August 30, 2011

Understanding Cinema Lecture: How to Divide Your Scene to Shots for Shooting

Shots are the units that make a film. They are like sentences in prose: each unit conveying one complete idea. So, though I discourage the idea of visualizing the film in shots, especially at the writing stage, once the screenplay is ready, we have to finally go through this exercise, of dividing each scene into shots. And if there is one mantra that we should never forget, it is this: ‘Each shot should be significant, each cut should be significant.’ To achieve the most correct shot-division, the director needs to understand the screenplay and investigate on it. What appears so normal and obvious on screen is actually a matter of individual decisions taken out of hundreds of options. And the pain and the wisdom that go into this make a good film great.

We have to answer three basic questions to understand our scene:
- Whose scene is it? (Which characters’)
- What is the purpose of the scene? (Narrative and/or dramatic, expository, to create a mood, to shed more light on characters etc.)
- What are the Dramatic Blocks that constitute the scene? (Look below for details).

Every scene has an arc of its own, which is generally through the perception of the person whose scene it is (the answer to the first question). This arc exists because there is something to be achieved through the scene (the answer to the second question). If it is compared to a prose piece, a scene can be composed of one or more ‘paragraphs’. One idea is generally covered in one paragraph. The only way to get what idea is being conveyed in the scene is by finding the answer to the first two questions. And once we know that, we can divide the dramatic arc of the scene into these visual paragraphs called Dramatic Blocks.

Each paragraph is composed of sentences. Similarly each Dramatic Block is composed of shots. But unlike prose, where a change of paragraph is easily communicated, we can not have visible ‘breaks’ in the action of the scene to make the audience understand the change from one dramatic block to the other. Hence we need to design the shots in a manner that ‘renders’ this information to the audience. This design is again driven from the answer to the three questions above, including the ‘idea’ being communicated through that particular dramatic block.

For example, the scene when ‘Bhuvan’ is introduced in ‘Lagaan’ is also when the antagonist – Capt. Russel is introduced, as is the seed for their rivalry. Remember how it is shot? The two facing each other, and a ‘shot-reverse shot’ pattern capturing the drama. However, in the next scene as we see Bhuvan and Gauri together, and the scene establishes their romantic relationship, we see them sitting together, thus establishing their ‘togetherness’ which does not have any real friction despite the conflicted love affair of theirs. If we do not understand the purpose of this scene, we might end up rendering it in shot-reverse shot pattern which suggests a conflict, each cut truly ‘separating’ the characters.

We thus realize that each shot carries a syntagmatic connotation (the connotative sense we comprehend by relating the shot/sentence to the shots/sentences preceding and succeeding it) and a paradigmatic connotation (the connotative sense we comprehend from the comparison of the shot/sentence with its unrealized companions – other potential shots/sentences). This is the basis of cinema – shots colliding with each other to create a narrative, tension, or mood.

So if your scene begins with ‘togetherness’ between characters, and then they start arguing to finally ‘separate’ psychologically, you can divide the dramatic arc into blocks – the first showing togetherness, the second showing rise of conflict, the third showing the climax of conflict, and the last establishing the separation. Once you identify that, you can divide your shot more meaningfully.

This is not something that can be covered in one article. Thanks to the wonderful book ‘Film Directing Fundamentals’ by Nicholas Proferes I have started to understand this concept. We can spend years trying to learn this, by reading the movies of Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, among others, who were the masters of film grammar. The topic might look intimidating, but with reasoning and practice, it can be learnt. I hope we as young filmmakers can incorporate some of this learning into our work, and understand the function of a shot better. Shots are important, eventually.

August 28, 2011

Must Watch Before You Die #18: A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Discovering a great filmmaker is always a pleasure. And it is so much more if that filmmaker is an auteur, and his expression personal. It seems you have just tasted a new cuisine, and reaffirms your belief that the discovery of cinema is an unending experience.

I just got introduced to the cinema of John Cassavetes. And then realized I have seen him act – in Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. On reading, I got to know that Cassavetes was one of the founders of independent cinema in Hollywood. He made small-budget films, investing the money he earned from acting in mainstream movies, casting his own family and friends. He also dared to bypass the distribution system by personally persuading the theatre-owners to release his films. And he made some extremely personal films, developing a unique style of his own. Needless to say, after reading all this I’m anyway biased for this filmmaker now. But even while watching his movie, before I had read about him, I could feel his voice rising through his work, powerful and personal – it was like watching an European film made in Hollywood. I was so deeply affected by it that I decided to recommend it here.

Insanity has been a favourite topic among filmmakers. Insane characters are definitely a hit among the actors. But films featuring them have to tread a difficult path. We can recount numerous films on psychosis that either get repulsively melodramatic or dark. The characters evoke pity and sympathy in us – emotions we do not cherish. We do not love to pity, we love to love and admire. We do not want to cry and cry, we want to smile and cry. Movies dealing with a subject like this always have the risk of falling into these danger areas. However, the biggest challenge for a movie with such ‘unusual’ characters is to make the audience embrace them as they are, and not empathize with them from a distance. A good writer will always strive to attain that. A great director will maneuver his resources in order to achieve that.

Just a few weeks ago I had recommended ‘Breaking the Waves’ which is the story of an ‘unusual’ girl’s devoted love for her husband. ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ kept reminding me of that. But while ‘Breaking the Waves’ talks about love and faith, this movie is a critical observation of the human society, less spiritual, less sentimental.

Watch ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ to see a master director at work; it is one example of a ‘director’s film’. Despite the outstandingly powerful performances by the actors, including Mrs. Cassavetes – Gena Rowlands in the title role, you can see the director as their puppeteer, knowing when to pull his strings, and when to let them loose, allowing his brilliant actors the spontaneity and the space they truly deserve. Finally, the film should be watched for its point-of-view – of extrapolating the question of sanity and the lack of it to the mankind, which must have been the writer-director’s motive since the day he conceived of the film. His triumph is not in merely being able to convey his point, but to do that without resorting to sensationalism, melodrama, or pretensions. Films as finely balanced as this are rare, and timeless.

August 21, 2011

The Greatest Shorts

My students are presently scripting their short films for the 'Understanding Cinema' project. I thought of using this opportunity to list some of greatest short films in the history of cinema. All movies mentioned here are 40 minutes or shorter in length, as per the Academy's definition of a Short Film. I have also searched for these movies on YouTube or elsewhere on the net, except for a couple of them that I could not find. Click on the movies to watch them. And share your comments.

It Has Happened Only Thrice

What is common between ‘It Happened One Night’ (1934), ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (1975) and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)? These three films, despite being as different as movies can be, share a unique similarity. And that is more than they being ‘inspirations’ for, respectively, ‘Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahin’, ‘Kyun Ki’ and ‘Sangharsh’.

Well, these are the only three films in the history of Academy Awards to have won the Big Five: awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. I just watched ‘It Happened One Night’ and was tempted to share this trivia here.
  • ‘It Happened One Night’ was directed by Frank Capra and written by Robert Riskin, based on a short story by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Clark Gable (the star of ‘Gone With the Wind’) and Claudette Colbert starred in this film that has been remade several times.
  • ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was directed by Milos Forman. The screenplay by Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman was based on the novel by Ken Kesey. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher played the lead roles.
  • ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ was directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Ted Tally based on the novel by Thomas Harris. Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins starred in this brilliant thriller.
P.S. Three Hindi films have similar achievement in the history of the Filmfare Awards. ‘Guide’ won awards for Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, Story, and Dialogue (back then there was no award for Screenplay). ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ won Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay, and Dialogue (but lost Best Story to ‘Rangeela’). And ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ won Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay (but lost Best Story to ‘Zakhm’ and Best Dialogue to ‘Chinagate’).

August 17, 2011

Simple. Clear. Successful.

I feel guilty for having watched 'I am Kalam' so late. Guilty, because now I do not have sufficient time to recommend it to all. Tomorrow would be the last day of its run in the theatres. And most will miss the chance of spending on a good Hindi movie, for a change.

Most Hindi movies are bad because they lack clarity of intent and execution. Nila Madhab Panda's 'I am Kalam' succeeds because it has its basics right. I would like to enumerate some points, that we already know but fail to consider while making our films, which are the reasons behind this little film's triumph:
  • Create interesting characters. Do not try to make the audience pity them, rather give them some dynamic qualities that the audience will admire.
  • Keep the story focused and moving, simply, without resorting to complications, but conflicts.
  • Understand the scope of your film and work within your canvas with complete trust on your story.
  • Do not preach, even if you have something meaningful to say. Try to keep things light and entertaining.
  • Cast correctly.
  • Camera angles and great shots do not necessarily make a good film. Aesthetic weakness can not ruin a film with a good script. Aesthetic brilliance can not save a film with a bad script.
  • Do not take yourself too seriously. Humility is a desirable quality in a filmmaker.
  • (And as Dr Kalam says) Never stop dreaming. If you believe in your film, you will be able to find the theatres despite the unfavourable mechanisms of this film industry.
Strongly recommended.

August 14, 2011

Must Watch Before You Die #17: The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

Luis Bunuel is one of the founding fathers of surrealistic cinema. With 'Un chien andalou' (1929), possibly the most famous short-film in cinema history, he started a career that would mature into a prolific body of work over the next five decades and across continents. Bunuel is one essential chapter of cinema and many of his films would be considered must-watch.

I just watched my tenth Bunuel film, his second-last. And I'm yet again amazed by the humour he manages to create out of the most bizarre situations. 'The Phantom of Liberty' is one of the most absurd films you will ever see, and also one of the most unforgettable. I'm tempted to share one of the amazing episodes from the movie.

Parents of a girl are informed that their daughter has 'disappeared' from the class-room. When they reach the school, the headmistress takes them to the class-room and tries to explain the incredible accident. She claims that the girl entered the class, and never left, but is still nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, we see a girl rise from her seat and approach the mother - she is the 'missing' girl. The mother asks her to keep quiet as the headmistress talks about her 'disappearance'.

The parents then take the girl to the police station, to file a complaint. They introduce their daughter to the police officer and complain that she is nowhere to be found. The officer files a 'missing' complain and thanks them for bringing the daughter along as that would help them know how she looks like. The story moves ahead, involving other episodes and characters, and it takes some days for the girl to be found!

I might have spoiled some fun by sharing this episode here, but I could not resist the temptation. I hope reading this would make you realize how absurd this film is. Bizarre, and extremely entertaining, 'The Phantom of Liberty' is not to be missed.

August 03, 2011

Understanding Cinema Lecture: The First Modern Movie

“Why did you show us this movie?” one of my students complained politely as I started my lecture. I was not surprised. It had taken me a lot of reading, two re-watches, and several years between them to figure out myself – what is so great about ‘Breathless’ (1960).

I have a parameter for identifying a great movie. If you enjoy a movie more while watching it for a second time, and even more during the third, it has to be a great movie. ‘Breathless’ sure is. However, it is important not to take it too seriously in order to enjoy it. I have not seen any movie made before 1960 that is as ‘modern’ as ‘Breathless’. In fact, if we make a shot-by-shot remake in Hindi today, it would still be too modern for Indian audience, more than half a century later! It also is one of the most influential movies in history. And the much talked about ‘jump cut’ is just one of the ‘influences’. What makes this movie important is its inherently rebellious nature, its voice against authority, a tendency that defined the decade of the 60s in the West. What makes this movie special is the philosophy that drives it, the philosophy of its maker and its characters.

Jean-Luc Godard was a vehement critic of the French cinema of the 50s. He believed in cinema as cinema, an art in its own right with its own language and aesthetics, without any narrative obligations. He also believed that the director should use his film as a medium for personal communication. So when he made this movie, his first, he selected a story that suited his philosophy. Like him, his characters are narcissistic rebels, revolting against all norms of the society, not caring much about life, and not giving too much of importance to death. Michel fancies himself as a gangster from American movies, with apparently only one real ambition – to stay fearless, and to live and die like a hero. Patricia roams around the streets without wearing a bra, makes not big deal about being pregnant as a result of her promiscuity, and is not sure whether she loves Michel. In fact, the director’s view of impossibility of love is evident through the (mis)communication between the lead pair. They indulge in meaningless conversations and confused actions, and the director makes sure we follow them closely, thus building a narrative that is extremely opposed to the classical form of storytelling. But the content and the philosophy of the movie remain in perfect sync.

As does the style. Godard’s innovations with the camera and editing and the actors’ improvisations add a youthful fearlessness to the movie. The biggest achievement for ‘Breathless’ is the way its philosophy, content, and style are interwoven to create one organic whole – a film that is proudly aware of its medium and makes sure the audience never forget that. It never pretends to be imitating life, the‘filmy’ background score surely helps. By keeping the audience at a distance the film celebrates itself, and communicates with them with surprising effectiveness. A huge commercial and critical success on its release, it was one of the first celebrated movies of the French New Wave. And its impact on cinema went on to be enormous. The same student, who complained in the beginning of the lecture, remarked rather profoundly – “this film is exactly like its protagonist.” And also like its maker, I would say. With ‘Breathless’ cinema finally establishes itself as the medium of the director, independent of studio-system, moral censoring, and most importantly all pre-conceived expectations.

P.S. It would be interesting to ask Godard how he feels about this movie today. How does he, who always defied authority, feel about his first rebellion’s rise to become an iconic authority? Is it really possible to achieve what one character in the movie considers to be his greatest ambition in life – “to be immortal, and then die”?