Archive for Eugenio Bava

The Sunday Intertitle: Dramatis Personae

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on September 6, 2015 by dcairns

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Reading about cinematographer and effects artist Eugenio Bava in Tim Lucas’ magisterial study of his son Mario encouraged me to look at the 1912 QUO VADIS?, which he shot. It begins, in a manner familiar from many silent films but relatively new at the time, with the cast, represented by title cards and then by portrait shots, allowing the audience to know who they were watching. Very early silent films had no titles, but the audience’s appreciation of certain stars led to a demand to know who they were. Nowadays, it seems like everybody from the caterer to the wallpaper designer gets a credit, but in fact this is not show — really big movies still leave out the names of probably half the people who worked on them. Thank God.

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Each of the portraits in QUO VADIS? starts with the actor looking off screen right, then each thesp slowly turns until they are looking right at the camera. The effect is of scanning the movie audience for a particular face, and then stopping once they’ve located US. After a while (cast of thousands = long title sequence), this started to creep me out very slightly. I’m not normally bothered by the fact that movies are populated by dead people, but these ambulatory corpses seemed to know too much. And they were being a bit over-familiar, if you ask me.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

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More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.

The Sunday Intertitle: Eventide

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2010 by dcairns

Concluding our short series of silent Italian epics with the mother of them all, CABIRIA.

“It had everything but a plot.” ~ camera assistant Karl Brown’s double-edged review isn’t quite accurate: Gabriele D’Annunzio and Giovanni Pastrone’s script fairly creaks with plot, but it lacks an obvious throughline, since the plight of Cabiria, separated from her rich Roman parents, isn’t the central focus of all the action, and we keep switching to new characters whose importance hasn’t been established. The bit everybody remembers, Cabiria’s rescue by muscleman Maciste from sacrifice to a pagan god, occurs about an hour in and is followed by a whole bunch of new characters appearing and wresting the storyline right off the tracks.

Meanwhile ~ which intertitle do you prefer? I have to deplore the tendency to throw away beautiful old intertitles like the one at top, while adding bland and anachronistic-looking translations. Is subtitling that difficult? The marvelous hand-crafted titles of CABIRIA are part of its overall design. And good design is particularly important here since D’Annunzio’s titles are so damn wordy.

The design also includes things like the spectacular (and uncredited) sets, which inspired Griffith’s INTOLERANCE and its Hollywood Babylon, the special effects by Eugenio Bava (Mario’s dad), including a furiously erupting Mt. Etna, and the gliding camerawork, made possible by Segundo de Chomon’s custom-built dolly, the first of its kind.

The previous Italian super-productions we’ve examined have been both much shorter and much more static, from a camera placement point of view. THE FALL OF TROY provides us with a slow pan, sweeping this way and that to more-or-less follow the action, but Pastrone here attempts something quite new. The purpose of his tracking shots was to explore the sets, which were so big they utterly dwarfed the actors. If you began with an establishing shot, the human figures were practically dots, but a shot framed for the cast would exclude the magnificent backdrops. Pastrone’s goal was to somehow combine an extreme long shot with a more conventional head-to-toe framing (he rarely goes as close as a medium shot).

The effect of the moves is interesting. The settings come alive as three-dimensional constructions (no matte paintings here, just the occasional volcanic miniature) which we can move through, almost like players in a big vidgame. Dramatically, on the other hand, the slow steady drift inwards at the start of almost every scene/shot, and the rhyming drift out at the end, have a slightly flattening effect, making everything seem calm and stately. Even though the plot is three hours of war, torture (much of it censored in most extant copies) and frenetic running around, the mood conjured by Chomon’s steady trundle is one of tranquility.

It was a lesson learned by Griffith, whose chase scenes had often been followed by a car-mounted camera as breathless as the action. Perhaps the Italians didn’t notice that this had the effect of intensifying the mood, since the primary aim was obviously to simply keep the subjects in frame as they motored along. When Griffith made his own ancient world epic, with elephant statues cribbed from Pastrone, he shot Belshazzar’s feast celebrations with two cameras mounted on an elevator, mounted on a track. This prototype of the camera crane allowed him to move in on a single figure amid the cavorting multitude, while dropping from a bird’s eye perspective to one of human level. And the effect has sweep and grandeur, perfectly matched to the emotional mood of the scene.

Nevertheless, CABIRIA was there first, and there’s something interesting and soothing about the way the camera movement reduces the sense of danger that the rest of the film is working to attain. It’s a little like being thrust into CONAN THE BARBARIAN after necking a 10 mg of valium.* And this leads to me to a couple of sweeping generalizations: while American films moved the camera to follow the action and European ones used it to explore space, American films used the emotional power of the movement to emphasize the mood of the scene, while European ones used it to complicate, to add something new. But don’t take that idea too seriously!

*Maciste is at one point tethered to a giant millstone, just like Arnie in the John Milius loincloth extravaganza.