Aesthetics of Film by Vic Alexander

[Filmmaking A to Z by Vic Alexander]

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FILMMAKING A TO Z is the best how-to film on the Internet. It is written by true indie filmmaker Vic Alexander based on his experience of four decades in independent filmmaking worldwide. It covers five areas of filmmaking: script writing, pre-production, production, post-production and distribution. It takes the potential filmmaker or student of film through all the details of filmmaking: the aesthetics, camera work, crew selection, casting, legal matters, business considerations, marketing, distribution and exhibition. ($25 includes shipping)

(This is an excerpt from my book on filmmaking.)

Film is becoming scarce. Too many industry people are beginning to shoot video. Not only the technology has changed, but the art of filmmaking itself is now being forgotten. Some of the aesthetical considerations of film can be applied to video, but most of the finest points can't be.

If you still want to be a filmmaker, you need to remember that filmmaking is different from videography. Videography is good for temporary work or news reporting. Anything that is memorable should be shot on film.

This is a broad subject and getting into it is like walking into a lion's den. It's essentially an attempt to explain what constitutes art in film.

Since film is a collaborative art, in some ways akin to theater, it's very difficult to define it as a fine art. It's much easier to treat it as a performing art, but we know it's more than that, don't we?

The French New Wave movement in film introduced the auteur theory of film making, promoting the Director as the chief "author" of the film. During a certain period in Hollywood, the Producer was the predominant figure in film production, generally during the days of Irving Thalberg and Darryl Zanuck; however, the feature film as a work of art created through one individual's vision, has never quite taken hold in the US.

But on this website, as you've by now gotten accustomed to my lack of humility (in certain very specific areas only,) I intend to broach the subject. Let's hope I don't make a mess of it!

Sometime ago, after D. W. Griffith, the famous American director who made such films as THE BIRTH OF A NATION and INTOLERANCE, invented certain techniques such as the close-up, the moving camera, and so on, there came along another film maker, by the name of Sergei Eisenstein, who developed the craft of film making into an art-form.

Eisenstein worked in the silent film era and his contribution was most evident in the silent film.

When sound came into the film industry in 1933, the shift away from the artistic way of making movies occurred. Film was essentially treated as a "recording medium" for plays and musicals.

In fact, in my opinion, film as an art-form has languished behind the other arts, as if paralyzed by the glut of inventions that were beyond the expertise and control of the talents that dominated the early cinema. Ironically enough, theater survived this paralysis. Highly creative and even experimental theater has always been popular.

Film is considered so ephemeral that no major studio has ever been comfortable experimenting with it, out of fear of financial disaster. On the contrary, the trend has always been to work with formulas, sequels and remakes.

But film is the most dynamic art and it's incumbent on all self-respecting film makers to treat it as a separate art-form, and not as an extension of theater, radio, musicals and certainly not television!

Essentially the proliferation of video and now digital technology is a blessing in disguise, because these technologies lead the stampede of the curiosity seekers of the audio visual world to a new path. And I don't wish the followers of video and digital video an ill fate, such as falling off the cliff, like lemmings on their instinctual journey to drown in the waters of the Atlantic; I just hope that their path doesn't converge back into the unique craft of film making.

The art of film encompasses many art-forms: painting, sculpture, music, dance, and of course, poetry and literature.

The movie is a painting in motion, its choreography of line and color moving in relationship to the music, its dark and light forms conveying a sense of three dimension as in sculpture, its literary aspects unfolding in words of dialogue, sometimes poetic or lyrical, and generally narrative in nature.

A film maker should consider these aspects in the conception and treatment of the medium. I admit, initially, it seems far-fetched to look on a movie as a series of paintings strung out together on a conveyor belt of celluloid, but the moving image, with its colors, lines and forms, delivers some of the essence of a painting in motion. And how these elements unfold on the screen can be studied and manipulated consciously by the film maker as one of the aspects of the art.

Even though movies are (so far) exhibited mainly as two-dimensional images, they do depict three-dimensional subject matter, and much of the craft of cinematography is concerned with giving a realistic sense of three-dimension on the screen.

Sculpture deals with dark, light, as well as positive and negative forms. A movie depicting people as characters in a three dimensional world, would of course be enhanced if the realism of the simulated third dimension was used effectively.

When a beautiful actress is photographed with a backlight highlighting her hair, creating a halo effect, and her eyes reflecting the spark of the "eye light" (such as the Obie light developed for Merle Oberon,) the effect produced is pleasing to the eye. The audience is aware, even if on a subliminal level, of the quality of the photography. Cinematographers often refer to this type of lighting as the "sculptured look."

Other useful concepts of sculpture come to mind, for example, the "major-minor" concept. A sculpture that uses a minor shape to "balance" or act as a point of reference, interest or parallelism against a major shape, produces a more dynamic effect, or sometimes a more pleasing composition. Dramatic techniques utilize similar aspects and this kind of awareness of the film makers can create additional levels, resonances and ultimately deeper meanings for their films.

A sound track often carries a musical score, but the film maker should treat the entire sound track, even if it does not incorporate music, as a musical element of his product. There are simply so many musical aspects to consider that one has to be very involved with how the movie is working as "music."

There are some movies that have terrific sound tracks, but some television shows (they come to mind here) sound so awful that you invariably go scrambling for the volume control, as if sparing yourself one split second of that horrible sound will save your sanity.

I know that certain types of genres may not appeal to you, or certain types of music may not be your cup of tea; but, I'm not talking about that, there really are some terrible sound tracks!

So, you should really consider the "music" aspect of your movie. Selecting music for your movie is of course the most obvious aspect of how well your sound track turns out, but there's more to good sound than just music.

Music has traditionally been used for "underscoring" purposes in movies, usually after the completion of picture and dialogue editing. I understand the practicality and the soundness of this policy; however, I do think that the film makers who consider the music and the artistic aspects of sound effects early on in their planning, or even during the script stage, of a movie, often get a lot more mileage out of their finished product.

You should consider music more as a companion to the image rather than just an underlying sound in the interpretation of the dialogue. I admit that if you only wish to underscore dialogue, then it's best to leave music to the very end, and then add on whatever is necessary to "fix" or create transition for the weak or unclear points in a movie.

I find that use for music to be frustrating, and in fact you hear film music composers often pulling their hair when asked about how they thought their music was used in the movies they scored.

There even exists a sort of antagonism between many composers and film makers as a result of the very unsatisfactory way music is traditionally incorporated into movies.

It's of course necessary for the music to work in harmony with the dialogue. Nobody wants to have music that obliterates the dialogue or especially music that doesn't "work" at all! But then music should rise to a higher level and surprise the film maker (pleasantly,) a sort of "marriage" of sound and image.

You would think that I could give you examples, but unfortunately this is an arid field where examples are sparse and only occur in moments or sections of a movie. I liked a lot of the music of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, the movie "1984," A CLOCK-WORK ORANGE -- I'm sure you have personal favorites, music being very special in the way that most people differ in their likes or dislikes. But you must admit, that music has not been used as creatively as it should be in movies.

Of course, musicals, rock "operas" and classical operas do "work" on a musical level! I mean nobody is saying that the sound tracks of the great musicals were not great!

I'm talking about new considerations for treating music as an original and equal element of a movie, equally considered and performed for maximum fusion with the images and literary content of a movie.

Even the abstract aspects of the colors, lines and shapes, or the nature of the movements of these elements on the screen should be in some way depicted or treated harmoniously by the music. Eisenstein worked with these elements in his study of image "montage" (or editing.) But I ask the film maker to go further and consider the musical elements with the same concern.

So we can allow ourselves to be swayed by the choreography within the frame, even if it's on a subliminal level again, but we'll experience another dimension, feel another layer from just watching the way images dance on the screen, creating their own music, playing in harmony or counter-point to the sound track.

Now, you must be mystified by my leaving the literary aspect of movies to the end. I know, movies are manufactured with words, from the very first word typed by the writer to the last title of the movie; however, I wanted to make you aware about the fact that even though the "word" has always been in the forefront of the film industry, it's the other elements which you need to master first. Because you can always get a lot of advice about the story and the script, I've left this discussion to the end.

Indeed, you've noticed that I've given a lot of space in these web pages to the Screenplay. And I do want to mention some special considerations in reference to the similarities and differences of film and literature, including poetry.

There are two famous anecdotes in the business that are highly instructive to remember here.

The first one is the story about William Faulkner's experience in working as a writer in Hollywood. The studio rented a mansion for the famous writer and provided him with a secretary. Every time the studio executive who was assigned as liaison called, Faulkner's secretary told him, "Mr. Faulkner is working." And each time the executive told her, "Then don't disturb him, let him write."

Finally after several weeks passed, the executive was getting some heat from his superiors, "How's that script coming?" So the executive called the mansion and asked the secretary if he could speak with Mr. Faulkner. Again she told the executive that the writer was working. But, this time the executive said, "It's okay, I need to speak with him." And the secretary told him, "He's writing at home ... in Mississippi."

That's what Faulkner had told her to say! He'd spent a few days trying to write in the mansion, but couldn't write a line. Finally, he'd decided to go home and work there on the script, in surroundings that he was familiar with.

Writing scripts and writing novels are two different things altogether. The requirements are different, the intended use is different.

Great prose writing doesn't translate verbatim to the screen, sometimes not at all. And the dialogue in a novel is sometimes highly stylized. Bits and pieces of it may be buried in other forms of exposition: fleeting ideas or persistent thoughts, usually laden with nuances of meaning that the author imparts in different places in the book. Childhood memories or traumas suffered may color those words that an author makes the characters speak.

There are so many creative forms of writing and conveying ideas and dialogue in prose that the "literal" movie audiences are not accustomed to hearing.

The other story is regarding Scott Fitzgerald. I believe it appeared in a book about movies.

Fitzgerald was one of the most "natural" story tellers in English literature. Ernest Hemingway wrote in his novel "A Moveable Feast" about Scott Fitzgerald's ability to sit in a restaurant and tell a story from beginning to end. If it could be set down exactly as Fitzgerald told it, Hemingway felt that there'd be absolutely no need to touch it any further, it was a finished masterpiece.

Still, when Fitzgerald came to Hollywood, his genius for writing was not appreciated. It was said that he wrote long speeches for the actors to perform as dialogue. There were few actors who could do those lines in those days.

I mean, if you consider that a cowboy came into town and was willing to work for five bucks a day and he knew how to fall off a horse or rope a steer, he became a movie star very fast. Now, how was he supposed to do lines from Scott Fitzgerald?

And Hemingway himself refused to write for Hollywood. There are some colorful stories about his battles with movie producers who bought his novels for movies. Suffice it to say here that the relationship wasn't very harmonious. The interpretation of a novel into movie language is a subtle and difficult task. If approached superficially, you end up with disastrous results.

Another more recent story I remember reading about the late Sergio Leone, the Italian "spaghetti western" director, reported in an interview.

Leone had hired Norman Mailer to do a screenplay for him. He'd set him up at a Paris hotel. According to Leone, Mailer had arrived at the hotel with "a box of cigars and a bottle of whisky." After a few weeks Mailer had produced a screenplay that Leone had found to be absolutely useless, and that was the end of it.

Ironically, Mailer has written and directed at least two features, to my knowledge. I saw the last one at the Cannes film festival in 1987. It was entitled, TOUGH GUYS DON'T DANCE, and it was an official entry. So I do think that some authors can succeed in writing for both media.

But, writing for movies should be handled differently, and it isn't.

When you write a script for a feature film you must remember to deal with all the elements of the art of film making.

If you're a good writer, especially if you're a famous writer, you could fool the studios with fancy writing; but if you're going to direct from your own screenplay, then you better buckle-down and do some in-depth cinematic writing!

Make sure, besides creating action and dialogue, that you deal with the musical score in your script.

You should deal with art direction, special effects and other technical aspects of the genre you're doing. Sometimes there are special notations and descriptions that have to be included, such as historically authentic information, or technically accurate depiction of various industries or scientific facts that may be part of your story. Writing for movies is a whole other sort of ball of wax!

Remember elegant prose is going to get you nowhere in movies, because aside from inspiring your talent, where is it going to end up -- not on the screen, most likely.

Dialogue and character development that actors can utilize are the main goals that you have. After you've selected your actors, have a read-through. And maybe record the session and listen to it later. It may tell you a lot about how the movie will "play!" Remember the scene from ALL THAT JAZZ, where all the actors sat around a table and read the whole script through?

Your descriptions of the actors' psychology, as you do the dialogue and describe the action, can help the performers understand their roles. During production there are a lot of interruptions and delays. A detailed and sensitive screenplay is a valuable tool, enabling actors to remain focused and in character just before going before the camera.

A good screenplay should be an effective blueprint that enables you and the crew as well to create a movie that rises to the level of art.

As you work with the script, making shots and building up sequences, you should be able to be honed in on the central vision that drives the concept of the story through.

There are many types of movies, each requires a different type of script. But the script has to be the perfect vehicle for accomplishing the intent of the story.

When constructing a vehicle, remember to choose one that provides the audience with empathy for the theme of the story and a clear understanding of the characters.

If you recall the movie APOCALYPSE NOW! (the Vietnam War epic by Francis Ford Coppola) used the narrative technique that was inherent in the Joseph Conrad novel "The Heart of Darkness," on which the story was metaphorically based.

Although artistic and all, the narrative technique turned an "action story" into a reflective, moody tale about a reluctant assassin and his masochistic victim, producing an artistic movie, yet one that was hard for the average moviegoer to grasp. So, I wonder if the vehicle was an appropriate one. The whole story of the war was strangely told in a sort of flashback style. Perhaps a chronological approach would've worked best.

Still, the movie was artistic because it had a unique approach for telling a war story. It was unusual and unpredictable, and finally a movie that will become a classic, I believe.

Even though the war-depicting sequences were somewhat out of place where they occurred (consider the "Surfing Colonel" sequence with Robert Duvall, for example,) yet the overall effect of the war sequences conveyed the dehumanizing effect of a war in which most soldiers weren't cognizant of what they were fighting for -- except for their own survival and their sanity, hardly what soldiers are trained for. That is what I think the movie was about.

So, I believe if you're working with a major-minor, "vehicle sequence", where the vehicle sequence carries the details or episodes of a story, then the vehicle sequence should be an interesting one, for you, and engaging for the audience. In other words, you should be committed to the dynamics of the theme.

When choosing such a vehicle sequence, you should consider to choose one which is thematically relevant, cinematically rich and emotionally moving.

For example, if your story is about a soldier who goes to war, then you can choose a vehicle sequence that can best propel that story. If your main character is a football player, then the vehicle sequence may be the life experiences of your football player.

The movie opens up with a football game that somehow, through its traumatic or exhilarating climax is evocative of the nature of war. At a poignant point in that sequence, the script cuts to a scene of a ship transporting marines to the battle. The football player is now a marine on his way to battle.

After you establish the premise of the story, let's say the perceptions of the upcoming mission, with your hero chatting with other marines, you then cut periodically to the life experiences of the "hero."

As you progress with the episodes of the battles, scenes of war and the destruction of social environments of the enemy, let's say, you then find those significant points in these episodes to have your character reflect on. His recollections of life, how he grew up, the experiences that made him what he is, his joys and sorrows -- anything you consider important and relevant -- these are all good scenes to carry forward the development of your characters and your story.

If your story is about war and its effects on the life of a marine who was a football player, then the movie may open on a scene of the transport ship carrying marines to the battle. The war itself would be the vehicle sequence and the recollections of the "hero" about football and life in general would be the episodes that would intercut with the progress of the story, giving it a rich texture of interesting details about the character.

This is one way of writing a story. There are lots of ways. I myself prefer straight chronological methods of telling stories, like Tolstoy's "War and Peace," in literature. I'll admit, it's much harder to build a story in this way. A story, besides having the basic elements of a beginning, middle and end, should also have a modulated rhythm that the audience will find viewable, interesting and hopefully compelling.

Some stories have a natural ebb and flow characteristic on their own. Others, unfortunately have to be worked into shape.

Some stories are esoteric in nature. These are harder to sell. If you feel compelled to do an esoteric movie, you must work a lot harder at making it acceptable to general audiences. Film making is an expensive art-form and you have to be concerned with the size of your audience in choosing your stories.

Since dialogue is the most crucial element of movies, in some genres even more important than cinematic elements, (such as courtroom dramas,) you should be concerned with creating natural dialogue in your movie. Avoid overworked and too polished dialogue, however. Good actors can do wonders with well-written dialogue. A good deal of directing actors has to do with helping them deliver believable dialogue.

Other aspects of film that are included at the script stage are art direction, especially in movies where there is just too much to be left for the production phase, for example period pieces and special genres.

In the case of science fiction movies, art direction becomes "production design." Here story-boarding is based on detailed descriptions of the script. The more information you can provide, the better your results when special effects technicians start working with you in creating the effects. So much depends again on believable special effects, that a highly-creative science fiction movie needs to be very well conceived.

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