That video above is a copy of Alice in Wonderland from over a hundred years ago. It was found and restored by The British Film Institute, an organization that has made it its mission to restore old British and World films that, left unchecked, could have been lost to us forever.
Many of the films are from the early 1900s and cover a wide range of genres from coverage of old sports events to large fairs and celebrations. There are even a few silent dramas and comedies.
These types of films are always a pleasure to study and can really be used as a marker for some of the early, fundamental camerawork that have been replaced by the CGI and digital camera tricks we are more used to today.
Taking a glance at the film above you can see some old tricks such as forced perspective to make Alice appear large or small compared to her surroundings as well as the type of rudimentary cuts used to splice the film together. Not to mention the costumes. I mean, wow. The White Rabbit is the stuff of nightmares and looks like something right out of Donnie Darko. And if you thought the kids in The Shining or Children of the Corn were frightening, nothing can prepare you for the fear induced by a large group of kids dressed as playing cards chasing an innocent young woman through the countryside.
If you’re a fan of old films and how the art of filmmaking was used in the days before sound was introduced, you should really go through some of the treasures in this library. You can find the rest here on YouTube.
Since my last Indie Intros post chronicled the work of Richard Linklater, a response to Boyhood being nominated for six Academy Awards, I thought I might just cover other nominees till the awards kick off in February. Up until the week of the 22nd I’ll be dedicating the Indie Intros section to filmmakers nominated for the 2015 Academy Awards. We’ll look at some of their humble beginnings before we witness all the bad jokes and musical numbers the Academy is so known for. Then we’ll all go to work the next morning and complain about who should have won.
Before we begin, I’d like to preface something for the sake of controversy. Ideally, I wanted to focus on all of the Best Picture nominees, but the fact is not every filmmaker in this category have short films to view. Short films from James Marsh or Morton Tyldum were nowhere to be found on the Internet. When I searched for a site showing Damien Chazzelle’s “Whiplash”, the short film that is now an Oscar Nominated feature of the same name, I was directed here which just screams to me, “If you dare show this film we’ll sue you back into the Stone Age!” Finally, Clint Eastwood hasn’t had to make a short film to show off has talents, most likely because there has never been a time in his life where he hasn’t been goddamn Clint Eastwood.
With the recent commentary over the amount of nominations given to American Sniper and the lack of nominations given to Selma, I don’t want any additions or omissions to be viewed as political or social commentary (that’s for a different section of my blog).
With that, Birdman director Alejandro González-Iñárritu is no stranger to the Academy. His debut feature film Amores Perros was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001 and Babel, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, was nominated for Best Picture in 2007. “Powder Keg” isn’t exactly his first short, yet it’s still relatively early in his career. Before ever shooting Perros, he had shot “El Timbre”, a Spanish film that I couldn’t seem to find anywhere. Worry not though, as soon as I do I plan to cover it on my future Spanish sister site, El Barrio de Los Cineastas Amistosos.
“Powder Keg” comes right off the heels of Amores Perros and as a result has some significant star power behind it. It stars Clive Owen, the king of gruff deliveries, and Stellan Skarsgård who shouldn’t to be confused with Alexander Skarsgård, or Peter Sarsgaard, that smug bastard who thinks he can just jam as many A’s into his name as he wants. Skarsgård plays a war photographer who captures local terrorists murder a group of innocent civilians. Embedded in Columbia, the UN sends Owen in to extract him, but things go awry. Basically, it’s a faster paced, less elaborate Argo.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have the same sense of urgency that makes Argo so good. As Owen drives through the Colombian town of Nuevo Colon, you really get a sense that this is a place going through a giant upheaval. Armed soldiers and terrorists alike litter the streets and pose a constant threat to the two protagonists.
Much like Amores Perros, “Powder Keg” gives us a look at the everyday lives of those who live south of the border of the U.S. Here in “Powder Keg” we witness how U.S. demand for cocaine has affected those living in Cartel controlled Columbia. This ties into the overall message of the film; that as we watch the horrors that the drug war wreaks on South America, there is more we could be doing to stop it. Anyone who has seen Amores Perros or 21 Grams might be seeing a pattern in Alejandro González-Iñárritu’s work, to address that the actions of one person can create a Butterfly Effect that can influence the lives of others. In “Powder Keg” he explores this theme on a much grander scale; pointing out that many of us here in the U.S. are content with condemning the atrocities witnessed abroad, yet fail to address our role in them. This is conveyed through Skarsgård’s Harvey Jacobs, a photographer who regrets his lack of involvement for the sake of getting the perfect picture.
Finally, the cinematography works to further stress Iñárritu’s message. Many of his shots give the impression that they come from the POV of an onlooker lurking in the shadows, watching everything unfold but refusing to get involved in fear of the repercussions. Also, the graininess of his shots will remind you of old 8mm war footage, implying that we are content simply being a horrified viewer, but never an active participant.
We’re continuing our Spotlight of holiday themed shorts with a short film from Belgium, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2008. “Tanghi Argentini” or “Argentine Tango” is a film directed by Guy Thys and written by Geert Verbanck, that tells the story of André, a middle aged office worker, who makes the age old mistake of lying on an online dating site to impress a girl. When André strikes a date with a Tango aficionado, he must convince Franz, a co-worker who’s the cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and Yul Brenner, to school him in the art of dance.
The first thing you might notice about the film is the muted color palette. Blacks, greys, and whites dominate most of the scenery. Very rarely do we get a green from a Christmas tree in the background or yellow from the sun shining through a distant window. This seems to highlight the drab and boring existence that is André’s life. Even Franz, who is supposed to be sparking the passion in him, is dressed like he’s going to a funeral most of the film. The first time we really ever see a noticeable change is when André shows up to his date wearing a red rose in his lapel.
This is all very deliberate, as we are finally introduced to André’s date, Suzanne, in a striking red dress and sultry lipstick. This sudden injection is a great example of how color can be used as a kind of subtext in film. In this case, red can be representing André’s passion, as it has finally begun to flourish with his learning the Tango. Suzanne, on the other hand, is practically brimming with it, as she represents André’s escape from his colorless life.
Something else to note is the lighting. “Tanghi Argentini” is lit very similar to a film noir, with dim lights casting hard shadows. This gives an air of mystery to the film, possibly suggesting that not everything is as it seems.
Like many good shorts, “Tanghi Argentini” does take an unexpected twist, the kind that will have you going back to the beginning asking, “How did I miss that?” As good as the story is, I think the best thing to take away from the film is how Thys uses lighting and color to visually guide us through the story. This has been used to much effect in films such as Shindler’s List and The Sixth Sense. Filmmakers should take note on how “Tanghi Argentini” again proves how good cinematography can be used to tell a story just as dialogue can.
This week I really wanted to focus on cinematography in film and how nailing it effectively can add to the production value of a film without necessarily adding to the budget. Although having a top of the line HD camera and a large budget certainly will increase the look of a film, I’m always impressed by filmmakers that do a lot with fairly little by taking the time to study shot selections and how they translate to an audience visually. I was lucky to find a short last night called “Factory 293” that’s a fantastic example of this.
“Factory 293” is a period piece written and directed by Roderick MacKay. Set in WWII during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, it follows a factory in the middle of the Russian tundra that produces artillery shells for tanks, really big guns or Soviet era Jaegers specifically designed to take on Nazi Kaiju (how the hell am I supposed to know, I’m not an artillery expert). Grigori runs the factory and is having an affair with Yelena, a factory worker. From the outset we know that something is clearly bothering Grigori. He rejects Yelena’s advances and glares menacingly at the picture of Stalin hanging on his wall.
When the power goes out, Yelena is charged with turning it back on. In the attempt to restore power, she finds a lone soviet soldier out in the tundra on the brink of freezing to death. From there we learn more about Grigori, the mysterious soldier and the extent of Yelena and Grigori’s relationship.
I think the most surprising thing about this film is that it’s shot far, far away from the frostbitten lands of Russia in sunny Perth, Australia. Even more impressive, is that despite clearly looking like it took place on the planet Hoth, it was shot in the middle of summer. Through the use of fans, fake snow and some incredibly impressive green screening and digital artistry, they managed to turn Perth into something out of Kris Kringle’s nightmares. All this was done within a relatively small budget estimated at $100,000 dollars.
For those of you interested in the process of how MacKay managed to pull this off, it’s chronicled in a Behind the Scenes video below:
Despite the impressive digital work in the movie, what really struck me was the choice of shots MacKay went with to tell his story. One specific shot is an overhead angle capturing the portrait of Stalin ominously overhead of Grigori. The shot hints to the ever-looming presence of Stalinist Russia, mimicking the paranoia the dictator was so well-known for, his eyes constantly on the lookout for dissenters to the Soviet cause.
MacKay also does some impressive work with camera focus, specifically while shooting down the barrel of a gun, many of the shots seemingly coming from the point of view of the targets.
All of this excellent cinematography enhances the film further, giving it a very polished look for, relatively, pennies on the dollar. This demonstrates what good shot selection can do for a film, drawing the audience further into the film by making the framing and movement of the camera just as much a part of the storytelling process as the dialogue spoken by the characters. This is a lesson I feel a lot of beginning filmmakers can learn greatly from, that camera position is more than a matter of just getting the actors in frame. Let’s not forget that films are moving pictures and not just a collection of static shots.