Making the Movie

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Dunkirk and the Problem of War Movies


In 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is based on the famous anti-war novel of the same name, set during World War I, the so-called War to End All Wars.

The Variety review for the film stated: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word ‘war’ is taken out of the dictionaries.”

Neither the book nor the film prevented World War II.

Bad Wars and Good War Movies

War is by its very nature a high-drama enterprise. The stakes are not only life and death, but the fate of nations. It is natural for filmmakers to be drawn to stories set during war.

However, war is absolutely awful. As the book and documentary series Five Came Back recently showed, filmmakers who have experienced war firsthand are profoundly changed, perhaps even traumatized.

Even filmmakers who never served — say Steven Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan or Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse Now or Stanley Kubrick with Full Metal Jacket — are wary of making movies that glorify war.

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Wednesday Links: Visions of Another Hollywood

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

Kottke: The infinite auditory illusion that makes the Dunkirk soundtrack so intense (and good) – More on Shephard tones here.

WhatCulture: 10 Mind-Blowing Hidden Clues You Never Noticed In Classic Movies

The Atlantic: How Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky Can Bring Back the Mid-Budget Movie – I thought the trailer felt… different. Soderbergh cut it himself. Or should I say Mary Ann Bernard cut it herself.

NYT Mag: Why Hollywood Is Trying to Turn Everything Into Movies, Even Mindless Games Like ‘Fruit Ninja’

IndieWire: Netflix vs. Christopher Nolan: Why Movie Theaters Have Gotten so Bad – The Hollywood studios should be very concerned about how bad some theatrical presentations have gotten. I can’t believe how dark the projection is at some theaters I’ve been to, and the comment about the buzzing speaker is right on.

SilentMovieGIFs: Before CGI, they used mirrors

MUBI: Ingmar Bergman’s Favorite Films – Victor Sjöström was a mentor of Bergman’s. Here’s a video interview of him talking about their relationship.

Monique Jones: Revisiting Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes Remake

Inverse: Neill Blomkamp Wants to Reimagine Hollywood. He Just Needs Money. – Who do you think is more likely to succeed in re-writing the Hollywood game, Soderbergh, Nolan or Blomkamp?

A Plea to Ignore Rotten Tomatoes Scores

Rotten Tomatoes is a review aggregator website. It was founded in 1998. There were previous sites that did — and still do — the same basic thing, like Metacritic. For lazy journalists, the Rotten Tomatoes score has become a shorthand for quality of a film. Headlines proclaim Wonder Woman 97% Fresh and The Mummy 23% Rotten.

In fact, the method by which these scores are generated is unscientific, arbitrary and ultimately harmful to movie-making. Let’s break it down…

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This Glow-in-the-Dark Cinematography Will Have You Straight Trippin’

In a recent thread on Reddit, filmmaker Jonah Haber discussed how he created a simple but striking visual effect:

I bought a roll of glow in the dark paper from Aliexpress and asked my friend to dance in front of it. This is the result of that

Not mentioned but key is the use of a strobe flash. Haber says timing the final hits took weeks of setup.

I actually had a toy similar to this when I was younger. It was a small piece of glow in the dark fabric and a small little strobe (think disposable camera size flash) where you would create “shadow art” with it. I recently visited my parents and was reminded about it when I was there and thought it would make a cool video!

The shadow-capture effect is haunting, at least for me, evoking as it does the etched shadows of Hiroshima. Haber said he was mainly inspired by a Jon Hopkins music video. It also uses dancers and negative space, but in a way I’d say is less fluid:

Some other commenters chimed in with a Soft Bullets music video that’s in a glow-in-the-dark vein:

I love the idea and the execution! Not only is glow-in-the-dark photo paper readily available from craft supply stores, but also glow-in-the-dark paint and even makeup. What that brought to my mind is Thad Nurski’s short film “A Dimly Lit Room” which uses blacklight-reactive makeup to create some hypnotic low-light visuals. “A Dimly Lit Room” just had its premiere at Dances with Films in Los Angeles. I hope it will be available online in full soon. EDIT Oct 2017: Here it is:

Even with a medium as old as film, people are creating new visual effects. I have to think that as low-light cinematography gets better and cheaper, we’ll start to see more exploration of filming with alternative light sources. Who’s afraid of the dark?

Wednesday Links: The Week of Wonder

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

What Does Wonder Woman Actually Represent? – A comic about the history of the super-heroine by Lucy Bellwood and Sarah Mirk.

A look inside the world of film editing – Imgur album

Business Insider: Hollywood is fighting Sean Parker’s movie-streaming startup – People have tried this idea many times before. Theatrical distributors will never give up the current window release pattern unless it stops working for them. In a funny way, Netflix is doing straight-to-home cinema stuff yet no one is talking about it. The very excellent Sundance film I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore has been virtually buried by getting a Netflix distribution.

Potato Jet: iPhone 7 vs Arri Alexa

Boing Boing: A countdown made from countdowns in movies

“‘My mother would believe horror pictures are close to porn.'” – Deadline’s Peter Bart on the new horror producers.

MEL Magazine: How The Internet Killed the Teen Sex Comedy – I don’t think the genre is dead, per se. It just needs some new filmmaker to figure out how to make it relevant in the age of Snapchat, and the filmmakers who can do that don’t have a lot of access to mainstream cinema… yet.

FT: Last year, 150 filmmakers called on camera makers to build encryption into their products. They continue to resist.

The Independent: Personal Shopper‘s Olivier Assayas interview

Reuters: Facebook to become another Netflix? – Facebook plans to produce its own video content. It’s interesting since facebook has been trying to challenge YouTube with user uploaded (I won’t say ‘user generated’) content. YouTube has had its own challenges when it came to creating short-form original content. Meanwhile, Netflix is picking a fight with distributors. Amazon is looking better-and-better-positioned for the near future of exclusive online content.


— Source: The World of James Bond by Jeremy Black (review copy)

Wednesday Links: The Fall of King Arthur

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

Vulture: How did King Arthur: Legend of the Sword happen? – This is apparently a case of many visions for the IP, or intellectual property. Sadly, the vision that the final film settled on is a total mess. You’ll find my spoiler review on Letterboxd.

Dafne Keen’s Logan Audition Tape with Hugh Jackman

Deadline: Hackers Holding Disney’s Latest ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ For Ransom – Oh, the irony!

Reddit AMA: Lloyd Kaufman, President of Troma Entertainment and Creator of The Toxic Avenger

Real or Fake 4K – Is that disk you’re buying really UHD quality? For the time being, the answer is ‘usually not.’ Most major Hollywood films are still mastered in 2K, not 4K. In playing Mantis, Pom Klementieff Keeps Laughing Through The Pain – Interesting side story for the Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 breakout actress.

5 Highlights from ‘The Godfather’ 45th Anniversary Reunion

Macro Room: The swirling beauty of colored ink in water (video) – Stay tuned to see the filming setup.

True West Magazine: Kurt Russell spills the beans on who really directed Tombstone – I wonder if there aren’t quite a few movies where actors, writers and producers took over directing but declined to take the credit.

The Summer Movie Season is Upon Us – It’s time for The /Filmcast Summer Movie Wager podcast

“Most [screen]writers, when I’ve pressed the question, usually admit, finally, that they don’t want to be writers. They just want to write — and not even in a general sense of wanting to sit down somewhere and scribble for a living. They want to write because they have something to say.” — Robin Mukherjee, The Art of Screenplays

Why Movies Will Be The Literature of the Future

WaitButWhy has long, very long article about the coming future of brain-to-brain communication. It’s great, but it’s long. Maybe read my short essay first…

Okay, still here? So what seems to be happening in the world of neuroscience is that machine-brain interfaces are The Next Hot Thing. Eventually this will lead to people who are wearing devices that turn thoughts into computer code and vice versa. Actually, it is already happening with devices like cochlear implants that let deaf people hear and tongue electrodes that let blind people see.

What I’ve taken away from this vision of the future is that words, especially written words, are in trouble. The auditory cortex and the visual cortex are among the best understood parts of the brain, and the likely entry point for an advanced “wizard hat” machine-brain interface. Hmmm, what form of communication do we already have that’s audio-visual…?

Movies! That’s right, in many ways we cannot fathom how the people of the future will communicate with each other. But at least until the deeper parts of the brain are understood, they are probably going to be sending the future equivalents of movie clips back and forth.

It may be immersive, VR-style movie clips. But it’s going to be audio-visual. Which means people with superior audio-visual skills, a.k.a. filmmakers, are only going to rise in status. Filmmakers are going to be on the forefront of pushing this new form of communication. Filmmakers are going to be creating the brain-movies that will become our shared culture.

That future may mirror the present we are experiencing. Just like today we can still watch a black & white film and be moved to tears — “Zuzu’s petals!” — the flat, low-resolution, non-brain-enhanced films of today should still be able to move future generations, even after the written word has been made obsolete.

Obsolete? Yes. Imagine any text you encounter being performed by a digital Meryl Streep. Or, further in the future, an understanding of what the text means simply being implanted as a memory. When the machine attached to your brain can read text — in any language — your brain will have no need for the long, difficult process of learning to read.

So the machines attached to our brains are going to be turning any text we encounter into audio-visual information. Perhaps this bodes well for Hollywood’s great stockpile of unproduced screenplays. It definitely bodes well for filmmakers who are willing to have their own storytelling intelligence modeled as the artificial intelligence that will be doing the translating.

You’ll be able to send an A/V ‘thoughtgram’ to your friend in the style of Ingmar Bergman or Mira Nair or Busby Berkeley. These thoughtgrams won’t require actors, production designers or really anyone else, just a clear imagination. The American version of the auteur theory will finally be true. Thoughtgrams will have just a single “author,” like the written literature which gave the French originators of the Auteur Theory such paroxysms of inferiority.

Or will they have a single author? With a wizard hat allowing you to network with other wizard hats and various flavors of Artificial Intelligence, perhaps the movies of the future will still be collaborative in much the same sense they are today. A thoughtgram writer’s scenario will be taken up by a thoughtgram producer who will hire talented thoughtgram actors, directors and audiovisual technicians to complete it.

Fan edits of thoughtgrams will compete like memes. Anyone out there who thinks they have a better ending to the latest Marvel story can simply think it into existence and send it out. Then someone else can improve it. And so on. It may become much more like ancient literature, say the oral tradition around the Homeric epics. No longer is there one single author or version, simply a tradition that is constantly evolving and being adapted to the audience and the concerns of the generation.

The films of today will most definitely seem stodgy. But they may provide the kernel for whole libraries of updated variations in the new wizard hat medium. After all, stories have been around in many forms throughout the ages, and the great ones have persisted. There’s no doubt, in my feeble, unaugmented mind, that they will continue to persist.

Wednesday Links: The Bard of Suck

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

The New York Times Magazine: Mike Judge, the Bard of Suck – Mike Judge’s filmography is brief from one way of looking at it. But it’s very long and potent when viewed from other angles.

The Cinematography of Ghost In The Shell (YouTube)

Variety: Michael Ballhaus Dead: ‘Goodfellas’ Cinematographer Was 81 – RIP. One of the greats!

Scorsese released a statement reading, “For over 20 years, Michael Ballhaus and I had a real creative partnership, and a very close and enduring friendship. By the time we met, he had already made film history with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and I revered him. He was a lovely human being, and he always had a warm smile for even the toughest situations—anyone who knew him will remember his smile. We started working together in the 80s, during a low ebb in my career. And it was Michael who really gave me back my sense of excitement in making movies. For him, nothing was impossible. If I asked him for something difficult, he would approach it with enthusiasm: he never told me we couldn’t do something, and he loved to be challenged. If we were running out of time and light, he would figure out a way to work faster. And if we were behind schedule and getting into a situation where we had to eliminate set-ups, he would sit down with me calmly and we would work it out together: instead of getting frustrated about what was being taken away, he would always think in terms of what we had. Really, he gave me an education, and he changed my way of thinking about what it is to make a film. He was a great artist. He was also a precious and irreplaceable friend, and this is a great loss for me.”

Kottke: Incredible low light camera turns night into day – People used to shoot Day for Night. Now we can shoot Night for Day… I foresee some interesting creative possibilities, not the least of which will be making shooting at night cost less in lighting equipment and resources for low budget films!

SlashFilm: Why A New Oscar Rule Could Make Best Animated Feature Nominations Dumber – The animation categories are already heavily tilted toward Disney/PIXAR, it seems to me, probably because the Academy membership is tilted toward them and people who know them. This rule change actually has the potential to change this. I think it may be a step in the right direction.

Criterion: Walking with Scorsese – A tour of the Martin Scorsese retrospective artifacts exhibit, now in Berlin. I hope it comes to LA!

Blank Check with Griffin & David Podcast takes on Spielberg’s War of the Worlds – They’ve got a whole Spielberg series going. Great film geek listening!


Avid EDL Manager / List Tool Crashes

Wednesday Links: No Pepsi Ads Here

Mashable: Movie theaters won’t be around much longer. Here’s why. – Josh Dickey may be overstating the case here, but he’s not wrong. It seems inevitable that the theatrical experience will be changed by the trend toward releasing movies on home video sooner. However, you could argue that many talented writers and filmmakers have already migrated to television, including web-delivered television. Many episodes of the last season of Game of Thrones had higher production value than the average Hollywood film.

LATimes: Disproving the ‘black films don’t travel’ Hollywood myth – Dumb gatekeepers means a big opportunity for filmmakers and distributors who are willing to defy conventional wisdom.

Deadline: Why Kumail Nanjiani & Emily Gordon Went With Amazon For ‘The Big Sick’ – Amazon’s strategy of buying festival-tested films and supporting name filmmakers creatively paid off big last year.

I Think You’re Interesting Podcast: Interview with Ceyda Torun, Filmmaker of Kedi – How to film a documentary from a cat’s POV. Also, some good sense of the business of being an independent filmmaker and leveraging your unique perspective on the world.

Poster Boys Podcast: The best movie posters of the 90s!

Slashfilm: ‘Life’ Director Daniel Espinosa on the ‘Green Screen Disease’ and Long Takes – Also, Danny Boyle talks to Nerdist.

IndieWire: “Netflix isn’t making ‘movies.’ They are funding exclusive-access commodities that help grow their subscriber base.” – Relatedly, Variety reports that Adam Sandler has re-upped his Netflix contract.

SlashFilm: Tom Cruise’s ‘Mission: Impossible 6’ Stunt Will “Top Anything That’s Come Before” – Any guesses as to what it will be? He’s already dangled off the world’s tallest building and held his breath for long periods of time. I’m gonna go with space jump.

Brain Pickings: The Magic and Logic of Color: How Josef Albers Revolutionized Visual Culture and the Art of Seeing – See also Esquire’s article on movie color palettes.

TrueFilm subreddit: What makes movies look cheap?

Hollywood Reporter: ‘Beauty and The Beast’: Why Live-Action Remakes Can’t Replace Cartoons – And yet, with Mulan, The Sword in the Stone, The Lion King and so many more in production, it seems they will keep being made. There has been a backlash to this trend, but I see it as part of the broader trend of nostalgia entertainment: Jurassic World, The Force Awakens, Stranger Things. In the 1980’s there was a great deal of 1950’s nostalgia entertainment. Disney cartoons are especially ripe, since they re-release about every seven years, and thus are nostalgic for more than one generation of filmgoers.


Must-Listen Podcasts for Filmmakers #trypod

It’s a great time to be a filmmaker who listens to podcasts! The array of podcast options continues to grow, including some excellent shows that will help filmmakers improve their skills. Below are some of my favorites…

1. KCRW’s The Business – Host Kim Masters catches you up on the latest movie business news. In the first segment, The Hollywood Banter, she and guest host break down the headlines. But the meat of the show is an excellent interview with filmmaker or filmmaking team.

I have not found another podcast that concentrates on the movie business rather than celebrity angles. Masters and her producers choose a wide array of interesting people throughout the movie business to interview, from Barry Jenkins on directing Moonlight to a historian of Hollywood agency CAA.

(If you’re into filmmaker interviews from a more artsy-fartsy angle, check out KCRW’s The Treatment with Elvis Mitchell. While Elvis has been interviewing a lot of fashion people lately, his bread and butter is interviews with directors and actors. His trademark moment is when he asks them about a theme he’s found running through the entire body of their work. Sometimes it provokes an interesting bout of introspection. Sometimes the filmmaker just says, “Huh. I don’t see that.”)

2. Scriptnotes – Real working A-list screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin have been recording this weekly show for years. Recent shows are free, or if you like, you can deep dive into the incredible back catalogue (available for a token subscription fee).

They regularly select three pages from scripts sent in by listeners for a sensitive critique in what they call the Three Page Challenge. In another recurring segment, they cover recent news stories and ask Is This A Movie? Perhaps most importantly, they answer listener questions and constantly dispel the common myths about what makes for good and bad screen storytelling.

If you’re not into listening, there are transcripts of every episode available to read! Or, conversely, if you like screenwriting podcasts and having things read to you, check out The Blacklist Table Reads series.

3. The Flop House – Three friends, Elliott, Stuart and Dan, watch a bad movie — usually a recent Hollywood bomb — and dissect it in a hilarious, digression-filled conversation. From a filmmaker angle, learning what doesn’t work in a film can be more valuable than what does. And why not laugh while doing it?

If you’d rather listen to a podcast that dissects, uh, better films, check out Lieography. Each episode, Joanna, Ace and John break down a biographical film. They rate the film for both historical accuracy and audience-pleasing storytelling. You can learn a lot from this podcast about how to adapt a real-life story into a film.

4. The Slashfilmcast – There are a ton of excellent movie review podcasts, from the venerable Filmspotting and Film Week with Larry Mantle, to upstarts like Top 5 Film and Movie Geeks United! Right now, my current go-to is the Slashfilmcast where host Dave Chen and his friends Jeff Cannata, Devindra Hardawar (and sometimes other guest online film reviewers) tackle a wide range of films. They review everything from South-by-Southwest indie hits to popcorn blockbusters. Over the course of making the show, Chen himself has become a documentary filmmaker, and so he brings a true filmmaker-in-development perspective to the discussion.

If you’re into the horse race of who will win awards, Vanity Fair’s Little Gold Men podcast takes the Oscar.

5. You Must Remember This – Writer and narrator Karina Longworth goes deep into Hollywood history. Right now she’s got a “Dead Blondes” series going, which explores the lives of famous actresses who died early – Marilyn Monroe, Veronica Lake, Jean Harlow and more. If you’re a true-crime fan (Serial, anyone?), check out the series on the Manson Murders and how they intersected with 1960’s Hollywood.

If you like movie history, but Longworth’s style isn’t for you, try out Attaboy Clarence or its spinoff The Secret History of Hollywood – right now in the middle of a Dan Carlin-esque epic series on the Warner brothers.

Show’s Over, Folks

How do I listen to all of these podcasts? My preferred podcast app is Downcast, where I can make a playlist (like, say “Filmmmaking Podcasts”) that automatically loads the latest episodes and then plays through continuously — great for long Los Angeles commutes!

What podcasts do you listen to that you think other filmmakers would enjoy? Leave a comment below.

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