Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Night Stalker (1972/2013)

Edgar Wright and Johnny Depp are teaming for a remake of "The Night Stalker."

Thoughts on the original here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Blankety Blank Blank

We were discussing the famous last shot of "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) in class this week, and a student questioned whether blank cartridges could have been used.

The use of blank cartridges, ammunition with explosive powder but without a projectile, pre-dates the movies, so it is entirely possible, and very likely.  In fact, it's difficult to imagine any other technique or device that could have been used at the time.

An invention that would not be used in movies until decades later is the squib, a small explosive device used to simulate the impact of a bullet.  In early films, a bullet impact on the human body was merely pantomimed, but bullet hits on other objects were often accomplished using live ammunition.  Blank cartridges were difficult to obtain and relatively expensive, so guns on sets often fired live rounds.  James Cagney famously refused to allow live ammo to be fired in his direction when he was almost hit on the set of "Taxi" (1932).  In "The Public Enemy," released a year earlier, Cagney ducks around the corner of a building.  The stonework is then riddled and powdered by bullets, real bullets fired by a marksman off screen.

Eventually, squibs and other explosive devices would be used to suggest the effect of a bullet's impact.  Some sources date the first uses of squibs in movies to the 1950's, specifically to squibs combined with blood packets for wounding impacts, but explosives for bullet hits on set pieces were probably employed much earlier.

Blank cartridges and squibs are not used without risk.  No matter how small, a squib is still an explosive device, and should be handled and deployed only by licensed effects technicians.  I was present on a set when a foolhardy effects technician, who was not sufficiently stocked with squibs for a day's shoot, lost a finger while trying to cut some of his squibs in half.  And blank cartridges have been responsible for at least two deaths, the most famous being Brandon Lee during the filming of "The Crow."  The circumstances leading to Lee's death were tragic and coincidental, requiring a complex combination of mistakes, misadventure, providence and happenstance.

The death of actor Jon-Erik Hexum was the result of foolishness, complacency, and a lack of knowledge and respect for the technology.  He used a gun loaded with blanks as if it were a toy and played a fatal game of Russian Roulette, reportedly to ease the tension on the set.  Michael Mann opted to use live ammunition to shatter a real glass structure during a climactic scene in "Manhunter."  Injuries were just barely averted, although actor William Petersen was seriously injured by the subsequently broken glass. My good friend, make-up artist Jeff Goodwin, devised a method of producing blood hits using compressed air to avoid the use of explosives when safety conscious special effects technicians fled the set and never returned.   The results can be seen here, starting at about 7 minutes in.

Jeff would later be tasked by director Mann to design a technique that would accomplish bullet hits on mostly naked stunt performers for "Last of the Mohicans."  Jeff discusses "Mohicans" and squibs about 1:50 into this clip. 

In conclusion, here's Martin Scorsese's homage to "The Great Train Robbery" from "Goodfellas," as suggested by one of my wonderful students.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The First Auteur, Part Three

“Don’t forget that my films are the most expensive of all, for only well-wrought pictures are made by me, necessitating sound direction, costly decors and costumes, and a lot of hard work to succeed on account of the tricks in them.”
Georges Méliès, letter of February 6, 1906


Georges Méliès is often remembered as a technician.  The title “Father of Special Effects” reduces his accomplishments.  He is often remembered for one single film, “A Trip to the Moon,” a film Méliès did not think his best, or perhaps even for one single image, that of an anthropomorphized moon with a rocket ship stuck in its eye. 

This image managed to implant itself in the collective popular consciousness in a time when movies were ephemeral, before there were film societies or repertory theaters or home video.  It is an image almost as resounding as the silhouette of the little tramp, still echoing in popular culture.

But it is one image, from one film out of hundreds Méliès created.  Méliès’ is important because he is in fact the first auteur, the first artist to mold this new medium of motion pictures to a singular, uncompromising aesthetic vision.  It was a vision unbroken by montage or camera movement, unchanged by the developing techniques of others.

And adhering to this unique vision would also result in his undoing, as it would later for many of the great cinematic directors, such as Griffith, Chaplin, DeMille, Ford, Capra, and Allen, directors who maintained, for better or worse, a particular style and approach long after it was aesthetically or economically outdated.  Méliès’ whimsical, poetic, childish, metamorphic films became anachronistic as the medium moved more towards melodrama and storytelling and its own concoction of naturalism, and as the business moved more towards cost-effective assembly-line production and corporate oversight.

The business of the movies just passed him by.

Overrun by film piracy, bankrupt by escalating costs and competition, Méliès closed his studio in 1912.  He turned his energy toward his Robert-Houdin Theatre, but World War I financially crippled that institution as well. In 1923, the Robert-Houdin was demolished to clear the way for a road-building project.  A lifetime's worth of possessions - props, equipment, scenery and many of his 500 film negatives - was discarded or sold as scrap.  

Ironically, many of the Méliès films that survive today are illegal copies originally made by distributors or pirates.

By 1925 he was operating a small toy kiosk in the Montparnasse train station in Paris when, as the legend goes, he was recognized by a prominent French film journalist and resurrected from obscurity with a retrospective of his films, induction into the French Legion of Honor, and a lifetime endowment.

If one still questions Méliès' relevance or resonance, it’s worth noting that ...

The 2011 Cannes Film Festival featured a screening of a restored hand colored version of “A Trip to the Moon,”  (The Festival-Cannes Website.)

Author Brian Selznick’s 2007 novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” includes the elder Méliès as a major character,

As does Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film adaptation, wherein Méliès is played by Sir Ben Kingsley. 

Some may remember this music video from the Smashing Pumpkins for their hit "Tonight Tonight."

And there is always “The Mighty Boosh.”

Friday, May 27, 2011

The First Auteur, Part Two

Tom Hanks in one of his introductions to
"From the Earth to the Moon"
Before he shepherded the World War II mini-series “Band of Brothers” and “Pacific” for HBO, actor Tom Hanks conceived and executive produced a mini-series of twelve individual films, each with their own style, approach, and perspective, on the entirety of the Apollo Space program, the endeavor that took man to the moon.  The series, titled “From the Earth to the Moon,” premiered on HBO on April 5, 1998.

Produced by Hanks, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the series strove for honesty and accuracy in telling what Hanks has described as “an evolutionary moment in our species.”

The filmmakers faced a challenge similar to that which NASA had faced.  The dramatic climax of the Apollo program occurred when the world watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.  This was Apollo 11; there would be six more trips to the moon before the Apollo program was starved of funding, partially from waning public interest, partially to fund the Vietnam War.  Each of these excursions had their own stories, their own drama, and their own interest.  But NASA was unable to keep the public involved and enthused.  The story of Apollo 11 is told in episode 6 of “From the Earth to the Moon.”  The filmmakers had four more episodes to construct following what might be thought as the story’s climax.  They too needed to find ways, emphases, structures and techniques to keep public interest.

Thus, rather than homogenize the series, each episode has a unique approach and style.  Using a variety of writers and directors, episodes focus on the political atmosphere of the time, on specific technology (the development of the lunar module), on events from the perspective of the media and the astronaut’s wives.

When Apollo 17 launched, it was known that it would be the last of the Apollo missions, and that, perhaps, man would never walk on the moon again.  This final episode of the series would by necessity be melancholy.  In previous episodes we have seen NASA succeed spectacularly and begin to train astronauts in science so that the benefits of the program could evolve.  It would al end with Apollo 17.

Tom Hanks took particular interest in this final tale.   Episode 12, "Le Voyage Dans La Lune," is the only episode in which he acts, and the only episode in which he receives sole writing credit.  And he manages to anchor the story of Apollo 17, and the enthusiasm, joy and sorrow of the astronauts involved, to another story of great discovery, excitement and birth.

And that second story is the tale of Georges Méliès envisioning and creating his cinematic masterpiece, “A Trip to the Moon” in 1902.

"Le Voyage Dans La Lune,"  Episode 12 of "From the Earth to the Moon"  
Thus the story of the ending of the Apollo program is bookended and crosscut with what might be considered the popular origin (or at least “A” popular origin) of man’s greatest voyage.

Hanks takes on the subtle but important role of a fictional assistant, what would eventually be described as an assistant director, to the great Méliès.  It is his character who, as an old man in a faux interview, tells the story.

Here, in two parts, is a condensation of Episode 12 of “From the Earth to the Moon,” focusing on the Méliès’ segments, with additional footage from Méliès’ film included.

Part three of "The First Auteur" to come.

Dan North, in his blog "Spectacular Attractions," has been posting some very thoughtful and insightful work on Méliès.  His post on "From the Earth to the Moon" is here.

You can buy From the Earth to the Moon - The Signature Edition at Amazon.com.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The First Auteur, Part One

Georges Méliès. More than anything else, when I think about Georges Méliès, I think of joy – the joy of discovery, the joy of experimentation, the joy of play, the joy of filmmaking.

Between 1896, when he shot his first film, and 1902, when he created what most consider his masterpiece, "A Trip to the Moon," Méliès produced more than 280 movies. They were among the most innovative, creative and groundbreaking films ever made. Take a look at this sampling:

Georges Méliès: The First Auteur, Films 1896-1902, by Edward Bowen

Méliès was bitten by the moviemaking bug early, not early in his own life, but early in the life of the medium itself. He was almost 35, a successful professional magician who had developed over 25 major original stage illusions, and the owner of the famous Theatre Robert-Houdin, when he and 32 others paid one franc each to attend one of the first public exhibitions of projected motion pictures in history.

It was December 28, 1895. The place was Salon Indien, an empty basement beneath the Grand Café, a gathering place for cultivated Parisians to discuss art and literature and politics near the famous Paris Opera House. Méliès was invited by his friend Antoine Lumière, whose sons Auguste and Louis had developed the technology and produced the simplistic films projected there. "You who amaze everyone with your tricks,” Antoine Lumière told Méliès, “you must come and see something which might well amaze you."

Amazed Méliès was, and amaze he would.  In 1896, Louis Lumière was famously quoted describing motion pictures as “an invention without any commercial future.” Méliès, convinced of the potential of the medium, launched into one of (if not the) greatest periods of inventiveness, creativity, innovation and enthusiasm in motion picture history, producing over 500 movies before he “retired” in 1912.

Drawing on his background as a magician, Méliès invented motion picture special effects – mechanical and optical. He built the most sophisticated film studio of his time, with elaborate and complicated scenery and props. He incorporated complex color in his films, the hues individually painted onto each frame by hand in an assembly line process.

While the Lumières and Thomas Edison and Robert W. Paul, among the earliest motion picture producers, were creating short, narrative-less actualities, one shot films involving trains pulling into stations, or bicycling, or walls collapsing, or workers exiting a factory, or boxing matches, or vaudeville, carny and circus acts, Méliès was staging extravagant cinematic illusions and developing the motion picture as a complex story-telling medium. In 1899, he produced eleven short films on the Dreyfuss Affair, a recent political scandal in France. Separate, they are a kind of serial; strung together, they are an early example of a multiple-scene movie. That same year he produced a version of “Cinderella” which was a staggering six minutes long and contained an unprecedented 20 individual scenes in four settings. It was not until 1902 that Edwin S. Porter, often credited as the first to string movie scenes together to tell a narrative, would do the same in “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Méliès’ greatest achievement, the whimsical, irreverent and technically sophisticated “A Trip to the Moon" (1902), with seventeen shot/scenes in fourteen minutes, was released a year before the “groundbreaking” work of Porter in “Life of an American Fireman,” and “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903.

But it remains for me the sense of joy that pervades his work. Since he performs in almost each of his films, you can see first hand how much fun he is having. His enthusiasm and energy on-screen are mirrored by his zeal and élan behind the camera.

“A Trip to the Moon” would prove to be his greatest victory and his most shattering defeat. The popularity of the film led Méliès to be one of the first whose career was victimized and subverted by movie piracy.

But more on that later …

Michael Brooke is in the process of a staggeringly detailed study of the extant works of George Méliès. Visit his website here.

Buy Georges Melies: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913)
at Amazon.com

Friday, April 29, 2011

Upside Down Cake

There’s not much we can depend on in this life, least of all our eyes.

Magicians and filmmakers know that when we look at a photo or an image, unless there is stark evidence to the contrary, we as viewers assume that the top is up and the bottom is down. 

Filmmakers often throw their images off balance for dramatic effect.  By making the bottom not quite down and the top not quite up, a cinematic environment will be perceived as off-balance and helter skelter.  These dutch, or canted, or oblique, or “Chinese” angles can create tension, and separate a particular setting from the rest of the movie’s world.

Photographers take advantage of this assumption in our perception to create witty optical illusions.

But in 2010’s  “Inception,” director Christopher Nolan created a dream reality in which spacial orientation was subjective, in which gravity was adjustable.  When the dreamer is thrown off balance, when the dreamer’s world is turned upside down, so is the world of the dream.

Nolan created these effects by building a rotating set.  The camera retains a fixed perspective on the set, often rotating in sync with it. So to our eyes, it appears that characters bound from floor to wall to ceiling, that gravity itself is shifted.

Nolan was not the first to take advantage of the naivety of our perception.  Here’s a little film I put together giving some of the history of a very special special effect.

For a behind the scenes look at the rotating set effect from "Inception," watch here.

ADDENDUM:  Turns out that the "upside down cake" effect can be traced back as far as 1902 and Georges Melies.

And 1907, from film pioneer and Melies imitator Segundo De Chomon -

And even earlier, in 1899, from British cinema pioneer R.W. Paul, "Upside Down."

ADDENDUM 2:  Independent of any attempt to deceive through disorientation, look at how simple reorientation can create an unsettling effect in this credit sequence from “Devil.”

Friday, April 22, 2011

This I Believe - Part 3

Edward R. Murrow once said, in addressing the impossibility of absolute objectivity, "We are all the prisoners of our own experience, of our reading, or our indoctrination, and our travels." This is just as true of teachers as it is reporters. It therefore seems fitting that, in full disclosure, I express something here about my background and beliefs. So, here are a few more things I know to be true.

7. Actor and Rapper Joaquin Phoenix suffered a very public nervous breakdown.

How do I know this? I saw the documentary.

The first signs that Academy Award Winning actor Joaquin Phoenix might be in emotional distress was a disquieting and uncomfortable appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman" on February 11, 2009. Disheveled and befuddled, he announced his retirement from acting and his desire to begin a new career as a rap artist.

Phoenix's brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, bravely chronicled the actor's tragic decline in a documentary titled "I'm Still Here."

Luckily for all concerned, Joaquin Phoenix made a miraculous and somewhat sudden recovery.

8. In 2000, psychologist Dr. Abigail "Abbey" Tyler used hypnosis to recover suppressed memories of alien abductions from residents of Nome, Alaska.

In the course of using hypnotherapy to treat patients with sleep disorders, Dr. Tyler recovered disturbing repressed memories from three patients suggesting that they had been abducted by aliens. These terrifying session were videotaped, and were included in a feature film telling Dr. Tyler's fantastic story.

For those who might be skeptical, the internet has proven to be a treasure trove of substantiating information. The Alaska Psychiatry Journal Online lists Dr. Abigail Tyler and has published an article on sleep disorders by her. Dr. Tyler has a Twitter account at http://twitter.com/#!/drabigailtyler. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner has posted an obituary for Dr. William Tyler, Abigail Tyler's late husband, who died under mysterious circumstances. Suspiciously, most of these internet postings have been removed since the film debuted.
An apparent cover-up of the truth of this story resulted in Universal Pictures paying over $20,000 to the Alaska Press Cub and a Calista Scholarship Fund to settle claims that the studio "created a number of Web sites purporting to be 'news archives'" in their viral marketing campaign for their new alien abduction thriller The Fourth Kind.


9. And finally, two words -


It's coming. How do I know? The news.

On April 25, 2005, the BBC World Edition reported on a "small outbreak of 'zombism" in a small town near the border of Laos in North-Eastern Cambodia." According to the esteemed institution of journalistic integrity, mosquitoes native to the region were spreading a new strain of 100 percent fatal Malaria. After death, the virus was able to restart the heart of its victims for up to two hours, during which the recently departed behaved violently from a theorized combnation of brain damage and chemical hysteria.

Then, on April 30, 2009, The BBC reported on a similar outbreak in London "due to the mutation of the H1N1 virus into a new strain: H1Z1."

In an all-to-familiar cover-up, visitors to the web site that first posted the reporting are greeted by the following message:

For those of you that got the joke, please feel free to breed in hopes that some of your offspring with the very rare trait of "common sense" will mix with the throngs of senseless idiots that now crawl the web.

For those of you that *didn't* get it, go home and slap your father for not making you shovel character building snow when you were a child.

So, what's the takeaway?

We don't just want to believe, we need to.

Only a small portion of what we believe to be true we have empirically perceived ourselves. We must rely on sources of information, whether they be traditional news sources, or new media sources, or our online community, or our teachers, or our political leaders, or our religious leaders, and we must decide which we trust, and why we trust them, and the minimum number of independent sources needed to convince us, and what is and is not reasonable to believe.
And no matter how careful we may be, we are still likely to be occasionally deceived.

"You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."

Optimistic words from our 16th president.