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Bright Lights, Big City DVD


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 19 October 2008 - 10:46 PM

Bought this somewhat mediocre movie (a new DVD edition) just for the Willis audio commentary track. Listened to about half so far and it's been interesting.

The lighting in the movie is pretty simple for the most part (the movie was shot somewhat quickly) but Willis demonstrates his amazing eye for simple but graphic compositions in ordinary spaces, and the juxtaposition of light vs. dark in both framing and how scenes flow from one to another.

He talks about how what he is hired to do is bring a certain visual structure to the work and you can see this as you watch the movie, despite the simplicity of a lot of the coverage.

He also talks about how he prefers to shoot a scene in the minimal number of set-ups that tell the story rather than revert to what he calls "dump-truck directing" where you shoot every angle possible and figure it out in the editing room.

In contrast, I saw a half-hour of "Max Payne" today and all of "W.", and what you see in modern filmmaking is so opposite to a lot of what Willis tried to accomplish. In "Max Payne" you have the hyper-baroque stylings of the comic book noir trend in lighting, and in "W." the expected hyperactive Stone style of shooting and covering a scene, sometimes justified, sometimes just annoying. Though both movies can be justified in their stylistic decisions, the visual results can seem somewhat shallow compared to the thoughtfulness of what Willis did in his classic 1970's movies.

I just worry sometimes that younger filmmakers will fail to see what was so great about subtle and mature cinematographers like Willis, Nykvist, Almendros, etc. compared to the graphic novel / comic book styles of today. Though the truth is that I have less complaint about modern lighting styles (which originated with people like Willis and Storaro) as I do modern directing & editing styles, which are unsubtle to say the least. Not that I dislike all forms of expressiveness -- I'm a big Orson Welles fan afterall -- I just wish all of this style was in the service of some interesting ideas.

But take a look at the new DVD of "Bright Lights, Big City" and just note the carefulness of camera placement, the use of space, the way Willis will jump from a dark scene to a bright scene, the simple coverage.
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#2 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 20 October 2008 - 03:27 AM

I just wish all of this style was in the service of some interesting ideas.

That's the crux of the problem, isn't it? I think a director with something to express would take even a mediocre script and inject some interesting ideas into the film thru their use of camera placement, coverage, staging, direction of actors, etc. I think part of what's changed is that productions are much more slavish in their interpretations of mediocre scripts; it used to be that if the director didn't like a scene, then he'd alter it. For better or for worse, the film was the director's film (a huge overgeneralization, I know). I just can't see the director of "Max Payne" doing this. At least we can recognize an Oliver Stone film when we see it. But what can any DP do on either production other than go with the flow if he or she isn't given the chance to contribute to the underlying structural syntax of the film?

But take a look at the new DVD of "Bright Lights, Big City" and just note the carefulness of camera placement, the use of space, the way Willis will jump from a dark scene to a bright scene, the simple coverage.

Didn't Willis have a great deal of clout on set in his day, more so than all but a handful of DPs working today? Come to think of it, didn't DPs in general have more control over their work (framing, exposure, grading) back then? He was probably able to impose his visual aesthetics much more strongly on a film than most DPs would now. Perhaps the machinery of filmmaking has become so big, schedules so tight, budgets so stretched, effects work so tightly controlled and post-oriented, that the lightness of the "camera as a pen" has been lost on all but a handful of productions?

I understand your concern about younger filmmakers not picking up on the importance of visualizing their stories in basic cinematic terms though. This is probably where an experienced DP could really help them out. I look forward to seeing the work your students produce in the future! (I consider myself one of your students, BTW). :)
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#3 Michael LaVoie

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Posted 20 October 2008 - 08:52 AM

I was actually thinking of getting that DVD. I've always been a fan of both the book and the film though the movie could have been much better. I had no idea Willis had a commentary track on the DVD. Lately I've looked at some other films from the 80's on DVD and among the standouts were 2 films shot by Thomas Del Ruth. Stand By Me and The Breakfast Club. Both had a similar sort of elegant simplicity to them. I have to say I like the characteristics of certain filmstocks from the 80's. It seemed like the DP's from the 70's were finally able to achieve that natural documentary look without color temperatures looking all faded and wierd. Images were punchy and crisp but not artificially so. Unlike certain looks of today where everything resembles anime.
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#4 Mike Williamson

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Posted 22 October 2008 - 08:00 AM

I think Gordon Willis had a lot of things going for him that not all DP's have, a large part of that being a reputation that allowed him to pick and choose his projects. I'm sure he had a certain reputation as well, where it was known up front that he expected to have a certain amount of control on set.

The things I've taken away from watching his films are the consistency, sense of structure and purely visual thinking that you see in his work. I feel like his control comes from having a clear idea of the story, and the lesson is that having a strong vision is part of what helps you get control of the process.
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#5 Ronney Ross

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Posted 22 October 2008 - 07:08 PM

I just worry sometimes that younger filmmakers will fail to see what was so great about subtle and mature cinematographers like Willis, Nykvist, Almendros, etc. compared to the graphic novel / comic book styles of today. Though the truth is that I have less complaint about modern lighting styles



David, if you dont mind i would like to know what are some films are in your personal collection/library ala 1960's-1970's
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Visual Products

Tai Audio

Willys Widgets

Technodolly

Metropolis Post

FJS International, LLC

Ritter Battery

Wooden Camera