Of Canvases and Mayonnaise: Two Tips/Requests from a Fed-Up Filmmaker in the Digital Age

Okay, this is very much me on the warpath against what I consider to be filmmaking laziness, and might seem like the ranting and raving of an obsessive film-crazy personality, but nevertheless, here I go.

1. Effectively choose the size of your canvas. Just as a painter chooses the size of a canvas for all the obvious reasons, a filmmaker must choose an aspect ratio that best reflects the needs and ambitions of the film being made. A painter does not let the canvas salesman choose his size. If a painter has a vision for what he wants to depict, but does not know the size of canvas on which he will depict it, he cannot truly proceed, can he? Just because digital camera-makers seem to support a 16x9 1.78:1 screen size across the board does not mean that you, the filmmaker, have to accept it, let alone neglect to consider it.

Also, aspect ratio should never be relagated to the dangerous equations of “intimate = standard-size” and “epic = Scope”. Part of the cinematographic art is defining a space in innovative ways. George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954) is not an “epic” film (at least per se), but imagine that film’s signature “Man That Got Away” sequence if Cukor had not used CinemaScope. Same goes for a film like Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1955), one of the earliest major Hollywood films about drug addiction. Those two films had no sweeping vistas of thousands marching or fighting. They were intimate stories that used complex spatial configuration to augment the psychology of the material. Altman does the same thing many of his films, using the Scope frame to depict the tableau of the social space. Part of what makes those films work so well is their use of the CinemaScope space. Likewise, it is revelatory to observe how Scorsese navigates the specially selected “smaller” 1.66:1 screen space in New York, New York (1977). Scorsese specifically did not want a 1.85:1, 2.35:1 or 1.78:1 screen-size, and he has discussed this at length on a few occasions. Also, bear in mind why Sydney Pollack chose 1.85:1 for the ostensibly epic Out of Africa (1985). Pollack has his reasons and discusses them on many occasions. Choice of aspect ratio is as much part of the process as anything else, if not more. I look down on directors working with the same aspect ratio throughout the span of a career, as it’s clear they do not give much thought to how important and how much of a storytelling tool it is. Granted, some directors’ works have never warranted a screen size larger than standard, but it should nonetheless be as much of a serious, well-deliberated consideration as the more freely and frequently discussed aspects of filmmaking like a project's intended overall look and feel. You might be shaking your head and saying, "Well, neither Aldrich nor Lumet never shot a single film in Scope. What about them? They're not 'serious filmmakers', whatever that means?" They also have their reasons and have seen or read them discussing it. Serious filmmakers think about this stuff. It seems that many digital filmmakers today have either forgotten or think it's inconsequential.

2. These days, format and process have become other key elements in the making of a film. There are as many looks for a film as there are films themselves. Choice of format should always reflect the material. That said, with the celebrated advent of the DSLR age, it seems that a lot of filmmakers now choose their format on auto-pilot, and “One size fits all” has become the default mantra. I personally applauded a friend of mine who, last year, specifically chose 30-frame standard-def for a project he directed. He chose not out of economy or convenience, but because he felt it was aesthetically apropos. Every project warrants a specific format, a different means of shooting, and an appropriate customized workflow. For instance, Lars Von Trier is a filmmaker who knows this more than perhaps anyone. Look at his choices of format on The Kingdom (from video to 16mm to 35mm), Breaking the Waves (recording a videotape edit back to 35mm) and Dancer in the Dark (cropping mini-DV for 2.35:1). If I had the money to go back and reshoot all my standard-def projects in high-definition (or reformat them to HD, if such a thing really existed), I wouldn’t do it. Those specific films were comprised for a standard-def vision. To retroactively convert it to high-definition would betray that vision.

Truth be told, I am an opponent of most DSLRs. I often make the analogy that the motion picture has lost the ultra-fine sand of film grain and has made a bid for the glossy, glazed over mayonnaise look of the DSLR. Even the more high-end cameras, like the Red, have a tendency to make every image appear overtly glossy and too pristine. However, when someone I know looked at me and my cinematographer askance when we told him that we weren’t shooting our latest feature on DSLR, I got annoyed in a rather immediate sense. My cinematographer, although frowning on this knee-jerk, seemingly epidemic response, told me later, “The DIY world is all about 'What can I use to make it happen?'.” I responded quickly by saying, “Yes, but filmmakers are cornering themselves, selling themselves and their talents short by not thinking in any form about what is right and what is best for their material. It’s now only a question of what's easy and the most fashionable, of what's the sexiest? And they get cornerned into only using what is easy and fashionable out of habit and comfort.” He certainly understood what I was saying. I continued in saying that the DIY world is filled with nearly endless possibility. But no one talks about that, because most are not interested in really mining that these days. It's simply about what's sexiest...not what's right.

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