Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Alfonso Cuarón

Designing the future

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Over the last half century or so, our culture has increasingly turned to film and television, rather than to the written word, as its primary reference point when we talk about the future. This is partially because more people are likely to have seen a blockbuster movie than to have read even the most successful novel, but the visual arts might also be more useful when it comes to certain kinds of speculation. As I browsed recently through the book Speculative Everything, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that dealing with physical materials can lead to insights that can’t be reached through words alone. In his classic New Yorker profile of Stanley Kubrick, the science writer Jeremy Bernstein provided a portrait of one such master at work:

In the film [2001], the astronauts will wear space suits when they are working outside their ships, and Kubrick was very anxious that they should look like the space suits of thirty-five years from now…They were studying a vast array of samples of cloth to find one that would look right and photograph well. While this was going on, people were constantly dropping into the office with drawings, models, letters, cables, and various props, such as a model of a lens for one of the telescopes in a spaceship. (Kubrick rejected it because it looked too crude.) At the end of the day, when my head was beginning to spin, someone came by with a wristwatch that the astronauts were going to use on their Jupiter voyage (which Kubrick rejected) and a plastic drinking glass for the moon hotel (which Kubrick thought looked fine).

This is a level of detail that most writers would lack the patience or ability to develop, and even if it were possible, there’s a huge difference between describing such objects at length on the page, which is rightly discouraged, and showing it to the viewer without comment. It can also lead to new ideas or discoveries that can feed into the story itself. I never tire of quoting a piece of advice from Shamus Culhane’s Animation: From Script to Screen, in which he recommends using a list of props to generate plot points and bits of business for a short cartoon:

One good method of developing a story is to make a list of details. For example [for a cartoon about elves as clock cleaners in a cathedral], what architectural features come to mind—steeples, bells, windows, gargoyles? What props would the elves use—brushes, pails, mops, sponges…what else? Keep on compiling lists without stopping to think about them. Let your mind flow effortlessly, and don’t try to be neat or orderly. Scribble as fast as you can until you run out of ideas.

In animation—or in a medium like comics or the graphic novel—this kind of brainstorming requires nothing more than a pencil and piece of paper. Kubrick’s great achievement in 2001 was to spend the same amount of time and attention, as well as considerably more money, on solving design problems in tangible form, and in the process, he set a standard for this kind of speculation that both filmmakers and other artists have done their best to meet ever since.

In Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby suggest that the function of a prop in a movie might limit the range of possibilities that it can explore, since it has “to be legible and support plot development.” But this might also be a hidden strength. I don’t think it’s an accident that Minority Report is both the most influential piece of futurology in recent memory and one of the few science fiction films that manages to construct a truly ingenious mystery. And in another masterpiece from the same period, Children of Men, you can clearly see the prop maker’s pragmatism at work. Dunne and Raby quote the director Alfonso Cuarón, who says in one of the special features on the DVD:

Rule number one in the film was recognizability. We didn’t want to do Blade Runner. Actually, we thought about being the anti-Blade Runner in the sense of how we were approaching reality, and that was kind of difficult for the art department, because I would say, “I don’t want inventiveness. I want reference. Don’t show me the great idea, show me the reference in real life. And more importantly, I would like—as much as possible—references of contemporary iconography that is already engraved in human consciousness.”

Consciously or otherwise, Cuarón is echoing one of my favorite pieces of writing advice from David Mamet, who had exactly one rule when it came to designing props: You’ve got to be able to recognize it.” And the need to emphasize clarity and readability in unfamiliar contexts can push production designers in directions that they never would have taken otherwise.

Yet there’s also a case to be made for engaging in visual or sculptural thinking for its own sake, which is what makes speculative design such an interesting avenue of exploration. Dunne and Raby focus on more recent examples, but there’s a surprisingly long history of futurology in pictures. (For instance, a series of French postcards dating from the late nineteenth century imagined life a hundred years in the future, which Isaac Asimov discusses in his book Futuredays, and the book and exhibition Yesterday’s Tomorrows collects many other vintage examples of artwork about the future of America.) Some of these efforts lack the discipline that a narrative imposes, but the physical constraints of the materials can lead to a similar kind of ingenuity, and the result is a distinct tradition that draws on a different set of skills than the ones that writers tend to use. But the best solution might be one that combines both words and images at a reasonable cost. The science fiction of the golden age can sometimes seem curiously lacking in visual description—it can be hard to figure out how anything is supposed to look in Asimov’s stories—and such magazines as Astounding leaned hard on its artists to fill in the blanks. And this might have been a reasonable division of labor. The fans don’t seem to have made any distinction between the stories and their illustrations, and both played a crucial role in defining the genre. Movies and television may be our current touchstones for the future, but the literary and visual arts have been conspiring to imagine the world of tomorrow for longer than we tend to remember. As Speculative Everything demonstrates, each medium can come up with remarkable things when allowed to work on its own. But they have even more power when they join forces.

The children are our future

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Clive Owen and Clare-Hope Ashitey in Children of Men

Sometimes a great film takes years to reveal its full power. Occasionally, you know what you’ve witnessed as soon as the closing credits begin to roll. And very rarely, you realize in the middle of the movie that you’re watching something extraordinary. I’ve experienced this last feeling only a handful of times in my life, and my most vivid memory of it is from ten years ago, when I saw Children of Men. I’d been looking forward to it ever since seeing the trailer, and for the first twenty minutes or so, it more than lived up to my expectations. But halfway through a crucial scene—and if you’ve seen the movie, you know the one I mean—I began to feel the movie expanding in my head, as Pauline Kael said of The Godfather Part II, “like a soft bullet.” Two weeks later, I wrote to a friend: “Alfonso Cuarón has just raised the bar for every director in the world.” And I still believe this, even if the ensuing decade has clarified the film’s place in the history of movies. Cuarón hasn’t had the productive career that I’d hoped he would, and it took him years to follow up on his masterpiece, although he finally earned his Oscar for Gravity. The only unambiguous winner to come out of it all was the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubzeki, who has won three Academy Awards in a row for refinements of the discoveries that he made here. And the story now seems prescient, of course, as Abraham Riesman of Vulture recently noted: “The film, in hindsight, seems like a documentary about a future that, in 2016, finally arrived.” If nothing else, the world certainly appears to be run by exactly the sort of people of whom Jarvis Cocker was warning us.

But the most noteworthy thing about Children of Men, and the one aspect of it that its fans and imitators should keep in mind, is the insistently visceral nature of its impact. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I was blown away the most by three elements: the tracking shots, the use of music, and the level of background detail in every scene. These are all qualities that are independent of its politics, its message, and even, to some extent, its script, which might be its weakest point. The movie can be refreshingly elliptical when it comes to the backstory of its characters and its world, but there are also holes and shortcuts that are harder to forgive. (Its clumsiest moment, for me, is when Theo is somehow able to observe and overhear Jasper’s death—an effective scene in itself—from higher ground without being noticed by anyone else. We aren’t sure where he’s standing in relation to the house, so it feels contrived and stagy, a strange lapse for a movie that is otherwise so bracingly specific about its geography.) But maybe that’s how it had to be. If the screenplay were as rich and crowded as the images, it would turn into a Christopher Nolan movie, for better or worse, and Cuarón is a very different sort of filmmaker. He’s content to leave entire swaths of the story in outline form, as if he forgot to fill in the blanks, and he’s happy to settle for a cliché if it saves time, just because his attention is so intensely focused elsewhere.

Michael Caine in Children of Men

Occasionally, this has led his movies to be something less than they should be. I really want to believe that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the strongest installment in the series, but it has real structural problems that stem precisely from Cuarón’s indifference to exposition: he cuts out an important chunk of dialogue that leaves the climax almost incomprehensible, so that nonreaders have to scramble to figure out what the hell is going on, when we should be caught up in the action. Gravity impressed me enormously when I saw it on the big screen, but I’m not particularly anxious to revisit it at home, where its technical marvels run the risk of being swallowed up by its rudimentary characters and dialogue. (It strikes me now that Gravity might have some of the same problems, to a much lesser extent, as Birdman, in which the use of extended takes makes it impossible to give scenes the necessary polish in the editing room. Which also implies that if you’re going to hire Lubzeki as your cinematographer, you’d better have a really good script.) But Children of Men is the one film in which Cuarón’s shortcomings are inseparable from his strengths. His usual omissions and touches of carelessness were made for a story in which we’re only meant to glimpse the overall picture. And its allegory is so vague that we can apply it to whatever we like.

This might sound like a criticism, but it isn’t: Children of Men is undeniably one of the major movies of my lifetime. And its message is more insightful than it seems, even if it takes a minute of thought to unpack. Its world falls apart as soon as humanity realizes that it doesn’t have a future, which isn’t so far from where we are now. We find it very hard, as a species, to keep the future in mind, and we often behave—even in the presence of our own children—as if this generation will be the last. When a society has some measure of economic and political security, it can make efforts to plan ahead for a decade or two, but even that modest degree of foresight disappears as soon as stability does. In Children of Men, the childbirth crisis, which doesn’t respect national or racial boundaries, takes the sort of disruptions that tend to occur far from the developed world and brings them into the heart of Europe and America, and it doesn’t even need to change any of the details. The most frightening thing about Cuarón’s movie, and what makes it most relevant to our current predicament, is that its extrapolations aren’t across time, but across the map of the world as it exists today. You don’t need to look far to see landscapes like the ones through which the characters move, or the ways in which they could spread across the planet. In the words of William Gibson, the future of Children of Men is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed yet.

Specific Gravity

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George Clooney on the set of Gravity

Over the weekend, I picked up the excellent new Blu-ray release of Gravity, and I spent most of last night watching some of its riveting special features. I’d long since been blown away by this film’s cinematic and technical ambitions, which have been amply chronicled elsewhere, but seeing the production footage took my appreciation to another level. Alfonso Cuarón, his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber began with a considerable logistical challenge—how to depict weightlessness with a constantly moving camera and many extended takes—that required both the development of new technology and a considerable amount of ingenuity. Many of you have probably already read about the light box that was used to film the actors’ faces and integrate them into digital environments, the robotic cameras, and the innovative wirework, all of which required obsessive dedication and attention to detail, and the result is simultaneously spectacular and meant to be taken for granted. If the lighting on Sandra Bullock’s face hadn’t matched her surroundings, few of us would have been able to articulate the issue, but it would have subtly undermined the entire film.

And what strikes me the most about Gravity‘s accomplishments is their specificity. These techniques were designed at great expense to address the particular problems that this story presented, and it’s unclear how often something like Lubezki’s light box will be used again. For most movies, even ambitious science-fiction epics, the existing toolbox of visual effects is more than adequate. Digital head replacement, for instance, has been used for a long time, and for a film that doesn’t need to confront the complicated filming and lighting challenges that this story involved, there’s no reason to move beyond what has worked in the past. (It’s also important to note that these virtuoso extended shots serve a clear purpose—to recreate the feel of real space footage, which doesn’t have the benefit of rapid cuts and multiple cameras. Again, the storytelling drives the technology, not the other way around, which is precisely how it should be.) As a result, the behind-the-scenes footage from Gravity has a very different feel from similar material about, say, Avatar: in the latter case, you have a movie that points the way forward for countless similar films, while the former feels like a gorgeous set of solutions to problems that may never arise again.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

But of course, every artistic advance, in any medium, results from an attempt to tackle something specific. It always comes down to artists confronting the projects they’re working on at the time, and if the solutions they discover happen to have a more general application, that’s just a happy accident. As a writer, you’re never thinking in terms of conscious innovation; you’re just trying to get a character out of one room and into another, or to evoke a particular theme or emotional state. The innovations themselves arise from the difficulty of the problem you’re trying to fix, which is contingent on many other factors, and will often end up being greater than you originally expected. Cuarón didn’t set out to invent a new kind of filmmaking with Gravity; he states repeatedly that he originally saw it as a small, relatively simple movie with two characters that could be made in a short period of time, but in the end, it took him half a decade. (I’m reminded a little of the French director Leos Carax, who wanted to make an intimate film set on the Pont Neuf in Paris, which was closed for construction at the time. Unfortunately, by the time he started shooting, the bridge had reopened, so he simply built his own bridge from scratch, as well as much of the city to either side, and the result was the most expensive movie ever made in France.)

And there’s no way of knowing how the specific solutions created by Gravity will be used in the future. In all likelihood, it’ll be in ways we can’t expect. Maybe, if they ever get around to the remake of Ben-Hur they’re always threatening to produce, it’ll be used to convincingly put actors into an extended take of the chariot race, with the camera moving fluidly among the wheels and the horses’ hooves; maybe it will be used in a dream sequence by the likes of David Cronenberg; or maybe it will be something else altogether. All that matters is that the solutions exist, and in time, they’ll be used to tackle problems that nobody could have imagined. And innovations don’t need a budget of millions of dollars, as long as you remember that they come from an extended engagement with specific problems. I’ve pointed out before that what we call genre is really a set of best practices, a collection of conventions, worked out by trial and error, that have proven to work for a wide range of stories and audiences. If they seem inevitable now, it’s only because the solutions—which originally were designed for the benefit of just one story—ended up being so powerful. There’s no such thing as pure research in the arts: it’s all about getting the sentence or the shot you need today. And if achieving it sometimes requires inventing a new science or art form, well, that’s just part of the game.

Written by nevalalee

March 11, 2014 at 9:44 am

The lost art of the extended take

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Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark

For Christmas, I got my wife a copy of The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz, which is one of those ideal presents that the giver buys for the recipient because he secretly wants it for himself—I’ve spent at least as much time browsing through it as she has. It’s a beautiful book of interviews with a fascinating subject, and I suspect that it will provide a lot of material for this blog. Today, though, I’d like to focus on one short exchange, which occurs during a discussion of Anderson’s use of extended tracking shots. Seitz points to the drinking contest in Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example of a great director subtly shooting a long scene in a single take without cuts, and shrewdly notes that our knowledge that the action is unfolding in real time subliminally increases the suspense. Anderson agrees: “You’re not only waiting to see who’s going to get knocked out with the liquor; you’re waiting to see who’s going to screw up the take.” Elsewhere, Seitz has written of how the way the scene was shot adds “a second, subtle layer of tension to an already snappy scene…our subliminal awareness that we’re seeing a filmed live performance, and our sporting interest in seeing how long they can keep it going.”

This is a beautiful notion, because it exemplifies a quality that many of my favorite films share: the fictional story that the movie is telling shades imperceptibly into the factual story of how the movie itself was made, which unfolds in parallel to the main action, both invisibly and right in front of our eyes. It’s something like Truffaut’s statement that a movie should simultaneously express “an idea of life and an idea of cinema,” but it’s less about any specific philosophical idea than a sense that the narrative that the movie presents to us is a metaphor for its own creation. We see this in a movie like Citizen Kane, in which it’s hard not to read the youthful excitement of Kane’s early days at the Inquirer as a portrait of Orson Welles arriving on the RKO lot, and its later, disillusioned passages as a weird prefiguring of what would happen to Welles decades down the line; or even a movie like Inception, in which the roles of the participants in the mind heist correspond to those of the team behind the camera—the director, the producer, the production designer—and the star looks a little like Chris Nolan himself. (Someone, possibly me, should really make a slideshow on how directors tend to cast leading roles with their own doubles, as Anderson often does as well.)


And the ultimate expression of the marriage between the filmed story and the story of its creation is the extended shot. It’s a moment in which the movie we’re watching fuses uncannily with its own behind-the-scenes documentary: for a minute or two, we’re on the set, watching the action at the director’s side, and the result is charged with the excitement of live performance. If every cut, as Godard says, is a lie, a continuous take brings us as close to the truth—or at least to a clever simulacrum of it—as the movies can manage. It doesn’t need to be overtly flashy, either: I’ve never seen a better use of an extended take than in the party scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, in which the camera remains stationary for an entire reel. But there’s also a childlike pleasure in seeing filmmakers taking a big risk and getting away with it. You see this in the massively choreographed long takes, involving dozens or hundreds of players, in movies as different as Absolute Beginners, Boogie Nights, and Hard BoiledAnd if the hallway fight in Inception ranks among the most thrilling sequences of the decade, it’s because we’re witnessing something astonishing as it must have appeared that day on the set, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt getting battered by the walls of that rotating corridor.

So it’s worth taking a moment to remember that it’s not the long take itself that matters, but the fact that it puts us in the filmmaker’s shoes, which we lose when an extended take is the result of digital trickery. I’m as big a fan as any of the opening shot of Gravity, which recently made my updated list of the greatest movie openings of all time, but there’s no escaping the fact that we’re seeing something that has been invisibly stitched together over many different days of filming, and nearly everything in sight has been constructed through visual effects. This doesn’t make it any less miraculous: along with Life of Pi, it marks a turning point, at least for me, in which digital effects finally live up to their promise of giving us something that can’t be distinguished from reality. But it’s a triumph of vision, planning, and conceptual audacity, without the extra frisson that arises from the sustained tightrope act of an extended shot done in the camera. As time goes by, it will become easier to create this sort of effect from multiple takes, as Cuarón himself did so brilliantly in Children of Men. But it can’t compare to the conspiratorial tension we get from a true tracking shot, done with the full possibility of a disastrous mistake, in which the movies, so often crafted from tricks and illusions, really do seem to defy gravity.

Written by nevalalee

December 26, 2013 at 9:10 am

Potter’s wheel

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During my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked as a film critic for a currently defunct pop culture website, attending preview screenings and cranking out movie reviews at fifty dollars apiece. This was, believe it or not, my first real job of any kind, and while not particularly lucrative, it was hugely educational. (I learned, for instance, that while it may sound like fun, being forced to see every movie that comes out between January and March is a special sort of hell.) I also suggested occasional ideas for feature stories, and one day, probably in the fall of 1999, I noticed that media interest was growing around a series of children’s fantasy books about a boy wizard. I made a note to bring up the idea with my editor, then promptly forgot about it. I never did write that story. And it looks like this may be my last chance.

Now that the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is finally in theaters, there have been a lot of think pieces about J.K. Rowling and the future of her creation, but one of the themes I find most interesting is the seamlessness of the franchise. This is the first global fantasy series, born from a novelist’s imagination, where books, movies, and other media were allowed to grow along with their audiences. There are those who love both the books and the movies; a significantly larger worldwide audience that has experienced the movies alone; and those, like me, who began with the books, then switched to the movies, once it became clear that the films were finally doing justice to the series. There’s also the theme park, the video games, and even, dare I say it, the fanfic. The result has shaped how we think about mainstream storytelling in ways we’re only beginning to appreciate.

As far as the films are concerned, Harry Potter was never my favorite movie franchise, but for the past ten years, it unstintingly received the full resources of one of our great movie studios, resulting in a polished Cadillac sheen that shouldn’t be underestimated. The installments by David Yates, in particular, while a bit impersonal, are among the handsomest, most lavishly mounted movies in recent memory, to the point where they’ve spoiled me for lesser franchises. These days, I get a little impatient watching a movie like Thor, which is clearly a big studio production but with obvious limits to its spectacle—meaning that it cost $150 million to make, not $250 million. And while the escalation of movie budgets is far from a good thing, there was still something reassuring about paying eleven dollars to see a Harry Potter film, knowing that you were bound to get your money’s worth.

But that doesn’t mean that bigger is always better. Of the movies, my favorite, somewhat to my surprise, is Goblet of Fire, which is also the only installment I never saw on the big screen. The first two movies are frankly embarrassing. Prisoner of Azkaban gets more respect, but while I have nothing but love for Alfonso Cuarón, I can’t get past that movie’s tonal issues and confusing final act, although much of it is smart and charming. And while the Yates installments, as I’ve said before, are big, sleek machines, Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire comes closest to my idea of what this series should be about: not action, not special effects, but the idea of magic and of being a child. The lovingly detailed buildup to the Yule Ball, which otherwise puts the complicated plot on hold, strikes me as the most satisfying sequence in all the films. And that’s where I’ll remember Harry.

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