Sunday, January 03, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 100: Painting With Light

We’re on the threshold of the official “Second Season” in television. The PR machine is already humming at full speed as it spews out the bios and backgrounders to let you know what’s worth seeing, what might be good for you and what may not be a total waste of your time.

This stuff usually focuses on the stars, the genius auteurs, the track record of the producing company, or the novelists whose work inspired the production. Sometimes it even mentions the screenwriter’s past credits, suggesting he or she has hit another one out of the park.

This is all part of the commerce of the television business, the enticement of “eyeballs”, the process of putting bums on couches, so somebody can sell you something or simply rake in a share of your cable subscription.

You’re assured the new show is just like a Private Eye series you loved in the 70’s, a medical drama big in the 90’s or a new take on a comedy genre that you liked a couple of seasons back.

But little of the hype gets at what you’re going to take away from the viewing experience. And almost none of it focuses on the fact that film is a collaborative art and most of what you’re experiencing is contributed by people whose names are never mentioned in promos and whose end credits either fly past at an unreadable rate or are squashed into a corner of the screen so you can be titillated with what’s coming next.

Most of the reason that television is repetitive, uninspiring or just plain bad is that the people who program it are more concerned with the perception of what they’re offering than how it will be physically perceived.

As a species we haven’t been out of the trees or away from the campfire long enough for our DNA to discern story telling by its value instead of as a visceral experience.

Studies have shown that only 10% of the information a film or TV audience absorbs comes from what it hears. When you consider that this small slice is shared by dialogue, vocal performance, sound effects and music, those juicy one-liners we slave over pale in significance.

90% of the film and TV experience enters the viewer through their eyes. Most of what they care about are the actors and the action. But how they subliminally read all that is supported by the choices made for sets and settings, costumes, even props. And all of those things are brought together through the eyes of a cinematographer.

I’ve always hated the term DOP (Director of Photography) because it sounds like some kind of administrative position. Cinematographer says artist and if you have a good one, the film or series you are making is unimaginably elevated.

Too often, Cinematographers are judged by their panoramic sunset shots and sweeping vistas. But their true art lies in the little things we wouldn’t notice unless they made us see them.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with cinematographers who could frame a shot to make an ordinary street scene transform into three dimensions, even if you weren’t shooting 3D. I’ve watched a somewhat plain actress be transitioned to classic beauty with the shift of a key light. And I’ve sat stunned in dailies as the play of light and camera movement has brought a new level to a moment I wrote but never conceived could be there.

It’s those things that an audience takes to its heart and makes them come back for more and tell their friends to do the same. Take another look at “Mad Men”, “Dexter”, “The Sopranos” or “Sons of Anarchy”, each has a visual style as important to the story as any of their more promoted qualities.

As an example of the power a cinematographer can have, I want to introduce you to a guy named Joseph August, who, in the fall of 1944 worked on what should have been a mostly forgettable John Wayne war film called “They Were Expendable”.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing really bad about any film directed by John Ford or dealing with the issues of patriotism and sacrifice embodied in Frank Wead’s screenplay. The story revolves around a naval crew decimated and literally abandoned to die in the Pacific. It’s the kind of picture that simply wouldn’t get made today.

But what gives “They Were Expendable” its emotional power is the way Joseph August paints its scenes turning it into what director Lindsay Anderson described as “an epic poem”.

August was a Colorado cowboy who ended up working on a Santa Monica movie ranch and emigrated to film making. He never used a light meter, trusting in what he saw with his own eyes and maybe a little of the artistic instincts that resided in cowboy artists like Frederick Remington or Charles Russell.

This is the kind of attention to detail that is ignored or in some cases outright eliminated in the quest to capture television audiences; when, in reality, it is these same never mentioned film artists, perhaps likewise considered “expendable” by network “big picture” thinkers, who could most capture the eyeballs they covet.

Enjoy Joseph August’s play of light. And enjoy your Sunday.


DMc said...

Yet one of the worst insults (at least I've only ever heard it used as an insult) is to call something "painterly."

There's a double truth hinted at in this fine post that's not quite expressed. First, too often Canadian programs, rushed to get in the can and make ridiculous shooting days, sacrifice the time and ability to get these beautiful frames you speak of. I have heard them be actively devalued. And it's a shame; like you I've had my heart leap to my mouth when I saw the beauty of a simple scene elevated to something so much greater by the simple play of light -- and of framing, too.

But the second thing is that these arresting images will get you so far. They will get your audience to stop, and still, which is what we need to capture them. But we don't keep them when all that's there is well-framed images with dull dialogue, plodding plotting, hackneyed direction and cardboard character.

Which brings us to the other universal truth: the only way to make something great on TV is for many people in key positions to all fire to the best of their abilities at the same time; the first step of that is knowing your talent and your position and how that fits in with the whole. Just as I've learned to trust actors on line readings, I've sought out the DOP I trusted (which is always harder cause they're on set) to ask about a scene I was writing that I felt maybe might just be flat: how could I give them the building blocks to make it better?

Teamwork and humility. That's the route to greatness.

Thanks for the post.

The White Wolf said...

Certainly something must be said for someone who can determine the best film stock to use in -30 degree weather.

Ken said...

Great post, Jim. But I will raise the flag for the directors among us who strive for a bit more than master, closeup, closeup in order to get all the words on screen. You use John Ford as an example of a director who (by your inference) was largely unaware of that 90%. 90% being the visual side of storytelling. Remember, he directed "The Grapes of Wrath," and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," and "The Searchers," and "My Darling Clementine," and so on and so on. Now I think Cyril Mockridge, Winton C Hoch, Robert Simpson (his "other" cinematographers) might support me when I say that Mr. Ford had as much to do with how those films looked and felt as they did. Yup, it's collaborative...much less so today with the dictatorial nature of television and big studio pictures setting a new paradigm. But it's collaborative. And no cinematographer is completely responsible for every nuance within every frame, nor is any director. But I'd put forth that the director (when he or she is actually directing and not just covering) has the most impact on that 90% of the story that's not in the words.

Having said that, I couldn't agree more with your notion that the bean counters of today have destroyed so much of what we got into this business to do; tell stories. Execs in TV and long form read scripts but can't for the life of them understand what it is to tell a story. And you and I both know that storytelling is much more than who does what to whom and what the reaction is. It's perhaps a character disintegrating from the inside out, supported by the costume and the light and the setting and that actors eyes. In a great film a Shakespeare soliloquy can be conveyed with a look, a forced perspective wide shot, or a words.

God, I've got to stop shooting network television.

Ken said...

That was strange. The word verification your comment page asked me to type to publish my comment above was "shiesse." I shit you not. Was that an editorial comment on my editorial?

jimhenshaw said...

Shoot away, Ken. I'm becoming more and more convinced it's Canadian networks who have become the enemy.

And no slight to John Ford was intended. We are all well aware of what directors bring to the party and few did it better than he. I was only trying to focus on the contribution of a guy who so prfectly realized not only Ford's vision, but the themes in the script.

I doubt there's an honest director out there who won't concede his cinematographer is his right arm and barely a guy making the shots who doesn't know he'll only be as good as the vision he's been given.

As DMc says, "teamwork and humility", we all know that's the secret.

The White Wolf said...

Kazuo Miyagawa can be thanked for those wicked, sweeping shots through the forest in Kurowsawa's RASHOMON; when Mr. Kurowsawa simply said "follow him through here, and do this, and we'll end up here..." Resulting in Mr. Miyagawa creating that great shot where the camera tracks alongside the actor running through the woods, crosses in front of him, and 'shoots' back to where (in theory) the rest of the crew should be standing.

A shot duplicated in small degree in Scorcese's (and Paul Schrader's) TAXI DRIVER, where DeNiro exits his taxi in the garage.

Cool shiesse.