Yes, it’s been a while. I’ve been busy teaching at CCA, designing sound for Earbud Theater, and other projects. There’s a project that’s been in the works for quite a while now, though, which has finally been released.
It’s a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) at Kadenze, called Cinematic Storytelling. You can read Kadenze’s announcement here. There will be an interview with me on their blog next week. I’ll update this blog post with a link when I get one.
The course is designed for people interested in telling stories through pictures, that is cinematically. It provides an overview of the kinds of things a filmmaker has to consider in order to move an audience emotionally and tell their story clearly.
It would also be good for people who just want to be more educated movie watchers. A friend of mine is even taking the course to see if he can use the techniques to improve communications in his tech company. (It’s a very big tech company.)
Some of the other projects I’ve been working on are also making progress, so I hope to have more announcements in the not too distant future.
Yes, it's been a while. Finally settled into the new digs, and with some interesting projects going, few of which I'm at liberty to discuss.
But one of them is developing an online course in Cinematic Storytelling for Kadenze. It got me looking for examples, good and bad, of visual storytelling. And, boy, did I find a couple.
This is purported to be the "funniest scene ever" from Friends. I want you to watch it, but with the sound turned off.
Do you have any idea what the scene was about? What the goals were for any of the characters? What was at stake? Was it even remotely funny?
Now watch this — again, with the sound turned off. And ask yourself the same questions.
It's hard to think of a more clear illustration of the maxim, show, don't tell.
I'm now teaching Visual Storytelling at CCA in Oakland. As part of that course I maintain a list of recommended movies. I'm going to start keeping that here for various reasons. Expect this blog post to get updated as we go along. Maybe some day I'll even get it alphabetized.
Films that are good examples of visual storytelling
Lawrence of Arabia — one of the best ever at almost everything. Try to see it on a big screen if you can.
The Apartment — Classic comedy from Billy Wilder
Sunset Boulevard — Another Billy Wilder movie that had a disastrous test screening and went on to be a seminal work. Beautifully structured storytelling, super clear staging and cinematography.
El Orfanato (The Orphanage) — Probably the best genre screenplay ever written. One of the scariest scenes is accomplished entirely via blocking and camera operation. A gem. Have a hanky handy for the climax.
Blancanieves (Snow White) — A silent film from Spain that's just beautifully crafted.
Pixar Shorts — Starting around Knickknack we got pretty good at it. Check out the student films Next Door, Somewhere in the Arctic, and Palm Springs.
Better Call Saul (TV Series) — I love the way this show (at least Season 1) was shot. The use of dark areas, slashes of light, and framing are terrific.
The Elephant Man — Possibly David Lynch's best film. It's masterfully shot and staged, and the sound design puts Lynch's touch on it.
The Last Emperor — Stunning evidence of how good an episodic film can be. The cinematography by Vitorio Storaro is masterful, and the use of color to mark where you are in the protagonist's story is wonderful. See it on a big screen if you can. Not for nothing did it win 9 Oscars.
Alice (Jan Svankmajer) — The most accurate adaptation of a book, ever. But when you strip away the Victorian veneer you see the nightmare underneath.
The Danish Poet (Animated short) — Near perfect illustration of how to use staging, rhythm, and all the Illusion of Life principles of animation. Plus it's a strong story with a delightful twist.
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World — The mother of all screwball comedies, it features great staging, examples of how to build a gag (such as tearing apart a gas station), and wide-screen composition.
Feast (Animated short) — A beautifully crafted Disney short. Just see it.
Unforgiven — Worth studying from the script on up. Perhaps the greatest Western ever.
Blaze Glory (Short) — The pixellated cowboy short. Must be seen to be believed. A very rare find on DVD, though.
Arrival — Near perfect filmmaking, and a great illustration of dynamic range in terms of both audio and action. We looked at the opening for how much we learn about the lead character and tone of the film in such a short time.
Sicario — From the director of Arrival, we looked at the opening exposition in terms of character and tone. A very different film, but still solidly directed. And beautifully shot by my hero, Roger Deakins.
The Mascot — Amazing stop-mo film from 1933. It's as surreal as a fever dream, but has some stunning work in it. You have to look past some of the ideas that were the norm in 1933.
Viaje a Marte (Mission to Mars) (Animated short) — A young boy is taken to Mars in grandpa's tow truck. Charming, and based on a true story.
Leonardo (Animated short) — Jim Capobianco's love letter to renaissance Florence.
Dead Ringers — I used this to illustrate choosing "bruise colors" as a palette. Like any Cronenberg film, it can be rough to watch, but Jeremy Irons is nothing short of a miracle here.
Brazil — It's hard to know what to say about Terry Gilliam's prescient masterwork except that your life has two parts: Before seeing Brazil, and after.
The Monk and the Fish (Animated short) — Delightful example of blending music and picture.
Much Ado about Nothing (Joss Whedon) — Inventive staging and a terrific example of what people who love and know what they're doing can accomplish in almost no time at all.
The Uninvited (1944) — The first serious ghost story on film. Stunningly beautiful and still effective.
Apocalypse Now — A truly seminal film. I showed a part of the helicopter attack as choreography for machines. Shot by Vittorio Storaro, another legendary cinematographer.
Twice Upon a Time — John Korty's loopy, underrated and under-seen mostly animated masterwork. I showed Rod Rescueman's job interview.
Sleeping Beauty — See it projected as best as possible. It is eye-wateringly beautiful.
The Mystery of Rampo — I showed the walk in the shrine. While the director's respect for the line is, shall we say, flexible, some of the staging and all of the storytelling is emotionally engaging and highly original.
Borrowed Time (Animated short) — Touching Western that was a side project for a lot of Pixar folks.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — Iñárritu is a master of camera movement. I'm actually not sure how he does it. Watch and be amazed.
Tony Jaa — I just showed this clip as a monumental example of affinity of continuity of action.
Commando — I showed this clip of Arnold dressing for battle to illustrate fragmented editorial rhythm.
The Right Stuff — It's hard to think of a better example of emotion trumping everything else. I show part of the Icarus-inspired intercutting which lets you see (and feel) what characters are thinking and feeling.
The Big Snit (Animated short) — You will never see Scrabble the same way again.
Bunny (Animated short) — Chris Wedge's story of an old bunny who wants to bake a cake but finds eternity instead.
The Graduate — I showed the shot of Dustin Hoffman running hard and getting nowhere. The film is a masterpiece. If you study film you will end up seeing it and reading about it a lot.
Casablanca — It was going to be a B picture, but became a classic. Notable for its use of visual systems.
Beauty and the Beast — No, not that Disney thing, but the good one from 1946. The only reason it doesn't look completely original now is that everybody has spent decades ripping it off — I mean paying homage.
The Innocents — If you find a better looking, creepier psyco-sexual drama anywhere, please let me know what it is. I showed the use of the inverse square law in making a ghost appear and vanish during a game of hide and seek.
Amadeus — It will make you laugh and cry. Nearly perfect filmmaking.
Street of Crocodiles — The Quay brothers, deeply influenced by their own hero, Jan Svankmajer, are able to actually improvise in this highly evocative stop motion film.
Paperman (Animated short) — Fantastically emotional blend of CG and hand drawn. They essentially taught software how to draw and do inbetweens.
Pan's Labyrinth — May be Guillermo del Toro's best film. I showed the Pale Man sequence. The ending made me cry like a baby.
The Wizard of Oz — There are a million reasons why this film should have been a dated train wreck, yet it's a timeless classic. Study to try to learn why.
Laputa, or Castle in the Sky — The best opening sequence ever.
Somewhere in the Arctic — Andrew Stanton's student film. Simple use of line and perspective.
Next Door — Pete Docter's senior project film. Excellent and emotional use of shape.
Palm Springs — A Pete Docter student film which explores the relationship between dinosaurs and humans.
Vincent — Tim Burton directed and Stephen Chiodo animated short film narrated by Vincent Price. A classic.
Bladerunner — The box office flop that changed how movies are made.
The Shining — I showed lots of examples from this film. For a reason. A true masterpiece and seminal work.
Lorenzo (Animated short) — With nothing but a tango as the soundtrack, a visual tour de force.
Manhattan — If you want to see how well and how effortlessly the stage line can be managed, study this film. I showed the couple breaking up in the outdoor restaurant while framed on the "wrong" sides of the frame.
2001: A Space Odyssey — I showed a lot of examples from this, including the greatest match cut/time cut in cinema history. This is the film that got me interested in how movies are made. It didn't just change movie making forever, it changed everything.
The Age of Innocence — I showed the sequence where a man is metaphorically gutted in the course of quiet conversation, as an example of perspective choices. The whole film is crafted beautifully like that. Scorcese called it his "most violent film ever", yet there's nary a drop of blood.
Richard III (Richard Loncraine) — I showed a long shot that went from a group, to a small group, to a 4, 3, 2 and then 1 shot. Effortlessly. The whole film is audacious and lovingly crafted. Highly recommended.
Anna Karenina — Amazing staging. This film is eye candy from start to finish. Notice how effortless and dance-like the blocking is. That's on purpose.
My Neighbors the Yamadas — I haven't shown this in class (yet). It's not really a feature film but a collection of vignettes and blackouts. Really it's visual haiku, worth enjoying and studying to see how much you can do with so little.
Tim's Vermeer — A terrific documentary about how one of the great visual artists probably worked his magic.
The Best Years of our Lives — Daring, heartbreaking film about WWII soldiers trying to adapt to civilian life. The visual storytelling is top notch. Don't let "it's old" put you off. Have a hanky.
A Ghost Story — The way this film uses time, both editorially and in story terms, is stunning. There is very little dialogue, making it a terrific example of visual storytelling.
Saving Private Ryan — Pretty much a master class in How to Movie, it is not only an example of fine visual storytelling, but of the incredible power a sound track can have. Gary Rydstrom's work needs to be heard at theatrical levels and on a good system for you to get the full emotional impact of the filim.
Animal Kingdom — Australian film about a boy who really loses the family lottery. It’s very well shot and staged, with inventive and appropriate use of camera movement.
Laura — Classic film noir that influenced later films and launched a famous song. Revel in the cinematography, and reflect on how effectively a clock can be used.
A Star Is Born — Writer/Star/Director Bradley Cooper delivers a confident, restrained, and highly visual remake of a Hollywood classic. Highly recommended.
Almost any Pixar film. — Analyze them for staging and eye hookups. You'll find the editing is very smooth.
Films that are bad examples of visual storytelling
Lost in Space (1998 feature). There isn't a single line the movie doesn't cross in confusing ways at least a few times. Inexcusably bad staging. Highly educational.
Crimson Peak — What a gorgeous mess this film is.
Chef — A solid script and good performances make it worth seeing. But see if you can identify why so many of my students choose something from it for the exercise where we try to improve on the staging in a film.
John Adams (Miniseries) — Everything about this production is awesome: The script, the cast, the production design, the sense of history, the emotional engagement — except the camera work, which has a completely unhinged use of Dutched angles and horror-movie wide angle shots. It's both worth seeing and worth learning from.
The Room — Infamous as one of the worst films ever made, and deservedly so. It succeeds as a parable about the Dunning-Kruger Effect. You'll see examples of how not to write, direct, shoot, or edit a movie. And I guarantee you'll laugh.
Pitch Black — An example of breaking the One Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Be Boring. Besides learning how not to write convincing characters, you could learn a lot about how not to shoot and edit action. A real mess.
Maleficent — Here’s a beautifully photographed movie that not only has a mess of a script, but forgets to actually show us important events. Early in the film Maleficent loses her wings. Late in the movie she gets them back. Neither event happens on screen.
You should subscribe to Every Frame a Painting on YouTube. Watch it all. They stopped making episodes, but they're all golden.
I also showed my short film, Violet, but I don't know that you can find it on line anywhere.
I now write briefly about movies as I watch them. You can find those mini reviews on Letterboxd.
And you really, really should follow @AkiyoshiKitaoka on Twitter. He posts the most amazing optical illusions. It's a great way to stay reminded of how weird our visual system really is.
I learned a lot working at Pixar for over thirty years, often referring to it as the world's best film school. Starting as I did, as a janitor at Lucasfilm, pretty much everything I learned about filmmaking and computers was on the job. When I joined the Computer Division in 1982 I was surrounded by highly intelligent, generous people eager to share what they know. That strikes me a good model to emulate.
This is not to claim that I'm nearly as smart as they. When I got to know Penn Jilette in the early 90's I told him about the caliber of people I was with. He said it seemed familiar, saying that he "went from being the brightest kid in my class to the dumbest guy in my peer group." Exactly. And while I'll never be as generous as Ed Catmull and that amazing team he assembled, I can try.
So, among other things, I plan to use this blog to share some of whatI learned at Pixar about filmmaking, writing, improvisation, collaboration, and other such creative pursuits. This first post is about getting some distance.
You Are Not The Work
One thing that struck me in the old LFL and early Pixar days was how many people came from architectural backgrounds. Architect schools were, and perhaps still are, apparently a mix of design, engineering, and boot camp. I've heard that professors would rudely sweep a student's painstakingly-crafted model to the floor just so they wouldn't get precious about the work. I guess it did toughen them up.
There's a better way.
Learning to separate yourself from the work you are doing is one of the hardest lessons to learn in any artistic field. Quite understandably the person who has labored lovingly over a screenplay, novel, drawing, sculpture, or building design can easily take criticism of the work personally.
Our creations are our babies. Tell me that my dialogue is clunky, my photograph improperly framed, my building uninhabitable and I'm perfectly justified in feeling that you are attacking me. Right?
Only if I'm an amateur.
Steely-eyed professionals understand that notes should never be taken personally. They have thick skins, and ice water coursing in their veins. They know better than to get emotionally invested in what they've created.
And if you believe that last paragraph, I have some prime beach-front real estate in Florida for you. It's true that pros make it about the work, but it's still hard. Of course they feel it. But the right culture, atmosphere, and attitude can get people to a healthy place where it really is about the work.
At CalArts the drawing instructor who taught John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, and many other animation luminaries told his students at the beginning of the year, "Everybody has five thousand bad drawings in them. And we're going to start drawing until we get them all out." Note that he expected the drawings to be bad, and expected the artists to eventually produce good ones.
Get Lots of Eyeballs
Pixar picked up some of its culture and process from Lucasfilm. Working with Dennis Muren on Young Sherlock Holmes was an education on its own. In fact, I should do another post on just that experience later. An important process we picked up there was of how to run dailies. Most film productions screen dailies, or rushes, for the director and editor to pick their favorite takes and quality-control the shoot. At ILM that was taken a step further.
The previous day's shots were put on the "rock-and-roll" projector, which could run forward, backward, fast, slow, or even still. The entire effects crew would gather to see what came back from the lab from the day before. A room full of eyes scoured the shots over and over again, looking for flaws. Dennis would make the determination as to how serious the flaw was. He could call "final", send it back for a fix, or dub it a "CBB" (Could Be Better), meaning that it would go in the final film if they ran out of time to get a better take. To this day Pixar still uses final, fix, and CBB.
Animation Dailies at Pixar became, and still is, a gathering of the director and all the animators on the show. Artists are encouraged, nay required, to show work in progress. Nobody is allowed to work until "it's done" and then show. Everybody in the room is welcome to make suggestions. They are all about how the shot could be better. Then the director decides which notes the animator should address. As John put it back on Toy Story, "My job is not to have the good ideas. My job is to recognize the good ideas."
This applies to the directors as well. The "Brain Trust" (a name chosen sarcastically, but which stuck) is made up primarily of other directors. When they meet to give notes on a movie the notes can be frank and brutal. But the notes are about making the movie better, not about what anybody did wrong.
For years now each film has been screened for people in the company, but outside the production, at least three times at different stages. Everybody is encouraged to give notes. Everybody. Security, Cafe staff, PA's, everybody. The producer makes a digest of those notes and they go into the hopper at the Brain Trust meeting. Good ideas can come from anywhere.
Bully for Pixar. What about me?
Suppose you aren't working with a giant Pixar-sized production. Perhaps you're a writer making a solo pitch with a producer and his or her staff. How might your attitude make or break the deal? At AFM a couple years back a speaker told about a meeting where the producer actually asked the writer if the protagonist of, I think it was a RomCom, could be a monkey instead of a guy.
How would you have taken that note?
Here's what that very smart writer said: "Interesting idea. Let me think about it and get back to you."
In the end the protagonist remained a human. The writer impressed the producer so much that since then they have done multiple movies together.
Making a constant mental effort to separate yourself from your work can pay off in much better work and much more work. It's hard. That script, that scene, that image, might feel like your baby.
They say in the business that sometimes you have to kill your babies. If they aren't making the movie better, out they go. It's going to sting. The real pro is the one who can identify his own targets among his darlings. As Thomas Mann put it, "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."