Shot Selection

The British Film Institute’s Library is a Film Lover’s Dream Come True

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always a pleasure to study and can really be used as a marker for some of the early, fundamental camerawork that have been replaced by the CGI and digital camera tricks we are more used to today.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.

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Indie Intros: Ron Howard’s ‘Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…’

Some people are just born to be filmmakers, I guess.

It’s common for a child to want to pick up a camera. I remember my father filming every Christmas at the house. He would simply set our VHS camcorder onto a tripod and let the thing roll, totally static, no need to get tricky. I always wanted to get my hands on that camera, but my father wouldn’t let me even touch the remote to our TV let alone a camcorder. Still I often wonder if I had the foresight to do anything worthwhile with it. I mean, I was only a kid. Still, had I been able to get my hands on that camera, the world might have had a video record of The Great War of 1986: Greyskull vs. Cobra.

One thing I can guarantee is my film probably wouldn’t have been as good as “Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…” by a young Ron Howard.

By the time Howard had begun shooting this film he was already well established as child TV star. Shot in 1969, The Andy Griffith Show had already wrapped and he was taking roles on Gunsmoke.

I’m not going to pretend like “Cards, Cads, Guns, Gore and Death…” is some sort of amateur masterpiece by a fifteen-year-old phenom. It looks pretty much like what I kid that age would shoot if you gave him an 8mm camera. Still, it’s clear that he possesses some early film skills that aren’t common at that age that I would like to acknowledge.

The film centers around three kids dressed in western attire reenacting the famous saloon poker game. In one particularly high stakes hand, one kid lays down his cards and attempts to celebrate an early victory before another player stops him and lays down a stronger hand. Being ever suspicious (or just a sore loser), the first player calls the other a cheat and shoots him in the chest. The third player, played by a young Clint Howard who looks pretty much the same as he does now, decides he having none of it and proceeds to shoot the first player. It all seems like Clint has come out the victor till a kid in a black hat shoots him from behind because he hates gambling or is just an asshole. What we’re left with is a gory scene of bodies and blood-soaked poker chips.

Some of the interesting things to not e about this film is how Howard uses some fundamental film techniques to tell his story. The opening shot is your standard establishing shot, a close up of the poker chips as we tilt up to a shot of the first player. It’s elementary, but advanced for a fifteen year old and a better opening than some indie films I’ve seen from much older. The rest of the shot is done in one take as it pans to the second player, then back down to the chips, then to a bottle that we see the third player take a drink from and finally back to first player who shoves some chips into the stack. What results is a kind of tracking shot that introduces the characters by their interactions with the props.

The first cut we see is the smiling face of the first player as he is certain he has the best hand.

The special effects are clearly lo fi, but effective. To be honest, when the players are shot, I still can’t tell if the actors are in control of the blood or someone is shooting them with a water gun filled with red liquid from off-screen. I want to say the latter, since Clint Howard is shot in the back and doesn’t seem to be at an angle to spray himself.

The film ends with a shot of a lone poker chip lying in a pool of blood, which, even in its simplicity, is pretty cool final shot that symbolizes what the whole film is about.

I got to give it up to Ron Howard for releasing this film. It was apparently a bonus feature on the special edition DVD release of The Missing. It’s rare to see a filmmaker of Howard’s status to release their very early work, which is a shame because I believe aspiring filmmakers can learn a lot from them, even if they’re horrible.

Indie Intros Oscar Edition: Alejandro González-Iñárritu’s Powder Keg

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.

Spotlight on Shorts: Factory 293

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/92579604″>FACTORY293</a&gt; from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/meaningmakerfilms”>Meaning Maker</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/88841934″>FACTORY293 Behind The Scenes</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/meaningmakerfilms”>Meaning Maker</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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.