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!