Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I’ve never done this before, but if I had to pick ten movies I saw in 2008 (some of them came out earlier, I know) that made a lasting impression on me, I would pick the following:

The rest of the list is in alphabetical order:

Of all the classic movies I saw for the first time this year, I must include David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) here. I wonder how I’ve managed to miss this masterpiece until now.

Among the films that almost made it into the list were In the Valley of Elah, Into the Wild, Wall-E, Heimatklänge, Sweeney Todd and Paranoid Park.
It is the second year in a row that some of the most violent movies I have seen are also among my personal favorites. I’m not so sure how this makes me feel… Let’s hope this is merely a coincidence...

As far as short subjects go, I’ve chosen Skhizein by Jérémy Clapin (I wrote about it here and here).

The five films with the most interesting color schemes I saw in 2008 were all classics (most of them revisited):
  • Alice in Wonderland (Geromini/Jackson/Luske, 1951): most playful of all the Mary Blair films (along with segments of the package features).
  • All that heaven allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955): Sirk at his most stylized, Fassbinder’s inspiration.
  • Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958): Subtle primary and secondary colors; traffic lights.
  • 101 Dalmatians (Geronimi/Luske/Reitherman/Peet, 1961): Well, who’d have guessed?
  • Don’t look now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973): A red raincoat in overexposed Venice.

Happy New Year to everyone!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Schwizgebel revisited: L'année du daim

Originally, I was about to post some thoughts about the artistic premises of 3D in standard narrative films. But in the middle of putting the piece together I came to the conclusion that a lot of ground has already been covered lately by people like Roger Ebert (here and here). So for the time being, I decided to direct your attention to something entirely different (maybe I’ll come back to 3D later):

I have often stated that I’m most drawn to animation because of its potential to marry music and image in a way no other medium can. One of my heroes in this respect is Georges Schwizgebel, one of the few Swiss animators with a reputation outside his native country. For a short biography look here.

In anticipation of his latest film Retouches that I hope to see on January 22 at the Solothurn Film Festival I’d like to focus on some of my favorites within his oeuvre.

Let me start with a film that is rather untypical of Schwizgebel’s personal trademark style: L’année du daim (The Year of the Deer, in the following abbreviated as “Daim”), made in 1995.

What sets it apart from most of his other works is the fact that Daim is more narrative than associative. While L’homme sans ombre (The Man Without a Shadow, 2004) is based on a Chamisso novella, it is not important to understand anything about the Faustian pact (one of Schwizgebel’s favorite subjects) in order to appreciate the film. Here on the other hand, the underlying Chinese fable is paramount and easily comprehensible.

In fact, the deer may be the only Schwizgebel character with actual facial expressions. He originally wanted to take the concept even further from a natural deer in the beginning to a finally domesticated Bambi-clone, but discarded the idea in preproduction.

As always, music – and in this case for the first time professional sound effects – is crucial to the filmic structure. Inspired by Schubert’s unfinished string quartet in c-minor (Op. posth.), he had someone compose a dense score that fit his storyboards based on Schubert’s motifs and style. The first and last notes are roughly the same as in the original piece, only a little faster.

Schwizgebel as interviewed by Olivier Cotte (English by Sarah Mallinson):
GS: I constructed the film like this: There are four parts and in these four parts are bits of animation, steady shots, dissolves and cuts that appear when the animal is hit to make him change his behaviour. […] As the film progresses [it] is hit less and less violently, but always on the same piece of music, so it’s like a refrain. […] I wrote four pages that represented the four seasons with the intersection points at the same moments for the four parts, after which Philippe Koller, the musician, composed the music following this structure.
OC: Was the fact that the film is divided into four parts and that each one has a similar structure a personal constraint?
GS: Yes, and it was also done to make sure the narrative was clear, because I was afraid the audience wouldn’t follow the story and that would have been a real shame. Putting those fixed shots always at the same moment helps the audience to understand the evolution, because we see the same element and the changes at the same time. Winter follows autumn and the dog is beaten less. I repeat: I like constraints and aesthetically, it pleased me to have the same thing four times.*
These four seasonal parts are already introduced in the “Leader”, the 11 second countdown that is one of Schwizgebel’s trademarks.

The first “shot” then looks exactly like we have learned to expect it in a Schwizgebel short: the title morphs into fog while an imaginary camera flies over a painted landscape (animated mostly on 4s). But unlike most of his other films, Daim isn’t primarily based on metamorphoses and constantly moving cameras. There are unusually many cuts that rather emphasize the musical structure than contribute to a more conventional continuity.

in fact, these are the only two morphing shot connections

Virtuoso camera movements that require constant repainting of foreground AND background are confined to scenes of the deer running around. Most of the violent shots consist of only a few stills with hardly any animation at all. “Illusion of Life” animation has never been Schwizgebel’s ambition or intention. His mathematical background may be felt in the rhythmic editing and the detailed visual structure, but apart from the hunter’s garden there are no geometrical objects present like in many of his other films.

A two-color scheme

To really enjoy and understand the quality of the animation and the musical structure, motion** is indispensable. One thing that can be discussed looking at stills, though, is the film’s highly restricted color palette. Apart from black and white (that looks more like blue) there are only the complimentary colors green and red (towards ochre). Only water and sometimes the sky are rendered in light blue. The dog’s eyes and collar are always yellow-green while the deer remains red.

All four seasons are limited to the same basic colors (red and green). Especially the different shades of green (mixed either with black, white or red) are important for setting the particular mood. There is always only one light source and almost always hard light, so that we get strong cast shadows (usually black). Consequently, all the objects and characters have light areas and shadow areas. I specifically like that the shadow area of white objects like snow and the dog is olive green.

Apart from the metamorphosis there is another transformation present: In the domesticated deer’s point-of-view shots we see the painted dog dissolve into a blander looking pastel dog with less menacing eyes. This visual cue pays off later when the domesticated deer doesn’t recognize the danger of wild dogs/wolves anymore, even if they are as impressionistically colored as those three.
There is much more to this animated gem, so if you haven’t already seen it, I hope you’ll be able to find it somewhere**. I don’t think it’s on youtube, though.

* all the quotes come from a book called "Georges Schwizgebel – Animated Paintings". Although parts of this trilingual publication are linguistically inadequate (at least in German and English, I’m not sure about the French text) with minor factual flaws, I’d recommend it because of its high quality pictures and because it brings up all the aspects of these films. Besides, to my knowledge it was the only book available on the cinema of Georges Schwizgebel, unfortunately out of print now.

** Schwizgebel’s films up to 2004 are available on DVD (Les peintures animées de Georges Schwizgebel)

All the images are the property of the owner.

Monday, December 8, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Switching Perspectives

"She's watching us, dad"

This post is not going to be on color but on more general aspects of film narration that I have been thinking about ever since I noticed a pair of binoculars among Roger’s stuff.

Let me start with a detour: In films like Sporn’s The Emperor’s New Clothes or Welles’ Citizen Kane a multitude of characters tell their version of a story to an investigating character. All of them (including the investigating character) act as embedded narrators within the narrative that we as spectators see. Each narrator’s story adds some information that wouldn’t be available to the others, so finally we know more than any one character knew before. Yet, unlike with the conflicting versions in Rashomon for example, we have no reason to question these narrators’ credibility. So although each scene is restricted to the knowledge of its narrator, we see an objective version of what’s going on. In principle we are witnessing a detective story where everybody tells the truth.

My point is that this same concept is at work in many “normal” films (including 101 Dalmatians) – only less obvious and without a visible investigating character. Hitchcock, for exampl
e, frequently used his camera as an active investigative character that could focus on details not visible or known to any of the characters in the scene but is still highly restrictive (see Psycho). Upon closer examination it looks like narration here is usually restricted to one character’s knowlegde throughout a whole scene (comprising several consecutive shots). I say usually, because there are occasional cut-away shots that are stretching the concept a bit. Without an investigating character, the invisible superior storyteller (which for convenience’s sake I’ll call camera* in the following) has to subtly switch between these narrating agents.

As Mark Mayerson has already pointed out, the movie starts with Pongo’s voice over. Although he is by no means the narrator of the whole movie, this clearly establishes him as the protagonist. In fact we share his point of view until the end of Sq. 04 when all the adults go for an evening stroll. Of course, none of the other character narrators “tell” their story in voice over, because we have to believe that from the moment the puppies are stolen, the events are unfolding right now before our (and the characters’) eyes. But we are limited to their momentary knowledge over the course of a scene.

Even though I can’t say that the suspense opportunities are played to maximum effect, I still think it’s safe to state that Bill Peet did an incredible job in the story department that not even a conservative director like Woolie could ruin. Many scenes are built around characters observing each other secretely before they react to a situation. This theme is also visible in the backgrounds: think of all the peep-holes and windows.

Right from the beginning there are countless allusions to characters watching each other (there are unusually many point-of-view-shots throughout the movie). In fact, their behavior of observing and reacting tells us a lot about their personalities. Let’s look at our protagonist Pongo for a moment: The first h
alf of sequence 01 is constructed entirely of alternating shots of Pongo looking at something and shots of what he sees.

As a reaction to his seeing Perdi and Anita go to the park he takes the story in his hands and Roger for a walk. Then there’s the small interplay of Pongo and Perdi secretely peeking at each other. So we not only learn that Pongo is an active character, we also learn what he reacts to. It’s interesting (and sad) to see that there’s never a possibility for Perdi to take the lead because she always shares scenes with Pongo whom the camera is following consistently (even when Perdi leads the puppies through the snow, Pongo is the one to change directions). What a perfect example of cinema as a genuine expression of the male gaze! Never fear, I won’t digress into feminist film theory.

Roger (introduced as Pongo’s pet) on the other hand is the most passive character. He at best watches things happen and only reacts when forced into it. Even then he stands around hopelessly stiff. He is very detached from what goes on around him. Apart from pipes, books and musical instruments, there is always a pair of binoculars in his room. Whatever he may be watching seems to be far removed from his own life. We also learn that he looks at fashion models in magazines but does not notice Anita in the park.

I’d also like to focus on two more characters whose personalities are distinguished by how and when they react to what they see: Sgt. Tibbs and the Colonel. Tibbs is introduced as an alert and active character right away when he wakes the Colonel during the twilight bark. After seeing smoke coming out of Hell Hall, they both go to the main gate. While the Colonel waits out here, Tibbs is not only peeping through a window but enters immediately and peeks through a hole in the living room wall. After making sure he remains undiscovered, he starts investigating (constantly advancing from left to right). His first encounter with Jasper ends in an assault on his life.

Later, when Cruella is revealing her intention to kill the puppies, Tibbs is observing the scene through the same hole again. In fact he is the exclusive narrator in both of these scenes although what we see are objective shots from different positions within the room. Only after Cruella’s departure is he coming out of hiding and trying to get the puppies out before the Baduns’ TV show is over. In addition to that countdown suspense situation there is the formerly planted problem that the 15 are also more attracted by what’s on TV than what’s happening around them. After Tibbs and the pups have left the room, the camera stays with the Baduns and we share their point of view looking for the puppies until the Colonel finally dares to come closer and looks through the closed window in the hall.

His position as narrator/observer is clarified by his moving
to the next window so that we can see what’s going on in the living room. This change of perspective to outside enables the camera to switch to Pongo and Perdi more smoothly (we witness the Colonel hearing them). Even after the room has turned red and Tibbs is trying to protect the puppies, the Colonel stays at the closed window that eventually breaks when Jasper throws a chair in his direction. Only at the last moment he even sticks his head through a hole in the door but immediately follows Tibbs and the puppies back to the barn. Yet the camera remains close to Hell Hall until the Baduns leave it for good.

We experience the following family reunion as Tibbs and the Colonel witness it and after the dogs have left the barn, the Colonel is finally acting himself. As Mark Mayerson put it: “It’s an important moment because it shows that Tibbs and the Captain respect the Colonel for valid reasons and they’re not simply indulging him.” I like the narrative progression of the Colonel’s behaviour: He gradually makes his way closer to the danger (still observing and reporting) but is only reacting to it after the danger has come to his home. Tibbs on the other hand doesn’t hesitate for a moment.

After that, the camera follows the Baduns until they catch up
with the Dalmatians on the bridge. Like in a relay race Pongo takes over from that point in time until the scene fades to black. This “relay” technique helps to smooth the necessary transitions from one story thread to the other that normally is achieved by cross-cutting in such chase pictures. There are exceptions to this: the first seven shots of Sq. 13, for example, or the camera traveling to distant locales all by itself following the barking sound.

As we have seen, we can also share a minor characters’ (the cows’ in the Dairy Barn) or the villains’ perspective: In the first picture we know more than the
unsuspecting Radcliffes, in the second one the dogs try to escape their observer and know that they will be exposed any minute now. Both of them lead to different degrees of suspense: In the first one we ask ourselves: why are they being watched? In the second one the question is more specific: can the dogs escape in time?

As a matter of fact, the whole Dinsford scene consists of characters observing each other. Ironically in the end, the dogs are forced into watching their fate being decided by humans who have been portrayed as generally incompetent by now (the police wasn’t able to find the puppies, the Baduns couldn’t even do their job right). Coherently, it’s this incompetence that finally puts the villains out of action.

All screenshots are from Platinum Edition DVD, RC: 2, 2008 unless otherwise stated. All the pictures are the property of Disney, used here for educational purposes.

Sequences labelled according to the final draft (posted by Hans Perk) and Mark Mayerson’s mosaics.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Dalmatians and The Nightingale

One of the newly available LIFE photographs

Walt Disney’s Birthday
(December 5th, 1901) seemed a good day to me to relaunch my series on 101 Dalmatians. Even though The Old Man himself wasn’t too pleased with this film, the people working on it greatly benefitted from his absence.

However, I finally received my copy of The Films of Michael Sporn today and thus couldn’t resist watching The Nightingale tonight. So instead of a new analysis, I’ll just recapitulate what I’ve already analysed so far:

The introduction was mainly concerned with general thoughts about color styling and art direction focusing on the concept of Disney’s familiar “pool of light” lighting scheme.
In the first post I compared the different rooms of the Radcliffes’ (and Roger’s bachelor) apartment. Although each room’s predominant color reflects the inhabitant’s character and general mood, at this time everything seems to be lit naturally. Green is the unifying color here. Although Anita is a little underdeveloped story-wise, she usually wears colors that are complimentary to the backgrounds (more than those of any other character so far). This becomes clear in the theatrically staged birth sequence.
Post 2 was about different lighting setups of the kitchen and the living room as well as about shadows and silhouettes. We saw that life and color fades after the puppies have been stolen. The warmth returns in the end with even richer saturation. In all these scenes (up to Sq. 6), established color schemes are consistent throughout whole sequences. Inside lighting doesn’t seem to affect skintones too much (hue-wise).
Only in the third post Cruella has her big entrance shoving everybody else out of the spotlight. For once a Disney villain is not associated with darkness – her henchmen certainly are, however. So much so, that they even stand in the shadow at home. Cruella introduces the elements of pink and flashes of red.

The next post will be about the
theme of observing.