A Dreamer Walking

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Innovator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Hooper – Director – The King’s Speech

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 15, 2014

Hooper #2

Now this is how you frame a King!…. right?

Actually I would not say this shot is meant to be kingly or flattering. The direct opposite really. It is well composed but the intent is to dwarf Prince Albert and reflect his defeated emotional state. Director Tom Hooper said this wall we see behind Albert was the best set piece in the whole movie. During this production they spent millions on creating sets and were able to shoot in some fantastic locations like St. James’s Palace and the Hatfield House in Herfordshire, England. Yet, this wall seemed to give Hooper the most inspiration. Everything you need to know about the Duke of York is represented in this shot.

First lets focus on Prince Albert. He is dressed in very subdued clothing. Hooper is literally hiding Albert’s true colors. Heck, the king hasn’t even bothered to take off his coat. At this moment he is being interviewed by the speech therapist Lionel. It’s obvious Albert doesn’t feel comfortable. He takes up as little space as possible and he is sitting in a slouched position – a very improper posture for royalty. Albert has come to Lionel to see if he might help him with his speech impediment and inability to talk in public. The framing is a reflection of his speech problem. The prince seems to be engulfed by the wall. Hooper wants to communicate the idea that Albert is alone and dwarfed by his speech defect. The speech defect is represented by the wall. Talking in a position like this makes Albert’s words feel hollow. The wall is meant to be distracting, as if The Duke is hardly worth noticing. In this picture Hooper is setting up how much Prince Albert needs to grow in order to become the king so many of us remember from the History books.

Steven Spielberg – Director – Saving Private Ryan

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on May 4, 2014

Spielberg #1

Saving Private Ryan is one of Steven Spielberg’s greatest films. This film revolutionized the war and action genre . It brought a grittiness to the World War II scene not seen before in cinema. There is no attempt by Spielberg or Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to glamorize the action depicted in the movie. In fact, Spielberg and his crew worked extra hard to take away the glamorization of war in the the film by showing the drastic consequences of the fighting. They made us feel as if we were in the midst of the battles taking place and they forced us to witness the casualties along with the successes of war. Spielberg wasn’t afraid to linger on the moments most audience members would like to bypass. We saw soldiers with limbs blown off. We observed characters die slow deaths. And most importantly we were made to care about most the characters who ended up making the ultimate sacrifice. After watching a movie like Captain America: The Winter Solider I get the feeling the only characters who are allowed to die in today’s blockbusters are the characters who have no sentimental value to the audience. The heroes in the pictures are always going to make it through no matter how bad the scenario gets. They need to for the sequels, right? However, the problem with this lack of consequence is we begin to stop caring. No matter how great the visuals the suspense has been taken away because we know everything will be fine in the end.

Now back to Saving Private Ryan. I wanted to concentrate on this moment in the film because I believe Spielberg does something here few directors are capable of doing. He has the patience and faith to slow things down. This scene takes place towards the very end of the movie. These two characters, Captain Miller and Private Ryan, are listening to music and having a casual conversation about home life. Slowly during the conversation we forget about war and the improbable situation the soldiers are in. Instead, thanks to a superb performance by Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, we are transported back home. Spielberg doesn’t use flashbacks; he has faith in his actors. He gives Damon’s character the time to relate a fun story about when he last saw all his brothers alive. Private Ryan is only introduced towards the end of the second act of the movie, but this moment allows us to completely buy into his character and root for his success.

The visuals you see in this frame actually make for a good contrast of the story Private Ryan is telling. There is no questioning these two characters are soldiers in the middle of a war. The costuming, scenery, and body language all say as much. I love how Captain Miller looks more battle weary then Private Ryan. Ryan just looks a little more headstrong then Miller – where we see Miller sitting back Ryan sits forward. The story Ryan tells is also upbeat where in the past when Miller told about his background it was told in a more somber tone. All this is setting up the last act of the movie. Spielberg is allowing the story to breath before he throws us into the climax of the film. After Ryan’s story is done everything has been set up. We have had time to take a break from the war scene. The connection between Miller and Ryan has been set. And we the audience have a new found appreciation for Ryan and the kind of guy he is back home. This scene just goes to show Spielberg understands if we don’t care for the characters it doesn’t matter how magnificent the action is we will simply not invest.

 

Martin Scorsese – An Observation – Character Studies

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on April 23, 2014

Scorsese #2One of the reasons movies like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and his latest The Wolf of Wall Street rub audiences the wrong way is because of director Martin Scorsese’s determination to not show the big picture. What Scorsese is interested in is the individual perspective. Almost all his films revolve around an individuals point of view and Scorsese is unwilling to leave that point of view for sentimentality or political-correctness. He has faith his audience will bring a broader perspective to the films they are watching, but Scorsese is focused on showing a world seen through the lens of his flawed characters. This is what makes Scorsese’s movies so interesting.

The first Scorsese film I chose to watch when I started studying him was Taxi Driver (1976). After seeing the movie I couldn’t believe how frustrated it made me feel. “Gosh”, I thought, “they said this guy was a good director!” What I saw was a completely unlikable character, in Travis Bickle, with little arc. I first thought I just picked the wrong movie. However, after watching Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and Shutter Island (2010) I found the same problems arose: the characters were all hard to warm up to and there was little to no character growth. In fact, one of my first papers on Scorsese revolved around the problem I had with the lack of arc in his films (check out the paper here).

After listening to many of Scorsese’s interviews and commentaries I began to realize he was never interested in movies about characters who ended up overcoming their flaws and winning the day. I don’t believe Scorsese felt capable of telling many of those kinds of stories in an authentic way. Most of Scorsese’s movies don’t revolve around huge life altering events that send his characters on specific adventures. He is actually known for his lack of interest in narrative driven films. And, though I still hold to my point I made years ago about Scorsese not having much of an arc for his characters, I have come to realize that has never really been his intent. What he wants us to see is the effect a changing environment has on his unwavering characters. Again and again in Scorsese films we observe characters who are unable to change and adapt to the shifting world around them.

We see the characters in Scorsese’s films show their inability to adapt to a changing world in many different ways. In Gangs of New York there is Bill The Butcher. From most accounts audiences considered him the most interesting and colorful character in this Scorsese epic. Bill deals with a the world around him by demanding it stay the same. The story takes place in the city of New York during the Civil War. This represents a huge evolution in the United States, yet Bill refuses to acknowledged it. He tries his hardest to keep New York the same way it has always been. He ruthlessly undermines newly elected officials and continues to hold onto his hatred towards immigrants and African Americans. Bill represents the old New York. I believe this character most resonated with Scorsese because he also fell in love with a New York (the place he grew up) which has since gone away.

In the movie Goodfellas change is dealt with in a completely different way. The main character of the movie is gangster, Henry Hill, and unlike Bill The Butcher he is not in a position where he could force his environment to stay the same. The first half of the movie shows us exactly why Henry is the kind of guy he is. We see how enticing life as a gangster can be. Scorsese brilliantly displays the glamor, excitement, and power that comes with gangster life and then he pulls the rug out from under Henry. Soon the struggle for power puts friends against friends. Henry’s luxurious lifestyle and excessive amounts of money get him into drugs and allow him to support mistresses which in turn brings more chaos to his life. He soon finds he can’t support the glamorous life he and his wife have grown accustomed to and things begin to crumble around him. Though you can’t say Henry’s lifestyle ends up benefiting him in the end, there is no attempt to show Henry having regret for the life he lived. He doesn’t seem to feel remorse for cheating on his wife and helping to cover up the murders of several people. At the end of the story we see his situation change dramatically but he is no different.

If you enter a Scorsese movie wanting to see characters come to their senses or pay for their crimes I am afraid you will be disappointed. The latest Scorsese film, The Wolf Of Wall Street, is proof of just how little Scorsese cares about appeasing his audience byshowing any kind of justice or redemption. The protagonist of the film is one of the most despicable men you will ever see, Jordan Belfort. The film revolves around a team of stockbrokers, lead by Belfort, who cheat, lie, and double cross their way to the top of the Wall Street food chain. The film is based on a true story yet not even a second of the film is focused on any of the many thousands of people Belfort ruined because of his scams. Instead we are are exposed to an excessive amount of drug use, prostitution, and partying. Many asked what the point of the movie was. I don’t think Scorsese had a particular message he wanted to send. However, I think he made the movie because he wanted to get into the head of someone who could do such damage without thinking twice about it. Scorsese didn’t show any of the victims of Belfort’s schemes because Belfort didn’t care about his victims. As I said at the top of this post, Scorsese is relying on his audience to bring a bigger picture to his movies.  His job is to show us an unflinching example of what goes into the mindset of a character like Jordan Belfort. Scorsese isn’t interested in having us like Belfort, but rather he wants us to understand him. Like the movie or not Wolf Of Wall Street produced a huge amount of dialogue about the corruption of Wall Street. This dialogue was generated because of Scorsese’s unwillingness to create false sympathy for the character of Belfort and because of Scorsese’s ability to let us see through the eyes of such a corrupt character. The movie forced us inside the head of a man few of us would ever care to know in the real world.

Scorsese is completely focused on transporting his audience inside his characters head. In fact, what almost all Scorsese films have in common is they are deep character studies. Scorsese wants his audiences to be consumed by his characters. And once we are in his characters heads, he refuses to let us out. We end up seeing the world of Scorsese’s protagonists rather then the world we know. In the commentary for Taxi Driver the film professor Robert Kolker talked about how we don’t know what is real or not in the movie because Travis Bickle isn’t seeing the world in a realistic way. The same could be said to an even greater degree for the movie Shutter Island. (SPOILER) At the end of Shutter Island we learn the whole story we just watched isn’t real at all but was simply imagined by the protagonist, Teddy Daniels (END OF SPOILER).

Scorese’s focus on the psyche of his characters is obsessive. Scorsese wants us to question what we thought we knew about people in this world. Repeatedly he refuses to give us characters we can completely root for or against. Instead he shows his audience a much more colorful world, filtered through the eyes of his protagonist. We can see ourselves being entranced by the same demons that send people like Travis Bickle, Howard Hughes, and Jordan Belfort into madness. And, we are never given any easy answers as to how to fix their problems. Instead we are made to come up with the answers for ourselves. In many ways it would be easier for Scorsese to create an out for himself by giving into the audiences desired outcomes for the characters in his films. But it is by forging his own path and taking an unflinching look at the people he concentrates on that Scorsese has become one of the most admired filmmakers in the world.

Joe Wright – An Observation – Telling a Story

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on March 5, 2013

Joe Wright 1Joe Wright is one of those filmmakers who likes to let his audience know he is telling a story. At the beginning of Pride and Prejudice the main character Elizabeth is reading a book, which Wright described as the beginning of the story she is about to go on. In Atonement the first thing we see is Briony typing out the last part of her play. At the end of the story we find out she is in fact the author of the story we are watching. The Soloist revolves around a group of articles the main character Steve Lopez wrote for his newspaper.  Hanna was described by Wright as a sort of fairytale and we see Wright express this motif constantly; through the main character Hanna reading out of the Brothers Grimm book, the way Wiegler dresses in green and red to resemble a witch, and the fact the whole third act takes place in a deserted circus land which resembles something you would see in a classic fairytale. In Wright’s latest feature Anna Karenina he goes a step further in making it obvious what we are seeing is made up. He fictionalizes the story by setting it in a theater. Wright makes it obvious the actors are on the stage when performing.  Instead of cutting to another scene we at times see prop men come out and change the location in front of our eyes. We even have scenes take place in the prop room, backstage, and up on the catwalks.

If you really think about it most films have very little resemblance to real life. Even the ones based on true stories are completely manipulated in order to express a curtain view. Whether these views are of substance, accurate, or worth your time has everything to do with the storyteller. Joe Wright is a master at using the tools of cinema to manipulate the audience’s view. Wright doesn’t even try to hide this fact. He wants you to understand you are watching a story and not reality. He tells you this through the way he composes shots,  uses music, and edits his films. In fact every time a filmmaker chooses to make a cut, use a curtain angle, or bring in music he is manipulating the audience’s emotions. Wright just is a master at it. His job as a filmmaker is not to tell the literal truth, it is to use the tools of manipulation he has at his disposal to tell the emotional truth of his story.

 “A storyteller is someone who hides the truth in fiction so you can see it better”
Steven Parolini

This is one of the best explanations of a filmmaker’s job. We have the power to send people off to lands where gods and giants rein, to galaxy’s light years away, or to worlds that resemble ours but have toys come to life and animals talk. Wright makes no attempt to make you believe what you are seeing is real. He understands the power of the audience understanding they are watching a story. He wants to exaggerate what we see in real life and create an experience. His job is to understand the heart of his story to such a great extant he could manipulate whatever he needs in order to make the heart of his film resonate with the audience. Wright has experienced life. His films are proof of this.The heart of his stories come from a real and truthful place in his heart.

The reason films like Hanna, a story of a child trained assassin, or Pride & Prejudice, a 17th century drama, resonate with the audience is because they go beyond their genre and show universal truths. Whatever Wright thinks he needs to peel away in order to express those truths more clearly he will take away. It is why we see such impressionistic work in a movie like Anna Karenina. Wright felt the story of lust and love would work better if he heightened the surroundings. He uses extreme color schemes in order to express the emotions of the story and his characters. In the movie Wright does not waste time cutting to different scenes. He has many of the sets change in front of our eyes because his characters’ lives are in constant flux. In Wright’s films we follow his characters’ emotional arcs. The surrounding is completely changeable depending on where his characters are emotionally.

Telling a story requires a lot of talent and technique to get it right. The director needs to be thinking about the framing, music, lighting, sound design, costumes, actors, camera movement, how all those things contribute to the scene, and how the scene contributes to the whole, through out the whole filmmaking process. This takes a lot of devotion and study to get right. You will not get someone who is interested in putting in the countless hours of time and effort unless he is completely devoted to telling the story he has to tell. Joe Wright is a storyteller and his art is telling a story. No wonder he likes acknowledging this in his films from time to time. Yet, Wright doesn’t care whether you catch his acknowledgments. He actually wants you to get so interested in his worlds and so close to his characters you get completely invested in the story. He wants to reveal to you the wonders of the worlds he creates and the emotions of his characters. He wants to tell you a story you will never forget.

Joe Wright – An Observation – Responding

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on February 15, 2013

From my studies I have found there are two very distinct kinds of directors both of which I have tremendous respect and admiration for. There are the Fincher’s and Kubrick’s of the industry who are known for being perfectionists. Many say they already have the movie in their head before they shoot their first shot. Their job is to get what is in their head into the camera. Usually this involves countless hours of tedious work, where the director is trying to control as many details as the time allows to get his vision onto the screen. The other type of director I have encountered is the “Go with you gut” directors. These directors are the Eastwood’s and Spielberg’s of our day. Every day is a inspiration to them and they let these inspirations drive their directing. They do not obsess over flaws in the frame, in fact they capitalize on mistakes a actor makes or the weather creates and bring a more authentic feel to their films.

Joe Wright is a director who falls under the category of “go with your gut” directing. He has done his research but he relies on the performances, costumes, and locations to guide his directing. He wants to be inspired. This is one of the main reasons he does not like working on sets. No matter if he is shooting a period piece, a thriller, or a buddy movie, Wright wants to find actual locations to do most of his shooting. He get’s inspired by the locations and they become just as involved with his story as the characters. His mission is to inspire the crew and the actors to do their best work. He sets things up so the actors can actually mingle with the extras when they are not shooting. He plays music and gets rid of as many distractions as he could so his crew stays on task. During inmate scenes Wright said he tries to have only him, the sound recorder, the grip, and the cinematographer present with the actors so they could feel as comfortable as possible while executing their scene.

One thing you will notice with almost all of the personal scenes in Wright’s movies is his use of the a handheld camera or steady cam. In his commentary on Pride & Prejudice Wright talked about how most of film is about the technical part of filming but the handheld empowers the actors. The great Italian director Federico Fellini  is widely known for making the handheld style of filmmaking popular for the coming of age generation in the 1970’s. The first Rocky film was a breakthrough movie with the steady cam. Through the use of the hand held and steady cams filmmakers found they were less limited with the camera and could explore more personal things and create a more realistic feel in their stories. Using handhelds and steady cams allows the camera man to react to the action on screen in a much more intimate way. Wright likes to respond to what he sees and what he feels. When we watch Wright’s brilliant multiple minute single shots in Pride & Prejudice, Hanna, and Atonement, they are successful because they allow us to take a uncut second person view of the situation and soak in the environment, characters, and story as though we were there. We feel like we are in a 17th century ball, walking in the midst of beaten down World War II soldiers, and trying to escape from secret spies, all because of Wright’s superb ability to transport us into his worlds through the intimacy of the camera.

Even music is used in many of Wright’s films through the response of natural sound effects in the environment. Atonement starts off with the main character Briony at her type writer finishing her play. The typing from Briony slowly transitions into Briony’s theme music with the type writer noise maintaining the basis of her themes beat. At the end of the first act when Robbie is taken away, his mother begins to bang on the front of the police car. The banging becomes the main beat for the powerful climatic music used to end the first act. We see a similar use of sound in the movie Hanna, where helicopter propellers, traffic sounds, and combat noise transitions into the main themes used in the Chemical Brothers score. This is just another example of how Wright is inspired by the world around him and lets it guide him even in post production.

A good directer needs to balance between being prepared and leaving room to be inspired. After watching Wright’s latest film Anna Karenina it seems he brings his response oriented directing style farther then ever before. Unlike Wright’s other films Anna Karenina is mostly shot inside a set. He wants to bring to attention the story he is telling is piece of fiction intentionally dramatized to provoke emotion. Everything seems to be a response to Anna’s emotions.  There is even a time where everything stays still until Anna’s vigorous passion awakens them. Wright wants to awaken his audience . He will hit us with emotions that sometimes defy logic. In most of Wright’s films he does not even try to hide the fact we are watching a story unfold.  He has no intetion in making these stories look real. Instead he wants them to feel real and he will dramatize whatever he needs to to get the desired effect. He is looking for the audience to feel anger towards his characters, love, sorrow, and happiness. In short, Wright is looking for a response.

John Ford – An Observation – The Old School Director

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on May 10, 2012

John Ford 2John Ford consistently got his films done on budget and on time. He made films full of character and story without convoluted plot. He used a minimum amount of dialogue in his movies and did not move the camera unless he needed to. Ford did not consider himself an artist. Filmmaking was his job and his mission was to create an entertaining picture for the rest of the world to see. John Ford is an example of someone who did not learn filmmaking from a school or book, but rather from on the job experience through trial and error. He stands toe to toe with the great filmmakers of the past who were not just masters at using the language of film but the ones creating it from scratch. With little money, demanding schedules, and constant monitoring with excessive restrictions from the studio systems, Ford was able to bring us classics that are hailed even now as being some of the greatest films ever made.

John Ford is the definition of an “Old School” director. He was part of the group that started it all. He was one of the ones who made us realize the power and importance of filmmaking. He was not artsy or self-indulgent. Ford’s only objective was to do well at his job. Ford wasn’t interested in showing the world the man behind the camera through huge tracking shots and clever compositions, rather his interest lied in letting the action unfold as if the camera wasn’t even there. The camera hardly moved in Ford’s films. When he moved the camera it was for a thought through reason. If he moved in on a character we knew we needed to pay attention to what the character was doing or saying. If Ford made a cut it was because he was finished exploring that particular moment in the story. These days filmmakers are afraid to keep the camera still. They will use handhelds and cut excessively just because they are worried about boring the audience. Ford believed in his crew and his directing abilities enough to follow his ambitions and not cave into the public’s demands.

The advice Ford gave for making good films was simple, “Photograph the eyes”. He knew the power of film came through human connection. Sure we liked the fist fights, horse charges, and gun fights in Ford’s films, but what kept his movies relevant was the simple study he did on the human psyche. He explored the individual and his or her obligations to family and society. He constantly contrasted the individual with the development of what many would consider the progression of History. Many filmmakers of today do not spend enough time connecting the audience to the characters and world of their film before moving on with plot. We often have BIG ideas but usually don’t have the patience to explore them or understand them. Ford didn’t care for big ideas, he explored simple things. Like the obligation a child has to his father in the movie How Green was My Valley (1941), the overpowering remorse that comes when betraying a friend in The Informer (1935), or the concept of finding worth when everything seems to be taken away in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

John Ford made a name for himself through simplicity. He made simple stories and he filmed them in simple ways. He did not feel the need to make a blockbuster time and time again, like so many high profile directors do these days. He did not treat the actors as if they were the most important members of the film crew. Ford’s school was the films he worked on and the movies he went to. All the film student of this generation can do is stand on the shoulders of the great directors of our past. Ford was one of those great directors. In 1971 Ford said, “I never felt important. Or as though I was a career director or a genius, or any other damn thing”. This is the very reason he was a genius and why he has become an important filmmaker to study today. Ford put his art form ahead of himself. He did not make movies for fame and admiration, but rather because he had a passion for telling a story.

John Ford – An Observation – Clear Direction

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on April 18, 2012

John Ford 3Directors from the 30’s through the 50’s did not have nearly the control directors have now. I am not saying directors have complete control now but in areas like editing and scoring a picture directors back in the early days had little to no say. John Ford disliked the editing room and was hardly in it. This made me question whether Ford was a true director or not. A director in my opinion is the man who is personally guiding the picture through all the steps of production. How could Ford guide the editing of a project if he hardly saw the editor?

Through further study of Ford I have come to realize Ford was the main editor of his films. Ford edited the picture far before it got to the editing room. He actually edited most of his pictures before he started shooting. Ford had a clear idea of what he wanted his films to be. In the editing room the studios had the power and Ford knew this. No matter what the directors intentions might have been, the studios back in the old days would take control once the film hit post-production. Ford battled this by not giving the studio heads anything more then the bare minimum. He would not shoot like the other directors of his time–capturing the whole scene in first a master, then a medium, and then a few close ups. Scott Eyman in his biography of Ford explains, “[Ford] would shoot only those portions of a given shot that he needed for the scene as he had mentally formulated it. This severely limited editing choices, and meant that Ford had to be right the first time”. Ford needed to have such a clear idea of what he wanted he could stop in a middle of a scene and go to the next shot he had pictured in his head.

The extreme conviction in the direction he wanted to go is one of the things that made Ford such a great director. Cinematographer Charles Clarke made a few films with Ford in the silent era. He said when he first worked with Ford on Upstream (1927) he did not see the relationship between the scenes they were filming. A few weeks later the picture was announced finished and Charles was under the impression they were just getting started. Even though he could not find any rhyme or reason in what they had been filming, when released Charles saw the film and thought it was quite a good picture. Charles explains that Ford had been editing in his head while they had been shooting and although it didn’t make sense to most of the crew, Ford knew how everything was coming together.

Ford knew what was needed and what wasn’t. He Understood story as well if not better then any of the great screenwriters of the day. He knew what needed to stay in the picture and he knew the scenes and pieces of dialogue he didn’t need to even bother shooting. With the old western epic The Iron Horse (1924) the only script the Fox Studio has ends half way through. The rest of the film was basically created by Ford on the go. He didn’t bother writing anything down, he just knew what would make a good story and improvised many of the scenes on the spot. Nobody but Ford understood exactly how the film was going to come together, yet lo and behold it ended up turning into one of the greatest westerns of the silent era.

We can learn a lot from Ford here. The digital era of filmmaking has brought about a curtain amount of indecision. We like to experiment and try many different things. Sometimes this can lead to brilliance but often it ends up leading to stories with no clear purpose or direction. When creating a story we need to have a clear idea of what we want. We can only know what we want if we understand what the story is about. We need to know our material well enough that every shot, piece of dialogue, and choice of music is made because we think it will get us closer to our destination. Ford’s directions were so clear because he understood what the destinations of his movies were and he believed in his abilities to get there.

Failure!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 24, 2011

Film is a tricky medium. There is no formula on how to make a successful movie. You could think you did everything right and can still get bashed at the box office and by the critics. Worse yet, you can think you are giving your project all you got and still be personally disappointed with the final outcome. We work in a medium where failure is just part of the business. As filmmakers it is important to embrace failure. We all make mistakes and we all make pieces of art that we are not as proud of. We can learn from our mistakes and use the criticism of others to create a even better film the next time around. However, this doesn’t stop the fact that criticism usually hurts. As filmmakers we are asked to express our hearts with the images we put up on screen, yet people usually don’t think twice about criticizing us if what they see doesn’t match their standards. It is important to know when to stick to your guns even if you come out with something that is not accepted right away. There have been many great films that were hardly noticed until many years after their release. In the film business “failure” is sometimes up for interpretation. One man’s trash can be another man’s treasure.

One of the reasons I am so interested in studying the past and listening to extra features and interviews on other movies is because I want to learn from their experiences. I am not interested in just the good parts of filmmakers careers. I am just as interested in the low parts of people like Frank Capra, Walt Disney, and Steven Spielberg’s careers. If I can learn from their failures I won’t need to make the same mistakes myself. Looking into a lot of successful filmmakers lives is usually a very humbling experience. They almost always have one or two movies that were not very good. Even the directors themselves talk about regrets in their careers. It is important to understand how popularity can cloud a filmmakers judgment. Steven Spielberg has talked several times about how easy it is to stop working for the story and start working for the audience. When you stop thinking about what you want and start thinking about what your fans want you need to think about changing professions, Spielberg warned at Inside the Actors Studio.

Just because a movie fails in the box office and with the critics does not always mean it was a bad film. Great movies like Bambi, Citizen Kane, and It’s A Wonderful Life, were all bashed publicly when they first came out and were not recognized right away by the critics as being the masterpieces we see them as now. For both Orson Welles, director of Citizen Kane, and Frank Capra, director of It’s A Wonderful Life, the immediate failure of their masterpieces represented a fall from glory in their careers. Welles was never given complete control over a film project again and Capra seemed to lose his inspiration for the big screen. Neither of these filmmakers could have done much better in the creation of their films. However, we can still learn from their failures after the fact. Because Orson was never willing to work with Hollywood and create a more commercially oriented movie, he was never given as much artistic freedom again. Frank Capra allowed the worlds disappointment for It’s A Wonderful Life effect his creativity. There are times where we are going to need to kiss some butt in order to get more artistic freedom. And, there are times where we will be shunned by the public and still need to push on.

If we truly believe in the movie we have made, we will be willing to listen to criticism. We can only learn from failure if we understand the reason behind it. I personally don’t understand why many directors are not willing to listen to critics. Usually the critics who are getting payed to judge movies know something about filmmaking. I have found critics like Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times), Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter), and Drew McWeeny (HitFix), have informed and thought provoking opinions to why they like or dislike a movie. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they do give me a perspective I would not have without them. There are many people in this world who claim to know the right way of doing things and use that as an excuse not to be open to anyone else. This does not represent a confidence in their personal opinion, but rather a insecurity of potentially being wrong.

Ignorance will corrupt creativity. You must understand other perspectives if not for the sole reason to know why you stand against them. Usually the critics and the public can inform you about your film and show you it’s flaws better then you can. It is possible to get so consumed with your work that you can’t see the big picture. You might fall in love with a scene because you know how difficult it was to shoot. However, the audience comes in not knowing anything about production. They don’t care how hard it was to shoot the scene they just care about how it contributes to the story.

The bottom line is, it’s crucial to understand criticism and failure. Sometimes the failure is your fault, sometimes it’s not. Don’t let it destroy you. Remember, you need to play by the rules of the film business at times. We don’t make movies just for ourselves, we make them for everyone to see. Failure can build up strength in a filmmaker. Convictions are more often built through failure then they are through success. Hollywood will be angry if you give them the finger, but sometimes that is exactly what you need to do. Don’t do it out of ignorance. Be willing to listen and learn. But, what is just as important is being willing to stand on your convictions, even if some might not understand.

Andrew Stanton – An Observation – Worth Fighting For

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on August 24, 2011

2008 National Board Of Review Awards Gala

You know Andrew Stanton has helped write more then a dozen of the Pixar movies. The two films he has directed, Finding Nemo and Wall-E, have both won Oscars for Best Animated film. After realizing this, would it surprise you to know he doesn’t really like writing or directing? Stanton has talked more then once about the frustrations and exhaustion that comes with writing and directing. He has talked about the insecurity he has with being a writer and how he is scared to death when he turns his script in for other filmmakers to read. Stanton refrains from writing until the very last minute, he has described himself as a master procrastinator. He has also talked about how all the little details that come with directing wear him down. Four to five years on each project is a long time. What makes him stay in there? Why do so much work if it is so hard to do? I do not think Andrew finds satisfaction in the middle of production like someone such as John Lasseter does. It might be because Stanton is always thinking of other things and keeping his mind on the project at hand is extremely hard to do. It might be because he second guesses the value of what he is doing.   At times I am sure he feels his time would be spent better doing something else. After all writing and directing a film does not leave much room for family activities and social events. It might be because of an insecurity, the whole project lays on his shoulders what if he makes the wrong decision? I believe Stanton’s struggles with filmmaking has to do with all these insecurities.  However, a filmmaker has two choices when faced with insecurities such as these ones. They can run and hide or face them head on. Based on Stanton’s track record I believe he has chosen the latter.

Andrew Stanton counters the wear and tear that comes with needing to deal with a bunch of little details by being very picky about each little detail. He does not burden most of his colleagues with an idea until he is sure the idea is worth fighting for. He needs to figure out whether or not it is worth spending four to five years to make. John Lasseter even talked about bugging Andrew Stanton about the movie Finding Nemo.  Stanton would not even tell him what it was about until he thought he had a story worth committing too. For the movie Wall-E Stanton started development for the project when he was supposed to be on vacation. He thought that if the story turned out to be nothing special he wouldn’t have wasted anyone’s time.

A good question is, what makes a project worth committing to for Andrew Stanton? A key things to realize is Stanton does not think short term he thinks about the big picture. He does not go through the pains of writing and directing lightly. He wants to find a story that can entertain audiences for years to come. He finds universal themes to put into his stories. He concentrates on the insecurities of parenthood in Finding Nemo, what it means to be a friend in Toy Story, and the essence of what it means to love in Wall-E. We can relate to the characters Stanton creates because even though they might be robots, toys, and fish, they are full of human flaws and needs. Woody in Toy Story is insecure in his relationship with Andy. Marlin in Finding Nemo is scared his son might not be able to handle the real world. Wall-E is lonely.  These themes and character qualities represent the heart of Stanton’s films.

At the beginning the only thing Andrew Stanton has is an idea. Production represents the war Stanton faces in order to bring the idea to life on screen. When you go into battle you need to have passion. Stanton wants to make sure he can give the story everything he has. He knows there will be those days where nothing is working. He talked in an interview about needing to have enough passion to push through those times. Stanton talked about how he wants the audience to be thinking the characters he creates have feelings and lives that go on after the movie ends. This is what makes a movie worth fighting for to him. Stanton knows if he fights through and wins the war he will give us characters that truly become real in our hearts. Characters like Woody and Wall-E have a life of their own in the minds of many kids and adults. Film is the ultimate illusion of life. It takes a lot of work to pull off. But the results can be well worth it because they have the potential to be endless.

Andrew Stanton is one of those directors who will not commit to any old project. I think he is one of those artists who needs to both write and direct the film. He writes the films himself not because he thinks he is a brilliant writer but rather because he wants to find a story that is personal to him. Andrew Stanton is not a good director because he can’t make mistakes. No, he will be the first to tell you he makes mistakes all the time in in the development of his films. The thing about Stanton is he does not give up. He works through the mistakes. Andrew Stanton is a great director because when he finds something worth fighting for, he will not stop or compromise with the vision. He will fight until he gets the idea on screen.