actually feel a weird sense of accomplishment at this point in my life.

It hit me when reading my “Turning 21” piece that I don’t feel the sense of time going by as quickly as I once did. I feel like I am where I am supposed to be. The reason for this? Well, because I have not been dawdling. If there is such a thing as being cinematically ripped, I’m that. I know this comes across a bit pretentious, but I think this blog speaks for itself. I know cinema. I understand the nuances to what creates great story.

Even now, when my time is spent working on writing scripts, filming and editing projects, and working a thirty five hour a week job, I have continued to build my knowledge on cinema. I keep track of my hours and I still average about 10 hours a week studying. The notes I have are countless. The books filled with highlights and the in-depth analysis on films, along with a continual dedication to looking into the corners of the world of cinema is something I am extremely proud of. (I SWEAR one of these days I will even dive into the French New Wave).

One of the reasons I am hovering over this part so much is because most of the work is NEVER SEEN! I don’t really need it to be seen. I am fine never having anyone read the 25+ notebooks filled with notes on commentaries, interviews, and “making of” documentaries. I am okay with people thinking I just listen to music rather than listening to countless hours of downloaded film and story analysis. They don’t need to know the details. But, selfishly I wish they could be impressed by the effort a little. You know, like those people at the gym who drool over the guy who adds the extra twenty pounds to each side and can still pull off the lift like it’s nothing. Or at the very least, a recognition from those who think I have been twiddling my thumbs, that this type of “exercise” takes its toll, even though it has its benefits in the long run.

The reality is if I were simply doing film studies these days you would have great cause for concern. Luckily my 20’s have witnessed some other developments. I have started to actually film projects these last five years. In fact, I’ve managed to work on A LOT of projects. The only issue: very few have been published and the ones that were haven’t gotten the traction they deserve. Yes, I have some responsibility in not marketing my own work, or at the very least not partnering with people that market well. Yet, there are more than a few examples where when I provided a high quality product the producers failed to do their job. What can I say, small towns aren’t made for marketing film.

The inability to finalize three documentary passion projects has been the biggest disappointment of my magnificent 20’s. I would love to have someone else to blame. I do wish I had more help in the trenches. But the man with the vision is the man who is responsible to lift the dream off the ground and get it across the finish line. Who knew dreams were so heavy? They are important stories to tell, covering some fascinating people and difficult situations. And I am still determined to get these projects done.

The reason I bring up these projects is not to simply complain. Due to the personal nature of these projects, and never having enough money, I’ve needed to participate in each aspect of production. I have been the director, shooter, and editor of most of the pieces I’ve worked on. The lens stopped being a figurative symbol to me. Instead it’s become a physical tool I needed to figure out in order to produce images equal to those I’ve written so much about. Putting the concepts explored on this blog into physical practice has been a crucial stepping stone.

After excelling in the use of the physical process of filmmaking these last few years I chose to try to tackle the thing that scared me the most in the film business… WRITING! Um… you have cause to be confused here. I mean, you can accurately say, “Isn’t that one of the first things you managed to tackle?” “I mean isn’t “writing” what this blog is all about?” “Aren’t you writing at this VERY MOMENT?!”… :/ … You might be on to something there. Yet, though I have been willing to publish these pieces through the last ten years, I have never counted myself a good enough writer to express myself in a professional way. At least, I have not counted myself strong enough in the form of writing to bring my actual stories to life. Of course, I am now talking about screenwriting.

Screenwriting has been the most intimidating aspect of all of cinema for me. Like some of my great influences in the medium of film – such as Pete Docter, Martin Scorsese, or Steven Spielberg – I thought maybe I could get away with never really needing to know how to write scripts. I could just find someone to do it for me. It’s fair to say I have just as much of an excuse as any of them. I have been clinically diagnosed with dyslexia and you will hardly be able to find a dyslexic who is known for their magnificent writing skills. It does happen, but dyslexia is a medically diagnosed reading disorder where translating their natural visual thinking into the written word is extremely difficult. I’m embarrassed even now. Despite looking through and editing these pieces multiple times before publishing them there are constantly [ ] I end up missing. The whole challenge of figuring out when to use “then” rather then “than” has proven to be the bane of my existence….Case in point.

Despite this struggle, or maybe because of it, this last year I decided to challenge myself and see if I could write a script for one of my story ideas. After a solid 30 page story I decided to go even bigger. I’m proud to say I have finished a very strong first draft of a feature script and am in the middle of writing my second feature. Figuring out a way to use a weakness – such as the struggle to write well – and turn it into a strength has not been easy. But the sharpening of my writing skills through this blog and my dedication to thinking in great detail about the themes and nuances of my stories, have produced scripts I can genuinely say I am proud of. And even more importantly, this new found skill has given me yet another way to find success in the film industry.

These three ventures during my 20’s – developing my knowledge of cinema, applying those insights into the physically shooting and editing of film, and forcing myself to overcome my reading and writing struggles to literally produce scripts for my stories – have all been indescribably helpful in allowing me to pursue this great dream I keep talking to you guys about. Yet, what towers over everything can hardly be described as anything to do with storytelling or cinema. Or, maybe I could describe it as having everything to do with those things. The magic sauce in any good story or profound image is the ability to translate one’s life experience into one’s work.

As Akira Kurosawa put it, “I’ve forgotten who it was that said creation is memory. My own experiences and the various things I have read remain in my memory and become the basis upon which I create something new. I couldn’t do it out of nothing.” The man is right. The life experiences I’ve had in my twenties are vast and deep. I walked with a friend through his struggles with alcoholism and deep depression. I acted as a meditator and person of council over the past six years as my parents processed through divorce. And, I have tried my best to be a strong mentor for my younger sister who just now is starting high school.

The amount others have walked with me through my struggles is significant as well. I’ve faced three significant surgeries: open heart, wrist surgery, and a hip replacement (I swear I’m only 30). Without the kindness of family and friends I would have been homeless multiple times. And then there is the toll of the vision. Something I couldn’t possibly bear all by myself. These life experiences are the building blocks of great storytelling. Having the the type of people who allow you to examine yourself rather than close yourself off, makes all the difference.

There you are. My short argument for why these last few years have not been a waste. Why my 21 year old self was not completely right about his insistence on getting on with making movies and becoming famous. Success in the film industry needs to happen simply as a way to get some of my bigger ideas off the ground. I’m not in this in order to become famous or rich. I am in this because I absolutely must figure out a way to tell these stories. All this said, I do feel with my 30’s comes the need to take the next step. I am ready to break through.

What must happen next is the thing I am most scared of. You may find this funny, seeing how much time I just put into arguing my case for being prepared. But I do not see preparedness as a direct correlation to success. There are aspects of this “movie making” thing I don’t know if I can figure out. The biggest one being the ability to show my worth to the right people. How do you get that right producer to check out your script? How do you promote a documentary piece so it will be given funding? What does one need to do in order to have his well researched and thought out insights on film, read by a broader audience?

I’ve put so much time into preparing myself for this journey. Yet studying film, developing projects, and writing scripts is NOT enough. Simply doing those things would be a waste if I don’t eventually have others with whom to share the vision. I believe now is the time to forge those relationships. I have been standing on this edge long enough. Studying its terrain and building up strength to fly. Heck, the view is magnificent. But I have not been called to only be an observer of the view.  I will never forget the path that has lead me here. But the vision is calling me and now is the time to leap. Now is the time to demand recognition and cast the vision so others will contribute. In some ways how this happens is still to be figured out. Yet the fear of not knowing enough or having a strong enough vision is gone. It is time.

The Masters Vs. The Empire

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on October 24, 2019

Two of cinema’s giants come out with comments against Disney’s relentless line of generic Marvel films, and all we can do is debate on whether they have the right to do this? The amount of shade thrown Scorsese and Coppola’s way after Scorsese critique of Marvel films not being “cinema” and a suggestion by Coppola that the films are “despicable” is extreme, and in my opinion uncalled for. Did you know the great Kurosawa said he only was able to produce a few moments of pure cinema in his career. KUROSAWA!!! I bet if you ask Coppola or Scorsese they too would be very critical about their ability to make real cinema that pushes the boundaries of the medium.

Because most simply like to read the clickbait headline, maybe it would do us good to look into a little more of what these two masters of cinema said about the Marvel Cinematic Universe Empire. For Scorsese, talking to Empire Magazine, it was short and sweet, “I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema… Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” After receiving the Lumière Festival Life Time Achievement Award for his body of work, Coppola communicated a few short thoughts about his view of the MCU and comments made by his friend Scorsese, “When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration…I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again.” He ended on a even more dower note claiming, “Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”

These legitimate criticisms of Hollywood’s most generic franchise, from the forces behind the most influential movies of all time, such as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, are extremely relevant and should be taken seriously. Instead we’ve been getting mostly petty complaints. A few people have even dared to dismiss the works of Coppola and Scorsese in the same way they perceive the two filmmakers dismissing the great Marvel Universe. 

Let’s get the critique of Scorsese and Coppola out of the way. These two directors have most likely not watched all the films they are critiquing. Scorsese even said as much before articulating his brief thoughts on the movies. I also think it’s legitimate to critique Scorsese and Coppola for not being able to empathize with the people who find the Marvel films extremely enriching. I know Scorsese in particular was a HUGE fan of the Western in the 1940’s and 1950’s. And although there were instances of true transcendence – John Ford’s The Searchers, Howard Hawks Rio Bravo, and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, to name a few – there were plenty of completely mediocre and easily forgettable Westerns during those time periods as well. And from my understanding Scorsese wanted to check out almost all of them. King Vidor’s 1946 classic, Duel in the Sun, for example is a film Scorsese has articulated quite eloquently as being an under appreciated masterpiece yet the critics then and most historians today would not call that movie special in any real way.

So there is a bit of a double standard here. Both Scorsese and Coppola are Cinephile nerds who still hail films many others can legitimately criticize. Yet the category Coppola and Scorsese rarely hailed as anything special were the big budget studio driven films of the day. In fact, the two filmmakers are legends because of the guts they had in standing against the studio “norms” in order to produce risky cutting edge films. They made no efforts to hide a big middle finger to the shallow one track mind of the Hollywood establishment. After the financial success The Godfather Coppola was begged by studio heads to make a sequel. He resisted for a while. When he decided to make another one it was made to be a literal contrast to the first film. Where people were expecting a sort of copy of the first film – with hyper violence, punchy editing, and dynamic characters – Coppola literally did the opposite – most of the violence happens off screen, shots were held for uncomfortably long amount of time, and the film as a whole was a literal meditation on the lack of dynamism our main characters had compared those from the first movie (HERE is a great podcast episode from Max Baril going into detail about the differences between the movies).

Due to the Rocky franchise’s success the Boxing film, as a subgenre of the Sports film, was a huge fad in the early 80’s. So after the failure of his musical New York, New York, Scorsese agreed to the more streamline genre. He then proceeded to subvert the whole Sports genre completely. Rather than making a sports film where we root for underdog to excel, we are given a character full of contradictions and conflicts. He a magnificent boxer, yet he abuses his wife, shows a destructive hyper ego, and uses his popularity to hide a destructive home life. Scorsese is relentless in his examination of the male persona and it’s destructive qualities. In short he wanted to say something new and damn anyone who wanted to get in the way.

The two artists being criticized by countless fans of the Superhero genre could not care less about the criticism. They aren’t trying to force you to see things their way. They simply are sharing their frustration with the lack of innovation in the current mainstream film industry. What should be extremely troubling for anyone who enjoy indiependence in the film industry is the power grip the Disney Corporation has over the big budget blockbusters of today. Those at the top have made it clear their bottom line interest is the amount of money their films will make. For this to work one must be safe in the way they tell their stories. This is why, despite a wonderful amount of talent and countless dollars, all their films look the same and in the end rarely have anything interesting to say. 

Now, you can disagree with me about my little critique on the MCU. This is not the post to get into details about the MCU and the ways I feel they highlight the bankruptcy in today’s cinema. There are admittedly some admirable qualities. Some qualities in fact that Scorsese and Coppola are a bit ignorant of in their own filmmaking. Storytelling that highlights diversity and anything close to equal female representation are few and far between in both Master Filmmaker’s films. Though I wouldn’t call the MCU a pinnacle of diversity or female empowerment, I admire their efforts of late in creating stories where woman take on a more intentional role (such as what we saw with Captain Marvel and hopefully will see with the upcoming Black Widow film). And their willingness to go into other cultures to highlight the need for diversity (with movies like Black Panther and the upcoming Shang-Chi film) is something I’m also in big support of. 

It’s okay to have differing opinions on things. I’m not under the subscription that “everyone could be right”, but I do know no one has a monopoly on truth. The issue I take is when great artists are dismissed due to their comments being opposed to something someone likes. Scorsese and Coppola have earned the right to have their criticism heard and taken seriously. Both Coppola and Scorsese are in search of the unknown in their cinema. Even today they continue to strive to find deeper truths about human nature. Watch Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Cinema and you will see extremely broad and deep appreciation for movies. That these two artists do not have a connection with today’s most successful franchise, is a troubling one. 

(If you want to read more about Martin Scorsese’s thoughts on the MCU and personal troubles he is finding in today’s cinema check out the I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain piece he wrote in the New York Times) 

Ikiru – Film Analysis – Part 1

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Scene Analysis, Screenshot Series by Jacob on April 1, 2019

NOTE TO READER:

This is going to be more messy than usual. I want to be clear, these film analysis’s are made so I could understand these films better. If you end up benefiting from them I simply consider that a added bonus. These will be long and at times grammar will be a problem. I am not going to show a frame from every shot of the film and at times I will use multiple screenshots from the same shot in order talk about movement or lighting change. Please do let me know if something is really confusing you. I am also totally up for hearing what people think of my analysis. These simply are my thoughts on what I am watching. Hope you enjoy!


Titles

Interesting start to the movie. Loud music playing, as if this may be an epic rather than a intimate tale of one man’s journey.

  • All of the titles seem to have a combo of soft and intense music. Hmmm…

Scene 1

Screenshot (66)

Unique first shot of the movie. This is not beautiful, it’s actually as far as you can get from it. We see this and are immediately told by the Narrator that our protagonist doesn’t know he has cancer. Kurosawa doesn’t care to be subtle about it, he wants to get to the point.


Screenshot (68)
Talk about a boring way to introduce a story. No big bang and no quick action. Simply a shot of a x-ray and then this static front on shot. The lens is long making our protagonist, Kanji Watanbe, feel extremely boxed in. Kurosawa is not interested in forcing entertainment on us, he is interested in communicating his story. This is a perfect projection of all the issues Watanbe is facing in this story. 

  • We see his low energy.
  • We see his work literally consuming him.
  • The image is even finished off by the title of “Public affairs Section Chief”. One of the most dull protagonist someone could think of.

Kurosawa does not wait too long to introduce some of the main narrative threads of our story. We see a woman talking about her kid being sick. We also hear her speak about the playground being something that would be great for the kids if they filled it in.

I love the demeanor of all the characters in the “Public Affairs” section. They all reek of being unmotivated. They reflect Mr. Watanbe, and maybe Kurosawa’s views on big government.


 

This is very interesting. First off at the beginning of this shot you can see the desk clerk is speaking to Mr. Watanbe without him even looking up to acknowledge his presence. Then we see the first camera movement in the movie. Kurosawa has cinematographer, Asakazu Nakai, do a slide into this medium shot.

  • The reason the camera movement in such a dull setting feels motivated is due to the narrator. The narrator is not burdened by the sad life of the government officials, thus when he speaks the camera is allowed to be more fluid.
  • The Narrator is also acknowledging the boring life Watanbe is living right now. “He’s not even alive”. Gosh Kurosawa, why don’t you just tell us everything!

First time Watanbe looks up is when Toyo Odagiri laughs. She is the only life in the whole building. Of course she reads a quote making fun of how worthless the department is. She shows a lot of energy and is clearly highlighted to be the most interesting aspect of the scene. Interesting that she is also the only woman in the group of a bunch of men. Why does she remind me so much of Shirley Temple?


Screenshot (71)

This is such a brilliant shot. The energy seen in the previous shots dies right down with this shot. You can tell Kurosawa most likely moved things from behind Watanbe, out of the way to achieve it. (One of my favorite directors, Peter Weir, would say you are cheating authenticity of the environment by moving things out of the way). Watanbe is the center piece. You can tell Kurosawa is going for some deep focus (like usual). Compared where Kurosawa goes in his future stories, the lens we see here is pretty wide, making Watanbe much larger in frame than those in front of him.

  • Although we just switched access from the last shot,. Kurosawa does a good job keeping Toyo in the shot (top right corner). She is distant from Watanbe right now, not yet really infecting him with her energy for life.

Narrator, “He’s been worn down completely by the minutia of the bureaucratic machine and the meaningless busyness of breeds.” Kurosawa is not trying to be subtle here… :/

  • Narrator, “The best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all.” Geesh… talk about a statement!
  • So in the first 6 min of the story we are told the Thesis of our story. We know our main protagonists conotical state and even given a strong hint of what is to come.
  • Honestly I don’t know what to think about the narrator right now. He is basically telling us what to feel about the situation we are seeing. I  think most of that is communicated without hearing the Narrator. That being said the Narrator has some personality and he does give a much needed energy to the scene.

Scene 2 – montage

This montage is going for comedy, the music blaring, with more and more chaotic tones. Kurosawa uses sweep transitions (a transition he is known for) with each character saying basically the same thing, “We can’t help you. Take it to _________.” I like how the characters all say the same thing in slightly different ways. Kurosawa uses different angles at times but they are usually shot flat.

  • The montage may go a little long but it does communicate the point Kurosawa is trying to make about his frustrations with government offices and their lack of productivity.

 

Kurosawa does a great job punctuating the montage with this smooth slide and pan he does revealing the disappointed woman trying to get help from the officials of each department.  Observe how the official character is boxed in like most of the others, the box in front of him taking up a third of the screen. His glasses loose on his face and body language pretty dower. The slide reveals the woman who are higher in frame than the man. They are given prominence in this shot, our connection with their frustrations already well established.


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The scene looks like it’s going to end in defeat and then we transition into this blocking. The woman come roaring back, criticizing the official for the whole institution’s poor services. Kurosawa is doing a lot in terms of setting up the need to “get that stinking cesspool of a location cleaned up”. This point will pay off in spades later on in the story.

  • Fantastic framing here. Yes the man is now higher than the woman, but he is almost completely boxed out of the frame and his body language clearly submissive. He actually does a great job keeping us focused on the woman; his gaze directs our eye right to the woman speaking.
  • Also, the woman coming back and the clerk standing up is when the fun quirky music is abruptly stopped. Another great way to emphasis this moment.

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This is the same shot, it simply transitions into a pan following the official as he goes to his superiors. This shot takes up about a minute of time and communicates so much!

  • I LOVE the the expression of the man on the far right. He has the perfect sad face to communicate the surprise from the berating the woman and the depressing nature of the work they are participating in.

A good note is Kurosawa is not trying to make any of these frames “pretty”. He simply is interested in communicating the story through how he frames and lights his shots. Paperwork takes up so much of most of the frames, taking even more prominence at times than the actors. Actors are important, but they sure aren’t everything.


Scene 3

This is a very short scene where the colleagues talk about Mr. Watanbe’s absence for the first time in 30 years. Of course Kurosawa and Nakai frame everyone with paperwork consuming them. The paperwork actually is used as great framing devices all the way through the scenes in Government buildings.


Screenshot (102)

I really liked the last cut in the scene, we go from Toyo making a joking comment about Watanbe dying to a anomalous shot of the empty desk with two clerks in the distance highlighting the empty space through their gaze. This simply takes a “joke” and transcends it into something much more potent.


Scene 4

We get a very short montage of Mr Watanbe walking away from the x-ray room. Diegetic sound and the smooth moments of actor and camera really make this feel serious.


 

This is a brilliant series of movements. Composition #1 focuses the eye on the man in the middle of the frame. We had just run into him before when Watanbe was washing his hands. The Man with the Cane actually is seen moving from frame right to left to set up this first composition. The man in the middle sets up our narrative, he is the subject of talk in this scene. After fulfilling his purpose he moves out of frame and we transition into composition #2. The Man with the Cane takes prominent focus, Watanbe intentionally pointing away from us so we can easily concentrate on what Cane Man is saying. This is when the real dialogue begins. Cane Man begins to talk about the symptoms of stomach cancer he believes the person who just left has. Little does Cane Man realize Watanbe is dealing with the same kind of symptoms. He then warns about the way the Doctor will dismiss the symptoms if a man actually has stomach cancer.

  • Now, I think it is fair to criticize Kurosawa for using such a clear exposition device. Cane Man’s soul purpose is to give both the audience and Watanbe a hard dose of reality, telling is EXACTLY what Watanbe is in for. Is this realistic? Would someone just randomly get this blunt in front of a man waiting to be seen by his doctor? Likely not. However, Kurosawa makes it work. The drama is just too good.
  • Honestly Kurosawa doesn’t seem to mind giving exposition when it is needed, even though it feels pretty forced at times. He gets away with it because he makes the characters who are giving exposition feel real and usually the exposition is simply adding to a much more cinematic truth. The core of this scene is not spoken, it’s simply seen on Watanbe’s face in Composition #3.

As we transition into composition #3, all Kurosawa’s cinematic techniques flow to the surface. Music starts to come in; hitting the perfect dreadful tone. We get this extremely strong staging, with Watanbe in a close up his emotions being clearly communicated to the audience. Also, look at the relaxed body language of Cane Man. He represents a wonderful contrast to Watanbe, Which only seems to add to the horribleness of the diagnosis Cane Man is giving.

  • Of course we see Kurosawa’s common use of deep focus, the set probably very hot in order to make that work.
  • One of my issues when I first watched Kurosawa films is what I felt like was “overacting”. However the more you study old Japanese theater, especially the style of ‘Noh’, the more these broad performances make sense. A great benefit is the body language is so clear in almost every one of Kurosawa’s frames. In this scene everyone’s heads are fallen down and the shoulders all loose. This is not a fun place to be at. The audience immediately gets the essence of the scene before a word is spoken.
  • Another brilliant little detail in these shots is how Kurosawa transitions the shots from feeling like a ‘hospital” to a much more personal moment in the last shot, as if we’ve been transported into Watanbe’s psyche. For the last composition look how Watanbe blocks out the lady in Composition #2. The Man with the Cane also blocks people out, transforming the environment into a much more personal place.
  • Also a striking note is the wardrobe choice. In the first scene we see Watanbe with a white\gray coat. In this one it’s black, most likely to reflect the coming bad news.
  • Honestly, this 2 min and 20 second shot does wonders. I look forward how often Kurosawa simply uses staging to change the Mise-en-scène of his compositions to communicate deeper and deeper truths.

Scene 5

Screenshot (86)

This is such a brilliant shot. Talk about everything in the frame working to communicate the storyteller’s objective. Our protagonist is feeling completely defeated right now, scared to death at what news he might be receiving. We also know his impact on society is minimal and he is super isolated from everyone else. Having no other people in the frame might communicate that, but Kurosawa goes a different rout. Kurosawa uses the door to isolate Watanbe from the citizen on the right and uses the pillar to further separate him from the citizens on the left of frame. Having people in frame but distant communicates the point in a more potent way.

  • The distance is also communicated through the use of a wider lens. Kurosawa usually uses lenses that make the foreground and background feel closer to each other but in this one we can clearly see that Watanbe is much farther away then the others.
  • Wonderful use of lighting here. Look at the gray scale. Kurosawa is able to concentrate the eyes directly onto Watanbe with his lighting – leaving the man on the right in shadow and darkening all of the left side of the frame in order to pull the eye right to Watanbe in the back. Another thing that could of done this is the use of shallow focus, so Watanbe is sharp and the others much less. However Kurosawa seems to think seeing detail through out the frame is more useful.
  • Another great aspect of this shot are the lines. Everything frames our main character. Everything seems to be adding to his dower mood. I mean, look at the painting right above Watanbe! Why in reality would that painting be so crooked?! But for the purposes of this framing it works brilliantly. It looms over him, as if looking down in sadness, reflecting his posture. Of course the doors are the most helpful focus device, literally opening right up to Watanbe.
  • At this point the music is at it’s most dreadful tone. I also like how the voice from the speaker echoes through the halls waking up the frame a little. The beat where he doesn’t hear his name get called at first also works.

Scene 6

First thing you notice, the music has stopped. There simply is eerie diegetic sound; Some kind of CLANKING being the most prominent (very artificial and cold).


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I find this shot to be an interesting intro. Kurosawa is intentionally putting a object in front of the entrance to the room. Right away it’s being communicated that this is an ugly place and Watanbe is literally being sliced up into several pieces. Yikes!

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This is a composition from the same shot. I have seen Kurosawa use the technique of a slide and then pan a few times now. He has maybe six feet of track laid out and then he uses the middle nurses movement to justify the pan, now completely moving away from Watanbe.

  • At 17 seconds I think this is the longest shot of the scene. Kurosawa will start to use rapid cutting to heighten the tension.
  • Very distinct difference between screenshot #1 and screenshot #2. The nurses white outfits really stick out here.
  • Watanbe is screen right, notice how no one is looking at him as he comes into the room.

 

We go from a medium close of the Doctor looking at x-rays to Composition #1 above. We can see the Doctor is caught off guard and then we see Composition #2 of Watanbe. We immediately go back to the Doctor. There is a fair bit of subtle acting but more than anything Kurosawa is using the Kuleshov effect based off of what we have already learned. In other words, Kurosawa knows less is more here and the core of the emotion in these three shots comes from the audiences projection.


Composition 1 of 7

Composition 2 of 7

Composition 3 of 7

Composition 4 of 7

Composition 5 of 7

Composition 6 of 7

Composition 7 of 7

This is a series of potent beats. The camera pans, following Watanbe into composition 1. Notice how he is yet again cut into several pieces by the shelves in front of the camera. We then hear the news, “it looks like you’ve got a mild ulcer”. These are the very words we heard the Man with the Cane say about the other guy who had cancer. The quick cut to the coat dropping tells us everything we need to know. It’s the shortest shot in the whole scene, but along with the music coming in the shot makes for an extremely strong emotional beat. From here on out there is a steady music beat, very much emphasizing the sad emotion of the scene. In this way Kurosawa is not trying to be subtle.

After that we have Composition 3, a medium wide shot of both the Doctor and his assistant looking at the coat and then up at Watanbe. Deep focus is really strong here, Kurosawa is fine with us deciding whose emotions to concentrate on. Then we cut to Composition 4. Kurosawa uses the assistant and nurse as reflections of what we are feeling right now. The assistant is turned away from us, his little head movement toward the conversation, from 4 to 5, communicating volumes.

The last shot is extremely well composed. Kurosawa cuts the bodies off of both Watanbe and the Doctor. This is not supposed to feel comfortable, they are intentionally being squeezed into the frame. The nurse is positioned in the middle breaking up the frame. The Doctor lies to Watanbe but as his head is bowed the Doctor’s look to the nurse, in Composition 7, tells us the truth. There is nothing too flashy in any of these shots, just great beats.  

  • It’s interesting how the nurse and the assistant’s body language communicate very different things. The assistant is very empathetic, the nurse cold.
  • The last shot has stuff piled in front of the camera, blocking our view from our main character and the Doctor. This further crunches the shot, making it all the more uncomfortable.
  • I think these are longer lenses than the scene before. The last shot especially feels like it’s making the nurse and characters on the sides feel closer than they really are (I may be wrong).

I really like how the Doctor acts throughout the scene. He embodies a balance between the assistant and the nurse. He is blatantly lying to Watanbe, but you can tell he doesn’t feel good about the deception. This doesn’t excuse his actions but it adds to the sadness of the news.


Scene 7

Screenshot (101)

I will be honest, I am not a huge fan of this scene. I kinda feel like Kurosawa is trying to push the message a little too much. Is this really needed? It’s about a minute long and basically conforms that the Doctor was lying to Mr. Watanbe. His dialogue of, “What would you do if you had only six months left to live, like him?” is a bit on the nose… don’t you think?

  • Like usual Kurosawa knows what he is doing in his composition. So much is communicated simply through the body language. Kurosawa has the “angel and devil on your shoulder” theme going – the assistant representing the angel and the nurse the devil. Again, deep focus so everyone could be ready clearly.
  • Kurosawa is also known for having few woman in his story and when he does most of them are very cold, like the nurse (Toyo being the exception, not the rule). The nurse might have the coldest line in the film. After being asked what she would do with a six months to live diagnosis she states, “The barbiturates are over there.”. YIKES!

Kurosawa punctuates the nurses comment by cutting to a medium close of just the assistant. He looks at the x-ray and then we leave on a close up of the x-ray. The sound of the x-ray machine being very eerie. Kurosawa really does know how to use sound.


End of Part 1: (17 min into movie)

Alfred Hitchcock – An Observation – The Young Spunge

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on October 24, 2018

Young AlfredYes, believe it or not this is Alfred Hitchcock. Not the self confident and slightly cocky man you see in later years. Rather, a young man just starting to understand the numerous possibilities of his artform and his role to play in the medium.

Hitchcock started exploring cinema in the mid 1910’s, making title cards for the start of films. From there he went into script writing and art direction. Though he said in a Peter Bogdanovich interview he had no ambition for becoming a director, he displayed a great amount of talent for the job at an early age. Infact, one of the things that got him in trouble in his job as Art Director was this nasty habit for telling the cameraman where to place the camera on the sets he was working on.

The latest film on my list to study has been  The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. This silent 1927 film is considered to be the first real “Hitchcock” film, though he had directed two before this point. The main reason, it was his first mystery film – the genre he would become most famous for directing. In this film you can see signs of everything to come. The amount of control he had over the young medium is breathtaking. You can see the influences clearly; his love for American’s dramatic pace, the Soviet Union’s use of montage, and German’s extreme use of light and camera placement.

What struck me the most when watching The Lodger is the fact that I could see such a deep connection the artist had with the material. Yes, influences abided throughout the film, yet each technique was being used for the purpose of getting deeper into the psychology of the characters. Nothing felt showy, because the extreme angles, imaginative framing, and exhaustive montages were constantly giving us insight about the characters and their world.

When one of the main characters observes a whole montage of images in a footprint in the snow, it’s not because Hitchcock was tickled by Sergei Eisenstein’s use of montage in Battleship Potemkin. Rather, Hitchcock wanted to visually show the thoughts that were connecting like dominoes in the character’s head. When we see a combination of dramatic lighting and extreme angles as the mother wakes up and creeps into her lodger’s bedroom, it’s not because Hitchcock was a die hard fan of  F.W. Murnau’s films, even though he was 😉 . He wanted to let us in on the mother’s startling suspicions that the lodger could very well be The London Strangler.

No artist simply comes out fully formed. They are always influenced by those around them. Hitchcock had some magnificent artist to inspire him during his day. Yet, the reason he became great himself was due to his ability to absorb his influences and make them his own. Today, I see a great amount of copying going around. I need to admit I don’t see much copying of the masters from the silent era, but rather I see copies of the most recent Youtube prodigy. To be inspired by someone in your medium is totally fine. However, when it comes to your storytelling, you can’t simply make decisions based off of those who inspire you.

The difference between copying and absorbing comes down to the question you are trying to answer. Copying has a very easy question to answer, “What?”. If you can figure out what someone did to create a shot you can copy it. As long as you have the equipment any complicated piece can be copied. And to be sure, great filmmakers such as Hitchcock found answers to what went into making their favorite shots. Yet, Hitchcock was also able to figure out the answer to the other question, the far more important question. “Why?”. Only if you discover the answer to the question of why, do you understand how to mold the technique to your personal storytelling.

Hitchcock never seemed to be stealing techniques from other filmmakers. Instead, he  found personal and profound reasons to apply them to his stories. We often come out of a Hitchcock movie believing there was no better ways to use the camera. Time after time The Lodger gives us profound insight into the passions, fears, and insecurities of the character’s we see on screen. The reason is because their passions, fears, and insecurities are even more important to Hitchcock than his shots. Once he knows the character’s inner most feelings does he understand why he needs to use the shots he uses. An insert of a hand reaching for a doorknob, a POV shot of someone walking toward a house, or a reflection of a man walking toward a painting, are all powerful expressions of the character’s inner most conflicts.

A sponge doesn’t simply hold water, it absorbs the liquid into it’s very being.  We all need to have inspirations, yet we must also have enough confidence in ourselves to let those inspirations further our personal development as artists. A mere copying of those around us will produce stale material, easily forgotten. Yet letting those inspirations build upon who we are, can produce magnificent pieces of work. Work, like that of Hitchcock’s The Lodger, that could be remembered far beyond our lifetime.

Thoughts from Tarkovsky – Static Passion

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on August 9, 2016

For me the most interesting characters are outwardly static, but inwardly charged with energy by an overriding passion.” – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time

Imagine if we understood this? Though Andrei is referring to characters in this quote, I believe the principle applies to all filmmaking. So often we think filmmaking is about grand scale, flashy camerawork, and extravagant characters. The reason students never think they have enough money for their films is because they have bought into this idea that in order to make a good film you need to go, “BIG”. There is so much concentration on the need for outward excess we forget about the power of the inner battle. Many of my peers have the right message. They want to says something unique. Yet instead of finding confidence in their personal story they get distracted by the fact they don’t have enough; whether it be the right camera, the right crew, or the best locations.

We are taught the active camera gives way to the active emotion, yet the opposite can just as easily apply. And believe me, the best storytellers know this. All the way back to the silent era there have been filmmakers who knew just how powerful holding a static shot could be. If you don’t believe me, just watch the last five minutes of City Lights (1931) or when Joan is put on trial in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In these movies you found storytellers who trusted the audience to stay attentive and find the inner emotion themselves.

I can’t resist compare this surface level storytelling we see today with all that is wrong with politics. What is going on outside is what gets the most attention. We have politicians on the left and the right who almost shout the “truth” at us. They think if they yell loud enough and with enough enthusiasm we will start to believe their “authenticity”. Yet our society has sensed a insincerity; a disconnect between the outward message and the inward action. When the audience senses a disconnect it does not matter how polished the outward seems, we will not buy into the story they are telling.

When I think about it the vast majority of my favorite scenes in cinema have little to do with scale or polish. Instead, what makes me want to tell stories for a living comes from the powerful feelings I had when seeing a group of students stand on their desks for their teacher (Dead Poets Society), or a man at a bridge asking to live again (It’s a Wonderful Life), or a distraught father walking away from his daughter as she shouts for him to come back (Blue Valentine). On the surface these scenes did not revolve around any great action yet they all broke through and allowed the audience to experience the stories essence. It’s this transformation from examining the outward to the inner conflict that must be the most important aspect for us as filmmakers.

The camera being used, amount of crew you have, or locations at your disposal are all surface level problems. They do need to be considered but should never be the most important thing. I’m in the middle of making a documentary at the moment and my favorite shot revolves around my subject and a blank wall. You know, the kind of wall you can literally find in any room you set foot in. Yet for the story I am telling the wall says so much about the anxiety the subject is going through. It comments on the great unknown awaiting her and the emptiness I sense she feels at the moment.

Maybe what scares us the most about this type of storytelling is the lack of control. When looking inward we must rely on the audience to come to their own conclusions. The outward can be calculated the inward is the great unknown. However, if you want to say something new you need to be willing to explore the unknown. We must always remember filmmaking is not about capturing beautiful images. We are storytellers. Our mission is to look past what is seen on the surface and examine the soul. If we can find a way to do this, there is no limit to where our stories could go.

 

The Essence of Cinema

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 27, 2016

Nothing disguises meaninglessness more than a pretty picture.

This is actually a quote from yours truly. I just think this type of thing looks more legit when you put it up in stylized quotes.

In the past I have suggested we live in the most resourceful age of filmmaking in history. The kind of technology we have at our disposal is phenomenal. Where just 30 years ago a film student like me would go wild if he had a few minutes worth of film stock to use, today we have crystal clear digital cameras, easy to use editing programs and special effect technology, along with all sorts of other gizmos and gadgets to make our Youtube or Vimeo videos look that much smoother.

As you might assume from the quote however, I don’t consider all this stuff a good thing. In fact, in many cases I find our new obsessions with the newest technology to be unhealthy. More times than not I run into fellow film students who feel it’s the type of camera they use that makes their work worth viewing. Instead of talking to me about the story they are trying to tell or themes they are trying to explore they simply show me their footage and exclaim, “Can you believe how beautiful this looks in 4K RESOLUSION!!!” And sadly, more times than not I can’t help but look at that 4K footage and feel an overwhelming sense of emptiness.

The cause of the emptiness you may ask… An utter lack of individualism. But what should I expect?! Any type of individualism was knocked out of most of us at a very early age.

The cardinal sin of the education system is the absence of independence. School’s most impactful lesson is conformity. The environment we are taught in, the subjects highlighted, and the testing system used to measure our intelligence are all oriented around our society’s demand we stand in line and function with a set of well established rules.

Since most of us didn’t grow up giving value to individualism, we needed to create value in other places. One of the easiest places to manufacture a sense of value is in the polish of a product. Most of my professors and peers advocate for the clean image. We are taught how to hold the camera, the proper way to light a scene, and what makes for the strongest composition. In no way am I suggesting these things are not important to know. I spent the last several years studying the rules of cinema and looking into the reasons why the great filmmakers of the past, like Kurosawa and Bergman, chose to shoot their films the way they did.

But here is the difference between filmmakers like Bergman and Kurosawa, and the vast majority of student filmmakers out there; the masters of cinema learned the rules in order to break them. They did not find value in the picture itself, but rather they were interested in what the picture had to say. And often times it was through going against the traditional rules of cinema where the great filmmakers were able to say something unique. As much as the system we live in works tirelessly to have the majority in society toe the line, from the beginning of time it has been the rule breakers who change the world the most.

I have found a clean high definition image is one of the greatest enemies to a rule breaker. We are no more capable of breaking the rules of cinema today as we were 30 to 100 years ago. The only change is a development of technology. And technology has its dangers. As I said at the beginning of this piece, “Nothing disguises meaninglessness more than a pretty picture”. We are more capable of creating a “pretty picture” today then ever before.

I consider my papers on this blog to be a constant exploration the essence of cinema. And I am sorry if the title of the post mislead you into thinking I would somehow be able to tell you what cinema’s essence was. The point here is to tell you what cinema’s essence is not. The power of cinema can not be measured based on the type of camera you use. We must understand the value of an art is not measured by its paintbrush. What matters is the person holding the brush and whether he or she has something to say.

 

The Future

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 15, 2015

“I dream for a living”

This quote comes from one of my favorite filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. It speaks to the essence of why I want to make films myself. If you think about it cinema has more in common with dreams than reality. Not just in the stories that take place in galaxies far far away or lands full of mystical creatures and magic, but also in the very form of cinema. The language of cinema was never developed to replicate reality. Rather the technique of filmmaking is more reminiscent of dreams then anything else. Cuts, lenses, and music are all used to entrance the audience and give them an experience they could never have in reality.

As a child I was someone who loved to live in the dreams of people like Steven Spielberg and Walt Disney. The stories they told made me laugh, cry, and filled me with wonder. Their worlds were so enthralling I would explore them farther in the back yard with my brother. Eventually we began to create our own stories in our own worlds. Little did I know at the time, I had the keys to fairyland and was never happier then when I was able to play beyond these invisible gates.

The sad part is I grew up. And growing up seems to require one to wake up. The famous writer L. M. Montgomery wrote,

There is such a place as fairyland – but only children can find the way to it. And they do not know that it is fairyland until they have grown so old that they forget the way. One bitter day, when they seek it and cannot find it, they realize what they have lost; and that is the tragedy of life. On that day the gates of Eden are shut behind them and the age of gold is over. Henceforth they must dwell in the common light of common day.

The path to fairyland became harder and harder for me to find. Reality had too strong a grip on me.

I began to experience life; where the imagination was dwarfed by my struggles in school, inability to fit in, and the raw reality of the bigger picture. The world I actually lived in was overwhelming. Planes crashed into skyscrapers, countries declared wars, and governments had corruption in every corner. Who could dream in a place like this? The only result seemed to be nightmares. The ideals dreamt up by filmmakers such as Disney and Spielberg began to feel more like naive notions than anything else.

Still, throughout this time of growing up I never lost interest in telling stories and making movies. My gaze however turned from the idealists to the pessimists (though they would simply call themselves realists). Filmmakers such as David Fincher and Martin Scorsese caught my eye. At first I had a difficult time understanding my draw to them. I watched Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and couldn’t believe people hailed the movie as one of the greats. The main character was revolting and lacked any kind of arch. Fincher’s stories took place in a world of cynicism. The first movie I remember watching of his was Seven. The movie revolves around two detectives trying to find a serial killer who uses the Seven Deadly Sins as his catalyst to murder. Fincher never tries to deny these victims were guilty of these immoralities. Even the hero of the movie, played by Morgan Freeman, tells a woman she should have an abortion to keep her child out of the dark world they live in.

I soon realized Martin Scorsese and David Fincher interested me because they were unflinching in their mission to seek out the truth in the darkest corners of society. I resonated with the characters and worlds they created because I saw myself in them. Sure, I wish I could see myself as a flawless human being and the world I live in as this wonderful place where good always triumphs in the end. However, reality suggests differently and filmmakers such as Fincher and Scorsese were not afraid to highlight the dark side of this world; the side most of us would like to keep hidden.

Yet, even though these filmmakers looked at the world through a more cynical lens, they still kept a hold of the keys to fairyland. Scorsese and Fincher’s imagination was just as strong as my childhood inspirations in Disney and Spielberg. Their mission was never to reproduce the world we live in, rather a world where the truths of our society are seen even more clearly. With these filmmakers the camera was a paintbrush. And just like the great artists of the past their goal was to express humanity. Each cut, choice of lens, and use of music represented a stroke made to describe a greater whole.

The more my view of storytelling evolved the more I began to understand the words of writer Lloyd Alexander, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” Just because I had a stronger grasp on reality did not mean I needed to neglect my imagination. At the same time, I refused to get barred down by the dark truths of this world. My goal became to transform the society I lived in. For this is what I believe dreamers do best; they transform our reality through the visions they cast.

Here is where I must come back to the quote from L. M. Montgomery. It would be a true tragedy if she left her views about growing up on such a gloomy note. Yet she goes on from the quote above,

Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again; and blessed are they above mortals. They, and only they, can bring us tidings from that dear country where we once sojourned and from which we must evermore be exiles. The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.

As dark as Scorsese and Fincher’s worlds may be and as pessimistic a commentary on life as their story may have, they still play pretend for a living. There is nothing about an artist that is necessary for our society to survive. Yet the artist knows better then anyone, deep down we were not made to survive we were made to live.

I would like to leave you with the words of poet, D. H. Lawrence. He gets to the heart of where I want to live as a filmmaker. “All people dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind, wake in the morning to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people, for they dream their dreams with open eyes, and make them come true.” The greatest filmmakers are those who live in the world of the dream so they may cast their visions into the world of the real in order to inspire the world of tomorrow.

As someone who is determined to dream for a living, my greatest inspirations were filmmakers such as Spielberg and Disney. They taught me how to dream. Mentors such as Scorsese and Fincher helped give my dreams an edge. My task now is to cast my vision into the world and see what future my dreams hold

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.

It’s A Wonderful Scene

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy, Scene Analysis by Jacob on December 25, 2014

I don’t think there is any better time then the day of Christmas to introduce to you one of my favorite scenes of all time. The scene comes from the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But first I need to do a little set up.

This is considered one of the key scenes from the movie. In it you see the main character George Bailey at his happiest. He is filled with enthusiasm for the future and is going to “see the world”. You can also feel the sexual tension between two characters. Though George may be a little too high on his horse to understand it they both are deeply in love with each other. After this scene George finds out his father died and it goes down hill from there. Instead of going to see the world he gets stuck working at his father’s old business, The Building and Loan. His plan was to work there until his brother came back from collage. However, he finds out his brother got married and was offered a job with his wife’s father after school. Again, George is stuck in Bedford Falls working for his old run-down business. Now I have set it up, check out the scene displaying Frank Capra and actor Jimmy Stewart at the pinnacle of their game.

Never have I seen a scene so elegantly walk the line between humor and anguish. The tension is so potent from the beginning and only intensifies the futher along we go. Capra once said, “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” Capra’s greatest weapon against dullness in his movies was conflict. Conflict is one of the storyteller’s greatest weapons. Where the resolutions in a movie can only entertain for minutes or just seconds, curtain conflicts can keep an audience on the edge of their seats through entire movies. In fact the greater the conflict the more satisfying the resolution.

The main conflict finally concluded in this scene had been building since the beginning of the movie. As you saw in the first scene I showed, the tension between Mary and George was strong. In this scene it’s intoxicating. The audience desperately wants to see these two together and Capra knows this. So naturally he does everything in his power to stop them from being together. I mean it starts from the very beginning. George tries to come into the yard and he can’t open the gate. When it come to setting up conflict the audience will buy into pretty much anything you do to get us deeper into the hole. What are the odds that the gate wouldn’t open? Yet, we don’t think twice about it because it’s stopping George from getting to Mary. On the other hand, you need to earn your way out of the hole. The audience won’t buy into any quick fix solutions.

George and Mary’s demeanor at the beginning could not be further apart. One is upbeat and happy to be back home in Bedford Falls. The other is slumped in depression and finds the town of Bedford to be a prison. If you ever find yourself struggling with making a scene feel interesting, it’s probably because you have not created enough of a clash between characters. The two characters are at different ends of the spectrum on every topic they go into. Mary went to collage and chose to come back home because she missed Bedford Falls, George would like nothing more then to go to collage so he could leave Bedford Falls. Mary couldn’t be happier George is there to visit. George keeps on explaining how he wasn’t really planning on showing up. Mary puts out an illustration of the man lassoing the moon and puts on Buffalo Gals. George hardly gives these things any consideration. All this makes the audience cry out in frustration. We so desperately want them to come together and the tension is just killing us.

One of the beautiful things Capra does is add in sprinkles of humor through out the piece. Capra basks in the awkwardness of the conversation. This whole scene has less to do with what is said but rather focuses on what is communicated between the lines. George makes the comment when he sits down, “Well, I see it still smells like pine needles around here”.  Mary, “….thank you.”. Neither we nor she think the comment was exactly a compliment but what else is there to say? Mary makes an effort to echo the sentiments the characters had years ago when walking home from the dance. She begins to sing the line, “And dance by the light of the..” and of course George doesn’t remember, another example of George missing the opportunity to connect with Mary. At this point of the scene the barrier between the two couldn’t be more obvious. However, Capra doesn’t yet want to let the audience off the hook. He knows he can go further but to do so he needs to throw in another factor.

In comes the mother. Mary’s mom forces the conversation to go to another stage. “George Bailey?! What’s he want!”. Finally Mary is able to get more direct. “What do you want”, she asks. This confrontation sends us into the final act of the scene. Mary starts to grow tired of George’s indifference. Her comment, “He’s making violent love to me, mother”, is probably the best laugh out loud moment of the whole scene. And before you know, it the two are separated. To add insult to injury Sam calls Mary, just another reminder to George of what he doesn’t have. The tension is shattered literally through Mary breaking the record. We think everything has been for not, and the audience is devastated.

BUT WAIT! GEORGE FORGOT HIS HAT!!!

Capra goes to an over the shoulder shot of Mary talking to Sam while George listens in. Look how flawless the staging is here. George seems to leave again and we watch as Mary’s mother comes into frame left. “He doesn’t want to speak to George”, she says. There is the small sight gag of George suddenly being right in front of Mary as she calls to him. Now Capra has set up a visual metaphor of the conflict at hand, Mary is in the middle of the frame with her mom to her right and George to her left. Who is going to win out?

The cut to Sam might not be needed but it does drive home the point even further. If we needed more of a reason to root for George this would be it. Sam has a girl right behind him while he talks, and he is dressed up in a high quality suit all the indications of a successful business man. George is everything Sam is not.

What is wonderful at this point is Capra finds a humorous and organic way to keep Mary and George together. Sam suggests George go on the other extension and Mary replies, “Mother is on the other extension”. This is yet another humorous moment. It also does a far more important thing; it forces Mary and George to stay together. At this point, when the tension is at its highest Capra cuts to the key shot in the whole scene. It’s a tight two shot with Mary and George talking on the phone. Capra refuses to cut from this shot. What really elevates this moment is the silence between dialogue. The gaze the two have toward each other are agonizing. We can hardly bear it anymore. We are crying out for them to finally connect, to express their love for each other. And finally at the time the tension is at it’s peak with George declaring his refusal to give in, the phone drops and George admits his love for Mary.

When writing or shooting a scene the big question needs to be about who your characters are and what they want. Then you need to find ways to stop those objectives from coming true. Make them work for their goal so in the end your moment is earned. The amazing thing about this scene is how simple it is. It doesn’t take place on an expensive set and there are no complex camera moves. Anyone can do a scene like this. It consists of two characters who are unable to communicate. You don’t need anything more then this to create wonderful drama. In this scene Capra allows the audience to realize just how powerfully George loves Mary by refusing to give in right away. The end result is so potent because Capra earned it. Every shot in the scene is thought out and draws us further into the moment. This scene continues to remind me what is most important about cinema. At its core cinema is an exploration of humanity.