Archive for Randall William Cook

Legit Video Essayist

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2018 by dcairns

This is the complete-to-date heap of discs I’ve contributed video essays to, for Criterion, Masters of Cinema, Arrow and Kino (just the one, on Zulawski’s COSMOS). More are on the way and then there’s some that are purely online, notable the Anatomy of a Gag series for Criterion, which there will be more of soon.

I was quite anxious when I made my first piece for Arrow’s release of Roger Corman’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. I wanted the thing to have a style of its own and not to be just a text essay read out flatly with images from the movie run under it. But I wasn’t sure how to make sure it was more than that. I tried whispering the VO but the producer kindly told me the effect was ridiculous. I had two ideas for all-visual sequences, one where we cut together all the mood scenes where Corman’s camera wanders around the house, and one where we dissolved all the exterior matte paintings of the house together to create a kind of time-lapse image of the mansion by day, by night, in fog, on fire, and finally crumbling into the tarn. And I read in bits of Poe’s source story. The rest of the time it was basically a text essay read over film clips, though they were at least edited to make them appropriate to what was being said.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT gave me a wealth of material to work from — the film, lots of stills, behind-the-scenes footage shot by the BBC, film of the premiere, clips from later Richard Lester films, and then an audio interview with Mr. Lester which had to be cut in a couple of weeks before the deadline. Having additional material helped turn the piece into a mini-documentary, and the feedback from producer Kim Hendrickson was always helpful, but it was something Lester said that solved my worries about the form. He advised me not to directly illustrate what was being said, but to aim for oblique connections. Or maybe he was just talking about his own preferred approach. But I think it gave him a physical pain whenever I matched an image directly to a word. And I should have known better.

One that’s pretty direct that I still like is when the VO, spoken by Rita Tushingham, explains that Lester never used a shot list or storyboard, he just carried the film in his head, and I accompanied this with a rear view from the BBC footage of Lester operating a hand-held camera, the magazine beside his cranium. That’s pretty close to an illustration — it has FILM and HEAD in it — but I like it because it accompanies an image you can’t literally show photo-realistically, of a man holding the thought of a sequence in his mind.

A good review from the film dept. technician at college.

From then on, I started writing my VOs without regard to what the images would be. If you assume there will be a suitable image, you can always find one. Or maybe you end up cutting a sentence or two. But the editor’s code states, as I understand it, that there will always be a solution to any editing problem. You just need to look hard enough. So an account of C.T. Dreyer’s childhood for the forthcoming Blu-ray of MICHAEL gets illustrated with one of the film’s few urban exteriors (connecting pretty flatly to the word “Copenhagen” even though the shot is probably a wintry Berlin), a face at a window (played in reverse) and a pan across an array of dolls. An anecdote about HB Warner playing Jesus Christ for Cecil B DeMille which I decided was useful for my piece on THE APARTMENT started life with a series of stills from the movie, but when MGM nixed that idea we used a shot from the movie in which a guy dressed as Santa Claus appeared right on cue when the messiah was mentioned. I liked the effect.

I think literal connection is better than no connection at all, but the human mind is always making connections, so the real danger is not a lack of connection but the confusion of false connections. After the new year we’ll be returning to a work in progress where a line about an actor’s early, unsuccessful work needs changing so it doesn’t play over a later, successful one, even though there’s a nice metaphorical link between the image and the sentence.

I showed a bit of the Vertov set (bottom left) to students, and one said, “Is this, like, a legit DVD extra?” in an impressed voice.

Sometimes the VO deals with biographical info and background, if I know it or can research it. That’s sometimes the most fun, because you end up cheekily matching images from the film at hand with facts only abstractly connected to them. Close analysis of the film-making technique presents a different challenge, because often what I say takes longer than the clip at hand, or jumps about in time. Often my long-suffering editors Timo Langer and Stephen C. Horne do the hard work here, subtly changing the timing of the sequence to make it fit the VO, or else we might blatantly rewind, speed up or slow down the footage to make it overt.

I always like to bring in a director’s other work, if we can do it by fair use, or public domain works, or other films the distributor owns. Combined with stills, this can get you closer to the feeling of a true documentary, it enhances the production values.

My pieces for talkies are usually longer than the ones on silents because I drop in lines of dialogue from the movie. This is maybe too much like a TV clip-show, and maybe it can get illustrative again. I’m a little wary of it, but at the same time it can be amusing and I enjoy finding lines to take out of context and give fresh undertones to. What I need to remind myself to do is use wordless clips from silent films in a similar way. I’ve also added sound effects into silent movies, a technique I would generally disapprove of if it were done to the movie itself but which I give myself permission for in video essays. DER MUDE TOD has guttering candles, CALIGARI has creaking hinges. And I got Timo, who’s German, to read a couple lines in for that one also. I got Fiona to narrate DIARY OF A LOST GIRL. I should have got her to do DER MUDE TOD too: her voice sounds more serious than mine.

With CARNIVAL OF SOULS we had a whole array of public domain industrial films made by director Herk Harvey’s company. The trick was to use them amusingly but not condescend to the material too much, not make fun of the filmmaker. I also recorded audio interviews with critic and novelist Anne Billson, cartoonist Steve Bissette, and Fiona again, in her capacity as horror screenwriter. These had to be recorded over Skype, so we alibi’d the audio quality by cutting to radios and jukeboxes from the movie whenever these voices were going to come in. We did the same with Groucho biographer Steve Stoliar for Arrow’s Marx Bros at Paramount box set.

Finally, for a forthcoming piece with Randall William Cook, we worked it so that we both had recording devices going on opposite sides of the Atlantic so both halves of our conversation were recorded well, and just had to be synched up. But then I cut all my lines anyway.

With Bill Forsyth things were technically easier: I was able to record him in the same room for Criterion’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, and then Stephen actually filmed some original material indirectly illustrating a story about recording the movie off the TV on audio tape in the days before video. We’ve filmed a few more things since then.

For Masters of Cinema’s forthcoming release of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE, I made an animated main title. I haven’t done any animation in twenty years, but I was inspired by a story about Obayashi’s beginnings as a filmmaker. Actually, I just traced the hand-drawn title in different colours with different patterns, and Stephen scanned the pages, flipped them into negative and we cut them together in time with the movie’s soundtrack. I really enjoyed that and I want to do more of it.

But another part of the operation has been Danny Carr, who made titles echoing Lester’s graphics to accompany the A HARD DAY’S NIGHT piece. Then he created an amazing animated title for the SULLIVAN’S piece, ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1941, in the style of a 1941 cartoon. Since then, I’ve had him disassemble the graphic grids of Ozu’s GOOD MORNING so that the pastel panels slide off the screen like, well, like sliding screens. We’re working on something else now…

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Head Office

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , on January 24, 2015 by dcairns

My unheard-of week of guest postings ends today with Wardrobe Meeting, a mini-fumetti from Randall William Cook. Produced for self-amusement in a short gap between meetings, it was not something he intended for a wider audience, but it made me laugh HARD, so I pleaded with him to let me run it. Mr. Cook is not one to let a pal down.

Depicted: Edith Head, Joan Harrison I think (silent), Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman.

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Digital Break-Up

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 17, 2014 by dcairns

Animator Randall William Cook became a Shadowplayer some years back, we eventually met at the late, great Ray Harryhausen’s birthday celebrations, co-authored a screenplay together, and Randy and his lovely wife Dom put Fiona & I up (and put up with us) when we were in LA. Randy was also best man/photographer/driver at our celebrity wedding, at which we were the only non-celebrities. So I asked Randy if I could reprint this essay when it appeared on Facebook. In it, he attempts to clarify the whole motion capture controversy. A lot of people are unaware that there IS a controversy, they’ve just heard about this marvelous new technology that allows filmmakers to turn actors into animated characters without the aid of animators. As with most things, it’s a bit more complicated than that… The piece originally appeared at Cartoon Brew.

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Andy Serkis has been throwing the term “Digital Makeup” around again, and causing some pretty fervid reactions as a result. He has his detractors and defenders, among them animators and motion capture editors, people who have met Andy and found him a nice bloke, people who are interested in the art of animation or the in art of acting or in both. But so far I have seen nothing from anybody who was in the trenches and actually worked on Gollum, so I suppose it’s time I weighed in on the matter.

My name’s Randall William Cook, and I was the Director of Animation on the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy.

I worked very closely with Andy. We met on the Mt. Ruapehu location in 1999 and began theorizing about what Gollum was all about (while Gollum was described as “schizophrenic”, I viewed the character as a drug addict trying to re-connect with his supply, a tack which Andy endorsed). We hung out on and off set, rafted together through the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, worked together on set during the live action filming (occasionally with me directing scenes Peter Jackson and I had prepared together), all the while on the trail of the elusive Gollum.

The discussion on this page seems to be focusing upon several points. Is Andy a good actor? I think so. He’s certainly versatile (I had the pleasure of directing him, in his on-camera incarnation, when he played his death scene in Peter’s KING KONG remake). Is he a nice bloke? Well, we have been guests in each other’s homes, attended countless social functions together and generally enjoyed each other’s company and respected each other’s talent. I don’t like hearing him called names, though I can understand the high emotions which lead some to do so. But all that is irrelevant to the real issue. When Andy uses the term “Digital Makeup”, he asserts that the on-screen depiction of Gollum is a 100% faithful representation of an Andy Serkis acting performance. This is, frankly, a misrepresentation of the facts.

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As I have no personal experience of the “performance capture” particulars of any of Andy’s work post-RINGS, I cannot offer an opinion on what he has been up to since RETURN OF THE KING. But let me swear to you here that Gollum was not solely an Andy Serkis performance, with Andy’s every move, gesture and tic scrupulously reproduced in a new, digital character. Rather, Gollum was a synthesis, a collaborative performance delivered by both Andy and a team of highly-skilled animation artists.

Please permit me to cite a few examples, in defense of my heretical assertions.

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING carried a single card credit, which declared “Andy Serkis as GOLLUM”. This was a bit of contractually-dictated press puffery which didn’t accurately reflect Andy’s participation in that first film. Fact is, Andy’s physical participation in the first film was nonexistent. The first shot, Gollum alone in his cave, was my idea: Peter needed a shot of Gollum to play under the narration, and several ideas were posited. I thought that we needed a book illustration image, something that captured Gollum in a simple image. I acted out Gollum, crouched on a rock in a subterranean lake, obsessing over his Precious, looking around in paranoia for enemies who weren’t there, and Peter bought that approach. I directed Weta Workshop’s Ben Hawker in a mocap session, then animated on top of that (our 12-animator team was pretty busy, so I actually animated a bit on that show, myself). The next shot was a roto-mation job of Gollum’s hands as he was being tortured; a nice makeup job, shot live action (Sasha Lees’ hands made up, I believe), was compromised by jiggly rubber fingers, so the animation department copied the actor’s movements. Mike Stevens animated the shot of Gollum following the Fellowship in Moria, then I animated the two close shots of Gollum, his fingers nervously twitching as he watches the Fellowship through a grate. One mo-cap shot, one roto-mation shot, and three keyframe shots. Andy’s only participation: muttering the word “precious” over one of the shots I’d already animated.

The first Gollum scene filmed, in fact, was made as “weather cover” (an interior shot on a stand-by set, kept ready for when the weather turns foul, forbidding exterior filming). Though the first shot up, it was for the third film: a mountain top was built inside a nearby hotel’s tennis court, and scenes were filmed with Frodo and Sam and Gollum. Gollum pulls Frodo up on a ledge, Gollum frames Sam with Lembas crumbs, Gollum and Sam fight. As Andy was not yet in New Zealand, I was elected to put on a leotard and stand in for Gollum. No photos exist of me in the getup, but let me assure you I looked a fine example of masculine grace and beauty. Really. A year or so later, Andy did a mo-cap session, basically reproducing my choreography. And Steven Hornby and others keyframed some of the shots from scratch as well.

TWO TOWERS saw much more involvement from Andy. Several examples from that film. Gollum, after he has been tamed and led along on a rope, is released and scampers up onto a rock, showing the hobbits where they must go. This was filmed with Andy squatting on a rock. Sam and Frodo come up to him, Sam and Gollum have a staring contest, and Sam backs down. It bothered me that Sam was turning his back on Gollum, which seemed out of character, so back in Wellington I directed animator Atsushi Sato to have Gollum break his look, and precede Sam out of the shot. This isn’t Digital Makeup, this isn’t a “technical” chore, this is an acting choice. And it wasn’t Andy’s idea, but mine. And it was Atsushi Sato who “played” that moment, not Andy. It was a decision within my purview as Animation Director and Peter signed off on it.

Gollum hears the name Smeagol for the first time in 500 years. We used Andy’s body mocap, but I didn’t care for what I thought was Andy’s too-busy facial performance, so I told Adam Valdez to ignore it and animate something subtler. He animated two shots and Linda Johnson animated the third, and they created a memorable acting moment which did not “honor” Andy’s performance in the slightest. There were many times where we honored Andy’s performance to the letter, but this wasn’t one of ‘em.

That film ends with a long mo-cap take of Gollum soliloquizing. Jason Schleifer, Adam Valdez and Mike Stevens had much to do with the acting of this scene, as the animation task was split among them. We also changed the choreography on that one, having Gollum advance emphatically toward the camera, having him wrap his hands around a branch and twist, as he throttles a hobbit in his imagination. Again, acting choices courtesy of the Weta Animation Department.

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We stuck closer to Andy’s performance in the third film, and as the mo-cap was refined a good deal it was used more. There was never what we know as performance capture, however, in any of the films. Ditto facial capture, for Gollum; it was all keyframed. And even when we did reproduce Andy’s expressions with perfect fidelity, Peter or Fran would direct the animators through two, three, twelve or more iterations, with the animators working directly for the director, refining a performance in Andy’s absence. Collaborating on that performance, in fact.

I was honored to work on those films. Our Animation team was first rate, and I was proud to be associated with them (as well as the ones I mentioned, Melanie Cordan and Mary Victoria and many others brought their fine talents to bear in making Gollum act, through a superb facial system devised by Bay Raitt). They are artists, they can act, and they did all “perform” as Gollum to a greater or lesser degree. I don’t see the difference between a performance delivered by a great actor or a great animator (I refer you to Brad Bird’s films, or to TANGLED, if you think that an animator needs to lean on or be supplanted by an actor to give a moving performance).

Let me state that Andy really should be considered the principal author of Gollum’s performance, but there’s a hell of a difference between principal author and sole author. The Animators who helped shape Gollum’s performance are actors of a very special type, working at a high level of achievement. They’re not like Marni Nixon singing for Natalie Wood in WEST SIDE STORY, doing only the things that Andy couldn’t do: they were doing the same things Andy did, in concert with him, and significantly contributing to the realization of a memorable performance.

I can’t speak to the recent performances in Andy’s “performance-capture” career, but the animators on THE LORD OF THE RINGS were most certainly not “digital makeup artists”, and nobody has any business saying that they were.