Lord Puttnam Lecture: Technology

Technology

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One of Lord Puttnam’s final lectures focused on technology and, in particular, the importance of innovation in the history of cinema. After looking extensively at innovations of the past such as animation, surround sound and computer-generated imagery, he moved on to some of the possible advancements in our future. One of those advancements was “Virtual Reality”, a relatively new area of technology that seems to be improving exponentially year after year. Lord Puttnam remarked on the many ways in which this technology could change the face of cinematic storytelling as we know it, but he returned to his previous, and seemingly most important point about how, “cinema, at its heart, is all about identity”.

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If virtual reality cannot make us identify with what we are seeing on anything more than an immediate, visceral level, then it will be forever seen as a theme park attraction instead of an artistic one. Lord Puttnam mentioned both Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012) and Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) as examples of immersive filmmaking. Not only were these films physically immersive, with the use of 3-D technology, but also emotionally immersive with sympathetic protagonists and stories of human struggle and survival. Virtual Reality can achieve a sense of physical immersivity that goes far beyond what was shown to us by Ang Lee or Alfonso Cuarón. The technology can allow you to feel like you are swimming with sharks or flying through the clouds or even floating out in space. However, the question that surrounds virtual reality is whether or not it can replicate the emotional connection that an audience has when the lights go down in a cinema and the screen comes to life.

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One way to cultivate this much needed emotional connection between an audience and the content they are consuming is to have them guided by creative voice that is able to highlight the human in something so modern and technological. A lot of the current crop of “VR” practitioners come from a technical background and their output tends to reflect that. I believe, as the technology becomes more user-friendly and gets employed by a more natural set of storytellers, virtual reality will become much more than just physically immersive.

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At a visual effects summit in Beverly Hills, Oscar-winning cinematographer, Wally Pfister remarked on virtual reality, “When somebody like Danny Boyle cracks it with emotional content, it will be cool.” (Indiewire). Danny Boyle, in many ways, would be the perfect pioneer for virtual reality. I’d have faith that he wouldn’t get bogged down in the endless cycle of technical innovation like James Cameron did with his efforts promoting 3-D technology for his 2009 film, Avatar. Boyle is the type of director who uses technology, first and foremost, as a tool to tell a story. You see this daring, innovative use of technology on 28 Days Later (2002), where he chose to film on cheap, handheld digital cameras to achieve a post-apocalyptic naturalism that, so far, has never been bettered. Boyle possesses an ability to connect an audience with characters from all walks of life, whether they be the slums of Mumbai or the streets of Edinburgh. I believe this ability, coupled with his comfort in collaboration, makes him an ideal candidate to bring identity to virtual reality.

VR Ted Talk

Gravity FX

28 Days Later Making Of

 

 

 

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Lord Puttnam Lecture: Animation

Animation and Effects

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I thought it would be interesting to move from, Local Hero, one of David Puttnam’s favourite films of his own, to Memphis Belle (Michael Caton-Jones, 1990) a film which he appears to regard as a complete failure. Lord Puttnam first made mention of Memphis Belle in his lecture on animation, which widened in scope as he went on and ended up focusing on the use of computer generated imagery in today’s films. He didn’t go into too much detail on the film’s failings but alluded to the fact that it came out during a period of technological innovation which meant that its traditional use of practical effects as well as its period setting made it look out of date and antiquated.

In his lecture, Lord Puttnam consistently reinforced the need for innovation in filmmaking. He used the example of Walt Disney films in the 70s and 80s to show how audiences can quickly become disenchanted when the films they are seeing no longer overawe or inspire them. I believe Memphis Belle was a victim of this same disenchantment as audiences had grown accustomed to the same old practical effects that had been in use since the 1970s. They recognised when something was taking place on a set, or when an actor would swap out for his stunt double. In short, the magic of the movies was fading.

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The shortcomings of the film are even more transparent today as we are well aware of the massive boom in computer generated imagery that was right around the corner. It is almost hard to believe when you are watching the jarringly apparent effects work in Memphis Belle that films like Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991) or Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) are only a year or two away. It is films like these which led to the resurgence of blockbuster filmmaking which fostered a competitive atmosphere in Hollywood with each film trying to outdo the previous one in terms of computer generated, lifelike effects. Lord Puttnam commented that the film would fare much better in today’s market as the effects work would be seamless, with digitally rendered imagery being used to create dazzlingly realistic dogfights in the sky.

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However, the film not only falls short on a technical level, but it rings surprisingly hollow when it comes to the human element. I’d suspect that a lot of the character work that is traditionally well served in most of Puttnam’s films was deemed second fiddle to the action set pieces at the heart of the picture. As a result, neither element works and they come together in an awkward, paper-thin excuse for a film. It really is a shame as Puttnam had proved so adept with bringing stories of human struggle and triumph to the screen in the past. Had they acknowledged that the technology simply was not there for the film they wanted to make, they could have narrowed their focus to the inner lives of these heroic pilots and explored what exactly it was they were going through.

Memphis Belle Trailer

T2 Special FX

Lord Puttnam Lecture: Local Hero

Local Hero

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David Puttnam’s lecture on Local Hero (Bill Forsyth, 1983) was enlightening in the ways in which he narrowed down the reasons why an audience would connect with a film. He states, “there are three key elements to making a successful film and they are; the words, the visuals and the music.” He goes on to say that, “at different times and in different films, one of those key elements dominates, and sometimes the music can dominate.” I think that, in the case of Local Hero, the music can certainly dominate. As a matter of fact, it’s probably fair to say that more people are familiar with Mark Knopfler’s score than they are with the film itself. I don’t mean to undervalue Bill Forsythe’s brilliantly observed dialogue and direction or Chris Menges’ idyllic images either, I just feel like Knopfler’s score is so well-integrated yet transcendent that it can’t help but become the defining aspect of the film.

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I think that one of the main reasons why the score is so effective is because it breaks the rules of traditional scoring that audiences had become accustomed to. It’s no mistake that David Puttnam suggested Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits when it came time to choose a composer. Puttnam had a niggling feeling that music had been, “badly served”, in film for too long and had grown somewhat, “antiquated.” Knopfler, having never scored a film before, viewed Local Hero as a spectator and a composer in equal measure. Whereas an established composer may have come to the film with preconceived notions of the narrative and the traditional music it would require, Knopfler had a more instinctive, introspective approach.

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In his review of the score, William Ruhlmann wrote that Knopfler’s, “fingerpicked guitar stylings make a perfect musical complement to the wistful tones of Bill Forsyth’s comedy film.” I too felt this sense of perfection when I was first watching the film. The music never feels preconceived or packaged, it plays somewhat as an accompaniment inside the minds of the audience, reflecting the emotions being evoked by what’s happening onscreen. This feeling of the music operating as a spectator instead of some all-knowing conductor may come from Knopfler’s unique way of scoring in which he would sit with his guitar and strum along as he watched the film play out before him on a screen. I think this unconventional approach helps underscore the film’s bittersweet nature as the music oscillates between wanting what’s best for the characters but feeling conflicted at the nature of MacIntyre’s visit.

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During my research into this topic it became clear that Puttnam’s unique choice of composer was not an isolated incident, but instead part of a wider trend in his work where he would always try to do something innovative with the music. We see this innovation again in his previous film Chariots Of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981), which has an anachronistic, electronic score playing over a story set in the 1920’s. This choice, yet again, serves as a way to strengthen the audience’s connection with the film. The modern fusion of electronic music allows an audience to engage with the story in a more immediate way, whereas a traditional, old-fashioned orchestral score would have put the audience at arm’s length and situated the story firmly in the past.

Puttnam Local Hero Interview

Mark Knopfler Making Of Local Hero

Vangelis – Chariots Of Fire

Moroder – Midnight Express

 

Semester One: Reflective Journal

I have chosen to narrow this reflective journal down to two subjects; the masterclass given by Marc Isaacs as well as the class participation in the European University Film Award. In reflecting on the course, I found myself regularly returning to both of these subjects as I felt they answered and invited numerous interesting questions respectively. However, that is not to say that I found the other aspects of the course in anyway dull or uninspiring. Studying the history of film festivals as well as exploring the vital role they play in transnational cinema allowed me to appreciate an aspect of the film industry that I had previously overlooked. In addition to this, the focus on Web documentaries and innovative marketing techniques introduced me to a new genre in which I could work as well as the skills to promote it. Overall, I will look back on semester one of FX2017 as being one of the most educational and expansive modules I have been a part of.

The Masterclass

I found the masterclasses involved in FX2017 to be extremely enlightening with regards to the more nuts and bolts, formalist aspects of the craft as well as the underlying artistic intentions of the filmmakers. For the purpose of this piece, I am choosing to focus on the masterclass given by Marc Isaacs as I believe it to be a standout in this series of uniquely informative talks.

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The masterclass began with a screening of Marc’s outstanding 2012 documentary, “The Road: A Story of Life and Death”. The film follows a handful of immigrants as they attempt to settle down along one of the oldest Roman roads in London. The fact that some of Marc’s subjects are well into their old age demonstrates just how hard it can be to learn to live in a foreign land without friends or family.

I found the film to be startlingly effective, even harrowing at times as we become witness to some of the crippling loneliness that has overcome the immigrants onscreen. As the film began, I was intermittently taking down notes for later use in both the Q and A and this particular assignment. However, as it progressed, I had to stop and put away the pen when it became clear just how much of your attention these people and their often, achingly sad lives demanded. Marc’s camera puts the viewer firmly in the room with the subject and it would be doing them and the film a disservice to look away.

The Q and A began immediately after the screening which I found to be a bit sudden. I feel like the audience could have done with a thirty minute break to collect their thoughts, especially with a film so topical in this time of Brexit, Trump and increasing anti-immigrant sentiment. The Q and A, while not delving too deep into these societal talking points, was nonetheless educational and invaluable as Marc afforded us an honest insight into his filmmaking process.

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One of the initial, eye-opening reveals was that the opening of the documentary, which showed a young woman emigrating from Ireland, was completely fake. What followed was a thought-provoking discussion about what constitutes reality and fiction in a documentary setting. Isaacs proposed that he was attempting to portray a universal truth and even though the scene in question was set up, it accurately got across to the audience what it would truly be like to set off on that journey. This part of the discussion was especially interesting to me as I am in the process of outlining an idea for my thesis film that may also attempt to blur the lines between fact and fiction in order to get across a more a realistic, yet thematically relevant truth. Some more subjects which Marc touched upon that stood out as helpful to me were funding, editing, direction, research and casting. In his review of the film for The Guardian, Mike McCahill stated that, “almost every subject might have merited their own film.” (McCahill, Guardian) Marc elaborated on this subject by informing the audience just how many subjects he followed and lives he documented that did not make it into the final edit. It was an illuminating admission that put into perspective just how much work, both practical and intellectual, was required from a professional filmmaker.

The Road Trailer

 

EUFA

Another exciting aspect of the course for me was the class participation in the inaugural European University Film Award (EUFA). The aim of the award is to, “involve a younger audience, to spread the European idea, and to transport the spirit of European cinema to an audience of university students”, as well as supporting, “film dissemination, film education and the culture of debating.” (EuropeanFilmAcademy) I believe the award does all these things and more and found it to be one of the main topics of conversation among students on the course. The prospect of spreading the “European idea” was an intriguing one as, being European, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking all other European cultures must be similar to our own. Awards like this, that force us to broaden our horizons and widen our understanding, actively confront the complacency that can come with being a part of such a massive, eclectic union. I found that the films on the course opened my eyes to new European cultures and ideas while also exploring the stereotypes and generalisations that sometimes set in when we look across borders. In a time of increasing isolationist politics as well as fearmongering with regards to the question of immigration, I found it reassuring to be involved in an award like this that brought people and ideas together in a creative way.

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One of the films that I responded to the most was, “The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki”, (Kuosmanen, 2016). The film, just like its titular character, is an underdog trying as hard as it can to prove its worth, while also maintaining its unique, core sensibilities in an effort to not become diluted down for the international market. It is a fine line to walk, but I believe the film does it brilliantly. By taking a well-known genre in the “boxing film”, Kuosmanen is able to constantly subvert the tropes that we have become used to in favour of a more realistic approach.

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The film is based on real events and the acting and aesthetic all come together to form a piece that could conceivably be seen as actual documentary footage from 1962. There’s a verisimilitude at play that helps connect the film with audiences both in and outside of Finland. Despite all the aspects that could be seen as distancing for foreign audiences (the language, period, aesthetic, etc.) the film’s devotion to the truth of Olli’s character allows us to look past things such as nationality and empathise with him on a more human level. By finding truth in the local aspects of their story, the filmmakers also find truth in the universal and I believe this is one of the main things I’ve learned from taking part in the European University Film Award. Issues like immigration, unemployment and mental health can sometimes be difficult to comprehend, but seeing these topics played out in films like those nominated for the EUFA can ultimately act as a bridge in bringing people together in understanding.

Olli Maki Trailer