Posts Tagged ‘cinema’

Inspiration – I

February 2, 2008

I used my days of travel to gather some inspiration.

An old photography textbook in our room at Haley’s Hotel offered a quaint perspective:

“The essence of art is only partially concerned with materials and processes … brush, paint, crayon… are merely media of art. They can give no guaranty of art success any more than T square and triangle can produce architectural excellence…. So it is with the camera…. No amount of technical knowledge, craftsmanship, and care can make the camera produce art when it is guided by a nonartist. The camera, then, is a sensitive tool that responds to the thinking of the person who operates it.” (italics theirs)

(from Photographic Composition by Ben Clements and David Rosenfeld)

“The thinking of the person who operates”… Yes, everything in the cinematic arts hinges on the thinking of the artist, or newsman, or journalist, who controls the camera. Which lens? Which angle? Whose reaction?

A good case in point for me recently came while watching The Truman Show. Near the end of the movie, when Truman hits the sky-wall, Peter Weir (who gave us Witness, Dead Poets Society, and Fearless) chose to show the moment of anguish as a medium shot, from behind. Without seeing his face, we are left with only his body language, his fruitless attempts to break out of his prison with fists and body slams. When Jim Carrey finally spins around to reveal the agony in his face, it is all the more moving and poignant. This is directorial thought at its best.

Another example is in the movie Sleepers. Jason Patric’s character finally reveals to the priest, Father Bobby (played by Robert De Niro), the dark secrets that the boys have been living with since their incarceration for a childish prank. Barry Levinson directs that instead of playing Patric’s face and hearing his actual dialogue, we lock on a closeup of De Niro. For something like 30 seconds (and it feels like minutes) the audio goes into “hyper-reality” — the sound of words without the intelligibility — and we read the pain in a sympathetic face, as De Niro comes to grips with the horror the boy experienced in jail. It’s a master stroke. Levinson, like Weir, is a director who thinks about the truth, about the complexities and nuances of human reality. In this case it’s about how it could be more “moral” for a priest to lie under oath than to put the murder of a soulless man higher than the murder of a boy’s soul.

The best of cinematic storytelling occurs when thought is paramount…. when the goal is not to scintillate (explosions, car chases, skin) but to ruminate. With excellent actors, the thinking occurs when they and the director invest time in the back-story, developing the inner motivation and character dynamics that make each moment of word and action “realistic”. In documentary-style story-telling, the thinking occurs during shooting and editing, when the cameraman senses what is relevant or transcendant in what is unfolding, and chooses to focus on the decisive moment. Like a miner panning for gold, he looks for the glittering nuggets, and then swirls them in the pan until the mud clears away. And then, in the editing process, he thinks carefully about how to sequence, juxtapose, and set the best moments into a story that breathes with life and authenticity.

We’ve all seen boring documentaries. We’ve all seen bad movies. And the term “college video” has earned its own category of disregard. It is in the thinking, not the production values, that the fault can be found. In fact, I think that people will forgive bad production values if the story is authentic and the thinking quality is evident.

“The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression… . In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little human detail can become a leitmotif.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson

Which is why all the talk about cameras and formats among “video guys” is so meaningless and beside-the-point. What matters is the thinking of the cameraman and the editor. Period. To use Cartier-Bresson’s self-description, the successful communicator of an institutional ethos needs “the velvet hand, the hawk’s eye”. It’s not a skill as much as a state of mind that I aspire to … the mind of a painter of birds. Patient, observant, unobtrusive, in love with his subject. Those are the kinds of artistry that inspire me.

Cinematic COW

November 15, 2007

On a slow college cave day I’ll upload one of my cinematic sheep experiences. But right now I want to talk about the cinematic COW, that is, what the creative Community of the World says about what makes for a cinematic experience.

This is important, because Millennials combine a passion for movies with an allergy to hype. What that means in practical terms is that their perceptions of reality are actually molded by the most adept hype-creation machine in human history, Hollywood. Today’s young people, whom colleges are trying to court, want to be romanced by no one except the real McCoy, their own true love Wesley with eyes like the sea after a storm. But most of what they know of Wesley has been shaped, not on the farm or by the sea, but by watching Wesley at the theatre. So Wesley isn’t Wesley unless he’s lit well, shot well, edited well, and delivers a smashing Oscar-caliber performance.

Here’s a list of cinematic ingredients that (along with great storytelling and a compelling plot) create that cinematic experience … something that involves today’s young audience “in a different world”. These techniques are mentioned by Creative COW but elaborated by ORK:

  • Simple, natural, organic transitions (cuts like a blink, fades to black as though closing your eyes)
  • Dolly moves to move us closer, because we walk closer or lean in, our eyes don’t zoom
  • Pans to reveal breadth of scene, much the way our necks turn
  • Tilt ups to reveal scale dramatically, as in real life our heads tilt up
  • Shallow depth of field, because our eyes do not focus on an entire scene at once, and because the physics of 35mm photography create shallow depth of field and use it to move our attention around a screen
  • Long telephoto or medium telephoto shots, because cinema uses them to compress depth in a scene. Video/TV has always used wide angles primarily, and this is the convention of news-gathering, not storytelling. Also, mediumtele shots make people look more attractive, and tight closeups rivet attention on the eyes and facial expressions of a character
  • Light for the real world … 3D, with patches of light and dark, not flat “soap opera” video lighting
  • I also find that most of the time it’s best to break the famous rule about “keeping the sun behind the camera”. It’s best to keep the sun behind or beside the character, so that they are rim-lit and as three-dimensional as possible.
  • Stabilize the camera, using either a counterweighted rig (steadicam) or a tripod or jib arm. Avoid hand-held work enless the scene is kinetic and emotionally calls for it. Movie example of when hand-held is great: “I am Sam”. But most of the time, COW says, “Everyone has seen the MTV jerky-cam moves. They’re so 1995.”
  • Simplify moves, and let the action prescribe the movements. Don’t call attention to the camera by the choice of framing or moves.
  • Use frame rates to soften action, rather than make it too crispy

The “cinematic values” can be taken too far, of course. Idealize it, over-produce it, edit out the warts, and suddenly the high production values become a monument to the self-absorption of the institution, rather than a window into its life and values.

Tomorrow I’ll reflect on why the personality of producers tends to get in the way of clear, useful communication on the part of colleges.

Welcome. Let the Ztories begin!

October 27, 2007

Welcome to the new Ztories branding blog by Ork the Caveman on WordPress.com. My goal is to spark creative thought on the best practices for college communication. And the communication challenges are daunting — distinct audiences who inhabit entirely different worlds: Millennials for admissions, alumni from Silent Generation to Gen X for advancement. In a time when the stakes have never been higher and for the first time in history, the supremacy of American higher education is being questioned. I welcome your comments and look forward to vigorous dialog, sharing of media, and lots of laughs.