cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

‘Framing Pictures’ – A lecture given by Stephen Jacobs [Documentary Real symposium 2010 ]





The Documentary Real 05 from kask on Vimeo.



Stephen Jacobs


Documentary Real symposium – Ghent, Belgium, October 21st, 2010

…..the ambiguous relation between documentary film and reality. To what extent can a reel of film capture reality—if this is possible at all—and when can we say that it calls a new reality into being? Do not most films oscillate between ‘document’ and ‘argument’; that is, between representing, rewriting and creating reality? Moreover, what strategies do artists use to document our daily lives? Is the detour through alienation and animation perhaps the proper way to make an outright and truthful work? Do new developments in technological media provide new opportunities for documentary artists? Finally, how do these artistic experiments and their problems represent the culture we live in?




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April 27, 2011 Posted by | documentary, film [its techniques] | Leave a comment

PHOTOGRAPHY FILM: Between four and nine pictures

Mogan Meis’s essay in The Smart Set, Quite Ripples – Capturing the moments indifferent to being captured, plucks a chord  for me: a harpsichord –and not clavichord or pianoforte — kind of moment. Meis moved from an idea from Thales to a quote from Hericlatus (‘You can’t step into the same river twice’), followed by Plato’s, ‘ if the nature of things is so unstable as that, you can’t even step in the same river fronting an explanation of a photographer’s art.

A clear litte expansion on the philosophical background from Siva Prasad might help at this point.

The photographer he looks at is Paul Graham: his exhibition, A Shimmering of Possibility, at MoMa, the perfect excuse for Meis to deliver two killer paragraphs:

..human beings have been trying to figure out what makes one thing one thing and another thing another thing. In very general terms, there have always been some people who are more comfortable with Being and some people who are more comfortable with Becoming. The Being people get excited about how identity remains stable, how a chair is always a chair, a table always a table. The Becoming people are fascinated by the gray areas, the things you can’t quite categorize, the fleeting, the indefinite.

Photography, since its invention in the 19th century, has always played the role of a double agent. On one hand, photography fixes time, a notoriously shifty and ever-changing phenomenon. But photography grabs time and sits it down. You could say that photography freezes moments of essence. This pleases the Being people. A photograph has a sliver of forever inside it.

and two killer sentences:

The old saying tells us that a picture is worth a thousand words. Graham, however, thinks you need somewhere between four and nine pictures.

Meis dissects the notions of  being and becoming a bit more, but it was something else that occured to me: somehow the great filmmakers are and were quite aware of this ‘between four and nine pictures’.

Recently I saw an interview with Truffaut in which he was talking about 8 frame freezes: the maximum was 12 frames: more obtruded into the movie shots either side: the viewer was aware it was a still. Somehow at the optimal 8 frames, the stillness of a face amongst action is more a psychological stop than a physical one. Is the 8-frame an artifical construct of film with no parallel in real life? Perhaps an equivalent; is the sensation of a person talking to you suddenly having her sound off as one’s concentration goes from the words to the expression, and suddenly back again as some process in the brain decides to switch the sound back on, which hasn’t been off at all (so to speak).

In film we are being shown this 8-frame phenomenon as a stylisation. It has been used time and again by many directors. So why are cinematographers like Truffaut obsessed with it? For me, it runs right back to the simple pleaure of a flick book:; bored in a school classroom on a hot summer afternoon, teacher droning on, we idly draw a matchstick man in the top corner of the text book and make him move: the 8-frame splice is a reverse flicker book. It is a little bit ‘because it was there’, but it has a serious purpose, noneless.

No film-maker gets over the way film works: 24 fps. Even a photographer who has run off a rapid set of shots of a face, now finds it possible, with digital technology, to make the head move up and down with a loop of two photographs. There is something mesmerising about creating movement from stills.

Many filmmakers use a sequence of photographic stills or frames from a movie shot – in lieu of tight montage sequences – because they come to the conclusion that these stills — simply a short set of consecutive frames — played slower than 24 fps by digitally chosing say 1-3 seconds which is the poor man’s; still creating the necessary movement both in cinematographic and perceptio-cognitive (narrative) terms.

~

In a short documentary I am making, after much playing around with one sequence of  someone arriving on a train, decamping, and walking back up the station to where I, the cameraman, am standing, I came to the slow conclusion it was more effective as film not just to show the sequence at normal speed (the edited shot with only a few seconds taken off each end), but also a repetiton of the same shot in single frames at an optimal fps to produce an inexorable slow movement forward, which at the same time was seen as a set of ever changing stills.

Such a design is always self-reflexive: that is so much what the fun of filmmaking is. In some cases, the auteur seems to be almost solely concerned with cinematographic  reflexivity. No crime. The medium itself has it built into its DNA. The films such people make are as much about the pressure and satisfaction in the making as any subsequent viewing by a third party. True of all creative art.

~

In the process of running a sequence of screen grabs, one is consciously aware that this is what it must have been like for the first filmmakers – and their enchantment with the new medium – as they ran their celloid through a projector. The movie made of stills or screen grabs, though often run quite slow, is smoother than the flickering of those films at less than otpimum speed. One is fully aware, as all this happens, that one is watching how movie works, but also fully conscious immediately, or in slow stages, what it can and can’t do.

~

If I was teaching film (not likely) these are aspects of film-making I would emphasise: practical exercises with HDV cameras, each student would be told to go out and film and bring to class to work on: a few tricks to encourage the enjoyment of the filming such as how to film continuously, panning and zooming at the places where they envisioned cuts for example, to prevent them wasting too much time switching the camera on and off (and missing some of the action in the process) in the attempt to create ready made and editable shots.

~

Creating movie sequences from stills is quite a laborious process, involving grabbing maybe as many as 50 – 100 digital ‘frames’ for a 20-30 second shot. It is only when the slow motion sequence is played and replayed that it can become apparent how other elements such as music can subtly but radically alter the images.

In this specific case, I found quite quickly – almost by chance – a backing track from music site Jamendo that moved forward at the same speed as the slow movement of the stills. This sequence lasts about 30 seconds, which would be considered incredibly long by some ‘default’ filmmakers. But the slow pace of the figure moving up the station platform, facial expression slowly changing, physical actions – the posture of the body in relation to limbs – is enhanced by the perfect matching of the pace of the film with the music.

April 19, 2009 Posted by | cinéma-vérité, cinematography, cognitive illusion, cognitive science, consciousness studies, documentary, film analysis, film directors, film editing, film narrative, film theory, film [its techniques] | | Leave a comment

Documentary film “Operation Filmmaker”: Muthana Mohmed meets Antoine Doinel

Storyville ran Operation Filmmaker, a documentary by Nina Davenport on BBC4 recently. Some clips in YouTube and elsewhere. It appealed to me because it was about a young Iraqi man: I lived in Baghdad in the 1950s.

After watching Operation Filmmaker I ran through my thoughts and immediately wrote them down: on the film itself and documentary as a genre. Then I checked for information on what happened to the star of the story and started to read the reviews.

The film has been played elsewhere as can be seen from the Operation Fimmaker website, and there are many reviews which can be accessed from the site.

A review  Everything Is Deracinated: Nina Davenport’s “Operation Filmmaker” in IndieWire by Michael Koresky [June 1, 2008]

John Power’s audio review on NPR is particularly good.

An article with more of  Nina Davenport’s views:

Nina Davenport on Operation Filmmaker in The Lumiere Reader

Two interviews with Nina Davenport:

(1) The Strand Magazine (U. of Ontario)

(2) ComingSoon.net

After watching the documentrary I had an overweening desire to write to Nina to ask what she had been paid to film Muthena, whether she was paid right through to the end for her own expenses or whether it transmuted into a production company (the film goes out under her as ‘director’) which she had to finance, and how much was doled out to Muthena over the course of the film in money and kind. Near the end, just before Nina decides to cut her losses, he demands $10,000.

This makes me wonder exactly how much such a project involves. Did Muthena gradually become aware of the amounts, which made him feel he should benefit financially as well. When he does ask for his money, it did seem he was asking the question, How much do you want to make this movie? Although in the finished film Nina Davenport  is heard and even seen trying to persuade him to carry on, she already has quite enough to make a film.

In the end, being cut short before the natural ending is as good an ending as one could wish for, simply because at this length the viewer is thoroughly engaged and begins to feel there will be a finale. There is no post-script. Not a person watching this film is not expecting one which will say what happened to Muthena.

Before Nina decides to stop filming, Muthena progressively sees and asserts on camera he is being made to look bad and is not keen on being filmed any more. This is true: he is behaving badly and he is shown to be. He says he is not interested in money and wants to be a free spirit. Though he is obviously seen (and depicted) as more than half pillock*, by this stage, his demand for money did not seem unreasonable to me. He’s the star of the documentary. They are going to make money out of it, why shouldn’t he?  Why didn’t Nina or someone mollify Muthena by offering him a cut of the royalties? If you’re doing cinematographic reflexivity, then why not include the dosh side as well. Professional films are made with money and for money. The one thing that didn’t come out of the final edit was what he was learning about that side of film-making.

Indulge me. After putting aside the notions of what this documentary said to me about film, I had a sudden flash of Antoine Doinel.

antoine-doinelle

Muthena Mohamed

muthena-mohmed-2

became Antoine Doinel.  One of the great facilitators of film discussion is youtube clips! You can go off on an Antoine Doinel track right here if you wish, but please come back.

Cutting to the quick: at first Antoine came to mind, as this afterthought, through looks and mannerisms: trying to be cool and knowing but usually coming out as a bit of an arse. Running rapidly through the permutations, it seemed unlikely that Muthena knew The Adventures of Antoine Doinel” series, but it also seemed almost inconceivable Nina Davenport had not, as a film student, studied Truffaut and Godard. The end of the finished film, Operation Filmmaker – the edited film as opposed to the filmed film, perhaps – seemed to have a nouvelle vague-ish quality. Maybe every documentary since the 60s has been squeezed through the cinematographic sieve of Godard’sÀ Bout de Souffle { Film blog, Everyday Cinephile, has a great still of Belmondo and Seberg and has a good summary}. Then again, maybe because the image of Muthena as Antoine is stuck in my mind and tickles my fancy, maybe I am forcing the notion into a film which does not possess it. Or is is that all documentaries that aspire to art, become nouvelle vague documentary style by default.

It is a bit more complicated than just Muthena = Antoine. After all, Operation Filmmaker is a documentary and Trauffaut’s Antoine series are fictions (even if based on the life of Truffaut). If you know Truffaut, you know Jean-Pierre Léaud is reputed to have got a bit mixed up as to whether he was the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud or character Antoine Doinel.  Operation Filmmaker is a documentary about Muthena: there is the obvious sense that Muthena is becoming a character in a film in the documentary his is in, and he’s progressively aware of it. To me, Nina Davenport is a chronicler to start with, (In this YouTube she says she was a camera for hire) but then slowly changes into the director of the film: she is perfectly aware this is happening, as is her subject. Even the edit (wouldn’t we like to see all the video she shot….) could not disguise how much she was in the end fashioning a film, which is fascinating for someone interested in film-making.

One of the side issues is that Muthena fancies himself an actor as well as a Hollywood director. He is good at playing to the camera whether to charm or in expressing his feelings. This person almost trying to burst out of the confines of film gets built into the shooting process.

What happened to Muthana? He has a 5 year permit to stay in the UK. No news of whether he persisted in film.

*Pillock is an English English expression for “A stupid or annoying person”

November 9, 2008 Posted by | documentary, film [its techniques] | , , , , , , | Leave a comment