Wright on Film

•September 24, 2009 • 6 Comments



Some readers have mentioned that the http://www.wrightonfilm.com link does not work. I have experienced this problem with the new site, and it seems to be dependent on your ISP. Simply press “Try again,” and the connection should work the second or third time. At other times, it works fine after the first try. I apologize for any confusion.

In my continuing effort to move blogs, I humbly ask anyone who comes across this site to check out my new home for film criticism at www.wrightonfilm.com.

Please update your RSS feeds and bookmarks to Wright on Film, as I am not posting new essays on this site any more. From time to time I may update Aspect Ratio, but to keep up to date on my latest posts, please visit Wright on Film.

Thanks very much!

A Mann Among Us

•July 10, 2009 • 1 Comment

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Has Michael Mann redefined the cinematic close-up? That question, along with a few others, nagged me after a recent screening of Public Enemies in Toronto. First, some context. I have long admired Mann’s artistry. There is drama in his unironic flourishes — the final moments in Heat or The Insider before the end credit roll when Moby’s music fills the air and the characters take one last look around before the screen goes black. There is precision in his mise en scene, a compositional control that rarely goes over the deep end of mannerism, when style only serves itself. He is not afraid to marinade cinematic moments with lingering stares, contemplative glances, and longer takes that follow characters in their moments of crisis, joy, confusion, or pain. One way Mann accomplishes this in-the-moment presentness is with the extreme close-up. If you haven’t seen Public Enemies and don’t want anything spoiled, then this serves as my warning that spoilers lie ahead.

While much of the early press on Public Enemies has emphasized its historical subject matter, Mann has spoken a little about his technical and aesthetic choices. In an interview with Ain’t it Cool News, Mann discusses the function of the close-up in his films. One passage is particularly informative:

I look for where or how to bring the audience into the moment, to reveal what somebody’s thinking and what they’re feeling, and where it feels like you’re inside the experience. Not looking at it, with an actor performing it, but have an actor live it, and you as audience, if I could bring the audience inside to experience. It became critical in THE INSIDER, because the ambition was to make a film that was as suspenseful as I knew, and dramatic as I knew those lives really were. And, it’s all talking heads, but the devastation, the potential devastation to [Jeffrey] Wigand and Lowell Bergman was total annihilation, personal annihilation, suicide–all that was in the cards for these guys. And, yet, it’s all just people talking. So, that kind of began an exploration into how I could bring you into experience in as internal a way as I could.

For Mann, the close-up is a ticket to a character’s soul, their inner subjectivity. The closer the camera gets, the closer we are to their thoughts.

A Pair of Subjectivities

The close-up has always been used for emphasis. They portray the emotion on someone’s face or clarify the presence of an object. We might even say that it’s the most cinematic of shots, since it affords an intimacy and immediacy that is rarely found in the other arts. But can a close-up convey character subjectivity?

Griffith Close Shot

Kristen Thompson offers a fascinating essay on the nature of subjectivity in cinema, which can be found here. She notes that “the more imaginative [filmmakers] have shown immense creativity in trying to convey what characters see and think.” She isolates two kinds of functions that emphasize character subjectivity: perceptual and mental subjectivity. As she puts it, both functions suggest being “with” the characters as opposed to merely observing them. Perceptual subjectivity offers a visual or aural connection to what a character sees or hears. Point-of-view shots or point-of-audition sound not only places the audience in the scene, but in the head of a character for a given time. There are countless examples of effective POV shots, but POA sound seems much rarer, if only because they are harder to spot. The Do Lung bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now is a good example. An American sniper loads his gun and takes aim at the trees, where a vocal Vietnamese sniper is perched, hidden by the dark. The U.S. sniper focuses his ears on the Vietnamese’s taunting voice then fires. The trees go silent. In the moment leading up to the killshot, the din of ground activity fades away and the acousmatic voice becomes the solo aural element on the sound track. We hear what the sniper hears as he strips away layer upon layer of sound until he aurally spots the tree sniper.

Apocalypse Now

Mental subjectivity, in Thompson’s view, goes a step further by offering fantasies, dreams, and other image-sound elements that are experienced by only that character. The numerous gags in Throw Momma from the Train where Owen (Danny DeVito) fantasizes about killing his mother are good examples. Without framing the fantasy, DeVito convinces his audience by playing the scene through. Only then does he cut back to the beginning of the sequence and we realize that the second half of the sequence was a figment of his imagination.

But the Do Lung sequence could also qualify as mental subjectivity since the U.S. sniper is specially trained to hone in on particular sounds — that technique is fairly unique to him. If we heard the same sequence from Willard’s position, we might not hear the same focused sound. In this respect, Thompson’s definitions are by her own admission fluid and ambiguous: “Filmmakers can create deliberate, complex, and important effects by keeping it unclear whether what we see is a character’s perception of reality or his/her imaginings.”

By all accounts Michael Mann works in the gray area between these functions. Films such as The Insider, Ali, and Public Enemies are intimate character studies even if the subject matter of each is expansive. The Insider is as much about the news business as it is about the personal struggle of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe). It isn’t surprising, then, to hear Mann discuss that film in docudrama terms with lots of talking and exposition. He attempts to overcome the dryness of this approach by personalizing the story, thereby bringing the audience closer to Wigand, in three key sequences.

Immediacy and Despair

The Insider 1

We are introduced to Wigand at the beginning of the film through a series of fragmented shots. Mann captures a birthday celebration in the B&W chemistry lab through a glass partition. Wigand’s profile appears in close-up, out of focus, as the party continues in the background, out of ear shot. He packs up his briefcase with haste, then exits the office. Cut to Wigand in the elevator. The camera is perched on Wigand’s shoulder, inches from his ear. We’re only slightly off Wigand’s own eyeline, a pseudo POV shot. The doors open and Wigand exists — the camera holds its position. We move into the lobby still attached to Wigand by Mann’s fly-on-the-shoulder camera. As he approaches the floor security guard, we cut to a wider shot of Wigand passing the guard. Mann slows the film down, stretching the moment, giving an impression of Wigand’s own stunned numbness to the situation.

Insider 2

Later in the film, following a contentious meeting with Brown & Williamson chairman Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon) and B&W legal counsel, Wigand leaves corporate headquarters in a rage. He calls Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) from a pay phone to blame him for the way the company was treating him. Framed again extremely tight, Mann’s camera is inches from Wigand’s face. In this way, Wigand’s enraged state is expressed with the extreme close-up. It’s made even more jarring when we cut to Bergman’s, who is framed in medium long shot, while Wigand is right in our face.

Insider 4

Insider 5

It’s also interesting to note that during the B&W meeting, Mann incorporates the on-the-skin close-ups into his shot reverse-shot compositions.

Insider 6Insider 7

These two uses of the extreme close-up aim to bring us closer to Wigand’s inner subjectivity, to be on his skin — if not totally in his thoughts. I would even suggest that the tight framing also leads to a kind of compositional clostrophobia, where Mann’s camera seeks to make us feel Wigand’s pain. It’s not necessarily a POV shot, since both sequences utilize relatively objective camera angles, which are positioned outside Wigand’s body. We also don’t get much POA sound in either case. Instead, Mann uses a particular camera technique — bringing the camera close to the skin — in order to satisfy the need for inner subjectivity.

It’s not an altogether new technique, either. The Dardenne brothers achieved a similar effect in Rosetta. The rather grim tale of a young Belgian girl’s struggle with poverty and social alienation utilizes the same sort of on-the-skin camera to further bring us into her world. At times, we’re locked on her face and experience the world around her only through sound.


To express the enormity of the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg offers surprisingly few establishing shots, and instead relies on a few well-placed extreme close-ups. The most notable example comes after the battle, as Horvath (Tom Sizemore) remarks, “That’s quite a view.” Close on Miller’s helmet, he raises his head, takes a swig of canteen water, and takes in the sight: “Yes it is. Quite a view.” Spielberg’s camera moves in closer until Miller’s eyes are the only thing in focus. Only then do we cut to a series of wider shots of the beach. Again, the close-up emphasizes the connection between character and audience without taking the form of a traditional POV shot.


The final example of character subjectivity from The Insider is one of Mann’s only forays into mental subjectivity. Late in the film Wigand is holed up in a hotel room, his wife and children having already abandoned him. He’s all but given up, seated in a chair, unshaved, disheveled. A hotel employee attempts to get him to answer a telephone call from Lowell, but he’s drifted off into a daydream. Lisa Gerrand’s hypnotic voice primes the viewer for an unexpected fantasy that unfolds around Wigand. A pastoral mural on the wall behind him begins to morph into his old backyard, where his two children are playing. He turns to face them as the two girls stop and stare back. The moment is broken when we cut back to the hotel employee, who is still on the phone with Lowell, saying “He doesn’t seem to be listening.”

Insider 8Insider 10

It’s a relatively short daydream, but a bold move on Mann’s part to include such a whimsical touch in an otherwise button-down narrative. It works because we’ve been primed by the various close-up techniques to expect a glimpse into Wigand’s psyche.



Public Enemies continues Mann’s close-up technique on a more visceral level. Instead of portioning out the device, he composed much of the film in a deliberately tight fashion. One film critic went as far to say that he dispenses with the use of establishing shots altogether! For the record, there are a few scattered throughout the picture, here and there. But the critic’s point is well taken: there are far fewer master shots than in any conventional actioner, including the Bourne series, which is anchored by a series of sprawling city shots with legends indicating the location.

Chicago itself is presented as a disjointed city; the Biograph theatre floats somewhere in between Dillinger’s hideaway and the Bureau’s HQ. The bank heists remain coherent, but verge on the indefinable. According to the filmmakers, Mann expressed a desire for immediacy in order to move beyond the period niceties of 1930s Chicago. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, “Mann redressed Lincoln Avenue on either side of the Biograph Theater, and laid streetcar tracks; I live a few blocks away, and walked over to marvel at the detail. I saw more than you will; unlike some directors, he doesn’t indulge in beauty shots to show off the art direction. It’s just there.” In fact, Mann wants you to think that the detail is on their faces.

In the same Ain’t it Cool News interview, Mann mentions the psychological importance of the extreme close-up in the film:

So, with Homer, outside the bank, and he sees that police car drive up. There’s a close-up–it’s something you can only do in hi-def–I’ve got the lens right here, and you’ll just see the focus shift to right to the stubble, and then I’m heightening that and color timing by raising the contrast just when we get there. So, you really feel you’ve gone right into Homer, and you can feel his awareness just climb up. There’s no nervousness, there’s nothing. But, you see he has totally taken in the arrival of the cops outside.

Again, in Mann’s view, the closer we get to the skin the closer we can absorb that character’s emotional state. We not only see the sweat begin to bead, but we might also begin to sweat ourselves.


We don’t get any closer than with Johnny Depp’s vivid portrayal of Dillinger himself. He plays Dillinger close to the chest, but that’s where Mann’s camera can peel away the hardened exterior to reveal his cheek scar, his five-o’clock shadow, and a range of muted emotions that are exclamation points in close-up. In the film’s final minutes, the close-up is combined with a pseudo POV shot of the fatal bullet that enters the back of his neck and exits under his right cheek. As he lies dying on the sidewalk, Mann returns to the on-the-skin shot one more time to see Dillinger in a much more vulnerable light. Ironically, we’re so close, yet we still can’t make out what he’s saying.

Returning to my original question — has Michael Mann redefined the cinematic close-up? — I don’t think so. Mann is an ambitious filmmaker who often seeks to refresh cinematic conventions if only to tell very familiar stories. The close-up remains a choice in the filmmaker’s bag of tricks to emphasize. But I would argue that even a long shot can emphasize character psychology, if placed in the hands of a talented filmmaker.

Mann’s close-ups are interesting because few other directors today portray subjectivity this way. They have become a signature Mann shot. With The Insider we witness Jeffrey Wigand’s crisis with a macro lens, while the rest of the film remains detached and cool. I would argue that Public Enemies erases that borderline between close proximity and objective control. By placing the audience in the immediacy of Dillinger’s present, the close-ups lose their emotional edge, their ability to read character subjectivity, and we are ultimately left with mannerist excess.

At certain points the close-up can emphasize character psychology, to bring us closer to their skin. But we’ll never be in their skin.



•July 10, 2009 • 1 Comment

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This blog has been dark for quite a while now, which is the result of my current research schedule. I haven’t been able to keep up with regular posts because the dissertation has been consuming much of my time lately. Part of my absence stems from a recent sojourn to Los Angeles where I was fortunate enough to spend some quality time with Hollywood sound professionals — from Foley artists to sound supervisors to final re-recording mixers — in an attempt to get a first-hand view of things.

Before I embarked on this massive doctoral project I had hopes of being able to speak with high level sound practitioners in order to bridge the divide between film theory and practice. But even my thesis committee doubted the degree to which I would be granted access to the production and post-production process of low and high budget pictures. But after completing dozens of phone interviews I was slowly cracking the once thought to be permanent glass that separated academic film studies from the world of modern film production. Right now I can’t go into any sort of detail about what I saw and heard, since I’m saving that for my bigger writing project (i.e. the thesis). But it’s safe to say that I observed some very creative people doing some very creative things with sound and picture. I probably learned more about the industry and the post process on this short trip than in my years of graduate study.

I’d like to thank everyone who invited me to spend time with them and observe their work. They could not have been more welcoming and generous to me. I appreciated all the candid conversations, the lunches, and the opportunity to sit quietly and observe it all.


One thing that does not get much attention in film criticism is the degree to which filmmaking is an intensely collaborative art. While the director is still considered the captain of the ship, he or she relies on a crew of imaginative and hard-working craftspeople who make large and small decisions with every cut. They live and breathe projects for months on end — some for even longer. It reminded me of a George Carlin line: “I’m never critical or judgmental on whether or not a movie is any good. The way I look at it, if several hundred people got together every day for a year or so — a number of them willing to put on heavy makeup, wear clothes that weren’t their own and pretend to be people other than themselves — and their whole purpose for doing all this was to entertain me, then I’m not going to start worrying about whether or not they did a good job.”

The access I was granted certainly showcased the collaborative nature of the industry. At one point I was asked for my opinion on some minor sound choices, presumably because I haven’t lived with the images and sounds for weeks or months. It was all fresh to my eyes and ears, and I soaked up as much as possible.

This whole experience emphasized once again one of the major problems with film studies today. Far too few scholars who study contemporary media engage with the filmmaking community. Even with hundreds of monographs devoted to specific films, filmmakers, cinematic movements, historical periods, and technical achievements — we know so little about how films are made. What fascinates me and other scholars such as David Bordwell are the ways in which decisions are made by directors, editors, composers, mixers, and designers. As Bordwell has put it: what are the constraints and possibilities that inform their work? How do they work with limited budgets, shorter deadlines? How does technology assist or disrupt their workflow?

These insights may not redefine how we analyze films as finished products, but they do afford us an opportunity to explore how they were finished. It also raises the question about whether or not films are ever finished, or if they are simply let go at some point. With more and more films being scheduled for release a year or more in advance, post-production crews are frequently in a race against the clock to complete a sound mix or prepare an editorial assembly for a preview screening.

By also considering the mechanics of the industry in which films are made, we can identify broader aesthetic trends that may not be limited to one or two films. My own experience is that Hollywood craftspeople are so fine-tuned to their work that they have a difficult time articulating particular aesthetic choices and ascribing a specific purpose to them. It would be like asking a lawyer — who is drowning in a massive criminal trial — what particular aesthetic informs their speaking style during their opening and closing statements. I believe this is where the historian, whose skills at observation and scholarship, can assist in filling out the details that the filmmaker is too close to identify.

The biggest advantage of studying contemporary works is that the filmmakers are still around to answer your questions. Instead of relying on trade press clippings or limited interview material, why not seek out the editor or composer or mixer yourself?

A former professor of mine would question the usefulness of interviewing filmmakers because there was the potential that they would confuse the film with their intention. As in, “I intended that shot to signify the emotional state of the girl.” In this way, the filmmaker is imposing a meaning on something that is not so arbitrary. This professor would argue that the film stands on its own, to be studied separately from its making and its intention. Which is a fair argument. But by excluding the artistic process from an analysis of the finished work seems highly problematic to me.

Sometimes it’s hard to be an academic in film studies who actually loves movies and the history of the movies. With all the snobbery, esoteric tastes, and glamorization of half-baked theories, I wonder if most film scholars are actually movie fans. There’s nothing quite like passing through historic studio gates, roaming around lots, chatting with feature directors and other crew members about their craft. On this visit I kept my enthusiasm in check, played it close to the chest, but was in total amazement every minute I spent talking Hollywood shop. It’s not every day that a kid from Toronto can do that. In the months to come I’ll be back to continue the fun and continue to peek behind the curtain.

The trip also afforded me an opportunity to be revel in some cineastic pleasures. I took in The Hangover at the Cinerama dome, now the Arclight complex. I’ve written about old movie theaters in Toronto here, but must admit that L.A. takes the cake for unique, historic, and technically proficient cinemas. That the Arclight has staff outside the doors ready to handle any audio or projection problems is pretty impressive. I should be posting a piece on The Hangover and its use of the 2.40:1 aspect ratio soon. It’s something that I noticed while watching it on the dome’s massively curved screen.


The Silent Movie Theatre is another gem, which showcases a diverse bunch of (mostly sound) films, in a facility that was built in the 1940s as a home for silent pictures. I avoided official studio tours, but did my own driving tour and came across a famous movie house that brings back more terrifying memories than Norman Bates’ house. And to think that it sits steps away from the hustle and bustle of Sunset Blvd. See if you can guess it…

horror house

So many other sights and sounds from the trip. I witnessed the taxing job of ADR (a.k.a. “looping”) on both the actor and supervisor. I found out that studio cafeterias have amazing food. I appreciated the honesty of filmmakers to share their thoughts on the state of the industry. I apparently avoided “June gloom,” which plagues the city with dreary days. Between all the real work I was there to do, I managed to take in a sunset in Malibu and a hike through the hills. I almost missed the elephant statues from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance at the Hollywood and Highland Center. Had several great meals with old friends. And to think all of this constitutes work. Alvy Singer had it wrong about L.A.

Annie Hall

Hearing Beyond Words

•May 1, 2009 • 3 Comments

Jerry Goldsmith

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If you know me or have read some of my posts, you’ll know that I am a film music devotee. The music of film guided my early education in cinema as I came to know the work of Hitchcock through the music of Herrmann, Spielberg through Williams, Burton through Elfman, Fellini through Rota, and Leone through Morricone. From there, things multiplied quickly as my tastes expanded and I was introduced to different styles (minimalism), periods (Miklós Rózsa’s 40s noir), and trends (Jerry Goldsmith’s electronics). Ironically, despite my note-by-note analysis of many works, I have no training whatsoever in reading music nor playing an instrument. Over the years I’ve picked up quite a bit of theory by reading album liner notes, film music texts, and critical writings on the subject. But it still remains an obstacle for someone like me who writes on film to not be able to delve into the compositional science of this so-called neglected art.

So, for years I have been trying to find ways to study the craft without relying on musicological methods. To be honest, most musicological studies of film music are dry reads, often forgetting that the notes and motifs are to be married to an image-track and joined with other sonic elements like dialog and effects. Strictly musicological studies tend to divorce the music from the rest of the film, preferring instead to reach broad-minded conclusions about artistic style and dramatic intent based on close textual readings of the score. What’s missing is an understanding of how music affects the audiovisual experience, and how that experience is crafted by composers in the industry.

Music as Industry

Johnny Williams

A few years ago, two other approaches to the study of film music struck a chord with me. The first is exemplified by Robert Faulkner’s 1978 essay in Qualitative Sociology, “Swimming with Sharks: Occupational Mandate and the Hollywood Film Composer.” Faulkner distills the working relationship between the composer and director in Hollywood and argues that the composer may have artistic license on a project, but ultimately the producer and/or director will negotiate the role and function of music in the film. Faulkner writes, “Only the craft really belongs to the craftsman. The product belongs to someone else.”

Faulkner’s approach is both economic and social, in that he focuses on the nature of collaboration in the film industry. He is less concerned with aesthetics or style as they relate to specific films or composers, but instead how artistic sensibilities gel with the larger filmmaking culture in Hollywood. “The composer’s clients seldom find themselves in the situation where they must follow instructions and depend on the recommendations of the artist/expert, as is often the case with a lawyer or physician,” Faulkner argues. “The commercial craft is precarious: it is negotiated and re-negotiated on a situation-to-situation basis. While both composer and filmmaker are theoretically in accord with the end product of their relationship — a ‘good’ film score — the means by which this is achieved can be a source of conflict. Meddling and interference is a constant problem. Once the score is completed, the filmmaker is the final arbiter of a composer’s labor. He or she has the power to do what he or she wants with the music.”

For anyone who bothers to know such things, there are too few studies of modern Hollywood that delve into the division of labor, the relationships among craftspeople, and the struggle between art and commerce. In my own research interviews with sound professionals, there is a common thread among them: many are experiencing shorter production schedules, budgetary cutbacks, and post-production supervisors and producers who want creative decisions made quicker and films turned around in record time. In this environment, composers sometimes have too little time to develop their ideas; other times, their ideas are drowned out by other sonic elements or dropped altogether from the final mix. Jerry Goldsmith’s second-last score for Richard Donner’s Timeline was dropped but subsequently released on CD by Varèse Sarabande because eleventh hour editorial changes required Goldsmith to redo several cues. Because of his health at the time, Goldsmith and Donner agreed to part ways, which opened the door for Donner to hire Brian Tyler to compose a brand new score for the re-edited version.

The question remains how composers (and other craftspeople) deal with these obstacles. How does this affect their creative decisions and choices? To what extent do composers rely on what I would call “fallback principles” to complete a sequence or an entire score because of time restraints? By this I mean the degree to which composers utilize a set of creative assumptions based on training or instinct.

Music as Expression


The second approach rests on the expressiveness of film music. I am particularly drawn to Noël Carroll’s theory of “modifying music,” whereby music helps to clarify mood, setting, character, or dramatic import of a scene. Jeff Smith has noted that Carroll’s theory represents “an aspect of musical cognition, a means of enabling spectators to gauge the emotional qualities of a scene” (“Unheard Melodies? A Critique of Psychoanalytic Theories of Film Music”). By acknowledging the emotional currency of film music, we can begin to understand its affective qualities beyond both musicological and abstract psychoanalytic frameworks. “A cognitive account of film music,” writes Smith, “would not only more directly address the issue of the spectator’s awareness of film music, but would also address the spectator’s mental activities in utilizing cues that musically convey setting, character, and point of view.”

The study of musical cognition — or our ability to understand the emotional expressiveness of music — offers us a valuable way to discover how music affects our experience of a film. Even a casual observer will acknowledge the presence of repeated themes (motifs) that signify characters or other visual iconography. They will also be attuned to the tonal dynamics and mood of music in specific sequences. The ubiquitous example here that combines both of these affective properties is Jaws. I’m thinking specifically of the pier incident sequence when a pair of bright bounty hunters attempt to lure the shark to them with a holiday roast. We’re triggered to the presence of the shark by the two-note sawing motif. John Williams uses the motif not only to note the presence of the shark, but to also indicate its proximity to the bounty hunters. Since we cannot see the shark, the orchestra’s loudness and intensity act as barometers. We’re also cued to the danger and violence of the act, which is emphasized by the guttural churning of the double basses and horn counterpoint. Listen here.

The music here is an unambiguous example of music that serves an emotional role. The threat of the shark is expressed musically, since it is goes unseen for much of the picture. As an audience we are placed in a more informed position than the two hunters: we know when the shark is going to strike because the music (which is not heard by the characters) leads us to this conclusion.

The debate among film music scholars (and some fans) that film music should not manipulate or lead the audience is as old as the practice of underscoring for motion pictures. I gave up a long time ago trying to make sense of it, since many composers will admit that their job is in service to the dramatic and emotional core of the narrative. By their very nature they heighten the emotional tone of a scene through a variety of practices. In a 1996 interview Jerry Goldsmith exclaimed, “The job of the composer is to delve into the emotional aspect of the film. I’ve heard so many people and critics say, ‘Well, the music is leading the audience emotionally. It’s not right!’ Or, ‘you’re manipulating us!’ Well, what the hell? That’s what we’re here to do! Good film is manipulating your audience!”

Moving Music

First Contact

In this way, film music can move us emotionally. With all the hype surrounding the release of the J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film, I was reminded the other day of Goldsmith’s contribution to the musical heritage of Gene Roddenberry’s film and TV franchise, especially one scene at the end of 1997’s First Contact. I’m a fan of this entry in the series, but always felt the final scene played a bit stiff. However, all the hesitation and awkward staging seems to melt away when Goldsmith accentuates the emotional significance of this moment, when humankind makes first contact with an alien species. Skip ahead to 6:40 to see this sequence here.

“I want one theme that will sum up the entire…spiritual, dramatic message of the picture,” Goldsmith noted in 1993. “I need the main theme and I need some motif,” he added. “Not a theme but a motif. Something secondary.” These comprise Goldsmith’s building blocks of a score, no matter what genre, tone, or setting. These elements also carry with them the emotional punctuation and grammar of the score. In this example from Rudy, Goldsmith scores the final game with a brassy four-note motif that works in conjunction with the more lyrical and sweeping Irish-flavored theme for Rudy himself (heard when he’s carried out).


What’s even more impressive about the music than its emotional register is its ability to keep the sequence moving. When Goldsmith spoke about audience manipulation, he was referring to a particular practice that emphasizes emotional manipulation (high strings = tears; screeching strings = horror). But another kind of manipulation positions the composer as pace-setter. The Rudy example works well in this respect, since Goldsmith’s two melodies work to create two different moods that affect the pacing of the entire sequence. The 4-note football motif, with its diving violins and reactive brass, works the audience into a frenzy of surreal action. Although David Anspaugh’s camera remains at the sidelines for most of the sequence, the soundtrack (including the music and effects) remains much closer to Rudy’s perspective. Though Rudy cannot hear the music, Goldsmith approximates the tension and excitement with Rudy in mind. Once Rudy is lifted up by his teammates, the tone shifts and Goldsmith returns to the more familiar emotional pull of Hollywood film scoring. The lyrical theme, joined by a choir of voices, moves the audience tonally towards the film’s resolution as it moves them emotionally. The bold timpani roll signifies a slowing-down of the action as Goldsmith scores the remainder of the scene more gently, thereby stretching the apparent passage of time.

Two simple melodies in service to a story. Whether we consciously hear the music or not, Goldsmith and others like him have shown that music can be a modifying element in a film. I’ve tried to argue here that such a modifying effect need not be reserved to an emotional framework, designed to move the audience spiritually. This is certainly the case, even as Goldsmith has pointed out in the quotes above. However, my own attempts to study film music have led me to consider the modifying elements as temporal and spatial in nature. Music moves the audience through a sequence, both emotionally and temporally. Ask yourself why you feel almost out of breath after one of these dramatic sequences. You haven’t moved in your seat, but you have been moved by the rhythmic and expressive nature of film music.

Rudy finale

Déjà Vu All Ovér Agàin

•April 7, 2009 • 7 Comments

Spielberg Cameron Katzenberg

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I’m always finding interesting articles on the net regarding modern film technique, but last week I came across a really marvelous audio interview with James Cameron and Steven Spielberg on the future of 3-D imaging in Hollywood cinema. The interview was conducted by Time magazine editor Josh Quittner and can be found here. It’s a shame that most of the interview did not make it into the relatively short article, but the audio excerpt with these two filmmakers reveals a remarkable discussion about film technique, history, and the fascination with immersive entertainment.

What emerges from this interview is a clear sense of each filmmaker’s personal perspective on the nature of cinematic storytelling and the role of high technology in the filmmaking process. With a firm grasp on the high watermarks in technological film history, Cameron appears to school Quittner on the basics: the coming of sound, color, widescreen, stereo sound, and 3D. He is comfortable referring to technique and artistry in early silent cinema as he is in recounting the economic history of modern 3D and IMAX experiments. He is also very confident mapping out where he wants to take live-action narrative movies in the next decade. He is undoubtedly a champion of 3D or stereoscopy, which he sees as a “pervasive if not ubiquotous” format in the next few years.

Alternatively, Spielberg reveals his skepticism towards a wholehearted embrace of a re-engineered technique that failed with moviegoers nearly 50 years ago. While Cameron insists that digital 3D is nothing like your grandfather’s 3D — which he likens to Arch Oboler and the anaglyph method (superimposition of two images) — Spielberg offers a more reserved appraisal. In his words, digital 3D constitutes a “revelation not a revolution,” an “evolution” of cinematic form but not one that threatens to eclipse standard 2D filmmaking. At least not yet. Spielberg’s skepticism is rooted in the fact that up until now no live action film has utilized digital 3D to tell a story without relying on z-axis tricks and showy effects.

Where Spielberg sees 3D as a ubiquitous element in modern animation (he is shooting The Aventures of Tintin in 3D), Cameron intends to be the first to introduce a new filmmaking vocabulary with his live-action hybrid, Avatar, which blends performance capture (what he calls e-motion capture) with live action elements and actors. But both men agree that 3D cannot save a poorly conceived film.

What is most fascinating, though, is the discussion about personal style and technique that reaches beyond 3D and reveals the creative process of each director. Cameron discusses his work in terms of control and harnessing the technology in order to push the medium. He has spent nearly a decade designing and innovating stereoscopic cameras and is figuring out new ways to shoot and edit stereo space. In the process, he is retrofitting Titanic (and potentially other films as well) to 3D, which will hit theaters sometime in the next year or two.

By contrast, Spielberg states that he has no desire to reformat his old films, since they were not shot with 3D in mind. In a brief exchange, he goes into some detail on his shooting style, in which he plans each shot with one eye open, since it gives him a more accurate approximation of the frame as a 2D construct. On Tintin, which is due out sometime in 2011, he confides that for the first time in his career he is framing shots with both eyes open, presumably to better compose for stereo space.

The Spaces Between

Although I am currently entrenched in the world of sound space, I’m always keeping an eye on editing trends and the changing nature of spatial geography in contemporary movies. See this post, for instance. I have found that in order to really appreciate sound space, it’s important to consider image editing strategies as well. On the surface, Cameron insists that stereoscopic space is not dissimilar from 2D space, in that conventional cinematographic and editing strategies can be upheld. Which is why it might be more of a revelation than a revolution if conventions are merely tweaked, not redefined. No doubt we’ll still have shot-reverse-shots, dolly shots, montages, etc. Thus, Cameron appears to be trying to appease some of his director and cinematographer colleagues, who are reticent about shooting in HD and in 3D. Their hesitation stems — in Cameron’s view — from a lack of familiarity with digital tools, preferring instead to cling to their light meters and celluloid canisters. He’s asking them to trust him.

The challenge that Spielberg sees is a creative one that influences his decisions at the level of shot composition. Unlike animated 3D, which is not limited by depth of field and focus, live-action 3D is theoretically hampered by limited depth of field, especially in low-light conditions as Spielberg points out. In this way, he would need to map out the z-axis of each shot to ensure that certain foreground/middleground/background elements are in tight/soft focus to maximize (or minimize) the 3D “pop.” As he said, “You get more depth if you throw your foreground out of focus. It just looks deeper.”

Another concern for stereo space is the space between shots, or how 3D shots can be cut together without throwing too many depth cues at the audience. With shot lengths decreasing and framing fairly tight these days, how will filmmakers like Cameron respond? Spielberg seems to suggest that modern action editing strategies might not work with live-action 3D, especially if every shot is a maximized for its “3Dness.” The net result could be hundreds of shots with different depth cues, forcing the audience to constantly readjust what they’re looking at. Recently, my wife had trouble with the 3D work in Coraline for much the same reason: too much z-axis information across successive shots.


The spatial possibilities of live action stereo space have yet to be fully realized, but Cameron appears to be on the bleeding edge of innovating a stylistic language that may shape future uses of the technique. He is so convinced of digital 3D that he has no plans to return to 2D filmmaking anytime soon. On the other hand, Spielberg’s more measured response to both 3D and high definition (as replacement mediums for old-fashioned 2D celluloid) seems antithetical for a filmmaker who has been on the cutting edge of several modern technological innovations in movies: Dolby Stereo in the late 1970s, photo-real CGI in the early 1990s, and the use of digital pre-visualization tools in the early 2000s. But he and his longtime editor Michael Kahn continue to cut on film — instead of on a digital workstation. Walter Murch has pointed out that since the mid-1990s the only film to win a Best Editing at the Academy Awards that was NOT edited digitally was Saving Private Ryan in 1998.

The Bleeding Edge

The debate on the viability of live action 3D is only beginning, but these two perspectives provide us with a preview of the coming attraction. Interestingly, debates on the power of technology to influence the art and craft of filmmakers remind me of a Francis Coppola quote:

“People ask me if all this technology will make the movie any better. Well, no, technology doesn’t make art any better. Art depends on luck and talent. But technology changes art.”

In the 1970s Coppola was on the forefront of digital editing and shooting, decades before high-def was a household term. In a fascinating new book called DroidMaker, Michael Rubin explores the ways in which Coppola and George Lucas attempted to redefine how films were produced, shot, and edited. Rubin paints Coppola as a bold showman who refused to see the limits of his vision, so much so that his expensive experiments eventually led to bankruptcy, and nearly ruined his career. Lucas, on the other hand, was less reactive and took a more cautious approach to the digital revolution. He took smaller steps, which arguably paid off in the long term. It’s hard not to see the comparison with 3D today.

Lucas Coppola

While Cameron and others are pushing hard to get more theaters converted to digital, he cites Lucas’ original digital cinema plan as a good effort but not enough to convince exhibitors across North America that digital is the way of the future. Lucasfilm had originally hoped that exhibitors would be quick to convert theaters when it was revealed that the last two Star Wars films were intended to be shown digitally. Gentle nudging didn’t do it, so Cameron is hoping that a more aggressive campaign –and perhaps more impressive films — will convince audiences to demand the change. As Hugh Hart recently noted in a Wired article, “No matter how deep the 21st century filmmaker’s bag of tricks, digital sleight of hand won’t rescue weak performances or lame dialogue. Despite elaborate green-screen backdrops painstakingly scanned into existence by hundreds of visual-effects techies, The Spirit flopped.”

Even more impressive than the coming of live action digital 3D is the extent to which the film industry has already adopted 3D digital imaging technology to create virtual sets for pre-vis purposes and, more impressively, for set creation and extension. These effects aren’t limited to expensive blockbusters, either. For United 93, Paul Greengrass shot much of the interior plane footage in a 50-foot section of an airline cabin. In post, Peter Chiang and his crew of digital artists extended the partial set to include more rows and other details for 30-odd shots.

united 93

Even though the most impressive examples of digital set design still stem from summer tentpoles and actioners, the artists responsible for these creations insist that their best work should go unnoticed. Production designer Alex McDowell has noted that, “For me, it’s about creating a machine that both contains and triggers narrative. At the beginning of a film, these new tools allow us to set up a kind of test-control space where you throw ideas in and test them against the logic of the storytelling.”

There are some remarkable things happening with virtual sets and digital extensions that go unnoticed by most of us. McDowell’s tools are quickly becoming conventions of the trade, as indispensable as mattes were in the studio era. Coppola is right: technology can change how artists think of their medium, but it will never change the artist’s desire to tell a story. If we think too big about the challenge of 3D and the wealth of options it gives to filmmakers, we may end up losing sight of these more modest and subtle changes at the level of production design.

The history of film is filled with oracles, prognosticators, visionaries, and showmen. The industry itself is also remarkably conservative when it comes to technological innovation and diffusion. But these aren’t entirely incommensurable. Despite what some might say, it took the release and success of Star Wars in 1977 to push exhibitors to install the Dolby cinema processor in order to decode the multichannel sound track. And it took Cameron and Spielberg’s persistence with Industrial Light & Magic — not to mention Dennis Muren’s creative genius — to produce groundbreaking CG work for Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. The technological history of the movies is as fascinating as it is incredibly predictable and slow. When Cameron speaks, we should listen, but we should also listen to Spielberg’s cautious optimism, which is in my view a far safer bet. We’ll just have to wait and see. Avatar is still eight months away.


To avoid fainting, keep repeating: “It’s only a sound effect.”

•March 25, 2009 • 2 Comments

Last House on the Left New

The reviews for the remake of The Last House on the Left have not been too kind. Dennis Harvey of Variety says the film is “Unnecessary on every level save the paramount commercial one.” Peter Howell of the Toronto Star says, “If you’re a sociologist tracking the decline of civilization over the past four decades, you’re in for a night of solid research.” Roger Ebert advises, “I’m giving it a 2.5 in the silly star rating system and throwing up my hands.”

Quite predictably, the film has been roundly tagged as one more experiment in horror torture cinema, which reached a sort of hysterical apotheosis with the Hostel series and a few other less successful variants including Wolf Creek, Captivity, and The Devil’s Rejects (a film that I actually admire). In a 2006 article for New York, David Edelstein lamented the pervasiveness of sadistic horror as Hollywood’s choice scare opiate:

Explicit scenes of torture and mutilation were once confined to the old 42nd Street, the Deuce, in gutbucket Italian cannibal pictures like Make Them Die Slowly, whereas now they have terrific production values and a place of honor in your local multiplex. As a horror maven who long ago made peace, for better and worse, with the genre’s inherent sadism, I’m baffled by how far this new stuff goes—and by why America seems so nuts these days about torture.

It isn’t that surprising, especially if we consider the critical reception of Wes Craven’s original Last House on the Left, which itself was a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Howard Thompson’s New York Times review, even after 30 years, is an apt summary of a sub-genre that still confounds critics and some audiences:

In a thing (as opposed to a film) titled “Last House on the Left,” four slobbering fiends capture and torture two “groovy” young girls who airily explore the bad section of a town and more or less ask for trouble.

When I walked out, after 50 minutes (with 35 to go), one girl had just been dismembered with a machete. They had started in on the other with a slow switchblade. The party who wrote this sickening tripe and also directed the inept actors is Wes Craven. It’s at the Penthouse Theater, for anyone interested in paying to see repulsive people and human agony.

While Thompson’s repulsion stems from the gruesomeness of the film’s depiction of rape, torture and murder, Edelstein is more concerned with the slick, high-end production values afforded to this sub-genre of modern horror. In the days of Craven’s original film, exploitation pics — even highly crafted ones — hardly resembled A, B, and even C-grade fare. Now, the slightly unattractive textures of film grain, overexposures, lens flares, and slap-dash editing are markers of a highly stylized studio horror film. With Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and the the remakes of Friday the 13th, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Last House on the Left, the unintentional effects of a low budget and youthful experimentation have been consciously codified into a new system of horror aesthetics. Dennis Cozzalio pinpointed this trend in a recent piece on the new Friday the 13th: “The wonder is that even though every single scare is of the dog/funny stoner/masked psycho-jumping-out-at-you-from-nowhere (accompanied by amplified musical sting, or scream, or stabbing sound effect) variety, the movie is so much more accomplished on a simple technical level than any of its predecessors that, despite its slavish faithfulness to the tired (not a typo) and true Jason formula it ends up, through the sheer magic of competent pacing and high-quality cinematography, seeming like a masterpiece, if not of the horror genre, then at least of the Jason genre.”

Last House on the Left

Indeed, the cultivation of specific techniques into a new conventional system of aesthetics and high style is not limited to the horror genre. In fact, many modern filmmakers seem to be borrowing and reinventing old techniques all the time, consciously or unconsciously. The most pervasive of the bunch is the use of documentary “realism” in action films and dramas. So, while your old home movies were often poorly lit, hand-held, and edited with lots of jump cuts and subjective inserts, some Hollywood genres have utilized these techniques in the service of greater realism.

There is also the sense that a foul movie like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its remake should not look too slick or too artful, since its off-the-cuff approach actually adds another level of mystery, terror, and disgust. The original narration at the beginning of Tobe Hooper’s film points to the film being a factual account “of the tragedy that befell a group of five youths…” Twenty-five years later, The Blair Witch Project went further by claiming that the low-quality video to be actual found footage. Some even claim that the dingy aesthetic of old VHS rental copies add to the mystique and danger of some older horror flicks. What better than to experience true no-budget horrors on a worn VHS copy that warps, stutters, and bleeds color?

So, as these films have moved from trench-coat theaters to suburban multiplexes, their visual styles have also streamlined. But the focus on their unmistakable visual polish has unfairly eclipsed the role of sound in this new horror paradigm, where cheap is now expensive chic. Modern sound style is at the core of my doctoral research and the horror genre provides a useful introduction to some of its key aesthetic trends. To be sure, the sound of modern horror might not deviate from the fundamentals of earlier eras, but as with many things the devil is in the details.

The sound of horror is the exclamation point to a terrifying scene. It’s the rhythmic pulse that quickens our breath in anticipation of a pay-off scare. It can also be laughably predictable: the screech of high strings, a woman’s scream in the dead of night, an intense clap of thunder, the heavy breathing of a nearby assailant. These sonic conventions and icons, among many others, have defined the sound of horror cinema since the 1930s, if not earlier. They contribute to our sense of the genre by providing some key sonic markers.

I’ve always considered the goal of horror sound to be the enhancement of the visual frame by supplying the right amount of atmosphere, tension and directional cues. Sound can also push the limits of horror violence by suggesting far more than what is shown. Points are often raised about the severity of current horror violence, but they usually concern visual depictions of various extreme acts. Arguably, the gurgling, bloody gasps of victims or offscreen sounds of powertools diving into flesh have been safe from MPAA censorship, since it’s heard and not seen. Even as the borders of acceptable graphic imagery enlarge, sound will inevitably push them even wider. The unseen presence of sound taunts us with orchestral crashes, faraway whispers, and deafening silence.

With only mono sound and some stock library tracks, classical Hollywood films have yielded a surfeit of terrifying moments derived from the spare or dense use of sound. In keeping with today’s film roster, the final act of Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre emphasizes poor Sally’s torment at the hand of her captors. She screams, sobs, and cries throughout the final sequence at full volume. Even as Hooper cuts to wide shots, we still hear her at full volume, in full auditory close-up.

Like Hitchcock did in Blackmail, Hooper substitutes some of Sally’s screams with non-diegetic sound effects and score to — perhaps — give the audience some reprieve from the horror, and to further emphasize the nightmarish qualities of the insane dinner party sequence. The sustained, overt screams play as counterpoint to the film’s opening credits, which depict the police investigation of the chain saw crimes. Over a black screen, the repeated sound of an eerie camera flashbulb give way to fleeting glimpses of human flesh and decaying bodies. The remainder of titles mix sound effects with score, a tapestry of radio static, cymbal hits, and other odd noises. Overall, the dense sound track to Hooper’s film is creatively sewn together, mixing “naturalistic” ambiences with subjective inserts like the sound effect in place of Sally’s scream.

By comparison, the sound of modern horror is quite different, even as it still works to achieve the same results: to provide discomfort. Gregg Rudloff, a sound supervisor, notes:

Where in other films you might want to have nice, smooth transitions between scenes, in a horror film we might do the opposite: We might make an uneven transition so that it startles the audience a little bit — not spill-the-popcorn startling, but just something that’s a little off and uneven about it. It can be something as subtle as a background sound.

And it seems that some critics are paying attention, too. In two reviews for the new Last House on the Left an argument is made that questions the manipulative qualities of sound to inject some faux chills and shocks into what is considered to be a rather predictable flick.

Variety reports that some “hyperbolic camerawork and body-blow Dolby thuds can’t equal the queasy, plain impact of original’s most upsetting moments.” The New York Times adds, “I suspect the movie’s sound designers deserve some kind of an award: thanks to them, the damage one can inflict with small appliances and a giant grudge is all too clear.”

Two things are evident from these observations: 1) impact and 2) clarity. These are two of the most salient characteristics of modern sound technology and style. Digital audio affords greater frequency range, a more robust dynamic range, and crystal clarity at the top and bottom ends of the loudness spectrum — making those appliances sound so piercing.

Low frequency sound from theater subwoofers can reach out to touch you in your seat, providing an added jolt of tactile horror to the cinematic experience. The bottom-end Dolby “thuds” that Dennis Harvey speaks about in his review have become staples of the horror and action genres. Rudloff explains: “I like to use the sub for impact occurrences. Obviously, if there’s an explosion or if somebody kicks in a door, you can use the kick, but I don’t like to have it as a steady element. I think it muddies up the sound; it clouds the details that might be apparent in other areas.”

Perry Robertson, who supervised the sound on Rob Zombie’s Halloween, adds: “People are so jaded these days, and it’s hard to make anyone jump anymore. Part of it has to be the picture, part of it has to be the music and part of it is the sound. You hit them with a loud sound using subwoofers. If you get that quick hit from the sub, you’ll feel it in your chest.”

Rob Zombie's Halloween

In a way, then, the sub “hit” represents a modern spin on the stinger, a high-pitch “gotcha” effect that is sometimes performed by high strings or a chorus of shouting voices. The sub hit is not so much heard as it is felt, thereby bringing the horror into the theater without resorting to William Castle’s 1950s gimmickry.

Everybody has their own favorite stinger or “jump scene,” but here’s an undeniable classic [click on the frame]:

Friday the 13th Jump

With Zombie’s Halloween, the sub sting is used to amplify and punctuate Michael Myers’ strength, as evidenced by this clip. The attack on Mr. Strode is cut fast and close — without any blood — but the sound of Michael’s strike is mostly at the low-end as opposed to the higher frequency sound of a knife blade.

Contemporary filmmakers and sound designers are drawing on the techniques and conventions of the horror genre to craft the ubiquitous jumps and shocks. Rudloff acknowledges that horror films are highly conventionalized, yet audiences are keen to the tricks of the trade. As a result, the sound designer’s job is to keep the audience off-balance. Melissa Hofmann, sound supervisor on Captivity, believes that horror films require more mood than other genres:

If the picture is leading them to be jarred, then we have to support that with sound or lead it with sound. If it’s an environmental sort of thing, then sound can play a huge part of giving a feeling without necessarily the audience even knowing. Those subtle things can help to build up to or support the bigger things. Or on something that’s more psychological, they can be a big element of that subconscious feeling. People don’t even think about it; they just kind of squirm a little and that’s what we are after. I love that — to be able to get to them without them even realizing it, to get them on that visceral level.

Modern horror sound can also add a subtle layer of discomfort that does not rely on broad dynamics and punchy bass. Not necessarily a horror film by definition, Zodiac utilizes an interesting technique when the voice of the Zodiac killer is heard over 911 lines. David Fincher and his sound team assembled a vocal track using two different actors’ voices, alternating each word, in order to create an altogether strange, but not unreal, moment. Ren Klyce, the sound designer, tells Mix Magazine: “[ADR editor] Gwen Whittle and I thought it was a pretty bad idea and that it would never work…Splicing from one actor to another? Forget it! We said, ‘Okay, let’s just do it and show David that it can’t work.’ So Gwen started to do this — and it worked! It was so weird.” The most unsettling aspect of the vocal work is the line reading of Zodiac’s sign-off after the Blue Rock Springs murder, which was supposedly inspired by the real killer’s odd way of saying “goodbye.”


The film’s real set-piece is the interrogation of Arthur Leigh Allen at his workplace, an oil refinery, which is anything but a quiet place. The din of machinery never overwhelms; instead it coats the walls of the scene, providing a subtle subtext to the interrogation.Right from the start, Fincher places his detectives (and his audience) into an uncomfortable and highly unfamiliar sonic environment. The constant drone of refinery equipment hangs heavy in the air, linking Allen to a feeling of unease.

While modern studio horror films may conventionalize the techniques of grindhouse favorites, the intents and aims remain the same: to scare you silly. They may be polished versions of raw, vinegary horror, but it’s important to consider how these films scare us. Sound remains one aspect of a larger canvas, where filmmakers and sound crews push the boundaries of taste and censorship, as well as cinematic style and convention.

Thoughts on the sound of horror?

Ph.D. or Bust

•March 11, 2009 • 1 Comment

Matt Groening School is Hell

And there it was. My wife alerted me to a precipitous article in the March 7th edition of The New York Times that filled me with both dread and resolve. If you don’t end up reading it, I’ll brief you on the bad news. Humanities PhD’s are finding it harder to find secured full-time positions in the nation’s public and private colleges and universities. Interviews with recent graduates and post-doctoral fellows only serve to highlight the chill that has befallen even the most prestigious institutions, leading to a virtual hiring freeze for most humanities disciplines.

I had been told that my ascent to the world of a tenure-track position would be easier than, say, the previous few generations, since there was a consensus among faculty members that several programs would face steep retirement numbers in the coming years, which would inevitably lead the way for more junior hires. But the cold reality of this recession seems to have had the opposite effect: more and more senior faculty, facing diminishing savings, are sticking it out just a few more years. Even still, my limited experience with departmental politics and budget-conscious deans have taught me that contract instructors and part-timers with no job security have become the favored option. We’re far cheaper to hire and as students we’re forced to accept the meager pay and benefits as our initiation to the world of professordom.

The net result of this system — in my estimation — is a department of instructors that have little or no time to pursue research projects that constitute the backbone of any real academic’s career goals. It can also lead to departments that are filled with instructors who are overtaxed and underpaid, if only because their tenured counterparts are salaried employees with benefits. The path to promotion, higher pay, fewer teaching obligations, and more research time is in danger.

So that’s the current reality. Not promising in the least. But for some strange reason I am compelled to finish what I started. Not because I feel the obligation to finish, or am out of career options, but because passion drives me. There’s nothing else I want to do, and if it means an uphill climb, then I’ll make sure to prepare myself and my CV for battle. I will drink plenty of water; I’ll speed bag through more film theory; I’ll spar with in-depth film analysis until I’m dizzy.

Last summer, several newspapers cut their film columnists and reviewers citing budgetary cutbacks, leaving some critics to write (for free) on blogs like this. I have attempted to avoid this pitfall — and the relatively short review space of the popular press — and thought professional film criticism was the safer bet. Now my odds may not be so favorable.

I should have known that this career choice would be an uphill climb, if only from the strange looks and even stranger questions that came from family and friends. I have spent the better part of five years explaining, correcting, and laughing off what constitutes the running commentary of my young adult life. For the record, as a film studies PhD I write on and about film — I don’t make films. Nor do I teach students to make films. I’m not a film critic in the way that you might know that term. I wrote for and edited a newspaper once, but I don’t currently write for one. I know people in the industry, but they’re probably not featured in US Weekly. And no, this isn’t part of my journey to law school or business school. To top it off, the cultural tide has been rising against the plight of grad students everywhere. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy agree: grad students are the worst.

Writing the Damn Thing

The dissertation itself is an altogether different story. If a summary description of a college professor’s job duties aren’t obvious enough, then the duties of a PhD candidate lurk even deeper in the cave of confusion and befuddlement.

During an interview for CBC Radio last year the interviewer asked me off-air about my project on film sound technology and style. I told him quite honestly that it was a multi-year ordeal with no real conclusion in mind; I’d have to let the research speak for itself. He was floored. He couldn’t imagine spending four, five, maybe even six years on the same topic. His world of news and current events, where things change by the minute, runs at 100 miles an hour, which is completely anathema to a researcher’s slow and methodical pace. I told him it was my job to investigate those things to make up the finer-grained points of contemporary art practices, namely film and television. With that in mind, the breadth of time matters very little; just ask anyone studying 19th century German romantic opera.

So, the interviewer finally asked me how I could tolerate the repetition. I told him I hadn’t thought of it. It was an honest answer. It takes as long as it takes to formulate the argument, make my points, and then conclude the bastard. Perhaps the strangest thing is that I found his horrified amazement to be the abnormal attitude. I thought, Who wouldn’t want to spend their time studying the things that excite their curiosity and fill their creative spirit?

Most people, apparently.

My interviewer would eventually pack up his things and start texting his boss about his next story, the next big thing. Meanwhile, I’d still be at my desk thinking, writing, and revising my thoughts on the same story.

In a certain way, the task of writing a dissertation never scared me as it seems to frighten some. Mostly, I’m scared of those around me who expect results…now. Just write it. Write something. It’s only your thesis, not your life’s work. Just write it. Cull together your blog posts and call that your thesis. Don’t try to be original, just write it. Does it have to be 300 pages? Try for 200 and pad it with big quotes.

It’s an endless tirade that usually begins with someone’s head poking through the office door with a look of anticipated excitement. They’re thinking, “Are you finished yet?” half-expecting you to say yes.

The Obsessive Cinephile

Watching a movie more than once isn’t considered obsessive. Spending a few years writing a 400 page tome devoted to the history of moviemaking borders on obsessive. It might also help sprout a few gray hairs. But most importantly the obsession is derived from a passion to write, share, and communicate the art of cinema with an audience. It’s about figuring out the details for myself, reveling in the research, the analyses, the theorizing, and the historicizing. And a few more gray hairs.

Some rules for living with a PhD candidate — or knowing one — might include the following:

1) Avoid asking most “when,” “what,” and “why” questions. You’ll only be disappointed with the roundabout, even flaky answers you receive.

2) If you observe your PhD candidate not putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, don’t panic. He or she is thinking it out up here (points to brain). Watching episodes of Maury and scrolling through TMZ.com might also help ferment the big ideas, too.

3) If your PhD candidate laughs at your conventional work hours, don’t get angry. They must live with their work 24/7 since it exists solely in their heads until they can successfully spill it out on some choice bonded 8.5 X 11 paper, where it will eventually sit on a bookshelf and collect dust for the rest of their life. Once in a while a grad student will ask to see it and they will mistakenly think that anyone can write one of those.

4) Just play along with their belief that other people are interested to hear their ideas on obscure topics. It makes dinner conversations a lot more enjoyable.

5) An academic readership of 5000 is bestseller material.

The humanities PhD candidate may not be an endangered species, at least not according to the Times article which has us backstopped and overflowing like law students, but creative thinkers have never had it easy. In an early meeting with my thesis supervisor we cajoled that we’re “idea men,” not quite ready with answers, but only more questions. And there’s something charming, if not completely noble about that. The wonderful thing is that even if this wasn’t my profession, I’d do it anyways. I’d be tucked away in some cubicle, in some other job, writing and analyzing and pushing the conversation on cinema even further. And that’s the real reward.

I’ll let Bart Simpson sum it up for us all:

Bart Simpson and Grad Students

Aspect Ratio is Moving

•January 20, 2009 • 3 Comments


To celebrate one year of blogging I am moving this site to a new home with a new name. When I started Aspect Ratio I didn’t know how often I would post essays or if anyone would ever find the site. But with some serious persistence I have tried to post two new essays per month, and as a result I have found a small but very rewarding audience of readers and commentators. In an attempt to personalize my site and offer expanded options (like video and audio uploads) I have set up a new blog that will hopefully grow over time as I move from PhD student to whatever comes next. While I have decided to keep the style sheet the same, I now have greater control to fine tune some things that bothered me with the WordPress domain. My e-mail remains the same: mametesque@gmail.com.

In order to make this work smoothly I will continue to post new essays on this site for a little while as readers redirect themselves to the new site. I only ask that you update your bookmarks or RSS feeds or web links to include the new site.

The new blog is called Wright on Film and can be accessed at www.wrightonfilm.com.

Everything is up and running right now, so I hope to see you there. Click on the marquee below to check it out.


Looking Through CG Eyes

•January 19, 2009 • 4 Comments


Over at The House Next Door, Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard have posted a fascinating debate on David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. After seeing the film myself, I have to agree with much of what they said, including their suggestion that the film represents little more than an age reversal gimmick. I’d like to avoid covering the same ground as Bellamy and Howard, since they’ve done an admirable job distilling some of the finer grained aspects of the film, but I would like to take a moment to discuss an area of Benjamin Button that has yet to receive much critical attention in the press (including the blogosphere).

That is, I would like to consider how the visual effects technology of the film undermines the structural and emotional arc of the narrative. My comments are still fairly fresh since I have just seen the film and am responding rather quickly to something that will no doubt require a little more thought. For those who have yet to see the film, there are serious spoilers ahead.


The dramatic structure of Benjamin Button is familiar enough to mainstream audiences: it involves a framing device firmly rooted in the recent past (2005) during an infamous crisis (Hurricane Katrina). We then travel back in time via Benjamin’s own words (his last will and testament) and memories of Daisy, the love of his life, who lies dying in a New Orleans hospital bed. Throughout, Benjamin narrates his life story with voice-overs used to link time and place. The central story thread concerns Benjamin’s love for Daisy; a love that turns into an obsession as he grows younger. While he pines for her, there is little to suggest that Daisy is even deserving of such praise. She is cold towards him at various times and exhibits no real personality, except a single-minded vision to dance and mingle with an intercontinental set. At the same time, Benjamin’s single-minded journey to reunite with Daisy becomes tiresome when we realize that Benjamin is capable of so much more in life, yet he lives and acts as an observer to history, not a participant in history.

This film has been compared to Forrest Gump, not only because both share the same screenwriter (Eric Roth), but also because of the character-moving-through-history motif that characterizes both films. Some critics have suggested that Fincher’s work removes the sentimental gauze, which plagued Robert Zemeckis’ vision of a man caught up in major historical moments of the mid 20th century. However, I have read very little criticism of Button that highlights the striking similarities to Gump at the level of its narrative arc.


The enduring appeal of Forrest Gump as a character is his ability to cut through a complex situation and insist on a simple solution. In his mind, he loves Jenny and there is no good reason why the two of them should remain apart. Critics and intellectuals have scoffed at this attitude, claiming that it reduces a generation of social unrest and activism to a sentimental fable. That Forrest is unwilling to participate but simply observe seems to be the chief concern of activist scholars and critics. Alternatively, Fincher bests Gump by removing the sense of social urgency by offering a grand fable that barely references our cultural history. What we glimpse is on television or the radio, not experienced first-hand by Benjamin.

Yet, like Forrest, Benjamin also prefers to observe and say very little. When called upon to explain himself or recount his past he is brief and has a penchant for what I can only call “Gumpisms.” When asked if he could explain what it feels like to grow young he replies, “I’m always lookin’ out my own eyes” Or when he reflects on the importance of strangers in his life, he says “It’s funny how sometimes the people we remember the least make the greatest impression on us.” Or this gem: “It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same. Smells the same. Feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed… is you.” When Benjamin speaks at any length it is in his voice-over, which is actually being read aloud by Daisy’s daughter, Caroline.

More fundamentally, however, Benjamin’s obsession with Daisy, to bring her home and start a family, mirrors that of Forrest and Jenny to the point that when Daisy rejects his offer to “sweep” her off her feet I thought he might reply, “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.” There are other plot point similarities, including the sea captain mirroring Lieutenant Dan, Queenie mirroring Mamma Gump, and everyone else being vaguely suspicious or sorry for Forrest and Benjamin because of their “deviation” from the norm.

My real question is why Benjamin is limited to his observational status, why he responds with few words and even fewer thoughts, and why he accomplishes so little in a life that is filled with potentialities? In a broader sense, the film — much like its characters — felt stiff, awkward, and unsure of itself. These peculiarities point to the visual effects as the potential problem.

The computer generated imagery (CGI) of Benjamin Button attempts to situate the audience in a parallel world where a baby ages backwards. To accomplish this, Fincher and the visual effects crew (namely the craftspeople at Digital Domain) utilized a number of techniques to give the illusion that Benjamin (as played by Brad Pitt) grew young in a photo-real way. As you know, most Hollywood CG visual effects aim to be photo-real; that is, they seek to blend computer graphics with the photographic properties of film. So, customarily grain is added to otherwise pristine digital images, and blending tools attempt to match the photographic “reality” of what was captured on set (or what would pass as “believable” or “realistic” from a photographic standpoint).


For certain sequences, the look of old Benjamin was achieved by using stand-in actors whose faces were digitally replaced with portions of Pitt’s. (The New York Times recently ran an article with a revealing slideshow that explains much of the artistry that went into this process.) I found this visual effect to be disjointed and unconvincing, mostly because Pitt’s eye-line matches were off. There were also instances where Pitt’s eyes appeared to float separate from the physiology of his face. (The effect is far more convincing in still frame, as evidenced by the screen shots that I have included here.) In any event, it is clear that the achievement of this effect was predicated on having very few lengthy close-ups of Benjamin’s face. Which might explain Benjamin’s penchant for short answers and stunted movement.


Even as the character grows younger and Pitt takes over the role (body and all), Benjamin moves very little and continues to say very little. Similarly, the reverse aging on Cate Blanchett results in a series of shots that show her smoothed skin. However, when she speaks we are treated to more reverse shots than close-ups or medium close-ups. This is plainly obvious when Benjamin reaches his teenage years and returns to see Daisy in her dance studio. The lights are out, except for an orange glow emanating from her office and the street lamps. Benjamin is bathed in deep shadow, but we can barely make out his smoothed, youthful look. Pitt’s performance in this scene is awkwardly static, as he hesitates to move out of the shadow, which only reinforces the artificiality of the whole aging process. We’re not allowed to see him in full light otherwise the seams of the effect might become visible. The same goes for old Benjamin, who we do see in full light, but only for very short glimpses. It’s also rather convenient that Benjamin never speaks too much, for that might require shots that linger on his blended face.


In a sense, the film becomes a slave to technology when stylistic concerns are motivated by technical standards. Strangely, A.O. Scott in the Times praises the CG work in this film as building on previous models of cinematic illusion:

Building on the advances of pioneers like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis — and on his own previous work adapting newfangled means to traditional cinematic ends — Mr. Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Zodiac”) has added a dimension of delicacy and grace to digital filmmaking. While it stands on the shoulders of breakthroughs like “Minority Report,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Forrest Gump” (for which Mr. Roth wrote the screenplay), “Benjamin Button” may be the most dazzling such hybrid yet, precisely because it is the subtlest.

While the aging effects may indeed be subtle, they are also far too delicate to live and breathe on their own. The shots are too precious to be handled with a rougher style; they require the kind of rigid template that Spielberg aimed to overcome with his dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Initially, it was deemed to risky to move the camera in an effects shot, for it might reveal the “seams” of the technology. But, I would argue, that it was Spielberg’s decision to move his camera through the space of the galloping Gallimimus that made that shot.


Just as Benjamin is an observer, so too is Fincher, who does not penetrate the visual space of the film but captures the space from a safe, static distance. Everything is too clean, too composed, if only because the CG age elements required Fincher to lock down his camera or limit his stylistic palette. We cannot know for certain why he chose certain angles or options, but we can consider Fincher’s other work, and what we find is a director that moves through space with his camera and allows his actors to move in space. In Panic Room, the camera is a roving macro eye; in Se7en the canted framing and hand-held shots in several sequences sets a tone; and in The Game the long shot is used frequently to isolate Nicholas in empty spaces.

In light of my comparison to Forrest Gump, it’s worth mentioning that I believe Zemeckis’ CG approach is the subtler one. Advocates of Fincher’s choices might suggest that back in 1994 audiences were less sophisticated when it came to pointing out CG shots. But even today I am impressed with the execution of Lieutenant Dan’s struggle with the loss of his legs. Watching the film for the first time I wasn’t really concerned with how the effects were achieved since I believed the situation. There were few “showy” set pieces for the CG leg effect in bold lights. Dan simply moves through space with no legs, while Zemeckis shoots the scene as if that did not matter.


And while some might prefer Fincher’s detached, almost humorless view of things, there is the sense that Gump’s awe-shucks attitude and goofiness assisted in turning some awkward, showy CG shots into comic gems. So, in that sense, Zemeckis successfully pulled the wool over our eyes with Dan’s handicap, the blue-screen feather, and the multiplied crowds in Washington D.C., but tried with a bit of comedy to sell some awkward effects, particularly those involving Forrest’s celebrity meetings.

As I’ve already suggested, these are some very preliminary ideas that I hope to flesh out at a later date. In the coming weeks I will be returning to Button on a more positive note with some ideas on sound design and the importance of environmental ambiences. If you’ve seen the film and have an opinion, I’m interested in your comments.


Happy Holidays

•December 23, 2008 • 3 Comments


To all my loyal (and occasional) readers, happy holidays! If you’re like me, you’ll spend this time catching up with family and with some movies, too. As I approach the one year anniversary of this site, I hope to continue blogging and sharing my ideas on the movies with all of you. Aside from a New Year’s promise to complete a draft of my dissertation, I look forward to contributing to the discussion of film study with new posts and developing this site even further. The horizon looks very bright. See you in 2009.