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.
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).
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.)