Friday, July 20, 2012

Bicycle Thieves: The Lesson of Invisible Cuts and Composition

As I've finished up the ToneCut of Bicycle Thieves, I've realized that this film really has a lot of invisible cuts.  Even while I was finding the cuts to insert the tone, I had to really keep close attention to see when the cuts occured in some spots.

I think this is attributed not only by intriguing blocking and compelling performances, but also the use of paralleled compositions.  The use of matched framing from cut to cut, particularly in horizontal space, is more frequent than I've noticed in the three previous films I've ToneCut.

The use of paralleled compositions tricks the eye into passing over the cut simply because the eye is not forced to re-direct to a new position.  It's already where it needs to be to see the focal point of the next image.

Watch the clip I posted and see for yourself the delicate care taken by DeSica and Carlo Montuori in making the connecting shots happen.  Really the whole film is like this, but I just wanted to at least provide a small slice of what's going on here.

'Bicycle Thieves' ToneCut (Six Minute Compositional Analysis)
from Daniel Skubal on Vimeo.

That's an incredibly powerful tool that is often forgotten and can really get you past the proscenium arch and get you into the film.  I wrote previously about a conversation I had with a co-worker about how there's a distance in both performance and cinematography in Citizen Kane that is just more difficult to sympathize to the story at all.  I would theorize that perhaps part of the problem is that the cinematography and, in particular the cuts, call attention to themselves and don't guide the eye as gracefully as Bicycle Thieves does.  Instead, Citizen Kane hosts stark cuts with focal points all over the screen.  It's not as comfortable to watch, and therefore is less inviting to sympathize.

One could argue that Citizen Kane thrives rather than suffers from this approach, because Charles Foster Kane isn't supposed to be a likeable character, so sympathy isn't required and the dissonance of a lack of grace in the framing and cuts helps present his character in that manor.

In 'Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics of a Contemporary Blockbuster', Warren Buckland analyzes Spielberg's successes and failures in using matched framing from cut to cut.  Early on in his career, his attempts weren't nearly as successful as when he hit his stride in doing so.  And although I haven't given a deep analysis of any of his films yet in this ToneCut style (I will, don't worry), his parallel compositions are like punctuations or signposts throughout the film rather than part of the continual style of the story as in Bicycle Thieves.  Perhaps the best example of this is the use of the Paramount logo fading into the mountain peak at the beginning of Raiders of The Lost Ark.  When used correctly, it's a brilliant submersive effect that invites the audience into the story.

At first I thought the cuts in Bicycle Thieves were just coincidental in how graceful the cuts were, but as I made my way through the whole film, I realize that DeSica masters this.  The affect of this technique in Bicycle Thieves really is one of the best examples of invisible cuts in the history of cinema.  Are there any other films that you can think of that employ the same idea?  I'd love to take a look at them and I'll add them to the list of films to look at in ToneCut form.

Again, I'm willing to share the full ToneCuts I've done, just so long as you provide me with a writeup of what you've noticed throughout the film as well.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

'Your Milkman' Receives First Laurels!

One of the main reasons I began this blog was to document the process of making my short, Your Milkman.  Well for those of you who haven't heard yet, we completed post production a few weeks ago and have begun entering the film into smaller festivals.  So far we've submitted the film into five festivals and will be slowly submitting it to more down the line.

While we weren't expecting to hear back from any of them until at least August or September, I'm proud to say that we received an email this week saying that we were an official selection for the Action On Film festival!

This is my first attempt at submitting a project into the festival circuit, so I've done quite a bit of reading on it and nearly everyone advises to really know your film's worth and potential and target festivals that suit your particular project; and we did.  We've been going for festivals that see more of the smaller, up-and-coming teams, and so far it's looking promising.

My goal for entering the film into these smaller festivals is to take all of the earnings we receive and put them towards the next film (which will be going into pre-production in October or November).  Even if we could raise 20% of what we're wanting, I'd feel like it was worth it.  So here's to the first of hopefully many more laurels that we can put next to Your Milkman!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Tone Cuts Log 1: What I've Learned From Bertolucci, Hitchcock, Welles and DeSica Thus Far

So as I've been going through these Tone Cuts, I've been walking away with all kinds of pearls of wisdom.

In The Conformist, you see just how carefully crafted shots can be.  The use of color, balance and movement are quite revealing if you pay attention to them.  The moving master shots in this film are inspiring.  They almost always begin with a reveal of information, only to pull out, pan or dolly to reveal more information in the frame; whether that's introducing a new character, balancing an unbalanced frame, revealing a prop or symbol in the background or simply lending to a change in character progression.

That type of camera movement can help keep an audience entertained and guessing what will happen next.  In this case, the storytelling is ahead of the story itself, which is rewarding rather than insulting to audiences.  Those moving masters are juxtaposed against quicker cutting into a near-ideal pacing for a film of its tone.

In my previous post I touched on a theory I have of mine dealing with tension and release of storytelling and how crucial that is to the pacing of a film, which is reflected in how a film is perceived by audiences.  If a film is a constant pace with no relief in tension, the film can feel longer, drawn out, boring or redundant; even if the cuts are Michael Bay-fast.  It's straining for an audience to give 100% attention for an entire film.  When applicable, a break in the tension of a long establishing shot, or even a moving master that doesn't cut away can provide some source of relief to the tension and help balance out the pacing of a film.

There are numerous other things I walked away with from The Conformist, but that is perhaps the most significant and prevalent.

My second Tone Cut was Vertigo.  I wanted to try watching the film before I began cutting in tone just to try something different.  I was grateful I did.  Within the first five minutes of my cut, I was able to see the notion of 'invisible cutting' where the technical aspects of the film are masked by their necessity and ability to propel a story along.  I was completely blinded by the fact that nearly 70% of the film is Jimmy Stewart looking at things and how brief and to the point the scene changes were (always accompanied by a crossfade to illustrate a passage of time).  In fact, as I was going through the tone cut, I was getting annoyed with how much this happened.

I would love to do a supercut of every shot of Jimmy Stewart not speaking, and just looking at things.  Because I'm a bad film student, I must admit I've only seen a handful of Hitchock films up until this point, so I was unaware of how frequent he employed this technique.

It wasn't until I watched the 90 minute documentary on Rear Window that it was pointed out that the reaction shot is such a prominent trait of Hitchcock films.  It was like a lightbulb turned on and I immediately understood how the effect of that technique could so powerfully penetrate the subconscious of the viewer.

Again, to reference my own posts, I wrote a few months back about the Kuleshov effect.  As I was researching it, I came across a little vignette about the effect as explained by Hitchcock.  And now realizing just how much of a reoccuring technique it is across his films, he's probably the best person to be talking about it.

Beyond the reactionary shots, his very strict grammatical usage of camera movement and shot progression is something that really stuck out with me.  He wrote the book on shot progression in terms of moving in consistently from a wide shot, to medium shot, to closeup when the dialogue calls for it.  It's the most by-the-books technique you could ask for and that alone is something to strive for if you call yourself a filmmaker.

My third film was Citizen Kane, and much like Hitchcock, stuck pretty close to the rule book in terms of shot progression and crossfading to indicate a passage of time.  Citizen Kane illustrates an understanding of what both The Conformist and Vertigo achieved individually; the control of tension and relief, moving masters and a by-the-books use of film grammar.  And while Greg Toland and Orson Welles broke the ground on the way the film is shot, it really sticks to the very basics of storytelling.

On that note, I spoke with a co-worker of mine after getting through a majority of the tone cut and he admitted to me how uninspired he was by the film and had a hard time understanding why it is so revered beyond its technical achievements.  He made a point that I'd never heard anyone bring up before.  He said that the way the film is shot, although technically masterful, didn't give him an intimate feel for the character.  "It felt as though the frame was always a barrier rather than a window" which I thought was interesting.  He went on to tell me that it didn't allow him to feel for the character, and was always at a distance from him.  Any time the camera moved to make an emotional point, it felt contrived and only distanced him further.

It led me to thinking about the cinematography of the film and although I don't feel as strongly as he does about the film, I do believe that in a sense, he is correct.  The cinematography is similar to how Tim Burton films conduct the camera, in that the camera moves don't move for the character in the story, but rather move for the style of the story.  Canted or extreme angles of characters give an offputting feel.  They're uncomfortable and can easily go beyond their value in telling a story.  A wide angle push in on Kane's face is uncomfortable to watch, and most likely attempted to portray him as a monument of a man; a goliath of an individual, it does indeed offput the audience and distances them from connecting with Kane as a sympathetic character.

It's an interesting discussion to say the least and I can certainly see the argument my co-worker was making.  Regardless, it was a masterpiece in its own right and certainly worth an analysis on many fronts.

Now I've began my fourth film, one of my all-time favorites, Bicycle Thieves.  DeSica is a master at invisibly cutting and moving the camera because the story and characters are so captivating.  I'm actually having trouble noticing every cut as I go through it because I find myself getting lost in the blocking and performance of the actors.  I'm sure I'll learn more as I get through it, but for now I simply wanted to get my ideas down to serve as a log of my education while doing this little project of mine.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Eyeing the Cuts: An Analysis of Classic Cinema

In my previous post, I mentioned a documentary I've been working on about master cinematographers and the amazing amount of knowledge I've gained by listening to them speak and reference their inspirations.

Possibly one of the greatest gifts I have received from this documentary is a recommendation by Stephen Goldblatt, ASC (The Help, Julie and Julia, Closer, Lethal Weapon).

He advised to watch film-- good film.  The classics.  Turn the sound off and watch the cuts.

I'd heard the bit of advice before, but for some reason it resonated with me as I've plowed through the rest of this documentary.  I took his bit of advice to heart and created something I've begun to call 'Tone Cuts', in which I take a classic film, toss it into Final Cut Pro, mute the soundtrack and on every cut and fade, I put a one frame tone cue.

While it's a glorified version of Stephen's advice, it really keeps your attention focused solely on the image, the movement of the camera, the use of lighting, color and contrast, the pacing of the film and of course the construction of the film.

To add an extra layer of enrichment to the process, I began with a film I hadn't ever seen before; The Conformist.  Watching a film for the first time without sound is the true test of a film's cinematic depth.  If you can, even at the very basic level, understand what's going on without the sound, I believe the filmmaker is truly making use of the medium of cinema.

By chance, I happened to pick one of the most brilliantly photographed films I've seen.  Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor, Last Tango in Paris) is seen by many as one of the greatest masters of cinematography ever.  This film was a landmark in the use of production design, color and movement of the camera.

It's difficult to sum up all that I learned from watching this from cut to cut.  One of the greatest lessons I learned from the Tone Cut of this film in terms of editing was the brilliant pacing of it.

The pacing of an entire film, and even in a scene of a film is crucial to keeping the attention of the audience.  I have a theory floating around in my head about the direct correlation of pacing and how well a film is received.  It's all about tension and release.  Fast cuts and long takes.  Dissonance and Consonance.  Camera movement.  Color.  Light.  Balance is needed to both build tension and receive rewards.  It's satisfying to see fast cuts followed by a long shot.  The importance of providing the audience with both high tension and satisfying release is what can make or break a film.

Already, I've made my way through The Conformist, Vertigo and Citizen Kane.  Each one is providing me with a unique perspective on film theory and almost a back stage pass to witness the true craft at play without the story being on the forefront.

I feel as though this should be a mandatory project for a budding filmmaker to do.  With just some freeware app that converts DVD's to MOV's, and about 5 or 6 hours of spare time, you can make your own tone cuts.  The malleability of looking at a film on an NLE's timeline and getting the opportunity to look at every frame and every cut of the classics at your own pace is one of the most open-ended educations you could give yourself.  You should have no excuses to do this for yourself.

For those interested, I'm not opposed to sharing the Tone Cut of these films I've already completed; if and only if you are willing to share with me your notes and what you've learned from these films as well.