Friday, April 21, 2006

To Catch A Thief...part deux (and "talking heads")

That last bit I typed on the previous post - the part about Grace Kelly's face - reminded me of a story I heard once about John Ford. I am trying to recall it from memory...but it went something like this:

During the shooting of one of his films, John Ford and his crew made the trek to Monument Valley, where many of the famous John Ford landsape shots were filmed (to this day, no filmmaker shoots there, out of respect). But in the morning when the crew got up to shoot, it was raining something terrible. A studio executive who was with them looked out of their tent and said, "what the hell are you going to shoot in all this muck?" and Ford supposedly replied, "The most interesting and fascinating thing in the entire world: the human face."

As I said, from birth we are drawn to look at faces. We get all of our information from other people's faces: do they like us? Do they hate us? Are they going to attack us? Are they going to embrace us? So much of our actions in life are reactions to what we see around us, and faces are always an important stimuli.

People in the animation business are always trhowing around the criticism "it's just talking heads". Animation - particularly television animation - has become guilty of relying on a lot of close-ups to tell a story, because it's cheaper and easy to draw. It's really hard to storyboard a sequence the way it SHOULD be done, by finding the right staging for each shot to tell the story well (by that I mean: where do you place the camera to tell the story the most effectively?). It's so much easier to draw faces as people deliver their dialogue. So it becomes a crutch, and when people see it, they whip out the easy crticism: "ugh, it's just talking heads."

But many live-action films have long stretches of just "talking heads". I guess it's more interesting to watch close-ups of real actors than CG or hand-drawn ones.

But, of course, every animated film has it's share as well. why? Because they're necessary, of course! There are so many emotions that can only be shown in the face. And for those we need close-ups. How could you show two people talking intimately and falling in love is you weren't looking at their faces? It wouldn't seem sincere if you were looking at their whole bodies. And if you went through a whole movie without seeing an actor in close-up, you wouldn't feel that concerned for them or connected to them. Close-ups, which is how we tend to see people in real life when we are talking to them, make us feel connected to the actor and helps us feel empathy for them - which is necessary if you want your audience to be concerned when they are hanging off Mount Rushmore or something like that.

Anyway.........more screengrabs. This one cracks me up - it's a Hitchcock gag tableau! You HEAR a car wrecking (without seeing it) then cut to this - the comic tableau of how this police car got smashed. A wrecked car, a chicken and the cop on the radio saying "it was a, a chicken!" (in French).

An interesting angle from the car chase that led to the wreck:

Nothing too brilliant to say about these next ones. Just good composition: a nice uneven breakup of space, and no uninteresting or blank areas in the frame.

Lots of good questions and comments in the last post - sorry for not answering better, I will later. For now, I am still trying to recover and rest.


Lee-Roy said...

Yes, take it easy. No rush. I'm amazed at how frequently you post this quality stuff.

Danny said...

I hope the following massive comment isn't seen intruding your blog – but reading your post triggered some random thoughts on dialog, talking heads and getting emotions across and i thought maybe somebody is interested....

Have you seen Soderberghs The Limey and Oceans Twelve ( -please forgive!)?

A thing i enjoy about Soderbergh is how different he sometimes treats dialog. While most movies rely on a close up, usually showing the person speaking, Soderbergh has - the way i see it – found beautiful and often much more effective ways to get emotions and (if necessary) the plot across.

In short:
- shooting past the actor
- facing the listener
- meddling with time, dialog and silence

Meddling with time,. Dialog and silence:
In The Limey there is a scene where the Mexican is reveling important information on Peter Fonda's daughter to Fonda. Soderbergh starts with the dialog at the home of the Mexican and then inserts shots of Fonda and the Mexican leaving the House by car, recalling and reflecting the conversation. Instead of hearing what they say when we see them talking the tone is mute giving a feeling of length, time passing and weight. Thus the dialog can be heard when the conversation is recalled, though cut together and not chronological. Sometimes (i believe) we can here the recalled dialog actually overlapping the conversation footage on screen, though not in sync and creating a very distinctive mood. Amazing, because this all follows the way we handle understand crucial information – first the dialog as such, facts but the overall still a blur, and then the spoken gradually sinking in (Fonda struggling with what he just heard, a face and not more), the real understanding.

The nice thing is the cutting back and forth, merry go round like, keeping both scenes alive. Also beautiful: how the dialog starts out as real time but at some point becomes a memory, past.
(i know, i rambled a bit on this one!)

nr. 2: Oceans Twelve (actually close to Hitchcock for its nonsensical plot but brilliant realization)
Often Soderbergh shots past the actors and action, leaving them out of focus on the side of the image (great when you have cinemascope), usually the speaker with his back to the camera, the listener visible just enough to show the reaction. This feels close to how we sometimes listen to dialog, not looking at the speaker but gazing about while the thoughts are rambling according to what we hear and can be effective when a) the voice is more important than the face and b) the movie/dialog needs to breath.
a) Voice more important than the face: We are used to seeing mouths move when hearing conversation. Through not focusing on the talking man one can create a slower pace, a mood that gives the words a slower, weightier feeling in context to the usual.
b) A movie needs to breath to settle in your mind, to rest a bit and develop its flavor. Slow shots, looking past an object, when done right can have this effect, opposed to the usual never ending chain of details. (scrosese once said about timing long shots in which the mood changes and sinks in that he tends to make them just a little bit longer than what would feel right to him.)

And last not least the listener. Maybe i see it wrong, but to me to many movies rely on just showing the speaker. But why? The speaker knows what he's saying, it's the listener who is actually acting/reacting. Why don't we show him?! But maybe it's harder to do. Talking lips might be easier to shownin an interesting manner (at least somethings happening) than a believable, subtle reaction.

And one more – why is dialog always cut so fast? How do we listen in real live? And what happens to us while we listen? Why do we sometimes gaze about and sometimes focus on who's talking? Are there different ways we listen? Different ways we understand? Can this be translated to movies?

Ok, as said this post is a bit of a rambling, but i thought it might be interesting to let my thoughts run loose once. (plus it's good brain-training for me!) And in case somebody actually read it – many thanks!

The good thing about writing this is one doesn't have to be right in to stimulate others thoughts that might turn up something better and truer. And again, forgive if it's not all too post related..

Many thanks,


Marc Deckter said...

Well that settles it, I need to rent "To Catch A Thief" tonite!

mark walton said...

It's interesting to talk about how much "face time" we need to have in a movie before it becomes a boring crutch, or how much isn't enough for us to engage with the characters. I don't know if you were here at work when Michael Dudok de Wit showed his oscar-winning film "Father and Daughter", which is remarkable for many reasons, particularly in that it has no close ups (none of his films do) - you can never get close enough to the characters to see any facial expression, so everything is communicated through body language, timing, and compositonal elements (as well as music), and, I gotta say, it's amazing what he pulls off. I was totally moved to tears by the end, which rarely happens. To be fair, this was a short, and I don't think you could sustain a full-length feature with few or no close-ups - it would keep the viewers at too great of an emotional distance. But it's a great exercise to think of creative or unconventional ways to create intimacy and emotion that will be at least as effective, if not moreso, as more traditional means. I know I tend to depend on medium-to-closeup shots a lot in my boards (I don't have to draw as much of the background!) and probably ought to ask myself more often: is this the best composition to get the point across? Or is it just the easiest to draw? I think about the last shot in The Shawshank Redemption that has medium-to-close-up shots of Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, and instead of ending with a close up of their embrace, it ends with a helicopter shot of them approaching eachother acoss the wide expanse of the bright, colorful beach - so perfect, after all the claustrophobic, colorless shots in the prison, like the emotions felt by both characters (and the audience) at the end are as big as the ocean itself, too big to be contained in a tiny frame. And in that particular example, I think not seeing them react, close up, when they finally reunite, makes it so the audience feels all of the emotion for them (you know how when something funny happens and the characters themselves laugh, or a comic laughs at his own joke, it's a lot harder for the audience to laugh, because someone is doing it for them?) Anyway, like you say, it's all about choosing whatever framing that will tell the story best at any particular point.
Soderberg is a really interesting filmmaker - I really like listening to him talk about the filmmaking process on the director's commentary on his DVD's, and I could talk about him for a while, but this post is already too long.

Danny said...

Too long?

The nice thing about the comments is no matter how much we'd go on discussing whatever - the clarity of the original blog stays unaffected. So why not more about Soderbergh, if it's topic related?

I would love to hear somebody's opinion on him, especially on the not so well received oceans twelve. As mentioned, i loved it, and every time i see it i'm more amazed how easily he sets to scene the most wonderful dialogs. Still absurd, but none the less wonderful.. Alone the fact how long he is willed to let the camera rest on a scene without cutting, how clear his dialog can be read and how much he plays around... i'm rambling again!

About the helicopter shot you mentioned – i think it's sometimes nice to just frame a situation but leave away the details. Movies are much about interpretation and not being toled. I could talk pages about this, especially when it comes to Ang Lee (ice storm!) but... the post's too long?

And i apologize for my many mistakes spelling and grammar wise, i think i left out some words in my previous post.

greetings, d.

mark kennedy said...

Of course there's no space limit on posts, it's great that people feel so inspired to add to everything! But as I tell everyone, everyone here should start their own blog and talk about this stuff in depth on your own site as well - which has the advantage that you can post screenshots which adds a lot of clarity to the discussion.

Anyway, thanks again for the comments.

SMacLeod said...

I love these screen shots. I love to see pics from the movie. I like it when you post the shots. I enjoy most the comments you make with the images from...films.

SMacLeod said...

I just had to post again b/c the word verification is: