A Dreamer Walking

Turning 30!

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on November 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ikiru – Film Analysis – Part 1

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

NOTE TO READER:

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


Titles

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

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

Scene 1

Screenshot (66)

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


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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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


Screenshot (71)

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

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

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

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

Scene 2 – montage

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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


Scene 3

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


Screenshot (102)

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


Scene 4

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


 

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

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

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

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

Scene 5

Screenshot (86)

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

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

Scene 6

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


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

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

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

 

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


Composition 1 of 7

Composition 2 of 7

Composition 3 of 7

Composition 4 of 7

Composition 5 of 7

Composition 6 of 7

Composition 7 of 7

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

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

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

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

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


Scene 7

Screenshot (101)

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

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

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


End of Part 1: (17 min into movie)

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.)

 

 

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.

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.

The Future

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on May 15, 2015

“I dream for a living”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Influences

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on February 16, 2015

Far too often I find the reply most students have to the question, “What makes you want to make movies?” less then interesting. One of the main reasons I find them uninteresting is because everyone seems to have the same answer. There are a handful of movies almost every film student sight as the films that made them want to make movies. I want to think of my experience as more unique, but like it or not the first example I have is from that handful of movies.

My dad taught at a local college and brought my brother and me to the theater one night. I was about seven years old and really had no clue what I was going to see. All my dad said was it was a big movie when he was in school, which honestly turned me off because I had yet to find anything my dad did when he was “in school” interesting.

The theater was probably pretty small, though I had not seen anything like it. All we had at home was a black and white TV screen that could fit in the span of my dad’s hand. After a few minutes of watching my dad mingle with his friends lights suddenly went out. Everyone hushed. Words faded onto the screen, “In a galaxy far far away”. I couldn’t even read them all. And then it happened. Sound poured out from all corners of the theater. In a huge font the title, “STAR WARS”, blasted onto screen. I couldn’t read the words that came after that but I do remember the tiny ship flying away from the biggest ship I had ever seen. What can I say?! I was hooked. There was no turning back. I just wanted to have this experience again and again. I wanted to bathe in the glory of the epicness that was, STAR WARS.

Another theater experience I vividly remember was when my Grandfather took me to see The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, staring Jim Carry. Though now I can point to many flaws the movie had, back then I was too caught up in the spectacle to care. What truly blew my socks off was the very beginning where it was snowing and the camera went into a small snowflake to reveal a whole world of imagination. I was in awe. What other possibilities are there in this medium if it could do that? I wondered.

Other movies, full of spectacle, got me excited about the power of cinema. I remember falling in love with Indiana Jones and going to the original Spiderman movie about 20 times in the theater. But spectacle by itself would never have made me interested in making movies. Even then I needed something more. In movies like Indiana Jones and Star Wars I saw a little of that “something more”. I had an emotional connection with those movies. They didn’t just fill me with wonder they also made me care. When Darth Vader revealed to Luke Skywalker, “I am your Father”, I went through a whole range of emotions which literally took me years to figure out. My favorite Indiana Jones movie is The Last Crusade. The power of the movie did not come through the spectacular adventure Indiana went on as much as the simple relationship he had with his father.

Yet the film maker I found the most emotional connection to was with Disney. Walt Disney, the man, might be my greatest inspiration in cinema. I am well aware of the fact he is seen as more of a symbol than an actual person in the world’s eyes. And, I know many consider his films to not be very deep, and have a generic “happily ever after” stamp on the end. However, I would say few people know Walt Disney like I do. This might be a little presumptuous but I have looked into the man Walt Disney quite intensely for more than a decade now. What really got me interested in him was the book, Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas. Here, I realized the “larger than life” figure I had grown up with was an actual human being with many flaws. The flaws were what really interested me. I, along with the majority of the world, knew about his “greatness”. Understanding Walt had flaws made a crucial connection for me; it taught me you don’t need to be perfect in order to do great things.

I still believe some of Walt’s first movies such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi get to the core of what I consider great storytelling. Each movie’s characters affected me in ways that went beyond just the story I watched on screen. I found myself wondering what their lives were like outside the frames of the camera. Characters like Jiminy Cricket and Thumper were close friends who always brightened my day when I watched them. And, the most amazing part was the fact that these characters were not real. In the most basic sense I believe I knew this even in my childhood. They were just a bunch of drawings when put together created the greatest illusion of all, the illusion of life.

In many of Walt’s first features he was not afraid to show hints at the darker sides of life. He knew that great storytelling required not just happiness but loss as well. I cried when Bambi first lost his mother. I feared for the life of Pinocchio when he ventured out to save his father from the great whale Monstro. And I felt Dumbo’s longing when he visited his mother after she was locked up in a cage. All these movies produced very powerful and specific emotions from me even after the second, third, or twentieth time I watched them. I began to understand that cinema could go so much farther then spectacle and become something that touches the heart.

One more element is key to making cinema something I wanted to participate in for the rest of my life. The element is seen a little in movies like Star Wars and Pinocchio. However, it took a more mature kind of storytelling to really drive the element home for me. And now I get to the movie I consider the greatest of all time, Schindler’s List. I was far too young when I first watched this movie; so young in-fact that I didn’t really know all of what was going on. My parents thought I needed to know about a part or our world’s history that the movie covered, the holocaust. I remember being horrified as I saw hundreds of human beings get thrown out of their houses, treated like cattle, and killed for no reason other than they walked the wrong way on the street.

By itself I do not think the horror of the story would have done much for me. However, through the horror I saw a man, Schindler. At first I really didn’t like him. He wasn’t as mean as most of the Germans but I could tell he was taking advantage of the Jews. He was a married man who was selfish with his money and had sex with many women. But then something happened. I was able to see this man change right in front of me. He didn’t become perfect, but he did begin to care. He helped to save hundreds of Jews. What really moved me was a scene at the end of the movie.

Oscar Schindler needed to leave the Jews because the war was over and he now was considered a fugitive. As he was leaving his factory the Jews he helped protect gave him several small gifts. It was here Schindler broke down. He looked at all the people he helped save and all he could think about were the ones he didn’t. “I could have done more”, were the words that have stuck with me ever since. I couldn’t believe it. Here was this imperfect man who had done so much, yet still he wept for what more he could have done. It was then I realized the true power of movies. They could go beyond spectacle. They could take me beyond emotional relevance. Movies had the power to influence the direction of one’s life.

My life was changed after watching Schindler’s List. I thought if such an imperfect man could do so much and yet feel he could have done more, what could I do? I made it a goal to help those who were less fortunate than me. I wanted to make movies that brought up subjects like Schindler’s List and see if I could harness the power of cinema to influence others like the director of Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg, had done for me.

The movies I have shared have most likely influenced many people. However, the older I get the more I realize the most important influence in any kind of artistic ambition must be one’s personal life. My personal story is where true inspiration comes from. My goal is not to copy the imagery I watched in movies like Star Wars, Bambi, and Schindler’s List. Rather what is most important is to try to understand the emotions these movies stirred up in me and where the roots of those emotions originate. The movies I have watched will be just what I have described them as being, Influences. My goal is to use those influences to create movies full of spectacle and emotion, and help change other people’s lives for the better like the great films of the past have done for me.

The Long Take

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on February 3, 2015

There are few techniques more cinematic in the great art-form of film then the long take. The great majority of directors we hail as masters of the craft have indulged in this film technique at least a few times in their career. Filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón and Joe Wright have made a career in perfecting the long shot. I remember watching Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and just sitting their with my mouth wide open in awe as I watched a single shot capture a touching scene between two long lost friends and then suddenly transition into a horrifying action sequence that left me, along with the rest of the audience, completely devastated. When done right long takes are able to completely immerse us into the world of the movie. They have the ability to ratchet up the tension of a scene and communicate volumes of information in a short amount of time. However, what I am curious about is how this film technique got started? After a bit of research the surprising thing is though we consider the long take to be one of the most innovative techniques in cinema today, you might say it was the very first type of shot created.

This is one of the very first shorts ever made and it consists entirely of one shot. The footage was shot all the way in the 19th century. And for quite a long time this was the standard type of shot in filmmaking. When cinema was first being developed the “cut” was hardly ever used. There was no such thing as the close up or even medium shot. One of the sayings back then was, “Why would I want a close up when I am paying the actor for his whole body?”. Even the great Georges Melies (director of the famous 1902 A Trip to the Moon) shot his movies in mostly long takes that consisted almost entirely of wide shots. The problem is very few of these long shots ever explored space or immersed us into the story. The camera just sat there, capturing the action as if observing a play. It took innovators such as Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith to really explore the power of the cut and close up. However, the long shot didn’t go away. Some filmmakers such as Buster Keaton began using the long shot to great dramatic effect, like in this clip.

I know, this is only 15 seconds long. However, the shot does show an evolution in how one can use a continues shot. Keaton was able to build a great amount of tension through keeping the shot going all the way through the stunt. The shot immerses us into the action in a way that wouldn’t have been possible through using cuts. This is just one of many movies during the 1920’s that really pushed the boundaries of what cinema could do. And then came sound. Believe it or not sound in many ways took cinema back a few decades. No longer did everything need to be communicated visually. This lead to lazy storytelling where dialogue was used to communicate story rather then visuals. One of the greatest problems that came with sound was the weighting down of the camera. The cameras became much heavier and the equipment needed to capture sound was expensive. Thus filmmakers did not have the ability to explore the environment in the way pioneers from the silent era, such as Buster Keaton and F.W. Murnau, were able to.

More then a decade went past before we really saw filmmakers explore the power of the long take again. Not surprisingly one of the people who was most interested in re-exploring this lost film technique was Orson Welles. Lets take a look at a clip from Citizen Kane (1941)

Though there still is a limit to how much the camera could move Welles was able to use this deep focused continues shot to explore his story in ways that were completely innovative at the time.  In this scene Welles is able to connect young Kane playing outside with the mother’s choice to hand her boy over to the rich Mr. Thatcher; a choice that will result in the creation of one of the most tragic figures in cinema. Welles is able to create a wonderful and tragic contrast here, between the innocent Kane playing outside and the mother’s choice of taking that very life away from him.

Another great innovator of exploring just how much you could communicate in the long take was Walt Disney. His movie Pinocchio (1940) has a shot that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull off. Sadly I can’t find a clip of it, but in the movie Walt transitions from Pinocchio and Geppetto going to sleep to daytime. In one shot he goes from the town bells all the way through the town and too the front door of Geppetto’ where the enthusiastic Pinocchio is getting ready for his first day of school. Hitchcock is yet another filmmaker who wanted to push the boundaries of the long take and with his movie Rope (1948) he shot his 80 min movie in 11 seamless cuts.

During the fifties the long take was used by a few filmmakers to great effect. The main problem was the long shots at the time were extremely expensive because of the man power and equipment needed to pull them off. Orson wells is known for making the greatest long shot of the 1950’s in his famous opening shot of Touch of Evil.

All kinds of resources were needed to pull this off. However, you will find few scenes with more suspense then this. The whole time we are wondering when the bomb is going to blow. The car with the bomb in it lingers as we explore the environment. The shot again immerses us into the action in a way that no other type of shot could.

By the 1970’s, the decade many call the golden age of cinema, the long shot had been explored by greats such as Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. However, what truly re-invented the possibilities of the long shot was the steadicam. The steadicam was one of the first pieces of film equipment to be able to move the camera in a smooth a precise way without needing to spend a huge amount of time laying down tracks or spending a huge amount of money renting out a crane. One of the first movies to use it was Rocky in 1976. However, it took one of the true masters of cinema to really show the world the possibilities of this new technology.

In this shot from Martin Scorsese’ Goodfellas (1990) the camera completely submerges us into the world of Henry Hill and shows just how enticing the gangster life could be. We have gone all the way from the static shot of people exiting the factory in 1895 to a world where the camera can literally explore every little corner. This shot allows us to experience time unaltered, as if we are a companion of Henry’s as he goes into the club.

The advancement of digital filmmaking has only added to the resourcefulness of the long take. No longer do filmmakers need to worry about running out of film. TV and small indi films use the long take commonly now as a way to save time and explore aspects of the story that were not possible before. Advancements in post-production has also allowed filmmakers to seamlessly connect shots in order to pull off the illusion of long takes that frankly weren’t possible any other way. And that brings us back to Alfonso Cuarón. I consider him the great master of the long take. The reason he is so good is because you hardly ever realize how long he has held his shot. He doesn’t go for the long take in order to show off. Rather he submerges us into his world and makes us experience cinema in a way no other type of film technique could allow for.

The Business of Creativity

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on January 6, 2015

While talking to Kim Masters, the host of The Business, director Alejandro González Iñárritu explained how hard it was to find funding for his latest project Birdman. The film revolves around a washed up actor who needs to get over his ultra-ego that takes the form of the superhero Birdman- the character who he became famous playing- in order to find new meaning in life. The movie was hard to finance because it was an original piece and gave a strong critique about our idolization of the “superhero”. Talking to Masters it was clear Iñárritu’s greatest beef about Hollywood was with the superhero movie. He stated many of the superhero movies Hollywood is creating have no soul and are without meaning. Iñárritu compared today’s common “epic” to fast-food; it may make you feel good now but in fifteen minutes you will be vomiting. His main point was we are so addicted to gore, violence, and explosions we have lost the patience to observe human nature. Iñárritu said even his kids are uninterested in the kind of films that taught him about humanity. The very thing that attracted someone like Iñárritu to filmmaking in the first place seems to be all but irrelevant in the world we now live in.

I personally think Iñárritu’s views are a little more cynical then mine. This would make sense since Iñárritu’s in his 50’s now and has made a career out of fighting the Hollywood system to get his films made, and I am a young naive film student just venturing out into the abyss some like to call “the film business”. But none-the-less Iñárritu’s comments are worth considering.

Where Iñárritu often goes the cynical rout, with movies like Biutiful and Babel, I am more drawn to an optimistic look on life and consider optimistic filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Walt Disney, and Frank Capra to be some of my greatest role-models. These filmmakers made a living by telling stories that resonated with a wide audience. The problem Iñárritu has with most movies which resonate with a vast audience is the way these blockbusters generate their appeal. When talking about the common epic Iñárritu said, “It’s a very black and white world where there is no interest in anybody’s gray-zone or complexity”. Iñárritu has a point. The common “good vs. evil” plot we see in most wide released films has a huge impact on the way we see the world. Iñárritu believes these exaggerated extremes in movies are responsible for the “you are either for or against us” mentality most of the modern world has. We don’t see humans as real people anymore. Rather they become good or evil. There is no middle ground. You can see this black and white mindset displayed in almost every political issue out there. You are either right or left, pro-war or pacifist, for immigration or against it. And depending on where you stand on any of these issues you are either an ally or the enemy. And we all know we can’t submit an inch to “the enemy”. NO WONDER NOTHING GETS DONE AROUND HERE! However, I digress.

In order to explore humanity we need to be able to see the “gray-zone”. What frustrates me about so many of the Superhero movies coming out of late is there is never a question about the hero’s morality. Let’s take a lovable character like Wolverine for instance. The guy is a killing machine. Those bad-ass claws inevitably end up cutting into numerous people in each movie we see. I remember watching X-Men 2, one of my favorite superhero films by the way, and seeing the clawed beast back stab two soldiers, armed with tranquilizers, and leave them lifeless on the floor. There was absolutely no reference back to the incident. The bottom line is killing people is way cooler if you don’t really think about the consequences. But X-Men 2 was way back in 2003.  Studios have gone on to destroy whole cities with hardly any lip service given to the consequences after the fact.

Any kind of drama outside of the action scenes seems to be put there for the sole purpose of walking out the plot. The heroes morality is never really questioned to any extreme because the producers need to make sure the viewers’ butts are in the seats for the sequel (or should I say sequels). Iñárritu explained in his interview he was,  “fascinated by the human complexity”. The problem is “complexity” is not a bankable concept in Hollywood. The deeper we go into a characters psyche the more chance we have of pissing someone off. Though I have already stated Frank Capra is one of my favorite filmmakers, I just read an interesting article slating him for creating characters who were “larger then life”- who speak with a greater eloquence, confidence, and rhythm then anyone we would see in real life. I, along with other Capra supporters, would say Capra gave us an ideal to strive for with his characters. However, I do think the point made by his critics – that his movie over simplify the problems and over idolize the heroes- is an accurate one. Though I am willing to give those tendencies a bit of slack for the 1930’s I am truly dismayed when I look at our tendencies today and see we haven’t gotten much better. In some ways we have gotten worse. At least it felt like Capra actually believed in the ideals he expressed in his movies. Today the “ideals” and “character growth” in big blockbuster films seem like an afterthought. Iñárritu said his kids forget what most of the movies they go to were just a week or two after watching them.

The bottom line is Hollywood wants to make it’s audience happy. They want us to be entertained. It makes for good business for the client to be satisfied. The only problem is the businessman by himself can’t satisfy. The product is what the audience wants. And in the medium of film the product has become stale. We know the difference between an original and recycled product. Film is a creative medium but most of the decision makers in the “film-business” don’t come from creative backgrounds. So all their decisions end up being made on the defensive. It takes creativity to be on the offensive. The stories end up being recycled both in name (the remake of the remake) and in themes (“Oh, look at that. Another happy ending.”).

I believe the greatest point Iñárritu’s made was about the school system and how many film-schools are teaching their students how to satisfy big companies rather then teaching them how to discover who they are and how to express themselves on screen. Cinema will truly be dead when the filmmaker’s main objective is to satisfy the moneymakers rather then one’s personal vision. I am not saying filmmakers don’t need to be financially responsible with making films. Filmmaking is the ultimate collaborative medium. It can literally involve thousands of people, all of whom need to make a living. But if we begin to try to make films that satisfy everyone we will end up satisfying no one. The audience will begin to grow tired with the simplicity that comes with black and white storytelling. To be honest they already have. Theater attendance is lower then it has been for two decades. What cinema needs, what our world needs, is storytelling that explores all the shades of gray and all the colors of the rainbow.