Archive for the Painting Category

Dynamation Emotion

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2021 by dcairns

Yesterday was spent, much of it, at the Scottish Museum of Modern Art, strolling through the extensive Ray Harryhausen, Titan of Animation exhibition. Which was basically heaven. Of course I’m going to criticise it a but because I’m an ingrate, but —

The silhouettes are animated. A really nice effect.

I’d seen a few of Harryhausen’s models in the flesh (or fur and steel and latex) at various times. Once, at the late, lamented Lumiere Cinema at the Scottish National Museum, there was the magical moment when he produced a skeleton, complete with miniature travel coffin, and within an instant every child in the auditorium teleported down to the edge of the stage to get closer to it, each perhaps imagining that Ray would hand over the precious figurine for them to play with, or perhaps make a very short movie with.

And Berlin’s fantastic film museum had several of the creatures on display (we don’t call them monsters).

But this was much more extensive and just better. The addition of drawings and home movies elevated it.

I really wanted to see the planned WAR OF THE WORLDS. The tiny bit of test footage is mouth-watering. I suppose we’d have to trade it off — George Pal’s beautifully-mounted version couldn’t exist in the same version as Ray’s — but we’d have tripods and tentacled Martians and, I submit, it would be worth it.

The exhibition features several specially-made bits of animation which show sketches coming to life, and so on, and this is nice, but it really needed more video. I think galleries generally are not very good at dealing with film. I remember a Saul Bass exhibition in London which presented pan-and-scanned versions of all the widescreen title sequences, on tiny little screens.

Today, pan-and-scan is happily dead, but we have the opposite problem. So here’s a clip from KING KONG in 16:9 (and of course it’s the Empire State sequence, the most vertical thing in the film). That wasn’t a very promising start.

The Harryhausen films are much better presented, WHEN they’re presented. There just wasn’t enough — it was up to me, every room would have a screen showing reasonably long clips of each of the creatures represented by drawings or armatures or full figures in that room. Because when you see the Medusa, it’s absolutely wonderful but you want to see her MOVE too.

The solution, of course, was to dash home and watch one of the movies, which we did.

Maybe the Gallery had a philosophical question it never quite resolved about this exhibition. As a sketch artist, Harryhausen wasn’t good enough to merit a show in anybody’s national gallery, even though his drawings are delightful. But the sketches were a means to an end, and they were absolutely good enough to get him there. The puppets or figures or whatever you want to call them are marvelous, but they’re not intended to be consumed the same way as stationary statues. Again, they’re a means to an end.

Mighty Joe and friend.

The end, of course, is the film. And the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art doesn’t really do film. What the exhibition doesn’t QUITE do fully — even though it helpfully explains and illustrates stop motion animation and rear screen projection and glass paintings — is show the sequences alongside the ephemera (we get Ray’s copy of his chum Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and revealing behind-the-scenes photos, and so on) and the drawings and the models so that the REAL art — the art of animation, literally imbuing with life, is foremost in the spectator’s mind.

But this is high-flown quibbling. The exhibition is a carnival of wonders and we were very, very lucky to get to see it.

Dress to camera

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2020 by dcairns

I have this neat little book by filmmaker Tony Bills called Movie Speak — it’s a guide to the language used on film sets, stuff I often don’t know because I hardly ever get to be on a film set. “Dress to camera” means to arrange a prop or person to see it best, usually by moving it into frame. The word “cheat” is also used a lot for this, that’s the one I know. You have a perfect composition of a guy leaning on a desk but you want to see the telephone, but it’s not visible, so you get the props guy to slide it into view, a deliberate continuity error which you’re confident you can get away with because the angle is so different from the wide shot, or because you haven’t established the position of the phone yet.

Walter Murch says some good stuff somewhere about hieroglyphs, or anywat about ancient Egyptian figure drawing. People look kind of odd in these things, and he says it’s because they arranged the body parts into their most recognizable aspect. The body and limbs are frontal so you can see the shape and the number of limbs, but the feet sideways so you can see how the feet stick out. The hands are turned in a way that’s not impossible but not exactly natural, so you can distinguish the fingers. The heads are sideways so you can see what a nose is.

Murch says that the way editing fragments space and people is arguable a means of achieving the same goal: showing everything in its most recognisable, or maybe most dramatic aspect.

The most extreme example of this might be Edgar Ulmer’s description of the German expressionists building a whole different set for every camera angle — something I doubt they ever did, at least not consistently. But, given unlimited resources, for that kind of look it might make sense.

Josef Von Sternberg writes in his memoir that when he was an assistant, his director told him to never arrange a chair onscreen in such a way that one leg was behind another, because it would look like it had three legs and some idiot in the audience would get distracted waiting for it to fall over. He seems to take this notion pretty seriously. I think it should be taken seriously but not literally — it’s not primarily a lesson about chair photography, it can apply to everything. Dress to camera.

And this leads me to Murnau’s important advice to Hitchcock: “Remember, it doesn’t matter what’s on set, only what the camera sees.” And my cinematographer friend Scott Ward’s dictum, “Nothing in film is any good unless you can photograph it.” That’s not wholly true, it ignores sound, and the things which can be suggested or inferred. But he said it in the context of a TV show where someone had proposed having four characters wear shiny helmets which would have reflected the entire crew and everything behind the camera, so I think he was definitely onto something.

The Birth, and Afterbirth, of Cinema

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , on May 28, 2020 by dcairns

Tsk.

From earliest times, man has been fascinated by the moving image. Fascinated or repelled, I can’t decide.

Stone-age man would daub the walls of his dwelling with fermented berry juice and then, as the firelight flickered, watch agog as the crude pictograms would seem to move, depending on how much of the berry juice he’d drunk. And if his cave walls were rough and uneven, he got a 3D effect. Some neanderthal artists even took a chisel to their smooth sandstone interiors in order to cheat and “upscale” their images. Like modern cinema, these early “flickers” were divided into several popular genres: deer, bison, mammoth and rom-com. Of these forms, only the mammoth production is still practiced successfully today.

The thaumatrope, from the Greek thauma, meaning “draw a bird in a cage,” and trope, meaning “I can’t.”

A short while later, in the eighteenth century, fairgoers were amazed by a simple spinning disc with a bird painted on one side and an upside-down cage on the other. When you pulled a string with your fingers, the disc spun, and the bird seemed to be inside the cage, depending on how much of the berry juice you’d drunk. These “digital versatile discs,” like modern cinema, were divided into genres, such as dove, owl, French hen, cockatiel, erotic thriller, and cormorant (the size of disc required by this large and conspicuous waterbird required two strong men to pull the string, and it set off a powerful draught, making it a popular summer blockbuster). This provided wholesome entertainment until artists learned to paint birds inside cages, which meant you could look at them with both hands free, and thousands of pioneering moving image artists were thrown on the breadline (so named because it was originally made from bread, or what passed for bread).

Next came the era of the lanternists. With an oil lamp and some painted slides, these showmen could cast images upon primitive “screens” (so named because they were originally made from screens). Movement was still impossible, but audiences paid exorbitant prices, depending on how much of the berry juice they’d drunk, to witness a series of frozen images, anticipating the streaming services of today.

But soon, the age of the nickelodeon, so named because it was originally made of nickel, was at hand! Customers, or “chumps,” deposited something or other (historians are divided: either money or bitumen) into a machine, then turned a handle. The machine then showed them a kind of virtual reality simulation of the point of view of a manservant. These popular attractions became known as “first-person-butlers,” and wowed audiences with realistic depictions of ladies disrobing, anticipating the streaming services of today. It is thought that early man believed, wrongly, that gazing upon such images would bring him success in the hunt.

Entrepreneurs soon realised that it would be more efficient if they could somehow show the same image to all their customers at once, allowing them to have both hands free. But how to achieve such a dream?

Joined at the head, the Lumiere Brothers were an unique medical case, since one was two years older than the other. Nobody could figure out how that happened.

When the youngest Lumiere brother, Gummo, invented the film projector, Paris was agog. And yet, technologically, it was simple: rotating cogs pulled a strip of celluloid perforated down the sides, through a “gate” as a bright light was passed through it, focussed by a lens, hitting a screen. The public flocked to see it. But soon, the novelty began to wear off.

It was Gummo’s elder brother, Shemp Lumiere, who hit upon the idea of making the device more interesting. What if you printed images on the film? The result was a sensation.

When the first moving picture, or “piccy,” showing a train arriving at a station, flickered onto the screen, there was confusion, with several audience members thinking the locomotive was real, depending on how much of the berry juice they’d drunk, and trying to board it, resulting in damage to the screen and their noses. Another film, depicting workers leaving a factory, caused panic as those in the front rows feared they were about to be crushed by the advancing proletariat.

Film pioneer Georges Melies reaps the rewards of his brilliant career.

Among the first viewers of these simple early illusions was stage magician Georges Melies, billed as “Le Amazing Georges.” He immediately saw the possibilities of combining cinema with magic, and made his own film of workers leaving a factory in which the factory was a hanging miniature and the workers were elaborately costumed mice. But soon he moved on to more fantastical scenes, including birds in cages and ladies disrobing.

From a cave industry to a cottage industry, cinema now became an industry industry, or “industry.” Like the very first image-makers in their damp grottos, the new moguls often came from the fur trade, which is why they had names like Fox, Coen (originally Coney), Warner (originally Warmer) and Goldfish. From the simplest of beginnings, they fashioned vast, vertically-integrated conglomerates to supervise the filming, distribution, exhibition, and ultimately the careless destruction, of motion picture films.