Why film?

The huge cost of making a modern Hollywood feature film (Men in Black 3 cost over $200 million in 2012) means there is a constant struggle between those who create and those who pay the bills. Every movie is the result of countless compromises between the artistic and commercial forces whose “love/hate” relationship is the one constant in movie making history.

Despite this struggle between art and commerce, movies are recognized as one the most powerful and unique forms of creativity, which demands the same respect as painting, sculpture, music, literature and drama.

Film contains the basic ingredients of all other creative endeavors. Even in the cheapest “slice and dice” productions like “Saw” and its sequels, it’s possible to find examples of painting, sculpture, music, literature and drama plus costume design, photography, mechanical drafting, computer graphics, and countless other products of human creative energy.

Beyond simply using other art forms, movies reflect the basic building blocks of classic art. Films use the compositional elements of the visual arts: line, form, mass, volume and texture.

Like sculpture, film manipulates three-dimensional space. However, film goes one step further and focuses on moving objects that can have a life and rhythm as complex as a choreographed dance.

The shifts in time in the pace of a film resemble those of music and poetry, and like poetry, film communicates to us through images, metaphors and symbols. Like drama, film speaks to us visually and verbally through action, gesture and dialogue.

However, film is unique. It is set apart from all other art by a quality of free and constant motion. The continuous flood of sight, sound and motion allows movies to go beyond the static limits of painting and sculpture and the physical confines of the theatre stage.

“It is impossible to conceive of anything which the eye might see or the ear hear in fact or imagination which can’t be represented in a film. From the black fringes of outer space, to the depths of the Grand Canyon, to the orange and black forests of an imaginary planet, to the flight of an arrow striking a target, to the slow growth of flower, there is no point in space, no idea, thought or concept within the grasp of mankind that is not within the reach of film.” — Lindgren, The Art of Film

Film is unlimited in its choice of subjects and its approach to telling a story. You only have to look at an original film and its re-make (“Stagecoach,” “Frankenstein,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Blob,” “Robin Hood,” “Scarface,” “Cape Fear,” “Total Recall,” “Manchurian Candidate,” “La Femme Nikita” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Dark Shadows”) to see the infinite range of styles, techniques, creative elements, moods and treatments that filmmakers can use in an infinite variety of ways to make us respond.

Even more important than film’s unlimited range of subject matter and treatment, is the overwhelming sense of reality movies create. The continuous stream of sight, sound and motion is so powerful we often forget that we are watching a carefully constructed illusion.

So perfect is the art and science of film making we are easily pulled into a parallel universe of fantasy; a state of suspended belief; a subtle hypnotic trance that transports us into another world where anything can and does happen.

In movies, fantasy assumes the shape and emotional impact of reality. The history of film is the story of cinematic artists struggling towards greater realism, erasing the boundary between fantasy and reality.

The properties that make movies so powerful also make analysis difficult. A movie moves constantly in time and space. If we “freeze frame” it on a computer or DVD player, it is no longer a “motion picture.” The unique property of film is destroyed by our attempt to examine its parts.

In a sense, you must become experts at dream analysis. However, rather than examining your most private nighttime experiences you will be looking carefully at the “collective public dreams” Hollywood creates for our emotional pleasure and it’s commercial profit.

The most difficult part of this class is that somehow you must remain involved in the “real” experience of movie watching while at the same time maintaining a detached and critical point of view; a goal best accomplished by viewing a film many times. However, since that is impossible in this class, you will have to learn how to enjoy and analyze simultaneously.

I know that most of you in this class are not Film Studies or Humanities majors. I know that most of you are taking this class because you thought it would be an easier way of meeting one of the transfer G.E. Humanities requirements than the alternatives listed in the catalog.

If you’re taking RTVF 15 Introduction to Film to simply satisfy a GE requirement, I hope your experience is more positive than you anticipated; that you finish this class with a better sense of how movies influence your thoughts and emotions.

It is also my intent that this class gives you some insight into the process of intellectual analysis: How to closely examine and scrutinize an event and make rationale conclusions based on your observations.

However, the question still remains: WHY ANALYZE FILMS? Most of you probably see no reason to examine what you consider disposable entertainment. You see no value in spending time thinking and questioning the content or presentation techniques involved in movies.

What is there to discuss, you ask, about movies like “King Kong,” “Conan the Barbarian,” “Up in Smoke” or any of the other 30,000 feature length films produced in America since D.W. Griffith helped introduced the world to the emotional power of movies with his epic two-and-a-half hour “Birth of a Nation” in 1914?

The most hostile reaction against film analysis comes from those who see the process as a destroyer of beauty, claiming it kills their love for movies. According to these people, it is better to accept movies (and everything else) without thinking …to let their emotions be free of rational thought so their response is full, warm, and vibrant.

Film analysis does not kill a love for movies. In fact, it makes it stronger. By looking closely at each part of a movie: the script, acting, editing, camera work, music, special effects, lighting, etc., we come to understand the wonder and magic of the entire experience.

The more you know about how the illusion of film is created, the more you will appreciate a film that overwhelms your senses and grips your emotions so strongly you no longer remember that “it is only a movie;” that mystical moment when events on the screen become as “real” as “real life.”

But, you may argue, it’s easy to understand a typical Hollywood feature film. The problem is that this point-of-view limits your critical responses to generalizations and half-formed opinions.

By the time you get to the parking lot, change the channel or stop the DVD, you remember little of the cinematic experience except that is was good or bad…that you liked it or hated it-that it was worth your time and money or you felt cheated. Without careful thought and analysis you usually can go no further in your attempt to understand the cinematic dream you just experienced.

Analysis is not trying to figure out the hidden meaning of everything in a movie. You will never be able to understand every aspect of a film with its constant, flowing stream of images and sounds.

But you can look closely at your movie watching experience to figure out what happened on the screen to make you react and respond; to discover how filmmakers fooled you into accepting their cinematic illusions as reality.

Analysis will help lock the film into your mind so you may savor it in memory. By looking at a film analytically, you engage yourself with it intellectually and creatively. You become an active participant in the process rather than a passive observer.

The ultimate purpose of analysis, and this class, is to open up new channels of awareness and new depths of understanding. The more you know about a process, the better you can separate the good from the bad, the powerful from the weak, the valuable from the junk.

If the love and understanding you have for an art form such as film is based on your rational understanding rather than emotionally reflex, it will be more solid, more enduring and of greater value.

If you truly love movies (and I would guess most of you do), you will find analysis worth the effort. The understanding it brings will deepen your appreciation. Instead of canceling out the emotional experience of watching films, analysis will enhance that experience.

You’ve stayed through the movie’s final credits — a seemingly endless scrolling of mysterious job titles like best boy, grip and Foley artist — and if you’re like many people, you have no idea what all these individuals do, or whether they’re just involved in some sadomasochistic cult headquartered at the studio. We’ll get to them, along with gaffers, wranglers and second second assistant assistants, but first let’s talk about ego.

Credits aren’t really there for the audience. They’re there so the industry will know who did what on the film. They help with future jobs, with better contracts, with more deals and obviously with getting more money next time. Credits are where the agent earns his or her money, because it’s the agent who negotiates the credits.

First, draw a horizontal line. That line is an accountant’s way of describing the costs of making a movie. Above the line go the names of all the creative people involved (along with the pay or compensation they’re going to get).

Who are the creative people? They’re the ones with agents. They are the director, the producers, the writers, the stars and featured actors and (these days) the production designers, composers, casting directors and cinematographers.

Below the line go all the production people — the crew members — and the out-of-pocket costs of making the movie, like allocations for location rentals, building sets, purchasing or renting equipment, getting props, recording and editing the sound track, buying film stock and processing it in the laboratory, generating the optical and special effects (now often up to half the total production cost) and the like.

The line is not a figure of speech. Every production is described as consisting of “above-the-line” and “below-the-line” costs.

Now the fun begins. Who should be listed first? With a few exceptions, there’s a predetermined order. The very first credit you see on the screen, just after the lights go down and the theater informs you that this is the feature presentation and you are fortunate enough to hear it in one or another version of Dolby sound, is the name of the studio (Buena Vista, Columbia, Universal, etc.), followed by the name of the production company that actually made the film (for example, Amblin), followed by the name of the investment group that hopes to make a fortune by backing the film (for example, a group of dentists in Minneapolis might call themselves “Whitecaps IV”), usually credited as “in association with.”

Then the director’s first credit, usually “a film by (your name here),” or “a (your name) film.” Then come the stars, and then comes the film’s title. Sometimes the stars’ and director’s credits will be reversed, depending on the star’s deal with the studio. Then (often) the featured actors, followed by the key production people — the casting director, composer of music, production designer, editor, director of photography and then …

And then it gets sticky. We come to the writers and producers (the director will always get the final credit). The film “Quiz Show” listed 11 producers in the opening credits, although in fact there were 14, but three had asked to have their names removed.

Variety’s story reported that “it required several weeks to work out a viable device for listing all the credits — which would be co-producers, executive producers, ‘also produced by’ producers and so forth. When one refused to go along with the settlement, the entire ‘grid’ had to be painstakingly reconstructed.”

Since no film requires 11 producers, much less 14, we can be pretty sure that we’re seeing ego at work. Who are these people? Often they’re friends, relatives, personal trainers or other hangers-on of the star whose names are added on as a part of the star’s contract, a kind of big perk for the “little people.” When the film has two or even three big stars, they all may want to do this. Thus the multiplicity of producer credits.

When it comes to writers, though, the situation is different and more complicated. The Writers Guild of America allows only three writing credits on a feature film, although teams of two are credited as one, separated on the credits by an ampersand (“you & I”).

However, if each of us works independently on the script (the most common system), we are separated by an “and” and credited as “you and I.” But wait; you wrote the story on which the script is based, so you get “story by” credit, and your credit for the screenplay precedes mine, even if I wrote most of the script, except that if my script made substantial changes to your story, I’ll get first “screenplay by” credit. If more than two of us worked on the screenplay, the credits will probably read something like “screenplay by you & I and he and she.”

You and I worked as a team, but he and she worked separately. It actually does have a certain logic to it, when you think about it. After all, the movie of “The Flintstones” had by various counts at least 35 and possibly as many as 60 writers who worked on the script. Somehow the system found a way to not list most of them, and for that we can be grateful.

The Directors Guild of America permits a film to list only one director, even when it is known that two or more worked on it. Except in very rare cases (a death in mid-production, and it had better be in the very middle of mid-production) there is only one directing credit.

This is very good for a director’s ego, certainly for the one who gets the credit, but also for the one who doesn’t — particularly if he or she had started production and then been removed by the producer at the insistence of the star or the studio.

The public won’t know that the removed one either screwed up or incurred the wrath of those more powerful. In either case, the removed one will live to direct another day.

More rarely, a director will take the initiative and leave a production because of conflicts that cannot be resolved, again usually with the studio or the star. All of this will most likely take place either before or during the first few days of shooting.

We’re not quite done yet. You may at some point have noticed the name George Spelvin or Georgina Spelvin or G. Spelvin or the like among the acting credits on a film. That’s traditionally the alias used by actors who for one reason or another do not want to be credited with their own names. (The original Georgina Spelvin was the star of the famous porn film “The Devil in Miss Jones.”)

There can be lots of reasons for using the alias, ranging from unhappiness with the way the production turned out to conflicts with the director or producer, or simply as an in-joke.

In the same way, directors have sometimes used “Alan Smithee” as their alias when they didn’t want to be credited under their real name. In 1997 somebody (screenwriter Joe Eszterhas) even had the bright/stupid idea of making a movie called “An Alan Smithee Film.” Not only did it bomb at the box office, but the real director — Arthur Hiller — took his name off the credits, so it truly was an “Alan Smithee” film.

Now to the other end. When the movie fades to black, the end credits come up. Sometimes the first credits we see will go to the production crew, the people who worked on the shooting, and sometimes they will be for the cast, often in order of prominence in the film, though sometimes in order of appearance or in alphabetical order.

The production crew credits will be where all the funny titles start coming up, and here’s what they do. The gaffer is the chief electrician. He or she works for the director of photography, setting up all the lights as they are needed for shooting, directing a crew of other electricians, preparing the basic lighting for the next scenes to be shot, ordering all lighting equipment and supplies and so forth. And guess who his or her top assistant is? Yes, the best boy. Sexist but accurate, at least until more women work their way into top crew positions.

Grips are the crew members who carry and set up equipment around the set or location. On most productions the head grip will be called the key grip, and on very big productions, where two crews will be shooting at the same time, there will be more than one key grip.

The camera crew has its own grip, the dolly grip, who sets the camera up and then pushes the camera on its dolly or tracks, and there are grips who specialize in operating the camera crane when that is called for. Other grips will work with the carpenters to get and place the materials needed to assemble the sets. When the gaffer calls for particular lighting equipment, it’s the grips who bring it and set it in place for the electricians to light and focus.

Sometimes key grips are called best boys too, which can make for confusion. A wrangler handles the animals, as you might expect, but there’s no size limit. The film business has room for mouse, marmot and cockroach wranglers as well. (If you’ve seen a credit for a “baby wrangler” it’s the in-joke way of crediting the registered nurse who by law has to be with an infant performer on the set.)

The greensman or woman is responsible for preparing and maintaining the live or fake flowers, foliage, trees, cornfields or wastelands that you might see in the film.

Don’t mistake odd titles for lack of skill. These are lifelong professionals who do extremely difficult jobs quickly and with very few mistakes; millions of dollars — and sometimes the safety of actors and other crew members — ride on how well they work. They apprentice for years before they get to take responsibility for a sizable production.

The director, too, has assistants, starting with, duh, the assistant director. The assistant director reports to the director, but he or she is more like an assistant producer.

Assistant directors don’t get to do much if any directing; they’re more on a track toward production manager or producer. They break down the script, scene by scene, according to location or set or actors’ calls (that is, what actors will be needed for shooting the scene).

Then they put together a shooting schedule in the most efficient possible way, so as to get the most done in the least possible time with the most efficient use of people and equipment.

A good A.D. can save a production hundreds of thousands of dollars just by analyzing the script and finding the best way to schedule how it should be shot.

It’s an incredibly demanding job, and because it relies so much on good communication between director and assistant, most directors will try to book their favorite assistants as much as possible.

Then there’s the second assistant director, who’s responsible for crew and cast calls; for keeping track of how many hours the crew has been on call so as to minimize overtime; sometimes for helping to cast extras when they’re needed in a scene and then cueing them to move, stand, sit or run as required; and for working with cops and security to keep the shooting location free from disturbances.

And if you’ve noticed, on big productions there are, yes, second second assistant directors, whose job, as you might guess, is to assist the second assistant director. The second second assistant assistant assists the second second assistant, in case you couldn’t tell.

When it comes to post-production, the titles proliferate. Most are self-explanatory, but you should know that a Foley artist is the person who — let me put it this way: In “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” we see King Arthur riding his invisible horse around England.

He is followed by his faithful retainer, who canters along behind him on foot, clapping two coconut shells together to make the clip-clop sound of a horse’s hooves.

The Foley artist is the person in the post-production sound-recording studio who actually clopped the shells in front of a microphone to record that sound onto the film’s sound track.

He or she also makes the sounds of footsteps, the slide into third, the thud of a body slamming into a wall and the like. The quintessential Foley artist story comes from the Brian DePalma film “The Untouchables,” where we see Robert De Niro as Al Capone whack somebody on the head with a baseball bat.

So how do you create a sound to match the visual, and make it believable, without actually doing someone bodily harm? After many experiments and many failures, the Foley artist found the right tools: a bowling pin hitting a raw turkey. You could try it yourself.

Almost all end credits, and the order in which they appear, have been settled for years by union contract and general industry convention.

When there are massive amounts of special effects, as in the 1997 film “Titanic,” the credits can run for what seems like hours. You and I are not expected to stay for them, but people in the business need to claim proper credit for whatever they did on a film, and end credits are the only thing they have to point to as an acknowledgment of their work.

And now we come to the stars’ credits, specifically the ones you see in newspaper ads. This is a world so difficult, so overloaded with the sight and sound of certain egos crashing toward oblivion while others ascend to heaven, that for a while in the 1980s it created a whole new cottage industry of movie ad credit designers.

Let’s start with what we may for the sake of argument call the good old days, which is any time prior to 1970. For much of that time — certainly until the late 1950s — most actors were under contract to their studios, and it was the studio that decided who got top billing, who was billed above the title and so on.

When the studio system collapsed, it was only natural for actors and their agents to fight for billing on a film by film basis, and by the 1970s most stars were writing into their picture contracts a description of how they were to be billed.

This wasn’t a problem as long as only a few stars had the power to control the billing for any particular film. Perhaps your name was the only one with glitter enough to go above the title, though if my name was also a draw it was pretty easy to advertise us as “you and” I (above the title) in (the film’s name here).

But then, in the 1980s, things got complicated. Stars began to write into their contracts that their name had to be advertised, above the title, in letters no smaller than those of the film’s title.

Well, OK, that could be handled. But what if each of us had the same clause in our contract? And what if our names had more than, say, two letters, which has been known to happen?

What if, say, our names were Harrison Ford, RenŽe Zellweger and Leonardo DiCaprio? Could they all fit on one line in the ad? And each be the same height as the letters in the film’s title?

Not unless the film’s title was as long as, say, “The Unbearable Lightness of Film Credit Machinations” and the distributor bought six consecutive pages in the paper to advertise it.

So here’s where the new designers came in. They found a way to make type faces so skinny, but with letters so tall, that they could fit the very longest names into a space no larger than a studio accountant’s heart. Which is why you have such a hard time reading ads that give us more than one or two names above the title. The ad looks like this:

Some stars require that their names be listed first, no matter who else is in the film. OK, if nobody else is in the film. But what if two stars with equal power (or worse, three or four) are in the same film with the same clause in their contracts?

Are you beginning to see where this is going? We’re not in gridlock yet, though, because some bright person came up with another solution. Give star A the first billing in the ads, but give star B a higher position. The ad then looks like this:


There are still more variations on the theme, such as clauses that require both first and highest billing in the ads, but obviously if the actors are serious about working on the film some accommodations will be reached, perhaps with additional money or perks, or even a quid pro quo for the next film.

Negotiations over billing can take a while — in fact, they’re one of the few things that can make the average big budget extravaganza’s end titles seem short.


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