Black and White

Indie Intros: Tim Burton’s ‘Doctor of Doom’

Tim Burton is one of those directors whose talents were immediately recognized, yet difficultly placed. After studying at the California Institute of Arts, he was immediately given fellowship by Disney where he worked for a short time. This led to the short “Frankenweenie,” which was never released by Disney, but was nonetheless still seen by Paul Reubens who wanted him to direct the cult hit Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. From there Burton’s story is fairly well-known, going on to direct Beetlejuice and becoming one of the most unique and in demand directors of the 90’s.

“Doctor of Doom” is one of Burton’s early shorts which he directed along with partner Jerry Rees. Burton also stars in the film as Don Carlo along with a variable who’s who from the Disney roster. Brad Bird, who won two Oscars for Disney/Pixar first for The Incredibles and another for Ratatouille, provides the voice of Don Carlo. Another Disney Oscar winner, Chris Buck, is most recently famous for directing the animated hit Frozen and plays the character of Pepe in “DoD.”

If you’re expecting some cross between the Burton style of filmmaking and Disney’s signature style like A Nightmare Before Christmas, you’ll be disappointed. “DoD” is more like something Burton’s hero Ed Wood would have devised. “DoD” is an homage to old B movies, possibly influenced by the 1963 Mexican horror film of the same name.

In it, a mad doctor is invited to dinner by a group of people who have clearly never eaten tacos before. He is shunned and decides to get his revenge by creating a creature that is a cross between an elephant and Greedo from Star Wars. The group manages to stop the creature, mainly because it’s worthless at terrorizing and because they’ve studying the fighting art of the WWE.

At first viewing the short appears to be plagued with problems. The dialogue, recorded separately, is almost incoherent. Everything is spoken as if a chipmunk on speed was called in to do ADR. There is even a moment when the cameraman attempts to shoot through a mirror, but is clearly visible for a good two-seconds. But now knowing Burton’s influences, it’s clear that many of these “mistakes” most likely done on purpose.

“DoD” does give us a sense of the filmmaker that Burton would become. The title font alone screams Burton, with that “it’s always Halloween” feel to his films. The film also combines horror elements presented as comedy which has become Burton’s signature.

Indie Intros: Christopher Nolan’s Doodlebug

I guess I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for black and white film. It was what we used when I went to film school and it always brings back a little nostalgia when I see it used. Watching a monochrome film, for me, is like opening an old book or touching an oil painted canvas.

Christopher Nolan’s “Doodlebug” foreshadows common themes he would later use in his most popular films. Insanity and the workings of the mind are on full display here. One watch will give you hints of Inception, Insomnia, Memento and other Nolan films with one-word titles.

The film follows a man who is dead set on crushing some sort of vermin that has entered his house. As the film progresses, we see his mind begin to waver and struggles to focus on the scuttling of the creature which has infested his home and the sounds of his appliances. Things descend into total bedlam when we realize the invader our protagonist is desperate to smash into oblivion, is not all that it seems.

The special effects aren’t exactly The Dark Knight, but they do the job well enough. Camera angles and close-ups dominate the screen and tell the story for us. They reflect the paranoia our main character seems to be suffering from, as well and give the film a manic pacing. It isn’t towards the end that we get a true special effect, a simple trick that has been used in films predating this one, but used in a unique way to reveal the twist at the end.

Nolan seems to have been limited to the same criteria that I was for my final student film. No dialogue, black and white film only. But he stretches the most out of those limitations, creating a visual tale for the audience. Honestly, if Nolan had the same type of restrictions we did for his final student film as we did, most of the student body would have been floored. I don’t remember anyone, especially myself, that was able to get this creative with so little.

Spotlight on Shorts: Death to the Tinman

“Death to the Tinman” is a short film I found a few years ago.  It’s directed by Ray Tintori and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 where it won the short filmmaking award. It was his senior film at Wesleyan University. Since then Tintori has gone on to direct several music videos for several bands such as MGMT and The Killers.

On its surface it’s a simple tale of love and loss, but it also deals with more complex issues such as religion and intolerance.   As the title would suggest, it draws its influence from the Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum. It’s a good example of using a well-known story, old enough to be in public domain, and expanding upon it.

The black and white cinematography gives it an old 1930’s Universal monster movie feel to it.   Although I don’t have any information on the type of budget he was working with, I have to imagine it wasn’t much. Although the film has a period feel to it, the costumes are more modern day, some so simplistic that they look like they came from a Party City. Sometimes it looks like it could pass for something Ed Wood would have put together. Even the Tinman’s suit looks like it was pieced together with old trashcans.

The look of “Death to the Tinman” is something I believe beginning filmmakers can learn from. It’s a great example of a film that substitutes expensive set pieces and costumes with a whole lot of character. When dealing with stories that seem to require extravagant production values, purposely giving it a super low budget, almost duct taped together feel can give it a quirky, childlike mood provided you have a strong story to back it up.

Tintori says that he was influenced by the likes of Werner Hertzog. Tintori had this to say about his contemporary,

“The Herzog thing was also about not being afraid to do enormously complicated stuff: Shooting with an airplane that we built that we were trying to fly all the time. He’s just extremely brave physically, and (this was) a film a that would be physically exhausting to make because you were out in the real world trudging around in a snowstorm or in swamps or something like that.”

He also lists Spike Jonze as an influence, which I think is a little more apparent.

Tintori notes that since he made the film while he was in college, he tried to stick to familiar territory. This is good advice for beginning filmmakers that might try to wow audiences with their first film by tackling complicated subjects that may be out of their realm of experience. Sticking to what you know before culminating strong research habits can allow filmmakers to put out quality work that comes from the heart. Kevin Smith is a great example of someone who has benefitted from this, making his first film Clerks about his experiences working in a convenience store.

Tintori gives what I thin is his best piece of advice on this subject,

“Yeah, I think that sometimes young filmmakers feel like they need to prove themselves by tackling issues that are really older people’s stories. So you end up getting these festivals with a ton of films by really young kids trying to tell stories about middle-aged people going through traumatic, angst-ridden moments in their life, but you get the feeling that the filmmakers actually have no first-hand knowledge of living through any of those things. So while they’re trying to be truthful, it ends up ringing very false. I recently taught a class at the University of Virginia and one of the things I said to the students was to recognize their own level of immaturity and try to make films that knowingly operate on that level.”