The rhythm of writing

Tony Zhou's Every Frame A Painting video essay series has a devoted following online, and for good reason. His pieces are one of the few things you can honestly say couldn't work in any form other than video.

That isn't the case for most content. It's trendy to bash media outlets for pivoting to video, but like many, I can't stand receiving a link to a video without a transcript because most of the time video is the least efficient way to consume the information within. Like many infovores, I can read and scan faster than I can listen to someone talk (which is why I listen to podcasts at 2X speed, sometimes even faster depending on who's talking). Video scanning and seeking is notoriously inefficient, and if the internet has done anything it's turned us into screen scanners with even shorter attention spans than before (as anyone who has looked at data from any eye-tracking study can attest).

Back to Every Frame A Painting. The series works well as video in part because Zhou has a deep understanding of film's visual grammar, but don't underestimate the patience needed to rip discs and scan through video. Someday, that may be easier to do, but for now, it's a long time suck, involving ripping Blu-Rays and DVDs with MakeMKV and then transcoding them with Handbrake into a format editable in Premiere or Final Cut, then watching over and over to assemble the clips, then writing a script and recording the voiceover, then fine-tuning. Writing an essay isn't easy, but compared to producing a video essay it's trivial. Christian Marclay's The Clock is a remarkable piece, but a moment of silence for all the assistant editors and interns who had to rip and label all the video from which it was assembled.

The Zhou essay on Kurosawa titled Composing on Moment reminded me of something about writing that has become more salient to me over time: rhythm. Zhou's essay is about shot structure, movement, and length, but many of the lessons he discusses apply to writing.

Each shot in a movie is a sentence. One of the simplest ways to improve one's prose and to keep a reader's attention is simply to vary sentence length. I don't love editing my own writing, it's so easy to overlook errors when your mind knows what it was trying to say; it tends to fill in the blanks instead of processing what's actually on the page.

However, I don't really have any other option, so I am my own editor. To protect against my familiarity, I usually set aside anything I've written for a long time, sometimes months, until I've forgotten it completely, before revisiting it to revise and edit. Once you're estranged from your own work you can see it anew. Also, sometimes the work doesn't survive the test of time and can be tossed.

The most effective way I've found to edit myself is to read the text out loud (using my inner voice, that is). Reading the text out loud does two things. One, it slows me down. Speed readers largely increase their velocity by training themselves to not read aloud. When I started editing myself, I had to un-train myself in speed reading techniques like word block scanning.

The other benefit of reading out loud is to render the rhythm of your writing audible. Where in a block of text can you pause to take a breath, and where do you go breathless? The cadence of breathing and speaking tends to mimic the frequency of the brain's ability to process words and sentences..

Think of your reader as someone with as a limited amount of RAM. They can only hold so much of a thought in their head at once. The longer your sentence, the more structure it needs if you're hoping the reader will remember it.

There are exceptions, as there are to any rule.

Here's an opening line from Cormac McCarthy:

They crested out on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge, moving single file and slowly high above the river and with something of its own implacability, pausing and grouping for a moment and going on again strung out in silhouette against the sun and then dropping under the crest of the hill into a fold of blue shadows with light touching them about the head in spurious sanctity until they had gone on for such a time as saw the sun down altogether and they moved in shadow altogether which suited them very well.
 

That's from Outer Dark.

There are other authors known for an occasional colossus of a sentence, and some who seem to rely on it as the base unit for entire novels, like Joyce or Proust. The film equivalent is something like the nearly 3-minute continuous shot that opens Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson. or the famous Copacabana Steadicam shot from Goodfellas.

[If you plot the Copacabana shot spatially you realize that Ray Liotta takes a purposefully circuitous route through the kitchen to lengthen the shot, for no apparent reason other than to lengthen the shot. But it's such a great moment, and it has such a purpose in the film at that moment, that you forgive it the indulgence. Ray Liotta is trying to impress Lorraine Bracco, and the lack of a cut allows him to draw out the performance in one unbroken, escalating build. It works. No one who watches the movie ever notices the circuitous route because the shot itself is so dazzling, which is how magicians pull off many a sleight of hand.]

In both text and video, such a flourish is overtly showy, like magician wearing a tuxedo with tails, conjuring one dove after another from his breast pocket, his sleeve, his collar, back to his sleeve, and oh! here's three doves at once. Or a sporting event employing flame throwers during introductions, or a concert beginning with the artist rising from beneath the stage through billowing florets of smoke. 

As anyone who builds such an elaborate apparatus knows, such displays inevitably attract accusations of grandstanding. As soon as any film auteur releases a long unbroken shot in a film, an argument will erupt online over whether the shot is justified and breathtaking or just self-indulgent, rent-seeking on the viewer's attention. Generally it's both, and where you settle is a matter of taste.

I find my novelty-seeking sloping upwards at this point in my life, so I appreciate the occasional grasp at the sublime. Not every sentence needs to be in the unadorned prose style of The New Yorker (Tom Wolfe once described their house style it as "leisurely meandering understatement") and not every film needs to be a series of back and forth over-the-shoulder shots while two people talk, like is common in a network TV drama which must brute-force its way through a 24 episode full season order.

In my spare time, I've dabbled with creating my own writing app, a common fantasy among those who write, since no one is ever perfectly satisfied with their word processor.

[Processor, incidentally, is a terrible name for an application. "Word processor" is bad, and so is "food processor." Is there any craft that can retain the slightest bit of romance and dignity when its primary tool is named a processor? There's a reason we don't call Tinder and other dating apps mating processors, though many might argue that online dating deserves exactly such a name. Processing is a word that should be reserved for bureaucratic procedures; it feels appropriate that so many government institutions have FAQs about processing times.]

Among the many odd features I'd include in my theoretical writing app (whose goal would not just be to make it more enjoyable to write, but to write better, and which would likely make for a terrible business), one would be an editing view which would transform the rhythm of the text into a more scannable form. It might be color coding each sentence according to its word length, or turning a block of text into a graphic like a line graph, with sentence length as the y-axis. You might be able to calculate the variance of sentence length mathematically, though I suspect such a figure would be too reductive to be useful.

The longer the text, the more sentence length variation is desirable, so regardless of methodology, the goal would be the same, to make monotonous stretches of similar sentence lengths more visible to the writer. Readers can't handle being bludgeoned with sentences of the same length in perpetuity. Occasionally they need a breather.

A pause.

The next time you edit something you've written, look for places where a sentence or two needs trimming or splitting, or where a longer sentence might find an opportune moment in which to wander languidly. We may not all be poets, but even a million monkeys at a million typewriters can churn out the occasional line of Shakespeare, more so if they know what to look for.

Vertical video

The shift also shows off the way that opinions of tech elites can be rendered moot by mainstream preferences. So, whether you are shooting a home video or something for work, you can safely ignore the puppets. To shoot vertically isn’t to be exposed as a tech ignoramus or a lazy philistine who cares little for the creative process. Rather it is to be on the vanguard of a novel and potentially far-reaching artistic trend.
 
The arguments against vertical video all seek to find something inviolable about images that play out horizontally before our eyes. “We live in a horizontal world, and most action happens from left to right,” said Mr. Bova, one of the men behind the puppet P.S.A. He added that “vertical videos feel claustrophobic,” because often they feature one or two people occupying the full frame, and not much of the landscape to show what lies beyond. Finally, Mr. Bova said, “our eyes are horizontal,” by which he meant the human field of vision is wider than it is tall, so it is only natural that our videos match that shape.
 
There is a simple rejoinder to his argument: Our eyes may be horizontal, but our hands are best suited to holding objects vertically, which is why phones, tablets and, in the predigital age, our books and other documents were usually oriented in portrait mode. Watching horizontal video on a phone’s vertical screen is a minor annoyance. With a horizontal video, you have to awkwardly flip your phone sideways so the entire image fills the screen, or you can keep your phone vertical and tolerate the huge black bars displayed above and below the picture.
 

So writes Farhad Manjoo in the NYTimes. Let's throw this in the category of contrarian pieces that are actually just wrong.

Just like professional photographers will turn their camera vertically from time to time, the lens orientation should match the subject. I would not want to watch a mumblecore movie in a Panavision 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio, but for Lawrence of Arabia, the Super Panavision 2.20 to 1 widescreen aspect ratio was crucial to the feeling of the feeling of people against the open expanse of the desert (and it amplifies Lawrence as a great man to see him wield his force of personality against such a broad canvas).

Sure, sometimes shooting vertically on your phone allows you to get closer to your subject, like the baby's first steps mentioned in the piece. However, for most subjects, horizontal is better. Human field of vision is horizontal, and it feels claustrophobic to watch vertical video for long period of time, it's like looking through the vertical slats in a fence.

For a Snap or a Vine, sure, I don't really care that much, neither do most people. Most of those are shot spontaneously, without much regard for the background, and it actually feels more unnatural or artificial if the video is horizontal since you know people usually hold their phones vertically. The vertical orientation suits the casual, disposable nature of those videos and subjects. The rise in vertical video reflects the rise of those networks and the rise of the mobile phone, but it doesn't signal some fundamental change in the difference between the suitability of horizontal versus vertical video.

Yesterday I watched this remarkable eyewitness video of the explosion in Tianjin China. It's stunning, but I couldn't help thinking two things watching it. One: stop filming and get to safety! Two: I wish it was shot horizontally.

Disrupting reality

Most television viewers don't realize just how much of what they watch contains a lot of visual FX, or “virtual reality” if you will. Check out this reel from Stargate Studios.

Sometimes, the only thing that's “real” is the main actor. Increased computing power and advances in visual effects software and techniques mean we're only going to see more and more productions turn to the trusty green screen. More and more, the cost of shooting against a green screen and drawing in a background is lower than shooting on location. That's a sea change that has happened more quickly than most viewers realize.

It's not a short step, but perhaps not more than a few vigorous hops and a few cranks of Moore's Law to imagine the same convenience tradeoff happening in our own lives, the swap of physical reality for virtual reality. As long as the quality is good enough, the lower cost/higher convenience solution wins out. For virtual reality, that bar is not to match reality exactly. It is simply belief.

We're finally at the point in history when we have an alternative to the shadow costs of the real world.

Reality is bloated.
 
It started off as a lean, mean MVP with a minimal feature set — hunting and gathering, procreating, a little story-telling around the fire, fighting for dear life — but now every last use case has been crammed in. There are so many layers of cruft on this thing, it’s a wonder we get anything done at all.
 
This is one of the ultimate drivers of consumer VR — not (just) to provide experiences we couldn’t have otherwise, but to replace many of the crappy physical experiences we slog through every day. Business travel. Middle school. Conferences. You know: pain relievers, not vitamins.
 
There’s been no choice until now, since we’ve been living in a platform monoculture where the monopoly provider hasn’t had any competition to keep it honest. Thankfully, that’s about to change.
 

That's Beau Cronin on unbundling reality. It's perhaps one of the greatest disruptions we'll live through this century.

The Hollywood Labor Model

I saw the title of Adam Davidson's piece “What Hollywood Can Teach Us About the Future of Work” and thought he was going to draw a specific conclusion, but instead he drew another.

I was there as a “technical adviser”: The movie involved some financial events that I’ve reported on, and the filmmakers wanted to ask me questions as they set up their scenes. But I spent much of the day asking questions of my own, trying to figure out something that mystified me as the day went on: Why was this process so smooth? The team had never worked together before, and the scenes they were shooting that day required many different complex tasks to happen in harmony: lighting, makeup, hair, costumes, sets, props, acting. And yet there was no transition time; everybody worked together seamlessly, instantly. The set designer told me about the shade of off-­white that he chose for the walls, how it supported the feel of the scene. The costume designer had agonized over precisely which sandals the lead actor should wear. They told me all this, but they didn’t need to tell one another. They just got to work, and somehow it all fit together.
 
This approach to business is sometimes called the “Hollywood model.” A project is identified; a team is assembled; it works together for precisely as long as is needed to complete the task; then the team disbands. This short-­term, project-­based business structure is an alternative to the corporate model, in which capital is spent up front to build a business, which then hires workers for long-­term, open-­ended jobs that can last for years, even a lifetime. It’s also distinct from the Uber-­style “gig economy,” which is designed to take care of extremely short-­term tasks, manageable by one person, typically in less than a day.
 
With the Hollywood model, ad hoc teams carry out projects that are large and complex, requiring many different people with complementary skills. The Hollywood model is now used to build bridges, design apps or start restaurants. Many cosmetics companies assemble a temporary team of aestheticians and technical experts to develop new products, then hand off the actual production to a factory, which does have long-­term employees. (The big studios, actually, work the same way: While the production of the movie is done by temps, marketing and distribution are typically handled by professionals with long-­term jobs.)
 
Our economy is in the midst of a grand shift toward the Hollywood model. More of us will see our working lives structured around short-­term, project-­based teams rather than long-­term, open­-ended jobs. There are many reasons this change is happening right now, but perhaps the best way to understand it is that we have reached the end of a hundred-­year fluke, an odd moment in economic history that was dominated by big businesses offering essentially identical products. Competition came largely by focusing on the cost side, through making production cheaper and more efficient; this process required businesses to invest tremendous amounts in physical capital — machines and factories — and then to populate those factories with workers who performed routine activities. Nonmanufacturing corporations followed a similar model: Think of all those office towers filled with clerical staff or accountants or lawyers. That system began to fray in the United States during the 1960s, first in manufacturing, with the economic rise of Germany and Japan. It was then ripped apart by Chinese competition during the 2000s. Enter the Hollywood model, which is far more adaptable. Each new team can be assembled based on the specific needs of that moment and with a limited financial commitment.
 

I agree we'll continue to see more projects handled by teams that come together and then disband. In tech this is already a trend within companies, teams of product managers, designers, and software engineers coming together for one project, then disbanding and scattering to other projects. Technology advances arrive faster than in the past for a variety of reasons including Moore's Law and the heavy overlap in the Venn diagram of where the tech giants compete. Everyone wants the biggest cut of the finite pool of user attention, and all those companies have a lot of similar resources in terms of software engineers, PM's, designers.

Small teams of specialists collaborating for finite periods tends to be the most efficient way to move quickly enough to keep pace with this unrelenting tempo, unless you're working on larger scale projects with longer timelines, like self-driving cars or a new form of mobile computer.

Movement of specialists between companies has heightened, too. California doesn't enforce non-competes, heavy equity compensation plans tend to see a huge dropoff in annual value after four or five years (with accelerated vesting after a year or two), and identifying people from other companies with the skills you need is easier than ever in the age of LinkedIn, and with lots of companies offering employee referral bonuses. HR departments learned long ago that the success rate and cost efficiency of recruiting through referrals to be superior to other methods.

But in the last paragraph quoted above, I think Davidson is off when he equates the Hollywood model with being an evolution away from what he terms the end of a hundred-year fluke, an era of “making production cheaper and more efficient” and an ear in which workers “performed routine activities.”

In fact, anyone who's ever worked on a movie production and been on a movie set knows that the efficiency Davidson observes in the first paragraph quoted above is precisely because Hollywood learned a series of processes to transform a complex creative endeavor into something akin to a factory line of repeatable tasks.

If you've ever stayed to watch the end credits of a Hollywood production (and if you've seen any Marvel movies in recent history, you probably have), you've probably been stunned by the sheer number of people involved. For several minutes, names scroll up the screen in fine print, and your mind boggles at the cost of employing so many people. Is it really necessary to have so many specialists?

In fact, it is only by employing so many people that Hollywood productions can keep their production costs to a minimum. It sounds like a paradox, but it makes perfect sense when you realize the distribution of costs on a production. One tiny fraction of people among that long list make up a disproportionately massive slice of the production costs, and those are the movie stars. These are the people playing Iron Man, or your gorgeous romantic lead who just can't meet Mr. Right because she's so wrapped up in her job, or the bodyguard of the President who has to save the day when terrorists break into the White House posing as cable TV repairmen (it is a crutch of Hollywood screenwriting that any repair person can show up unannounced and then get in by just by asking if the security guard if they really want to bother some bigwig who will be really upset at that minor intrusion into their schedule).

If you're lucky enough to have Robert Downey Jr. or Jennifer Lawrence or some such movie star in your production, they make many multiples of what your $35/hr union gaffer makes. Also, that movie star is likely committed to their next movie already, so you have them for a finite number of shooting days, too. In almost every way, they are the financial and logistical long pole of your production, so you have to make the most of their time, whatever it takes. You've mapped out what pages of the script will be shot on which days in which locations, and the actors are told in advance which days they'll be needed where.

Actors are sensitive instruments, too, so when they're in the moment, ready to pull off a delicate scene, when they stroll over from their trailer on to set, you had best have everything ready to go. Remember that recording of Christian Bale chewing out someone on set for moving a light while he was performing a scene? I'm not saying that wasn't excessive, but I've also been on enough sets to understand where he was coming from. It's like a CEO chewing out someone for doing email on their laptop during a crucial meeting.

It turns out the most fast and efficient way to maximize the number of shots you can complete is to break the massive and complex effort of dressing and lighting a set into a huge number of discrete, specialized tasks. You have one person whose entire job is to rig up one light. One person whose sole job is to track script continuity. One person who takes photos of each shot to make sure props are returned to the same spot before each take. One person whose sole job it is to drive Scarlett Johansson over to the shot from her trailer in a golf cart.

Could you do it with fewer people? Could one person set up multiple lights and dress the set and hold the boom mic? Yes, but that's what you call a student or independent film. That style of shooting takes longer to set up each shot, and while you're in the midst of prepping for the next shot, your star is sitting around in the trailer playing on their iPhone, running up your production budget way more than if you just hired a few more arms/legs to get the set ready more efficiently. When movie stars take a much lower wage to work on an indie film, it's not just so they can expand their acting chops, it's also out of financial necessity.

It's the tech equivalent of doing a keynote involving someone like a Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or Larry Page. Their time is the most precious and expensive resource in the room. Could a handful of people handle all the logistics of reserving and dressing the facility, setting up the A/V, producing all the marketing collateral, sending out invites, etc.? Sure, but it's not an efficient use of resources for that small team to be the long pole when it's Tim Cook's time that is most precious. Anyone who's ever presented to the CEO intuitively understands whose time is most precious in the room, who to make the most eye contact with.

In fact, if tech was to learn anything from the Hollywood model, it should be that maximum efficiency is achieved when there are very few to zero overlapping responsibilities among members of a team. The vogue in tech now is that designers aren't just designers, engineers aren't just engineers, product managers aren't just project managers. Everyone on the team is talented across disciplines, everyone's opinion should be heard.

If you hire talented people, it's very often the case that they're smart on multiple vectors, but a team consisting of people who all overlap across a wide surface area of decision making is a team with high coordination costs and more frequent disagreements. It may produce better results, but it may take longer.

On a film set, even the number of communication channels is restricted so that the number of potential interface possibilities doesn't rise exponentially with the number of people on set. The only person who can speak to the actors is the director and maybe the assistant director. The director doesn't speak to a grip, he speaks to the cinematographer who speaks to the gaffer who may speak to the best boy who then tells the grip how to adjust a light.

When Adam Davidson marveled at how so many people on set could work so quietly and efficiently, as if one coordinated team, it's because decades of producing hundreds of movies per year forced Hollywood to create a very battle-tested process for most efficiently cranking out the high production value films we see on the silver screen.

This is one of those cases where a metaphor can be stretched too far, as intellectually tidy as it may be. Unlike software production, movie production is one area when throwing more people at a problem, as long as they're the right specialists with very discrete responsibilities, can lead to greater productivity at higher efficiency.

Why, then, are there so many lousy movies? The same reason there are so many lousy apps or websites. Once you know what you want to do, production can be reasonably efficient. However, the creative piece of figuring out what to do has not yet been reduced to some reproducible process. Creative work remains, for the most part, a high failure rate endeavor.

Not that people haven't tried. One recent book on the subject was Creativity, Inc., whose very title promises to unlock the secrets of Pixar's strong track record of success in an industry not known for its high batting average. Lots has been written about the book, and about Pixar, a company shrouded in an almost mystical (and mythical) aura, not just in Hollywood but in the business world at large. I have almost finished the book, and it has much of interest on the topic of managing creative people, how to get them to collaborate best.

One thing which really benefits Pixar and hasn't received enough attention, however, is how it increases the feedback frequency and volume from the marketplaces both internal and external. One of the problems of filmmaking in general is that the final product, the completed movie, isn't finished until long after the actual filming on set. Making a movie is such a long process that it is broken into three stages: pre-production (all the stuff before the actual shooting of the movie, like financing, writing or purchasing a script, signing movie stars and the  director, etc.), production (actually filming the actors, with all that encompasses), and post-production (editing, sound editing and mixing, color correction, etc.)

The problem with this process is that by the time the actual final cut is ready to watch by an audience, the feedback is so late that only minimal corrections can be made if the movie isn't working. Your actors and have moved on to other projects and probably unavailable for reshoots, which just add to costs. Reshoots are very rare in Hollywood, and when you hear about a movie going into a reshoot it's often a harbinger of doom, like a tech company raising a down round. It can feel like good money chasing after bad.

Pixar has several advantages on this front. One is that it works in animation, so costly actors are less of a financial and scheduling crutch. An animator costs less than an actor, so if a performance isn't working, it isn't as costly to fix. And even if Tom Hanks wants a fortune to do the voice of Woody in Toy Story, it's not as dire a situation to swap a voice out as it is to change your lead actor (though I can't imagine Woody sounding any other way).

Second, in animation you can fairly quickly produce rough cuts of a script, with voices and sound and a watchable edit. So you can test scenes much earlier and much more cheaply than you can with, say, a live action scene between Ryan Gosling and Scarlett Johansson. As with prototyping in tech, suddenly you can push market feedback earlier in the production process rather than pushing it all the way to the end, when it's often too late.

Additionally, Pixar has put in an internal quality control group called the Braintrust, consisting of its top creatives and storytellers like John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, and Pete Docter. The Braintrust provides regular feedback to Pixar filmmaking teams, and their status as a group external to the project provides the objectivity that the teams themselves may lack because of their personal involvement and investment. This is an advantage to Pixar's existence as a firm, in contrast to most Hollywood movies which are made by teams assembled on the fly. A live action film typically can't get access to a creative Braintrust because a studio like Warner Bros is largely just a financing vehicle, it hires directors and actors to shoot movies one project at a time. The people at a studio like Warner Bros who can provide feedback are mostly suits, not storytellers, so their feedback is seen as useless and intrusive.

Pixar takes quality control so seriously that they've shelved several high profile projects after having gone into production, and they've rebooted others like Toy Story 2 with new teams. That is not cheap, but it's cheaper than just plowing forward, sinking more money into a project that isn't working, and releasing it.

The last factor enabling Pixar to incorporate so much quality control in its production process is that its hits have paid out enough to support the ongoing business of the firm. Even with its stellar record, however, it hasn't been all smooth sailing. When you only put out one movie a year (about Pixar's pace in its history), it had damn well better be a hit or the firm will feel the impact. This is a high cost, high investment process in every way, like tech firms putting out their new flagship cell phone once a year. 1

Pixar movies take many years to produce, much longer than live action films, and their budgets are in the hundreds of millions of dollars, even without really expensive movie stars on the budget. One middling box office success like Brave can lead to layoffs and office closures. The whole endeavor is more precarious than many would believe given Pixar's track record, but such is life when you invest so much in so few products.

Because of its status as an actual firm with some continuity in leadership (of course many of its employees work project to project) and its focus on animation, Pixar's magic is not easily replicable by traditional movie studios, especially those who work largely in live action. It's analogous to companies that try to emulate Apple; it's a dangerous game in which it's very easy to choose to copy the wrong things, or not enough of the right things, to less than stellar results.

Ronald Coase would have much to say on the topic.

  1. Samsung had a window, before Apple put out its iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, to get two new high end handset to market, the S5 and later the Galaxy Note 4. The two phones failed to capitalize on that brief window to steal high end marketshare, and instead the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus turned the tables and stole a bunch of market share from Samsung they debuted in late 2014. It was always unlikely for Samsung to leapfrong successfully given Apple's prowess in high end handsets, but you don't get many such windows. Accelerated evolution is exciting but unforgiving.

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. 

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?

The Jinx

This week I finally caught the finale of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. If you haven't seen it yet, then avoid the SPOILERS in this post ahead and move on.

The ending, as many have noted, was stunning, like some Michael Haneke movie come to life. Rarely has a still shot of an empty room been so fraught with horror. Just before then, when confronted with handwriting evidence that seemed to implicate him irrefutably, Durst started burping loudly, as if his subconscious was about to regurgitate the truth on camera. And then it did? Durst muttering “Killed them all, of course.” into a hot mic while he was in the bathroom alone couldn't be any more of a Shakespearean soliloquy if it came from the pen of the Bard himself.

The hot mic's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

Like some, however, I take issue with some of Jarecki's choices. The first is his use of reenactments. I yearn for more just talking heads when it comes to documentary style, so I can understand the temptation of reenactments. Rather than just having someone talk about something that happened, you can hand the viewer a visual.

In doing so, though, you rob the viewer of their imagination, and you unconsciously bias them in all sorts of ways. One person might claim something happened. By actually enacting that moment on screen, that testimony gains corporeal form and feels more real. Or, if the reenactment is lousy, it seems less credible. Either way, the visuals overpower the spoken word, even as one is just one filmmaker's fancy.

Richard Brody writes:

Reënactments aren’t what-ifs, they’re as-ifs, replete with approximations and suppositions that definitively detach the image from the event, the vision from the experience. One of Jarecki’s reënactments leaves me strangely obsessed with an insignificant detail that takes on an outsized significance in revealing the inadequacy of his method for the emotional essence of the story. In the second episode, Kathie Durst’s friend Gilberte Najamy tells Jarecki that, before her disappearance, Kathie Durst went to a party at her house, where she told Najamy that she was afraid of Robert Durst, and insisted that, if anything happened to her, Najamy should “check it out.” To signify that there had indeed been a party at Najamy’s house, Jarecki offers a tracking shot of a table laden with platters of food—including a pasta salad with a single pitted black olive sticking up from it. I’m obsessed with that olive. Did Najamy describe to Jarecki the dishes that she served? Did she describe the table itself, the room? Did Jarecki film this scene where Najamy lived at the time, or where she lives now? Or did Jarecki assume that Najamy, or someone like Najamy (whatever he’d mean by that), would at the time have served that kind of pasta salad at a party that might look like that? Najamy’s account is powerful; Jarecki’s image is generic. Najamy is specific, concrete, and detailed. She delivers a crucial piece of her life, whole, to Jarecki—who treats it like a hack’s screenplay and makes a facile illustration of it.
 
Beyond the awe-inspiring (and sometimes awful) recollections of people involved in the past events that are at the center of the drama, Jarecki brings into play actual objects that bear a physical connection to them—which is why the objects of dubious provenance (such as a box of police records relating to Kathie Durst’s disappearance, sealed with red “evidence” tape) are such offenses to the dignity of the film’s subjects. Jarecki shows this box being taken from a shelf; he puts the camera inside the shelf and shows the box being put back there; he shows the box being unsealed and then sealed again. It’s impossible to know whether this is the actual evidence box for the case; whether the handwriting on the box is actually that of a police clerk from the time; whether the files pulled from it were handled by the actual investigators who worked on the case; whether the room where it’s stored is the actual file room or a studio mockup.
 

Jarecki doesn't just shoot conventional re-enactments, either. They are highly stylized. In my memory's eye, two shots from the series I can't shake (besides the last one of the series) are one of some actress playing Durst's mother committing suicide and the other of some actress playing Susan Berman toppling after being shot in the head. Both are images of female bodies falling, and both are played in slow motion, over and over, like something fetishistic shot from 300.

What's a shame is the series doesn't need them. Some of the reenactments are less stylized, but that just makes them harder to distinguish from live shots from the present. I don't mind a mixture of fiction and non-fiction in documentaries, but some spirit of fair play seems called for, especially when it's documentary as investigative journalism.

Many probably find all of this to be nitpicking and may not have had any problems with the series as filmed. It may be easier to understand if we examine the question using a series that many grouped with The Jinx, the podcast Serial. Imagine in Serial if, after Sarah heard testimony from a witness like Jay about seeing Hae's body in the trunk of the car at Best Buy, she put together an audio recreation of those events. If Sarah had hired some voice actors to play Adnan and Jay, recreating the conversation as Jay recalled it, layering in sound effects like a trunk popping open. Regardless of whether listeners felt Adnan was guilty, many would be uncomfortable with the technique.

The last episode steers clear of reenactments, but the cumulative effect of the one's from the first five episodes was such that I wasn't sure whether to buy the shots of Jarecki himself in the finale, speaking about how he feared for his life (this piece at Buzzfeed goes into a more in-depth stylistic breakdown of the narrative manipulation at work). Jarecki clearly doesn't shy from drama, but the use of all these tricks leads one to discount everything on screen, the way one applies a base level of skepticism to stories from a proven drama queen.

Another issue with the series is Jarecki's manipulation of the timeline. In the last episode, it seems as if Robert Durst agrees to sit with Jarecki for another interview (the now infamous one which concludes the series) only after police arrest Durst outside his brother's home. I thought for sure that was the sequence of events because it's shown in that order, and the series includes audio from a phone call from Durst to Jarecki asking for the director's help.

But when Jarecki was asked about whether he had manipulated this timeline in the NYTimes, he suddenly seemed as uncomfortable as Durst was in the last interview of The Jinx.

When did you discover the piece of audio from the bathroom, in which Mr. Durst seemed to confess?
 
Jarecki: That was at the tail end of a piece of an interview. I don’t know if you’ve ever edited anything — things get loaded into the editing machine but not everything gets loaded. The sound recorder isn’t listening after a guy gets up and says he wants a sandwich. It often doesn’t get marked and get loaded. That didn’t get loaded for quite a while. We hired some new assistants and they were going through some old material. That was quite a bit later. Let me look at my list. It was June 12, 2014.
 
So it was more than two years later. From watching the episode, it seemed as if the 2013 arrest of Robert Durst for violating the order of protection by walking on his brother Douglas’s brownstone steps happened after the second interview.
 
Jarecki (to Smerling): I’m hearing a lot of noise. And if we’re going to talk about the timeline, we should actually sit in front of the timeline. So that’s my suggestion, if that’s the subject you want to talk about.
 
I’m just trying to clarify if the arrest for being on Douglas Durst’s property happened after the second interview.
 
Jarecki: Yeah, I think I’ve got to get back to you with a proper response on that.
 

Someone check the tails of that audio recording of Jarecki's interview, maybe his mic was still hot?

Maybe, as some have put it, we're a bunch of whiny brats all that matters is we caught that murderer and got six hours of lurid, compelling TV to boot. Judging by what critical reception I've seen, The Jinx was a resounding success, and so, perhaps as the underrated movie Nightcrawler depicted, we'll happily go along with a coming wave of vigilante journalism.

Perhaps the filming of The Jinx can be the subject of Serial, Season 2. Vigilante journalism recursion, the snake eating its own tail. Who am I kidding, I wouldn't be able to look away.

Tony Zhou AMA

Just a brilliant AMA with Tony Zhou, famous for his Every Frame a Painting video essay series.

Hi Tony,

I'm trying to understand better the differences that editing makes in film versus the actual directing. 

Could you give any specific examples of films/scenes that you thought were bad, but COULD have been good with better editing? And explain what you'd do differently?

Thanks!

[–]tonyszhou[S] 74 points 20 days ago 

Sam O'Steen once said that the only movies that were "saved" in the editing suite were also ruined there in the first place. I kinda agree with that.

There are some crazy shoulda-been-masterpieces like The Lady from Shanghai where you can see the moment some studio boss said "This movie's too weird. Cut that out!" In these movies, those lost scenes are like phantom limbs. You intrinsically feel something should be there, but they aren't.

As for bad, my big famous example would be the second-to-last scene from Psycho, where the psychiatrist explains everything. It's a product of its time, and it requires a character to tell the audience what's going on. There's a similar moment in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island where one character whips out a chalkboard to explain the movie to somebody else. On the one hand, I get why that scene's there. On the other hand, I'm curious as to what the movie would be like if you removed that scene.

When asked how he comes up with the ideas for his video essays, Zhou writes:

As for how to notice this stuff I totally recommend (in rough order):

1) Take a class on script analysis. Learn how a director breaks down a script. Then get your hands on a movie script, pick a scene, guess how the director would shoot it, then watch the actual way he/she shot it.

2) Bring a film into Final Cut or Premiere or Avid, and just watch it backwards and forwards, muted and unmuted, B&W, color. Watch for camera placement, movement, everything. After you do this for a while, you won't need to bring the movie into Premiere, you can just do it on the fly.

3) If you've seen the film before, watch it with an audience and kinda watch them. Their "on-the-fly" reaction to the film will teach you more than many critics. When do they lean in? When do they cross their arms? When do they laugh? Is it at the same place you laughed?

My first editing instructor told me to watch things played in reverse as well. Removing the distraction of following a linear plot can bring formal elements to the foreground.

Such a fantastic AMA...just one more:

I think this is a huge problem in filmmaking today too: the myth of the perfect first feature.

I am going to (at some point) make a video essay called "Everybody Used to Suck" comprised entirely of footage from everyone's earliest directorial work.

Scorsese's first feature was actually called Bring On the Dancing Girls and it bombed so bad at NYFF that he didn't do anything for a few years, before repurposing it into Who's That Knocking. Tarantino never finished his first feature, My Best Friend's Birthday. Kubrick hated Fear and Desire so much he destroyed every copy. The list goes on and on, but the myth of the "first feature" is exactly that: a myth. Everybody used to suck, it's just that everybody also hides their earliest work from the public.

If you've never watched one of Zhou's video essays, you can start with any of them, but I suggest his latest on Jackie Chan and the art of action comedy. Chan is so underrated in so many ways, and Zhou takes a highlighter to each of them.