kottke.org posts about film school
In his newest video, Evan Puschak talks about Arrival, calling it “a response to bad movies”. Arrival was perhaps my favorite film of 2016, and I agree with him about how well-made this film is. There’s a top-to-bottom attention to craft on display, from how it looks to how it was cast (Amy Adams was the absolute perfect choice for the lead) to the integration of the theme with story to how expertly it was adapted from Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life. The whole thing’s tight as a drum. If you happened to miss it, don’t watch this video (it gives the whole thing away) and go watch it instead…it’s available to rent/buy on Amazon.
Looking back through the archives, I’m realizing I never did a post about Arrival even though I collected some links about it. So, linkdump time!
Wired wrote about how the movie’s alien alphabet was developed.
Stephen Wolfram wrote about his involvement with the science of the film — his son Christopher wrote Mathematica code for some of the on-screen visuals. 1
Science vs Cinema explored how well the movie represented actual science:
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer wrote about how he adapted Chiang’s short story for the screen.
Jordan Brower wrote a perceptive review/analysis that includes links to several other resources about the film.
Update: The director of photography for Arrival was Bradford Young, who shot Selma and is currently working on the Han Solo movie for Disney. Young did an interview with No Film School just before Arrival came out.
I’m from the South, so quilts are a big part of telling our story. Quilting is ancient, but in the South it’s a very particular translation of idea, time, and space. In my own practice as an image maker, I slowly began to be less concerned with precision and more concerned with feeling.
Quiltmakers are rigorous, but they’re a mixed media format. I think filmmaking should be a mixed media format. I’m just really honoring what quiltmakers do, which is tell a story by using varying texture within a specific framework to communicate an idea. For me, with digital technology, lenses do that the best. The chips don’t do it now-digital film stock is basically all captured the same, but the lenses are how you give the image its textural quality.
Update: James Gleick, author of Time Travel, wrote about Arrival and Story of Your Life for The New York Review of Books.
What if the future is as real as the past? Physicists have been suggesting as much since Einstein. It’s all just the space-time continuum. “So in the future, the sister of the past,” thinks young Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, “I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be.” Twisty! What if you received knowledge of your own tragic future-as a gift, or perhaps a curse? What if your all-too-vivid sensation of free will is merely an illusion? These are the roads down which Chiang’s story leads us. When I first read it, I meant to discuss it in the book I was writing about time travel, but I could never manage that. It’s not a time-travel story in any literal sense. It’s a remarkable work of imagination, original and cerebral, and, I would have thought, unfilmable. I was wrong.
When Westworld started, I thought Hopkins’ character, park founder Robert Ford, was going to be a relatively minor player, an accomplished but past-prime actor popping up occasionally to function as a one-man chorus interpreting a tragedy for us. But as Evan Puschak shows in his breakdown of the Oscar winner’s performance in a single scene from Westworld, Hopkins is still near the height of his powers and Ford is at the center of the narrative. (Shout out as well to Jeffrey Wright and especially Thandie Newton, who along with Hopkins has been the stand-out performer so far.)
If you watch any of Steven Spielberg’s movies, you’ll notice a distinctive element: the Spielberg Face.
If Spielberg deserves to be called a master of audience manipulation, then this is his signature stroke.
You see the onscreen character watching along with you in wonder, awe, apprehension, fear, sadness. It’s the director’s way of hitting pause, to show the audience this is a critical scene, to reinforce how the audience should be feeling in that moment.
For a recent episode of Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak takes a look at how Steven Spielberg constructed the intense opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. His decision to film the Omaha Beach landing from the perspective of a battlefield cameraman — something he cribbed from actual WWII battle footage and John Ford’s The Battle of Midway, where scenes in which on-set explosions made the film skip were kept in the finished movie — made it one of the best depictions of war ever created. I need to watch this movie again soon.
An incredible detail Puschak notes: the shot-length in that scene was surprisingly long, particularly for a battle scene. In fact, the shot length in that scene was more than double that of the entirety of 300, any Transformers movie, and Inception.
The series of Marvel movies — X-Men, Avengers, Spider-Man, etc. — is the highest grossing film series of all time but the films’ music is largely forgettable and bland in a way that it isn’t in Star Wars, James Bond, or Harry Potter. In this video, the Every Frame a Painting gang explores why that is: partially a trend toward movie music not designed to be noticed and also the use by directors of temporary music that unduly influences the final score. All the Marvel movies run together for me (aside from Guardians of the Galaxy, which had distinctive music in it, I can’t recall a single scene from any one of the more recent films) and perhaps the music is one reason.
There’s a follow-up video to the one above composed of clips of movies played with their temp music followed by the same clips with the final music, which is nearly identical.
They’ve also started a Twitter account highlighting the influence of temp music on final scores.
These videos have me wondering…was Carter Burwell’s score for Carol influenced by temp music, specifically Philip Glass’ score for The Hours? This interview in Rolling Stone and the FAQ on his site suggest not:
It’s his ability to make music that compliments a scene rather than eclipse it that has made him an invaluable creative partner to filmmakers who work in such intense melodramatic registers, and Burwell is emphatic that his scores aren’t responsible for all of the emotional heavy-lifting. “As a listener, I do not like being instructed,” he says, emphatically. “It riles me when the music tells me something before I can figure it out for myself. In fact, I enjoy the discomfort of not being sure how to take something.” It’s the reason why he loathes listening to the temp music that directors often attach to rough cuts in order to point composers in the right direction.
But the similarities are there, so who knows?
Update: I forgot to mention that Stanley Kubrick ended up ditching the original score written for 2001 and sticking with the temp music, which were the classical compositions by Strauss et al. that we’re so familiar with today.
Update: In a video response, Dan Golding shows how temp music is not a recent Hollywood obsession…even the famous Star Wars theme was greatly influenced by temp music:
He questions that the pull of temp music by contemporary directors and composers is sufficient to explain why movie music is now so uninspiring:
Film music is an embrace of rampant unoriginality, and to think about how film music works, we need to think of new ways to talk about these questions, rather than just saying, “it’s a copy”.
Golding pins the blame primarily on technology but also on composers and filmmakers drawing from fewer and less diverse sources. Interestingly, this latter point was also made by Every Frame a Painting’s Tony Zhou in a recent chat with Anil Dash, albeit about originality in video essays. A lightly edited excerpt:
My advice to people has always been: copy old shit. For instance, the style of Every Frame a Painting is NOT original at all. I am blatantly ripping off two sources: the editing style of F for Fake, and the critical work of David Bordwell/Kristin Thompson, who wrote the introductory text on filmmaking called Film Art. I’ve run into quite a few video essays that are trying to be “like Every Frame a Painting” and I always tell people, please don’t do that because I’m ripping of someone else. You should go to the source. When any art form or medium becomes primarily about people imitating the dominant form, we get stifling art.
If you look at all of the great filmmakers, they’re all ripping someone off but it was someone 50 years ago. It rejuvenated the field to be reminded of the history of our medium. And I sincerely wish more video essayists would rip off the other great film essayists: Chris Marker, Godard, Agnès Varda, Thom Andersen. Or even rip off non-video essayists. I would kill to see someone make video essays the way Pauline Kael wrote criticism. That would be my jam!
ps. Also! Hans Zimmer — composer of film scores for Gladiator, Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight, etc. — was the keyboard player in the Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star music video. WHAT?!
In a relatively new video essay about movies, Lessons from the Screenplay, Michael Tucker looks at Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis’s original script for Ghostbusters and how the framework it provided, enhanced by the improv skills of the actors, produced a movie better than the script might have indicated at first glance. And oh man, I love the turn-of-the-century Ghostbusters idea. (via one perfect shot)
The Bear Jew. Hugo Stiglitz. The Jew Hunter. Bridget von Hammersmark. Names, identity, and personal reputation management are important elements in Inglourious Basterds, as they are in all of Tarantino’s films (Vincent Vega, our man in Amsterdam; Mr. Pink; The Bride / Beatrix Kiddo / Black Mamba). In this video essay, Drew Morton shows how Tarantino’s characters assert their identities over and over again, with varying results.
I think this might be my favorite Every Frame a Painting yet: Tony Zhou explores how a film editor does what she does. Or as he puts it, “how does an editor think and feel?” The point about emotions taking time is especially interesting, as is the accompanying comparison between similar scenes from The Empire Strikes Back and Ant Man.
Emotions take time. When we watch people onscreen, we feel a connection to them. And that’s because we have time to watch their faces before they speak and time to watch them afterwards. Editors have to decide, “how much time do I give this emotion?”
Rope is a 1948 film by Alfred Hitchcock that appears to be shot in realtime using one unbroken take.1 But since film camera magazines at the time could only hold 10 minutes of film, there are actually ten cuts. Five of these cuts were carefully disguised and the other five occurred every 20 minutes or so during reel changes when the movie was shown at theaters (and which don’t appear seamless when you watch the movie all the way through on DVD, etc.). This video shows all ten cuts (spoilers, obviously).
From Nelson Carvajal, an examination of the visual influences of Beyonce’s Lemonade visual album, from Pipilotti Rist to Terrence Malick to David Lynch.
The biggest influence present in Lemonade, is that of the great Terrence Malick. Imagery from his films To The Wonder and The Tree of Life (in particular a standout sequence involving a bedroom underwater) definitely inspired a lot of the overall tone of introspection and spiritual reflection that Beyoncé is striving for here. One of Lemonade’s directors, Kahlil Joseph, shot B-roll on Malick’s To The Wonder, so the impressionistic style of filmmaking has obviously carried over.
See also What to read after watching Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’.
Using 12 Angry Men, Psycho, The Godfather, and Gone Girl as examples, this video shows several different ways to end a movie. And so, spoilers.
Using traditional cinematography, characters are not usually confined to the bottom third of the screen, crammed all the way in the corner, or placed right at the edge of the screen, looking offscreen. But rules are meant to be broken and the director of photography for Mr. Robot uses these unconventional shots to tell the audience about what’s happening on the screen.
P.S. Season 2 is coming in July.
P.P.S. I love that episode titles for season 1 are modeled after the filenames of pirated videos on BitTorrent: eps1.0_hellofriend.mov, eps1.4_3xpl0its.wmv, eps1.7_wh1ter0se.m4v, etc.
P.P.P.S. Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting doesn’t like the framing in Mr. Robot, called it a gimmick. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t even notice the unusual framing when I watched it. I am flunking out of internet film school, aren’t I? :(
Just by watching how characters are introduced in movies, you can learn who’s important, what someone is thinking, the film’s theme, or a character’s flaws.
Mad Max, Star Wars, and Ex Machina have gotten all the VX press this year, but the special effects in Carol are off the chain, yo! I had no idea Andy Serkis played Rooney Mara’s character in certain heavy VX scenes.
A quick three-minute look at how the same scenes were filmed in movies and their remakes. Includes scenes from Oldboy, Psycho, The Ring, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Cape Fear, Planet of the Apes, Carrie, and Solaris.
For his series on character actors called No Small Parts, Brandon Hardesty profiles the incomparable Crispin Glover. (via waxy)
In this installment of Every Frame a Painting, Tony Zhou examines how the Coen brothers shoot characters in their films close up with wide lenses to created empathy and comedy.
Howard Shore, composer of the orchestral score for The Lord of the Rings, uses leitmotif to help tell the story, in the form of recurring thematic musical phrases that accompany certain actions, places, or characters. For instance, there’s a Shire theme that plays when the hobbits are central to the action but which becomes less important as their physical distance from the Shire increases. Wagner famously used leitmotif in his Ring cycle and so did John Williams in Star Wars…Vader’s theme is a good example.1
In film and video, which way the characters move across the screen affects how the viewers think about those characters. Generally, left-to-right movement is viewed positively while movement the opposite way is viewed more negatively. In the video, they mention a piece Roger Ebert wrote on How to Read a Movie, which is worth a re-read even if you saw it here many years ago.
From Celia Gomez, a supercut of some of the most notable movie references from The Simpsons. The Simpsons came out when I was 16 and while I loved it immediately, the show started making a whole lot more sense after I watched The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Citizen Kane, and Dr. Strangelove in my 20s. Lots of Kubrick in the Simpsons.
In this video, Lewis Bond shows how the composition of movie scenes can not only result in beauty, but can reveal relationships and convey meaning.
Evan Puschak, aka the Nerdwriter, explains why the third movie in the Harry Potter series, The Prisoner of Azkaban, is the best film in the series — spoiler: because Alfonso Cuarón — and why that matters for the young fans of the series: for some, it’s their first exposure to good filmmaking.
Riffing on Kathryn Schulz’s piece about the five best punctuation marks in literature, Max Tohline explores how editing in film can function as punctuation to separate or join together characters, shots, and ideas within movies.
From Tony Zhou comes another episode of Every Frame a Painting. In it, he uses Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder to explore ensemble staging, how movies can direct an audience’s onscreen attention when many people are on the screen at the same time, and why a director would want to do that.
Star Wars Minus Star Wars is a video essay on the original film that doesn’t use a single shot, sound, or snippet of music from the original movie. Instead, it strings together scenes and sounds from movies that influenced George Lucas in making the film and also from movies that have been influenced by Star Wars.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Star Wars. Its arrival in theaters on May 25th 1977 marked the end of one chapter in film history and the beginning of another. It’s a hinge on which film history swings. Upon its release, critic Pauline Kael derided the film as “an assemblage of spare parts-it has no emotional grip… an epic without a dream” Twenty years after its release critic Roger Ebert remarked that the film “colonized our imaginations, and it is hard to stand back and see it simply as a motion picture, because it has so completely become part of our memories.”
They’re both right. Star Wars succeeded because of its roots in film history and mythology, and its influence over generations of filmmakers can be felt in countless works that came after it. For better or worse, Star Wars engulfs the past and future of moviemaking.
That was super-fun to watch. See also Where did Star Wars come from? and Paul’s Boutique Minus Paul’s Boutique. (via @tonyszhou, who calls it “the best Star Wars video essay ever”)
Update: This might be even more impressive. John D’Amico made a full-length shot-for-shot remake of Star Wars using material that influenced (or may have influenced) Lucas in making the film. Very cool.
“DVD extras” is a phrase that’s rapidly receding in the pop cultural rearview mirror, but YouTube is chock full1 of them for many popular movies and shows. Here are a few behind-the-scenes looks at Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Bonus video: how to make a Courtesan au Chocolat from Mendl’s:
In this video about the making of The Hobbit movies, members of the film crew, including director Peter Jackson, admit that they didn’t really have a good idea of what was going to happen in the movies until they were on the set filming and that they made a lot of it up as they went along.
The above clip is from a behind-the-scenes video on the Battle of the Five Armies Blu-ray, and it features Peter Jackson, Andy Serkis, and other production personnel confessing that due to the director changeover — del Toro left the project after nearly two years of pre-production — Jackson hit the ground running but was never able to hit the reset button to get time to establish his own vision. In comparison, he spent years prepping the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, and on the Hobbit things got so bad that when they started shooting the titular Battle of Five Armies itself they were essentially just shooting B-roll: footage of people in costumes waving around swords, without any cohesive plan for how the sequence would actually play out. (A choice Jackson quote: “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”)
No idea why they would release a video like this which pretty much admits that the movies weren’t as good as they should have been. I mean, they still made a crap-ton of money at the box office (a combined $3 billion worldwide), so happy ending for them anyway I guess?
For the latest installment of Every Frame a Painting, Tony Zhou examines the artistry and thought silent film master Buster Keaton put into the physical comedy in his movies. I used to watch all sorts of old movies with my dad (Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy) and had forgotten how good Keaton was. If you’re anything like me in wanting to head down a Keaton rabbit hole, Zhou recommends starting with the first short film he directed and released, One Week.
See also Studs Terkel’s 1960 interview with Keaton, a video showing Keaton’s use of symmetry and center framing (Wes Anderson, Kubrick), Every Frame a Painting episode on Jackie Chan, and The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection, a 14-disc Blu-ray box set.
The Foley Artist a charming short film on how a Foley artist would sound design a day in an ordinary life. Running hands through spaghetti noodles stands in for hair washing, a spray bottle sounds like rustling sheets, that sort of thing.
See also this fascinating short documentary about what a Foley artist does.
Rishi Kaneria examines the use of props in movies, from the sled in Citizen Kane to the oranges in The Godfather to the cardboard box in Se7en. A transcript is available here.
When used like this props become more than just objects. They become symbols. A symbol that represents a friendship. Or a marriage. Science. Or God.
A prop can be a symbol of reality. Or Illusion. Of the future. Or the past.
And the same prop can symbolize childhood in one film…but death in another. But death can also be symbolized like this. In the Godfather, Coppola associates death with something unexpected: oranges. This isn’t the kind of thing that’s in the foreground of filmmaking. But it’s there if you’re looking for it.