Monday, March 31, 2008

"Raiders of the Lost Ark:" Eyes

Continuing our series, paying tribute to the photography of Douglas Slocombe for "Raiders of the Lost Ark." (Be sure to see Part 1, "Raiders:" Shadows and Silhouettes.) Here are a sample of images from "Raiders" where Slocombe and Spielberg focus on characters' eyes.

Coming up next time: foregrounds and backgrounds in "Raiders."

Friday, March 28, 2008

"Raiders of the Lost Ark:" Shadows and Silhouettes

Douglas Slocombe B.S.C., A.S.C. (in glasses), on the set of "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

In anticipation of the latest Indiana Jones film (which comes to theaters on May 22), let's take a look back at the work of extraordinary cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who shot the first three Indiana Jones films.

By the time of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," (1981) Slocombe was a veteran cinematographer, with a rich and varied filmmography in both the United States and in England, and both in black and white and color. He was nominated for three Academy Awards (including "Raiders"), and for ten British Academy Awards (winning three, for "The Servant" in black and white, and for "The Great Gatsby" and "Julia" in color).

His photography gave "Raiders" a classic feel, visually paying homage to the matinee thrillers of the 1930's, while also raising the level of quality and aesthetics of 1980's blockbuster filmmaking. The collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and Slocombe is the reason why "Raiders" remains, to this day, one of the best looking action movies of all time.

Director Steven Spielberg and Douglas Slocombe, on location for "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

In this, the first of several posts paying tribute to the cinematography of "Raiders," we look at Slocombe's use of shadows and silhouettes. Enjoy.

UPDATE, 2/20/2016: Here's a peek behind the curtain, showing exactly how the production photographed the shadow of Sallah and Indy carrying the ark. That's a cutout of the ark, to cast the perfect profile shadow on the wall. Look how awkwardly John Rhys-Davies is forced to hold the "ark". Movie magic at its best.

Coming up next: Slocombe's photography of eyes in "Raiders."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Playing With Expectations

I love filmmakers who don't feel the need to sink their film to the lowest common denominator; filmmakers who, even within the context of a blockbuster-type film, give their audience a bit of credit for their intelligence. These writers and directors accept the fact that they are working within a framework of expectations - not simply the expectations of the traditional Hollywood narrative structure, but genre-specific elements for which audiences have become accustomed.

Of particular interest to me are little phrases and lines that you fully expect to hear coming from characters' mouths that don't happen onscreen. The filmmaker knows you're expecting it, and takes that expectation and turns it into something more interesting.

What am I talking about? Here are three basic examples.

The first is from the prologue of "Casino Royale," Martin Campbell's brilliant 2006 reboot of the James Bond franchise.

Let's exclusively examine the dialogue for a moment.

Dryden: If M was so sure I was bent, she'd have sent a double-oh. Benefits of being section chief. I'd know if anyone had been promoted to double-oh status, wouldn't I? Your file shows no kills, and it takes...
James Bond: Two. [cuts to Bond fighting Dryden's contact]
Dryden: Shame. We barely got to know each other. [Dryden pulls the trigger, but no bullet is fired]
Bond: I know where you keep your gun. I suppose that's something.
Dryden: True. How did he die?
James Bond: Your contact? Not well.
Dryden: Made you feel it, did he? Well, you needn't worry. The second is... [Bond shoots Dryden]
James Bond: Yes... considerably.

Firstly, admire the incredible efficiency of this dialogue. There are so few words, and yet a complicated story is being told on several levels, and nearly every line advances the story and gives us new information about these characters. Both characters understand what's going on-- these fellas are smart. Director Campbell and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis are assuming that the audience is smart enough to realize that these characters are smart. They both know what each other is scheming. Bond is finishing Dryden's sentences. Dryden realizes Bond is there to kill him. Bond knows that Dryden knows that Bond is there to kill him (why else would he have surreptitiously disarmed Dryden?).

After Dryden shows some compassion for Bond ("Made you feel it, did he?"), he gives cold comfort to Bond, intending to tell him that his second kill would be easier. But Bond, just as he finished Dryden's sentence for him earlier, cuts him off with a bullet. The audience didn't need to hear Dryden say the full line: "The second is easier." Bond didn't need to hear it, either. We all knew it was coming. And the authors of the film gave us enough credit, rewarding us for actually paying attention to the dialogue (with a suprising, intense and explosive reaction from Bond, cutting off Dryden's dialogue, and shooting him dead), and not giving us a cliched, cheesy, needlessly excessive line of dialogue. For this kind of sly writing to appear in a Bond film, a film series that virtually pioneered the 'talking villain' cliche, this is especially refreshing. (For a description of Roger Ebert's 'The Fallacy of the Talking Killer," read his review of "Licence to Kill.") On another level, by literally cutting off the villain's cliched line, the filmmakers are slyly telling us that this is not your ordinary James Bond film, that they will be literally cutting off the obvious cliches of the genre.

The audience is further rewarded with Bond's post-shooting response of, simply, "Yes. Considerably." How easy could it have been for Bond to respond with "... easier? Yes. It is considerably easier." In this elegant and efficient way, we see Bond emerging as a double-oh, evolving from an inexperienced agent who actually felt some emotion during his first kill to a cold-blooded, emotionless weapon. All within just a few minutes of screen time, and with only a few lines of dialogue.

As an aside, notice the ultra-fast flash frames and whip pan that occurs as Bond ultimately shoots Dryden. A few frames of a family photo on Dryden's desk appear for a split second, almost subconsciously giving the audience a sense of Dryden's humanity, just as he's being shot dead. Once again, this is a remarkable feat for a Bond film; most Bond films are quick to paint their villains as one-note, two-dimensional cutouts.

Another example comes from J.J. Abrams' "Mission: Impossible III," also from 2006. Please note: the clip and discussion below contain spoilers for the film. Skip to the "Ratatouille" section if you haven't yet seen "MI3."

Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), just as we saw in the amazing and disorientating prologue to the film, has a gun to Julia's head (Michelle Monaghan). Agent Hunt (Tom Cruise) is doing all he can to convince Davian not to pull the trigger, while tied to a chair across from them. At a certain point, he realizes that Davian cannot be won over. Hunt's tone immediately changes from frenetic and panicked into an almost calm, solemness, as if he is resigned that her fate has already been sealed. "No," he whispers. "No." Davian finishes his countdown, "Ten," and pulls the trigger.

The look of resignation and Hunt's sad, whispered "No," speaks volumes. We get to feel the complex emotions going on inside Hunt, where all optimism is lost, and, even before the shot is fired, Hunt is already mourning the loss of his wife. Not only is this a good example of intelligent writing, but also of an extraordinarily nuanced performance by Cruise.

The camera lingers on Hunt's face of disbelief after Davian pulls the trigger. He's thinking, 'why is this happening? I just retrieved the Rabbit's Foot for Davian... why was he asking me where it is?' But without a word, he simply stares off. Behind him, Davian retreats to another room, talking with a mysterious person. The camera remains on Hunt, but we see the men in the background and we hear whispers. The mystery man enters the room. We cut to Hunt's near-POV, a closeup of his dead 'wife.' Then, Agent Musgrave (Billy Crudup) interrupts his gaze - for a moment, he's out of focus (since we were focused on Hunt's wife), but he slowly becomes sharp, and we realize that Musgrave has been working with Davian the whole time. He stares at us, we're staring at him... Hunt says nothing, but we're all thinking, "How could this be? How could this be?!"

Answering an unasked question, Musgrave finally says, "It's complicated."

We really didn't need to hear Hunt ask, "Why?" or "How?" It was implied, and instead of a completely predictable dialog between characters, we get the almost jolting answer to a question we were all thinking.

And, if the reader may indulge me, watch how carefully this scene is crafted. Director Abrams doesn't just cut to Musgrave sitting down, quickly rack focusing on him, and have him say his line. This is a big moment in the movie, and the timing needs to be just right to convey the magnitude of this moment-- the reveal of the big betrayal.

For one, offscreen, Musgrave throws a chair down, then calmly sits, blocking our view. For several beats, he's out of focus, visually mimicking Hunt's disorientation. Slowly we come to realize that it's Musgrave, and slowly he becomes in focus. Allowing this moment to soak in, another few beats pass before he says his line. This is about drawing out the suspense, putting the audience in Hunt's shoes. ("MI3" is, essentially, a film that follows Hunt's point-of-view for the duration of the entire film. I'll hopefully be writing about POV films at a future time.)

But the nice touch that I most appreciate about this scene is in regards to the camera movement. Just after Davian fires, we have a wide two-shot of Hunt and his wife, where the camera is to Hunt's left. We cut to an extreme closeup of Hunt's bewildered face, while the camera slowly dollys right to left, including a moment where Hunt's wife's head blocks the entire view of the camera. We continue dollying to reveal the men behind Hunt. As the camera settles, we realize that Hunt's view of the world is changing, and his disorientation and befuddlement is going to take another hit, when Musgrave is revealed to be a traitor. The rest of the scene between Hunt and Musgrave occurs with a shot-reverse-shot sequence with the camera stationed on Hunt's right side.

What happened here? The camera crossed the 180 degree line. To establish a sense of orientation and understanding of a scene, particularly a scene with two characters talking to each other, the camera needs to stay on one side of the imaginary line that is created between the two characters. The camera, even within shot-reverse-shot sequences, needs to stay consistently on a single side, so that the scene is grounded for the viewer. The result: the audience is constantly oriented and understands the action.

If the camera moves to the other side of that line, especially in a cut, the audience is immediately disoriented. "Our hero has just spent the entire scene talking to a character to the left... and now our hero is on the right? Wait, what happened?" This can be used for dramatic effect (for example, Ang Lee's "Hulk" used this device often, frequently cutting to cameras on either side of the 180 degree line, to create a constant sense of uneasiness), but in traditional Hollywood narrative filmmaking, this practice is frowned upon.

However, if you literally show the camera breaking the line in an uninterrupted shot, you can set up a new orientation of the scene properly. Plus, emotionally, the break of the line causes the viewer to realize that something is changing, something is different, something is disorienting, which is exactly the kind of emotion director Abrams was trying to evoke for this scene in "MI3." In our case, the camera slowly dollys across the 180 degree line in an uninterrupted shot, subtly giving the audience an extra, almost subconscious level of disorientation.

Here is a good illustration of the 180 degree rule, in a YouTube video created by Moviemaking Techniques:

And here's another YouTube video, explaining the same concepts in a different way.

Let's get back to writing. Here's a clip from Brad Bird's "Ratatouille," and look for two things: a moment where the camera answers a question that a character asks, and a moment where a character doesn't get to finish his thought.

Emile doesn't need to complete his entire thought - long before the lightning struck, we knew what he was going to say. But the gag comes from the fact that the setup is really subtle. Remy is obsessing about cooking his cheese and mushroom, while Emile looks around nervously. In the deep background, we barely see flashes of lightning, with some eventual soft thunder behind it. The joke is that the storm arrived at their location so quickly, Emile couldn't even finish his thought. It's a quick, basic physical gag of the movie, and screenwriter/director Brad Bird takes what he can get out of it, then quickly moves on.

Imagine how, say, the lazy screenwriters of any Dreamworks animated film would have staged this type of scene. First a wide shot of the deliberately approaching storm. Then, some pop-culture-laced riffs between two animated characters who look exactly like their celebrity voice counterparts. One of them says, "Hey, maybe we should get off this roof, dawg! Let's go shopping at Old Wavy while sipping a Coral Cola! " And then ZAP! they get struck by lightning, and 'hilarity' ensues.

The "Casino Royale," "MI3" and "Ratatouille" clips are examples of intelligent screenwriters playing with the expectations of a clever audience. Of course, this technique of toying with cliches and turning them into something more interesting only works in the hands of truly innovative filmmakers. Here's an example of the technique falling flat, from Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns."

Yeah... it doesn't really work here. In a film filled with land mines, this is a small firecracker. The entire film is so hopelessly lost and devoid of purpose or heart, and this scene is illustrative of that fact. The ploy of illustrating Luthor's expectation of Lane's line "Superman will never let you get away with this!" is overplayed, and hammed up to such an extent that its power is lost.

Are there any other cinematic examples of this phenomenon that you can think of? Where filmmakers assume the audience knows a line or cliche that is coming, and then they turn that cliche on its head and deliver something more interesting?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

New "Speed Racer" Trailers

The latest trailer for "Speed Racer" is now in theaters (links to the HD version and international trailers below). Here are some completely random frames from the trailer, chosen by the Randomizer 2000(tm), now featuring ArbitraryBoost(tm).

Update: more and better quality images can be found here.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Comically Out of Touch

Before you read the following transcript, remember this: George W. Bush received a bachelor's Degree from Yale University, got a Masters from Harvard University in business, and was the Chairman and CEO of the oil company, Arbusto Oil. Oh, and he's currently the President of the United States, a nation which is going through a severe economic downturn.

From the President's press conference on February 28, 2008:

Q: What's your advice to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4 a gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing --

THE PRESIDENT: Wait, what did you just say? You're predicting $4 a gallon gasoline?

Q: A number of analysts are predicting --

Q: -- $4 a gallon gasoline this spring when they reformulate.

THE PRESIDENT: That's interesting. I hadn't heard that.

Q: Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. I know it's high now.

Q: And the other economic problems facing people. Beyond your concern that you stated here, and your expectations for these stimulus checks, what kind of hope can you offer to people who are in dire straits?

THE PRESIDENT: Permanent tax -- keep the tax cuts permanent, for starters. There's a lot of economic uncertainty. You just said that. You just said the price of gasoline may be up to $4 a gallon -- or some expert told you that -- and that creates a lot of uncertainty if you're out there wondering whether or not -- you know, what your life is going to be like and you're looking at $4 a gallon, that's uncertain.

moments later...

Q: Any restrictions on who can give [to your presidential library]? Will you take foreign money for this?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I'll probably take some foreign money, but don't know yet, Ken. We just haven't -- we just announced the deal and I, frankly, have been focused elsewhere, like on gasoline prices and, you know, my trip to Africa, and haven't seen the fundraising strategy yet. So the answer to your question, really, I can't answer your question well.

Well, there you go. The Harvard and Yale-educated oil man who launched an unprovoked war in the oil-rich Middle East didn't know that gasoline was about to hit $4 a gallon in his own country.

In addition, this is a brilliant illustration of how a person who frequently and casually lies gets caught in a lie by the telling the truth only moments before. Examine these two statements:

"I hadn't heard that." This is, most likely, the truth. I believe it.

"I, frankly, have been focused elsewhere, like on gasoline prices." This is, of course, a lie.

Those two statements, uttered within moments of one another, illustrate the President's mindset. Exclusively, they do not inform us of his actual beliefs. The only reason we know why one statement is a lie and the other is the truth is because of their proximity and obvious paradoxical nature. Had he not told the truth ("I am woefully unaware of what is going on with gas prices.") he wouldn't have been exposed with his silly, pandering, unnecessary lie ("I'm working hard on things like gas prices.").

Photos taken in San Francisco, which has the highest gasoline prices in the country, on March 14, 2008, on my way home from work.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Predicting the Visual Effects Oscar, Part 5

This is a follow-up to our continuing series, "Predicting the VFX Oscar Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4."

I updated the 2007 chart to indicate the winner of the visual effects Oscar, "The Golden Compass."

As you may remember from the previous articles in this series, we determined that critical acclaim (as indicated by the Tomatometer rating) was a fairly good predictor of the winner of the visual effects Academy Award.

"Compass's" win throws our theory for a loop. A huge loop. It garnered the least amount of critical acclaim amongst the three nominated films. In 23 years of charting (1984-2006, Part 2 of the series), in years where there were three nominees for Best Visual Effects, the film with the lowest critical acclaim never won the Oscar. In addition, the film with the least box office return never won the Oscar, as well. Thumbing its nose at the historical statistical data, the 80th Academy Awards gave the visual effects Oscar to "The Golden Compass," the film with both the lowest critical acclaim (by a slim margin) and the lowest box office tally, amongst its fellow nominees.

So what happened here? How did the Academy voters circumvent historical precedent? Usually, as our theory surmises, the film that garners the most critical acclaim can ride that momentum of energy into Oscar season, thus influencing the Oscar vote. The most obvious example of this is 2000's "Gladiator," which rode a wave of acclaim and popularity to win the Oscar for visual effects, even when the general consensus in the visual effects community was that other films deserved Oscar's highest honor for visual effects.

Our assumption is that vast majority of the over-6000 Academy voters, as we pointed out in Part 1, are not as industry-savvy as one might think. They are, as history suggests, quite susceptible to aggressive marketing campaigns (think Miramax in the '90s) and pop culture phenomenons ("Titanic," "Forrest Gump"), especially since, as we all know, they don't actually see all the films for which they are voting.

Industry watchers almost unanimously predicted that "Transformers," directed by Michael Bay, would win the visual effects Oscar for several reasons: its celebrated visual effects, its enormous popularity at the box office, and the fact that the movie was generally entertaining. So exactly how did "Compass" claim Oscar gold over the robots in disguise? Here are a few ideas that I've heard over the past few weeks.

Theory 1: The Academy is biased against ILM. This myth, still repeated among some visual effects fans and professionals alike, proclaims that old Hollywood is still fuming at George Lucas, founder of ILM, for his departure from Hollywood, and his hoarding of "Star Wars" riches. The theory also says that Hollywood is tired of ILM 'bullying' the effects community, and after years and years of success, needed to be brought down a notch (which is what caused a 12 year 'drought' of Academy Award wins for ILM). Therefore, Academy voters shunned the ILM productions, "Transformers" and "Pirates 3" and voted for the non-ILM production, "Compass."

This theory is bunk. The general membership of the Academy is not as savvy as one might think. Certainly, they may understand that ILM is an industry leader in visual effects, and that ILM is owned by George Lucas, but I find it highly unlikely that any one Academy voter could tell you which film ILM worked on. This is not the reason "Transformers" didn't win.

Theory 2: The vote was split between "Pirates 3" and "Transformers," giving "Compass" the win. This theory postulates that the majority of Academy voters actually wished that either "Pirates 3" or "Transformers" take home the Oscar, giving a plurality to "Compass."

How would this work? Let's say that 60% of the Academy voters marked either "Pirates 3" or "Transformers" as having the best visual effects of the year, which isn't entirely unreasonable. Well, if that 60% is split right down the middle, that leaves the 40% earning "Compass" with a plurality, and the Oscar win.

Personally, I think this theory is hard to swallow. Both ILM pictures would have to had to earn no greater than 66% of the total vote, with neither film earning more than 32% of the vote, for this theory to hold water. Those are some slim margins, people, and although ILM loyalists would really like to believe it, I just don't think this is true.

Theory 3: "Compass" is the best family-friendly choice. "Compass," on paper, is the most family friendly of the three nominees, starring cute child actors, the handsome Daniel Craig, the beautiful Nicole Kidman, and-- gasp! -- cute, cuddly, talking animals. In fact, one cannot forget a similar upset from 1995, when "Babe," the G-rated family-friendly film defeated the overwhelming odds-on favorite, "Apollo 13." What did "Babe" have that "Apollo 13" didn't have? Cute, cuddly, talking animals.

Although all three films carried the PG-13 rating, "Transformers" and "Pirates 3" were hard PG-13's, in my opinion, with some serious mean streaks of violence and intensity, while "Compass'" action sequences were less intense.

When presented with a choice of these three films-- three films that the majority of voters probably did not see-- the elder Academy members may have thought to themselves, "Which of these three films could I safely take my kids to?" or even "Which of these three films could I safely take my grandchildren to?"

Their answers probably went something like this: "Well, I don't really want to take them to another long 'Pirates' movie, and that 'Transformers' has a lot of gunplay and violence... I think I'll choose the Nicole Kidman picture." A checkmark goes besides "The Golden Compass" for visual effects.

Theory 4: The Academy doesn't want to reward Michael Bay. The poster child for 'all that is wrong in today's cinema' is Mr. Bay, according to the Hollywood establishment, and the theory states that the Hollywood establishment would go out of its way to avoid rewarding Bay by not voting for the film that bears his name.

Bay's crimes include: legitimizing quick MTV-style editing; making films that celebrate explosions, cars, car chases, and boobs; creating the world's shoutiest movies, where a quiet moment is an anomaly; creating dizzying shaky-cam action sequences with so much frenetic camera movement whose ultimate outcome is confusing and disorienting, leaving the audience wondering 'what the heck is going on?'; creating one-dimensional characters; essentially filming misogynistic, racist, jingoistic, product-placement-dripping, military recruitment movies with only as much integrity and honesty that 13 year old boys can handle... and all along the way, driving home with giant dumptrucks full of cash. Bay's cinematic transgressions have been well-documented; here are a few articles from AVClub that succinctly state cinephiles' attitudes towards Bay: their review of his DVD commentary of "The Island," their review of "Bad Boys II," one, or their review of "Transformers."

Personally, I think it's a combination of Theories 3 and 4.

What do you think? Or, is it insulting to the crew and talent behind "The Golden Compass" to even theorize why its fellow nominees didn't win the Oscar?

And, just to re-restate the previously stated, this entire discussion about "Predicting the Oscar" is framed by our statistical and quantifyable analysis of the Academy Awards nominees and winners over the past three decades. I am not making any kind of subjective statements about which film actually deserved the award for innovation and quality of visual effects.