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The movies that inspired me in my youth


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#1 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 01 January 2016 - 07:37 PM

This year I wanted to post a series of frames from movies that I saw in my youth through graduating college that made me want to make movies.  These won't necessarily be the greatest movies or best frames ever, they are just images that stayed in my head and went on to influence me.

 

Today I am going to post a frame from "Kagemusha", which was one of the first foreign-language movies I saw in a theater in its first run. I was visiting home in the fall of 1980 in my first year at college, at the University of Virginia, where I was watching a lot of old movies on campus, but I believe I saw this movie in Washington D.C., probably in Georgetown.

 

This particular shot still amazes me, a line of soldiers marching along the horizon at sunset -- it's better seen in motion than as a still because the floating dust and the movement creates these ever-shifting shafts of orange light, almost like something out of "Close Encounters".  What puts the shot over the top though are the figures in the foreground, talking among themselves with that incredible background going on behind them.

 

365_kagemusha1.jpg

 

After seeing this, I saw every Kurosawa film I could over the next few years (remember this was before home video, so I saw them projected in revival houses and in screenings on campus.)


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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 January 2016 - 12:25 PM

#2. Growing up, I watched a lot of TV and read a lot of science fiction... and watched a lot of science fiction TV. In particular, the original "Star Trek" and "Space: 1999". I'm sure all of that had to have some deep-seated affect on my aesthetics... One thing I remember well is that my father had the LP of the "2001" soundtrack, which had beautiful color photos on the inside of the jacket. I used to stare at those images for a long time, dreaming of being in that world and fascinated by the light and color in the frames. I read the Clarke novel of course, but there was no way to see the movie, growing up at the time in the Mojave Desert, until "2001" premiered on NBC in February of 1977. I sat two feet from the TV set for all three hours of the broadcast. 1977 was a significant year for me (I was 15 years old that summer) because I later saw "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" that fall in Lancaster and then "Star Wars" when it finally arrived in Ridgecrest that winter. The triple-whammy of seeing those three major science fiction movies in one year is probably what pushed me into wanting to make movies. By the time I was a senior in high school and living just outside of Washington D.C., I had gotten to see "2001" in a 70mm print at the Uptown Theater, and I've probably seen it projected in 70mm maybe 15 or 20 times (for me, it's really the only way to see the movie -- the 35mm scope prints, the 2K DCP, and the 1080P blu-ray don't give you the same feeling... on the other hand, as a kid, I watched it in 4x3 pan & scan NTSC...) The colors and the pristine, cold quality of that movie still fascinate me.

 

I believe these frames were inside that "2001" album jacket, or something close:

 

365_2001.jpg

 

365_2001_2.jpg


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#3 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 02 January 2016 - 12:45 PM

The first frame is a particularly good example of the "just wait for the right time of day" gambit.

 

P


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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 12:01 PM

#3. A lot of my favorite images growing up were visual effects shots, from Godzilla stomping on miniature buildings, to King Kong on the Empire State Building, to the Starchild at the end of "2001", to the Mothership rising behind Devil's Tower.  The opening of "Star Wars" as the Star Destroyer passes overhead made a big impression on everyone -- I remember at school that the other kids who saw it first (it didn't get to Ridgecrest for six months after its release) would talk about how BIG the screen was at the Mann Chinese and how that ship seemed to take forever to cross the frame.  I'd almost say that the opening shot was also the first time I really appreciated the CinemaScope frame, really understood its power.  I started buying Cinefex magazine from Issue #1 and thought about going into a career in visual effects (at the time, I could draw & paint and I built plastic kit models).  

 

But later I recall reading about how one of my favorite shots in "Empire Strikes Back" was done, a very realistic early morning shot of three Imperial Walkers, and the person doing the shot said something to the effect that other than the stop-motion work, the only effect was just putting on a Fog Filter and shooting the models in semi-silhouette against a sky painting.  In other words, the effect was mainly achieved with cinematography -- the lighting, the filtration, the exposure, the camera angle on the models.  I started to realize that I was more interested in that aspect, the creation of mood with photography.

 

365_starwars1.jpg

 

365_empire1.jpg


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#5 Bill DiPietra

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 12:51 PM

#3. A lot of my favorite images growing up were visual effects shots, from Godzilla stomping on miniature buildings, to King Kong on the Empire State Building, to the Starchild at the end of "2001", to the Mothership rising behind Devil's Tower.  The opening of "Star Wars" as the Star Destroyer passes overhead made a big impression on everyone -- I remember at school that the other kids who saw it first (it didn't get to Ridgecrest for six months after its release) would talk about how BIG the screen was at the Mann Chinese and how that ship seemed to take forever to cross the frame.  I'd almost say that the opening shot was also the first time I really appreciated the CinemaScope frame, really understood its power.  I started buying Cinefex magazine from Issue #1 and thought about going into a career in visual effects (at the time, I could draw & paint and I built plastic kit models).  

 

But later I recall reading about how one of my favorite shots in "Empire Strikes Back" was done, a very realistic early morning shot of three Imperial Walkers, and the person doing the shot said something to the effect that other than the stop-motion work, the only effect was just putting on a Fog Filter and shooting the models in semi-silhouette against a sky painting.  In other words, the effect was mainly achieved with cinematography -- the lighting, the filtration, the exposure, the camera angle on the models.  I started to realize that I was more interested in that aspect, the creation of mood with photography.

 

365_starwars1.jpg

 

365_empire1.jpg

 

The Empire Strikes Back is probably my favorite Star Wars film to date.  I loved the Imperial Walkers when I first saw them.  But I was 5 when I saw it in the theater and there was something quite ominous about them.  The stop-motion didn't really do it - it was the compositions & angles.


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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 04 January 2016 - 05:06 PM

#4.  I planned on discussing the importance of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” to me personally this week… but now with the passing of legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, it seems even more timely and relevant.  Growing up in Ridgecrest, we often had to wait six months for first-run movies to reach our local theater.  But luckily, I had a school field trip in December 1977 to Lancaster (maybe for the math team or Model U.N., I can’t remember) and someone took us to see “Close Encounters” that evening.  “Star Wars” hadn’t even reached Ridgecrest yet -- I saw it a few weeks after “Close Encounters” even though nationally “Star Wars” was released months earlier.  I was so blown away with the story and visuals of “Close Encounters”, and one of my strongest memories was stepping out of the theater and into the desert night.  I looked up and, as usual, the desert air was clear and the sky was blazing with stars.  The moment felt almost mystical, and certainly the experience of watching the movie evoked almost religious feelings of awe and wonder.

 
Being a Spielberg movie, the filmmaking style in this movie was much more front-and-center than with “Star Wars” in terms of camera movements, lighting, and compositions – even a novice such as myself couldn’t help but be aware of those things. I didn’t know much about how movies were made back then and I remember confusing the term “cinematography” with “choreography” – I thought the cinematographer was orchestrating all of the motions in the image of camera, actors, crowds, etc.  I didn’t realize that the director had a hand in that.  (Later I read some of Truffaut’s book where he discussed his experience on the set of  “Close Encounters” and being amazed at Spielberg’s ability to orchestrate the movements of a hundred extras when Truffaut said he himself would find blocking a dozen people hard enough.) 
 
Besides the movement, I also was fascinated by the use of light in the movie, and if there ever was a movie where light itself was a major character and a story element, it is this movie.  I also think this was the first movie to use overexposure so prominently, enough to be quickly copied and parodied, but after this, the genie was out of the bottle and we saw creative use of overexposure in many movies. I didn’t have access to American Cinematographer at the time, but I read articles on the production in some fanzines of the day, and a small book about the production that came out. I also bought the “foto-novel” and studied the images from the movie over and over again. (Those photo montage books by Richard Anobile back then were an important part of my film education.)  This was also the movie where I first really noticed the dramatic dolly push-in to a low-angle close-up, though in fact the original “Star Trek” had done it quite a bit, as did a lot of other 60’s TV shows.  (Though it actually dates back to the Silent Era, I think perhaps the person who first made a real art of it was Michael Curtiz – some of the camera moves in “Casablanca” seem very Spielbergian.)  
 
365_closeencounters1.jpg
 
One of my favorite images from the film is when Roy Neary stops at the base of the Mothership and looks back one last time. The soft, dim light on his face, just enough to read his warm expression, the tremendous amount of light behind him… I can’t recall an image quite like that in cinema before this, where there was such an extreme range of contrast on display.  Anyway, it was a beautiful moment and it has always stayed with me.  Thank you, Vilmos.
 
365_closeencounters2.jpg

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#7 Richard Boddington

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Posted 06 January 2016 - 12:49 AM

The first frame is a particularly good example of the "just wait for the right time of day" gambit.

 

P

 

I love that gambit Phil! Here it is in use in my last movie. :)

R,

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#8 Richard Boddington

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Posted 06 January 2016 - 12:58 AM

The first frame is a particularly good example of the "just wait for the right time of day" gambit.

 

P

 

And again....in the same movie.  Gotta love that gambit!!

 

We "borrow" from the greats as David has pointed out.

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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 06 January 2016 - 01:20 AM

I stole an idea for a shot from "The Color Purple" - a telephoto silhouette of Celie on her porch against the setting sun which I realized could not be done in a real porch that is only 10 feet deep or so before you hit the wall.  I figured they had to build a porch deck and rail in a field to be able to back up with a telephoto lens.  So for "Astronaut Farmer" I suggested the same thing and we had the art department build a false section of the house's porch on a hilltop:

 

af37.jpg


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#10 Richard Boddington

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Posted 06 January 2016 - 02:00 AM

Wow, you had that kind of budget?

 

For my shots I had to move the cast and crew to the right spots.  For the jeep driving off into the sunset, we lined up the shot and then had the jeep drive off on the bush veld, but of course there was no road there, just bumpy ground.  Really, really, bumpy ground.  Jeri Ryan was not too pleased that I asked for three takes, each one with the sun slightly lower.  :)

 

Your build above is quite interesting because if I just saw that shot in the movie, I never would of thought about the need to back the camera way up to use the tele-photo, and how it would not be possible on a real porch.  Movie magic, ya gotta love it.

 

R,


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#11 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 06 January 2016 - 04:08 AM

Oh-ho-ho, you guys.

 

How warm it looked:

 

sunset1.jpg

 

How warm it wasn't:

 

sunset2.jpg

 

I had to look at the original take to get that frame, and immediately after the snapshot's taken, she's shuffling around in her waterlogged 1930s vintage slingbacks saying "Think of a nice warm place. Nice warm place. Nice warm place."

 

I hate this country.


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#12 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 06 January 2016 - 06:21 AM

You love it .. 


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#13 Freya Black

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Posted 06 January 2016 - 12:07 PM

I stole an idea for a shot from "The Color Purple" - a telephoto silhouette of Celie on her porch against the setting sun which I realized could not be done in a real porch that is only 10 feet deep or so before you hit the wall.

 

There must be a door for getting onto the porch though so you could be further back than the wall surely? Might get vignetting from the doorway tho depending on focal length.

 

Freya


Edited by Freya Black, 06 January 2016 - 12:07 PM.

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#14 Freya Black

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Posted 06 January 2016 - 12:10 PM

Oh-ho-ho, you guys.

 

How warm it looked:

 

attachicon.gifsunset1.jpg

 

 

Nice shot!

 

I have to say that it doesn't look at all warm to me.

That snow on the ground thing is a bit of a give away I think!

 

Freya


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#15 Freya Black

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Posted 06 January 2016 - 12:11 PM

I hate this country.

 

 

There is still time to move to the mainland! :)

 

Freya


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#16 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 January 2016 - 11:42 PM

#5. After my sophomore year of high school, my family moved in the summer of 1978 to northern Virginia near Springfield. At the Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian, I found a copy of “The Making of 2001” in the gift shop and spent the summer reading and re-reading it. I had few friends at my new school but one was a graphic artist and model builder; we made some science fiction short films in Super-8 and went to local science fiction conventions where I tried to sell some of my artwork. That Christmas, “Superman: The Movie” was released. At this point, I knew the names of two cinematographers, Vilmos Zsigmond and Geoffrey Unsworth (because of “2001”). After the lights dimmed and “Superman” began, the first title card was a dedication to Geoffrey Unsworth. I hadn’t realized he had passed away. I was also struck by the fact that he was awarded an O.B.E.; I didn’t know that a cinematographer could achieve such an honor. A few months later at a science fiction convention, I bought my first copy of American Cinematographer magazine, the issue about “Superman”. Peter MacDonald, his operator, wrote a lovely article about Unsworth’s work on that movie and his career in general. MacDonald had worked his way up from clapper-loader for Unsworth. What I recall the most was his description of the character of Unsworth, his professionalism, his calm demeanor. Over the years, I’ve read many positive comments about working with Unsworth from directors like Bob Fosse, Richard Attenborough, Roman Polanski, and John Boorman, plus a number of actresses who appreciated the care he took in lighting them.

 

My well-read issue:

365_supermanAC.jpg

 

The dedication at the head of the movie:

365_superman1.jpg

 
Unsworth is an interesting case of a studio-era cinematographer who, like Ozzie Morris, broke with tradition and started experimenting with diffusion, smoke, underexposure, and push-processing in an attempt to move away from the crisp Technicolor look of older movies. The soft, diffused, smokey look in color wasn’t new, it appeared in select moments when a certain dreamlike effect was desired in some Vincente Minnelli musical number, or the fog-filtered scenes in “Vertigo” or the dawn climax to “Black Narcissus.” But for an entire color movie, the only early precedent was Ozzie Morris’ work in “Moulin Rouge” (1952) using smoke and fog filters. By comparison, Unsworth’s work through the 1960’s like on “Beckett” was fairly clean (and of course there is “2001”). But by the start of the next decade, Unsworth was using smoke and diffusion on “Cabaret” (1972), just a year after Zsigmond’s work on “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971). I was just reading something online about the studio execs of “Cabaret” complaining daily about the look – one of them claimed that he got Unsworth and Fosse to shoot some scenes clean “to the benefit of the movie”. I guess that exec also wants to take credit for the Oscar that Unsworth got for shooting the movie. (Reminds me of the old story about a studio exec yelling at Hitchcock in the 1940’s, saying something like “what in hell are you trying to do?” Hitchcock replied: “I’m attempting to make what you – in time – will call ‘our’ movie.”)
 
Like Vilmos Zsigmond and Ozzie Morris, Unsworth’s lighting was a mix of classic hard lighting from their training in b&w photography and modern soft-lighting techniques. In some ways, it straddles the transition from old-school studio photography and the more naturalistic work of the new generation of cinematographers to emerge in the 1970’s. Zsigmond of course is of that new generation, but with Zsigmond, you always sensed his love of classic studio lighting, which I would call “sculptural” in nature.
 
The wide shot of Jonathan Kent’s funeral in “Superman”, with the perfect white church in the background and puffy white clouds in the sky, is iconic in a sort of John Ford way. That shot was a touchstone for me when I shot “Northfork” in Montana. I loved reading in another publication that the church on the hilltop was a 1/4-scale false-front construction. Peter MacDonald mentioned that Unsworth had a high regard for Haskell Wexler and his work, and among British cinematographers, admired David Watkin for his photographic courage and in particular, his interior lighting on the movie “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1968). He also mentioned that while on location, Unsworth would visit museums and art galleries on his days off. As a 16-year-old who studied art and painted on his spare time, I started to feel that my talents might be useful in filmmaking, either in cinematography or visual effects.
 
365_superman2.jpg
 
365_superman3.jpg
 
365_superman4.jpg
 
365_superman5.jpg

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#17 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 08 January 2016 - 12:29 AM

An example of the paintings I was doing at the end of high school and beginning of college, though this one was done in 1984, my last year of college:

 

spacepainting.jpg

 

A frame from "Northfork", showing perhaps the influence of the Smallville scenes in "Superman", which were shot in Alberta, Canada just north of Montana where I shot "Northfork":

northfork39.jpg


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#18 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 08 January 2016 - 04:17 PM

Wow, that's so interesting David, thanks for sharing! I would love to see more of your frames alongside the frame that inspired it, sort of a series of father/son family pictures. Always fascinating to see the source of artistic inspiration in context, and to see where you took it.
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#19 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 08 January 2016 - 04:21 PM

I thought about doing more of that, but I run the risk of not looking as good as the people I am inspired by...


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#20 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 08 January 2016 - 10:17 PM

Haha, well I don't think you'll have that problem! But I can understand how you feel. :)
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