All you can eat

After the production madness of winter quarter, I thought the spring quarter might be a more relaxing one, but it's turning out to be just as, if not more, busy.

Part of that is my own choosing. We're assigned to take 22 units of class this quarter as 1st years, and they recommend though do not require 1 elective. But I discovered that we're allowed to take as many electives as we want, and there's no difference in your tuition if you take no electives or a hundred.

I'm interested enough in all sorts of subjects related to film that this was like being set loose in an all-you-can-eat buffet. So I signed myself up for four electives for a total of 34 units of class. I also have to edit my 6-minute film from last quarter for screening during finals week, and I have given up three Saturdays to all-day workshops led by Stephen Burum, this year's Kodak cinematographer in residence (legendary for his longtime collaboration with Brian De Palma, his work heading up 2nd unit on Apocalypse Now, and his contributions to the American Cinematographer Manual).

I had one day in April which was open, last Sunday, and I spent it doing homework and laundry. In May, I also have one day that isn't already booked by class, weddings, or workshops. It's amazing how quickly all my plans for going out and working out and trying out some restaurants and watching movies all just evaporated.

But for the most part, I'm digging all my electives, and I'm learning tons. The craft of filmmaking just requires a life-consuming commitment. Sleep is scarce these days, and I've found myself dozing off Grandpa Simpson style

Being a student has one great advantage, and that's access to student-discounted software. I've finally got Pro Tools installed on my desktop and I'm learning my way around it. You can do some amazing things with the software--it's like Photoshop for sound. Add the Pitch N' Time plugin and you can turn your out-of-tune karaoke rendition of "Welcome to the Jungle" into something Simon Cowell would be proud of.

One of the most enjoyable classes I'm taking is Music in Film, and our first exercise was to go through North By Northwest and log all the musical cues, when they began, when they faded out. When a director sits down with a composer for a "spotting session," the director will collaborate with the composer to select when music should come in and go out. What's fascinating about Bernard Herrmann's score for North by Northwest is how Hitchcock had Herrmann hold back on bringing in the musical cues until the last possible moment. In places you'd expect a swelling musical cue to come bursting through the speakers, there's nothing (the famous farm field scene is a great example).

Our professor talked about why that might be, and that restraint is really striking given how liberally modern movies use score to cue the audience on how to react emotionally to scenes. Most viewers never stop to think about why music comes in at a particularly point in the movie, and it's a useful exercise to do with one of your favorite movie scores. Our exercise for next week's class is to spot Monsoon Wedding, a really enjoyable movie, and not just because of its score. Listen to just the title credit score, and without having seen a single frame of the movie, you should be able to predict the theme of the movie.

Our professor took us on a field trip last Friday to the famous scoring stage on the Sony Studios lot. Named after Barbara Streisand, it's the scoring stage of choice for John Williams, and so many famous scores have been recorded there. On this afternoon, we had the opportunity to listen to a scoring session for an upcoming episode of The Simpsons by renowned composer Alf Clausen. While Alf conducted an orchestra in short cues to match the Simpsons footage projected on a large screen (some of the animation hadn't been finished and consisted of sketches), we sat in the control room and watched through the glass, listening to the music on one of the most sublime sound systems imaginable. It was inspiring to see how much work goes into a 7 second musical cue for a half hour episode of The Simpsons. Very few TV shows score with an actual orchestra. Lost, for one, and Desperate Housewives, though on a much smaller scale. That might be it. Who would've guessed The Simpsons would be among that elite group (I say that not to disparage the show, one of my favorite TV shows ever, but to express surprise that a half-hour animated satire would spend more on its score than most hour-long dramas).

Listening to the music in the control room elevated the familiar Simpsons musical cues to a sublime place. I refuse to believe people who say they can't hear the difference between an MP3 played off of their iPod and a well-recorded CD played over a good pair of speakers. From the live performance of music to your ears, much of the magic can be lost. To hear Clausen's score live was like setting foot on a place I'd only seen in postcards before.

I love hearing behind-the-scenes stories about film shoots from a wide variety of guest speakers and professors. Not surprisingly, in an industry full of storytellers and mercurial personalities, the stories that are passed around have the finely honed quality of mythology. I can't really share the stories here, but suffice it to say that events like the David O. Russell tantrum aren't new to folks in the biz.

The only downside of my crazy schedule this quarter, besides lack of time for sleep and exercise, is that I've been having a series of disturbing dreams, all linked. Last night was the most disconcerting episode yet. In this dream, I've shot and killed someone, and though no one knows I'm the killer, many people are suspicious and closing in on me. Feeling the net encircling me, I spend the entire dream in a sweat, with a sense of doom and guilt crushing all the hope out of me. By the time I wake up I can't remember who it is I'm meant to have killed, but for the duration of the dream, I feel the guilt of a murderer, and it's unsettling beyond belief. In that elusive way that dreams slip through your fingers like water, I can't recall the details anymore, but I'm certain I've had this dream more than once this quarter.

I realize that Freud's theories on dreams have been discredited, but I'd love to know what the current state of thinking is in the field of dream interpretation.

This, thankfully, is not a dream. ESPN Experts? More like ESPN Expert:

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