Category Archives: aesthetics

Time within the frame

The following passage comes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s book “Sculpting in Time”, from Chapter 5: The film Image, in the section titled: Time, rhythm and editing.

The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame. The actual passage of time is also made clear in the characters’ behavior, the visual treatment and the sound—but these are all accompanying features, the absence of which, theoretically, would in no way affect the existence of the film. One cannot conceive of a cinematic work with no sense of time passing through the shot, but one can easily imagine a film with no actors, music, decor or even editing. (p. 113)

Tarkovsky goes on to describe Pascal Aubier’s fascinating 1974 short film Le Dormeur, in which there is only the camera moving through a landscape until it “discovers” a man who appears to be sleeping in a field but is actually dead.

Here is a link to the film: Le Dormeur* Note: Since the audio is entirely of natural sounds, it is better to turn up the volume to get the full effect.

I love these kinds of films. The camera work, especially for that time, is wonderful. We are so used these days with cameras moving all over the place. But in 1975 this had to have been done on tracks and dollies with a crane. (The Steadicam was invented in 1975 and was not widely available for some time after that.) The moment in the shot where the camera ascends up the dead tree is amazing.

* film found here.

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The Three-Act Story Structure

Once again I am diving into the struggle to write screenplays. In the past I got all snobby and looked down on the typical Hollywood story structure. I saw it as too conventional and I wanted to be artsy. Well, that got me a long ways.

In the mean time I have learned a thing or two, and have come to understand the conventions that drive Hollywood storytelling are, in fact, ancient paradigms that fit with human nature. In other words, the basic three-act structure (and it variations) was built into the human design by God. Sure, many have exploited it, have misused it, have done bad things with it – including making just plain schlock – but that does not nullify the fundamental character of the structure and how it engages with our minds.

With that I am trying to teach myself the structure, and how to use it to my advantage. Here are some examples:

3-Act story Structure

syd-field

how-and-why-vogler-journey

I know that none of us work in a vacuum. We do not create ex nihilo. We work with what is given, and it is in our manipulations of forms that we discover new nuances. Structure is one of the great givens. I have decoded to use the three-act paradigm as strictly as I can and see what happens.

A couple vids on the topic:

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A Brief History of John Baldessari

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Elliptical Editing in Vagabond

Back in 2008 I wrote a little post on Agnes Varda’s Sans toit ni loi (1985), or Vagabond. Recently David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson put together a video short on Elliptical Editing, and they used Varda’s film as the example. Bordwell and Thomspon have been important in my own thinking about film.

Elliptical editing is one relatively common characteristic of what we might call “art films” that distinguish them from more traditional or “classical” films. I find it’s often a matter of taste; some love this kind of storytelling and some are annoyed by it. I love it. But one can also find elliptical editing in any genre; it just depends on the needs of the filmmaker.

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Night Mayor by Guy Maddin

More about the film and it’s filmmaker here.

Maddin was influenced by the beautiful 1953 Paul Tomkowicz film, Street-railway Switchman.

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Chinatown and the Rule of Thirds

Many films are beautifully shot. Few, though, are as consistently well composed as Chinatown (1974)*. Shot in Panavision (anamorphic) format with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio the somewhat extreme rectangular image would seem to offer significant challenges to effective image composition. As I was pondering this challenge I was struck by how much I loved the images in Chinatown, which I just watched again the other day. That’s when I went back to basics and considered that even with widescreen images there are still fundamentals of composition at play. In this case I figured I would grab a few images from the film and apply the Rule of Thirds to each image.

The Rule of Thirds is simply as follows:

Divide the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, then put the focus of the image either one third across (from either side) or one third up or down the screen. Those lines, and the points at which they intersect, are the strongest invisible forces in an image.

In Chinatown the images are constructed around those lines and intersecting points. By doing this the aspect ratio becomes a relatively mute point as the human brain automatically takes in the whole image, mentally divides the image into thirds, and finds pleasure as key visual elements are constructed around those thirds. Of course, deviation from the power of the thirds creates visual tension, which is an additional tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox.

Chinatown was shot by John A. Alonzo. Here are the images from film (I, of course, added the white lines):

This is a simple process of analysis. More involving would be to examine how the rule applies to changing composition withing shots as they are re-framed or the actors move about. One thing I noticed was that all the extreme close-ups put the object of focus directly in the center of the middle square. Placing visual elements along the “third lines” was reserved for medium shots and long shots. Finally, the rule of thirds does not guarantee that an image will be good, or work well for a particular scene. However, fundamentals are fundamentals. Without them one will not only have difficulty maintaining a consistent quality, but one cannot truly “break the rules.” The irony is that fundamentals are what allow filmmakers to innovate and stay fresh.

* This is my opinion, of course, but there is a quality in the film’s imagery that is truly wonderful and yet difficult to pin down.

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In a Glass Darkly: Images of windows in Dreyer’s Vampyr

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