Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Camera Technique: The Fall

This week's interesting camera movement comes from writer/director Tarsem Singh's The Fall. I saw this film a year or so ago when I first subscribed to Netflix and instantly became fascinated with the following bit of trivia: shot in twenty-eight countries over four years, Singh claims that there were absolutely no special effects or any use of green screen, which is particularly impressive when you consider the extraordinary look of the film. The gif below demonstrates vertical swish pan:

Gif taken from this Tumblr account.
Swish pan is rapid and produces a transitory blur. In the shot above, the camera focuses in on a red footprint and pans up vertically to show the source: a woman bounding up the stairway. Swish pan, AKA whip pan, is used especially well in this scene because it gives the viewer an added sense of rapid action (running + momentary blur = swifty).

In the next gif, we see another vertical pan, only this time without the swish:

Gif taken from this Tumblr account.
Instead of focusing on a single object moving upwards, this gif illustrates a slightly different technique. The pan moves downward at a moderate pace and forces the viewer's eye to look over the edge of a balcony and down on what is happening below. This allows the camera to capture the visual similarities between the pattern on the floor, the circular motion of the dancers, and even the rounded grouping of characters in the center of the shot. This would not have been so obvious had the director framed the scene differently or had not guided the eye toward the point of emphasis with this specific camera movement.

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Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Road Home

This post follows criteria, with a major focus on symbolism.

Yesterday, we watched Yimou Zhang's award-winning 1999 film The Road Home, originally titled wŏde fùqin mŭqin, which is literally translated as "My Father and Mother." The screenplay was adapted by author Bao Shi from his original novel entitled Remembrance. Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang, who played young Zhao Di, was only twenty years old when she made her cinematic debut in this movie. Needless to say, she received great praise for her performance. As our presenters told us, Zhang tends to focus his works on female characters, and this movie was no exception. He, too, was well received  by the audience due to the visual decisions he made during the filming process. In this post, I will touch on some of the symbolism we covered in class along with my take on the representation of colour and its cultural ties to Asia.

Rated G

As mentioned above, we covered quite a few symbols in class. Not only did groups discuss physical objects like the loom, barrette, banner, food, and others, but actions and activities such as cooking, fetching water, repairing various objects, et cetera. While watching the film, I chose to take notes on the bowl and how it represented hope (a tad obvious, and ever-so-slightly clichéd, but worth analysis all the same). Worksheets were turned in at the end of class so I cannot reference mine here, but I do remember that the first time we observe the bowl is when Di cooks a delicious-looking meal for the teacher in the hopes that he will chose her dish. When she learns that the workmen allow the teacher to pick from the table first, Di is sure to make her bowl stand out by placing it at the head and pushing the others away. [As as side note, when Zhang filmed the men approaching the food, the choice to omit their faces and simply show their moving torsos was brilliant. See the trailer below to view part of that scene. *gush*] After this event, the teacher comes to dinner at Di's house. She asks if he recognizes the pattern of the bowl from when he was helping to build the school. He, adorably, strives to remember, but it is clear that he did not eat from her bowl. Here, the object does not simply signify hope, but Di herself. She wants to appear 'appetizing' in the eyes of the teacher, as though all of her worth depends on how much he enjoys her ability to cook. Before I get too much into the feminist framework, though...this is repetition of symbol. Formalist FTW!

Later still, when Di makes dumplings for the teacher and he does not come by right away to eat them, she sits down in the doorway to wait, shedding the bulbs of onions or garlic—along with her hope—into a different bowl. When he is taken away to the city, Di wraps the bowl of dumplings in cloth (as if to insulate their relationship) and takes off after the him. She falls, breaking the ornate bowl and sobbing over their shattered love. Her mother has it repaired by a workman (which is one of my favourite scenes, actually), and we see Di tear up at the reformation of the object that symbolizes her faith in their relationship. One of my groupmates surfaced the idea that the visible stitches on the bowl's cracks symbolize the difficulties of love and the effort required to keep it going.

This concludes the framework with development of symbol. Now, for something we haven't covered in class...

Broken bowl. :( Note the red jacket sleeve with yellow design.

The Road Home is gorgeous, especially when you consider the colouring. Zhang's penchant for using long, empty shots brought to my attention the beautiful landscape. A lot of the non-black and white/negative space shots take place in late summer/early autumn, where Di is a tiny red smudge standing out against the yellow-leaved trees and golden wheat fields. I began to recognize a pattern: the red banner woven to bring luck to the new school building; Di's jacket and scarf; the yellow rice paper spread across the windows of the school and Di's scarlet paper cuttings hanging from the rafters; the gifted barrette. After we finished watching the film, the presenter that focused on Chinese art mentioned that red is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution (which has had a huge impact on all of Zhang's works) and yellow is typically reserved for the emperor. Why, then, force these two together? Perhaps to show the contrast between the royal class and the people who fought under Mao? In our culture, red is a symbol of anger, passion, blood, danger, and even communism. It was difficult to catch because the scene was in monochrome, but a Soviet Union flag was hanging in the school when Di and her son went to visit one last time. Yet, in Chinese culture—among others—red represents happiness. Check out this section on Wikipedia dedicated to the colour red in Imperial China: click here. Yellow is reminiscent of the sun, gold, and pleasurable thoughts. It, too, plays an important role in Asian society—especially Chinese. Click here for another Wiki article on the subject. The most interesting bit of information I came across that possibly pertains to this film is that different colours represent the 'five' different seasons in Chinese culture; yellow symbolizes the fifth, which is the end of summer. A large part of this film took place during this specific time in the calendar.

A very artistic trailer. You have to love the musical score.

Now, this is the fun part. At least for me. If you've read my other blog post on the movie Stoker, then you already know that it was directed by South Korean-born Park Chan-wook. I mentioned that he used extreme colour saturation throughout the film, and while that was optically stunning, I did not write about the fact that he used a lot of yellows and reds. These vivid splashes of pigmentation pop against the prevalent earth tones and are used, for the most part, to draw the viewer's attention to important objects. An exception in this movie from the previous equation, however, is that red sometimes does represent blood...on a literal level. Chan-wook also directed (and wrote) the Korean film Oldboy, in which he also used the two colours...although arguably not to the same extent.

Stoker (left) photoset taken from Tumblr, Oldboy (right) photos found via Google.
Remember to click the image for a larger, crisper view.

That's some the symbolism for you. As for the movie itself...I found it refreshing. It was nice to get lost in the memory of a cute love story and appreciate the film for what it was without the distraction of too much drama. We know Di and the teacher end up together because of the opening scenes, so it was charming to witness how their relationship formed, even if it became a little tragic because of his death. I also enjoyed the dichotomy of the black and white v. colour scenes and acknowledge the irony of the blizzard. The hints Zhang dropped concerning the Cultural Revolution piqued my curiosity as a history support. I would certainly recommend it to a friend...and an enemy, for that matter. I do not tend discriminate when it comes to good cinema. ;)

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Camera Technique: Shaun of the Dead

Since I already wrote a post on The World's End, I thought I would take this week's interesting camera angle/shot from Wright & Pegg's first feature film, Shaun of the Dead. One of the more iconic scenes—which actually appears in some versions of the traileris the drunkenly sung/beatboxed version of Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines" performed by Shaun, Ed, and one of the zombies:

An example of shallow focus.

In the video below, we start out with a tracking shot that turns into shallow focus (the foreground is more distinct than the background) before shifting into rack focus (the filmmaker pulls the point of convergence to make the two planes of visibility blurry/not blurry one after the other). It is a bit difficult to see because of the low quality, but it was the only vid of this scene that I could find on short notice:

I apologize for the subtitles near the end, as well.

This technique of shallow focus is mirrored later in the film when a pair of zombies are discovered in Shaun's backyard.

Uh-oh. Better try the shed.
Altering the field of clear visibility like this allows the audience to shift their focus from one subject to another in rapid succession. This meshes nicely with Wright's other stylistic choices and allows the pacing of the movie to be both tight and progressive.

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Saturday, September 7, 2013

The 400 Blows

The first post that follows criteria, with a  focus on lit. elements and visual style. This means that there will be spoilers. ;)

In class, we viewed Francois Truffaut's 1959 French New Wave/'La Nouvelle Vague' film, The 400 Blows, originally titled in its native language as Les quatre cents coups. As we learned from this week's presenters, it was film critic Truffaut's first feature film, taking on a semi-autobiographical theme (he was a big advocate for realism/the 'camera as pen' doctrine and mise-en-scène) and portraying a young Jean-Pierre Léaud as lead character Antoine Doinel. It has been called one of the defining films of the movement because of its characteristic traits, such as the camera's extended long shots and deep focus paralleled with the overall dramatic storytelling, for which it received numerous awards. Following the life of so-called troublemaker Doinel, the film focuses on such heady topics as the injustices suffered by juvenile delinquents in historical France, poor parenting alongside self-absorption, and the norm of a one-size-fits-all educational standard. Before I begin dissecting the movie for specific techniques, I will mention that, apparently, while the English title is a direct translation, it misses the overall meaning. "Faire les quatre cents coups," is an expression meaning "to raise hell," or "to live a wild life." I myself was perplexed about the title, so hopefully this has enlightened you, as well.

Not Rated

Thematically, this film supplies a lot. In our groups we discussed certain literary elements and tied those to issues like childhood, education, the middle class, et cetera. My group was assigned the motifs of symbolism and family, and the theme statement I came up with went as follows: "In a society that blurs or simply misunderstands the line between infancy and adulthood, it is often difficult to comprehend the relationship held between family members and how they each view one another." We were able to tie this thesis to children becoming adults and vice versa. For example, Doinel wanted to earn a living for himself, defaced a pin-up poster, was seen smoking a cigar with a friend, committed theft, attempted to illegally flog merchandise, and rolled a cigarette—all actions a mere child is never expected to commit. On the other side of the coin we have the mother's vanity and inability to problem-solve, Julien's refusal to take on responsibility, confused decision-making (would you take your child out for a movie and ice cream after he set a fire in your apartment?), employed individuals having fun on a carnival ride during the weekday, and other nonsensical things at which an adult in today's world would probably tsk.

I connected the symbol of pregnancy to this analysis, as well. It is mentioned once quite casually in a conversation between mother and father, and later Gilberte mentions that it is disgusting for people to breed like rabbits. Then, when Doinel goes to purchase flour, he overhears two women talking about a cesarean and nearly vomits (this might tie in with the later-revealed fact that his mother nearly aborted him). Later, when the young boy descends the flat's stairs to dispose of the trash, there is the diegetic sound of a wailing baby. This pattern is repeated during the carnival ride when the women scream in excitement, and again when we hear the sickly cats mewling in René's house. Another image that stuck out in my mind was when Doinel runs away from home for the first time and steals a jug of milk. He drinks from it thirstily, like a baby suckling from its mother. *involuntary shudder* Finally, there was the scene with the lost puppy. The fact that the woman's pet was still a young pup and not a fully grown dog seems both important and ironic. Doinel is a puppy himself, wandering the streets, just as wayward.

Doinel wondering if his teacher is for serious with this 'useless science and algebra' guff.

But enough of what my group already covered in class. The element of setting, as touched on by other students, plays an important role in The 400 Blows. Paris, France was not the best place for a child in the '50s, as exemplified by how many children were residents in the observation center. On a physical level, confined spaces were present from the very beginning when Doinel was punished for his 'insolence' by having to stand behind an easel in a corner of the classroom. His living space is another prime example, as are, of course, the iconic holding cell and paddy wagon.

The characters themselves had intricate relationships with one another, but none more complex than the one between Doinel and his parents. Those two could really have used some lessons in proper upbringing. Parental and authoritative figures like teachers, René's odd mother, and his distant father all blatantly acted as antagonists throughout the story. Speaking was interesting to see the overall plot unfold. As I think Mimi mentioned, the cycle of accident and punishment grew continually worse for poor Doinel. Plot coincides with what I identified earlier as children and adults switching roles, which was, in my opinion, Truffaut's strongest commentary throughout the film.

The best-quality subtitled trailer I could find.

Finally, onto technique. I took Mimi's Fiction into Film course a couple semesters ago, and it is nice to once again utilize what I learned about the industry's technical jargon. Truffaut helped to solidify French New Wave with his use of tracking and ability to film the entire movie in deep focus. He also used close-up shots to emphasize specific scenes, like when Doinel starts to zone out and we see his POV as the camera slides up past his mother's eyes and instead centers upon her hat. There was also the high angle shot during the comedic scene in which the physical education teacher takes the students out for a jaunt, not to mention the numerous long shots of the city itself which gave the audience a sense of fast-paced urban life. The most famous scene, though, takes place at the very end. Doinel escapes from the observation center and begins to run: a long take in deep focus that had me mesmerized with the diegetic running footsteps (though they were, professedly, added in during editing). By the time Doinel reaches the beach—a dream of his, as he had never seen the ocean before—the audience can understand the futility of his escape. When finally his feet reach the tide and everyone is wondering what will happen next, Truffaut freeze frames on the young boy's indecisive expression, "trapping Antoine between the reformatory and the ocean, between the past and the present" (Bernard F. Dick, Anatomy of Film p. 63). The word FIN appears across Doinel's face before fading to black...and thus was captured 'the most famous freeze frame in film'.

How they made the tracking shot on the beach.

Because of the precedent The 400 Blows set for French New Wave film, I would highly recommend to anyone that they see it at least once in their lifetime. Truffaut was truly a master of his craft.

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I look forward to reading your comments!