Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions #3 cont.

Today's recommendations are some of the many films by John Ford.

Doctor Bull
The Lost Patrol
Judge Priest
The Informer
Steamboat Round the Bend
Mary of Scotland
Submarine Patrol
Young Mr. Lincoln
Drums Along the Mohawk
The Grapes of Wrath
The Long Voyage Home
How Green Was My Valley
They Were Expendable
My Darling Clementine
The Fugitive
Fort Apache
3 Godfathers
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Rio Grande
What Price Glory
The Horse Soldiers

But most especially

The Quiet Man
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Searchers

For those of you who say things like, "Eh I don't like Westerns." get the Hell out of Show-business! The genre of the Western, like any genre, is merely an excuse to remove characters and social convention from present day reality allowing the film maker to explore the human condition with a cooler eye. It also allows the audience the emotional distance necessary to relate to another point of view.

Take The Searchers. Not only is it possibly the best shot and edited film ever made, but it's a movie made in 1956 America about RACISM. Okay, racism with cool horse chases and great action, but it is essentially a morality play about the personal human cost of racism. And because it is a genre film with Indians Americans taking the place of African Americans, it was a hugely popular film that got it's message all across the country at a time when blind unexamined hatred of race was literally about to tear the country in half. That is the power of film art. And that is the special ability of genre films.

A genre film is about people, not place, time, or special effects. Or at least it should be.

So do not limit yourself to a particular kind of film. Watch them all. The artists who make them will have some wonderful surprises waiting for you.

(By the way, Animation is not a genre! It is a technique. Any animated movie must be judged by whether or not it is an effective film, not given special allowance to be badly written and shot because it's "just a cartoon". Don't think of an animated film as something given a license to be "less than". Too many people making animated films already have that attitude ingrained in their approach to the process. If your going to do this for a living, then treat all film with respect. If an animated film is not worth your effort to do as well as you would a live action film, don't do it at all.)

Also pay special attention to Ford's camera style. Notice how little he cuts and how he uses his impeccable sense of design to recompose action within a single shot to direct the audience's eye and attention. Modern directors/editors cut far too often out of habit.

I was once told by a very good film maker that the most unnatural, disconcerting thing a director can do is cut. There is nothing like it in reality. It like the human eye suddenly transports to a new location. Just because we are used to it (thanks to the devil box television) doesn't mean it should be done haphazardly. A director needs a legitimate reason within the structure of the story to cut. (As opposed to modern film and animation where it seems that a punctuation mark in the script is the main cue to change shots.)

Watch when and how Ford does it. Masterful.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Quick interruption of my list of movies all film students should study.

While I was looking over my John Ford collection, (Yes, his films are next on the list. Who were you expecting, Michael Bay? Wrong Blog kid.) I watched Stagecoach again (making this list is really just an excuse to watch these films. Leave me alone kids, Daddy's working!) and was reminded of an exercise I did in a few of my film classes.

I would ask my students to watch four films off this list that they had not seen before.

Dark Victory
Gone With The Wind
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Love Affair
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Of Mice and Men
The Wizard of Oz
Wuthering Heights
Dodge City
Another Thin Man
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Babes in Arms
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island
Destry Rides Again
Drums Along the Mohawk
The Four Feathers
The Man in the Iron Mask
Mr. Wong in Chinatown
The Oklahoma Kid
The Roaring Twenties
Son of Frankenstein
The Three Musketeers
The Tower of London
Young Mr. Lincoln
Gunga Din

We would then spend a little time at the end of class discussing the films as they watched them. Sometimes these discussions would lead to a serious analysis of shot progression, composition, story structure, camera/lens choice, lighting, music, whatever. Sometimes we'd still be going over a film at 10 or 11 pm, really digging into not just how much fun and entertaining these films are, but how incredibly well made each of them is. We'd talk about how with the exception of motion control cameras, advancement in film stock, and digital effects there is nothing being done today technically better than it was in these films. As a matter of fact, the composition/photography of most modern movies don't hold up to what is in these films.

(Compare any frame of Adventures of Robin Hood to any frame of any animated film in the last five years. If you tell me they even compare, I'll smack you with a rolled up copy of Composing Pictures. Hell if you converted it, The Adventures of Robin Hood would be a better Stereoscopic film than anything that's come out of the big studios yet. Don't be fooled by hysterically moving camera work and fast cutting. You can swing a camera tied to a rope over your head and get the same effect as the camera work in a lot of recently animated films. Probably a better story too, but that's another topic.)

Near the end of the year I'd tell the students that the films on that list, all those brilliant, powerful, entertaining, mesmerizing, elegantly crafted films were released in the same year. 1939. One year. Americans in 1939 had art of that quality, passion, and fun handed to them by a relatively small group of artists, technicians and craftsmen. That much beauty, that much power, that much truth, - one year.

What did we give America last year?

And 1939 was 73 years ago. Long before the technical advances that make our jobs now a fraction as difficult as what those film makers had to go through. And most of those film makers went on to make dozens of other films, some even better than those listed.

Then I'd ask my film students (many of whom seemed to have put more time into their wardrobe and hair than their films that semester) to look back at the year they had just finished. To look hard at the work they had done. I'd ask them how they felt about the way they spent their time. I'd ask them if they felt worthy to stand next to films like those and call themselves filmmakers or artists.

Anyone who did, I failed.

Anyway, just a quick aside to share those films and that thought with you. Back to the list next time.

Oh, and do yourself a favor if you haven't seen Tower of London, Another Thin Man, or Gunga Din, go watch them.

Trust me. I have a blog.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions #3

Who's your favorite Director?

Dumb question.

Seriously, that's up there with "Who's your favorite artist?" or "Who's your favorite animator?" or "What's your favorite color?". What are we on a first date?

An artist should be intimately familiar with thousands of examples of other artists' work and should be able to examine each piece maturely enough to move beyond adolescent "I like that" or "Don't like that" reactions. The thought process should be "Why did he/she make that decision?" and "Was that effective in communicating to the audience?" and "Would that same choice STILL be effective in communicating to an audience?"

So instead of answering the question directly, I am going to spend a few blogs listing the work of some of the Directors whose work I find the most effective, one Director at a time. At the very least, any serious film student should be familiar with these films.

So get to Amazon, get these films, and remember to take notes. Your entire life's work will be a test later.

Michael Curtiz

Doctor X,
Mystery of the Wax Muse
The Kennel Murder Case,
Front Page Woman (if you can find it)
Captain Blood,
The Adventures of Robin Hood,
Angels with Dirty Faces,
Dodge City,
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,
Santa Fe Trail,
Virginia City,
The Sea Hawk,
The Sea Wolf,
Yankee Doodle Dandy,
Mildred Pierce,
Night and Day,
White Christmas,
We're No Angels,
King Creole,
The Comancheros

How's that for a career with variety?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions #2

What books about film/animation can you recommend?

This is a lie of course.

No one in the animation business has ever asked me to recommend a book. No animation student I have ever met has ever even given me the slightest indication that he could actually read. I have had a couple of exceptionally promising ones bang rocks together in a way that made me think they might like me to recommend a book about the art form. Or maybe just get them bigger rocks.

What the heck, here’s a fast list anyway.

My favorite book about film is, Frank Capra: Name Above the Title

After that in no particular order (cause you should read/memorize all these at the very least)

Donald Graham’s Composing Pictures

John Ford: the man and his films

The Illusion of life: Disney Animation

Anthony Mann (Weseleyan film)

MGM: When the Lion Roared

Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise

The Animator’s Survival Kit.

Hitchcock's Notebooks: An Authorized And Illustrated Look Inside The Creative Mind Of Alfred Hitchcook

Hitchcock's Secret Notebooks

John Huston, Interviews

The Vilppu Drawing Manual

Hawks on Hawks and Howard Hawks, Interviews

The Cinema of Michael Curtiz

Drawn to Life: 20 golden years of Disney master classes

Conversations with Wilder

50 years and Only One Grey Hare.

Dream Worlds

The Five Cs of Cinematography

Film Art: An Introduction

ART by Gardner (all of em. Don't be afraid. You'll like knowing what your talking about for a change.)

Film History; An Introduction
Any Autobiography of any Director whose work you like.

At least a book or two about the work of each of the artists listed below.

Michelangelo, Pontormo, Rubens, Titian, Da Vinci, Delecroix, Giotto, Vermeer, Manet, Poussin, Degas, Rembrandt, Caravaggio (a personal favorite for MANY reasons), Goya, Botticelli, Monet, Raphael, Friedrich, Giovanni Bellini, Munch, Picasso, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Durer.

Stay away from “how to” books by folks that don’t “how to” themselves. Remember, most “animation historians” have an ax to grind when they start to write the book. They make a living by getting access to a studio’s material and often (perhaps unknowingly) turn into little more than PR men for a studio’s library. How the material is presented can have a huge influence on a fresh artist. And not a good one.

Let the materials speak to you for themselves without someone telling you if it’s “great”, “classic” (what does that even mean?), or “the right way”. You’ll know which materials feel effective to you. Trust that feeling and press your studies in that direction.

That is a list off the top of my head of books and artists I constantly refer to. I’m sure I left off twenty that will wake me up tonight. I’ll add to the list now and then.

Now get off the internet and read a book.