Posts Tagged ‘movies’

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.

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They’re not there

December 1, 2007

My hopes that I’m Not There would present insights into the thinking process of Millennials were somewhat disappointed when I saw who remained in the theater as the lights came up and the final Dylan songs carried right through to the last credits. Behind me, 4 bearded professorial types stretched and chuckled about the inside jokes of this 60’s counterculture mind dump. And beside me, a woman with long rebellious hair who I could easily imagine looking like Joan Baez 35 years ago sat, lost in thought and swaying to an obscure Dylan song while her husband muscled his way into a wheel chair and waited quietly for her to complete her revelry. To my right, my daughter and the only person in the theater with the right demographic, said simply, “I was lost. I only knew 3 Dylan songs.”

I’m Not There is as brilliant as they say. Certainly not satisfying as a character arc or even a plot piece… but as a fresh way of envisioning Dylan’s rich music, it was full of surprises, allegories, and ironic insights into our narcissistic pop culture. My favorite line was when Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, the only Dylan alter ego in the movie that looked and sounded Dylanesque, retorted as s/he denied any profundity in the message: “I’m just a storyteller.”

If I could only be “just a storyteller”… oh, well.

As I reflect this morning on Todd Haynes’ movie about that era and its impact on the present, I see similar insights into the silliness of media and its replacement of reality for people. Like Blanchett’s Jude, who was taunted as Judas by her fans, I see the Millennial generation both embracing something new/better and rejecting something old/better. But unlike the various Dylan personalities, the Millennials I rear and work with seem much less impressed with themselves than Dylan was. It’s the self-consciousness without as much selfishness; it’s the narcissism without the mawkish self-love.

I doubt if I’m Not There will click with many Millennials. They’ll dig the visual style but they won’t relate to Dylan’s cynical drunkenness with his own mystique. For today’s youth, the silliness of media is old hat, an obvious fact… but the corruption of all established institutions is not being bought. Motherhood and fatherhood are still revered; schools are respected; governments are served if not blindly; and tolerance of the unusual does not equate with the demonization of the usual.

The movie, and its probable anachronistic feeling for Millennials, also helps me articulate something I’ve often observed on college campuses: Boomer professors booming (in their beards) about a Revolution that never ended … being met with incredulous smiles by a generation that wasn’t buying their discontent. The boomers are there with Dylan, but today’s younger generation is not there.

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.

Making them weep

November 9, 2007

One of the goals I’ve always had in a fundraising video is to “make them weep”. An article in the Washington Post explores the reasons why the media is so effective at stimulating tears.

Desson Thomson compares the findings of two scientific studies that use movies to stimulate weeping. William Frey and Muriel Lanseth published their results in the 1980s, in a book entitled Crying, the Mystery of Tears. An article by Joe LaPointe in the New York Times July 9, 2003 quotes findings from Frey’s book as saying that men cry 1.4 times a month, while women cry 5.3 times a month. Frey found that crying releases internal toxins, and has a therapeutic effect.

Movies, of course, can make weeping a goal without apology. The purpose for attending a movie is to arouse an emotional response. In college communication, however, there is an integrity issue. We are speaking to an audience in order to present facts and invite their emotional involvement with us.

According to Frey and Lanseth, the reason for crying while watching a movie is empathy with the characters.

Tom Lutz, a sociologist quoted by Thomson, disagrees with the notion of a therapeutic benefit to crying. He says that the choke-up emotion arises when we are internally conflicted. Part of us is happy, part sad. The bittersweet conflict causes us to “strum a mental guitar chord that combines positive, major feelings with sadder, minor tones. And the tears flow before we know it.”

Mary Beth Oliver of Penn State says that tear-jerker media “cause us to contemplate what it is about human life that’s important and meaningful…. Tears aren’t just tears of sadness, they’re tears of searching for the meaning of our fleeting existence.”

Blogger A. Hart quotes Hubert Humphrey (“A man without tears is a man without a heart.”) and Washington Irving:

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of… unspeakable love.”

My view is that both scientific viewpoints (empathy vs. internal emotional conflict) are saying the same thing. Empathy with characters is our own mind relating our story to the story we see presented before us. Research into the amygdala shows that emotional memory is largely a pattern-recognition process. When we see a pattern on screen that jives with a pattern in our own emotional memories, the tears begin to flow.

That’s why I believe it takes a little time to develop a connection with the characters on the screen, learn their story and relate to the significant forces in their lives. I often see news accounts or other videos that attempt to short-circuit this process. Often, they’ll cue the violins or introduce the slow-mo as a manipulative effect, in order to drag an emotional response out of viewers.

It’s far better to refrain from overtly emotional trappings until the scene itself, the story we are telling, is authentically told and fully actualized. Then the reality of what is being witnessed can touch those soul-chords without making the audience feel as though they’ve been manipulated.

No question, strong visual memories such as graduation, victory on the athletic field, hearing the alma mater etc. are what make alumni vulnerable to manipulation in this way… so I try to reserve these tools for genuine moments when the stars are aligned and the logical basis for agreement is already established … the case has been made, so to speak, and now sympathetic or empathetic emotion has become appropriate without violating the integrity of the college’s communication effort.