Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Musing Pictures: Take Me Home (2011)

I just caught this sweet indie on Netflix -- my wife picked it, and neither of us knew what to expect.  "Take me Home" is not the only independent rom-com we've watched recently, but it stands out as a reminder of what movies (independent or otherwise) can accomplish.

A professor of mine from Brandeis, William Flesch, studies the "darwinian" evolution of stories.  Very roughly, he suggests that the stories that survive longest are the ones that somehow beg to be re-told.  From there, the analysis gets complicated, as he dives in to what goes in to such a story, and why it works.

Since first hearing about this theory, I began taking note of what stories have that effect on me.  When I was first bitten by the film bug, around age ten, "Jurassic Park" overwhelmed me in this way.  I wanted the story told to me over and over (I saw the film twice in theaters, and dozens of times on VHS at home), and I wanted it told in more than one way (I read and re-read Crichton's book until it was tattered, listened to the soundtrack until the tape got thin).  I told my friends about it, and since I couldn't tell the story in quite the same way, recommended they see the film, read the book, and thereby receive it themselves.

Now that I'm expecting my first child (due in three days, in fact!) I'm recalling other stories, other narratives that I feel an urge and an eagerness to share.  Books and movies that were important to me as a child become a part of what excites me about parenting: I may soon get to share those books and movies with my own kid.

But since I discovered my own interest in filmmaking, in telling stories rather than just receiving them, I've found myself in an unusual position of power.  I don't have to pass the stories along any more.  I can, to an extent, participate actively in their re-telling.

I had that sensation strongly when I saw Barry Levenson's "Sphere" back in '98.  I had loved the book and recommended it to friends (a good story, demanding to be re-told), and had high hopes for the movie version.  I was very disappointed, and decided (without irony, in the way a high-schooler dreams of conquering the world) that I'd re-make it someday, and that I'd simply have to do a better job.  It wasn't that I felt I could get rich or famous in the process.  The story simply hadn't been re-told well enough.

Sometimes, my response is subtler, as is the case with "Take Me Home".  I'm writing about the film, partly, because I think it merits being seen (it's a story worth re-telling), but partly because it feels like the kind of story I want to tell.  I don't feel a need to re-make the film (it's good enough as it is, after all), but there's something in the underlying structure of the story, something more basic that speaks to me, and that wants to find new expression through my work.  Perhaps this is where my professor's analysis might come in handy, dissecting the narrative for its evolutionarily selected genes?

But ultimately, I think that's a big part of my journey as an artist and a storyteller, to find the story I need to tell, and to do what I can to tell it.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Musing Pictures: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

This is the future of cinema, whether you like it or not.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the first major film ever shot and released in a format with a frame rate significantly higher than cinema's traditional 24 frames per second. Effects wizard Douglas Trumbull experimented with high frame rate technology in the '70s, creating the proprietary Showscan format, but was never able to utilize it in a feature film.

When a selection of critics and tech geeks got a chance to preview a scene from "The Hobbit" in this new, 48 frames per second format, the response was mixed at best. Many complained that it looked too much like daytime TV, or like a soap opera, and not enough like the cinematic experience it was supposed to be. I have to say, I agree, but only to a point.

There are several factors that taint the high frame rate (HFR) experience in this case.

First, most of us who are seeing "The Hobbit" in theaters grew up with television. I'm not talking about the new, flat-screen, high definition digital stuff. I'm talking, rather, about what used to come over the air to our cathode ray tubes, the big boxes in our living rooms. For much of the history of television in the US, TV was broadcast using a standard called "NTSC", which projected our news and shows at a frame rate of 29.97fps (30fps, in short-hand). This was typically an interlaced image -- each frame was divided in two, and the two halves were projected sequentially, instead of all at once. The frames weren't divided down the middle, but by alternating lines of resolution (so, the first half of the frame would be lines 1, 3, 5, 7, etc., and the second half would be lines 2, 4, 6, 8, etc.) So, although the resolution of a TV image was relatively low compared to what we'd see in theaters, the frame rate was higher (by nearly six frames per second), and the actual rate of flickering was much higher (and therefore much less visible) at nearly 60 half-frames per second. That, to us, subtly defined the television image.

When digital technoloists began to introduce 24fps video in the late '90s, I remember it as a heady time for independent filmmakers. For the first time, we could create content that had the "look" of film without losing the accessibility and cheapness of digital. At the time, David Tames of broke it down for me as follows: We've become programmed by our own experiences. After seeing the news day in and day out in 30fps, we've come to expect fact-based, informational material to come to us at that frame rate. But since we're used to the cinematic experience at 24fps, we expect images that flicker that way to be fictional, to be narrative, and therefore fundamentally different than the 30fps "factual" images.

That has remained fairly true: fiction is shot at 24 frames per second, whereas non-fiction is shot at 30. Now that newer home TVs are capable of showing a 24fps image, the line has started blurring, but this hasn't been the case for long enough for us to un-learn our visual expectations.

So, when we see "The Hobbit" in a higher frame rate, of course it's going to look like TV. The television frame rate is the closest thing we have to compare it to.

(I wonder if this is the case in Europe, where the TV frame rate is 25 frames per second, extremely close to cinema's traditional 24. Do they think "The Hobbit" looks like TV? If you've seen it, and you're European, let me know!)

The second major factor in the 'small screen' feeling many reported in "The Hobbit" is, unfortunately, somewhat the fault of the filmmaker, Peter Jackson. The first act of the film is shot and paced like a 1990s British sitcom, and for that reason, serves as a poor introduction to the high frame rate format. It's where the story begins, so I can't fault Mr. Jackson for starting the film there, but the extended sequence in which Bilbo is visited by dwarves has little of the cinematic flair of other sequences in the film, so it doesn't counteract the sense of "TV" very strongly.

I think high frame rate cinema is here to stay. The images are very crisp, movement is very sharp. In the slow, steady journey towards greater and greater realism, HFR is an important step.

That said, I think it requires a much stronger cinematic filmmaker than Jackson, whose choice of shots and angles is often dissociated with (and occasionally undermines) the mood of the scene. One of the challenges of HFR is that so much within the scene is vividly clear. Jackson provides us with quite a few deep focus shots -- shots where much of what is in frame is in sharp focus. Without a very strong, steady storytelling hand to guide us, we get lost among the details.

Although I find James Cameron's stories frustratingly simplistic, he tells those simple stories very well. His plans to release the next two Avatar films in HFR may provide us with a very different visual-narrative approach with which to judge the format.

For more on high frame rates, here's a very informative website with examples:


Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Musing Pictures: Life of Pi

Life of Pi looks wonderful in 3D.  Like Avatar, it presents a hyper-real world that is at once authentic and magical.  It doesn't push as far as Avatar pushed, not in terms of the visuals, nor the emotional punch, nor (significantly) the action, but it's still a wonderful cinematic experience.

One of the challenges that the film struggles to overcome is the dissonance between beauty and emotional connection.  Beauty is deeply emotional, for sure, but when it surrounds a story, it doesn't necessarily inspire the story's emotions.

An example, pointed out by my wife as we walked to our car from the theater, is the scene in which Pi's freighter, which carries his entire family and most of the menagerie from their zoo, sinks in to the Pacific.  The scene resolves with Pi, under water, watching the lights of the ship fade in to the blackness.

The 'Life of Pi' Shipwreck

The image is haunting, beautiful... but ultimately, it inspires awe, rather than sadness.

I've seen very few films that have successfully utilized profoundly beautiful images in conjunction with pivotal emotional moments.  Often, we see beautiful landscapes (in anything from The Searchers to Lord of the Rings ), but these set the scene.  We see the beautiful landscape, then we move in to the characters and their moment within it.

Even in Independence Day, when the aliens blow up major cities, the effect is one of awe, rather than sadness or grief. For that film, it works, since we're expected to keep our moods light for what turns out to be a very fun, exciting adventure.

Spielberg is the only filmmaker who consistently utilizes beauty and the awe it inspires in conjunction with an emotional payoff.  I'm thinking specifically of the astounding climax to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is very similar in some ways to the climax of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  Elsewhere, awe IS the appropriate reaction (the final T-Rex shot in Jurassic Park comes to mind, when our heroes have already escaped, and we are given a chance to admire the monster without fear). 

But isn't beauty something of Ang Lee's signature?  I remember the first time I really took note of the director was with his beautiful film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  That film is book-ended by two major fight sequences, both incredibly beautiful.  One of them, across rooftops in a dark town, demonstrates Lee's strength.  The beauty of the sequence serves to underline its magic, and becomes part of the awe of the moment, and of the story. Also, it is beautiful in the way dance is beautiful., so it lends itself to a certain narrative clarity.

The second, atop tall bamboo trees, is graceful, dance-like, and ultimately slows the story down.  Beauty, here, becomes a hindrance.

That's not to say the scene isn't legendary.  It's one of the most fascinating fight scenes in cinema, but in the context of its story, the attention to beauty overwhelms attention to pace.

In neither case are these scenes particularly emotional.  That, I think, remains the most difficult effect to merge with beauty in film.