Sunday, April 19, 2009

Staging the act

I've just learnt that this is already my 50th post. Initially I intended to do a post a week on average which means that I should have had my 52nd before April 9. But anyway, the following has nothing to do with animation in particular but a lot with the basics of film making in general.

As stated earlier this year, I’ve been looking at a lot of Clint Eastwood pictures lately. Although he always tries to sneak out on questions about his visual handwriting by stating that each story dictates the style of a film, there are some characteristic traits that are instantly recognizable once you’re aware of them. He may not be considered a stylish director like his mentor Sergio Leone but his visual handwriting is found in all his directorial efforts, good and bad.

Visual handwriting
While in a self-conscious Leone picture the chosen compositions and shots are essential to the experience, Eastwood is much less eye-catching. He likes to tell his stories in an unhurried no-nonsense way, achieving this by subordinating all stylistic devices to his narrative points.

Concerning light and colors, the most obvious characteristic is Eastwood’s preference for having characters – especially himself – stand in the shadow. The brightest spot in a shot is hardly ever a character’s face, it’s usually some light source in the background. He really celebrates his special variation of low key lighting at times, but never so much so that it distracts from the plot.

During the 1970s and 80s, he kept the colors mostly “natural”, meaning normal fleshtones – nowadays he likes them digitally toned down – surrounded by earthly browns, greens and greys. Primary colors were (and still are) reserved for special occasions, usually red and blue in connection with white. The amount of shots that feature American colors and flags is unsurpassed, I guess.

Additionally he likes to put the camera below the eyeline to make his larger-than-life protagonists even slightly more towering, as if we had to look up to a cowboy sitting on a horse.

Bronco Billy
In the following, I'm analyzing two pivotal sets of recurring scenes in Bronco Billy (1980). Hardly Eastwood’s best film, it nevertheless contains some good examples of staging.
It’s essentially a failed stab at doing a screwball comedy, complete with a cold big-mouthed blonde (Sondra Locke, his then wife) whose hair color stands out among all the other characters. It’s definitely one of Eastwoods more personal films. Strictly speaking it is not a Malpaso film, but most of the crew are Malpaso co-workers.

Bronco Billy McCoy (Eastwood) is a former NJ shoesalesman who travels the country with his Wild West Show second only to Buffalo Bill’s. As a last and lost cowboy he is out of touch with modern life and thus resorts to his ersatz-family of social outcasts (one of his favorite themes of the period starting with The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)) and where he has to communicate to the normal world, he is most comfortable with children. In short, the comedy deals with the redemption of Eastwood’s cowboy character in finding his place in modern society. After all, it’s about the American Dream still being possible in 1980.

Inside the tent
The movie starts and ends with scenes inside Billy’s Wild West Show tent. In the first one Scatman Crothers is introducing all the acts with Billy as the main attraction. It’s a rather pathetic event since there’s a very small audience, almost no applause and before the show is over there are two accidents (including some embarrassing reaction shots). Most of the show is almost painfully silent, so that you really feel the lack of applause.

There are many wide high angle shots that dwarf the actors. The darkness around the harsh blue lights makes the tent seem to be infinitely large. The audience is practically non-existent.

There’s something very admirable about all of Eastwood’s films: he (or rather his lighting crew) is particularly careful with lighting dark skinned actors so that you can always see their features equally well as those of white actors, even if they are shown against bright light sources. This has been less common in American cinema than one would expect.

Music off a record is heard playing only during Billy’s horse stunts, it sounds rather thin.
Even Billy’s stunts and the proud announcer are primarily shown from up above. Although there are lots of red props, they are not highlighted too much.

Only when he is addressing his “little partners”, the children in the audience, is the camera below his eyeline. It emphasizes the point that only the children are looking up to him. The same is true for his blonde assistant who is introduced as a silly, scared girl. Note that in the lower left screencap the camera position puts Billy higher in the frame than the girl who is actually hanging a few feet off the ground.

In the end, we see the same show in a new tent which is completely made of American flags (stitched together by inmates of a mental institution, in case you wondered…). Of course by now everybody’s reconciled and the tent bursts with people. This time, Billy comes in at the beginning, making it possible for the music to play during the whole show – not through the tinny speakers but on the soundtrack. There’s also applause throughout, Billy gets his close-up this time and most of all, it’s not that dark anymore, so we see the omnipresent red, white and blue.

The lighting emphasizes the strong primary red more than in the previous tent scenes.

The magic moment of reconciliation is celebrated with especially theatrical lighting that sculpts not only the faces but also the hats very clearly, after all we're in the middle of a staged show. Eastwood himself is again partly in the shadow. This time his eyes are the visible part, which is very unusual for him. He’s still higher in the frame than anybody else.

All the show members seem to get their “heroic treatment”, i.e. their extreme low angle shot. Interspersed with tight framings of the cheering crowd.

At the end of the show (and the film), he speaks to his little partners one last time. They are more or less on eyelevel now.

In between these two bookend scenes there are two confrontations that are handled like ritualistic western shootouts:

Confronting his “Little Partners”
Just before Bronco Billy talks to the blonde (arriving in a cold blue car by the way) for the first time, a few kids examine his flamboyant red convertible. They have come to get a glimpse at the “real” Bronco Billy, apparently some kind of hero to them. Billy does what’s expected from him yet accidentally reveals that he’s out of touch with normal life by not knowing what day of the week it is.
In classic western fashion he’s approaching them, but keeps the distance until they have turned at his call. The camera is more or less at the children’s eyelevel. While this prevents us from looking down on the children, Billy still looks larger-than-life.

They turn around and we see him from extremely far below, in silhouette against the sky.

Billy whirls his six-shooters which has the desired effect, he then tells the children to lower their hands.
Approaching them slowly, he looks increasingly smaller. Also from behind he’s rather dark against the background.

The child standing alone on the left explains to him that they “don’t go to school today, Bronco Billy, it’s Saturday…”. This shot’s slightly from below the child’s eye level. Billy's already bent down to them, standing next to an American flag once more.

He then hands out free tickets to the show and asks the kids to bring their folks tonight. He’s in control of the conversation.

They take off with Billy driving off (after giving his gunbelt to Doc) with them.

Confronting the local sheriff
The second confrontation scene comes late in the film when Billy lets himself be humiliated by a local sheriff in order to get his friend out of prison.

We first see the empty street out of town, followed by a classic backlit low angle shot. Here, Billy is still in control of the situation.

Then the camera tracks down as the sheriff comes closer (one of Eastwood’s favorite establishing devices).
As expected, The sheriff is facing the sun, while Billy stands with his back to it. As soon as he is offering the money, the sheriff is seen in the higher position, although he is physically smaller than Billy.
The rest of the scene is handled in shot - reverse shot.
“just how fast are you with this?” pointing to the gun, not accepting the money

Billy “admits” that the sheriff is faster than he is. He doesn’t move a bit, only his face does.

He drops his gun. There’s even a high angle shot as the sheriff approaches the now unarmed Billy.
With the sheriff now closer than ever, Billy’s face is twitching, but he’s not moving, the humiliation has left him speechless. They have met on eye level. But Billy is not capable of handling such a situation. This is a far cry from Dirty Harry. Bronco Billy may in fact be Eastwood’s least violent picture, nobody gets killed during this one.

Although nothing about these examples is unexpected or bold, I still think they illustrate well how even a set of established stylistic traits is flexible enough to adjust to the needs of a scene. Style doesn’t have to be the icing on the cake, in fact, it shouldn’t. It should be the means by which a story is told visually.

All screenshots taken from Bronco Billy, DVD PAL RC2.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sleeping Beauty - A perfect introduction to Blu-ray?

It no longer looks like a great DVD folks - it looks like film. The sharpness becomes an added bonus - one that can actually distract from the narrative - it is so distinct. Be careful not to swoon too much!

If something looks like film, it distracts from the narrative? The irony of this is almost unbearable. Yet I think, not all hope is lost.

The distancing effect of technological novelties
There has been a lot of moaning about 3-D being a distraction as well. Had it simply been accepted as the minor narrative advancement that it really is, I’m sure no one would complain, because a well-used device should go unnoticed by the average viewer (how many people complain about intensified continuity or too many close-ups in current Hollywood cinema?). But with ridiculously overinflated marketing campaigns and the need to wear glasses, our whole attention is deliberately misguided to a minor storytelling device that works a lot better when not noticed consciously. Maybe it is supposed to detract from the other deficiencies of some of the films.

In other words, the more unobtrusive possibilities of 3-D could only be exploited if 3-D became normal. But since it seems impossible to get rid of the glasses in the near future, this won’t happen any time soon. So it is beyond all question that 3-D is a fad once again. There are technical and financial reasons for this as well, of course.

Unless you have to wear glasses and pay more, adaption to technical novelties and different media is usually pretty fast on the condition that the immediate benefit of it is obvious. Nowadays, easy handling, availability and low costs are generally more important than technical quality. On this ground it is not surprising that Blu-ray Disc is not yet the mass medium it was designed to be. It speaks to the same diminishing group of people who care about the quality of the movie going experience in general.

But – to come back to the DVDBeaver quote – how can sharpness “distract from the narrative”, if it doesn’t when we see the same movie in a cinema on superior 35mm? Because we are used to a certain quality in cinemas but not on our TV screens. There’s another reason: if you’re picky about image quality, you positively want to see the improvement over DVD. So I’m sure this distracting side effect wears off as soon as we are used to watching HD.

Adaption can be your friend
Do you remember what it felt like the first few time you watched a movie on DVD – or for that matter on a laptop or even an iPod, if you care for such an imbecility? I was so impressed with the “improved” picture and sound quality (compared to the much loathed VHS) that I was paying more attention to technical issues than to the storyline. Needless to say that the emotional experience suffered regardless of the movie. I’m sure this technical awareness was the same when sound, color and widescreen were introduced. For example, it’s no co-incidence that countless showcase movies with no substance accompanied these changes (This Is Cinerama, anyone?).

Now I have the same feeling with BD again. I know people who buy movies just because they look good on Blu-ray, no matter what they think of the content. One can enjoy picture and sound quality like one enjoys caressing satin or fur. Reviewers sometimes even mention the “tactile qualities” of digital eye candy.

For me, a 2K transfer can never substitute for a 35mm print. But I’m excited that it has the potential to reproduce images a lot closer to their original appearance than any electronic format before. (Well, theoretically that is. I won’t digress into the many ill-fated paths the studios are taking with this potential, because Robert A. Harris has already done that here (The Great Grain Debate) and here.)

The perfect introduction to Blu-ray
As long as watching films on Blu-ray is still the exception with many people only slowly converting to the new format, it was probably Disney’s best move to pick Sleeping Beauty as their first BD release, because it actually benefits from the circumstances: it is loaded with detail to an almost nauseating level, it was shot in Super Technirama 70 and it doesn’t work on an emotional level anyway.

I don’t approve of the restoration methods, because the movie now looks like it was made on CAPS during the Katzenberg era. The new restoration has warmer colors (by the way, whatever happened to Lou Romano’s self-explanatory screenshot comparison?) but I don’t think at this point anybody not having an IB-Tech print for reference can tell what they were supposed to look like. In the 14 years since its last theatrical re-release we have seen all kinds of variations.

It is a wide-spread belief that you don’t see the advantages of hi-def in animation as much as in live-action. Thankfully Sleeping Beauty proves this wrong. One of the wonders of high-definition is the possibility to keep lines unharmed by compression and reduce color bleeding substantially.

As a real bonus some of the special features, especially Grand Canyon, are included in HD as well. This half-hour showcase presentation (no dialogue, just music) once again benefits immensely from the novelty of the format. I’m sure it wouldn’t have found its audience in 1959 hadn’t it been for the relative novelty of Cinemascope. For good measure it is well restored and you can actually see that it was shot on film.

Well, Sleeping Beauty was the first movie I have seen on Blu-ray and I have to admit that this was the first time I really liked it. For the first time I wasn’t disappointed by its many shortcomings. I like films for many different reasons, not just for their emotional impact, but with Beauty I’ve always had this overwhelming feeling of a great missed opportunity with a few brilliant scenes. Somehow I’ve come past that and I think it had a lot to do with being distracted from the story. I can simply enjoy it now for what it is: a manneristic “moving illustration” with strong 1950s American overtones.

However, my copy of The Searchers is sitting on the shelf until I’m used to HD. After all, enjoying John Ford’s flawed masterpiece simply on a technical level wouldn’t do it justice.

For more screencaps see DVDBeaver (there was no DVD attached to the European BD of Sleeping Beauty, so I'm not yet able to do my own screencaps. Fortunately, this omission has been corrected on Pinocchio.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sita in Switzerland

If you're living in Switzerland and haven't seen Nina Paley's feature Sita Sings The Blues yet, you should mark Thursday, the 18th of June 2009.
In connection with a jubilee tour of Filmbulletin Sita will be shown in Cinema Gotthard in Zug.

Happy Easter to everybody!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Inbetween V

Well, what can I say... the first of a new month already...

Two weeks ago I was invited to stay with friends in Budapest where we held a story development meeting. It was an entirely pleasant experience and I saw more of the city than I had expected. The following pencil and felt pen sketches are all from this trip.

the view from my friends' apartment

my host, exhausted

I didn't have a camera with me, so instead of going through photographs afterwards I did this pastel "color script". Without further planning I drew from memory depicting the most memorable images that came to mind (in chronological order). The subjects are:
1. row: take off in the fog; above the clouds
2. row: Budapest façades; cinema "Corvin"; café "New York"

3. row: concert Harcsa Veronica; coffee house "Central"; theatre performance "a démon gyermekei"

4. row: movie "Taxidermia" by Pálfi György
; Széchenyi Thermal Bath