Thursday, December 29, 2011

Musing Pictures: The Thing (1982

I'm still watching "The Thing" (though I'm welcoming the distraction of writing about it at the same time -- I find horror films fascinating, but I hate feeling scared or anxious when I watch them!)

So, out of curiosity, I'm pondering the history of movie monster autopsies. In John Carpenter's film, they're pretty gruesome, but (so far), they don't seem to involve any major scares.

Perhaps I'm reminded of the autopsy on the alien creature in "Independence Day" (1994) which doesn't go so well, as I recall.

There's also, of course, the famous postmortem on a shark in "Jaws" (1975). Not the right shark, but still pretty gross.

Thinking back a bit earlier (to a film that is undoubtedly part of the ancestry of "The Thing"), "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956) includes the slicing open not of an alien creature, but of the "pod" in which it gestates.

All of these scenes, in addition to the obvious "ick" factor, serve to underline the alien's "otherness", as if the strange exterior weren't enough to freak us out. In some cases, they serve to help us identify important weaknesses in the aliens, for when we finally do get a chance to beat 'em.

Are there other such scenes? I can't think of any directly, but there might be a few in films like "Men in Black", "Starship Troopers", etc. Know of any others, leave a comment!


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Musing Pictures: The Adventures of Tintin

There's a moment in "Tintin" that reminds me of a moment in Hitchcock's "Rear Window". (Perhaps I should warn of spoilers here, for both films, but this would be uninteresting if you haven't seen them, so see them first.)

First, in "Rear Window", the lead character solves a mystery by comparing slides (still images, photographs, frames) with what he can currently see from his window. He sees differences, changes that would not have been apparent if not for the sequence of stills. The character is a photographer, and he is metaphorically discovering the narrative power of the motion picture.

A lot has been written about this meta-cinematic expression in Hitchcock's film. Spielberg has an uncannily similar structure in "Tintin", where the hero, having finally found three mysterious parchments, discovers that when they are overlaid, one over the other, if held to the light, they reveal the coordinates of a long-hidden treasure. This is not representative of cinema in the classical sense, but "Tintin" is not a "film" in the classical sense, either.

Digitally constructed images (which make up the entirety of "Tintin", which is, effectively, a digitally animated movie) are almost always constructed in "layers". This is partially a throwback to techniques of cell animation, in which a background was painted on one transparent sheet, a character to be animated on another sheet, and any foreground on yet another sheet. The sheets would be stacked, and a photo would be taken. Then, to animate the character, the middle sheet (with the drawing of the character) would be replaced by the next drawing in the sequence. In this way, animators did not have to re-draw complex and detailed backgrounds for every frame of the film.

Digital animators do much the same thing, often with entire teams dedicated to each "layer" or component of a digital image. There are teams to build the digital "sets", teams to create and manipulate the digital "characters" (in the case of "Tintin", these teams included actors, whose performances were digitally captured to become another "layer" in the digital picture). Finally (and this is especially critical in 3D films, it seems), the stuff that floats by in the air is filled in -- dust, dirt, sand, seeds, or what have you. By layering these elements, a filmmaker forms the world, and by shining light through it (via the projector), it becomes the image that conveys meaning in today's cinema.

For Spielberg, the use of performance capture in a digitally animated film would have represented a tremendous shift from his typical tools. This is filmmaking without a camera. The entire approach to constructing such a film must is entirely different. The moment where Tintin overlays the parchments and discovers their secret is in the original story, but perhaps this is what drew Spielberg to this particular Tintin narrative? It's a metaphor for the very process Spielberg had to employ to make the film.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Musing Pictures: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Although there has been much talk of the aesthetic shifts necessitated by the new rise of 3D, I haven't heard too many people discuss another recent techno-aesthetic shift to the same extent, though it seems just as prevalent as 3D these days.

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" is in theaters this week, but not all theaters. It's playing only on extra-large IMAX screens. (I must disclose here that I do own a very small handful of IMAX stock. It'll never make me rich, but if I sell it, I'd be able to afford a TV for my living room)

An IMAX movie is not simply a blown-up, larger-than-usual projection of a regular movie (and if it is, you've been robbed, and you should get your money back). Typically, films projected in IMAX are shot (at least in part) on IMAX cameras and film stock, a larger film stock that can pack much more detail in to a scene (which means that the projected image, despite its size, is very sharp and vivid). The IMAX screen's aspect ratio is different (1.43:1, as opposed to most movies we see, which are anywhere from 1.78:1 to 2.35:1) (see: for details). Of course, IMAX is quick to point out that the sound system in the theater is also quite robust.

These are not trivial differences, not from the audience's perspective, nor from the filmmaker's.

The most dramatic difference to a filmmaker between shooting IMAX and shooting for a regular movie screen must be the change in aspect ratio. 1.43:1 is a narrower, more box-like image than the 16x9 "widescreen" TVs that we're all so familiar with these days, and much narrower than most Hollywood cinema formats. This has a huge effect on how scenes are framed and blocked -- where are the characters or objects positioned in relation to the frame of the image. Very wide aspect ratios are celebrated for the way even a close-up can include a distant horizon -- a close-up can sometimes take up only half the screen, after all (pick almost any point in "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" for examples). Square-ish images, like those seen on old TVs or even older movies (what was once called "Academy Ratio") tend to favor shots that include the entire figure -- where we can observe several people standing in conversation without feeling like we're very far away. Although the wider images seem more "cinematic" to us these days, there are plenty of fantastic movies from the first half of film's history that were shot in "Academy Ratio".

The IMAX aspect ratio, combined with the larger, finer film stock, are meant to provide viewers with an immersive visual experience. I'd be interested to speak with filmmakers who use the format about how it changes their approach to shooting their scenes. I also wonder how they approach the challenge of shooting a film for both IMAX and non-IMAX screens, where the aspect ratios are so different. The non-IMAX screens mush show cropped versions, where tops and bottoms of IMAX images are simply chopped off to re-frame scenes. This would take medium-shots and turn them in to close-ups, and it would take close-ups and turn them in to extreme-close-ups, changing the visual vocabulary of a scene, and perhaps affecting its impact dramatically.

The last scene of the film felt anemic and lacking in emotional resonance to me. It involved our central characters sitting around a table and saying the sorts of things that allow the narrative to resolve. I wonder how the scene plays out on non-IMAX screens, where it has been cropped to a wider aspect ratio. The close-ups are closer, which amplifies our characters' expressions and emotions. Does the scene falter because it's not an IMAX-appropriate scene? Because it isn't shot in an IMAX-appropriate way? Regardless, the visual "language" used on the screen felt wrong, somehow, disconnected from the content, which allowed the tone to slip and become trite and unconvincing.

That said, the film did maximize the IMAX format on a couple of occasions that really worked well. Both examples involved explosions, and utilized the extremely powerful sound systems that IMAX employs.

In one particular moment, famous now from the film's previews, the Kremlin explodes. The sequence is very, very short, and it begins with a deep, palpable vibration, a shock-wave, followed by the visuals of the building blowing up. Shock waves are neat, and they can provide for interesting visuals, but in this case, the shock wave is used not so much as a visual cue, but as an audio cue, and through that, as a physical, tangible, tactile cue. The rumble of the shock wave is so deep, it makes the entire theater shake. Timed with the shock-wave on the screen, the effect is mesmerizing, and true to the IMAX claims, totally immersive. The shock wave that we see on screen actually shakes the seat we're sitting in. It's not that it's a loud sound -- I didn't feel the need to plug my ears at all -- it's just deep and very, very powerful. There were a few other explosions in the film that achieved the same result using the same rumbling, physical sound. They helped to make tangible what the IMAX format is really capable of.

It's important to realize that IMAX is not simply a bigger screen with better speakers. It's a different exhibition format, and it demands, I think, a different cinematic approach. Filmmakers who make their films as usual, but slap them on IMAX screens to make a few extra bucks off the ticket premiums are cheating us. "Ghost Protocol" had its moments, and certainly seemed as though much of it was shot with the IMAX experience in mind, but there were some parts that didn't seem to fit. It's definitely worth seeing on an IMAX screen, but it doesn't feel like it's entirely an IMAX-worthy movie.