INTRO TO FILM week 3

Today, we move to the EDITING ROOM.

The first day’s shooting is complete. A collection of takes and shots – wide shots, close-ups, two-shots, medium shots, tracks, dollies, pans. We hope the DP has provided artful images, and obeyed the rule of thirds.

Everything has gone to the lab, or if it was shot on video, is being backed up to yet another hard drive, and transcoded.

When it arrives in the cutting room, it’s called the “rushes” — and the 1st assignment is to join together picture and audio, so that the director, the producer, the DP and other interested parties can review their work. Do actors watch rushes? It depends on the actor. Some never do; some ask to. Maybe the director would prefer the actors don’t see their work, but if an actor asks to see their work it’s wise to be inviting and polite.

Watching rushes can seem – to an outsider – tedious since it involves watching multiple takes of the same scene. This is where decisions are made. The director turns to the editor and says, “that’s the take we’ll use”. The producer throws the film cans around and hires another writer.

After this, the editor sits down and extracts the best moments from the various SHOTS, and TAKES, and cuts them together to create a SCENE.

How many shots in a scene? How many does the scene need, to make its point?

How long is a scene? Almost any length, depended on what’s happening in it. In screenwriting classes I suggest scenes should be no longer than three pages – that’s three minutes. But that’s just a general rule. There are great 24-minute scenes, as we shall see.

Sometimes scenes follow each other in a disconnected, separate manner. More often, they follow a narrative logic, and combine to tell the story.

Let’s see an example, from the beginning of THE HARDER THEY COME (Jamaica, 1972). It comes right after the credits, in which we see a bus travel from the countryside into the big city.

Do you see the distinct scenes? The overall SEQUENCE? If we were doing a story breakdown we would call this sequence, “Ivan goes to his mothers house.” This is how it works:

Scene 1.     Bus arrives, stops leaves. 7 documentary-style shots. No actors.

Scene 2. Ivan – the principal character – walks through the streets.
i. Medium-wide pan with Ivan
ii. CU of dropped box; zoom out, tilt up to MS porter
iii. CU Ivan
iv. CU porter; zoom out to 2-shot

Scene 3. Streets of Kingston.
Multiple long-lens shots as Ivan fails to stop at traffic light, is tricked

Scene 4. Shantytown Ext. Sunset
Zoom in on Ivan

Scene 5. Back Street Ext. Night
Wide master shot; Ivan asks directions of card players, including Jose (a character who will be important later in the story)

Scene 6. Mum’s House Int. Night
i. over the shoulder CU on Ivan
ii. medium 2-shot, Ivan and Mum
iii. CU Mum
iv. CU Ivan

…and so on. Forty or more shots; six scenes in just over three minutes; one sequence, taking Ivan from the bus to his destination.

All of the shots and scenes are linked by CUTS. The cut is the straightforward juxtaposition of one image followed by another one. Cuts are elegant. They don’t assert themselves or draw attention to the change of image. They’re part of editing language, part of film language. But they’re not the only form of transition. There are also dissolves, fades to black, fades from black, wipes, freeze frames and other ways of joining shots.

Straight cuts (also called, less elegantly, “butt cuts”) are the norm. In the old days this was partially because they were cheaper: dissolves, fades, and wipes weren’t done “in camera” and instead required an expensive trip to the lab for an optical special effect. Today, with video editing, transitions like this are free, but the straight cut between shots remains preferred.

Now we refer to Peter Watkins’ NOTES ON THE MEDIA CRISIS. What he has to say is especially relevant to editing, though it applies to all stages of media making. Watkins’ argument is that commercial and other pressures have come to enforce one type of storytelling on us, what he describes as “a repetitive … language-form of rapidly edited and fragmented images accompanied by a dense bombardment of sound, all held together by the classical narrative structure.”

In other words, fast cuts, lots of music, audio effects, and a one-two-three, boy-meets-girl, bibbedy-bim-bam-boom! storyline — whether the film is a narrative drama, a news broadcast, or a documentary.

Watkins calls this homogenous form of filmmaking the MONOFORM.

His criticism is entirely valid, and the editing room is especially responsible for this crisis because (let me share a secret with you here) it’s in the editing room that a film really gets made. And in the editing room there is a lot of pressure – from the financiers, from the director (who may have come from the speedy fast-cut world of commercials or videos) to speed it up, to make those shots shorter, to add some music here.

At the same time, there is also an aesthetic push-back by filmmakers who care about these things. One of the greatest American directors, Orson Welles, was hired to make a small gangster film called TOUCH OF EVIL (USA, 1958). Unable to resist creating something out of nothing, Welles took a completely ordinary series of shots and turned them into one single moving take. We watch the opening sequence of that film (there are two versions: Welles’ original, which features different music as the camera passes different bars, and Universal’s version, which imposes credits over the sequence, and one overriding score).

See how the DP’s use of the crane includes a closeup (the bomb), wide angles of the street, a six shot of the actors, and a two-shot of Mr & Mrs Vargas, all without a cut.

Arturo Ripstein (PRINCIPIO Y FIN, Mexico, 1973), Theodoros Angelopoulos (THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS, Greece, 1975), Bela Tarr (SATANTANGO, Hungary, 19794), and other directors have made features in which every scene was done like this. I’ve made some, too. When a scene is completed entirely in one shot, with no internal cutting, the Mexicans call it a plano secuencia. The Americans call such a shot a “moving master” but in a plano secuencia the camera doesn’t have to move. It just has to record the whole scene in a single take. I show an example from a film I directed in Mexico in 1992, entitled EL PATRULLERO (HIGHWAY PATROLMAN). Plano secuencia was something Mexican cinema was particularly passionate about. Thanks to much special effects, BIRDMAN (USA, 2014) gives the impression of being one complete plano secuencia with no internal cuts at all. THE SILENT HOUSE (Uruguay, 2010), manages this for 78 minutes. RUSSIAN ARK (Russia, 2002) does the same thing without special effects. Hitchcock’s ROPE (USA, 1948) contains several intentional cuts, but plays scenes in moving master shots, in real time – sometimes disguising reel changes in order to do so.

Such scenes are sometimes used by directors wanting to “show their chops”. As an example we look at the dance scene in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (USA, 2015). It’s a pretty scene with beautiful costumes, but it doesn’t work as well as it might because two or three of the camera movements are unmotivated. A good plano secuencia follows a character (or more than one character) through a scene. Unmotivated camera moves just “happen” because the director or DP wanted them there.

If you’re shooting on film, you’re limited by the amount of film which will fit in a magazine: 1000 feet of 35mm film, 400 feet of 16mm, which translates at the very most into eleven minutes of running time. So it used to be the case that you “couldn’t have a plano secuencia longer than 11 minutes.”

Shooting on video, you can have a scene run pretty much as long as you like. In our next session we’ll see a seventeen minute shot, part of that 24 minute scene from Steve McQueen’s HUNGER (UK, 2008).

But before that, we’ll watch IL CASO MATTEI (THE MATTEI AFFAIR), directed by Francesco Rosi in Italy in 1972, both for its structure, and for its source material. Remember, films don’t come out of nowhere. There’s a reason for their existence. In this case it’s the career of the founder of the Italian petrochemical industry, Enrico Mattei.

What a subject! In screenwriting classes I show this as an example of taking what might seem like unpromising material – the methane business – and creating a GREAT FILM.

The film stars Gian Maria Volonte, who you saw in the extract from FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, as the gunfighter El Indio.

THE MATTEI AFFAIR takes place in the aftermath of the Second World War. The fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany had been defeated. In Italy, after the war, there was a purge of fascists, who were no longer allowed to occupy government positions.

Enrico Mattei, the subject of our story, was a bureaucrat who was hired to shut down the Italian state oil company, AGIP. Instead, he realized the importance of Italy’s vast reserves of natural gas, built up the company, and turned Italy from a poor and relatively insignificant country into an industrial powerhouse. If you buy a fridge or a stove in Europe, it was probably made in Italy. Mattei’s methane money built hotels, bought newspapers, and uplifted the economy. It contributed to the post-war birth of Neorealist cinema.

Mattei was a consummate politician – he made deals with almost everyone, from the former fascists to the communists. There’s a scene in the film where you’ll see him standing in a long line of people in Red Square in Moscow. He’s visiting Lenin’s tomb, not because he’s a communist, but because he wants to do business with the Russians.

Now the story of the founder of the Italian methane industry doesn’t sound very promising. Bio-pics of successful businessmen – whether it’s JOBS, or THE SOCIAL NETWORK, or the story of Thomas Edison – are difficult subjects to make entertaining.

Mattei’s story is different, since it’s also a murder mystery, as you will see. And it’s a mystery in which the director of the film became implicated. When he started preparing this film, Francesco Rosi sent a researcher, the journalist Mauro de Mauro, to Sicily to investigate the last days of Mattei’s life. While there, investigating, Mauro de Mauro disappeared.

So it became a double mystery, and Rosi himself appears in the film, asking questions about de Mauro, who had presumably been kidnapped, and was never seen again.

Structurally, THE MATTEI AFFAIR is very different from the previous films we’ve seen. They had linear structures, whereas MATTEI starts at the end, and moves back and forward through time. THE MATTEI AFFAIR breaks with conventional story structure in other ways, too.

MATTEI begins at the end. It has a non-linear narrative, jumping back and forth through time.

From the muddy crash site we flash back to air traffic controllers trying to contact Mattei’s aircraft in the air, forward to the burning plane, to a crowd of journalists surrounding Mattei’s wife, then back to Mattei, alive, with his wife (the only other time we see her!) who asks about the death threats he’s received, back to the crowd of reporters, to a car pulling up, to a static shot of the 17-storey AGIP building, lights coming on in the middle of the night, to a battery of television screens, showing Mattei’s face and name.

We hold on a TV screen for biographical details – but the screen is blue, square, a frame-within-the-frame, with roll-bars. The information is reduced, edited, uncertain.

From the TVs we move to American reporters who believe it’s sabotage. Then to a bearded bureaucrat in the AGIP building – then back in time to the bureaucrat with Mattei in his office, where Mattei is warned that there has been sabotage at the airport in Sicily. Mattei refuses to take extra precautions.

“If they want to kill me, let them.”

This is a dangerous man, then. And a fatalistic man. And, clearly, a risk taker.

We cut back from the ‘real’ Mattei to Mattei on the TV screen, telling his story about a kitten who was killed for trying to eat from the same bowl as big dogs.

He hires a former fascist. Promises work to the poor. Defies the US. Makes deals with the Arabs.

Later in the film he succumbs to grandiose notions – “I’m the most important Italian since Julius Caesar!”

In the film’s central section Mattei is often juxtaposed with flames – no longer the burning wreckage of his plane but blazing towers of methane, pouring from the earth.

And the film – moving back and forwards in time – paints a picture of an enigmatic character about whom we learn nothing, other than he has a tremendous head for business and making useful alliances, and that he is an Italian patriot.

He makes an enemy of the American oil companies, turns them down when they offer him jobs.

“I don’t need the money. My salary is sufficient.”  A dangerous man indeed!

The film uses all manner of techniques – documentary realism; journalists who wrote about Mattei talk to the camera, playing themselves – at one point the frame freezes and Rosi gives us a series of title cards, listing Mattei’s triumphs – ITALY HAS WON THE OIL BATTLE – as if this were a film by Brecht. In the Brechtian manner, Rosi plays himself, a director trying to make a film about Mattei, and find out what happened to his missing researcher.

What do I mean by Brechtian? Bertolt Brecht was a German playwright and director. He created a form of “epic drama” which relies on the audience’s reflective detachment, rather than engaging and entertaining them through “naturalistic”, sentimental action. Brecht was a political artist, who like Fritz Lang fled Germany when the Nazis came to power. Like Lang he worked in Hollywood, where he wrote an anti-Nazi script for Lang, HANGMEN ALSO DIE (1942). Like CU’s own Dalton Trumbo fell foul of the anti-communist witch hunts of the post-war years, and was blacklisted in Hollywood. He returned to Europe, where he did his most productive work.

Rosi adopts several Brechtian techniques: the freeze-frame with written information about the subject is one; real people talking directly to the camera about Mattei – breaking the convention of naturalistic drama – is another; the film’s unsentimental attitude to Mattei, its distance from him, is very Brechtian. Rosi, like Brecht, doesn’t care if we like his central character. He just wants us to observe him, and understand his world.

Rosi shows us many things, yet tells us little about Mattei, the individual. Mattei is always shown in a crowd, or in a meeting with one or several people. There is only one scene between him and his wife. We don’t know if he has any children. He is almost never alone, yet he seems to have no friends.

Near the end, Mattei’s moment of glory is in Sicily – with adoring crowds, rice showers, and people urging him not to leave. Then he is alone, in his room, asleep in his suit and tie. He shouts at the waiters and the cleaners in the hotel. Because he is a perfectionist? Or because he is afraid?

No one wants to fly back to Rome with him, except for a foreign journalist. Everyone else knows how dangerous proximity to Mattei has become.

Who killed him? Rosi doesn’t tell us. Because he doesn’t know. Instead he lists the suspects; the Texas oil men, the CIA, the Mafia, a French terrorist organization called the OAS, the French secret service (SDECE), the Italian secret service (SISMI), Mattei’s own political rivals in Italy. He was a powerful man, and he had many enemies.

Rosi leaves it open. Maybe his plane really was struck by lightning. There’s a suggestion that Mattei is like Icarus, the character in the Greek myth, who flew too close to the sun. The sun melted Icarus’ wings, and he fell to his death. When the pilot points out the moon to Mattei, Mattei muses, “I wonder if there’s oil on the moon?” These are his last words in the picture. Then he is dead again – the last shot is Mattei, being carried in a body bag.

Later we’ll see another film about a journalist trying to piece together the meaning of a man’s life: Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE. It too has a flashback structure. But it reaches a conclusion, tells us something about its subject, at the end. Rosi uses his fragmented, flashback structure to enhance the mystery. We’ve seen a lot of Mattei, but we don’t know who killed him, or what happened to Mauro de Mauro.

Rosi appears in THE MATTEI AFFAIR not just to enjoy a cameo role, as Hitchcock was wont to do. He’s asking questions, still searching. His presence tells us that the film is, in a certain way, unfinished — that the full story of Enrico Mattei still has to be told.

THE MATTEI AFFAIR is a “bio-pic”: a narrative film about a real character. Mattei was killed only ten years before the film was made, so the source material was still fresh, and Mattei present in people’s minds. Just because a film is based on fact doesn’t make the film itself true: whether it’s THE MATTEI AFFAIR or AMERICAN SNIPER, the writer and the director and the actors intervene, manipulating the material, imposing their own point of view.

Rosi was very fortunate to have Gian Maria Volonte to play the role. A great Italian actor, one of the greatest actors of the cinema, he was a committed communist and often played psychotic villains. It feels like he and Rosi shared the same vision. Perhaps his experience of playing bad guys enabled Volonte not to sentimentalize his role.

Of course, there are many other sources of material for films. In addition to “factual” material, there are novels, and short stories, and plays, and original screenplays written exclusively for the screen. But all films have a context – an environment or set of circumstances which preceded them, and led to them being made. Often films serve as propaganda: promoting a certain world-view, or mind-set. It’s hard to make a film as clear and distant from its subject as THE MATTEI AFFAIR.

One film which attempts this is HUNGER, a film made by the British director Steve McQueen in 2008. Like MATTEI it’s a bio-pic, the story of the death of an Irish republican, Bobby Sands. In order to understand it, we must first contextualize.

My country, Britain, once had an Empire, controlling India, Pakistan, Burma, parts of Africa and the Middle East. After the Second World War the cost of maintaining the huge military necessary to sustain an empire proved too great, and Britain divested itself of its colonies. It retained only a few, including Gibraltar in Southern Spain, and the northern part of Ireland, which it refused to surrender. Britain had been forced out of most of Ireland, which became an independent country in 1921, but it retained the north, which remains part of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” to this day.

Many Irish people opposed the British presence, which they viewed as a colonial occupation, and fought against it. The English considered the Irish rebels terrorists; the rebels viewed themselves as freedom fighters. HUNGER is the story of some of those rebels, who were imprisoned by the British, and one in particular – Bobby Sands. In an attempt to gain the status of political prisoners, rather than common criminals, some of the Irish republican prisoners went on hunger strike. This story takes place in the 1980s, when British government policy was not to “force feed” hunger strikers, but to allow them to die — unlike the current policy in Guantanamo Bay.

A very fine actor, Michael Fassbender, plays one of these rebel prisoners. Let’s look at a scene from HUNGER, for three reasons: two very strong performances, the chance to see another director’s take on factual source material, and McQueen’s decision to play most of the scene in one really long take. The scene is 24 minutes in length. The shot which begins it is 17 minutes long.

In the film, Sands, played by Fassbender, has announced his intention to go on hunger strike, even if it means his death. A priest has come to the prison, to attempt to dissuade him.

We watch the scene from HUNGER.

Why does McQueen let the opening shot run so long? Why does he not cut back and forth between closeups? Because by failing to cut he builds the tension of the scene. A Monoform approach would be to use the wide shot as an “establisher”, then intercut the closeups of Sands and the priest as they argue. Music would build throughout, especially when Sands tells the story of the foal. But McQueen and his editor, Joe Walker, use only two closeups of Sands, and hold them for a long while. And when they cut to the priest’s closeup, the character doesn’t speak at all. His closeup shows his powerlessness, in the face of Sands’ resolve.

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INTRO TO FILM week 2

In TOBY DAMMIT, as our hero is driven from the airport into Rome, one of his priest/producers describes the Western he’s come to make: “It’s Carl Dreyer meets Pasolini with a touch of John Ford!”

Who are they? Film directors all. Carl Dreyer was the Danish director of PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (France, 1928) Pier Paolo Pasolini was the Italian director of GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW (Italy, 1964). And John Ford was the most famous American director of Westerns (we’ll see his FORT APACHE in our class on genre). Both PASSION and GOSPEL are highly-regarded films – Pasolini was gay, an atheist, and a Marxist, yet he responded to Pope John XXIII’s call for dialogue with non-Christian artists, and dedicated his film to the Pope. For your continuing film education you should see both these films, and several films by Ford!

So the producer/priests have very good taste in directors — perhaps the only example of “good taste” in this excessive, bizarre, exemplary film. TOBY DAMMIT is outstanding in its design, its costumes, its acting, its weird authenticity, giving the feeling of arriving in a strange city, being interviewed by people who don’t like you, meeting unknown celebrities at strange events, never knowing where you are…

If you become a film person, and start going to film festivals, you will have experiences like those depicted here, though with luck they won’t end quite as they do for Toby.

For the film’s cinematographer, Fellini chose Guiseppe Rotunno: a man of his generate.  Rotunno has shot some 80 films, and according to IMDB is still working (!). He made eight films with Fellini, and later shot American studio pictures like POPEYE and ALL THAT JAZZ.

What does the cinematographer  – also known as the Director of Photography (DP or DOP) – do? Do they hold the camera? In traditional studio cinema, they did not: DP and camera operator were considered different jobs. With the coming of the  independent cinema of 60s, the two roles were increasingly designed. This was partially due to lower budgets, but also to the arrival of a smaller, lighter 35mm camera – the Arriflex BL – which made location shooting, and hand-held shooting, easier.

The DP, in consultation with the Director, will decide how to shoot, or “cover” the scene. The DP usually makes decisions as to composition: the exact relationship of objects in the frame — so as to create a pleasing image (perhaps by observing  classical painting’s rule of thirds) or a disturbing one (for example, by the use of a disorienting angle, or negative space). The camera crew will “place” the camera, and most likely move it around, so as to get a variety of shots: a wide establisher, medium shots, two-shots, close-ups, “over the shoulders”.

What is the camera? You know, I bet, that it’s based on the camera obscura – a room or box in which light enters through a tiny hole, creating an upside-down image of the scene outside. Such things were described millennia ago, and modern cameras follow this ancient concept. A camera is a box where light enters and is focused on a recording medium – film (which records the image in its emulsion) or a sensor (which converts the image to an electrical signal). But instead of a pinhole, the light enters through something more sophisticated: a lens.

Usually the DP has one camera, and multiple lenses. Many lenses, 3 choices: normal, wide, and telephoto.

All these, basically, do things that our eyes do. We have two eyes, hence a big, wide field of stereoscopic vision. (We are predators so our eyes face forward; if we were prey animals we would have eyes on the sides of our head and and enjoy an even greater field of view, at least until the predators appeared.) In effect our eyes are like a big wide angle lens – yet if our eyes focus on something, our brains discard the surrounding information as we concentrate on the traffic light, the text message, or the movie screen. Our vision – mediated by our brain – while generally acting like a wide angle lens, can also instantly concentrate on a small subject, like a telephoto (or “long”) lens.

Somewhere in between these different viewpoints is a lens which shows part of what we see, more-or-less in the same perspective as the lenses in our eyes. This is called the normal lens,  and in 35mm film terms is often considered to be the 50mm focal length.

Focal length is the term that differentiates all these lenses. The smaller the focal length number, the wider the lens. When Roger Deakins shot SID & NANCY he used two lenses. One was 35mm. A moderately-wide lens. And the other was 85mm, fairly long and good for closeups, but not super-telephoto.

When Dave Bridges shot WALKER, he and I wanted both to see more (in the wide shots), and to get closer (in the close-ups). So our go-to wide lens was 28mm, noticeably wider, with deeper focus; and we shot closeups with a 100mm or 135mm.

dslr-focal-length-angle-of-view

The wider the lens, the greater the depth of field – more of the subject will be in focus.

The longer the lens, the less the depth of field – instead, there will be “bokeh” – a Japanese word meaning the quality of an out-of-focus background. Oddly, shallow focus sometimes is sometimes referred to as “the film look”. While it has become a trope of contemporary cinema, bokeh is only one of various “film looks” including the very wide angles of CITIZEN KANE. An out-of-focus background does not turn digital video into celluloid.

The DP’s bag of tricks will almost always contain a selection of wides and long lenses, and possibly a normal one. Very likely it will also contain a zoom.

Lenses with one fixed focal length are called primes. Lenses which can change their focal length are called zooms.

(In class, I demonstrate with a Lumix point-and-shoot camera. Pushing the little lever on the top, which goes from W for wide to T for telephoto, makes the lens extend and contract, as the lens elements – multiple lenses-within-the-lens – move relative to each other.)

So a zoom is a lens movement. Another type of lens movement is a focus pull.

(I demonstrate this in our large classroom by asking everyone to hold up your hand, and look at it. Then to look at me. Then to look at your hand again. You have just pulled focus, with the lens in your eye. First your hand is in focus, then I – some distance away – am in focus, and your hand is “soft”. Pull focus to your hand again, and I am part of the bokeh.)

Zooms and focus pulls – lens movements – are part of the language of the camera. In addition there are actual camera movements. The camera body may stay entirely still during a focus pull or zoom. Not so with a camera move!

The class speedily identifies the four basic camera moves:

The pan – a horizontal movement of the camera, perhaps on a tripod.

A tilt is a vertical movement of same.

A dolly or a track is a physical movement – following or paralleling the subject – with the camera on a truck or in a car, or on a heavy platform with wheels or on tracks like the railroad.

A crane does everything. But it’s expensive and even big-budget pictures don’t have access to it all the time. So you plan for “crane days” when you can make your most effective use of one.

This film language is specific, but simple. You can’t pan up, or tilt horizontally. But you can crane pretty much anywhere there’s space. As an example of all of the above I offer the opening sequence of a film I directed, REPO MAN (USA, 1984), which has wide shots, telephoto shots, close-ups, pans, and ends with our two crane days: the first in the Mojave desert, as the camera zooms out and cranes up from the burning policeman’s boots; the second in the supermarket, where the direction of the crane continues – right to left – moving down to reveal Otto and Kevin, singing.

The DP was Robby Muller, and his goal was to have the crane give the impression of one continuous movement, out of the desert at sunset, into the supermarket aisles at night.

But wait! There’s more! There’s something else for the director and the DP to consider, assuming they have the autonomy to do so: the shape of the image — which we call the aspect ratio.

The aspect ratio of REPO MAN in the cinema was 1:1.85.  The aspect ratio of THE WIZARD OF OZ was 1:1.375 (roughly 4X3, the old broadcast television format).

The aspect ratio of THE WIZARD OF OZ, and most other films made until the 1950s, was called “Academy”. The aspect ratio of REPO MAN, and most modern American feature films, is called “Widescreen”.

Widescreen had existed since silent film days. Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON (France 1927) and Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL (USA 1930) were shot in widescreen – Walsh shooting with two 35mm cameras side-by-side, Gance using three for a super-wide, multi-image format. But the economic crash of 1929 enabled the studios to make economies, and “Academy” became the de facto aspect ratio until pressure from television forced a change.

TV appeared in the 1930s but was widely introduced as a commodity after the Second World War. In those days there were not the vertically-integrated media conglomerates which we have today: where one corporation owns Universal Pictures, Telemundo and NBC, and another owns 20th Century Fox, Fox News and Fox Cable. TV and the cinema used to be in fierce competition. And when TV began, it broadcast in black and white and with a 4X3 aspect ratio — just like movies.

Film producers, threatened by falling cinema attendances, fought back by producing more films in colour, and by making pictures in widescreen again. Over the years, more than one widescreen aspect ratio developed. The most familiar of these are:

1:1.85 – US WIDESCREEN

1:1.66 – EUROPEAN WIDESCREEN

1:2.39 – SCOPE

1:1.78 (16X9) – DIGITAL TV

There are other widescreen formats, as you can see from the illustration below, but these are the ones you need to know. Note that in the illustration the scope frame (described as 1:2.40) is shown as almost square: this is because Cinemascope uses anamorphic lenses on the camera to squeeze a very wide image into a narrower frame, and in the cinema to expand the squeezed image to its correct ratio. Not all “scope” formats are anamorphic — the Techniscope format favoured by the Italians shoots two widescreen frames in place of one full 35mm frame (so it is also a more economical format).

aspects_formats

There used to be serious issues with information loss when widescreen films were shown on 4X3 television. A terrible system called “pan and scan” would select an almost-square section of the widescreen image, sometimes cutting characters out of the scene, or creating cuts or false pans, always destroying the composition of the original image. 16X9, the current TV broadcast standard, is itself a widescreen format, and it is to be hoped that scope films will be shown in their full 1:2.39 aspect ratio, with black bars at the top and bottom of the frame (subtitles and closed captions should of course reside in the lower bar, not over the image).

(The Criterion DVD of CONTEMPT (France/Italy 1963) has a five-minute element showing how that scope image was “panned and scanned” for TV, which illustrates the flaws of the practice.)

But all this information is technical. The most important question is: do the director and cinematographer take advantage of the frame? How does the director stage the action, and how does the DP cover it? A widescreen image isn’t necessarily better than an Academy one. It can be worse, if the mise-en-scene doesn’t take a wider aspect ratio into account.

As examples, we watch two showdowns. The gunfight in the church in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (Italy/Spain, 1965), directed by Sergio Leone and shot by Massimo Dallamano; and the final showdown of SANJURO (Japan, 1962), directed by Akira Kurosawa and shot by Fukazo Koizumi and Takao Saito.

Both were shot in the scope aspect ratio: Dallamano filming in Techniscope, Koizumi and Saito in Tohoscope. Yet their framing is quite different. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE has an abundance of close-ups Even though they have a vast space available in the ruined church set, Leone and Dallamano stage all the action and the characters in the centre of the frame. They don’t take full advantage of the aspect ratio, and they ignore the rule of thirds. Whereas in SANJURO, the compositions of Kurosawa, Koizumi and Saito push the edges of the frame.

So it’s not simply a question of choosing an aspect ratio. It’s a question of using it to advantage.

Next we screen LIVING IN OBLIVION (USA 1975), a comedy about filmmaking, in which the cinematographer plays a pivotal role.

This is  a very believable portrayal of a low-budget romantic comedy shoot. The self-regarding movie star played by James LeGros was apparently inspired by Brad Pitt, with whom the director, Tom DiCillo, had previously worked.

In addition to the actors, how many crew members are identified as such in LIVING IN OBLIVION? What is their job?

In addition to the suffering director and cinematographer, we saw an assistant camera person, an assistant director (who was also the film’s producer), a script supervisor (who makes a record of what is shot and reminds the actors of their lines), a sound recordist, a boom person (who directs the microphone at the actors via a pole called a boom), a gaffer (who lights the set), a makeup artist, a craft services person (who provided the delicious milk for the cast and crew’s coffee) and a production assistant / driver.

This was a small crew.

Making a film is like mounting an ambitious stage play. It’s a complicated process and it involves many different jobs.  The DP is never alone. He/she must have a first assistant a.k.a. focus puller — often said to be the most important person on the set, since if a shot is out of focus it is almost universally considered unusable.

The DP will almost always have a second assistant. This person assists the first assistant, and makes the camera reports – the camera department’s own record of what is shot. On a small shoot he/she may load the magazine with film, or change the SD card or the hard drive, and do the “slate”. On a bigger shoot, it’s a separate job called the clapper / loader.

Why is there a slate? Because sound is recorded separately. When films were shot exclusively on celluloid there was no way to record the picture and the audio on the same medium. So audio was recorded first on a separate optical film track, then on tape. The slate identifies the production, the scene and take number, the director and the DP, and whether it is day or night. When sound rolls, the assistant director will identify the scene and take number audibly. The “clap” at the beginning of he shot enables the editor to “synch up” picture and dialogue in the cutting room.

Even today, when sound and audio can be recorded to the same digital file, sound recordists prefer the higher quality and safety of a separate audio recorder, which saves the information on an SD card or drive.

In addition, a video shoot will usually have an additional crew member in the form of the digital intermediate technician, whose job is to keep track of those drives or cards and make sure that the material is properly backed up, and delivered to the editor in the correct format (some video cameras record in their own arcane formats and their shots need to be “transcoded” for the editor to use).

The gaffer, or lighting designer, will have on a larger film a crew of electricians, led by a best boy (who can be of any sex, though camera departments tend to be boys’ clubs, something your generation will change). And then there are the grips who pull the dolly and build the tracks and the crane and anything else that needs building, other than the sets themselves which are the province of the art department.

We don’t see anything of the art department in LIVING IN OBLIVION. They are making a low-budget film and most likely their small art department is already at the next location, preparing it to be shot. In a studio film the production designer may have time to drop by the sound stage and see how things are going, but on a location-based, independent film the art department is a crew in its own right, and the designer is invariably elsewhere, working flat out to have the next set ready.

The production designer is assisted by art directors, set decorators, on-set dressers, and prop persons. Usually a prop person will remain on the shooting location, to make sure everything needed is to hand.

Closely allied to the art department (we hope) is the costume department. How many people does it contain? How big is the cast and the budget? Only Adrian got credit for the costumes on THE WIZARD OF OZ, but imagine the numbers of costumers necessary to dress Dorothy, her team, and all those Munchkins.

Special effects are more usually done in post production today, but sometimes there is still a need for on-set special effects, in which case a special effects crew will be on set also (they would then deal with the smoke machine, though it would not work any better than it does in LIVING IN OBLIVION). If there’s to be fighting, there had better be a fight arranger. If firearms, swords, or light sabers are involved then a master of arms may be present. If Terry, the terrier who played Toto, is required on set, she will be accompanied by her animal wrangler.

(And in addition to any number of producers there will also be a production manager, often seen on set, and a production coordinator who works at the production office. The latter person is usually extremely busy, and if she/he appears on set, it is a sign that everything back at the office is going extremely smoothly… or that the production has just been shut down.)

Sun Tsu – author of the Art of Strategy – said we must plan for everything to go extremely smoothly.

This is true. This involves taking care, in advance, to do things right. The producer and director should make a risk assessment — to analyze the potential risks and dangers and strategize how to avoid them. When a film does this right, everything goes extremely smoothly. When it doesn’t, it looks like this:

We view the scene from DAY OF THE LOCUST in which an unfinished and unsafe set collapses under the cast and crew of a Hollywood historical drama. Directed by John Schlesinger, and shot by Conrad Hall, this was a big budget film with a lot of technical people – builders, carpenters, special effects crews – to make sure that that disaster could take place safely.

It’s an impressive, frightening scene. Impressive in the way the special effects and construction crew created the whole artifice, and got it right, doing it spectacularly, and safely. Frightening in the way the terrible industrial disaster is quickly forgotten – by a forward-moving, Hollywood narrative – and the film focuses on the love story of Karen Black and William Atherton, rather than the extras and crew people still trapped, possibly dying, in the wreckage.

You’ve all heard about the TWILIGHT ZONE disaster. This was a portmanteau film based on episodes of the TV series, produced by Steven Spielberg and John Landis in 1983. It was big-budget, no-expenses-spared, Hollywood movie in which – on one episode at least – safety considerations were entirely neglected, and three people (two of them children) were killed. The director, the associate producer, the unit production manager, special effects supervisor, and a helicopter pilot were all put on trial, charged with involuntary manslaughter. All were acquitted.

Last year another TV movie killed a crew member by shooting illegally on a railroad bridge in Georgia. The director, assistant director, and two producers have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass; their trial is set for March. TRANSFORMERS 3 severely injured an extra in Chicago, leaving her with massive brain damage. There is a tendency to think, on movie sets, that the film is the most important thing. It isn’t. The most important thing is the safety or your cast and crew. You know this. But there is a sort of insanity which affects film sets, sometimes, as DAY OF THE LOCUST shows.

Making a film is also an opportunity for some people to behave extremely badly and immorally, and this has not been lost on filmmakers. Jean-Luc Godard is a maker of experimental dramatic features: he was one of the founders of the French Nouvelle Vague — the New Wave of young directors, shooting quickly on location on low budgets, like the Italian Neorealists, all of whom profoundly impressed the New Hollywood directors of the 1960s, as we shall see.

Godard’s later pictures are for a general viewer abstruse and hard to follow. His early pictures, such as BREATHLESS and WEEKEND, have clearer narratives. LE MEPRIS – CONTEMPT (France/Italy 1963) – is one of these clear and engaging films.

It’s the story of a relationship which fails when a writer of detective stories gets a job adapting Homer’s Odyssey for a power-mad Hollywood producer, Jerry Prokosch. Now Prokosch is a fictional character, played by a fine American actor, Jack Palance. But the director in the film, Fritz Lang, is a real person, played by the director Fritz Lang.

Lang was a German director. He made METROPOLIS (1927), M (1931) and after he fled the Nazis became a Hollywood director. The experiences he describes in CONTEMPT, and which are said to be his, are true.

So Godard draws on reality for his dark vision of cinema production, seen here at a movie studio in Rome, which Prokosch is selling to build a supermarket.

We screen the introduction of Palance’s character, followed by the screening room scene from CONTEMPT (DVD chapters 3 and 4).

(Next week we’ll talk about editing, about editing language, and about how narrative films are structured).

(Please read NOTES ON THE MEDIA CRISIS by Peter Watkins. It deals with how film language has changed – particularly in regard to editing – and it will illuminate our discussion.)

INTRO TO FILM week 1

This is my last semester at the University of Colorado Boulder. Usually I teach production and screenwriting, but this time around I’ve drawn the introductory film class. The semester runs for sixteen weeks (minus one for spring break) so I have thirty classes and fifteen screenings to cover… to cover what, exactly? Academics have a very specific take on things, and a language all their own. But that take and that language aren’t mine. I’m a film director, writer, actor and producer. So my “intro to film” may be somewhat different from the standard introductory course.

Anyway, assuming my take may be of interest (if only to students who miss a class and want to know what they missed!) here’s the first of various posts on that subject.

We start with the title sequence of THE WILD BUNCH — because it’s an exemplary title sequence, because of the way it sets up the film’s conflict (outlaws versus railroad bounty hunters, all of whom are living on borrowed time), because the uniformed hero/villains who are about to provoke a massacre aren’t just a cinematic invention but a reference to the film’s context — the ongoing massacre in VietNam — and because the sequence’s heroic conclusion (“If they move, kill ’em!” / freeze frame / title: Directed by Sam Peckinpah”) is about as clear a celebration of the auteur director as you could ever get.

What’s an auteur? You probably have an idea, and I’ll come back to it, but let me first cover some other ground. What do we mean when we say, “a film”? A sequence of moving images which tells a story? Why is it called a film? Once all movies were shot on film. Now many of them are shot, and screened, on digital video. Yet we still call them films. And if they’re 80 minutes or more, we call them feature films. (As to the difference between a film and a movie, in class I tell my Michael Mann story, which I will share another time).

What kind of film is a film? Is it a drama? Most features are. Is it a documentary? Is it a full-length commercial for a product (think SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE or TOP GUN)? Is it experimental? (I ask that because CU’s founding father was Stan Brakhage and the school is heavily oriented towards experimental film, though most of the undergraduate filmmakers make narratives.)

What are its technical aspects? Is it sound or silent? Mono or stereo? 5.1 or 7.1? Colour or black and white? Why? (This is an interesting consideration. When sound came in in 1929, that was it. Henceforth films/movies had sound. But when colour arrived a few years later, black and white remained a popular medium – not only for financial reasons, but as an aesthetically preferable choice). What is its aspect ratio: the shape of the image projected on the screen, and who decides this? Is it 2D or 3D (hopefully 2D)? What is the frame rate (again, one hopes for 24 frames a second)?

This is a mixture of technical and aesthetic questions, and it brings us to MY questions: questions a filmmaker might ask, after seeing a film:

Whose idea was it? Where did the idea come from?
Who pays for it?
Who creates it?
How does it deal with censorship and other barriers?
Who sees it?
Who – if anyone – profits from it?

That last question may seem redundant, but not all films make money. Some films aren’t expected to make money, but are made for other reasons, as we shall see.

What Film Studies and film critics tend to do is concentrate on only one of those questions: the creative one. Who, the critic asks, is responsible for a film? Is it the director? the producer? the writer? the principal actor?

There’s a tendency among critics and academics to assume the director is responsible for everything — what the French call the auteur, or author. As a director, I can assure you this is not so. Directing actors, working on the script, casting the actors, and deciding where the vehicles must be parked is more than enough work for any one person. Even directors who hold the camera from time to time, or write their own music, rely on an entire camera department, and an art department, and costumers, and sound recordists and designers, and assistant directors and second-unit directors and truck drivers and caterers to get the job done.

I’m the writer/director of REPO MAN, but I’m not responsible for everything you see in that film. Robby Muller, Bob Richardson, J. Rae Fox and Linda Burbank are all responsible for its particular visual aspect. Perhaps to encompass this complexity the French came up with another concept – mise-en-scene – to describe the creative process by which a film, or play, is formed. Translated, it means, simply, “put in scene” – and though it’s sometimes used as a synonym for the director’s work, it really implies a lot more: the location, the props and costumes, the lighting, and the lens the DP chooses to capture the shot, or scene.

Clearly the French were thinking about these things before the rest of us, and finding language to describe new processes. They even came up with words to describe the cinema itself: le Septieme Art – the Seventh Art (the previous six being literature, painting, sculpture, poetry, theatre and comic books). It is a good term, because it describes the original art form of the twentieth century. Film existed in the 19th century, and it exists today, but it came to fruition with the marriage of sound and moving pictures, and inevitably most of the films Intro to Film covers will be 20th century films.

And because context is everything (why were those bandits dressed in US Army uniforms?) to understand a film you need to know when and where the film was made, and what else was happening at that time. Films either address the issues of the day, or attempt to ignore them. In either case, this is interesting. So to understand the films of the 20th century we need a timeline of the 20th century.

You can make your own. In fact, you must. My own timeline, unfortunately, concentrates on wars but also includes revolutions, economic collapses, and political assassinations. Your timeline will vary, depending on your interests. But a historical timeline of your own is vital, if you’re to understand the context in which these films were made.

The first film I screen entirely is THE WIZARD OF OZ (USA, 1939). I show it because it’s a film most people are familiar with, and because it addresses the auteur theory head-on while providing surprising answers to some of my film director-mindset questions.

THE WIZARD OF OZ was made because the head of MGM studios, Louis B. Mayer, wanted a big fantasy picture to compete with Walt Disney’s SNOW WHITE (released the previous year). It was the pet project of its producer, Mervyn LeRoy, who wanted to direct it: Mayer told him no. Mayer saw it as a “prestige project” — that is, it didn’t need to make money, just prove that MGM was a match for Disney in the fantasy game. So it got a huge budget: two million dollars, which swelled to almost three by the time the film was done. The film didn’t break even until, decades later, it was sold to television.

Who directed it? Victor Fleming received the credit, and directed most of the picture. But the first director was Richard Thorpe, who shot for two weeks with Judy Garland wearing a blonde wig. Thorpe was replaced by George Cukor, who lasted three days and took the wig off. Before the film was finished, Victor Fleming was taken off it and loaned to another studio: Clark Gable wanted him to direct GONE WITH THE WIND. The film was finished by King Vidor, who shot the black and white scenes. Another director, Norman Taurog, is also said to have worked on the film.

In these circumstances, who is the auteur? Fleming? Mervyn LeRoy, who supervised the whole show? Or the studio which wanted the picture made? And whose is the mise-en-scene? A constantly-moving camera was rare in those days. Was this the choice of the DP, Harold Rosson? What of the film’s extraordinary look? One art director – Cedric Gibbons – and one costumer – Adrian – were credited, but clearly multiple talents were involved.

The examples of THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE WILD BUNCH suggest there is more than one type of director. There is the director-for-hire (Fleming, the Scott brothers, say) — Steven Frears told me he happily fits into this category, not initiating his own projects, but waiting for his agent to bring him work. There is the auteur director, who may commission the screenplay and raise money for the film (think Kurosawa, Arturo Ripstein, the Coppolas). And there is the hybrid, who does both (Oliver Stone, Alejandro Iñarritu and others).

The more money at stake, the more tightly-controlled the director is likely to be. And conversely, the further away from the studio, and the lower the budget, the more freedom the director may enjoy.  THE WIZARD OF OZ was made on sound stages in Culver City. THE WILD BUNCH made on location in Parras, Coahuila, Mexico, a long way from LA.

Even an auteur director faces limitations: what is affordable, what is available, what can be safely done without endangering cast and crew. These are serious considerations.

Directors and writers usually face an impossible task when the subject matter of their film is disapproved of. Most often the film cannot be made because financiers won’t support it (it took me thirty years to get BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO off the ground as a feature after studio feedback declared it “too anti-war”). If a controversial film is made, it may well fall foul of censorship. In most countries, the censorship body is government-appointed. In the United States, censorship was in the hands of cities and municipalities — till in 1930, the studios published a “Production Code”, drawn up under the supervision of Will Hays, president of the studio’s lobbying group, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (later renamed the MPAA – the Motion Picture Association of America).

Supposedly voluntary, the Hays Code was strictly enforced by the Studio Relations Committee. It prohibited depictions of illicit sex, and disrespectful portrayals of authority figures, stating “the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.”

In 1934 the studios established the Production Code Administration, which required all films released on or after July 1 1934 to receive a certificate of approval.

Failure to receive a certificate meant a film could not be released in the US. What a coup for the studios! They now had a lock on what films could and could not be distributed. Independent producers could apply for a certificate, but they were obliged to abide by the studios’ view of things. This situation lasted into the 1960s, when independent filmmakers like Roger Corman and Dennis Hopper broke the mould with lively, controversial subjects and forced the studios to compete with them.

But even today, eighty years on, the MPAA rating system still exists and the studios are able to marginalize independent and foreign films in the US by giving them the dread “NC-17” rating while their own films continue to receive an “R” for similar content.

Some directors’ careers were wrecked by coming into conflict with the censorship regime. In 2010 the Iranian director Jafar Panahi was subjected to house arrest and banned from making films for 20 years. In 1965 Peter Watkins, one of the most talented of British directors, saw his film THE WAR GAME banned by the BBC, the broadcaster which commissioned it. Suppressed in England, THE WAR GAME won an Oscar for “best documentary” – and it wasn’t a documentary. We’ll look at that film later in the semester.

This first week concludes with a film by a director who is an undisputed auteur, and a highly original and successful one: Frederico Fellini, one of the great Italian directors, whose films include EIGHT & A HALF and LA DOLCE VITA.

It’s based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe, and was made as part of a French/Italian “portmanteau” film called HISTOIRES EXTRAORDINAIRES (SPIRITS OF THE DEAD, 1968). Context being everything, an Edgar Allen Poe movie didn’t just appear by magic. This European coproduction followed a series of seven successful Poe-based horror movies, directed by Corman for A.I.P., including FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960) and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964).

Fellini’s film is based on Poe’s Never Bet The Devil Your Head (published in 1841 — another reason the Poe stories were popular is because they had passed out of copyright, and were in the public domain). It shares the devilish centrepiece of Poes’ story – but it’s also about the movie business, and worth your attention for its take on that, too — as a decadent actor played by Terence Stamp shows up in Rome to attend a film festival and star in a Vatican-financed Western, in return for a Ferrari.

TOBY DAMMIT is example of a genuine auteur at work — a director who has thought about the project, worked on the screenplay, chose the cinematographer and designer, and spent time in the editing room.

Fellini directed more than 20 films, several of them classics. TOBY DAMMIT might just be the best of them all.

(Week 2 will deal with Cinematography, Camera Language, and Crew Roles)