Friday, February 7, 2014

A Unique Look at Uniqueness in Filmmaking

Nelson Carvajal, a fellow Chicago native, filmophile and insightful writer over at IndieWire shared a video essay with me today about Aronofsky that really got me thinking.  There are a lot of good filmmakers out there today but few great ones.  I'd put Darren Aronofsky on the short list of great ones next to Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, and the Coen brothers who all skate that fine line between unique, envelop-pushing auteurship and commercial success— but how are they all doing it differently?  My gut tells me they're not.

In this wake of the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a torrent of great material surfaced in interviews with the man, and many critics have turned toward retrospective analyses on the state of the film industry today and how people like Hoffman have changed that landscape and redefined what a "movie star" actually means.

Something that came across my newsfeed was an interview from Hoffman (which I can't seem to find anywhere on the world wide web) saying that great art is about speaking in the macro, but telling your story in the micro.  Essentially speaking containing a large message within an intimate story about a single character or collection of characters in a given circumstance.  Arguably all of these greats do that.  They intimately examine and peel back the layers of these simply fascinating characters and give you a pervasively close look at who we are as a society.

Now getting back to Carvajal's essay: the topic has come up before with my fellow film geeks about how unique Aronofsky's films are from one another.  But I think it boils down to that old adage about how every storyteller (or filmmaker in this case) tells the same story over and over again.  Arguably, I think that, while Aronofsky's films may be different on the surface in the intellectualized, resulted sense, they're emotionally telling the same story.  I've got to give credit to Mr. Carvajal for sparking that insight, as before this essay, I was just in the same boat as everyone else on the argument.

I would love to see a similar analysis done on Danny Boyle, as I've heard similar discussions arise from his storytelling.  Without further adieu, read the article here first, and then watch the essay.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Kick in the Ass by Folkloristics

As some of you may know, I began writing this blog for two reasons: 1, to document the progression of my short film "Your Milkman" from inception to completion, and 2, to use it as an open forum for ideas for a personal thesis I've been working on for nearly five years now.

Obviously, the blog has veered and evolved into a greater scope of my personal education in film and observations on life in general.  I took some time off from working on the thesis; about a year and a half actually.  Occasionally I'd jot an idea down but I haven't done much more research on it for quite some time now.  Part of this sabbatical was to work on a few feature screenplays I wanted to write, and part of it was because I'd hit a dead end in supporting research.  The breadth of the idea quickly expanded from a little shell of an idea to a pretty large scale abstraction that spans across sociology, psychology, anthropology and communication sciences— it quickly became pretty daunting to me to work on, especially trying to regain footing on it and really finding the passion for the idea I had when I first began.  Now it required research and supporting ideas for folklore, mythology, pop-culture, child psychology... it was just the tip of the iceberg.  There were plenty of books available on each topic individually, but rarely could I find anything that bled between them so I got discouraged and just sat on it.

I had a friend and colleague, photographer and fellow academic mind with mad Reddit/Buzzfeed cred, John Cessna, look over where it stood about a year ago.  In essence his feedback came down to continued research and obviously, one of the worst parts of writing anything academic: citation.  I'd taken margin notes as I went along for citation but I haven't been that organized in keeping that its own document.  For shame!

So with my head spinning and my tail between my legs for not appeasing the citation gods, I just took time off.  No big deal... except it was an unknown amount of time and I just didn't have my bearings.

Fast forward a year later and I'm at a co-workers apartment reviewing an edit and I look over at his bookshelf and this spine is jumping out at me.  "FOLKLORISTICS" it says in big bold red letters.  "What's that?" I ask.  "Oh, it's this textbook I saved from a college course I took on Folklore and Pop Culture.  "What?!"  And like a prized Olympian firing off the running block, I dove for it.  Luckily, he was kind enough to let me borrow it.

I've been slowly making my way through it, meticulously making notes, quotes and examining references on every thought that comes to mind as I wade through it.  It's fantastic.  Most importantly, it's give me a long-lost footing to start thinking about the thesis again on both a macro and micro level.  So as I sit typing this, I've got the book open, only a tiny dent of the way through it and I'm already feeling that juissance I felt working on the idea initially.  Things are clicking and hey, I'm actually keeping citations this time.  It feels good to be working on it.  The carrot at the end of the stick for me is having a physical copy— even self-published and printed through an amateur site like Lulu, just so I can put it on my shelf and use it for my own interest.  I've made it a goal of mine to make that a reality within this year so here's to hoping!  Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some reading to do.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Unifying and Dissonant Cuts: Guiding or Misguiding The Human Eye

Something I've noticed, but not seen much written about in editing theory is the use and abuse of what I call unified cuts.  I often talk of saccade patterns and their role in editing and viewing films.  For those who haven't heard of such things, a saccade is the physical movement of the eye from one location to another.  You look in the upper right corner of the screen because that's where the actor is, and on the next cut, another actor is on the lower left part of the screen.  Your eyes saccade from far right to far left and both a physical and subconscious emotion is associated with that "request" of a viewer.

A heavy saccade is more strenuous on the eye and subconsciously dictates an overall more negative disposition toward the content; whereas little to no saccade movement is less taxing upon the viewer's physical state and therefore subconsciously communicates a more pleasing and unifying disposition—  not to mention a lessening in the affect of a visible cut.

In the opening sequences of War Horse, as the protagonist begins to relate with the horse, their cuts are unified (i.e. where the boy is geographically on screen, the horse will be in the relative same third to quarter in the composition in the proceeding cut), whereas when the story unfolds and conflict builds, the cuts become more dissonant creating a subtension that may not otherwise be identifiable.

The concept has been in the back of my mind since I've began ToneCutting films, but I have yet to come across a filmmaker or editor who discusses this idea and outright uses it as a guideline for editing.  Perhaps the concept is felt more than called out and when you see the edit it just "feels right" and doesn't need any explanation beyond that.

I'd find it hard to believe that filmmakers consistently think that far ahead into the framing and blocking of a shot, anticipating how those shots will cut together later and how they intend for those unifying and dissonant cuts to affect their viewer, but perhaps they do. 

More often than not for me though, it simply happens to work out that way.  At least, I try to make those cuts happen when it serves the story.  It's a hinge and you're most likely going to have at least a batch of your shots be on one side of the frame or the other so you're already part of the way there in achieving less visible cuts.  And if they do clash, compositionally there's usually something in the negative space that helps "soften the blow" of guiding your eye toward something else, assuming you've got a good set designer who takes framing into consideration.

I know as I cut projects with a director or a client, I'll speak in terms of 'guiding the eye' of the viewer and how in my opinion a certain cut works or doesn't work— most of the time, they simply nod their head in understanding but aren't truly registering the dramatic implications of this practice.  It can sway the viewer subconsciously and affect their overall perception of the characters and the story.  For me, this concept is as rudimentary and important as understanding the Kuleshov effect or action matching.  It's a basic tool that an editor should understand and put into practice if they want to truly understand their craft.

Act On Your Ideas

As a creative, you get sparks of ideas.  Most of them flutter out back into the ether.  Probably one of the best things I've learned to do is to write my ideas down; and not just in one place.

In the "olden days" people would use composition books and journals to write their ideas down in.  Now the pages have been torn away and there's a much more accessible medium to work with: the digital document.

Several years ago I saw a documentary on Woody Allen that talks about his body of work, and the method in which his ideas come together.  One thing that really stuck with me was that Woody was just like everybody else in the way his ideas are conceived.  He thinks, he comes up with ideas, and then he acts on those ideas.  In the documentary, he has a little nightstand next to his bed that contains a pile of physical notes written down for film ideas and scenes he's thought about.  He even reads a few of them— all of which he could probably turn into a film but what it did for me was that it made the idea of a successful end product in filmmaking an attainable concept.  A living legend such Woody Allen simply acts on his ideas.

I've taken it more seriously whenever I have an idea, I write it down as quickly as I can digitally in my phone and then when I get a free moment, I'll send it to my long-threaded e-mail I've been drafting to myself for several years that contains every fleeting idea that I've had for a film.

Now it's not just simply writing down the idea, but it's also trying to convert that initial spark of emotion and excitement ignited by idea into words that can later on re-ignite that same passion.  You often find yourself asking "What is it about this idea that I like?".  I've found that breaking it down into the simplest terms and into the least contrived and least verbose way possible is usually the best way to go about it.

I'll often go back through my thread and look at individual ideas.  I can then tack on further thoughts to those ideas and simultaneously develop all of them at a slow, but natural and un-forced pace.  That way down the line if for some reason someone says "Hey, I saw your script, it's great, but I'm looking for a low-cost, indie sci-fi film" I've got my ideas at least half-way developed and can have that pitch ready to go.

My biggest advice is don't ignore your ideas.  Learn to embrace them, even if they're a mere infant thought.  There's probably something there that can be extrapolated; it's just a matter of self-reflection on it and asking yourself "What do I like about this?".  Act on your ideas and at the very least write them down to revisit later!

Friday, December 20, 2013

88 Cinematographers Share Their Personal Career Advice

Earlier this week, a link came across my newsfeeds that ended up being one of those sit-in-your-browser-tab-and-look-at-it-later type of articles.  Well I finally got around to reading through it and all I have to say to you is read it.

Having edited several Zacuto Great Camera Shootouts, I've met some of the minds of this list and have had the privilege of hearing similar wisdoms spouted on set of these things.  The tough part of my job at the time was to filter out the best of of these gems and turn it into a cohesive piece.  Those can be seen at, but here's episode 1:

Revenge of the Great Camera Shootout 2012 - Part One: Starting With Darkness from Zacuto on Vimeo.

I feel that at least the sagely segments of that documentary series coincides nicely with the sentiments of this article, which I originally found here.  Even if you aren't particularly focusing on cinematography, a good sum of the advice applies to any career in the arts.  One of my particular favorites is Saving Mr. Banks' cinematographer, John Schwartzman's quote.
From my grandfather, Carmine Coppola: What you do with your non-working time is more important than what you do with your working time.
So without further adieu:

“What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?”

That’s a question famously asked in American Cinematographer magazine’s ASC Close-Up – a series of brief interviews with various ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) members.
It’s also an extremely telling question as it demands ASC members dig for the one piece of advice most important and most effective for them. The question doesn’t just ask for general guidelines or good advice, but the best advice.

At the suggestion of reader Martin Warrilow, I went through AC magazine’s online archives and pulled the answers to this question from 88 different cinematographers. Some are well-known while others are still under the radar. Yet all have crucial insight, wisdom, and knowledge to share that could help you in your filmmaking career.

So get ready as these 88 ASC cameramen and camerawomen drop some serious knowledge…

“What’s the Best Professional Advice You’ve Ever Received?”


When I was an AC, a gaffer told me, ‘Don’t run on a set,’ because you show everyone that you probably forgot something. I still don’t run on set, and I try not to forget too many things.
Bruno Delbonnel

‘Keep it simple.’ It’s always exciting to try a new piece of gear, but sometimes two grips pulling a camera on a blanket is still the best solution.
Glen MacPherson, ASC

‘Never pass up the opportunity to keep your mouth shut!’ What they don’t tell you in cinematography training is that your job is 50 percent cinematography and 50 percent diplomacy. I’ve learned the hard way that when things go south, as they sometimes do, it’s best to pause and reflect on what’s happening and why before opening your mouth and blurting out what first comes to mind. No one remembers what you didn’t say, but they will certainly remember something you said in haste.
Bill Bennett, ASC

When I was in college, Nick Ray came to show his films, and I spent the whole night talking to him in the lobby rather than watching the films. As he left, he said, ‘Remember, it’s a way of life.’
Steven Fierberg, ASC

I’ve learned so much from reading American Cinematographer, and the best professional advice I ever received was from an interview with Gordon Willis. In it, he stressed the importance of always having a point of view when approaching a scene. It’s the first question I ask myself when I’m designing my coverage: what is the point of view, or whose? Once I’ve answered this question, everything falls into place with much more ease.
Ernest Dickerson, ASC

From editor Irving Lerner: ‘Cut out all the comin’s and goin’s.’
Jack Couffer, ASC

‘There’s only one way to shoot this thing: two ways.’
Barry Markowitz, ASC

From Owen Roizman: ‘There’s no need to have an ego as a man. Let your work on that screen be your ego.’
Crescenzo Notarile, ASC

Jim Danforth taught me the value of critical thinking, especially about your own work, and how to see your work as the audience will see it. And during The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas showed me a helicopter shot and asked if I could add a creature running on the ground, which at the time seemed impossible because of the six-axis camera motion. He said, ‘Give it some thought,’ and within 15 minutes I had a solution. That taught me that a right answer might be one thought away.
Dennis Muren

Don’t shoot your demo reel. Be true to the story.
Tobias Schliessler

From George Miller: ‘Just be bold, Dino! Be as bold as you want!’
Dean Semler, ASC, ACS

I received early encouragement from Woody Omens, ASC; and Walter Lassally, BSC taught me many crucial concepts over the course of several projects. I also appreciated the opportunity to be on the set of Fat City, where Conrad Hall was executing innovative ideas like using 8K (4x2K) umbrella lights for the fight scenes. In dailies, John Huston would just put his head down and listen, trusting Conrad to deliver their visual plan.
Tom Houghton, ASC

It was actually given to my son when he was getting ready to direct his thesis film at the American Film Institute. Jay Fortune, a New York gaffer I’d just completed a film with, suggested to him, ‘Don’t lose your sense of humor, even when everything seems to be going in the opposite direction.’
Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC

Life is like an airplane: you either get onboard, or you don’t. It’s up to you.
Xavier Grobet, ASC, AMC

When I was a focus puller on a movie with Adrian Biddle, BSC, I told him I did not have focus marks, and he said, ‘Feel the Force.’ I use that advice all the time.
Dan Mindel

‘The edges of the frame are often more interesting than the center.’
Luciano Tovoli, ASC, AIC

On my first day on my first job as a PA, the production manager was late, and a grip said, ‘It is disrespectful to be late on a shoot day.’ That made a big impression on me.
Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC

Listen to your gut instinct and believe in it. And remember that the craft-service person on this job might be the producer on the next.
Roberto Schaefer, ASC, AIC

Stay calm, listen, observe and lead by example.
Jonathan Taylor, ASC

Don’t try to be someone you are not.
Alar Kivilo, AS, CSC

1) Learn how to listen; 2) Choose one strong idea per film; and 3) Really understand your motivations, why you do something and not something else, and the direction you take in your work.
Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC

The film business is like a prizefight: It’s not how many times you get knocked down that counts, it’s how many times you get up and go again.
Sam Nicholson

Michael Chapman told me that if I didn’t want to shoot a project, I should just double my rate — that way I could be happy doing it. I’ve never tried it, but he made me laugh.
David Boyd, ASC

Know what you want to see in the shot before you plan logistics.
John Newby, ASC

After hearing complaints from an actor that I was putting too much light in his eyes, an executive producer called me into his office to remind me that I could be fired and he could be fired, but the actor could not be fired. It was a great lesson in political reality.
Robert Primes, ASC

From George Folsey Sr.: ‘Whenever you go into production, eat a good breakfast and sit down whenever you can.’ Good advice.
Peter Deming, ASC

Cinematography is 10 percent cinematography and 90 percent bladder control.
Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC

Don’t let yourself become too obsessed with technology. Find a balance with your creativity.
Jerzy Zielinski, ASC, PSC

Find a way to keep shooting, no matter what. That is how I have learned and how I have grown.
Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC

My gaffer in England, Martin Evans, advised me to say nothing during the first three weeks of production, to just watch and listen. I wish I had followed his advice more closely.
Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC

‘Every producer, every lab, every equipment house and every crewmember (from director to caterer) is your family.’
Russell Carpenter, ASC

From my agent: ‘Be the happiest guy on set.’ He was right.
Frank B. Byers

From Tim Beiber: ‘Show up early, don’t sit down, and act like you give a shit.’ It’s easy to remember and has far-reaching implications.
Jim Denault, ASC

Lee Rothberg’s mantra: ‘Keep calm, cool and collected at all times.’
Dejan Georgevich, ASC

I’m not sure it’s the best advice, but when I first began working as a camera assistant, Joe Ruttenberg, ASC lived next door. He took me into his house one day and showed me his two Academy Awards and told me to become an editor, because they had more control of his art than he did. It didn’t deter me, but it made me aware that I wasn’t in complete control of the finished product. It’s a lesson I’m still learning.
Charles Minsky, ASC

From Jordan Cronenweth: ‘Minimize compromise, be prepared for rejection, and save your money
Thomas A. Del Ruth

From my grandfather, Carmine Coppola: What you do with your non-working time is more important than what you do with your working time.
John Schwartzman

It’s the director’s movie. The director is always right.
Fred Elmes

Have a clear vision, design and objective for every scene. Then, by lighting with your instincts along with your intention and setting your own level of excellence, you will find satisfaction.
Rene Ohashi, ASC, CSC

The advice I got the first day I worked in the film business: Always be five minutes early to work, never five minutes late. But more importantly, live on the edge when it comes to your photography — take risks. Put your ideas on film and fall down a few times; it will make you a great filmmaker.
Salvatore Totino

Invest in yourself, and if you’re not willing to risk everything, then don’t bother doing anything.
Paul Cameron

Stay true to yourself. When everything is crazy around you and you feel like you’re being forced into making all the compromises, do what is right for you and make the compromises you can live with. In the end, what people see on the screen is what they remember you by.
Billy Dickson

Michael Chapman, ASC said, ‘You have to give the impression you know what you’re doing even when you’re totally confused.’
Paul Ryan

I was working with Don McAlpine, ASC, ACS, and getting impatient watching the director, producer and assistant director endlessly discuss the next setup. Don turned to me and said in his inimitable Aussie drawl, ‘Relax. Sooner or later they’ll have to come over to talk to us.’
Anastas Michos

I was honored to have John Alton, ASC visit my set when I first became a cinematographer. He told me to light the people, not the sets.
Lowell Peterson

I think it was Sven Nykvist, ASC who once said, ‘Take chances, but when you do, lower the ASA setting on your light meter.’ To this day, no matter how great the latitude of the film stock is, I always calibrate my meter to a lower setting than what the manufacturer recommends.
Alexander Gruszynski

When I was starting out, a veteran first assistant told me the 2-Make Rule, ‘Make your leading ladies look beautiful and make your day.’
Aaron Schneider, ASC

When director Gil Cates chose me to shoot a love story starring Bea Arthur and Richard Kiley, he said he liked what I’d done on The Fly. I reminded him that Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis were in a horror film, not a love story. He said, ‘No, they were in love, and that’s what the audience saw. Sometimes you have to ignore the words and let the pictures tell the story.’
Mark Irwin, ASC, CSC

From John Frankenheimer: ‘Alan, whatever you do in this business, don’t ever let them push you into shooting something you know is just bad, something you’ll end up regretting or hating. Simple rule of thumb: don’t shoot s**t!’
Alan Caso

When I wanted to quit a miserable show, the director, Virgil Vogel, said, ‘Kid, never quit. If you have to leave, get fired. If you quit, it will always reflect on you.’
John Lindley, ASC

Legendary gaffer George ‘Popeye’ Dahlquist used to tell his lamp operators, ‘Boys, if you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re 10 minutes late.’ Readiness is a big part of what we do.
Thomas Ackerman

‘Be yourself.’ I was about to interview for the aforementioned pilot, and I was nervous. My good friend Dominique Fortin said, ‘Just be yourself; they will like you.’ I didn’t try to fake it. I thought it went badly, but in prep, the producer told me, ‘You came in and only spoke about the work, and that’s all Chris Carter cared about.’
Peter Wunstorf, ASC

I was once invited to a dinner where Billy Wilder was one of the guests. He asked me what I was doing, to which I replied, ‘Oh, a small movie.’ He said, ‘There’s no such thing, just good ones and bad ones.’ For the rest, I listened to an inner voice that said, ‘Develop as many interests as you can, as you will need them to fill the long gaps between movies and enrich life in general.’
Peter Suschitzky, ASC

Kate Nelligan, a superb actor, once told me that if I could light women beautifully, I would not only help many careers, but I would also definitely help mine.
Gabriel Beristain, ASC

Spend less than you make.
Don Burgess, ASC

From Harry Stradling Sr.: ‘Never be afraid to take a chance. It may be the best thing you ever did.’
Sol Negrin, ASC

The late and wonderful Phil Gersh, my agent for many years, listed the directors one should avoid working with. I’m not going to publish that list. Reports and anecdotes over the years have been an indication of grief avoided.
Donald McAlpine, ASC

‘Be nice to people on your way up because you never know who you’re going to meet on the way down.’
Ross Berryman, ASC, ACS

At ILM, Dennis Muren, ASC had a simple, powerful phrase: ‘One shot, one thought.’ When we lapse into gilding the lily on a setup, that quote provides a reality check.
Pete Kozachik, ASC

‘Light the set, then turn off half the lights and shoot.’
John S. Bartley, ASC, CSC

When I asked Freddie Francis for his secret to glamour lighting, he said, ‘Put a great big light right over the lens. And get Brooke Shields if you can.’
Bill Taylor, ASC

Using the Pentax spot meter, John Toon taught me the relationship between incident and spot readings. I have used this method of exposure calculation ever since.
Stuart Dryburgh, ASC, NZCS

My dad told me it didn’t matter what I did for a living as long as I loved it. Also, much later, Richard Leiterman caught up with me at the CSC Awards, where I’d just gotten my fourth consecutive award for a TV series and was on a bit of a roll. He told me not to ‘get too damn comfortable’ and to ‘get the hell back to the USA while ya can!’ A year later, I was divorced, living in my native California, doing my most satisfying work ever, and shooting a big studio feature. My career and life have only gotten better since then.
Rob McLachlan, ASC, CSC

This is directly related to my memorable blunder. When Conrad Hall, ASC gave a lecture at AFI, he was asked what single piece of advice he’d give to aspiring cinematographers. His answer: ‘Get enough sleep.’
Antonio Calvache, ASC, AEC

When Levie asked me to work with him at Corman’s, the pay was $50 a day. Levie said, ‘They’re not paying for experience. Take the job and you’ll meet people.’
Rodney Taylor, ASC

Right after I was accepted into the union as an operator, I was offered a job at Warners as an assistant. I needed a letter from a producer to re-rate me. The producer told me I’d be an idiot not to pursue operating because it might take me 10 or more years to get there again. He was right; it was a struggle. But I established myself as an operator and was working steadily within a year.
Wayne Kennan

I once worked with Irving Penn, who told me a simple rule: less is often better. He used a single soft light for most of his shots. We shot a number of Pepsi commercials that way, and those spots won several Clios.
Torben Johnke, ASC

My dad told me: ‘Always be prepared, do your homework.’ I can only do my best if I know what a scene is about, what the purpose of every shot is, how it needs to advance the story and how it fits into the overall editing puzzle.
Christian Sebaldt, ASC

‘Lead through respect, not intimidation.’ Words of wisdom from Dad.
Christopher Baffa, ASC

Always let the people you’re working with know if you are unsure about something. It’s much better than explaining why a mistake was made.
Steve Gainer, ASC

Learn from your mistakes, not your successes.
Shelly Johnson, ASC

We’re all replaceable.
Ron Fortunato, ASC

‘It’s only a film,’ which, coupled with ‘This too will pass,’ pretty much takes care of it.
John Hora, ASC

Early in my career, as an assistant doing commercials, I found myself sitting at the top of a Titan crane next to the great Phil Lathrop, ASC, waiting for the sun to set for a wide beauty shot of cars. He sat there patiently behind the lens. I leaned toward him and said, ‘I’m just starting in the business and hope someday to be a cinematographer. What advice could you give me?’  He looked at me so hard I felt like bailing off the crane. ‘Only one thing, kid,’ he said. ‘Sit down whenever you can.’
John Bailey, ASC

Do not be afraid to push yourself and trust yourself.
Bill Roe, ASC

The thing that makes you a filmmaker is the act of making a film.
David Stump, ASC

Never give up. Always keep a positive attitude. Attention to detail.
Richard Crudo, ASC

Never take rejection personally if you don’t get a job. There are so many cinematographers vying for so few jobs, and there are many forces at work that have nothing to do with one’s talent.
Nancy Schreiber, ASC

‘There are never any problems, only solutions.’
Vincent Cox, ASC

I was invited to join the cinematographers shooting The Last Waltz, for which director Martin Scorsese prepared an elaborate shooting script for each camera position and every performer. David Myers, an accomplished and wise cameraman of much greater experience than I at the time, took me aside and whispered, ‘Go with your instincts.’ His advice stays with me even today.
Hiro Narita, ASC

While I worked in construction with my dad, he told me that if I gave customers more than they bargained for, they would return and never question the bill. I worked with some of the same commercial-agency clients for 30 years.
Ron Dexter, ASC

Early in my career, an old veteran told me, ‘The industry is a lot of fun, but never forget it’s a business with a lot of money being spent every second. Don’t laugh your way out of your job, and if you stretch your arms out and you can’t touch the camera, then you’re probably in the wrong place.’ Good words to remember.
Craig DiBona, ASC

All one really has in this business is one’s reputation as someone who can be trusted.
Paul Maibaum, ASC

Make friends early so you have allies in this business. They are the ones who call you first.
Karl Walter Lindenlaub, ASC

Always view your dailies. This may sound silly, but a lot of times, especially today, you never get the chance to see how a shot will look up on the big screen.
David B. Nowell, ASC

‘The only reason to be late for a call is being dead.’ This was drilled into me by Mel London or Freddie Young, BSC.
Jon Fauer, ASC

Always strive for perfection in every image you create, not so much technically but in terms of feeling that you have completely understood what you are trying to convey.
Kees Van Oostrum, ASC

One piece of advice I gave myself was not to follow any rules. Another, from Jean-Jacques Annaud, is, ‘Always wear the appropriate shoes on set.’
Philippe Rousselot, ASC, AFC

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Music That Kissed My Ears This Year

Okay, okay.  I know I typically write about film-related things here... but this is my blog and I can write what I wish.  I promise I'll try to tie it into film when I can.  I'm a HUGE music geek.  A hobby of mine is scouring the interwebs for that next amazing musician and listening to it at a minimum of100 times before you even hear whispers of their name.  Okay, I'm a music snob... but I want to share with you what I've listened to this past year, in the hopes that you'll like them too and become fans of some awesome artists.

Daft Punk- Random Access Memories

This is definitely the most mainstream album I fell in love with this year and is likely to be in the top 3 of every major music blogger out there; but it's just a fun ride all the way through.  I had a bit of the 'ole internet fame by making the front page or Reddit upon the album's release when I mashed up the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey against the final track "Conact". Without making a single edit, it synced nearly perfectly.  This is just, all-purpose album.  If I could direct a music video for one track, it'd be "Touch" as I've dreamt up this grand idea of a lifeless woman ballroom dancing with a brain in a jar, hooked up to a computer.  Listen to that track again, and try to tell me that wouldn't be a swell idea.  Favorite track: Doin' it Right featuring Panda Bear.  The story behind it is pretty neat too.  Look it up if you're interested.

Django Django- Django Django
This was a late introduction to me this year.  I first heard this album on a film shoot a few weeks ago and kicked myself for missing them at the same music festival that I met the Avett Brothers (read below), as I've been hearing about them for months.  The album doesn't have a ton of substance, but it's fun music to listen to and reminds me of some weird crossbreed between The Beta Band, Vampire Weekend and Brad Sucks.  This one will for sure continue spinning on my playlists for awhile.  I particularly like "Default", "Hail Bop"and "Waveforms".

Avett Brothers- Magpie and The Dandelion
Aside from getting to film and meet the Avett Brothers this summer at Firefly Music Festival, upgrading me from superfan to groupy status, I just can't help but love their music.  this album took me by surprise the first time I heard it, as it's nearly all ballads, but it's just great music.  It's hard to articulate what it is about them that I like but the NPR release writeup of the album described their music as the soundtrack of "lives lived messily" and I thought that was the most poetic, perfectly-encapsulating and honest way of putting it.  No one lives a perfect life and they're first to admit fault in their music.  But they just ooze with honesty, talent and love for their families.  I just appreciate their values, I suppose.

Luke Howard- Sun, Cloud
Holy crap.  The first time I heard this album, it was a Sunday afternoon in the fall.  My wife and I had just gotten in after driving a few hours up from my mom's house and we were exhausted.  This album knocked us out.  As we fell asleep on the couch, the album penetrated my subconscious and invaded my dreams.  I described the album to people as "an album to cry and fall asleep to".  Upon listening to it, you'll either be totally sedated and entranced, or will weep.  The choice is yours and yours alone, but it's seriously fantastic.


Alexandra Streliski- PIANOSCOPE
This is a compliment to the Luke Howard album.  I put both on a playlist together and listened to it on loop for a few months.  Together, they're writing fuel.  Gorgeous, original songs from the ivory.  Hoping Alexandra spits out a new album soon, as I'm a huge fan.

Charity Children- The Autumn Came
This was a random album I stumbled into on Bandcamp one evening.  It's a short, contained little joy.  It reminds me of a soundtrack to an indie movie.  Favorite track: "World's Tallest Man Meets World's Shortest Man".  And the band (or at least whoever is managing their bandcamp account) is humble to boot.  When I ordered the CD, I asked if they'd sign it.  They did and tossed in a postcard as well.  The horns mixed against the ukelele and her delicate voice make for a perfect storm of happiness.  Listen and your mood will improve, that's the Skubal guarantee.

Josh Garrels- Love & War & The Sea In Between
The dude's melodies are awesome.  Just some catchy indie folk/pop right here.  This one gets a mention, as it served as the soundtrack to us moving and I can't say a bad thing about it, other than I wish the album had more songs in it.

LUM- Glass Hammer

I found this album the same day I came across Josh Garrels' album and served as the second part to our moving soundtrack.  Solid, original music that has high repeatability.  Love it.  It's poppy, with an echoy surf sound, but with its own flavor to it.  Half Way and Conquering Hearts are particular favorites.

Chvrches- The Bones of What You Believe

This album will forever remind me of the time I learned the basics of color grading on DaVinci Resolve.  I've been working through the post on a short film for a friend of mine and for some reason, this album was always on while I worked on it.  I'd heard an alternative version "The Mother We Share" months ago and had it cycling through my playlists since.  When I heard the album in full, it was a real treat.

The Haxan Cloak- Excavation
Here's my curve ball.  I could picture this as the soundtrack to Chuck Palahniuk's mind.  The album is something straight out of a nightmare.  It's moody, atmospheric tones laid thick in a soundscape that tickles my ear drums... and something I totally wouldn't listen to often.  I've only listened to it a couple times, but I had such an emotional reaction to it that I had to put it as an honorable mention.  If you've got writer's block and you're looking for some dark inspiration, hit this one up.  And apparently, the album's not on their bandcamp page anymore... so here's the Spotify link.

Turquoise Summers- A Touch of Turquoise
In a time where all of this funk/disco revival is on the rise, most of it starts to sound the same after awhile.  Well, Turquoise Summers and Shook (of whom you'll read about below) are the exception.  This album is just fun to listen to.  It has an early 90's west coast hip hop type of vibe to it and I love that.

Wallpaper.- Ricky Reed Is Real
I don't know how Wallpaper. isn't famous and his music infectiously sneaking into the playlists of every frat party in America.  I've described his music as white people dance music; the Andrew W.K. of hiphop.  He skates a fine line between making radio-worthy pop music while at the same time making fun of that very genre.  I keep hoping one day I'll hear a track of his on the radio.  Give him a listen and tell your friends.

Poolside- Pacific Standard Time
This one's cheating... as I've been listening to it since last year.  But if you're unfamiliar with them, I want you to know that this is one of my favorite listen through albums I own.  They've got such a fun sound that reminds me of being on vacation in Jamaica.  Enjoy it.

Hunter Hunted- Keep Together
I'm happy to see they've begun getting radio play.  I'm a bit of a music snob when it comes to finding music early, and usually by the time it hits the radio, I've overplayed it and I've moved on with my life, but these guys just keep going.  Strong EP and I can't wait to hear the full album.

PHOX- Confetti
I stumbled across these guys on Bandcamp in April or May.  The gem of the EP is "Slow Motion", which they blew out of the water on the iTunes music festival this fall.  What's cool is that they're not too far away from me, up in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  I'd love to shoot a music video with them, as they seem like a hive of ubertalent that could make my brain melt with inspiration.

Shook- The Rise And Fall EP
The EP speaks for itself.  Their music's got this funky dance vibe, but has originality behind it and is just a fun one to put on in the background.  Playlist mashup bonus points putting this on the same list as Daft Punk, Chromeo and Turquoise Summers.

Eli "Paperboy" Reed- WooHoo
This track punched me in the face this past spring when I first heard it.  This guy's a relatively undiscovered talent who's got the science and alchemy of vintage sound mastering perfected.  This one deviates a bit from his other tracks and appeals more towards a younger crowd but hopefully that's what he needs to become known.  I had a vivid image of this track being used against a season promo for an HBO series.  It's just got that "it's coming, new season, more excitement, more twists" type of vibe they love.  I was hedging my bets on it serving as the track for a new Boardwalk Empire promo when that premiered this fall, but no luck.  Maybe next year!

Frightened Rabbit- The Woodpile
It kills me that I've never seen Frightened Rabbit.  I drove 3 hours in a snow storm up to Chicago, back when I was living in Lafayette.  When we arrived, we were first in line, waiting outside in the snow for an hour.  Finally a fella comes out and informs us that the concert sold out; despite being assured that it wouldn't.  And now they're a well-known band and it's hard to catch wind of their shows before they sell out.  Some day!  Either way, I loved this single when it came out, especially with the video.

James Blackshaw- Fix
This was a song I had on loop when I was working late nights at the office on a big project and it kept me sedated enough from tearing the flesh off my face every time my Premiere project crashed because it was so bloated and unstable with all kinds of mixed media and formats.  Thanks for helping me keep my face intact, James.

So this rounds out the year for me.  Hopefully you've found a few choice tracks to add to your collection.  I could keep going but these particular tracks were my main jams, as the kids say.  Hopefully this becomes a consistent thing I can release each year!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Three Reasons Why We're Drawn to Faces in Film

U.K. Film colleague, Tim Smith, posted this article on Facebook earlier today. I reposted the article from  I'm a sucker for film theory like this especially when it's in line with my beliefs as well.  There's truth behind the visceral draw of the human face in film.  Such an important part of communication is the undercurrent of emotion that comes out as we broadcast our thoughts and ideas.  Body language, subtle gestures, cadence, intonation; it's how we determine truths and sincerity in a person and ultimately decides if we subconscious decide to listen to what they have to say or not.  It's no wonder that our eyes are drawn to faces moreso than scenery.  It's our subconscious starving for seeking hidden meaning behind messages.  So here's the article in full: 3 Reasons Why We're Drawn to Faces in Film

The power of the human face in film: Up close and personal

Charlotte Rampling 'Swimming Pool' Juliet Binoche 'Three Colors: Blue' 'Diva'
Scenes from 'Swimming Pool' (c. Fidélité 2003), 'Three Colors: Blue' (c. CAB 1993), and 'Diva' (c. Les Films Galaxie 1981).

Look at the array of film frames above – where do you find your gaze lingers the longest?
If we were to measure looking time (for instance, with an eye-tracking device), we would probably find that most people would scan all the pictures, but focus mostly on the frames with the faces.  Even though the exterior shots and full-figure frames are more complex and colorful, our gaze would tend to fix on the faces.

What makes the human face so compelling? 
Even newborns are drawn to faces. In a classic study by Robert Fantz, young infants stared twice as long at a black-and-white simplified human face than black-and-white concentric circles. Even though a bull’s-eye target is particularly eye-catching, babies spent twice as much time gazing at a simplified human face.

The vision of the newborn is sharpest at about 8 inches away—perfect for gazing at a caregiver’s face while feeding. This is an important face to learn by heart, for provision of all the basic needs of life. By around eight months, infants search the faces of those they trust for clues as to whether something new is safe to explore—or a possible threat from which to quickly withdraw (social referencing).
The ability to orient to, and accurately read, human faces has high survival value throughout our lives. We must register quickly if there is a stranger in our midst, and sense if this is a friendly or threatening presence.
In short, we may be hard-wired to focus on faces because they provide information that is fundamentally important to our physical and social survival.

Audrey Tautou in Amélie looking out of the window of a diner
Audrey Tautou in 'Amélie' (c. Fox 2001)

Why are human faces so compelling in film?
Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs believed that it is the close-up of the human face that distinguishes film from other performance arts, especially theater. Unlike a staged play, the camera can bring us up close to a face—to gaze deep into the eyes and examine every contracted muscle in intimate detail. During a time when the sweeping wide shot was in style, Balázs was instrumental in bringing attention to the power of expression through face and body in film.

close-up Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in 'It's a Wonderful Life', desperate
Jimmy Stewart in 'It's a Wonderful Life' (c. Liberty Films II, 1946)
  Here, I offer three reasons that we are drawn to the human face in film.

1. Close-ups of faces personify the drama.
We have difficulty computing emotion on a large or abstract scale. The close-up of the distraught face of a single victim helps us to understand the real consequences of a devastating flood or tornado on the nightly news. Balázs writes about how the close-up of the human face captures ‘the very instant in which the general is transformed into the particular’ (p. 260).

close-up of Tom Hanks as Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan
Tom Hanks as Captain Miller in 'Saving Private Ryan' (c. DreamWorks 1998)
 While wide shots reveal landscape and broader context, close-ups of the face personify and embody the emotional character of the film events on an intimate scale that can move us to the core.

Extreme close-up of Tom Hanks as Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan
Extreme close-up of Tom Hanks in 'Saving Private Ryan' (c. DreamWorks 1998)

2. Close-ups of faces can elicit our matching emotions.
Humans have a natural tendency to mimic and synchronize emotional facial expressions and postures and other emotional behaviors of people they are interacting with, leading to eventually taking in or ‘catching’ someone else’s intense emotions. Social psychologists call this emotional contagion, the subject of my previous post found here.

Crowd shot in Amélie, people laughing, social contagion
Crowd in 'Amélie' (c. Fox 2001)

Philosopher Amy Coplan and others have proposed that we can ‘catch’ the emotions of a film character through contagion, just as we do in real-world interactions. For instance, in one study when students watched a video of a man recounting a happy or sad story, and were videotaped without their knowledge, their facial expressions mirrored those of the storyteller. While watching a film, you may have caught yourself mimicking expressions of film characters, arching or dropping your eyebrows, grimacing or smiling in the dark!

Audrey Tautou in Amélie watching a movie or film
Audrey Tautou in 'Amélie' (c. Fox 2001)

Psychologist Elaine Hatfield and others have shown that our tendency to mimic emotional gestures of others can eventually lead us to feel the intense emotions of another person.

close-up Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in 'It's a Wonderful Life', desperate

close-up Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in 'It's a Wonderful Life', desperate

close-up Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in 'It's a Wonderful Life', desperate
Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in 'It's a Wonderful Life' (c. Liberty Films II, 1946)

Film theorist Carl Plantinga goes a step further, proposing that close-ups of the face may provide a route to empathy for the character (not just sensing the same emotions, but experiencing and understanding the feelings of another).

Jessie and Woody in Toy Story 2, Woody showing empathy for Jessie's abandonment
Jessie and Woody in 'Toy Story 2' (c. Walt Disney Pictures presents Pixar Animation Studios 1999)

3. The close-up of a nuanced face is open to interpretation - allowing us to project our own feelings, beliefs, and personal meanings.
Lastly, I suggest that while intense emotions may elicit emotional contagion, more subtle expressions may serve as a canvas for our own projections. These may be influenced by transient states such as mood - and more enduring factors such as our personal histories and associations, our own needs and unresolved conflicts.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's looking pensive
Audrey Hepburn in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' (c. Paramount 1961)

The lingering close-up of a face presents only the illusion of being able to read the inner thoughts of another. What we think a film character may be thinking may reveal as much, if not more, about the inner recesses of our own minds.

Faye Wong as Wang Jing-wen and android in 2046, Wong Kar Wai
Faye Wong as Wang Jing-wen in '2046' (Jet Tone Films 2004)
 The Impact of Music
Other emotion-evoking elements of film—especially the presence of music—can shape our interpretations of close-ups of faces with subtle or neutral facial expressions.
Musicologist Berthold Hoeckner and colleagues found that when a film excerpt ending with a close-up reaction shot with a neutral facial expression was paired with thriller (suspenseful) or melodramatic music, college students rated the character as more likeable if they had seen the scene with melodramatic rather than suspenseful music. More interestingly, when presented later with a still image of the face, they recalled the character's emotion to be ‘sad’ if they had seen it with melodramatic music, and ‘angry’ if it had been accompanied by suspenseful music.
In a study my colleagues and I published in 2007, Matt Spackman and Matt Bezdek and I found that music does not even have to be playing at the same time as the close-up of a neutral face, to influence our interpretations of characters’ emotions. We paired film excerpts (shown in the Figure below) with pieces of music that had been reliably judged by a pilot group to convey ‘happiness’ ‘sadness’ ‘anger’ or ‘fear’. In each case, the music was played only at the beginning—during exterior shots, fading at the entry of a full-figure shot of a film character—or only at the very ending of the excerpt, after the character had left the scene.

Even though the music was never played during the close-ups of the faces, the viewers’ interpretation of characters’ emotions tended to migrate toward the emotion expressed by the music.  The most surprising finding was that even music played after the character left the scene still colored viewers’ perceptions of what they had already seen. (We interpreted this as a case of backward priming).
To end with the words from the strongest advocate for close-ups of the face: ‘Good close-ups are lyrical; it is the heart, not the eye that has perceived them’ (Balázs, p. 274).

- by Dr. Siu-Lan Tan, co-author of Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance (Psychology Press) and co-editor of The Psychology of Music in Multimedia (Oxford University Press).

Related Posts
On face and melody, and emotional contagion:
On how film music shapes the storyline:

The first and last figures appear with permission of University California Press, as this composite was first published in Tan, Spackman, & Bezdek (2007) as listed in below. The actors are Charlotte Rampling in Swimming Pool (c. Fidélité 2003), Juliet Binoche in Three Colors: Blue (c. CAB 1993), and Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez in Diva (c. Les Films Galaxie 1981).

Mrs: Potato Head (outtake):
"... I'm packing you an extra pair of shoes. And your angry eyes, just in case..."
Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head outtake
Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head in outtakes to 'Toy Story 2' (c. Walt Disney Pictures presents Pixar Animation Studios 1999)