A Dreamer Walking

It’s A Wonderful Scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BUT WAIT! GEORGE FORGOT HIS HAT!!!

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

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

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

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

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Pupil

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on November 26, 2014
Kurosawa#4

Kurosawa (left) Yama-san (right)

After his pupil, Akira Kurosawa, had made several global hits to put Japanese Cinema on the map, Kajirô Yamamoto was asked about his contribution to his once young assistant director’s career. His reply, “All I ever taught Kurosawa was how to drink”.

Kajirô Yamamoto has been described as one of the most humble men a man could meet. Kurosawa claimed he never got angry. While the other directors at P.C.L. (the production company Yamamoto worked for) had a reputation for dictating to their cast and crew what they wanted, Yamamoto chose to go the way of the teacher. His mission was to help his pupils learn to embrace who they were. Kurosawa maintained in his book Something Like and Autobiography, written after Yamamoto’s death, that Yamamoto’s films suffered because of his willingness to allow his Assistant directors to take the reigns.

Akira Kurosawa was extremely lucky to be in the right place at the right time with Kajirô Yamamoto. From the very beginning of his life Kurosawa possessed a will of iron. This did not help him in terms of being a teachable student. He was a problem child in school often playing pranks on his peers and instructors. He hated the majority of his teachers. In the mid 1930’s after just a few months of working for P.C.L. Kurosawa had it in his mind to quite. His career almost ended before it even began. The directors he worked for before Yama-san, as Akira called him, were control freaks and made Kurosawa do things he was completely uninterested in continuing. Yet Kurosawa’s friends convinced him to take another assignment assisting Kajirô Yamamoto. It’s because of Yama-san’s mentorship the young filmmaker flourished.

With Yama-san Kurosawa quickly climbed the ladder from third assistant director to chief assistant director. He was even put in charge of second-unit directing, editing, and dubbing many of Yama-san’ movies. Unlike most of his peers, Yama-san had a desire to involve his assistant directors creatively in how they wrote, shot, and edited his films. Yama-san and Kurosawa’s personalities could not be farther apart. Where Kurosawa directed with purpose and precise vision, Yama-san was completely reliant on others to give him inspiration and try new things. Where Kurosawa had a persona of great authority Yama-san had a persona of a humble professor who was more interested in his students then himself or even his films. Kurosawa maintained Yama-san would let his assistant directors do things he could do better in order for them to learn.  He would even use second-unit footage he didn’t like so he could bring his assistant directors to the theaters and point out how the audience reacted to the shots and suggest ways it might be shot better the next time.

Like any good teacher Yama-san was great at seeing his pupils strengths. He quickly realized one of Kurosawa’s strengths was in understanding story. It was not too long before he began to encourage his young pupil to write. He would play a game with his assistants while traveling to a location shoot where they would create a short story on a specific theme. Yama-san taught his young disciples how to read literature critically and think about what the author was trying to say and how he or she was saying it. Filmmaking is a visual medium and Yama-san taught Kurosawa how to paint a picture with words. Kurosawa said he learned a tremendous amount from Yama-san over alcohol. Yama-san had a vast range of interests and would go into detail about them. This allowed Kurosawa to understand the key part in creating great stories was through experiencing life and finding a way to translate one’s personal perspective onto the screen.

Kurosawa realized even before Yama-san that the edit was “the process of breathing life into the work”. However, like many beginning filmmakers Kurosawa had the tendency to put too much value on the shots he labored over to create. In the cutting room Yama-san’s greatest lesson about editing  was how to look at ones work objectively. Yama-san cut film so there was no excess. There are curtain scenes and shots directors feel they must have and they spend a tedious amount of time creating those scenes.  In the editing room you begin to see a film in a completely different light. After shooting a film there is usually hundreds of hours of footage to choose from. Yet in the end these hundreds of hours need to be cut down to one or two hours of a final film. Yama-san would go into the editing room with a joyful look on his face and completely change the structure of a scene or sequence after a night of thinking about it. In order to find and keep the best footage for the story being told you need to be fearless in how you choose to cut. Kurosawa described Yama-san as a “bona-fide mass murderer” in the cutting room. By embracing this mindset Kurosawa became one of the greatest editors the world has ever seen.

The place Yama-san helped Kurosawa the most was in how to work with actors. Kurosawa described himself as “short-tempered and obstinate”. This kind of mindset does not work well with insecure actors. Yama-san made Kurosawa realize one can not demand a specific performance from his actors. He claimed, “If you as director try to drag an actor by force to where you want him, he can only get halfway there. Push him in the direction he wants to go, and make him do twice as much as he was thinking of doing.” It’s obvious Kurosawa embraced this philosophy. There is no better example then his collaboration with Toshirô Mifune who played some of the most iconic roles in Kurosawa’s films and was allowed enough freedom to redefine Japanese acting.

In his book Kurosawa said the best proof of Yama-san’s skill as a teacher was none of the work of his “disciples” resembled his. Kurosawa wrote, “He made sure to do nothing to restrict his assistant directors, but rather encouraged their individual qualities to grow”. This I believe is the definition to what it means to teach. Kurosawa would not have made the movies he has been so acclaimed for if it weren’t for a selfless man who was willing to take him under his wing. In many ways Yama-san was capable of doing something far greater then Kurosawa. Kurosawa had vision and he had a complete confidence in himself to make his vision become a reality. However, Yama-san had a heart of a teacher. He saw a young artist and had enough confidence in him to devote his time and sacrifice his own work in order to help the student become the master.

WALL-E – Old Vs. New

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on September 16, 2014

Wall-E #2

With Pixar’s WALL-E director Andrew Stanton wanted to create a sort of look that made one think the movie was filmed in the 1970’s.  This honestly was a tough goal to set since animated movies are not “filmed” they are shot in a computer, and to be honest there weren’t very many computers in the 70’s. Film is so loved by so many because of it’s inherent flaws. Things like lens flairs, grain in the image, and scratches on the celluloid are all technically flaws in film yet are now considered some of what makes it so special. It’s loved so much in-fact the leading edge in digital technology tries to reproduce the same kinds of “flaws” in their newest cameras. Stanton had a whole team try to reproduce the filmic look for his movie WALL-E. He even went as far as recreating actual live action footage of certain scenes they were doing in the computer so the technicians could see the difference between the imagery captured in camera with celluloid and that shot in the computer.

The story of WALL-E lends itself to this idea of bringing a classic look to a new medium. In the movie we follow an eight hundred year old robot, Wall-E, around his world where his main function is to pick up trash. Everything about Wall-E’s design and texture represents an old fashion look which is directly contrasted with his love interest, Eve. As you can see in the image above Eve has a oval design with very few mechanisms. The true magic of this relationship is how well Stanton and his team were able to make the two opposites seem so perfect for each other. You need to go no further then the scene where Wall-E introduces Eve to his home to see just how well these opposites work cinematically.

Some have called WALL-E an anti technology movie with a preachy message about saving the environment.  However, I believe Andrew Stanton when he says he only went the environmental route because that’s where the story took him. His goal was not to make people hate the new and love the old. His objective was to create a story where two very different perspectives met and found balance. In fact it took something new coming into Wall-E’s life for him to find meaning. But more on that in another post.

Stanton went farther back then just the 1970’s for inspiration for his movie. He and the Pixar artists would watch old silent classics from the early 1930’s and before. They studied silent comedians such as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and of course Charlie Chaplin. After studying these great filmmakers Stanton said he realized Pixar didn’t know anything. The idea that some of the best stories in our history were told without sophisticated special effects, flashy cameras, or sound blew the Pixar artists away. They made it their goal to recreate the magic they saw in the best silent films. In the first act of WALL-E there is hardly a line of dialogue heard. Rather, we discover Wall-E’s soul through a magnificent set of sound effects produced by Ben Burtt, who is best known for his work on the original Star Wars trilogy, and by the masterful work of all the Pixar animators who took the silent movies Stanton showed to heart.

In the end we have a movie in WALL-E that not only makes us laugh but also makes us care. We don’t care about seeing the environment around Wall-E change because of some liberal agenda, we want it to change because we get a glimpse of what “unplugging” and cherishing our world could do for the health of our personal souls. Those who think WALL-E is anti technology seem to forget the movie stars two robots. The best of Pixar is about balancing the new with the old. Pixar is known for being the leading edge in digital technology. They are famous for creating the first computer animated film in history, Toy Story (1995). However, the majority of their films are special because the technology is only there to enhance their stories. And, their stories revolve around themes that are as old as time itself.

A big debate is going on in the film industry today about the transition from film to digital technology. Celluloid is going extinct. There are fewer and fewer companies around who are able to process the film so it could be projected on the big screen. Some filmmakers, such as the famous Quentin Tarantino, have threatened to quite the film profession altogether if true “film” is taken away. The bottom line however is filmmaking is bigger than the stuff you use to shoot the picture. And as I said at the beginning of this post, the companies making cameras today have not overlooked the public’s love for the look that comes from the old classics of the 1970’s and before. Just like Wall-E and Eve, eventually the film industry will find a balance.

Free Film School!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on August 4, 2014

I am sad to announce I am taking a blog break. I know it probably looks like I already took a blog break. I mean come on! I was on such a role for a while posting a paper every week or less for several months. But then summer came. The time I was supposed to be the least busy I ended up doing a bunch of things. Only half of the stuff I ended up doing was really productive, but the bottom line is I have really let down the few followers I have for this blog and I do apologize for that.

So I will be taking the rest of the month off and then try to maintain a post a week from the beginning of September to the foreseeable future. I thought I would leave you guys however with a bunch of links to really productive information and study material for those interested in the foundations of film and storytelling.

Filmmaking:

  • Cinephilia and Beyond: This might be the most valuable resource out there for all things film. Cinephilia is on a unstoppable mission to find as many interviews, articles, and documentaries on filmmaking around the internet. If you have a particular filmmaker in mind just do a search on Cinephilia’s site and you will most likely find a huge archive of information. P.S. you should also follow Cinephilia on Twitter!
  • DP/30: My advice is for you go get a pen and paper and start taking notes on interviews. David Poland has been able to accumulate hundreds of hours worth of interviews of some of the biggest names out there. His subjects range from actors, writers, directors, and sometimes a popular Cinematographer or Editor. Because of the length of his interviews (majority of them going 30 min or longer) Poland is able to go into much more depth then an average interview has time for. Poland studied filmmaking in collage and has a deep knowledge of it’s history which only helps raise his interviews to another level.
  • The Treatment: Elvis Mitchell is yet another great interviewer who is determined to go beyond the common insights a writer or director gives in most of their interviews. You can also find Elvis’ more recent interviews free on iTunes.
  • 35 MM: Here is a Vimeo group that collects tones of Vimeo videos dealing with film. These are a little more hit-or-miss but there are certainly some gems worth looking into.
  • Steven Benedict Podcast: How this guy isn’t known by every cinephile out there is beyond me. Though considerably short compared to other material I linked to, Benedict is a true student of film and gives deep insights on each one of the movies he goes into. My suggestion is you download his podcasts on iTunes and listen to them while on your way to work or something.
  • [micro] TUTORIALS: Here you can find a vast archive of film production tutorials. [micro] is determined to provide you with a wealthy amount of free information to get started in digital filmmaking. Their subject matter ranges from pre-production through post-production and will give the beginning film student many hours worth of material to study in order to make his or her first film.

Animation:

  • Deja View: This is the sight of the famous animator Andreas Deja. His knowledge of animation history (especially Disney’s history) is superb. As the lead animator for classic characters like Jafar from Aladdin, Scare from The Lion King, and Lilo from Lilo and Stitch its obvious he has a vast understanding of the principles of animation and with everyone of his posts he goes into more and more detail about those principles and the animators responsible for creating them.
  • Temple of The Seven Golden Camels: The author of this blog, Mark Kennedy, is a storyboard artist for Disney Animation. Unlike most animator blogs I visit, Kennedy is determined to go into detail about the nuances of telling good stories. His focus usually is storyboarding which basically means he goes into all kinds of different principles of animation- staging, costuming, action, design, etc… Though sometimes long winded it’s obvious Kennedy knows his subject matter and he provides valuable insight in each one of his posts.
  • Splog: Sadly this blog hasn’t been updated since February. However, I am sure you will find enough in the archives to keep you busy for several months. Michael Sporn and his artists give a much more well rounded example of the history of Animation and many of the blog’s posts go into great detail about well known and long lost pieces of animation through out it’s rich history.
  • Podcasts: Rather then pick one of these I thought I would just link to several of them. Here are several valuable podcasts on animation I have listened to through out the years. Each one features interviews of people working in the field of animation and are quite valuable for anyone interested in going into the field themselves. I will post the links to their sites but the majority of the podcasts can be found also on iTunes. 1. The Animation Podcast 2. Spline Doctors 3. Speaking of Animation 4. iAnimate.

Writing:

  • Writing Excuses: Each fifteen minute podcast carries a wealth of information about writing and story structure. The podcast is also extremely entertaining and quite humerus. The four hosts are all well known authors and have a great chemistry with each other. They are usually able to cover a lot of ground with the little time they have. The podcast has also been around since 2008 and thus has a huge archive. I suggest you subscribe to their iTunes page; they post a podcast consistently every week.
  • The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith: Here you will find interviews all kinds of writers across the medium of film. Jeff Goldsmith is a wonderful interviewer with a great upbeat attitude. Best of all is he knows story and the questions he asks are always informative and allow us deeper into the creation process. His lengthy archive can be found on iTunes as well.
  • Scriptnotes: John August and Craig Mazin are two established screenwriters in Hollywood and every week come out with a full hour long podcast covering all things writing. The two personalities work wonderfully with each other and they also at times have guests who share their personal insights on how to be a screenwriter in the daunting world of Hollywood. Not only do these guys have good screenwriting advice they go into the politics of working in Hollywood. Here is the link to their iTunes page.

Film Criticism:

  • The /Filmcast: This is one of the most enjoyable podcasts I listen to weekly. The hosts, David Chen, Devindra Hardawar, and Jeff Cannata are all bonafide film geeks who love talking movies. David Chen is one of the best hosts out there; someone who can just be himself while keeping a strong grasp on the conversation so it doesn’t get out of hand. I listen to these guys more for entertainment, but occasionally they can provide some fantastic insight on the film premiering that week. And due to their “What have you been watching?” segment I occasionally hear about a really interesting film I would never have discovered on my own. The best way to listen to these guys is via iTunes.
  • Filmspotting: This is the modern day version of Siskel and Ebert. Though maybe not quite as oppositional and competitive the two hosts, Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen, do a wonderful job expressing their thoughts on the latest movie of the week. Rather then go with the typical blockbuster Adam and Josh usually concentrate on more Independent films. A common visitor of the podcast is the famous critic Michael Phillips who was also a common visitor on Roger Ebert’s Ebert Presents show. The show is now known for ending with their top 5 list which allows the audience in on just how vast these critics knowledge of filmmaking is. This is by far the podcast with the largest archive, just recently celebrating it’s 500th episode. This is also a great podcast to listen to on iTunes.

Well there you have it. These links have turned out to be invaluable in my pursuit to becoming a great storyteller. It’s just a small example of how much you can learn for free outside the realm of a collage. I hope you enjoy and feel free to leave a comment if you have links to more valuable filmmaking resources!

Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy – Screenwriters – 127 Hours

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 29, 2014

Danny Boyle

I am not posting this to talk about how great of a visual it is. Although I want to point out really quickly how director Danny Boyle is using the rule of thirds in the way he frames this piece. The main character Aron is placed perfectly at the right third of the frame and his eyes are at the top third of the frame which is considered the most pleasing visual placement a character could be placed. Our eyes go to him right away. The digital camera screen also represents another framing device to focus us.

The reason for posting this image is to talk about how brilliant of a writing device Aron’s digital camera was for telling the story of 127 Hours (2010). For those who don’t know 127 Hours is a movie based on a true story about Aron Ralston who got his arm wedged between two rocks in the Utah Canyons. Most of the movie takes place with just Aron trying to get out of the nasty situation he found himself in. This kind of situation sounds very un-cinematic really and would be a hard sell for a studio to finance. The only reason Danny Boyle and writer Simon Beaufoy were able to get the financing is because they had both just earned a huge box office an Oscars for their last movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008). This movie could have easily have become boring in a hurry. Most of it revolves around just one character who is stuck in one place. Audiences usually rely on changing environments and character interactions to boost their interest. Danny Boyle and his crew needed to find a way to keep this situation interesting and let us know what is going on inside Aron’s head. Where in most situations the audience can get a clue about the psyche of a character through how he or she interacts with other characters Aron is by himself. Thus in comes the digital camera.

The digital camera is actually an item the real Aron had when he got stuck. The writers Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy were able to see some of the videos Aron had shot from his time stuck in the canyon. However, Boyle and Beaufoy were less interested in re-shooting exact footage of what Aron shot and more interested in using the digital camera as a tool to tell their story. During the movie Aron begins to turn on the camera periodically to give updates of his situation. We are first exposed to Aron’s more practical side. He explains how he has tried to get out, how his body is feeling, and how much water he has left. After a time Aron begins to go inward. He begins to talk about how stupid he was to not leave a note for where he was going. He begins to explore the idea he might not get out alive and uses the camera to express some of his regrets and say his final goodbyes. By doing this we get inside Aron’s head and are able to track his arc. The more malnourished Aron gets the more vulnerable he is with the audience. When he is giving his updates Aron is staring the audience directly in the face. The term used when a character does this is breaking the fourth wall. By doing this a special connection is created between the audience and Aron. The brilliant thing is the writers found a way to break the fourth wall without making us feel their main character is addressing an alternate universe like you see in most movies where they break the fourth wall – such as House of Cards and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Beaufoy said they would not be able to tell the story if they didn’t have Aron’s digital camera. The logs Aron makes serve so many different purposes. We also see the camera’s battery slowly going down suggesting there is only a limited time Aron has left. The great thing about movies like 127 Hours is it forces you to think outside the box. The goal is to allow the audience in so they can feel they are part of the Story. With Aron’s digital camera we were able to see Aron at his most vulnerable. It just goes to show working with limitations can be the inspiration for the most creative solutions.

An Animation Lesson from a Non-Animator

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 10, 2014

I must say I do not like using long titles. But this title I believe is very much needed to let you know what this post is about. The reality is I am not an animator. I really don’t plan on becoming one. Even though I am one of animations greatest fans I just don’t think I have the talent to bring drawings or models in a computer to life. Animating is truly one of the greatest magic tricks out there. To fool someone into thinking several drawings flashed in-front of you can create the illusion of movement, and at times life, leaves me speechless. I truly have no words for the wonder it creates in me. As the great animator Richard Williams once said, “I picked the most expensive medium that takes the longest time that you [could pick]. And the reward is you can play God. You can do anything you like with it. You have total control of all the elements.”. This is what makes animation so intoxicating. The medium’s only limits are of ones imagination.

The lesson I wanted to give is really only a retelling of a lesson I heard from an artist who actually did animation. I was listening to The iAnimate Podcast – A podcast that interviews animation artists who work in the film industry – and they were interviewing the Dreamworks animator Tal Shwarzman (check out his blog here). He brought up a frustration he had with the animation he is seeing from many of the young animators today. He claimed young animators are becoming really good at moving stuff around but are not putting any personality or uniqueness into their work. He said, “Everything kind of looks the same”, which I would say is the ultimate slight an animator could give to his peers. The problem is I agree with Shwarzman. I have not seen anywhere close to as many animation show reels as Shwarzman but in the animation on TV and in many feature films I see less individuality. With the development of technology animation is able to do more then ever before, yet rarely do you see a scene that rivals the works of great animators of the past, like Bill Tyltla or Milt Kahl.

What is the special ingredient so many animators seem to be missing today? Honestly there is no one answer. But the interviewers from iAnimate brought up the story of Ollie Johnston telling his pupil Glen Keane a piece of Rapunzel animation he showed him looked well processed but didn’t really entertain him. Now you should know Ollie Johnston was an animator from the 1930’s and worked characters such as Pinocchio, Thumper, and Baloo. Glen Keane had been the lead animator for characters such as Ariel and The Beast. However, the interviewers sort of left the story there. I don’t know if they knew about what Ollie Johnston really told Glen Kean. However, I know what he said and believe it is one of the greatest pieces of  advice an animator could be given.

During the production of Tangled Ollie Johnston was in his nineties. He was not in good health and his best friend, Frank Thomas, who had worked with him through out his long forty plus year career at Disney had already passed away. Glen Keane was mentored by Ollie Johnston when he first joined the studio in the late 1970’s. Now in the mid 2000’s he had been developing the movie Rapunzel (which would eventually be changed to Tangled). At this time Ollie was in very frail condition. He could no longer walk and had lost his ability to draw. His old apprentice needed to take him in a wheelchair back to the animation studios. Keane showed some of the things they had been developing to his old mentor. He talked about how excited he was with the benefits of working with computer generated animation. He pointed out the way the computer calculated Rapunzel’s freckles so they would stay on her face no matter where she was moved. He showed Ollie how well the animation worked in three dimensions and showed him how the computer could capture the smallest details in movement and texture. He showed Ollie Johnston several well executed pieces of animation and was excited about seeing his old mentor’s reaction. You can only imagine Keane’s surprise when he looked over and Ollie didn’t seem to be entertained by what he was shown. Maybe it was because Ollie was old and senile. Maybe it was because Ollie wasn’t up with the times. Eventually Keane asked what was wrong. The old animator whispered, “What is she thinking?”

Of course with all the excitement for this new form of animation Glen Keane forgot one of his teacher’s greatest lessons. He was so entranced by what was possible on the outside he forgot to care about what was happening on the inside. The illusion of life is only created in a piece of animation if you believe the character can think and feel. The beauty of the movement or the clarity of the world means nothing if the characters don’t have any inner life. Go back and watch the animation of Thumper repeating the lessons he was given from his farther, Pinocchio trying to explain how he got into Stromboli’s cage to the Blue Fairy, or when Baloo realizes he needs to take Mowgli back to the man village. The movements in those scenes are usually subtle yet speak volumes about the characters. When listening to animators like Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston talk about the characters they animated in the past they don’t describe them as drawings. They describe them as children who took on a life of their own when the animator finished animating them.  As important as squash and stretch, timing, staging, anticipation, overlap action, and the other principles of animation are, what is most important in creating the ultimate illusion of life is the belief your character is alive.

Akira Kurosawa – An Observation – The Past

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on December 30, 2013

Akira 1One of the filmmakers I have been most reluctant to study is Akira Kurosawa. Not because he isn’t worth looking into, rather because he is considered such a legend in the great history of filmmaking. He is also the first foreign language director I have studied. The culture of Japan is much different then that of the United States. As a dyslexic who can’t read very fast it has been hard for me to watch some of his films. I hate reading subtitles because I need to pause at times and am hardly able to look up and cherish the visuals unless I do repeat viewings. However, with all these problems studying him has been completely worthwhile. Every movie I have seen is interesting. Three of his films, Ran, Red Beard and Ikiru, are among the greatest films I have ever watched.

Akira Kurosawa was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. He is hailed as a master of the craft of cinema. Many filmmakers have said he is a film school in himself. They say if you want to know about film study Kurosawa. However, Kurosawa would tell you to study the world. He studied the great artists– the filmmakers, poets, and musicians– and allowed them to inform his stories and the way he told them. He also used his personal life to push his storytelling.

As with many of the filmmakers I have studied, school was not Kurosawa’s strong suite. In his biography, Something Like An Autobiography, Kurosawa described himself as too honest and rebellious in school. He said when he did something bad and the teacher asked who did it he would always raise his hand. He talked about giving snarky answers on his exams, forging papers so he could get out of activities, and messing around with dynamite in school. He never got the best grades. He never really cared enough to apply himself in school. When it came to art Akira said the teachers gave the best grade to the student who could copy something the best. He found this incredibly dull. The more I read about his childhood the more I can resonate with it. Kurosawa wasn’t the greatest athlete. He was even sent away after his third year of middle school to his older cousin’s to, as his father put it, “be cured of his physical weakness”.

Cinema was chosen by Kurosawa out of an overwhelming feeling of not belonging. His movies for the longest time concentrated on the outsider, people breaking away from the system. In Japan movies were considered extremely questionable when Kurosawa was a child in the 1910’s and 20’s. Yet, his military father took him to see many films. This was one of the few things his farther broke from tradition to do. I believe there was a tremendous strain between Akira and his father. The strain was great because Akira so badly wanted to be like him and earn his respect. Kurosawa had three sisters. He said he could relate with them way more than his older brother. He played games with them and was much more emotionally vulnerable with them then his brother and father.  Akira lost one of his sisters to illness when he was in fourth grade. His autobiography reveals he had great feelings for this sister and it was a deeply painful loss.

In middle school Kurosawa began to grow up quickly. He observed the great earthquake of 1923. Though nobody close to him was killed his brother took him out to the city and both of them observed the mass damages. He said they went one place where as far as you could see there was, “every type of corpse imaginable”. Akira’s brother ended up committing suicide when Akira was in his early twenties. These things along with the great destruction of the atomic bombs in the 1940’s gives great insight to why Kurosawa’s stories so often revolve around destruction and war. Kurosawa needed to grow up quickly and he began to apply himself physically and built up an appreciation for athletics, military, and discipline.

Through the midst of all the destruction and war Kurosawa has been able to retain a powerful grip on his films emotions and the inner journey of his characters. The plots of his films are only used to dig deeper into his characters emotional conflict. This is what separates his work. Though Akira Kurosawa was forced go grow up at a very early age, he never lost touch with his emotions. This might be due to the fact he developed a relationship with his sisters. It might be due to wanting to reach out to his father. Akira said in his autobiography he believed his father was an sentimentalist at heart. One of the places where his father seemed to be willing to open himself up was in the movie theater. I can see Akira trying to reach that sentimental side of his father with his movies. I can easily say he did it with me.

The Films of Kurosawa touch on powerful inner conflicts. I am constantly stricken by how universal the themes in these conflicts are. Yet they originated from personal memories. It was Kurosawa who said, “Creation is memory”. He believed as artists we must hold on to the present and the past in order to inform our future. As with the great John Ford, in Kurosawa’s later films you see a tremendous desire to hold on to what once was. The great filmmakers have this desire because the past is where their great memories rest and where their greatest creations originate.

The Quiet Moments

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on December 22, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 7.57.16 AMI am just as big a fan of the epic moments in film as the next person. They are why I first thought I wanted to make movies. There were those moments that truly felt like they were bigger then life– Mr. Smith’s filibuster on the senate floor, Col. Shaw’s men charging up the hill of Fort Wagner, Bambi saving Faline from the hunters and escaping the fiery forest with his father– All these epic scenes played a crucial role in me wanting to become a filmmaker. However, other movies with truly epic moments don’t have the same impact. Look at Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise.  He seems to have several dozen shots in his movies where we see huge explosions, robots kicking each other’s asses, and more explosions. I mean the epic moments and the half-naked woman are why people usually go to Michael Bay films. And man do his films have an audience; Transformers is a billion dollar franchise. I am blown away by some of the shots in those films. Yet, you will have a hard time finding anyone who calls Michael Bay a great director or any of his films memorable. In critical circles his films are compared mostly to junk food. They taste really good when you first sit down to see them, but they end up leaving you wanting more. In short, they create a high but not for long and the only way you can get the high again is if you consume even more explosions and special effects the next time around.

Michael Bay is not the only director who knows how to film things exploding. Almost every trailer I see before a mainstream movie has tons of shots feasting our eyes with huge visual effects, over the top scores and sound effects, and massive amounts of cutting. It’s like the film industry heard we like cake so now they are loading them up and stuffing our face with them. We hardly have time to enjoy one piece before another piece is stuffed into our mouth. It’s making me sick. When I go to movies with my mom she often looks away because the cutting in the trailers overwhelms her. When I go to the movies with my friend she needs to cover her ears during the previews because the trailers are so overloaded with sound effects and over the top scores. This isn’t just a personal problem. The theater is attracting fewer and fewer people. We are seeing the television ratings explode while more and more theater seats are left empty.

One big problem we see in the film industry is a lack of trust in their audience. The powers that be in the movie business do not think audiences are capable of appreciating a trailer without a grand score and butt loads of special effects. They treat you like children and think you will only appreciate something if you are constantly stimulated by a bunch of lights flashing and noises going off. The blockbuster of today cannot sit still; the camera is always moving and we experience dozens of cuts every minute. No longer do we feel suspense in film. No longer are the characters the focus of the blockbuster. No longer are we given the time to appreciate the quiet moments.

Intimacy is found in the moments between the actions. The small moments in film are our true connections. Think of any family event, if you are married think about your honeymoon, or think of a personal adventure you have gone on, what are your fondest memories from those events? My guess is they have more to do with the small things; the personal problems you overcome and the relationships you create. The same goes with film. The main moment I remember from Mr. Smith’s filibuster is the image I chose for this blog, when Mr. Smith whispers, “I guess this is just another lost cause Mr. Paine”. This moment actually comes after Mr. Smith has been defeated and shown all the mail asking him to stop the filibuster. The moment I was most impacted by in Glory was right before the soldiers charged the hill. The music didn’t come in yet and most of the sound went away. In Bambi I remember seeing Bambi jump across the great divide and get shot in mid-air. I remember as a child looking at his lifeless body on the ground. The instant the motion stopped is when I was most entranced. His father shows up. All he says is “Get up”. Bambi slowly getting on his feet made me more excited than any of the action before or after.

We remember these quite moments in film because they speak to the heart the loudest. They are the things we can really relate to. We have no context for big robots blowing each other up. We have no reason to invest ourselves into those kinds of things. My body was never made to live off of the high moments in life or in movies any more than it was made to live off of cake. Film has always been a personal medium. There is nothing more spiritually satisfying to me then having a group of strangers in a theater cry together, or more accurately share the same feeling. Great action can be replicated by other filmmakers the emotions of your heart cannot. To get to these moments filmmakers need to look inside themselves and be willing to bring to screen their most intimate thoughts and feelings. They need to be willing to trust the audience to celebrate the quietness in your film. The reasons for the grand battles and the great stands need to become most important. If you are able to do this, your movie will live forever.

Breaking Bad- The Nobody

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on October 9, 2013

As I said in my last Breaking Bad post the character Walter White has been hailed as one of the greatest characters to come to the small screen. Some of you who haven’t seen the series might want to know who Walter White is? Well you are looking at him. Right there in the corner of the frame. He is minding his own business grading some papers from his chemistry class. At this time in the story he is a man who obeys the law. He doesn’t step on anyone’s toes, never complains, and isn’t valued. Walter White is the definition of a nobody.

There are many examples of nobodies in film. Whether it be Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Todd Anderson in Dead Poets Society, or Walter White in Breaking Bad, these character’s role in society as being ignored and their own low opinion of themselves serves the same narrative purpose though their arcs can be vastly different. Most of the time characters don’t stay as one type through out a story. In Dead Poets Society the whole story revolves around Todd finding his voice and standing up for himself. Because Breaking Bad is a television series the creators have a lot of time to work on Walter’s arc and he goes through several character types during the five-season duration of the show.

So why does Walter White start out as a nobody? One of the greatest things gained in using a nobody character type is sympathy. The majority of nobodies in storytelling are denied by society but understood by the viewer. The audience sympathizes with their situation because they are shown how the nobody became who he or she was and they have the tendency to root for the outsider. While safe in our home reading a book or going with a friend to watch a movie at the theater, we are at our most relaxed and accepting. This allows us to be open to fiction and accepting of it’s characters in a way we aren’t in real life. Walter White is doing nothing wrong at the beginning of Breaking Bad. He is a good man who cares deeply for his family. He works hard and hardly has anything to show for it. He finds out he has cancer and yet cannot bring himself to tell his family. The audience can’t help but see themselves in Walt’s role. We all know how it feels to be denied, how it feels to be invisible in the middle of a crowd. In many ways we all are nobodies; only noticed by a select few in a world populated by billions.

The nobody starts at the very bottom. This is an immediate set up for great drama. Starting at the very bottom makes any obstacles tougher. The nobody isn’t the the leader. He isn’t even the solider. He is the peasant. Unlike with the fallen hero or diamond in the rough character type there is no great expectation from the audience for the nobody to able to get to the top. Every step the nobody makes to get up the mountain is considered substantial. Much of the drama comes from going against the audiences and other characters expectations through having the nobody do things no one saw coming. One of the greatest points of interest in Breaking Bad is the fact that Walter White chooses to make meth. This fascinates even the most conservative of audience. It’s something dangerous, against character type, and illegal, which all helps create great drama. Walter’s colors are all the more brighter because we have never seen them shine before. Heck, we never knew he could be colorful. Whether what he is doing is good or bad we are interested because he is a virgin to action.

Drama also comes from the nobody’s self conflict. Not only does the world think little of them at the beginning of the story they don’t think much of themselves. This creates an emotional barrier the character needs to overcome. A big theme through out Breaking Bad is Walter White’s personal view of who he is. There are many times where he is self-destructive and does truly evil things because he seems to have given up on himself. There are other times where we can see him overcome his self-doubt and do some great things. As audience members we cannot see emotional conflict at work without action. Both the physical and emotional obstacles of a character should be linked. We are just as interested in the emotional reasons for Walt cooking meth as the physical ones. Cooking meth goes beyond the physical needs of making money. It is the first thing Walt does in the series that makes him feel alive. He believes he makes the best product out there. He knows cooking meth will provide for his family. And he is working with chemistry; the medium he loves the most.

The nobody is one of the most compelling character types because there is no inherent foreshadow of who they will become. Walter White starts out as a big question mark. At the beginning of Breaking Bad we don’t see Walt in any kind of power. We don’t know if he has ever been loved or if he truly had a goal for his life. This gives the storyteller a blank canvas to work with. With this canvas the storytellers of Breaking Bad were able to paint a masterpiece that changed the face of television.

Hamburgers and Hotdogs

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on June 27, 2013

Many of my friends give me a hard time about my simplistic choice in foods. I am perfectly fine with eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich seven times a week for lunch. For dinner I want a little variety. I mean seven days of just pizza would get a little old. I would like to have a hamburger every once in a while and maybe some chicken wings on special occasions. Keep in mind the hamburger must be plain and if the pizza has more then just peperoni I am likely to throw it out. Let’s just thank the gods we have more sophisticated eaters then me. Cooking is an art form and there are people who spend their whole lives working on making new types of dishes for the eater to enjoy.

If you are a follower of my blog right about now you might be wondering if someone hijacked it. This blog is about storytelling and filmmaking, not food. However, it is easy to equate a good chef to a good filmmaker. Both are often described as artists and both profession’s main purpose is to satisfy the audience. However the audience is not always the best judge of what they want. As audience members we usually tend to fall back on what we already know. I say my favorite food is pizza because I don’t know any better. I have tasted but a small fraction of what is out there, yet rarely am I willing to venture out and eat something different.

The executive producers of the movie business know that we as audiences want something we are familiar with. And that is what they give us. We are given the same kind of love stories, with the same kind of action sequences, and the same kind of heroes again and again. Why should we expect anything else when sequels and reboots are making the most money? Look at the top five grossing movies of this year (2013), all are either sequels or reboots. Today’s audience is asking for the ordinary even though the medium has never been more able to give us the extraordinary. We have greater artists in the medium of film today then we have ever had.

It’s as if we have the greatest chefs in the world at our disposal and all we have them make is hamburgers and hotdogs. Sure they could make some damn good hamburgers and hotdogs, yet their talents are for the most part wasted. At the end of the day it is the audience who calls the shots. We choose what the industry makes. How long will it take for us to get tired of seeing the same kind of characters and knowing the ending of the movie far before the story is finished? Are we going to be willing to go outside our comfort zone? Will we dare to discover something new; something that could give us a greater insight to our lives and this world?

I am entering the medium of film knowing the audience wants a curtain type of movie. I will appease the audience and follow the narrow guidelines they require me to walk. I am willing to do this because I have seen artists do great things with a limited amount of creative freedom. But I will not continuously retread common ground. I will give you my version of the hamburger and then I am moving on. I want to experience new foods and new ingredients. I want you to experience something new as well. Shakespeare was not the last original storyteller, just as the hamburger, in all its glory, is not the greatest culinary achievement.