Student Presentations

October 2, 2007

This last week we were treated to a variety of presentations by you, the students. Depending on which class you’re in, you might have learned about The Coen Brothers, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Richard Lester, Orson Welles, P.T. Anderson, Serfio Leone (with accompanying soundtrack), Ingmar Bergman, Robert Altman, Chuck Jones, Clint Eastwood, George Melies, Peter Jackson, Werner Herzog, Alfred Hitchcock (who acts in his own trailers), Don Hertzfeld (primitivist animator with his gratuitous use of red ink), James Cameron (directorial debut: The Terminator), and some dude that makes weirdo (I mean, uh, totally rad…) Russian Vampire movies.

We did not, however, have any presentations on Andrei Tarkovsky or Hayao Miyazaki, or George A. Romero, or Jim Jarmusch, among others. You know who you are. And how dissapointed I am. But there’s till time on Thursday! Resolve to do better! The Future is Now!

We also talked about the early days of animation, particularly the contributions of one Walter Disney. He’s gotten a bad rap among the teenagers of our time, and for good reason with the company that bears his name churning out turd after well-polished turd. But back in the day, when he and Mickey Mouse were just getting aquainted, he was the best in the business, just as funny and quirky and rascally as anyone out there right now.

If you doubt me, take a look at the old watershed Steamboat Willie. Or Plane Crazy.

We also watched the first Silly Symphonies, The Skeleton Dance and Flowers and Trees.


This week we moved on into the sound age, the “talkies” and all the beauties and difficulties thereof. True, none of the “silent” movies were really silent. Every theatre had at least a piano or organ, and the bigger ones featured a live orchestra. But it wasn’t until 1927 that audiences could actually hear the actor’s voice coming from the screen (or speakers behind the screen). At first, studios thought this might be a passing fad. But millions flocked to see Al Jolson in the Jazz Singer and his immortal line, “Wait a minute… wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” So the rest of the studios joined in and embraced the new technology.

Download the worksheet here: music and sound handout

The answers are as follows:

As we saw in a clip from “Singin’ in the Rain,” this was a tricky transition. Performers had to huddle around microphones hidden in plant pots. Noisy cameras had to be placed behind glass in an immobile soundproofed booth. Crosscutting was all but prohibited by the difficulties of matching sound and vision. Not to mention many of the actors whose voices didn’t match their appearance. “The subtle imagery of the silent era had been replaced by illustrated radio.” (-John Naughton) You probably won’t see many more boring films that those made in 1928-29 (except the few that were still silent, like Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Check it out, y’all, it’ll blow you away.)

But by 1930 the technical hitches had largely been ironed out and the masterpieces began to flow. If you’re curious, check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, or Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel.

For the most part, the sound effects in these early movies were pretty straightforward. They used whatever sounds were made on set during production. But in 1933, with King Kong, sound designers started getting more creative. They used their imaginations for what a dinosaur and a giant gorilla might sound like. And not just what they might actually sound like, but what they should sound like, what sounds would add the best effect to their movie. Rather than recording a real gorilla, they used sounds of a lion for King Kong’s voice, and used another lion played backwards for the T-rex. When Kong breaks the dinosaur’s jaw, we don’t hear a real bone breaking, but more like a tree trunk cracking. Thus was born the classicist tradition of sound effects.

See, with classicism, we don’t want the actual sounds, we want heightened impact, we want what it should sound like. We don’t want to hear real punching sounds during a fistfight. You can’t hear real punches, they aren’t loud enough. We don’t want to hear real laser sounds in star wars. Real lasers don’t make any sound. We want the ideal sound for the moment. And we want the sounds recorded in a studio where there’s no airplanes or trucks or babies crying in the background to distract us.

Realists on the other hand are happy to use the sounds of real life. If you’re filming an interview in a backyard, and the neighbor is mowing their lawn, no problem, it adds to the environment. Realists want to show how it actually sounds


September 14, 2007

“Ask a German moviegoer of the late 1910s to name their favorite movie and the chances are it would have come from either Hollywood or Scandinavia. The dark, brooding dramas directed by Danes such as Carl Dreyer and the Swedes Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller left an indelible mark on the German film psyche. Shadows, symbolism, and the supernatural were the truest expression of the defeated nation’s postwar despair.”   -John Naughton, Movies, a Crash Course

The industrial revolution was in full swing, with one man in a tractor doing the work of fifty farmers. So what did all these ex-farmers do? Well, there were plenty of new jobs in the modern factories. What did these factories do? Assemble pots and pans, automobiles, or maybe ammunition, lots of ammunition. What did they need so much ammunition for? To put in the newly invented machine guns and warplanes and tanks. Yes, technology can make things very convenient, but it has always had a dark side. In just a few years, more people died in World War I than any previous war. So after the war things were looking pretty bleak in Europe. So bleak, that painting pictures of beautiful people doing beautiful things just didn’t seem to cut it anymore. Instead artists like Edward Munch went more in this direction:

The Scream

Now, if he went out and painted a man standing on a bridge with a lake and hills in the background, and tried to do it as realistically as possible, it wouldn’t look like this. But instead he was trying to paint how this man (or he, the painter) felt, and that requires manipulating reality. That’s what expressionism is all about: an outward expression of inner emotions (that’s the answer to one of the questions!)

Pretty soon this caught on in the film world as well. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari set the tone. A tale of murder and madness, it used distorted sets, sinsiter backdrops, and stylized acting to convey its narrator’s tnnuos grip on reality. To some it was “painting in motion.” Many later directors incorporated some of these stylistic elements, such at Fritz Lang in Die Nibelungen or Metropolis, G.W. Pabst in The Joyless Street, and F.W. Murnau in Nosferatu and Faust.

Some characteristics of expressionism:

1. Purposefully unrealistic, dreamlike or nightmare quality

2. exaggerated sets, costumes, acting

3. dark/ominous subject and tone

4. Lots of darkness and shadows

5. main character has some kind of unfulfilled spiritual hunger.

6. a search for meaning in an industrial world (often ends in failure).

7. fear of being overwhelmed or taken over by technology

8. Christ figure hero whose sacrifice goes unnoticed.

Depending on which class you’re in we also watched modern clips from Edward Scissorhands, City of the Lost Children, Brazil, and Blade Runner.  Can you think of any others that apply?

Download this assignment, and get working!

Expressionism worksheet

Director Presentations

September 9, 2007

This week we all signed up for directors to do presentations on.  We’ll start these on Monday, Sept. 24th.  For more info, click on the “Director Presentations” tap at the top.

Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd

September 8, 2007

Here’s what the AllMusicGuide has to say about the Beatles: “Moreover, they were among the few artists of any discipline that were simultaneously the best at what they did and the most popular at what they did.”

It’s true.  Any other artists you can think of that were both the best and the most popular?  In class was mentioned Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg (maybe not right now, but when he made Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Schindler’s List).  But it’s hard to think of others.  But back in the 1910’s and 20’s the world had not one, but three filmmakers that fit this description.

So this last week we’ve been watching short films and clips from Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  80 years later, and their genius is still unmistakable, and they can still make a roomfull of jaded media-gorged teenagers laugh.

Here’s some online films:

Buster Keaton: “Sherlock Jr.”

“One Week”

Buster Keaton montage

Harold Lloyd:

“Harold Lloyd, the Third Genius” intro

“The Flirt” clip

Charlie Chaplin:

“The Immigrant”, “Easy Street”, and others

“The Gold Rush”

There’s plenty of other clips out there, so check ’em out.  On monday we’ll be writing a response comparing and contrasting the three comedic giants.

I bet most of you, whether you know it or not, are fans of silent comedies. Tom and Jerry? Roadrunner and Coyote? It doesn’t get better than that. And all those guys were inspired by the early comedians like Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Lauren and Hardy.

First we watched a couple Tom and Jerry shorts to get in the right mindset.

Tom & Jerry: “Dog Trouble”

“The Cat Concerto”

“Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Mouse”

“Space Meow”

Roadrunner: “Roadrunner a-go-go”

“Guided Muscle”

And a little gem from Westphal/Riekena: “Happy Best Friend Day

Then we moved back in time to 1929 with Laurel and Hardy in “Big Business

More to come…

These past three days we’ve been looking at some of the first films ever made, and the different traditions that they started. First we have The Lumiere Brothers who invented a portable camera, took it to the streets, and made the first documentaries. Next there was George Melies, the magician, who made fantasy films and developed some of the first special effects. Then there was Edwin Porter, director of the Great Train Robbery, who used actors and sets and effects to try and tell a believable and compelling story on film.

These three filmmakers were each pioneers for traditions that have continued throughout film history. These traditions are known as Realism, Formalism, and Classicism.

Realism, started by the Lumiere documentaries, is all about showing the truth. A realist will try to preserve the illusion that their film world is unmanipulated, an objective mirror of the actual world. We rarely notice the style in a realistic movie. They often aim for a rough look, with the idea that “if it’s too pretty, it’s false.” This means there is often handheld camera or simply a camera on a tripod. They use available light (often just the sun). They use non-professional actors (real people playing themselves). They don’t build sets, but instead find existing buildings or outdoor locations. Their films are about everyday people and everyday situations. They films often deal with social issues. For example: A man needs to find a job in order to feed his family. He is offered a job, but it is required that he own a bicycle for transportation. He and his wife pawn everything they can to buy a bike. He gets the bike and goes to work. On his first day of work the bicycle gets stolen. Now he must find the bicycle. This describes the first 10 minutes of “the Bicycle Thief.” It was shot on the streets of Italy with people who had never acted before, using just a camera on a tripod and a basic light kit.

At the other end of the scale, we have Formalism. Formalist directors have no desire to show reality. They want to show their personal vision of the world. They are concerned with spiritual and psychological truths that can best be represented by distorting and exaggerating the image. When Melies made “A Trip to the Moon” he wasn’t concerned with what a space ship or the moon might actually looked like. He wanted to be funny and use cool special effects. So he makes a purposefully fake looking bullet, which the astronauts climb into and are shot into space, hitting the moon (which does have a face) right in the eyeball. Formalistic films are often dream-like. They have detailed, exaggerated sets and costumes. They have complicated camerawork and symbolic lighting. The style draws attention to itself., as if the director is saying, “Look at me! I am an artist and I made this!” At the extreme end, formalist will avoid story and characters altogether, and instead try to convey a particular mood or emotion by showing abstract images.  Watch Melies’ “The Black Imp” or “Trip to the Moon

In between the two we have Classicism. This is typified by “The Great Train Robbery” and most hollywood style films that came after it. Classicism is all about ideal storytelling. The goal of a classicist is to tell a story in the best way possible. They want to you get caught up in the characters and their problems, to feel what they feel, but not be distracted by the filmmaking techniques. Classicists will build sets that resemble reality and get them exactly right for the story. They will make polished pictures with the camera, but nothing that will make you gasp “look at that camerawork!” They will use professional actors who can portray the characters emotions, and who will bring in a big audience. If there are special effects, they will look as realistic as possible.

Realism: A Clip from “Spinal Tap” by Rob Reiner. Even though it’s a fictional movie with actors pretending to be in a rock band, they shoot it like a documentary. handheld camera, natural lighting, etc.

Realistic Classicism: United 93 

Classicism: The Empire Strikes Back. It’s obviously fictional, taking place on another planet with spaceships and junk, but they try and make it as believable as possible, and have calculated the camerawork, editing, music etc. so that you empathize with Luke and feel his tension. The camerawork is good, but doesn’t call attention to itself.

Formalistic Classicism: City of the Lost Children 

Formalism: Blinkity Blank by Norman Mclaren. No characters, no story, just abtract pictures with music. All put together to create emotion and a psychological experience.

download the following handout and answer the questions:

realism vs formalism handout