Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Soecial Effects in Films: Matte Paintings

Since the early days of cinema, filmmakers have grappled with a fundamental problem: how to achieve artistic greatness on a budget. When pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès made "Le Voyage dans la Lune" in 1902, special effects meant painting some curtains as backdrops and using an actual man in a moon costume for the man in the moon.

Even today, with blockbuster film budgets over $250 million, it's still not economically feasible to film on the moon. Directors and producers are always looking for creative new ways to create ultra-realistic, otherworldly settings that tell their stories with unprecedented power. For more than 100 years, one of the most successful methods has been matte painting, a technique in which a portion of a scene is blocked during filming and later replaced with new images or footage.

During the first half of the 20th century, almost all movies were shot on studio backlots and soundstages. It was too expensive to film on location. So if a scene called for the interior of a lavish European castle, the filmmakers would shoot the live actors on a sound stage with minimal set construction. Later, they would use matte painting artists to fill in the details by hand -- the dangling crystal chandeliers, ornate tapestries, vast libraries and towering stained glass windows -- that transport the actors from Studio City to Transylvania.15

Computers have had a tremendous impact on the way people make movies, particularly in the world of special effects. In the past 30 years, computer-generated (CG) landscapes, objects and animated characters have opened up unimaginable possibilities for filmmakers. Matte painting is now an entirely digital process, where 2-D Photoshop paintings are blended with animated 3-D elements and live actors to create stunning, totally convincing fictional worlds.

How do film matte painters work? How do matte painters use digital tools?

Film Matte Painting

Matte painting has its roots in still photography. In the mid-19th century, photographers began using double-exposure techniques to composite two distinct images into one photograph. In the Victorian era, so-called spirit photography captured the imagination of the masses. In these photos, ghostly apparitions seemed to mingle with the living. They were, in reality, simple darkroom tricks, or what we now call special effects.

Film matte painting grew directly out of this special effects tradition. In 1905, a man named Norman Dawn was working as a still photographer in Los Angeles. He was disappointed when one of his shots came back partially blocked by a telephone pole. A colleague told Dawn to go take the picture again, but this time to bring along a piece of glass with an image of a tree painted on it. Hold the piece of glass between the camera and the building and use the fake tree to cover the pole. It was a simple old photographer's trick, but proved a convincing illusion [source: Cotta Vaz].

An aspiring filmmaker, Dawn soon developed a system for applying glass matte painting to the exciting new world of motion pictures. The Dawn Process or in-the-camera matte shot works like this:

A large sheet of glass is mounted in a box attached to the front of the camera.

Using black paint, a matte artist blocks out all parts of the scene that will later be replaced with a matte painting. What remains are the actors in front of some small constructed sets.

The live action is shot through the glass matte, creating a partially-exposed negative. Since light was not allowed to pass through the blackened portions of the camera lens, the corresponding parts of the negative are considered unexposed.

The movie director shoots several minutes of extra footage with the glass matte in place. This extra footage will be developed and used as test strips.

In post-production, the matte artist uses a frame of the test strip as a reference to create a new glass matte where the live action area of the scene is blocked out with black paint.

The artist then paints all around the black area, carefully maintaining the perspective and composition of the shot. He continually checks his work against the test strip.

When the matte artist and director are satisfied with the way the matte painting blends with the test strip, they mount the glass painting on the front of the camera.

Finally, they run the partially exposed negative back through the camera and film the scene with the glass matte painting in place. Since the live action portion of the scene is blacked out on the matte painting, the first exposure isn't double-exposed. The result is a realistic composite image of the live action and the matte painting.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Akira Kurosawa on Rashomon • By Akira Kurosawa

[Note: in Japan, it is customary to refer to a person with their last name first. We have retained this practice in the below excerpt from Kurosawa’s text.]

The gate was growing larger and larger in my mind’s eye. I was location-scouting in the ancient capital of Kyoto for Rashomon, my eleventh-century period film. The Daiei management was not very happy with the project. They said the content was difficult and the title had no appeal. They were reluctant to let the shooting begin. Day by day, as I waited, I walked around Kyoto and the still-more-ancient capital of Nara a few miles away, studying the classical architecture. The more I saw, the larger the image of the Rashomon gate became in my mind.

At first I thought my gate should be about the size of the entrance gate to Toji Temple in Kyoto. Then it became as large as the Tengaimon gate in Nara, and finally as big as the main two-story gates of the Ninnaji and Todaiji temples in Nara. This image enlargement occurred not just because I had the opportunity to see real gates dating from that period, but because of what I was learning, from documents and relics, about the long-since-destroyed Rashomon gate itself.

“Rashomon” actually refers to the Rajomon gate; the name was changed in a Noh play written by Kanze Nobumitsu. “Rajo” indicates the outer precincts of the castle, so “Rajomon” means the main gate to the castle’s outer grounds. The gate for my film Rashomon was the main gate to the outer precincts of the ancient capital--–--–Kyoto was at that time called “Heian-Kyo.” If one entered the capital through the Rajomon gate and continued due north along the main thoroughfare of the metropolis, one came to the Shujakumon gate at the end of it, and the Toji and Saiji temples to the east and west, respectively. Considering this city plan, it would have been strange had the outer main gate not been the biggest gate of all. There is tangible evidence that it in fact was: The blue roof tiles that survive from the original Rajomon gate show that it was large. But, no matter how much research we did, we couldn’t discover the actual dimensions of the vanished structure.

As a result, we had to construct the Rashomon gate to the city based on what we could learn from looking at extant temple gates, knowing that the original was probably different. What we built as a set was gigantic. It was so immense that a complete roof would have buckled the support pillars. Using the artistic device of dilapidation as an excuse, we constructed only half a roof and were able to get away with our measurements. To be historically accurate, the imperial palace and the Shujakumon gate should have been visible looking north through our gate. But on the Daiei back lot such distances were out of the question, and even if we had been able to find the space, the budget would have made it impossible. We made do with a cut-out mountain to be seen through the gate. Even so, what we built was extraordinarily large for an open set.

When I took this project to Daiei, I told them the only sets I would need were the gate and the tribunal courtyard wall where all the survivors, participants and witnesses of the rape and murder that form the story of the film are questioned. Everything else, I promised them, would be shot on location. Based on this low-budget set estimate, Daiei happily took on the project.

Later, Kawaguchi Matsutaro, at that time a Daiei executive, complained that they had really been fed a line. To be sure, only the gate set had to be built, but for the price of that one mammoth set they could have had over a hundred ordinary sets. But, to tell the truth, I hadn’t intended so big a set to begin with. It was while I was kept waiting all that time that my research deepened and my image of the gate swelled to its startling proportions.

When I had finished Scandal for the Shochiku studios, Daiei asked if I wouldn’t direct one more film for them. As I cast about for what to film, I suddenly remembered a script based on the short story “Yabu no naka” (“In a Grove”) by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. It had been written by Hashimoto Shinobu, who had been studying under director Itami Mansaku. It was a very well-written piece, but not long enough to make into a feature film. This Hashimoto had visited my home, and I talked with him for hours. He seemed to have substance, and I took a liking to him. He later wrote the screenplays for Ikiru (1952) and Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) with me. The script I remembered was his Akutagawa adaptation called “Male-Female.”

Probably my subconscious told me it was not right to have put that script aside; probably I was—without being aware of it–wondering all the while if I couldn’t do something with it. At that moment the memory of it jumped out of one of those creases in my brain and told me to give it a chance. At the same time I recalled that “In a Grove” is made up of three stories, and realized that if I added one more, the whole would be just the right length for a feature film. Then I remembered the Akutagawa story “Rashomon.” Like “In a Grove,” it was set in the Heian period (794-1184). The film Rashomon took shape in my mind.

Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930s, I felt, we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the aesthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back into the past.

In particular, I believed that there was something to be learned from the spirit of the French avant-garde films of the 1920s. Yet in Japan at this time we had no film library. I had to forage for old films, and try to remember the structure of those I had seen as a boy, ruminating over the aesthetics that had made them special.

Rashomon would be my testing ground, the place where I could apply the ideas and wishes growing out of my silent-film research. To provide the symbolic background atmosphere, I decided to use the Akutagawa “In a Grove” story, which goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeon’s scalpel, laying bare its dark complexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow. In the film, people going astray in the thicket of their hearts would wander into a wider wilderness, so I moved the setting to a large forest. I selected the virgin forest of the mountains surrounding Nara, and the forest belonging to the Komyoji temple outside Kyoto.

There were only eight characters, but the story was both complex and deep. The script was done as straightforwardly and briefly as possible, so I felt I should be able to create a rich and expansive visual image in turning it into a film. Fortunately, I had as cinematographer a man I had long wanted to work with, Miyagawa Kazuo; I had Hayasaka to compose the music and Matsuyama as art director. The cast was Mifune Toshiro, Mori Masayuki, Kyo Machiko, Shimura Takashi, Chiaki Minoru, Ueda Kichijiro, Kato Daisuke and Honma Fumiko; all were actors whose temperaments I knew, and I could not have wished for a better line-up. Moreover, the story was supposed to take place in summer, and we had, ready to hand, the scintillating midsummer heat of Kyoto and Nara. With all these conditions so neatly met, I could ask nothing more. All that was left was to begin the film.

However, one day just before the shooting was to start, the three assistant directors Daiei had assigned me came to see me at the inn where I was staying. I wondered what the problem could be. It turned out that they found the script baffling and wanted me to explain it to them. “Please read it again more carefully,” I told them. “If you read it diligently, you should be able to understand it because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible.” But they wouldn’t leave. “We believe we have read it carefully, and we still don’t understand it at all; that’s why we want you to explain it to us.” For their persistence I gave them this simple explanation:

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings–the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave—even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it.

After I finished, two of the three assistant directors nodded and said they would try reading the script again. They got up to leave, but the third, who was the chief, remained unconvinced. He left with an angry look on his face. (As it turned out, this chief assistant director and I never did get along. I still regret that in the end I had to ask for his resignation. But, aside from this, the work went well.)

During the rehearsals before the shooting I was left virtually speechless by Kyo Machiko’s dedication. She came in to where I was still sleeping in the morning and sat down with the script in her hand. “Please teach me what to do,” she requested, and I lay there amazed. The other actors, too, were all in their prime. Their spirit and enthusiasm was obvious in their work, and equally manifest in their eating and drinking habits.

They invented a dish called Sanzoku-yaki, or “Mountain Bandit Broil,” and ate it frequently. It consisted of beef strips sautéed in oil and then dipped in a sauce made of curry powder in melted butter. But while they held their chopsticks in one hand, in the other they’d hold a raw onion. From time to time they’d put a strip of meat on the onion and take a bite out of it. Thoroughly barbaric.

The shooting began at the Nara virgin forest. This forest was infested with mountain leeches. They dropped out of the trees onto us, they crawled up our legs from the ground to suck our blood. Even when they had had their fill, it was no easy task to pull them off, and once you managed to rip a glutted leech out of your flesh, the open sore seemed never to stop bleeding. Our solution was to put a tub of salt in the entry of the inn. Before we left for the location in the morning we would cover our necks, arms and socks with salt. Leeches are like slugs—they avoid salt.

In those days the virgin forest around Nara harbored great numbers of massive cryptomerias and Japanese cypresses, and vines of lush ivy twined from tree to tree like pythons. It had the air of the deepest mountains and hidden glens. Every day I walked in this forest, partly to scout for shooting locations and partly for pleasure. Once a black shadow suddenly darted in front of me: a deer from the Nara park that had returned to the wild. Looking up, I saw a pack of monkeys in the big trees about my head.

The inn we were housed in lay at the foot of Mount Wakakusa. Once a big monkey who seemed to be the leader of the pack came and sat on the roof of the inn to stare at us studiously throughout our boisterous evening meal. Another time the moon rose from behind Mount Wakakusa, and for an instant we saw the silhouette of a deer framed distinctly against its full brightness. Often after supper we climbed up Mount Wakakusa and formed a circle to dance in the moonlight. I was still young and the cast members were even younger and bursting with energy. We carried out our work with enthusiasm.

When the location moved from the Nara Mountains to the Komyoji temple forest in Kyoto, it was Gion Festival time. The sultry summer sun hit with full force, but even though some members of my crew succumbed to heat stroke, our work pace never flagged. Every afternoon we pushed through without even stopping for a single swallow of water. When work was over, on the way back to the inn we stopped at a beer hall in Kyoto’s downtown Shijo-Kawaramachi district. There each of us downed about four of the biggest mugs of draft beer they had. But we ate dinner without any alcohol and, upon finishing, split up to go about our private affairs. Then at ten o’clock we’d gather again and pour whiskey down our throats with a vengeance. Every morning we were up bright and clear-headed to do our sweat-drenched work.

Where the Komyoji temple forest was too thick to give us the light we needed for shooting, we cut down trees without a moment’s hesitation or explanation. The abbot of Komyoji glared fearfully as he watched us. But as the days went on, he began to take the initiative, showing us where he thought trees should be felled.

When our shoot was finished at the Komyoji location, I went to pay my respects to the abbot. He looked at me with grave seriousness and spoke with deep feeling. “To be honest with you, at the outset we were very disturbed when you went about cutting down the temple trees as if they belonged to you. But in the end we were won over by your wholehearted enthusiasm. ‘Show the audience something good.’ This was the focus of all your energies, and you forgot yourselves. Until I had the chance to watch you, I had no idea that the making of a movie was a crystallization of such effort. I was very deeply impressed.”

The abbot finished and set a folding fan before me. In commemoration of our filming, he had written on the fan three characters forming a Chinese poem: “Benefit All Mankind.” I was left speechless.

We set up a parallel schedule for the use of the Komyoji location and open set of the Rashomon gate. On sunny days we filmed at Komyoji; on cloudy days we filmed the rain scenes at the gate set. Because the gate set was so huge, the job of creating rainfall on it was a major operation. We borrowed fire engines and turned on the studio’s fire hoses to full capacity. But when the camera was aimed upward at the cloudy sky over the gate, the sprinkle of the rain couldn’t be seen against it, so we made rainfall with black ink in it. Every day we worked in temperatures of more than 85º Fahrenheit, but when the wind blew through the wide-open gate with the terrific rainfall pouring down over it, it was enough to chill the skin.

I had to be sure that this huge gate looked huge to the camera. And I had to figure out how to use the sun itself. This was a major concern because of the decision to use the light and shadows of the forest as the keynote of the whole film. I determined to solve the problem by actually filming the sun. These days it is not uncommon to point the camera directly at the sun, but at the time Rashomon was being made it was still one of the taboos of cinematography. It was even thought that the sun’s rays shining directly into your lens would burn the film in your camera. But my cameraman, Miyagawa Kazuo, boldly defied this convention and created superb images. The introductory section in particular, which leads the viewer through the light and shadow of the forest into a world where the human heart loses its way, was truly magnificent camera work. I feel that this scene, later praised at the Venice International Film Festival as the first instance of a camera entering the heart of a forest, was not only one of Miyagawa’s masterpieces but a world-class masterpiece of black-and-white cinematography.

And yet, I don’t know what happened to me. Delighted as I was with Miyagawa’s work, it seems I forgot to tell him. When I said to myself, “Wonderful,” I guess I thought I had said “Wonderful” to him at the same time. I didn’t realize I hadn’t until one day Miyagawa’s old friend Shimura Takashi (who was playing the woodcutter in Rashomon) came to me and said, “Miyagawa’s very concerned about whether his camera work is satisfactory to you.” Recognizing my oversight for the first time, I hurriedly shouted “One hundred percent! One hundred for camera work! One hundred plus!”

There is no end to my recollections of Rashomon. If I tried to write about all of them, I’d never finish, so I’d like to end with one incident that left an indelible impression on me. It has to do with the music.

As I was writing the script, I heard the rhythms of a bolero in my head over the episode of the woman’s side of the story. I asked Hayasaka to write a bolero kind of music for the scene. When we came to the dubbing of that scene, Hayasaka sat down next to me and said, “I’ll try it with the music.” In his face I saw uneasiness and anticipation. My own nervousness and expectancy gave me a painful sensation in my chest. The screen lit up with the beginning of the scene, and the strains of the bolero music softly counted out the rhythm. As the scene progressed, the music rose, but the image and the sound failed to coincide and seemed to be at odds with each other. “Damn it,” I thought. The multiplication of sound and image that I had calculated in my head had failed, it seemed. It was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat.

We kept going. The bolero music rose yet again, and suddenly picture and sound fell into perfect unison. The mood created was positively eerie. I felt an icy chill run down my spine, and unwittingly I turned to Hayasaka. He was looking at me. His face was pale, and I saw that he was shuddering with the same eerie emotion I felt. From that point on, sound and image proceeded with incredible speed to surpass even the calculations I had made in my head. The effect was strange and overwhelming.

And that is how Rashomon was made. During the shooting there were two fires at the Daiei studios. But because we had mobilized the fire engines for our filming, they were already primed and drilled, so the studios escaped with very minor damage.

After Rashomon I made a film of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951) for the Shochiku studios. This Idiot was ruinous. I clashed directly with the studio heads, and then when the reviews on the completed film came out, it was as if they were a mirror reflection of the studio’s attitude toward me. Without exception, they were scathing. On the heels of this disaster, Daiei rescinded its offer for me to do another film with them.

I listened to this cold announcement at the Chofu studios of Daiei in the Tokyo suburbs. I walked out through the gate in the gloomy daze, and, not having the will even to get on the train, I ruminated over my bleak situation as I walked all the way home to Komae. I concluded that for some time I would have to “eat cold rice” and resigned myself to this fact. Deciding that it would serve no purpose to get excited about it, I set out to go fishing at the Tamagawa River. I cast my line into the river. It immediately caught on something and snapped in two. Having no replacement with me, I hurriedly put my equipment away. Thinking this was what it was like when bad luck catches up with you, I headed back home.

I arrived home depressed, with barely enough strength to slide open the door to the entry. Suddenly my wife came bounding out. “Congratulations!” I was unwittingly indignant: “For what?” “Rashomon has the Grand Prix.” Rashomon had won the Grand Prix at the Venice International Film Festival, and I was spared from having to eat cold rice.

Once again an angel had appeared out of nowhere. I did not even know that Rashomon had been submitted to the Venice Film Festival. The Japan representative to Italiafilm, Giuliana Stramigioli, had seen it and recommended it to Venice. It was like pouring water into the sleeping ears of the Japanese film industry.

Later Rashomon won the American Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Japanese critics insisted that these two prizes were simply reflections of Westerners’ curiosity and taste for Oriental exoticism, which struck me then, and now, as terrible. Why is it that Japanese people have no confidence in the worth of Japan? Why do they elevate everything foreign and denigrate everything Japanese? Even the woodblock prints of Utamoro, Hokusai and Sharaku were not appreciated by Japanese until they were first discovered by the West. I don’t know how to explain this lack of discernment. I can only despair of the character of my own people.

Excerpted from Something Like an Autobiography, trans., Audie E. Bock. Translation Copyright ©1982 by Vintage Books. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, a division of Random House.

The Rashomon Effect • By Stephen Prince

When Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon (1950), he was a forty-year-old director working near the beginning of a career that would last fifty years, produce some of the greatest films ever made, and exert a tremendous and lasting influence on filmmaking throughout the world. Rashomon emerged from the journeyman period in his career after he temporarily left Toho, the studio where he’d begun and where he would ultimately make most of his films. During these years, 1949 to 1951, he made movies for Shochiku, Shintoho, and Daiei. Daiei was somewhat reluctant to fund Rashomon, finding the project to be too unconventional and fearing that it would be difficult for audiences to understand. Those fears proved to be groundless—the picture was one of Daiei’s best moneymakers in 1950.

But the film is unconventional, even radical in design, and these attributes only helped to skyrocket it to international fame at a time when art cinema was emerging as a powerful force on the film circuit. With great reluctance, Daiei permitted the film to be submitted for overseas festival competition. Winning first prize at the prestigious Venice Film Festival in 1951, Rashomon announced Kurosawa’s talents, and the treasures of Japanese cinema, to the world at large. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like most of Kurosawa’s films, Rashomon, based on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is set during a time of social crisis—in this case, the eleventh century in Japan, a period that Kurosawa uses to reveal the extremities of human behavior. As the picture opens, three characters seek shelter from a driving rainstorm (it never sprinklesin a Kurosawa film!) beneath the ruined Rashomon gate that guards the southern entrance to the imperial capital city of Kyoto. As they wait for the storm to pass, the priest (Minoru Chiaki), the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), and the commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) discuss a recent and scandalous crime—a noblewoman (Machiko Kyo) was raped in the forest, her samurai husband (Masayuki Mori) killed by either murder or suicide, and a thief named Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) arrested.

When Rashomon played in Venice and then went into international distribution, it stunned audiences. No one had ever seen a film quite like this one. For one thing, its daring, nonlinear approach to narrative shows the details of the crime as they are related, through the flashbacks of those involved. Kurosawa gives us four versions of the same series of events, through the eyes of the woodcutter, the thief, the woman, and the spirit of the husband, each retelling markedly different from the others. Kurosawa’s visionary approach would have enormous cinematic and cultural influence. He bequeathed to world cinema and television a striking narrative device—countless movies and television shows have remade Rashomon by incorporating the contradictory flashbacks of unreliable narrators.

But Rashomon is that rare film that has transcended its own status as film, influencing not just the moving image but the culture at large. Its very name has entered the common parlance to symbolize general notions about the relativity of truth and the unreliability, the inevitable subjectivity, of memory. In the legal realm, for example, lawyers and judges commonly speak of “the Rashomon effect” when firsthand witnesses confront them with contradictory testimony.

Furthermore, the film’s nonlinear narrative marked it as a decisively modernist work, and as a part of the burgeoning world art cinema that was transforming the medium in the 1950s. With Rashomon and his subsequent movies, Kurosawa came to rank among the leading international figures of that cinema, in the company of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Satyajit Ray. Like their work, Rashomon was more than just commercial entertainment. It was a film of ideas, made by a serious artist, and with a sophisticated aesthetic design.

For it wasn’t only the film’s modernist narrative that impressed audiences and made it a classic. It was also the tremendous visual skill and power that Kurosawa brought to the screen. Like all his best works, Rashomon is a remarkably sensual film. Nobody has ever filmed forests like Kurosawa.

Shooting directly into the sun to make the camera lens flare, probing the filaments of shadows in trees and glades, rendering dense thickets as poetic metaphors for the laws of desire and karma that entrap human beings, and, above all, executing hypnotic camera movements across the uneven forest floor, Kurosawa created in Rashomon the most flamboyant and insistently visual film that anyone had seen in decades. All of the critics who reviewed this picture when it first appeared felt compelled to remark upon the beauty of the director’s imagery.

In Rashomon, Kurosawa was consciously attempting to recover and re-create the aesthetic glory of silent filmmaking. Thus, the cinematography (by the brilliant Kazuo Miyagawa) and editing are incredibly vital, and many passages are composed as silent sequences of pure film, in which the imagery, ambient sound, and Fumio Hayasaka’s score carry the action. One of the best such sequences is the long series of moving camera shots that follow the woodcutter into the forest, before he finds the evidence of the crime. These shots, in Kurosawa’s words, lead the viewer “into a world where the human heart loses its way.” Only Kurosawa at his boldest would create such a kinesthetic sequence, in which movement itself—of the camera, the character, and the forest’s foliage—becomes the very point and subject of the scene. Mesmeric, exciting, fluid, and graceful, these are among the greatest moving camera shots in the history of cinema.

Style for Kurosawa is not an empty flourish. The bravura designs of his films are always carefully motivated—this is why he is a great filmmaker. As in all of his outstanding films, in Rashomon Kurosawa is responding to his world as an artist and moralist. The Second World War had devastated Japan. In its aftermath, he embarked— with moral urgency and great artistic ambition—on a series of films (No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946; Drunken Angel, 1948; Stray Dog, 1949) that illuminated the despair and confusion of the period and offered narratives of personal heroism as models for social recovery, seeking, in his art, to produce a legacy of hope for a ruined nation.

The heroism and desire for restoration that these stories embodied, however, had to struggle with a dark opposite. What if the world could not be changed because people themselves are weak and easily corrupted? Kurosawa’s films have a tragic dimension that is rooted in his at times pessimistic reflections on human nature, and Rashomon was the first work in which he allowed that pessimism its full expression. Haunted by the human propensity to lie and deceive, Kurosawa fashioned a tale in which the ego, duplicity, and vanity of the characters make a hell out of the world and make truth a difficult thing to find. Whose account of the crime is reliable? Whose is correct? One cannot tell—all are distorted in ways that flatter their narrators.

This is truly a hellish vision—the world dissolves into nothingness as the illusions of the ego strut like shadows on a shifting landscape. Such a dark portrait was too much even for Kurosawa (at this point in his career, at least, but not in 1985, when he made Ran). Thus, at the last moment, he pulls back from the darkness he has revealed. The woodcutter decides to adopt an abandoned baby, and as he walks off with the child, the rainstorm lifts (Takashi Shimura always supplies the moral center in Kurosawa’s films of the forties and early fifties).

Compassionate action transforms the world—this was Kurosawa’s heroic ideal. Is it enough, however? Each viewer of Rashomon must    9 decide whether this abrupt turnabout at the film’s end is a convincing solution to the moral and epistemological dilemmas that Kurosawa has so powerfully portrayed.

But whatever one decides about the film’s conclusion, Rashomon is the real thing—a genuine classic. Its greatness is palpable and undeniable. Kurosawa’s nonlinear narrative and sensual, kinesthetic style helped to change the face of world cinema. And astonishingly, Kurosawa was still a young filmmaker—so many treasures were yet to come.

Stephen Prince is a professor of cinema at Virginia Tech and an honorary professor of film and media at the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of numerous books on cinema, including The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2002 DVD edition of Rashomon.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Aesthetics of Black and White and Color

Black and White and Technicolor in Hollywood's Golden Era

In the 1930s and 1940s cost was not the only factor determining which film stock a film project would employ. Hollywood Technicolor tended to be used to make everything pretty, so that the most serious dramas often tended to be black and white: Citizen Kane (1941), The Little Foxes (1941), the entire genre of film noir, and so on.

Black and White
It's extremely important to remember that black and white can be just as subtle as color because you can do so many things to it. First, black and white is never just that: It is also all the gradations of gray in between. And silver. And beiges. And so on. When you walk into a paint store and ask for black the clerk (after laughing at your naïveté) will hand you 50 color chips: jet black, deep-space black, Frederick's of Hollywood black, midnight blue, and so on. White has, if anything, even more variations, and gray is practically infinite.

Black and white is the color of glamour cinematography. The most glamorous icons of the screen, those actors who only require last names—Garbo, Bogart, Bacall, Gable, Dietrich—are most famously photographed in black and white.

And, as its name suggests, at least one whole film genre is defined in large part by the fact that it was shot in black and white: film noir.

Nitrate Stock
Silver nitrate stock, on which much silent film was shot, produced a shimmering, other-worldly quality, seeming to set the screen on fire. Unfortunately, because it was rather unstable, it could also set the projector, the booth, and the theater on fire, so that its projection is now illegal in all but a handful of theaters in the country specially equipped to contain a blaze.

Black and White Today
Directors still sometimes opt for black and white to make a political and/or aesthetic point. Street Scene (1989)—a film by an African American director—restages Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921) in the contemporary inner city, suggesting both that inner-city denizens have at least the humanity we grant to the little tramp, and that nostalgizing poverty is cruelly absurd.

Some films are shot in black and white as a kind of homage to earlier cinema genres. Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982) pays tribute to film noir, while Movie Movie (1978) and Young Frankenstein (1974) fondly recall the 1930s backstage musical and the 1940s horror film.

The Golden Era: Color Classic
Especially for the Technicolor technicians, the principal job was to figure out how to make color film acceptable to an audience and an industry that was at first hesitant about the technology. Some actors, for example, did not think they photographed as glamorously in Technicolor as in black and white. Still, after the box office successes of films like 1939's Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (we wonder whether Shirley Temple is still kicking herself for not taking on the role of Dorothy), studio execs came to realize that adding color to a film would measurably increase its box-office appeal. So this expensive technology was used for high-profile prestige pictures, like the Errol Flynn vehicle, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which cost $2 million, an amazing price tag for the Great Depression years.

Black and Blue: Using All the Crayons in the Box
Some directors have been thinking outside the Crayola box, mixing panchromatic and color stock in the same film. Early on the decision was in part economic: Technicolor was incredibly expensive. But even early on the decision to mix it up could be motivated by plot and theme as much as by economics. The most famous example is of course The Wizard of Oz (1939). Monotonous Kansas is also monochromatic. But when, after her tornado-driven house landed in Kansas, Dorothy opened the front door and found herself in a Technicolor Oz, the 1939 audience shared her sense of wonder at their introduction to a prismatically colorful new world.

Self-Reflexivity and Other Kinds of Color
Though we shall visit the notion of self-reflexivity in some detail, it is worth noting that sometimes black-and-white clips appear in color films in order to suggest that these films have a connection to the history of film. Old horror films play on television in the background while the new horror takes place in Halloween's foreground (1978). Gilda (1946) plays on the monitor of a video store while a disturbing love relationship takes place in the foreground of The Fisher King (1991). Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters desperately dance during the Great Depression against the very ironic backdrop of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing on film, in Pennies from Heaven (1981).

Sometimes black and white is used in a color film as a way of establishing a biographical past for a principal character. This technique is used in Mishima (1985) and Zelig (1983). Sometimes it establishes a point of view, as for a gay man looking down desiringly on a group of schoolboys in If … (1969). Other older experiments with black and white and color include Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Eisenstein's great experiment with ideologically mixing it up in Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny, Russia, 1944).

Read more:
Andrei Tarkovsky speaks about color vs. black-and-white cinema
Indie Auteurs Delve into Black & White

Friday, February 21, 2014


Tobey Maguire, Academy Award and Golden Globe-winner Reese Witherspoon, Academy Award-nominee and Emmy-winner William H. Macy and Golden Globe-nominee Jeff Daniels star in this modern day fairy tale where an entire fictional town is granted a chance to experience the comedies and dangers of real life when two late 20th Century teenagers accidentally bring living color to a mysterious suburb trapped in a black-and-white '50s utopia--and set off a revolution. This film was written, produced, and directed by Academy Award-nominee Gary Ross. MPAA Rating: PG-13 Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements emphasizing sexuality, and for language. Copyright: 1998 New Line Productions, Inc.

Friday, February 7, 2014

La Strada: Fellini, Quinn and Scorsese


Important films in the pantheon of cinema history are often not recognized as such until decades after their release. This was definitely not the case, however, with La Strada (1954). Revered French film critic Andre Bazin’s reaction to the film announced, “Federico Fellini has here achieved one of those very rare films, of which we forget that they are movies and accept them simply as a masterpiece.”
La Strada (The Street) is the film that first brought superstardom to Italian director Fellini. In telling the story of Zampano, a brutal carnival strongman who purchases Gelsomina, a simple peasant girl, from her family to help him in his act, Fellini created a cinematic bridge between his work as one of the auteurs of European post-war neo-realism and his later autobiographical expressionistic works, such as La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2.

The movie’s narrative follows the two impoverished characters as they tour the countryside performing. Zampano puts Gelsomina to work as a clown, and treats her badly, yet she remains faithful until a chance meeting with a tightrope walker alters their fate.

Fellini was one of the great humanists of the film world. He created characters that do whatever it takes to survive, and in creating them, he offers no judgment; only compassion, sorrow, or joy when they find redemption.

La Strada won over 50 international awards, including a Best Foreign Language Oscar. Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, played the role written for her Chaplinesque talents to perfection, and it became a turning point in her long career. American actor Anthony Quinn’s powerful portrayal of the brutish Zampano brought him long-overdue critical and popular acclaim. Nino Rota’s score, an essential part of the film, was also a smash hit, selling an astounding 2 million copies.

For more background and critique:

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

RIIFF Alumni Showcase Interview: Director Mark Gill (The Voorman Problem)

RIIFF Alumni Showcase
Interview: Director Mark Gill (The Voorman Problem)
By: Caroline Miller | January 28th, 2013

One of the Audience Award Nominees from the 2012 Flickers: Rhode Island International Film Festival, “The Voorman Problem”, is an entertaining and thought-provoking short film in which the pragmatic and sensible Dr. Williams is called into a prison to examine a mysterious patient known as Voorman, who believes himself to be God. The doctor must decide whether to diagnose the patient as a lunatic, a faker, or both, however his ensuing conversations with Voorman prove to be as enigmatic as the prisoner himself.

We had the chance to interview director Mark Gill about the success of his film, his inspirations, and his future filmmaking plans. Note: There are elements of “The Voorman Problem” which are talked about, however there are no specifics that are revealed and so this interview is free of spoilers.

RIIFF: What inspired you to make this film?
Mark: My friend recommended me a book called number9dream by David Mitchell, and he said there was a part in there that I’d really like. He was right, and there’s a very small part of this novel, which is a self-contained story within a story, and that story is called ‘Panopticon’ which I took and adapted into The Voorman Problem.

RIIFF: Are there specific filmmakers whose style you try to emulate or draw from when making your films?
Mark: I think every filmmaker starts off using other people’s voices but I think that my favorite film, [although] I don’t know if it’s the best film I’ve ever seen, but my favorite film is certainly Blade Runner. That’s what made me want to make films, and I’m looking forward to going there [to Los Angeles]. I love that film and that was what really got me hooked on filmmaking.

RIIFF: Do you prefer to make short films or feature-length films?
Mark: Well I’ve never made a feature length yet, so I’m hoping this is the launchpad. I mean, if I can’t make a feature off the back of an Oscar nomination I might as well give up (laughs). I do like making short films though, they are good, and especially something like The Voorman Problem, which was an incredible experience. I like the form, I think it’s a form within itself and I think its great that the Academy supports it.

RIIFF: Was there a specific message you wished to convey when making The Voorman Problem?
Mark: To be honest with you, I don’t think there was. Its been interesting because it’s a very self-contained and satisfying little story within itself and I suppose its about metamorphosis in some ways but essentially it’s a very dark comedy, its quite whimsical, and we just wanted to make something that was entertaining.

RIIFF: To what extent is this film an examination of mental illness, and to what extent would you say it’s a ‘religious film’?
Mark: I’ll be honest in that I wasn’t thinking that when we made it. Somebody’s going to have to write a thesis on this, there’s so many different readings of it, its fantastic. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way, and this is just my personal opinion but religion is a type of mental illness, maybe. Certainly I think religion is worth exploring, and if you have a problem with it the best way to do that is with comedy. It sort of de-mystifies it in some ways, you know, comedy is a great vehicle for that [purpose].

RIIFF: This film could be considered a social commentary, was this your intention?
Mark: I’d be interested to know in what way you think it’s a social commentary
RIIFF: You know, when I watched it, [I noticed] the way that the State, as a shadow character, was portrayed in the sense that they didn’t know how to deal with Voorman and then also [the way] the man running the prison was kind of a shady character too. Those kinds of shadow components I think in some ways could be considered a sort of social commentary on the government but that’s just one reading of it.
RIIFF: I think first of all I was trying to make something that was entertaining for a change, and then what I love is that people come back with  [different] readings of it, and that’s what I love about it. And that’s what I love about David Lynch—he never explains anything, and I think I’m going to take the ‘Lynchian’ view here (laughs).

RIIFF: What would you say is the target audience for this film, and what has been your strategy for marketing this film?
Mark: It was very much geared towards festivals, because that’s the natural home for a lot of short-filmmakers and where a lot of people start out. We knew it was going to be easily marketable once we got that cast, and so we made it and then what we did is we didn’t do anything with it for about twelve months, and we just sat on it because we knew that Martin [Freeman] was gonna get the Sherlock role and then the Bilbo Baggins role. So the strategy really was just to wait till Martin’s profile was a little bit bigger--we knew that once we’d shot it and seen the original edit that what we’d got was something special and so it was a case of just strategizing and formulating a plan. So then when the film came out Martin’s profile was huge so essentially that did the work for us.

RIIFF: What future projects are you planning?
Mark: We’re already in development on our first feature film and we’ve already received some development money. It’s a film I’ve wanted to make for a long time. I can’t really talk too much about it because there’s a few legal things I need to sort out, but it’s a biopic, it’s something I’ve wanted to make for a long time, and people are quite excited about it, and I’ve got a couple of other stronger ideas of what I’d like to do after that. Both are adaptations and we’re just trying to secure the rights to those at the moment and to see if they’re available. One of them will be set in the [United] States, its an American novel, and the other one is a short story which will fall into the science fiction genre but much like Gravity, its not really about being in space. It’s a small story with a big idea.

RIIFF: Any final comments or thoughts you’d like to share?
Mark: We’ve received so much generous support from places like Rhode Island [Flickers: Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF)] and for us its been a really humbling experience to have made a piece of work that’s gone and been so well received. And then it got a BAFTA nomination and that’s as big as its got in this country, but then to top it with the Oscar you know, we are pinching ourselves quite a lot. I just want to say thank you to people like Rhode Island. I think short films are really important and I really sincerely hope the Academy continues to support them because it really helps us as filmmakers get our toe in the door. It’s very hard to make any sort of film, and I have total respect whether the film is good or bad for anybody who gets something onscreen. So if an award or a nomination can help any filmmaker and make it easier, then I think it’s worthwhile.

Although the film has had great success in the festival circuit and has racked up a number of nominations and wins, its success has been so significant that the film not only received a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nomination, but also has been nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for best short film in the fast-approaching 86th Academy Awards, which will be airing live on March 2nd.