Carol

The grain in “Carol” matters because Haynes and Lachman force 16-mm. film stock to reveal the extreme range of its expressive possibilities. The viewing of the film becomes a sort of extreme experience, all the more so for its concentration of the movie’s central dramatic elements in its performances and in the composition of its images.
 
Sitting far back, I saw the artifice in the actresses’ glacial, theatrical precision. Up close, their performances deliver a tremulous, tensile control, a precision that shivers with the passions straining to break out just below the surface—the surface of behavior, the surface of decorum, the surface of the skin. I don’t think that the subcutaneous frissons result from the actors’ performances but, rather, from Haynes’s performance-capture by means of Lachman’s grainy images. They’re not effects of the actors’ skin but of its appearance on the second skin of the film stock (the French word for “film” is “pellicule,” meaning little skin), which lends the actors’ theatricalized immobility an illusion of shivers.
 

Richard Brody on Carol. What a beautiful observation on the grain of the 16mm film stock on Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara's skin as symbolic of the irrepressible (if socially forbidden) passion beneath the surface. I once heard a director once refer to 16mm film grain as looking like golf balls copulating furiously, though I could not have predicted that metaphor tumbling out of my memory during a movie about a lesbian romance in mid-century America.

I was concerned going into Carol that the trio of director Todd Haynes and actresses Blanchett and Mara would be a menage a trots executed with such calculated precision that all passion would be suffocated. Blanchett is so technically gifted an actor it seems she can control the fluttering of each individual eyelid, and Mara has a certain stillness of gaze that always renders her face a mystery.

I was pleasantly surprised. It's not that the movie isn't recognizably Haynes'. There may always be an element of his work that is cool to the touch. But here he channels Wong Kar-Wai at times to turn the physical world, in particular its surfaces and barriers, into the inner surfaces of his actors. In that, what is 16mm film if not just one more layer on the canvas?

Another 2015 movie, Hou Hsiao Hsien's Assassin, came to mind. It, too, was replete with shots filmed through surfaces like gauzy fabric to remind us how emotions cloud our perceptions of another person.

Two moments in Carol, in particular, grabbed my heart and squeezed. One is a speech in an office, with divorce attorneys present. I know some find Blanchett's technical mastery a bit distancing, but this is one of the most moving moments I can remember from her. The other is a walk across a restaurant. Little happens, but everything does. I held my breath. 

The movie doesn't try too hard to explain their attraction for each other. Love can be like that. It comes in an instant, almost like a whim, and then can linger forever.

Since it's Christmas, I'm going with Rooney Mara in a Santa hat.

GoPro at the 2015 Tour de France

The Tour de France made a great addition to its coverage this year. Velon, a joint venture of 11 of the world's top cycling teams, partnered with GoPro to mount GoPro cameras on some of the cyclists and crew in this year's race.

The footage has been spectacular. You can find it on Velon's Tour de France homepage, on GoPro's site, and of course on YouTube. If you want a quick 2 minute sampler, edited with music, here are highlights from Stages 1-7.

I'm partial to the footage that's edited but not scored with music. It has the feel of found footage, and the lens distortions of the extreme wide-angle GoPro lenses and the ambient soundtrack brings to mind one of my favorite documentaries of recent years, Leviathan.

This is one good example, highlights from Stage 4, the cobblestone stage, a recent addition to the Tour. You see cyclists pulling over to pee on the side of the road, spectators gawking as one cyclist stops to check his tire pressure, a crash in one wet righthand turn, and other moments that occur in most stages but may be skipped by regular television coverage. All of the footage is from a unique first person (first bicycle?) perspective. If you've ever wondered how computers see, for now the answer is probably through a stationary fisheye lens.

In Stage 3, a huge crash caused chaos in the peloton. This footage from a GoPro mounted on the chest of a team ORICA GreenEDGE mechanic gives a wholly original sense of the carnage. One can feel the occasional adrenaline rush of being a pro cycling mechanic in a stage race. It's thrilling ambient journalism.

I often cringe at the found footage Hollywood conceit because it depends on believing that someone would be holding a camcorder and filming every moment, even when being chased by giant lizards or witches. But the rise of the GoPro and other sports cams now gives a more believable scenario for such movies. We're not too far off from the first Hollywood movie shot (ostensibly) on a GoPro or other such action camera (that is, it could be shot on a higher end cinema camera but pose as a GoPro), or pieced together from snippets of iPhone videos. It's a whole new aesthetic, but one that's familiar to this generation raised on Snaps and Snapchat Stories.

More major sports should consider integrating such cameras into their broadcasts, or, as the Tour de France did, as supplemental footage on the internet. I'm not holding my breath, but it's not surprising that more peripheral sports have led the way here. Incumbents tend to be reliably sluggish.

Creating order out of the chaos of Mad Max: Fury Road

An informative piece by Vashi Nedomansky on the craft that went into giving the audience a clear spatial orientation of what was happening where amidst the furious action sequences in Mad Max: Fury Road.

One of the many reasons MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is so successful as an action film is the editing style. By using “Eye Trace” and “Crosshair Framing” techniques during the shooting, the editor could keep the important visual information vital in one spot…the Center of the Frame. Because almost every shot was center framed, comprehending the action requires no hunting of each new shot for the point of interest. The viewer doesn’t need 3 or 4 frames to figure out where to look. It’s like watching an old hand-drawn flip book whiz by. The focus is always in the same spot!
 
This was an edict passed down directly from director George Miller. Over the walkie talkies during every scene he could heard saying “Put the cross hairs on her nose! Put the cross hairs on the gun!” This was to protect the footage for editorial and to ensure that the entire high speed film would be easily digestible with both eyes and brain. Every new shot that slammed onto the screen must occupy the same space as the previous shot. This is by no means a new technique, but by shooting the entire film in this way, Margaret Sixel could amplify and accelerate scenes, cut as fast as possible with the confident knowledge that the visual information would be understood.

Great video: succinct, clear.

It's an under-appreciated skill, giving the audience a clear sense of arrangement amidst chaotic action, especially when so many directors just resort to lazy chaos cinema action filmmaking technique. Most filmgoers probably didn't even notice the center framing during Mad Max, but they likely felt the spatial coherence in a visceral sense.

Most photographers have probably heard of the rule of thirds, but here is one time it made sense to go away from it. Knowing when to break rules is one sign of mastery.

This is also telling:

As they prepared to shoot the film, George Miller had no script. He did have over 3500 storyboards created by Mark Sexton. The Studio of course asked for a script and George said there wasn’t one. He offered the 3500 storyboards as it had taken him more than 10 years to get the story mapped out with this precision. The Studio said they NEED a script. George apparently had one cranked out but said it was “not good”. It didn’t have to be. He already knew how the whole film would look and feel. Visually center framed and barreling right at the audience.
 

I've heard a few people say they found the movie underwhelming after all the hype. I suspect many of them found the story too lean, but that's not so surprising for a post-apocalyptic allegory, and even less surprising given that Miller was working not off a script but storyboards.

I enjoyed the muscular simplicity of it all. A Google Maps route of the movie would show Imperator Furiosa driving straight out and then making a sharp left turn, and then driving back on the same route.

When Max tells Furiosa that “out there is nothing but salt,” he's speaking literally, but he's also saying that humanity's best chance for survival is with everyone working together, and perhaps only with women at the helm. That survival is also meant literally since a group of women living together wouldn't be able to procreate and continue the human race (Nux was along for the ride, I suppose, but he seemed sick and approaching death even as the movie began).

Filmmaking craft is often under-appreciated in action movies, so here's a toast to Miller, Searle, Sixel, and the whole crew. 

Is it real 3D?

One of the sites I use at least a half dozen times a year or so is Is It Real of Fake 3D? It lets you know if a movie that is coming out in 3D was actually shot in 3D or converted into 3D in post. I don't love 3D movies unless they were shot natively in 3D. When technicians convert a 2D movie into 3D in post, they choose different parts of each shot to place at different depths, and the final product resembles dioramas seen straight on, with objects placed on several fixed planes of depth.

What's worse is that since a 2D movie is shot with only one camera, it can't replicate the full arc of vision of a movie shot in 3D, with two cameras. Typically, the two cameras used to shoot a 3D movie are shot with two cameras separated by the average distance between two human eyes. As you know from closing one eye, then the other, the distance between your eyes allows each eye to see a slightly different perspective on all objects in space, and our brains learn to combine those two images to produce a 3D perspective.

2D conversions can't just conjure what the 2nd camera would have seen from thin air. But since 3D tickets command a price premium, and since enough viewers seem to go for the fake 3D conversions, studios continue to crank them out in ever greater volume.

I bring all this up just to remind you that when you go see Mad Max: Fury Road, the movie I'm most excited to see this year, go see it in 2D. It opens Friday.

Blue is the new orange

A data analysis of paintings across the decades shows a market share gain for the color blue at the expense of the still predominant color, orange.

Orange and blue happen to be the two most popular colors in Hollywood's palette as well. Part of the predominance of orange is because human flesh tends to fall somewhere in that spectrum. There are many theories as to why color correction suites everywhere lean this way.

One explanation is that it's an over-adherence to complementary color theory.

This screenshot from the excellent color theory and exploration site, kuler, shows what happens when you apply complementary color theory to flesh tones.  You see, flesh tones exist mostly in the orange range and when you look to the opposite end of the color wheel from that, where does one land?  Why looky here, we have our old friend Mr. Teal.  And anyone who has ever taken color theory 101 knows that if you take two complementary colors and put them next to each other, they will "pop", and sometimes even vibrate.  So, since people (flesh-tones) exist in almost every frame of every movie ever made, what could be better than applying complementary color theory to make people seem to "pop" from the background.  I mean, people are really important, aren't they?
 

Knowing a bit about the Hollywood blockbuster movie production process, it's not that surprising that a particular color palette would come into vogue. The whole idea behind franchises is risk mitigation and building off of what has worked before. The same colorists probably work on many of these movies, at this point they've probably got the orange and teal color palette saved as a preset. What's the economic incentive to innovation here? How many viewers go to such movies for the distinctive color palette?

David Chase breaks down the last scene of The Sopranos

It's almost a Norman Rockwell scene with a group of Cub Scouts, young lovers, football hero murals, and locals enjoying the warm and homey atmosphere. Chase says time itself is the raw material of the scene as the suspense builds with pinpoint editing while Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" propels the action to its climax—a heart-stopping cut to black.
 
Chase was after the dreamy, chilling feeling he admired at the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in which time expands and contracts as life and death merge into one. And there, as in the concluding instant of The Sopranos, who knows what really happens. "When it's over," Chase offers, "I think you're probably always blindsided by it. That's all I can say."
 
It was my decision to direct the episode such that whenever Tony arrives someplace, he would see himself. He would get to the place and he would look and see where he was going. He had a conversation with his sister that went like this. And then he later had a conversation with Junior that went like this. I had him walk into his own POV every time. So the order of the shots would be Tony close-up, Tony POV, hold on the POV, and then Tony walks into the POV. And I shortened the POV every time. So that by the time he got to Holsten's, he wasn't even walking toward it anymore. He came in, he saw himself sitting at the table, and the next thing you knew he was at the table.
 

David Chase breaks down all the shots from that famous last scene of The Sopranos. Brilliant. If you watched the show, it's a must read.

One of my longstanding issues with those who claim TV has surpassed movies is that the brutal deadlines of TV often lead to the most mechanical of camera framing and shot sequencing, or very cookie cutter episode structure. It can feel, at times, like a somewhat brutish and blunt art, even if the consistent and timely output of TV inspires its own awe. 1

  1. I suspect a lot of the shift in support from movies to TV are about the increased quality and convenience of the TV viewing experience and less about what's actually shown. With the proliferation of cable channels and streaming services and connected boxes, we have greater supply of TV than at any time in history. With high definition television sets and a surge in high definition content, the quality is better than ever. With DVRs and streaming services and mobile devices, the convenience is greater than at any time in history. Meanwhile, movies still require you to go to a theater at a specific time, find parking, fight others for good seats, and deal with all the other patrons. But all that said, if you judge movies against TV just based on the content itself, movies still reach greater peaks. It's not a fair comparison because an hour and a half movie has way more budget and time allotted for its creation than even many hours of TV, but that's just the nature of the art forms.

What The Sopranos brought to TV was a higher level of craft. Movies and TV shows that are constructed with real artistic intent provide a larger surface area for analysis, and they work on you in ways both conscious and subconscious. Even more than that, they reward repeat viewing in a way that most television does not.

Chase's love of music always reflected itself in very exacting editing. The rhythm of the shots in the show had a lyrical feel. Many TV shows have a very consistent shot length and sequence of shot sizes from scene to scene. Watch your basic sitcom or medical/legal procedural with a stopwatch and verify for yourself. Shows like The Sopranos, or more recently Breaking Bad, don't follow strict templates. In their more varied cinematography they resemble movies. It helps, of course, that season lengths for shows like that are much shorter than for most network TV shows. It allowed for more time to craft each episode, and that shows through.

I love the timing of the lyric when Carmela enters: 'Just a small town girl livin' in a lonely world, she took the midnight train goin' anywhere.' Then it talks about Tony: 'Just a city boy,' and we had to dim down the music so you didn't hear the line, 'born and raised in South Detroit.' The music cuts out a little bit there, and they're speaking over it. 'He took the midnight train goin' anywhere.' And that to me was [everything]. I felt that those two characters had taken the midnight train a long time ago. That is their life. It means that these people are looking for something inevitable. Something they couldn't find. I mean, they didn't become missionaries in Africa or go to college together or do anything like that. They took the midnight train going anywhere. And the midnight train, you know, is the dark train.
 

Chase doesn't say whether Tony dies or not at the end. My opinion is he did die, but when you read this piece and hear Chase discuss the ending, it's clear that question doesn't really matter. Whether it's a narrative death for Tony, or just the death of the show, the greater point of the cut to black was of endings in general.

I thought the ending would be somewhat jarring, sure. But not to the extent it was, and not a subject of such discussion. I really had no idea about that. I never considered the black a shot. I just thought what we see is black. The ceiling I was going for at that point, the biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don't stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That's what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don't stop believing. There are attachments we make in life, even though it's all going to come to an end, that are worth so much, and we're so lucky to have been able to experience them. Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it's really worth it. So don't stop believing.

Soderbergh on Spielberg's staging

I value the ability to stage something well because when it’s done well its pleasures are huge, and most people don’t do it well, which indicates it must not be easy to master (it’s frightening how many opportunities there are to do something wrong in a sequence or a group of scenes. Minefields EVERYWHERE. Fincher said it: there’s potentially a hundred different ways to shoot something but at the end of the day there’s really only two, and one of them is wrong). Of course understanding story, character, and performance are crucial to directing well, but I operate under the theory a movie should work with the sound off, and under that theory, staging becomes paramount (the adjective, not the studio. although their logo DOES appear on the front of this…).

So I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order? Sounds like fun, right? It actually is. To me. Oh, and I’ve removed all sound and color from the film, apart from a score designed to aid you in your quest to just study the visual staging aspect. Wait, WHAT? HOW COULD YOU DO THIS? Well, I’m not saying I’m like, ALLOWED to do this, I’m just saying this is what I do when I try to learn about staging, and this filmmaker forgot more about staging by the time he made his first feature than I know to this day (for example, no matter how fast the cuts come, you always know exactly where you are—that’s high level visual math shit).

To help us understand the virtues of staging in movies, Steven Soderbergh offers a desaturated version of Raiders of the Lost Ark with all the audio, dialogue and soundtrack, replaced by the score to The Social Network. I guess those kids who remade Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot chose well.

Whatever you think of Steven Spielberg's movies, it's hard to deny he is a virtuoso when it comes to blocking and staging. The camera moves and shot selection and sequencing in his movies is always lyrical, and even in a scene like the opening assault on Normandy in Saving Private Ryan, he induces the feeling of chaos while still preserving spatial clarity. Just the other weekend, I found Munich playing on cable and I stopped to watch one of the assassination scenes play out just to admire the camera in motion. A master class.

Incidentally, Soderbergh's website is as fun as his career. I first discovered it a while back when he posted a mashup of Hitchcock's Psycho with Gus Van Sant's remake, with all of the Van Sant scenes desaturated except the shower scene.