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Do you think that the camera should be invisible?


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#1 Robert Edge

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Posted 15 January 2006 - 10:16 PM

Please don't expect a great deal of precision, because I am going to have some trouble explaining my question.

In the last few days, I have watched a couple of Russian films, specifically I Am Cuba and Mirror. I don't think that my question is unique to Russian films, but these films have pushed the question.

What do you think about cinematography that calls attention to itself? By that, I mean what do you think of a camera that is moving to the point that the camera seems to be a personality in the film?

This tends to happen in a most pronounced way during long sequences (in other words I'm not talking about zooms). However, a long take is not sufficient in itself. For example, Eric Rohmer used long takes, but the camera does not become a personality in his films.

It seems to happen when there is a long sequence that involves a great deal of camera movement. However, this is not enough, or not quite enough, for the camera to take on its own personality. For example, if one watches the schoolroom scene early in The 400 Blows, there is a long sequence of camera movement, but the camera does not become its own personality, although it comes close.

At the other extreme, there are long sequences in I Am Cuba and Tarkovsky's Mirror, and no doubt much more popular films, where the camera is front-row centre due to how long the scene is and how much, in context, the camera movement becomes the focus of the viewer's attention.

My concern about sequences when the camera itself attracts attention, however impressive it may be as a piece of cinematographic choreography, is that it is a bit like the author of a novel suddenly surfacing to announce his presence in the middle of his story. It is something that happens in modern literature, but also something about which I have mixed feelings.

Thanks for any comments on the foregoing.
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#2 drew_town

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Posted 15 January 2006 - 10:49 PM

I think you should ask yourself if the shot would aid the story. If it's art for art's sake, there should be some motivation behind that decision. To me an unmotivated shot comes off as pompous. The camera moves and composition both relay information and gives a context for the information. The way I approach a shot design is to think of the most effective way to communicate the story. If an actor is to give a personal monologue, I might consider a dolly in to the actor to help emphasize that, and so on.
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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 15 January 2006 - 11:11 PM

Well, it's like questioning if during a symphony, you should notice a single instrument being played. If done well and in support of the structure of the symphony, then yes.

At any one point in a movie, one element or another may step foward and be dominant and then recede again. It may be a certain costume, or the light, or the performance (the majority of the time in certain movies), or the editing or the music score, etc. Think of it like a french horn announcing a theme, to be taken up by the whole symphony, or a violin solo in the middle of an orchestral work.

Don't underestimate the sensual experience of watching a movie, the joy of luxuriating in the texture of the image and sound (or the beauty of an actress...) Sure, story drives most decisions and no element should detract from the dramatic intent, but there is an element of pleasure to looking at art that cannot be denied.
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#4 Sam Wells

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Posted 15 January 2006 - 11:50 PM

At the other extreme, there are long sequences in I Am Cuba and Tarkovsky's Mirror, and no doubt much more popular films, where the camera is front-row centre due to how long the scene is and how much, in context, the camera movement becomes the focus of the viewer's attention.


Well by contrast, I'm thinking of say Tsai Ming-liang's films, where there are no camera moves at all, and really no coverage (even Ozu cuts within a scene, Tsai rarely does) -- I;m as aware of that non-motion as much, probably more than I am of camera movement (I like the films quite a bit).

It's strange you cite "Mirror" because - I'm thinking of it and I'm not thinking of camera moves at all - I guess they're there (you don't mean "Stalker" do you ?) - I think of the Brueghel like exteriors, the burning barn, the crumbling apartment walls.... maybe it's been too long since I've seen it, maybe the camera movement has solidified in my mind, but what can I say, the resonance from that film for me is framing, not camera movement...

-Sam
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#5 Robert Edge

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Posted 15 January 2006 - 11:54 PM

David,

As a former orchestral player myself, I think that what I am talking about is qualitatively different from disussing the role of the French Horn in a solo.

I'm also not saying that there is something wrong with the camera becoming a personality in a film.

I'm just curious about what people think about using a camera in that way.

It may be a stupid question, but honestly, I don't think that it is.
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#6 Robert Edge

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 12:42 AM

Sam,

For what it is worth, I think that there are a number of sequences in Mirror, in the first 45 minutes, and the last sequence in the film, that illustrate what I am talking about.

As for Bruegel, I have seen many of his paintings as well as those of his sons, and with one exception, I don't get the connection. The exception is a sequence in which a teenage boy is in the foreground, there are many people in the background, much like ants, there are some jump cuts, and the sudden emergence of a bird. It is a remarkable sequence, and very connected, in my view, to Bruegel.

But this discussion is quickly going in a direction that is more complicated than what I anticipated. Not that that is a bad thing.
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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 12:57 AM

No, it's not a stupid question at all -- you hear all the time about the rule of invisibility for cinematic techniques. I just don't really believe it's possible. There's a difference between the rule that every element must support the narrative and the one that every element must be invisible.

I honestly do see an unusual camera move as being like a horn solo in a symphony, and it can be done badly or well, and it can be an integral part of the whole or be distracting and unnecessary.

To some degree, it's a matter of taste, what degree of something is appropriate versus excessive.

I had this discussion while timing a movie; the director said something like "I know we're moving from cold to warmth in the image, but I don't want anyone to notice it." This also led to him thinking some scenes were too dark because they felt dark, as if feeling dark was a mistake. I told him that I don't think it's the goal of a director to make every image in the movie unmemorable by avoiding having anything stick out, because that leads to blandness sometimes instead of subtlety. What's wrong with making an audience feel uncomfortable for a moment? Making them notice something?

I remember that the film got incredibly high marketing test scores, but some audience members complained that the beginning was too slow. My feeling is that if the OVERALL scores were really, really high, then don't mess with the beginning -- for all we know, it's the moodiness, slowness, "down" feeling of the beginning that makes the audience feel so elated when they reach the happy ending, so if you lighten the beginning, make it less oppressive, pick-up the pace, then there will be less of an arc from beginning to end and the positive ending may seem less of an accomplishment. So you may get better marks for the opening only to find the overall scores went down. I think this is one reason why so many movies get reworked and reworked after audience testing, and yet the final product sucks. Because a good movie is not just the accumulation of likeable, entertaining scenes. That may be fine while you watch it, but the movie won't become a cherished classic - it will be as disposable as kleenex.
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#8 Paul Bruening

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 01:08 AM

Hello Mr. Edge,

The importance of "Suspension of disbelief" dictates that the movie makers never interrupt the viewer's ability to lose themselves in the movie. Whatever the camera technique, it should NOT disrupt the veiwer's participatory illusion.

With that said, lotsa' movies break this rule and suceed in the doing. An example of a movie that indulgently moved the camera and failed, for me, is 21 Grams. All that shakey-cam just caused me to want to blow chunks. But, others I spoke with loved the camera work.

I believe it is more like what David said. Use camera movement well and it will serve you well.
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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 01:14 AM

You can think of an agressive camera style just like agressive music -- like Punk Rock, for example, or a Wagnerian opera: it's not to everyone's liking. Not to say that it can't be done badly and inappropriately.

Or think of it like cooking; spicy food in itself can be great, if not always to everyone's liking, but putting a ton of salt or pepper into something may turn out to be just plain bad.
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#10 Peter Waal

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 01:55 AM

The screenwriter David Peoples (Unforgiven) says every character in a story should have an agenda. Similarly, you could say the same for every shot. Every shot should have an agenda, a purpose. I'm not sure it really matters what the agenda is, as long as there appears to be some consciousness to it.

IMO the worst shot of all is an out-of-focus shot.
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#11 Jonathan Benny

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 02:06 AM

What do you think about cinematography that calls attention to itself? By that, I mean what do you think of a camera that is moving to the point that the camera seems to be a personality in the film?


Wondeful question.

My belief is that the camera's point of view is ultimately a silent character that interacts in, or, simply observes the story that is unfolding.

Take for example, perhaps a simple example, the film Rope (Hitchcock). We can study the way the camera moves throughout the film and find that there are times when it is simply observing - and that makes us feel something, and when it is interacting, which makes us feel something different. I believe audiences get a sense of their interraction in a scene but not necessarily thinking about the camera doing it - which I think is the goal with camera moves.

On my own films, and when I shoot for others, I really get a sense when I'm operating the camera that the camera itself is a character in the scene - and this is transferred to the audience. As with everything else, it is up to us to make the character believable or not and that it not upstage the other characters in the story.

Just one angle,

AJB

Edited by Jonathan Benny, 16 January 2006 - 02:07 AM.

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#12 Peter Waal

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 02:53 AM

Whenever I think of camerawork draws attention to itself, the movie that immediately comes to mind is Highlander. I saw it again on TV recently and, strangely, it didn't seem as bad as I thought it was when I first saw it, roughly 20 years ago. The very visible camerawork is the best thing in the movie. I think Highlander was one of the first of the so-called "MTV" movies, made by a rock-video director. I think every critic slammed the camerawork as being pretentious and overwrought, and I agreed with them at the time. Now it seems almost restrained. I'm not saying it's aged well, but it hasn't aged as badly as I thought it would. With the sound off, it was fairly watchable. It's lightweight entertainment, but it seems to know that. That awareness is in the camerawork. These days, that's all I ask for.

I Am Cuba, Tarkovsky, Kubrick -- this is masterclass stuff. Everything draws attention to itself, and everything seems intelligently designed and appropriate. Maybe that's why we're still watching them.
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#13 Robert Edge

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 03:13 AM

I am more comfortable discussing narrative in terms of the novel or theatre.

The majority of films that I see make sense in how those forms work.

Lately, I have been looking at some films that don't fit into those forms. From where I am coming from, they are perhaps more analogous to modern dance. Or maybe the parts of these films that are throwing me for a bit of a loop are best described as a combination of dance and painting.

Whatever they are, they do not fit within the novel or the play, and for me that is challenging.

In my situation, this is not an academic issue. I'm planning a film for next summer where I can do whatever I want. I find some of this highly choreographed cinematography highly attractive. That said, I'm quite sure that I don't yet understand it. I hope that it makes sense when I say that it forces one to face the issue of form and content.

That probably sounds horribly pretentious, maybe even horribly confused, but it is the best that I can do right now.
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#14 Max Jacoby

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 04:59 AM

To me it comes down to whether the camera movement supports the narrative, rythm and emotions of the story. If it serves to draw you more into the film then it is justified, if not, then it is working against the film and should be avoided.

I suppose a director's personality also comes into play. A film is not just a performance that gets recorded objectively, but the way HOW the story is told is of equal importance. Different people have different ways of approaching the same story, which is what makes them unique.
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#15 Keith Mottram

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 08:27 AM

i think you have to always think of the camera as a character, sometimes you want that character to be quiet and timid othertimes you might want it to be an aggressive obnoxious kid. recently the sheer cheek of wes anderson's camera's 'character' in Life Aquatic was a joy to me, although I'm sure others found it annoying. At the end of the day it's about consistancy and this applies equally to the style of editing, art direction and other departments.

keith
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#16 Arni Heimir

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 09:15 AM

What is it called again - three point filmmaking? Where the camera doesn't draw attention to itself?
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#17 Sam Wells

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 12:17 PM

As for Bruegel, I have seen many of his paintings as well as those of his sons, and with one exception, I don't get the connection. The exception is a sequence in which a teenage boy is in the foreground, there are many people in the background, much like ants, there are some jump cuts, and the sudden emergence of a bird. It is a remarkable sequence, and very connected, in my view, to Bruegel.

But this discussion is quickly going in a direction that is more complicated than what I anticipated. Not that that is a bad thing.


I think that's what I'm thinking of, but I remember this as a repeated motif. I *really* need to see Mirror again to say more; oh well I can borrow a copy next week. Why not. In any case the film, which I truly liked the few times I've seen - it's quite beautiful screened in 35 -- seems to have settled in my mind without my thinking of camera movement (unlike say Max Ophuls or Miklos Jansco films..) so maybe the movement is 'organic' on some level... like I said, I recall framing more than movement..

It IS a complicated issue, and a very interesting one to discuss !

-Sam
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#18 Sam Wells

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 12:31 PM

I am more comfortable discussing narrative in terms of the novel or theatre.

The majority of films that I see make sense in how those forms work.

Lately, I have been looking at some films that don't fit into those forms. From where I am coming from, they are perhaps more analogous to modern dance. Or maybe the parts of these films that are throwing me for a bit of a loop are best described as a combination of dance and painting.

Whatever they are, they do not fit within the novel or the play, and for me that is challenging.


You're moving in a very good direction :D

Here's one idea; look at some of Mizoguchi's films - Criterion has "Ugetsu monogatari" out now.

Instead of thinking subject <-- camera move, try thinking of the screen when you watch as a kind of moving scroll painting (this idea re Mizoguchi is hardly original with me) -- note that his "tracking" shots are often not so much literally tracking someONE as they are scrolling as it were through space (and time) so engage a totality of ideas rather than the "surveillance" of characters (they will often move *beyond* the principal/supposed point of interest in a shot...)

This kind of spatial dynamic is present in Hou Hsiao-hsien's films too; see "Flowers Of Shanghai"

-Sam
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#19 Robert Edge

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 08:32 PM

...try thinking of the screen when you watch as a kind of moving scroll painting (this idea re Mizoguchi is hardly original with me) -- note that his "tracking" shots are often not so much literally tracking someONE as they are scrolling as it were through space (and time) so engage a totality of ideas rather than the "surveillance" of characters (they will often move *beyond* the principal/supposed point of interest in a shot...)


Your comment makes me think that I am noticing two different phenomena.

You have described the first very well, and I'll rent the films you mention.

The second, apparent in I Am Cuba, involves very complex choreography of camera and actors that someone like Bob Fosse or Martha Graham would empathize with immediately. If someone said that the director of I Am Cuba drew on the services of a professional choreographer, I would not be the least surprised. In fact, I wonder whether that is what happened.

I've read suggestions on the net that Tarkovsky was influenced by Bruegel. It's possible that there are other sequences in Mirror that draw on Bruegel compositions, but the sequence with the kid and the people in the far distance during winter jumped out at me, as did the subtle jump cuts. I replayed that sequence at least six times.

Do you happen to know how Tarkovsky mixed colour and black and white sequences in the release prints?
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#20 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 16 January 2006 - 08:45 PM

I must take object to the statement that a camera movement can be "motivated". There is no such thing. Every cut, every camera angle, every movement is already a bastardisation of thruth. Pure cinema is an entire film shot from one point of view only, like a play. Everything else is a convention you've been condiotioned to like.

You move the camera when it feels right. And the only way to know when it's right is to have good taste. And directing is simply having good taste - nothing else.

Film is fashion. What's right to do depends on the times in which it was shot - what's right today is wrong tomorrow.
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