Yep, you heard right. Another iPhone post. It feels silly. I know other companies are making phones that do incredible things. I’ve never used them though and honestly in my circle of knowledge (aww, how cute) they never appear. If anyone wants to send some short films (or features) made with smartphones my way I’d be interested in seeing what people are doing.
I’m not a person who is devoted to any particular brand or product line, so repeatedly coming back to these devices feels strange to me. You can’t deny the quality of what people are doing with iPhones and the ingenuity they implement in their productions. So, what am I talking about?
I’m talking about the new short film, Nian, made by none other than Lulu Wang. It was released less than a day ago so the information I am able to find about the film and its production is scarce. What I do know – this is a great film. I’ve seen it twice already, first by myself and then I dragged my wife into the room to watch it with me. I plan on doing the same when my kids get home from school today.
Here it is –
So ignoring all technical aspects, I think this is a great film. The feeling to it, the way it is told, the overall message – I really like it. There was several moments when I was watching where I thought, “Oh that’s funny,” only to then have the moment or shot immerse me back into the story. It was an interesting push and pull that I do not typically experience watching a film.
Examples of this? The first was the dishwashing sequence. I’ve seen a few people do similar shots to this and I don’t mean to say it feels gimmicky (to immerse the camera in the sink) but it never felt necessary. A good example of a video with these kinds of shots would be this –
Josh Yeo’s video was made to show the possibilities of what you can do with such a small camera and I think, despite possibly implying otherwise, it’s great. He does shot after shot demonstrating the possibilities which is the purpose of his video, whereas Nian is short narrative film that incorporates some innovated camera moves/placements to tell its story (both are good, just trying to be clear here).
The second example would be when Ah Ting and The Nian are rolling down the hill together. At first the rotating camera pulled me completely out of the story but then her face pulled me back in and I felt her joy as she tumbled with her friend. It’s a pretty special moment and seeing the behind the scenes video of how they achieved this shot is fantastic and helpful.
The other impressive (amazing?) aspect of this film would be the low light performance of the phone. As someone who has shot in all kinds of conditions, usually without lights, starting with an iPhone 5 I can attest to the limitations of smartphones when it comes to low light situations. Several moments in this film, whether in the home or the cave or the fireworks scene are impressive for how well the camera handles the lack of light. I’m actually waiting until the sun sets today to watch the film again in my living room as the daylight coming in maybe the viewing experience less than it should have been.
My only complaint about this behind the scenes video is that it is far too short. Give me more! Give me everything! I wish they had covered more about how the production was handled (Ms. Wang being in the U.S. while filming took place in China), more specifics on how they set up and used the camera and their post production workflow.
All in all this is yet another great example of how far the technology has progressed and what is possible with these tiny devices. It’s inspiring and I feel one of the filmmakers interviewed said it best when she said that the iPhone allows a person to do more by themselves. That is certainly a benefit in these times where in order to make something you need to keep the number of people involved to a minimum.
I originally started writing this in November of 2019. Simpler times. The entertainment news had been focused for several months on the popularity and success of the film Joker and the response that Martin Scorcesse and Francis Ford Coppola had been offering via interviews (and an interesting piece that Mr. Scorcesse wrote in the New York Times).
At the time I had been feeling that the Internet is a dark place, whose true purpose is to rob all of us of happiness and joy. Because of this I decided to write a response, of sorts, to the numerous posts/interviews/articles and regurgitated forms of these things that just won’t go away.
I want to focus on matters related to comic book movies that I feel most of us can agree on and find joy with. I have written in the past about the difficulty with comparing films in different genres, that I find it unfair to compare an action film with a drama because their aims are different. I feel this to be true as well with comic book movies. Which is not to say they are all the same or have the same goals. Hellboy and Ghost World are both adaptations of comic books (graphic novels but let’s not be precious here) but clearly they differ in their goals. In general Marvel and DC Comics that are adapted to films are similar in their aims – mainly to be entertaining to large audiences and to be blockbuster films.
With that hopefully out of the way I’ve tried to put together a short list of the films/actors/things that I feel we can all find a bit of joy and happiness in.
John C. Reilly in Guardians of the Galaxy. I could stop right there, I think most of us would agree that John C. in anything is a positive thing. In this particular film he’s a beacon of goodness. My specific example is him comforting Chris Pratt’s character about having a “code name” and how it isn’t that weird. I love him for this and I love the film for poking fun at the outlaw name of Starlord. Which if you didn’t read the comics first – be honest most of us did not – you wouldn’t know why he had chosen the name. Once you do it’s hard to mock him for it.
Wesley Snipes as Blade. Whichever blade film you like best I think we can all agree that Wesley Snipes is great as this character. The fact that these films were made before comic book movies proved themselves to be profitable, let alone that they are R-rated films about a half-vampire, vampire-hunter – is something to celebrate. Also the number of inscrutable lines the Mr. Snipes delivers in these three films are a further joy. The Honest Trailer for the trilogy singles these out and I think with good reason – I don’t always know what he’s saying (or trying to convey) but I like how he says what he says. [minor point – in the first Blade film Kris Kristoferson (who should be noted as the wonderful mentor/father-figure that he is in his role) puts gasoline in Blade’s car, spilling it over the back of the vehicle before finding his mark. A car friend of my has forever loved this movie for this very detail and I felt compelled to mention it here. For me it seems weird but he loves how perfectly waxed the vehicle is so…]
Robert Downey jr. as Iron Man. While everyone was in agreement that Sir Partick Stewart had to be Professor Charles Xavier I think few people speculated about the perfect Tony Stark. How the fates aligned to make this occur to the people it did, when it did and then provided them with the courage to go through with making the film is nothing short of inspirational. The casting of Robert Downey jr. as Iron Man is perfect. Not only did it prove him to be a reliable actor again but it provided him with a role that feels custom-made. The films brought AC/DC to a new generation of music listeners (and made some remember how great the band is) and generally made everyone watching feel warm and fuzzy all over.
Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool. Another improbable event in the world of studio filmmaking. A first attempt that many, including Mr. Reynolds, openly decry. Leaked test footage that convinced the previously mentioned negative leaning Internet to rally and change a studio’s mind. The rest, of course, is history. In six year’s time Ryan Reynolds went from being an actor many mocked for his serious roles and others shunned for his comedic into a blend of both that seduces all of us with his funny and clever marketing – for everything he’s involved with. Whereas Robert Downey jr. made the role of Iron Man his own Ryan Reynolds seems to have merged with the character of Deadpool – to emerge victorious in all walks of life. It’s inspiring and disturbing (in a positive way – was Bill Nighy actually correct in thinking Pokemon and humans should merge together to evolve?).
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. I can’t think of another example of a relatively unknown actor being cast in a leading role (in comic book movies) and exceeding every expectation like Ms. Gadot did. She was the best part of Batman V. Superman and watching her standalone movie feels like injecting honor and courage and goodness into your veins. Reading (and seeing) the stories of children everywhere being inspired by Wonder Woman after the film’s premiere truly warmed my heart.
Jason Momoa. If you’ve seen my previous post I think I’ve already made it clear how much I like Jason Momoa. Given that his early roles were playing villains (or gruff, difficult men) it is a joy to watch him playing a character like Aquaman, who not only becomes a hero but has a relatively good time doing so. He’s big, he’s funny and he doesn’t sit around brooding. It’s a welcome change in the world of comic book movies and for me it was an unexpected surprise. That he’s also using his celebrity for good and has an interesting YouTube channel is just another layer of goodness heaped onto an already large pile.
Spiderman into The Spiderverse. This film is filled to the brim with joy and wonder. It’s different, it’s fresh, it has fun with the notion of Spiderman (giving the world a Jake Johnson Spiderman is not something I ever thought we needed, but, hey, it’s great) and I think has given millions of people a Spiderman they prefer. For a character and a franchise that many people had burned out on, knowing that more films were coming but not necessarily caring anymore, to be given something as exceptional as this is truly joyous and worth celebrating.
I would be remiss if I did not include Tom Hardy as Venom. The term anti-hero is used more than I would like regarding film and usually when I hear it I am not sure if I would agree. It is wholly applicable to Mr. Hardy’s version of Venom. The film is a welcome departure. The scope is smaller, it isn’t the culmination of multiple storylines involving dozens of characters over a ten year period. Just the story of a somewhat scuzzy reporter who gets infected by an alien that sometimes eats people. It’s a strangely joyous film given the events that take place, all because Mr. Hardy chose to play the character in the manner he did. I am grateful for it. Venom easily could have been a horror film or a toothless comic adaptation with a PG rating trying to please and failing everyone. It’s weird and awkward and brought me some happy moments.
There are many other examples that come to mind regarding excellent casting or fun films but I wanted to try and narrow this down to examples I feel most of us can agree on. Whether or not you want to call these films cinema is up to you. These actors, these films, have brought me some joyful moments and I look forward to the next installments (where applicable) for more.
A brief account of the 2016 MIddlebury New Filmmakers Festival I wrote for the Vermont Media Alliance.
This past August I was lucky enough to attend the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. I was only able to attend a handful of screenings yet the experience felt rich and full. Although I am from Vermont prior to this visit I had spent very little time in Middlebury. I was pleased to find that in addition to wonderful film screenings and events the town offers many other attractions for visitors.
I was there on Friday, August 26th and my first screening was at the Town Hall Theater. The 10:30 screening had two short films listed, Clean and Bloom of Youth as well as one feature length film, Girl Asleep. They had a last minute addition that did not make the program, a short documentary called Pickle.
The films were introduced by festival Artistic Director and Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven, who provided the audience with some insight as to why the films were chosen and being shown together.
The screening was quite full despite being early in the day and the audience was receptive to the films shown. Clean and Bloom of Youth are serious works of fiction and the reactions from my fellow audience members conveyed how immersive they are as films. Pickle was by far the crowd favorite, a film about a couple and the numerous atypical pets they have owned and loved over the years.
Although I was not able to stay for Girl Asleep I was able to sample one of the great offerings of the festival, the ease of connecting with other attendees. Looking for lunch at Otter Creek Bakery I encountered several other festival goers and was treated to an impromptu meet-and-greet with Vermont filmmakers and festival attendees.
After lunch we made our way to a 1:30 screening at Dana Auditorium. Two short films, Whisper and Black Canaries, were shown before the feature Krisha. Once again the films were introduced and the audience was provided with some interesting tidbits before the show began.
It was a hot day on the 26th and aside from finding respite in the cool and comfortable auditoriums for film screenings I found myself, like many festival attendees, flocking to the numerous shops in downtown Middlebury. There was an easy, relaxed feeling to the day despite a packed schedule of screenings and events which made for great conversation and wonderful viewings.
The quality of the films shown at MNFF, especially when you consider this was only their second year, was truly impressive. I regret that I was only able to attend for one day but the films I was able to see have stuck with me as did the overall experience.
Events like these are what make living in Vermont so special and rewarding. To be able to connect with people from all walks of life, to discuss film and art in beautiful and comfortable surroundings is what makes living and working here so unique. I look forward to next year’s festival and its many offerings.
That being said I find I continue on this hamster wheel of hope regarding technological breakthroughs that simplify the filmmaking process.
High Flying Bird has been on my mind of late. If you have read my previous posts you’ll know I pay attention to feature films being made with devices like the iPhone. I also write about cheaper “prosumer” cameras that are used for similar purposes. The conclusions I have come to in the past all fit well into the statement “I’m not exactly sure /this is good not great/hopefully something will emerge in the future that is better.”
Which I admit begs the question, ‘why keep writing this stuff’? I don’t have a good answer other than I’m trying to figure things out. For me writing about something is the best way to understand something. You are, without question, under no obligation to go through this nonsense with me.
That being said I find I continue getting on this hamster wheel of hope regarding technological breakthroughs that simplify the filmmaking process. I continue to pay attention in the hope that I will discover a new path that allows me to make the movies I want to make. The technical aspects are such a small piece of this work and I think Shane Carruth put it best when he called the gear talk and fixation “A spectator sport.” In fact I am going to insert what he said because it is so well put –
AVC: At Sundance, someone always asks what your budget was and what you shot on, but you don’t want to talk about what your camera setup was. Why is that?
SC: It’s because I don’t want the film to be characterized by these things. It’s weird that it becomes a topic of conversation—the camera, of all things. Nobody talks about what kind of audio gear we used. It’s like a spectator sport of some kind. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the landscape of cameras, [especially] the new digital ones. With A Topiary, we were going to shoot on 65 mm, and I was really consumed with that and comparing resolutions and all these things. I just jettisoned all that. Now I only care about the narrative and an aesthetic that services it. As far as the tech of it, that’s like what accountant do I want to use, or who do I bank with. It’s just not part of the story.
So in spite of these thoughts (which I wholeheartedly agree with) I am going to write about High Flying Bird, why I like it, and why focusing on what Steven Soderbergh used to make the film is a bit silly (while focusing on what he used to make the film).
If you pay attention to what goes on in the film world you may have seen the numerous articles and interviews about High Flying Bird. Most have chosen to highlight the films’ capture device (IMDB.com lists it as – iPhone 8, Moondog Labs Anamorphic Adapter, Moment 2X telephoto lens) and Mr. Soderbergh’s affinity for changing up his approach to filmmaking. To be clear – I think this is a good film. As someone who grew up loving basketball and as a person who loves movies I enjoyed the experience. The story is well told and unlike other “experiments” by Mr. Soderbergh I feel he is invested in both the subject matter and the way it is presented to the audience (thinking of Bubble, Haywire, The Informant!, The Good German and Side Effects here – personally I thought he cared with Full Frontal but he also wanted to make you think about movie-making and how even though you are aware of the artifice you can still care).
That being said this isn’t really a basketball movie. It is about basketball, more specifically the power structure between players and management, and the way the sport limits players options and exploits them.
IndieWire: “They built a game on top of a game.” It seems, on two levels, that idea at the core of “High Flying Bird” is pure Soderbergh-ian. There is always economic stress as it relates to your protagonists’ labor in your films, but then also a lot of your career has been about decoding the game that Hollywood has put on top of the game of filmmaking. I know this is a project that Tarell [Alvin McCraney] and André [Holland] were working on, but I imagine the concept really spoke to you personally, and on multiple levels?
Soderbergh: Well, you know, the good news for somebody like myself is that I have options. Like, I can create, essentially, the version of the business that I want to work in, for the most part, up to and including, you know, self-financing a movie and just not talking to anybody.
Athletes really don’t have those options. They’re kind of obligated to occupy a certain lane, and it’s not like if they’re unhappy with the lane, in this case, that the NBA is providing for them, it’s not like there’s another league that they can go play for. And they have such short lifespans. You know, I was 35 before I was really, I felt, figuring out what I was doing or how I should be doing it. You’re an outlier if you’re playing a professional sport at age 35.
I wish people had not made an issue out of the camera used to make the film. For the first twenty minutes I was distracted by aspects of the image simply because I knew this was shot on an iPhone. Once the plot took hold I was able to forget about the technical aspects and just enjoy. And enjoy I did. The wonderful performances, the fast-paced and complicated story and the craftsmanship of the film worked their magic on me. I may not have become invested in the characters but the conceit of the film, the game being imposed on top of the game, made me think afterwards. That being said this film does take the audience into account and delivers an ending with resolution.
In many interviews Mr. Soderbergh has commented about the size of the camera and the ease of designing shots due to shooting with a phone. The behind the scenes images and videos show him using very little equipment to make the movie. The images from the film speak for themselves. In a recent exchange on Twitter I noticed a filmmaker sharing his thoughts concerning the sound of the film.
I have no idea what was used to record and mix the sound for this film. I’ve looked but the Internet is vast so, as of posting this, I have no idea if this person is correct. It is an interesting point he makes (and given that Shane Carruth made a similar point in 2013 clearly a relevant one). Given how much attention is given to capture devices for images you would think someone would want to talk about sound, especially regarding independent filmmaking.
That being said there is a surprising amount of technical information in this interview from IndieWire.
I mean, I could point out, I won’t, because it’s boring, but I could point out many shots in “High Flying Bird” that using a more traditional approach with normal size cameras would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do, to get the lens where I want, or to be moving in a way that I want to move and, you know, have the camera reach multiple destinations without either somebody getting hurt, or the shot being compromised because of the size of the equipment. So, it seemed like a natural fit to me.
Could you give one example from “Flying Bird” of what you just described?
Soderbergh: Oh, just that shot early on, pulling Zazie [Beetz] and André [Holland] down the corridor of the office interior after he’s gotten off the elevator, he meets her, and then we go to this shot where they’re walking really fast toward his office. We’re in a very narrow path, we’re moving very quickly, and then as they sort of peel off from us, we sort of move away from them, and he goes into his office, and the camera sort of retreats. With a normal size dolly, which weighs 350 pounds, that becomes dangerous, potentially. Like, somebody could get hurt. And being able to take the corner to start to separate from them the way that we did, where I’m in a wheelchair with a DJI Osmo stabilizer, the ability to quickly take this corner and back up, like, that. We could have been there for hours, maybe still wouldn’t have gotten the lens where I wanted.
Because you have to remember, unlike when I’m on a normal dolly, when I’m holding the Osmo, I also have the ability to move the lens left, right, up, down.
As for making films on an iPhone, personally, I am still unable to commit. Earlier this year the company Moment announced an interesting-looking film competition. I debated whether I should make a film to submit. As I debated I, once again, assessed whether I would consider investing any money toward shooting with my phone. Do I buy Moment lenses (or the Moondog Labs anamorphic lens which was used on High Flying Bird)? Do I buy a gimbal? On their own the cost is not outrageous but, and on this point I always get stuck, why would I invest in these accessories for my phone when I have a camera I bought for filmmaking? This makes the assumption that I would need to buy further accessories to make a film on my phone. Which I clearly do not need to do.
I firmly believe that whatever works for a person, whether it is where you write or which paints you use or the camera you shoot with, should be embraced. If you can’t write at a desk, don’t. If you have to shoot with an iPhone to feel free and able to improvise, more power to you. That being said, choosing to shoot with my phone while my camera sits in its bag feels weird. I like the idea of being able to shoot in a car and just stick my phone to the ceiling, but I still need a way to attach it and if I am going to buy an attachment wouldn’t I just get something for my camera? I suppose I have Rodney Charters in the back of my mind when I think this. His interview regarding shooting the television show Dallas has the following gem –
I recently used the BMPC while filming my Episode 305, which aired on Monday, March 24. I was shooting a scene in a limo, so I just stuck the camera to the window of the rear door with a small sucker kit: the Panavise 809. The camera just stayed on the inside of the window getting beautiful overs while we were shooting the straight-on angle down the middle of the limo with the Alexa.
To put this another way: when I am considering purchasing gear I am always using my own money in the hope of making a film and eventually getting paid for that. So my starting place is always spending the least amount of money to get the best piece of equipment I can. This is why I have a hard time wrapping my head around having a two million dollar budget for a film and choosing a capture device that has the following known issue –
Soderbergh: No, the thing that became time and resource consuming, which I spoke to Apple about, and explained to them they have to address if they’re really serious about people using these things to make movies going forward, even when you have, through an app like Filmic Pro, the shutter and the ISO locked, the sensor reacts to changes in light. If somebody walks past a window, or you pan through a light, it, even though it’s supposed to be frozen, it responds. What makes it even worse is it’s not the entire frame that responds, it’s pieces of the frame.
To have to go back in frame by frame, in the DI suite, and even that stuff out, create power windows to deal with the sections of the frame that have changed density, that was fucking annoying and expensive. I didn’t test any other cameras, I don’t know if the Samsung does that. I know that more traditional non-phone cameras don’t do that. And I talked to the Filmic Pro people, and they were like yeah, I know, they will not engage with us to figure out if this can be fixed. It’s a problem. So, you know, that was – I have to say, that was the only time that I felt frustrated by that technology.
All technology has limitations and shortcomings. The computer I am writing this on has the most annoying and poorly designed mouse I have ever used. Mr. Soderbergh is clearly operating at a level, and budget, where he is able to pick and choose what works best for him. Where I am coming from (and I feel like this is not addressed enough online) is a radically different place than Mr. Soderbergh. Obviously his concerns are different than mine. What I think many of us, who are starting out or are less successful, are hoping for is a newly opened door that provides a less expensive but equally competitive means to creating our films and sharing them with the world.
Wherein I sputter about Jason Momoa and how I think he is neat-o.
Today I discovered I haven’t written anything in 2019, which is a bit odd. Things have been a bit busy in my personal life but I still have plenty of time to read and write and boy do I ever have a need to connect with others about the things I read and watch.
So, let’s share.
To begin, the past few weeks have won me over to team Momoa (I am going to pretend that there is a team Momoa, but let’s be honest who would be against him). Part of this has come from me watching season three of the Netflix show Frontier. Why did I wait until now? Didn’t it come out in November? Was it my aversion to fur? Was it the lack of ending for Red Road? Why am I mentioning both of these shows here?
As far as I can tell the major change of season three is that Jason Momoa directed a fair bit of material with a second unit team. I’m not expert on how television is made but I would imagine that typically this would not result in major changes to a production. In this case the show went from being something I enjoyed but wasn’t actively studying in terms of “how did they do that?” or “why does this scene look so interesting?” to me immediately running to the computer after an episode to try and find some answers.
And find them I did.
Jason Momoa has a YouTube channel and on it he posted behind the scenes videos of the making of season three. They are interesting and I am sharing them below.
Of the many things I like about these videos is they show how little of the weather and locations are faked. Watching this show I kept wondering if what I was seeing was real or just incredible sets. It looks like quite a bit was real.
Just a few final words about Jason Momoa and 2019. About a month ago I watched Aquaman and I was impressed. The film delivered in many ways and was a welcome surprise. At this point seeing a superhero movie where the protagonist has fun, especially in the DC universe, was a surprise. Prior to this movie I did not think it was a possibility. I have to imagine that Jason Momoa played a large part in that.
I’m really enjoying the content on his channel and hearing him praise the people he works with. It’s a positive and uplifting thing to find and it makes me happy. Here’s looking forward to what comes next – it’s wonderful to have something new to look forward to.
Eleven years ago I bought a brand new camera for more money than I had and set out to make some movies. Inspired by companies like InDigEnt and films like Pieces of April and November I was certain I was on my way.
Sadly I was wrong. Poor me.
Anyway, after setting up a project and arriving at my parents house to make a movie with friends – I found myself with no friends and no movie to make. So I shuffled about the house for a few days with a bunch of camera equipment. I started filming things. Then myself. Then myself doing things.
I had quite a bit of fun and laughed (alone, which is either a healthy thing or unhealthy, I am not certain). Eight moves and a lot of boxes later I found myself going through the old DV tapes not long ago wondering what was on them. Lo and behold I found this footage (and quite a bit of other footage that I am sure will surface some day – why not share?).
Below is the fruit of my labors when I was licking my wounds and trying to figure out why I spent so much money on camera gear. If only that wasn’t a pattern!
I hope you enjoy it. The quality isn’t what I’d like because the camera is now outdated and I knew even less than I do now.
Below is my latest video. It has taken longer to put together than I would have liked but I am pleased with the result. This is a sequel (of sorts) to a short I made called “The Gypsy Curse that Done Me Wrong”. You can see that here.
It is mostly an interview about the film, Operation Avalanche, that delves into the technical aspects of how they made the movie. I won’t spoil those details here other than to say their workflow was unusual. In order to properly emulate the look of 16mm film from the 1960’s they shot on digital cameras and did a transfer to 16mm film that they then degraded.
To answer the obvious question – why not just shoot on film? The answer is cost.
Why am I sharing this? Let me post an excerpt from the interview below:
Do you think it will ever be possible to achieve the full effect in digital without the 16mm intermediate?
JR: We tried. Honestly, I think if we could do it, then we would have done it. There’s something that happens — is it the uncertainty principle? It’s that thing you can’t predict. We could have given it to Conor, and he could have re-created exactly what happened in that shot from earlier in the movie. But those mistakes never happen twice — the way the colors shift in an unpredictable way, the way the highlights go a certain way.
AA: The way a hair would lie on the scan. You can’t design for that.
JR: You could intentionally do it, but you’d just be copying something you’d seen before. People are wired to pick apart images now. We spend all day looking at images and thinking about how they originated. We’ve developed a powerful vocabulary for seeing an image and knowing where it came from and who took it. That’s in our lexicon now through how much we learn by looking at images all day long. People are savvy to the point where they can subconsciously tell — whether they know it or not — if they’re looking at something from a certain era or a modern thing that’s trying to be that thing from a certain era.
Stranger Things is a great example of that. It has the look of an ’80s movie through and through, but you know it’s not an ’80s movie because you’re not watching it on film. Film does all these weird things that look like mistakes, but you can’t plan them. Through this process, we discovered that if you want something to look like it’s on film, the only way to get that look consistently is to actually use film.
What they say here, especially at the end, is of interest. As much as shows like “Halt & Catch Fire”, “The Americans” and “Mad Men” (the later seasons) achieve a film look – there are moments where the audience knows, somehow, that these shows are made differently than works shot in the 1980’s (and 60’s). This inherent knowledge is interesting and while it does little to settle any arguments about what format you should capture your work on it does speak to another concern which is distracting your audience from the story. If the audience is thinking about how your movie looks like film but isn’t film while they are watching then you have to wonder if it is worth attempting this trickery.
Take a look at the interview, it is an interesting, albeit technical, read.
If there is one question I have struggled with it is, “What is your favorite film?” Granted, this question is nowhere near as important as: “How do we achieve world peace?” or “How do we stop global warming?” but then people never seem to ask me either of these.
So recognizing the proper ranking of the importance of this question let me now try and address some of the assumptions being made regarding movies.
First – that all movies are alike and are comparable. I touched on this briefly in another post when I mentioned comparing Cliffhanger to Citizen Kane. What I was attempting to show with this comparison isn’t that one film is lesser but that different films are made to satisfy different conditions. Cliffhanger needs to be exciting in order to be successful as an action film. The stakes in a film like Cliffhanger are life and death and therefore the story being told has to make the audience care whether the characters live or die. We need to worry when they are in peril, cheer if they manage to evade death and feel satisfaction when the villain (unless it is the Earth which is tricky) gets his due.
The same isn’t true for Citizen Kane. I don’t need to spell it out, different kinds of films have different rules, have different problems and different goals. So while we can attempt to compare them in terms of the overall experience there are still many cases where this is a fruitless exercise.
So in thinking about awards like Best Picture and answering the question of “what is your favorite movie?” I cannot help but dwell on these differences because they do matter.
Take for instance the different between comedy and drama. Forget subcategories for the moment. The comedy wants to make you laugh. It wants to make you happy. The drama usually wants to make you feel some deep emotion like sadness or longing or ennui or some other wonderful thing. I am being unfair but the truth is not far off. Comedy seeks to entertain you and make you happy, the drama usually attempts to make you experience some unpleasant emotions, possibly entertains you or it tries to teach you something.
This distinction is important and why you rarely see a comedy being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. For some reason we have decided that this is okay. That Comedy as a category does not compete in the same realm as Drama. Okay.
Yet, if you were to poll most people concerning their favorite film many would name a comedy. So what gives? The second distinction: is this a film you watch once in your life or never again?
We have all seen amazing, life-changing films that have moved us in ways words cannot properly express. Yet once seen we have no desire to ever see these movies again. Not in a Usual Suspects kind of way where once you know the story watching the film becomes less interesting. This is more that you have had an incredible experience and are glad to have had it but the thought of going through it again, even if it were somewhat lesser holds no appeal for you. A good example of this is Schindler’s List.
Then we have the other category, the film you can watch repeatedly and it is always enjoyable. The film that when you are sad or sick or just looking for a nice night on the couch you know will give you what you need. These films are usually comedies of some sort. For me the best example is The Philadelphia Story but I could list dozens that fit this bill.
So we have comedies and dramas. We have one-offs and we have endlessly watchable films. With just these four categories I find myself at a loss. How do I pick a favorite? What are we talking about? Pure entertainment? Something that helped shape who I am today? It becomes impossible for me to make any kind of choice because I need to explain the criteria involved in making that choice.
So, yes, this is not the most important decision a person will ever face. In fact, it is somewhat silly. Yet, and this is why I bothered to write all of this out: when I try and pose these questions to others I always find them puzzled at my response. “Why can’t you just pick one?” I can’t help but feel that when it comes to the awards that are given out that this must be the attitude of many who do the voting. Something must be chosen, so just pick one. They are only movies, so what does it matter.
Where I attempt to say something about the nature of awards seasons and focusing on acquisition formats.
As we find ourselves in the middle of yet another awards season let us take a moment and reflect on why we, people who have nothing to do with these damn things, care? And let us also add another item to this mental exercise – acquisition formats.
In the past three months the number or articles, tweets, posts, messages and smoke signals I have seen about films like Carol, The Revenant, The Hateful Eight and, yes, even Star Wars has been so staggering that even my daughter, who does not use the Internet has become familiar with several of them.
Although she has not asked me if this will be Leo’s year to finally win the Oscar I imagine it is not far off. She goes to school and the things that filter down to a Kindergarten student are somewhat astounding. So while the Star Wars movies have made their way to her, the debate of film vs. digital has not.
Which makes it more apparent that these discussions and debates are marketing and promotion and hold little value. The number of reviews and comments I have seen about The Revenant that say much of anything beyond the extreme nature of the shoot or the newness of the camera used I can count on one hand. More has been said about the acquisition format of the films I have listed than about the qualities of the films or the actors or even whether people like them.
As someone who is interested not only in watching films but also in making them I find myself carried along with these narratives. These aspects are interesting, up to a point. That The Hateful Eight is being presented in 70mm in some locations is less interesting to me than the “roadshow” aspect of these presentations. Which are not one and the same. Yes, it will look different but that the film will have an intermission, that there will be a printed program, that the filmmakers are making an active push to say, “This is why you should see this film in a movie theater and have a shared experience with your fellow human beings,” is much more interesting to me than knowing the image has not been manipulated for my viewing pleasure.
Yet all anyone can say is, “Boy the frame is really wide!” and “He did it for interior scenes” because “It makes the blocking really noticeable!”. Which is well and good from a technical point of view but little is being said about whether the movie is any good. Or whether people are finding the movie-going experience to be interesting, new, rewarding, worthwhile or anything else. Very little is being said about this aspect, which is what we should all be talking about.
The same is true of The Revenant. The experience is “immersive”, the bear attack is “realistic” and shooting only with natural light is “cinematic”. But then all of the comments concerning the film itself are either snarky or flippant, to one writer being thankful to have made it through the film (which is clever because their experience seems to mirror that of the main character…) or just that most in general found the film to be difficult to watch and grueling. Because, of course, when you watch a film that is about one man’s incredible tale of survival against all odds you expect it to be light and chipper and leave you feeling giddy.
Because, of course, The Revenant is not trying to offer a unique film-going experience with anything other than the film itself. Which is not to diminish the film, the filmmakers or what they have achieved. But you cannot help and see that although these two films, which have in a way become pitted against each other (one for resurrecting not only a near-forgotten acquisition format [and lenses] and the other for being the first to make use of a cutting-edge technology) are getting attention for parts of their productions that are not the most interesting thing about them. That they were acquired under harsh conditions using these interesting technologies maybe isn’t what we should spend all of our time talking about.
The same can be said for Carol, for different reasons, and even the new Star Wars. Article after article has been written and shared about the formats chosen, the reasons why and what wonderful results have been achieved. Except, of course, the results we should be focused on are the films themselves. Not excluding the lighting and the look and grain structure but absolutely not limited to these aspects either.
I am ranting now and I try not to do that with strangers so forgive me. I have been paying more attention that usual to the state of film (that state of celluloid), largely because all of us are. What I find odd is I am not sure what is being presented (the end is nigh) reflects that actual state of things. When The Walking Dead, Carol and fifty other well known television shows and films are making use of the super 16mm format – is the format really dead or about to be? When Kodak announces the release of a new, hybrid super 8mm camera are we living in the end times of celluloid acquisition?
I know many filmmakers are currently being asked to weigh in on the future of film and that is why the endless articles are appearing, but it would seem, and forgive me if I am wrong, that the timing of this is about two years too late. Filmmakers and studios bonded together to give Kodak a reprieve. Now, indie filmmakers who had previously embraced low budget technologies to inexpensively make their films are choosing to make their new movies shooting using celluloid.
Perhaps it is healthy that this issue is near constantly mentioned. That unlike two years ago when few were speaking about the future of this format it was truly in jeopardy, now people are paying attention. I do not know.
What I do know is that a great deal of attention is being paid to how the movie was acquired or how it is viewed but little is being said about whether people like or dislike the movie.
Perhaps that is what award seasons are good for, with numerous categories that cover technical achievements and more artistic ones, there is the opportunity to celebrate all of these aspects of film making. That feels more like the working theory than the actual practice to me.
In practice awards seasons feel like another way to market and sell movies. Because we don’t talk about whether Carol is a better film than the new Star Wars. We don’t compare them for many different reasons. I used to think this made sense. Cliffhanger should not be pitted against Casino, they are different kinds of movies with different aspirations. Yet we lump Carol with Tangerine and Sicario together because of their budgets or subject matter or who the filmmakers behind the films are and, obviously, that makes much more sense.