Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Musing Pictures: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

This week, my final article for 2013, I explore Peter Jackson's unusual, frustrating, and surprisingly entertaining approach to narrative structure in the middle installment of his "Hobbit" trilogy.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Musing Pictures: Captain Phillips

In which I continue exploring the dramatic nature and use (or misuse?) of subtitles in narrative film:

My article on Captain Phillips

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Musing Pictures: Ender's Game

This week, I share a very special email I received in 1999, as a 15 year old, from Orson Scott Card. I had asked to direct the film adaptation of his novel, "Ender's Game"...



Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Musing Pictures: World Trade Center (2006)

To my mind, there are three critical films that depict the events of September 11, 2001. I've finally seen and written about the last of these, "World Trade Center", which is important for its failings.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Musing Pictures: The Spectacular Now

In this week's article, I ponder the nature of high school movies, and why people who are no longer in high school seem to care so much to make them.


Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Musing Pictures: The Wolverine

This week, I ponder the unusual meaningfulness of film, picking up on a line from "The Wolverine", and connecting it to some of my own on-set experiences.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Musing Pictures: Pacific Rim

This week, I discuss why fight scenes must have more than just fighting in order to maintain narrative momentum.



Thursday, July 11, 2013

Musing Pictures: The Lone Ranger (2013)

On the music of the film, and on the difference between the new Hans Zimmer score and the classic "William Tell Overture".

Musing Pictures: The Lone Ranger

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Musing Pictures: World War Z

This week, I write about both the depiction of Israel and the use of Malta as a substitute shooting location in the Brad Pitt zombie picture, "World War Z".



Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Musing Pictures: This Is the End

This week, I write about another interesting example of a "Christian" story being told by Jewish storytellers in "This Is the End". http://maxitmagazine.com/columns/musing-pictures/501-this-is-the-end -AzS

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Musing Pictures: Von Ryan's Express (1965)

This week's article is about a film you might have not heard of, a WWII film starring Frank Sinatra as an American pilot...

Von Ryan's Express

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Musing Pictures: The King's Speech (2010)

Here's the link to the latest Musing Pictures post at MaxIt Magazine!

As it turns out, this is also my 100th post to this blog!  Hooray!


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Musing Pictures: Oblivion

I am happy to report that "Musing Pictures" has found a home at Max It Magazine! I'll be posting links from here to that site.

My first article there is on "Oblivion"


Monday, April 08, 2013

Musing Pictures: Jurassic Park (3D Re-Release, 2013)

This blog post might alternately be titled: Thoughts on Staging and Framing for 3D

On my birthday this year, Rottentomatoes.com released this short interview with Steven Spielberg, in which he suggests that "Jurassic Park" was a natural fit for 3D conversion, because "there was a lot of... subconscious 3D etiquette in my first approaching the material a long time ago."

What is "3D Etiquette"?

In the interview, Spielberg describes shooting the film with "a lot of visual background-foreground dynamics", and shots in which "creatures and people are running toward the camera" (he calls this the "Trombone Effect"). He's trying to do something that most major filmmakers are struggling with at the moment: he's trying to describe the vocabulary of a new dialect in the language of cinema.

A New Dialect?

Every time a major technology emerges in cinema, it challenges filmmakers to find new ways to incorporate it in to their storytelling.

When cinema itself was invented, it took more than a decade for a vocabulary of angles to fully form. Movies started out as 'moving snapshots', with the camera un-moving, set far enough away so the entire scene could be recorded without interruption.  Soon, editing allowed filmmakers to show sequences from multiple angles, or to tell stories across multiple sets or locations. As filmmakers continued to experiment with camera placement and staging, they learned better ways to express meaning through the camera. Close-ups draw our attention to details or emotions. Low-angle shots express power, whether heroic or villainous.  High-angle shots represent danger, vulnerability or isolation.  These terms represent cinema's basic vocabulary, the nouns and verbs of motion picture expression.  They tie in to cinematic syntax, developed and refined by editors who organize sequences in to subject-predicate systems that convey meaning by the careful juxtaposition and order of shots.

The introduction of sound in the late '20s forced a change in cinematic language.  The building-blocks (the shots and angles) remained, but their meanings could be augmented by use of sound.  At first, sound was used in its basic technical form - the audio parallel to the recorded image. In itself, it conveyed no meaning. Very quickly, filmmakers learned to utilize sound in less literal ways, with effects like voice-overs, sound-bridges and musical scores. Audio became a second layer of cinematic grammar.

Motion picture color, too, went from being technical (the movies were the same, just a little more colorful) to being a part of the storytelling (obviously, like in "The Wizard of Oz", or subtly, like in "Blade Runner"). Other technologies (stereo, and then surround sound) and conventions (wider screens, for example) all followed the same sort of pattern -- they were technical innovations before they were aesthetic innovations, and as they became aesthetic innovations, they developed a vocabulary, a set of defined uses that could be shared and repeated from one film to the next.

When 3D was first introduced in the '50s, and then again in the '70s, it was never able to emerge past technical expression.  3D films were, essentially, 2D films shot with 3D cameras.  Sure, filmmakers shooting in 3D (Hitchcock, most notably, with "Dial M for Murder"), made efforts to understand the aesthetic implications of the new technology, but 3D films were too expensive (and not sufficiently profitable) for the experimentation to survive past the technical phase. Now that 3D is cheaper and more profitable, the "dialect" of 3D has time and space to develop.

Learning from Translation

When new technologies emerge, it is occasionally possible to apply them to the old aesthetics. Although this is often done for financial gain (see colorization, for example), it can also provide insights in to how the new technologies require aesthetic change.

Colorization (as in this split-screen example) can draw our attention to the careful use of light-and-shadow in black-and-white films, and can remind us of the need to attend to color (rather than darkness or brightness) when composing a color image.

The conversion of two-dimensional films to 3D is a very new process, but it is one that can provide similar insights.  We can look at what had been a 2D film, with full understanding of that film's language, and can compare the effects of those same shots in three dimensions. This isn't to say that what worked in 2D will work in 3D (or that it won't), but if it works or doesn't, we can learn a lot about how the visual vocabulary of 3D differs from 2D, and how it may force a change in the way filmmakers use the language of cinema to express their ideas.

(In the interview above, Spielberg actually talks about just such a discovery -- his sense that the T-Rex attack sequence, as well as the raptor attack in the kitchen, were both served well by the conversion to 3D -- the effect leds a clearer sense of enclosure in the car when the T-Rex attacks, and it lends a better sense of space and depth in the kitchen. By noting this difference, Spielberg is beginning to identify strengths of the format to convey space and dimension.)

The Key to 3D: Staging

Two-dimensional films are composed of shots that are typically staged in one of two ways:

Planar Staging or Proscenium Staging:

This is rarely used in contemporary cinema.  Planar staging places the subjects of a shot roughly equidistant from the camera, as if they were lined up or arranged on a stage.  The background is often parallel to their arrangement as well.  Here's an example from the Marx Brothers (whose careers began on stage).

Depth Staging:

Most shots in most movies these days implement some form of depth staging, setting the camera at an angle to the action, and setting up the relationships between objects and characters so they're oriented towards or away from the camera, rather than horizontally across the screen.  Here's a great example from one of the greatest innovators of depth staging, Orson Welles (the shot is from "Citizen Kane")

In his interview, Spielberg suggests that "background-foreground dynamics" are critical to the 3D aesthetic.  I expected this to be entirely true, but after seeing the 3D re-release of "Jurassic Park", I noted something that surprised me (but perhaps shouldn't have).  Depth staging doesn't always work in 3D -- in fact, some types of depth staging are really, really bad when the images have that third dimension! As a result, there needs to be new terminology to differentiate between what works and what doesn't, and to begin the process of discovering the vocabulary of 3D cinema.

What is Good? What is Bad?

The framing and staging of an image has a lot to do with drawing attention to an object within the scene.  In the static two-dimensional arts, it has been known for centuries that the eye is drawn to light.

When we look at the Mona Lisa, we are first drawn to her face, a bright area framed by dark areas (hair, shirt), before allowing our eyes to roam across the rest of the painting.

The same is true in movies.  In this shot from "Jurassic Park", a bright highlight on part of the car and the relative brightness on Alan Grant's face draw our attention to him, even though he's not quite at the center of the frame, and even though (or precisely because) there's a lot of other stuff in the foreground.

The shot effectively conveys the claustrophobic nature of the scene -- the car, mangled, is stuck in a tree, and little Timmy, battered, is trapped inside. Grant, entering the car, is entering a very confined and uncomfortable space.  He also doesn't like kids much, so by rescuing Timmy, he's also putting himself in an additionally awkward and difficult emotional space.

(An aside on Spielberg's use of camera:  As I've written elsewhere, Spielberg tends to place his camera in places that represent the character's "Point of Thought" (the term is mine, an extension of the more common cinematic term, "Point of View"). This shot is a classic example -- the camera does not represent any character's physical point of view, but it conveys the characters' mood. To my mind, Spielberg's ability to express character mood visually is one of his most important gifts to the language of cinema)

Good framing and staging (and lighting is part of this) draws our attention to specific objects or characters, and does so in such a way that helps clarify physical space, and in the best cases, to the tone or mood within a scene.  Bad framing distracts us from those critical storytelling elements.

Learning from the 3D Conversion

The shot above, as effective as it is in two dimensions, was one of the most jarring and ineffective shots in the 3D release of the film.  Instead of attending to Grant, my eyes first sought out the foreground-objects, a jumble of unimportant and indistinct car parts.  That, clearly, did not serve the story or the mood.  In 3D, this is a bad shot.

In contrast, this moment from the film's exciting third act, worked beautifully in 3D -- much better than it had in two dimensions:


Our heroes are scrambling along in the ceiling when one of the raptors breaks through a ceiling tile. Lex falls through, and is pulled back up just in time.  We get this shot of a raptor leaping up through the hole in the ceiling to snap at Lex.

Why does this shot work so amazingly in 3D, while the other shot fails?  Both have dark foreground elements that frame a more brightly-lit background element (a standard 2D convention), and both are effective shots in two dimensions.

Both shots represent a kind of depth staging, where the subject of the shot is placed farther or closer along the depth axis relative to the subject's point of interest.  In the case of the first shot, Grant is farther from the camera than Tim, who is off-screen, presumably just to the left of the camera (where Grant is looking).  In the second shot, the raptor's attention is on Lex -- the depth staging is clear.

I'd like to suggest an new staging term for 3D, to help define the difference between these shots.  I'll call the first Obstructive Staging, where objects between the camera and the subject interrupt the camera's view of the subject.  The second, I'll call Portal Staging, where the subject is viewed through a doorway, window, or other portal that frames the subject without interrupting the view.

Types of Staging for 3D Films

Obstructive Staging works very well in many 2D environments, but seems to fail consistently in 3D.  Part of the reason for this is that in 2D, our eyes are drawn to bright areas of the image, so we look past darker foreground elements, even if they take up much of the screen, to look at the brighter subject.  In three dimensions, though, our eyes are drawn first to what appears closer to us -- foreground elements take on much more significance, even if the shot is otherwise identical.

Portal Staging has foreground elements, but they are arranged in such a way that they form a "portal" to the subject.  They function like windows -- when we are in a room with windows, we tend not to look at the windows, but rather at the image beyond the windows.

Portal staging works very well in three dimensions, because it provides us with a sense of depth without drawing our attention away from the subject of a shot.  Some of the most effective shots in recent 3D films feature portal staging.

Here, Martin Scorsese combines traditional depth staging with portal staging in "Hugo"

One of the exciting possibilities for portal staging is that the subject can at times come through that portal.  The raptor in "Jurassic Park" sticks its head through, and even grabs the frame with its claw.  When there's an on-screen frame, the illusion that something is "coming out of the screen" can be much stronger.

There's a variant of 3D depth staging that doesn't typically show up in converted 2D films. It is Particle Staging, where the subject is surrounded by a floating array of small objects -- dust is often added to a scene for this effect (see Spielberg's "Tintin") or raindrops, or sparks from a fire.  Perhaps the strongest use of this technique is one of the first, in James Cameron's "Avatar".

Little things that float around a character give us a very strong sense of depth without necessarily getting in our way.

Finally, it's worth taking another look at planar staging, the old, outdated technique.  Filmmakers tend to abhor planar staging precisely because it has no depth on screen.  It's very "stagey" and doesn't take advantage of the filmmaker's more dynamic ability to portray characters and action.  With the third dimension now in the filmmaker's toolbox, I wonder if there is a role for planar staging.

Making Meaning

Now that we have a few new terms to use when describing effective 3D shots, there's still a lot to figure out.  In two dimensions, different angles have come to mean different things -- they're a type of language.  What do these new shots mean?  What moods or messages do they convey? This is what excites me the most about the new 3D vocabulary -- we're still discovering it, and every new 3D film brings a little more understanding to this visual dialect.


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Musing Pictures: Oz The Great and Powerful

There must be a small army of attorneys out there, building their dream homes with the overtime checks from Disney. "Oz The Great and Powerful" must have been no small feat to accomplish, from a legal standpoint.  Put simply, Disney had the rights to the Oz books by L. Frank Baum, but not to the ubiquitous 1939 film, "The Wizard of Oz". The earlier film, produced by MGM, featured a whole slew of memorable features, from "Over the Rainbow" to the ruby slippers, which did not derive from the books. The Lion (as MGM is known in the industry) was careful to trademark and copyright many of these innovations, so Disney's adaptation could not use them.  The execs at Disney even had to fret over the particular shade of green of the Wicked Witch's skin tone in order to avoid confrontation with MGM.

The details of this legal balancing act have been documented in quite a few places (I recall at least two articles in "Variety" from this past year), but few have addressed the narrative implications of these restrictions.

When any good filmmaker adapts literary material to the screen, it's inevitable that certain strategic changes will be made that reflect the difference in the way narrative is delivered.  Certain story elements might not work on-screen because they're verbal or internal to the characters, rather than visual.  Other elements might simply be less effective on-screen.  The silver slippers of Baum's book thus became ruby slippers in the MGM movie.  Red is much more vibrant and exciting on screen, after all!  Many of the changes made in the '39 adaptation are meant to make the most of the cinematic medium.  They are visual, like the slippers, or aural, like all the songs.

Coming in to this 2013 adaptation, director Sam Raimi had his hands tied.  Some of the best cinematic tools at his disposal were already used by MGM, and therefore, out of his reach.  Sure, he could have tried for new songs, but once you're locked out of the elements that define a classic, if you do anything too similar, you're bound to be compared (unfavorably) to the original.  Raimi had to deviate, and deviate he did.  Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, the result is very wordy, and not nearly as visually-driven as you'd expect of an Oz story or of a Raimi film.  I lost count of how many scenes involved characters talking to each other, telling each other what's happening, rather than scenes that demonstrated the story's progress. It's as if, in the fretful avoidance of MGM's innovations, the film forgets the very purpose of those innovations, and neglects to replace them.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Musing Pictures: Ben-Hur (1959)

Though I enjoyed the famous chariot race, as well as the somewhat less lauded (but rhythmically fascinating) naval sequence, I couldn't help but wonder what filmmaker William Wyler was thinking. Ben-Hur is a surprisingly Jewish story, about a Jewish guy (Judah Ben-Hur, played by Charlton Heston) fighting for Jewish autonomy, independence from Rome, freedom to worship, and all that.  He is presented as a religious man, kissing the mezzuzah at his doorpost, saying the blessing over bread before eating it, and generally flaunting his monotheism in the face of polytheistic Romans.  He is a peaceful man, drawn in to violence by the relentless abuses of his Roman counterparts.

The story is meant to be a Christian story.  Ben-Hur encounters Jesus a few times over the course of his journey, eventually coming to witness the crucifixion itself. To Christians, I suppose there must be some sort of transcendence here, the Jew sees a truth beyond Judaism as Jesus' message spreads. But that's not what happens here.  Ben-Hur never really changes.  He triumphs over his adversary, feels remorse, but never really comes to terms with any of it.  Sure, there's a bit of a miracle at the end, but it's more of a coda to the story, rather than a part of Ben-Hur's journey.

In a broader historical context, it's fairly astounding that this story is told in this way. So much of Christian narrative history is tied to the idea that Christianity supersedes Judaism, almost becoming a "Judaism 2.0".  Jews who do not buy in to that idea are frustrating to Christian ideology -- why not upgrade, after all?  And yet, the film was thoroughly embraced by its audiences, earning gobs of cash at the box office and winning eleven Academy Awards.  Was it okay, somehow, in the late '50s, to be Jewish despite Christianity?  I don't think that's the case any more (see Gibson's Jesus film, also incredibly profitable).


Friday, February 15, 2013

Musing Pictures: Deep Impact (1998)

With all the recent talk of meteors, asteroids, and our proximity to doomsday, I decided to catch the other meteor-impact film from 1998.  People remember "Armageddon" from that year, but "Deep Impact" did quite well theatrically, both in the US and overseas.

Disaster movies at this scale -- especially movies where the world's end seems imminent, are tough stories to tell.  First of all, we rarely believe the threat (I mean, it's a movie, right?  It's going to end well for at least a few of the people we care about!  And certainly, the Earth will not be destroyed!)  Second, a story of global significance is hard to convey without individual narratives, and those individual narratives often trivialize the global danger.  ("Titanic", on a smaller scale, runs in to this problem: we care so much about the two heroes that we kind of don't care about the thousands of others on the ship.  I mean, of course we care, but not quite like that...)

Both "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" kind of make the same mistake:  Some parts of the world get destroyed, millions of nameless, faceless people die (and so do a few people we know peripherally), and humanity, on the whole, survives... but has humanity learned anything?  Is there any redemptive value to humanity's survival?

I ask this in light of other, older end-of-the-world stories.  When the world is flooded, and only Noah and his clan are left to repopulate it, the understanding is that they are somehow different, a new hope for humanity, and a symbol of humanity's renewed contract with their Creator.  "War of the Worlds" (a very flawed narrative for other reasons) concludes with the emergence of a humbled and vulnerable humanity -- a humanity that has learned its lesson.

But humanity remains pretty much unchanged in both the '98 asteroid films.  I find that in stark contrast to a film that made its impact a few years earlier, "Independence Day".  There, in order for humanity to survive, humanity needs to fundamentally change, to unite, even across deep-rooted and historical divisions.  The humanity that emerges from the near-catastrophe of alien invasion is transformed.  More than that, it has earned its redemption.

I think that's what I found most incomplete about "Deep Impact".  The story, however consequential to millions of individuals in the film's version of Earth, seemed to have no real meaning to humanity as a whole.  In the final scene, the president (played by Morgan Freeman, interestingly) delivers a speech in front of the scaffolding of a new US Capitol building, under construction.  It's the same old building that they're re-building.  Not something new.

Compare that to the famous presidential speech in "Independence Day", in which that film's US President speaks of a new meaning to the word "Mankind".  The events in that film have profound consequence to those who survive them, not just to those who do not.

Global disaster films are really about salvation.  They're about giving us hope that when things get really, really bad, there's what to strive for -- beyond survival itself.


Saturday, February 02, 2013

Musing Pictures: Zero Dark Thirty

Partway through Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," I found myself gripped by the realization that this film would forever paint my grasp of history. Sure, I knew about the pursuit of Bin Laden, about the stealthy raid on his Pakistani compound -- that was all in the news, and I tend to keep up with the news.  But the tone, the mood, the images (especially the images of the compound itself, which have become iconic, and synonymous with both the event itself and the film) are new, and are a product of the film and its creators.

At first, I found this realization troubling.  Who were these people that I should trust their version of history?  But then, it dawned on me, all of history, or what survives of it, is preserved in this way.

I recall learning in grade school that "history is written by the victor."  This year, we are reminded (perhaps) that history is actually written by the storyteller.

From "Argo" to "Lincoln" to "Zero Dark Thirty", it has been a year of historical films, films that take what we think we know of history (a lot, in the case of "Lincoln", very little in the case of "Argo") and re-tell it to us.  They give us new avenues through which to appreciate the actions, decisions and challenges that faced our forbears.  They re-define how we see politics, and how we understand our role in the world.

That's a big responsibility for a storyteller to bear, and some carry it with more grace than others.  But it's humbling to note that in the end, it's not the most accurate history, but the best told story that survives.