A Dreamer Walking

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

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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

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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)

Production Log – The WALL

Posted in Personal Philosophy, Production Log by Jacob on February 6, 2019

A great number of artists who are asked about creative blocks simply say, “I don’t let it happen to me”. And of course my first instinct is to call BS. Everyone gets creative blocks. You know, that wall stopping you from seeing any solution to your story? At this very second it’s looming over me, taunting me for my profound lack of inspiration. I am in the middle of a very difficult sequences for my documentary. I will be sending this edit out to people who can have a huge influence on whether I get funding for the project and I need to make a great first impression. The core idea is there. I know I have the characters and moments to make something wonderful. The dilemma is to be able to connect the dots, so one moment builds into another and each character is fully realized.

Honestly, I feel like screaming and throwing my head in the ground. My current solution of simply staring at the screen, doesn’t seem to be much healthier of an option. Neither is working on an edit when I know I don’t have a strong direction to take. The brain needs a break sometimes.

The mind is an interesting thing. We actually don’t do our best thinking when we force our brain to go specific directions. Left to its natural tendencies, the brain will choose the easy way out. When you combine that with our over stimulated world we live in, creativity can be completely choked out. What happens when we are pushing ahead is we usually follow a specific route that ends up being far more instinctual than inspirational. Rote memory and planned layouts are what most mind’s want to rely on. Technology only helps us with that laid out path. Heck, when writing emails now my computer gives me suggestions for my next several words. Ironically one of the greatest defenses I have to this layed out world set before me is my dyslexia. Dyslexics struggle with rote memory. We usually take twice as long to understand how to follow a step by step process or memorize a planned layout. To put it simply, dyslexic’s mind’s can’t stay focused as easily. We want to break away, try to connect dots that sometimes are just not there.

There are times where the wondering brain finds an unnoticed solution to a problem. There is a reason 20% of entrepreneurs are dyslexic, despite their struggle in the school system and the fact dyslexics make up only 10% of the population. Not every idea an entrepreneur comes up with succeeds. In fact, if you ask them they would tell you most fail. Yet if an entrepreneur comes up with one great innovation out of 10, they can be extremely successful. There is a reason some of the great creative minds in our history were considered to be dyslexic, this includes Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and Steven Spielberg. Spielberg particularly has spoken about the numerous ways his dyslexic tendencies have helped him as an artist. Few know however, they almost got him thrown out of the film business entirely. At one point in his career Spielberg was known for going over budget and way over schedule with his film productions. The most famous example was Jaws, where a planned 55 day production schedule ended up taking 157 days. Granted, this had a great deal to do with a malfunctioning shark, but his next two films, Close Encounters and 1941, were also way past schedule and budget. His crew talked about how Spielberg kept getting new ideas for scenes. Mid way through shooting a scene he would think of a better way to shoot it. One could only imagine how hard it was to keep up with the constant bouncing around of the man’s imagination.

One thing you may be feeling at this moment is I’m getting away from the original point of this post. I mean, how is Spielberg going over schedule the same thing as me not being able to get past my most recent creative wall. I must say, this is a brilliant example of just how my dyslexia tends to work. My English major mother, who homeschooled me, would have a permanent palm mark seared on her forehead from the amount of times I would simply make a leap from one paragraph to another with no explanation on how I got from one destination to another. This really is what leads to the most devastating creative blocks for me. I need to be able to connect my narrative for my audience. It doesn’t matter how great my idea is, or even how many great ideas I have, if I am not able to walk one through my journey I’m sunk. Spielberg was lucky to have multiple creative colleagues to hold his hand, the greatest counter to his creative leaps is his editor, Michael Kahn.

To get to my main point, creative walls can be described as anything keeping you away from telling your story. With Spielberg his overlong productions were getting in the way of telling his best stories. 1941 is a huge narrative and tonal mess, due to Spielberg losing sight of where the heart of his film was. With his next film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Producer and good friend George Lucas made Spielberg promise he would produce the film on schedule and on budget. And with far more action and many more locations than Jaws, Spielberg shot the movie in 73 days. Did he need to sacrifice his creativity for this? Well, I wouldn’t suggest that to the millions of fans who consider Raiders to be one of the greatest action films of all time.

So what is it? Does one just need to bypass their creative walls by forcing themselves to stay on schedule? Or is needing to acknowledge the block part of being creative? The reason I write these things is to figure out the answers myself. I believe Spielberg found a balance. Though most of his production schedules are quite short these days Spielberg does still use techniques to give himself time to take a break and allow that wandering mind of his to work.

One of my favorite stories of Spielberg’s was when he was asked why he edited his movies on film for so long. Where most filmmakers went digital in the mid to late 90’s, Spielberg was editing with scissors and celluloid during Lincoln, which came out in 2012. He said after watching a scene he would always have edits for Kahn to make. He would point two to three things out and then take a walk. Twenty minutes later he’d come back and they’d go over the next problem. When editing on a computer Spielberg would go through a similar scene. He’d make his suggestions, pointing out two to three things, and before he even got up the edits would be done, the editor ready to move on. The big difference was due to the immediate nature of digital editing Spielberg didn’t have time to wonder. He didn’t have time to search out those suggestions he’d made in his head and explore potential creative ways to solve the next ones.

We have a greater ability now, than ever before, to stay stimulated. We live in a world of instant gratification where if you run into a wall you can simply look up an app for how to get through it or around it. But what if the point of creativity is climbing those walls? What if the wall itself is one of the most crucial aspects to creativity? Following a laid out route is easier, but I believe the crucial ingredient to creativity is the new. The new is inherently difficult to embrace. I have run into numerous problems in my stories, I have done enough research to know ways to get through the problems. Yet, when I try to simply get through the problem I end up neglecting the nuance of the situation. My characters in my stories have similarities to characters I’ve seen in the past, but they are not the exact same. There is a great difference between inspiration and imitation. The techniques I use to connect the narratives and build upon moments, have been inspired by my studies into other great filmmakers, but I’d be doing a great disservice to my story if I simply copied them.

True inspiration comes from facing the WALL. The wall simply represents the unknown. It represents those aspects that are unique about your characters and your story’s arc. I understand the temptation to bypass the unknown for the familiar, but storytelling’ lifeblood comes from the unique aspects you bring. Embrace those things. Then you must figure out the path. As the creator, you are there not only to find the new place but also build the path. This is such a difficult dilemma since these two aspects rarely compliment each other. Yet one of the most brilliant aspects of filmmaking is the collaborative nature of the artform. You don’t need to be great at everything, you simply need to find the people to understand the vision and help get us there.

(This is a new series I am going to be doing as a way to avoid getting back to the heavy lifting of finishing my Paxson Documentary.)

 

 

FilmStruck – Cinema’s Love Letter

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on November 21, 2018

FilmStruck Closing

There is no streaming service that holds as strong of a punch in sheer knowledge of cinema’s rich history, as FilmStruck. Nothing comes close! And only two years after launch, it will be shutting down due to having too small of a “niche” audience. WHAT THE HELL?!?!

What sold me about FilmStruck is not just their ability to bring us wonderful material covering a variety of cultures and subject matters. Or their individual focus on the less represented genders or races in the cinema world. But on top of all that they were dedicated to diving deep into the filmmaking process by providing hundreds of hours of extra features on the making and impact of the films they championed.

Honestly I did not watch many films on FilmStruck. Maybe, two a month. Rather, after watching a film on a great artist I had just been introduced to, I would start to dive deep into the extra features. I would listen to interviews  of actors and crew members who were there when greats such as Yasujiro Ozu and Jean-Pierre Melville walked their sets. The movies these filmmakers were known for were cool to see, but FilmStruck wouldn’t settle with the greatest hits of any given artist, they would dive deep into a filmmaker’s career. Long forgotten films would be highlighted by the site. Many of the films on FilmStruck can not be found on other platforms or in even in physical copy.

Why does a service like this get so little attention? Why does a multi billion dollar company think preserving these types of films is not important? Studying classic and foreign films has been a lonely venture for me. Though I spent many years going to school for media arts, I could hardly get any of my peers interested in cinema’s rich history. There could be all sorts of critiques about why this is. Very few would be flattering. But this is not a post whining about people not being cultured enough to cherish rich storytelling over junk food “entertainment”. This is a plea, a cry to anyone out there willing to understand just how important standing up for artistic and culturistic preservation is to the betterment of society.

Netflix, Hulu, and HBO are wonderful services. I consider many of them like friends, sometimes providing a needed laugh while at times giving me something to think about. These services represent my peers and I hold a great amount of respect for how the they are driving our artform forward. Yet the artist’s highlighted on FilmStruck represent my teachers. I have spent countless hours taking notes on their unique structures, their beautiful images, and profound insights. This blog was built upon the kinds of revelations I have discovered on FilmStruck.  The great directors you see on the site, Kurosawa, Ford, and Bergman all have placed a brick on the great platform I stand on today. The filmmakers on all the other streaming services owe those highlighted on FilmStruck a great dept. This was driven home by the fact two dozen filmmakers, including Christopher Nolan, Ryan Johnson, Guillermo Del Toro, and Paul Thomas Anderson have posted a public letter pleading WarnerMedia to save the streaming service. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are also lending their voice to the fight.

We make a critical mistake to think art can last without our support. Time does not work that way. Without the needed resources and careful care, we will lose some of our most profound stories. With the end of FilmStruck there will be hundreds of movies you won’t be able to find streaming anywhere else, along with countless hours of informative interviews, behind the scenes documentaries, and commentaries. Thankfully Criterion, one of FilmStruck’s greatest collaborators, plans to start their own streaming service this coming spring. However, there is no guarantee it will be able to sustain itself any better than FilmStruck. The difference will be found in us. We simply need to decide if the cinema of our past and distant lands will be part of the forgotten or our teachers.

If you support FilmStruck’s efforts to preserve cinema, please sign and share this partition to #SaveFilmStruck. The more voices we have the harder it is it ignore us.

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.

Is It Worth It?

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on April 19, 2018

640x640_11664732I sit here at 3:30 AM debating for one of the first times in my life, if my life goal of becoming a filmmaker is worth it. I hate to be dramatic, but it’s simply where I am.

Two years of my life has been devoted to a documentary about a place I love, a place I grew up in. It was my first job as an adult. I was given the task to care for the men of Paxson. Six men living in a group home whose value has been questioned throughout their lives. See, these men struggle in a ways we simply can’t imagine. Simple everyday tasks are mountains for them. The ability to walk, have conversation, or even stay awake are all tasks needed to be conquered each new day.

Their struggle was not the reason they deserved a documentary however. We need their story told because of the humanity they show through facing their struggles. The difference is key. Throughout my clients’ lives they’ve been defined by the disabilities they have. Schizophrenia, down syndrome, or cerebral palsy – it doesn’t matter. People simply take one look at them and shutter because they are different. Believe me, I know. I’ve gone on outings numerous times throughout the nine years of knowing them. It’s tragic how the crowd parts ways when we are walking through the store or on the fairgrounds. I see the stares. I see people hesitate to be near them. I hear the judgement when they are talked to. And, they feel these things, too.

All this is not to say I am angry at those who don’t understand my friends. It’s completely understandable. I was the same way until I got to know them. Yet, I know if people could just get past those first awkward moments they would see something amazing. I was actually willing to bet two years of my life and all my talents as a filmmaker on this fact. With the help of some good friends and the support of the special needs community, I set forth to tell their story. And let me tell you, it’s been a bumpy ride.

The most prominent problem has been lack of finances. I’ve actually lost about $500 dollars in the two year process. Until just recently I received no financial benefits. And as much as I can confidently state financial gain was never the reason for this project, I must admit the lack of it has made things extremely stressful. My University has been overly gracious to allow me to use their equipment through the years. Yet, as with all used equipment, it’s a task to get everything rented and upsetting to find things that don’t work. There is nothing more tragic in the mind of a filmmaker then to miss a event or a moment due to waiting periods or malfunctions.

Another factor I must admit to is the question of ego. Oh yes, we all wish we could simply say we are over being rattled by the opinions of others. Yet, artists most of all struggle with having the confidence in themselves to share their work with the world. I told my professor after my very first documentary short, Mary Rose, my next project would be a feature documentary. Two years later, if someone told me the same thing I would struggle not to laugh in their face. Insisting you have the capability to engage your audience for more than sixty minutes is no small statement. Let’s forget about the story, how could one with such little experience expect to accomplish such a feat? To be honest, I started out writing this because I don’t know if I can. I’ve hit the ditch numerous times through this two year process. The hundreds of hours of footage is drowning me. One of my greatest weaknesses, organization, has constantly been something I’ve needed to address. My communications skills, technical skills, and emotional strength have all been tested to the max. The struggle between having enough confidence to lift this project from the ground and the humility needed to hear criticism and get feedback, has not been a battle I’ve always won.

This brings me to my last big dilemma, the loneliness. Now, I do not want to be saying nobody else has been there for me. From the beginning, I have had family who supported me in this project and who have dealt with all kinds of insecurities from this young filmmaker. I have film buddies who have sacrificed countless hours assisting me with setting up shoots and filming. I have a handful of professors who meet me on a regular basis to go over edits, despite me not going to school anymore. And I have the clients and staff from the house, who have championed my cause and been humble enough the allow me to film them. Yet, the vast majority of my time on this project has been spent alone. I sit in a empty room from 4PM to 3AM working through each element of the footage I’ve captured. I am the assistant, the editor, and the director. And my process is labor intensive. I must sync the good audio, organize each interview, and subtitle every line of dialogue for the clients who struggle to be understood. I must be emotionally connected to the material, fighting to allow each voice to be heard, while also figuring out how to stay objective enough to have an accurate perspective over the whole. And, as of today I have not found those who are able be with me on some of the most perilous parts of the journey.

What I describe to you is the great dilemma of every artist. The battle of outside sources and inner conflicts. Each artist I have studied has dealt with these dilemmas in different ways; sometimes at great cost to their personal lives. I don’t know where I will land in the end. Not knowing if I have enough money, struggling to contain the ego, and dealing with the loneliness — all threaten my ability to finish this film.

And this is where I sit.

Then I remember the men of Paxson. They represent what all my struggle, talents, and drive is for. The only time the crushing weight lifts is when they become more important than my fragile ego, my mandatory woes, my sitting in this room alone. Tonight I can soak in my sorrows, but tomorrow I wake to fight for them. In this profession, the soul of the story is what makes each task worth it’s weight.

The Frame – Restriction’s Power

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Say Something!!!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on December 18, 2016

The greatest mistake the educated make is believing our intellect produces meaning. By itself, intellect is empty. Infact, from my experience my intellect often tries to get in the way of meaning. Far too often what is valued the most is the way something is written or a painting rendered. We become so caught up on the ecstatics we neglect to see the shallowness of what is being said.

When it came to the visual arts, I was a natural talent. I was able to draw better than most in my class and I was fantastic at composing a shot. There are few who like talking composition or lighting more than me when it comes to filming. Honestly, a good portion of my blog is about speaking about brilliant compositions or ways artists apply the tools of their trade. If you look far enough back, you can see pieces of photography I did. I consider a good portion of them well done for my age and yet looking back on them they seem to be missing any kind of substance. They are simply pretty pictures I took strictly on a conceptual level.

When it came to writing, I was a hot mess. I’ve already explained it many times, but holy crap did I suck. There was no understanding of grammar, spelling, or structure. Even now there is no distinct style to the way I write. You can easily call my writing straightforward and at times… boring. However, my senior year of highschool I had a teacher who insisted my writing had a huge amount of potential. The reason had nothing to do with spelling or grammar. She simply told me she felt I had something worth saying.

Because I could not rely on my natural skill as a writer I was forced to find motivation through what I was writing. As a dyslexic I find writing to be emotionally, mentally, and at time even physically taxing. So there needed to be a purpose to every essay I forced my hands to type. And as you can see in this blog, I found a purpose. I was able to put writing in the place any medium of art belongs, strictly as a tool to express myself.

Our thoughts, ideas, and convictions are what art is really about. Who we are is what we must express to the world. When it comes to working with the camera it’s much harder for me to realize this notion. I make the mistake of thinking the way I choose to frame a picture or control the light is what makes my work stand out. And I’m not alone. I can’t tell you how excited my fellow peers get when they see a new camera or are able to use a new visual effect. Just look how many different types of materials Leonardo da Vinci experimented with. It’s only natural for the artist  to appreciate his instrument. Yet the goal can never be to create a piece in order to highlight the tool you are using. The goal to art is to say something; to create something which takes on a life of it’s own.

Nothing disguises meaninglessness more than a pretty picture. I was fooled by my own talent in the visual arts. Writings greatest gift to me could easily be the humbling experience of being bad. With every word I am forced to think about the actual reasons behind what is being said. In today’s world we have more powerful tools to express ourselves than ever before. Let us dare to say something with these tools.

 

I’m Back!!!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on December 11, 2016

How to start…

I have been blogging for a long time. For those who once followed this blog, you might know the reason is due to the fact that I once used this as a testing device for my education. I wanted to study filmmaking and found traditional education lacking. There were many reasons for this, but the greatest reason was the education system didn’t know how to handle me very well… nor I it.

What I ended up doing was studying on my own. I chose to self educate and use this blog as a testing device. Though mostly due to my dyslexia I consider writing akin to stabbing oneself with a pencil a million times, my English Teacher of a mother taught me writing was also one of the best ways to test if you really understood a subject. In order to create a good essay you need to grab your audience’s attention with how you introduce your subject. You must be able to support your argument in the body of your essay. And in the end you must be to bring everything together and come to a conclusion worthy of an audience’s efforts in taking the time to read your piece.

Now I won’t argue I was good at any of this stuff when I first started (nor much better now…:/), however I was convinced I had a view worth exploring. And though this has never been the most popular blog, I consider the 270 entries I’ve so far written to be one of my greatest achievements. This blog represents my journey in understanding both the medium I love and my personal voice.

My journey however eventually took me in another direction. Instead of being stuck with the unnatural obligation of writing each week, I replaced the pen with a lens and began to actually put all my developped views to the test. I returned to college for the purpose of applying what I had already learned. In the process I made the discovery that learning should never have an end. I am proud of the connections I’ve made in college and consider many students and professors critical to furthering my education. Yet the journey to actually producing my own material in the medium I love, has begun. And I’ve given myself little time to write about it.

This is where this specific blog entry comes in. I wanted to acknowledge I’ve been gone for a while and avoided an aspect of my education I consider to be more difficult. My plan is to start writing consistently again. Honestly, I’ve tried to write many things the last few months, but as you can see they haven’t been able to make it to the finish line yet. There is a curtain excitement that comes with hitting the “publish” button. It’s that idea you consider your work worthy enough to be experienced and scrutinized over. I can not promise to create the kind of material I was at the hight of my writing career (if I had one of those ;), but the bottom line is I want to start to test myself in this way again.

Writing is a beautiful artform. It has helped me in so many ways become a better filmmaker. Through writing I’ve discovered my identity as an artist and a human being. My hope is I can continue to discover new things about myself and filmmaking through the continuation of this blog…and maybe even give you something worth thinking about.

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.

 

Thoughts From Tarkovsky – The Ever-Changing World

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on July 22, 2016

It is a grave, I would even say, fatal, mistake to try to make a film correspond exactly with what is written on paper, to translate onto structures that have been thought out in advance, purely intellectually. That simple operation can be carried out by any professional craftsman. Because it is a living process, artistic creation demands a capacity for direct observation of the ever-changing material world, which is constantly in movement.”  – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time

This is just one of countless insights I have found from Andrei Tarkovsky’s book, Sculpting in Time. The quote is extra relevant today since there are so many new tools being developed in order to plan out stories, scenes, and even specific shots in advance. Film demands a curtain amount of structure. The very definition of a “frame” suggests structure. Yet, more then any other artistic medium, filmmaking rewards those who are able to break away from the inherent structure of film and adapt to the ever-changing world around us.

I have been in the process of creating several short documentaries. Last year a friend and I made a 20 min documentary on a clinically blind 91 year old woman who walked a mile and a half to church every Sunday. One of the most daunting aspects was the absence of a script. Unlike with fictional filmmaking I was not allowed to create a story before going to shoot. All I could do was hope to find little moments in the process of making the film and put them together in the end to tell a complete story.

What the inability to use structure demanded of me was to observe. I couldn’t rely on any per-conceived ideas. I needed seek out the truth each day, in every moment I captured. Even in the interviews there were contradictions between the characters we covered. Instead of looking at what was said, I found the greatest truths were revealed through mall things, like a hint of a smile or a movement in the eyes; things I would never even think of let alone know how to write into a script.

In the process of making the doc I became less and less interested in telling a specific story. I told my partner I didn’t want this to be about a 91 year old who had all sorts of insights to pass down to younger generations. I didn’t want this to be a doc about a 91 year old who was about to die. I simply wanted it to be about a person who happened to be 91 and let her tell us the rest of the story.

In the end we were able to create a story out of the pieces our subject gave us. But the story had less to do with getting to specific answers and more to do with going on a journey. For a brief 20 minutes we let the audience take a walk with a 91 year old lady and discover a few divine insights before departing. Because we had not yet come to any conclusions before filming we were able to discover insights none of us by ourselves would have ever made.

A beauty of filmmaking is numerous people, if allowed, contribute to the whole of the story. If we structure our story too much we disallow the individual contribution of the person directing the film, the individual holding the camera, or man portraying the character. The difference between a craftsman and an artist is the ability to go beyond what is on the page and bring new insights to the table. We must have an unified vision, a similar journey we want to go on, but its expression need not be limited to one voice. As a unified group we can get to far greater places than we can as individuals.