Thursday, November 16, 2017

Musical Patterns in the Films of Christopher Nolan

Never say never... There were three filmmakers (Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson) I vowed never to do a video essay about - not because I wouldn't admire them, on the contrary, but because there is already much too much out there about their work. And now, there are only two (I don't plan to break the promise on Kubrick and Anderson anytime soon). Since this video already had more positive feedback than anything else I made, I can't say it was a bad decision. Right now I am working on a video about some aspects of the synth score of STRANGER THINGS 1. But after that, I will return to Nolan because I still got a broadly outlined essay on some of his more unobtrusive crosscutting techniques waiting to be finished.

Music in Nolan's Films
Christopher Nolan strives to make his films the most immersive experience possible. So he prefers the score to support the atmosphere and the pace of his films and not elicit emotions by way of sentimental melodies. While this is very obvious in DUNKIRK (2017), Hans Zimmer's lauded score follows some of the same basic patterns that can be found in all of Nolan's prior films - regardless of the composer. He even said that it basically "is Chris Nolan’s score" (

So here is a tour d'horizon on these musical patterns and their evolution from FOLLOWING (1998) to INTERSTELLAR (2014). Of course, this is only a broad, subjective overview. It is impossible to do justice to the many complexities of each individual score within 10 minutes. Make sure to watch it full screen and loud (preferably on head phones)!

For educational purposes only!

German version for

Thursday, November 2, 2017


After finishing STRANGER THINGS 2 last Saturday, there was so much on my mind that I immediately felt the urge to blog about why I liked this "Sequel" so much and why even Chapter Seven made sense to me. Fast forward to five days later: when I finally found the time, the urge may not be that strong anymore, but part of my mind still revels in that alternate universe the Duffer brothers have created. They are still first impressions as I have not gone back to any portion of the show for closer scrutiny - so don't expect any exploration of the pop songs that define the characters, the newly rich color schemes, the unobtrusive CGI, the cinematic editing rhythm or the strikingly consistent visual motifs.

I usually refrain from literal fan art. But if the show itself is some kind of fan "art", I guess it's ok...
Instead, the following is more of a shapeless rant about little (and lost) sisters and a surrogate father: 

I expected STRANGER THINGS 2 to be bigger and more expensive. What I did not expect was that this was actually a good thing. At times it felt like watching THE GODFATHER PART II of 1980s nostalgia films (in context and scope, not content or absolute cinematic quality): expanding in every direction with more characters, stronger arcs, definitely more horror thrills and even more heartbreaking, more cinematic, more elaborate flashback structure with now-memories, shared flashbacks and self-imposed telepathic seances. 

The Universe is Expanding 
The first substantial new character we meet is Madmax who is not only the new tough girl in town, a perceived security risk and the subject of a love triangle, her not really being part of "the party" also mirrors aspects of Eleven's role. Max, however, has a tougher stand since Eleven is still very much on Mike's and the audience's mind. Even though Madmax and her step-brother are not closely connected to either the saving-Will-quest or Eleven's coming-of-age story, they liven the place up considerably. And talking of little sisters: I knew immediately that there would be a "little-sister-Erica" meme the minute she appeared on the screen! Priah Ferguson as Lucas' little sister is a riot in every single scene she's in. Her calling Lucas (the most reasonable of the four friends) a nerd was only the first of several hilarious throwaways.

And suddenly, Mikey from THE GOONIES stumbles in, all grown up, chubby, listening to Kenny Rogers and going by the name of Bob Newby "Superbrain". Sean Astin is just perfectly cast as Winona Ryder's lovably awkward love interest. And while the Duffer brothers thankfully refuse to conveniently kill off any young lover in the two love triangles (though we really fear for jock-come-babysitter Steve a few times), Bob at least helped save the day before he was devoured by a demodog. Most interesting about those predators (actually developed from pollywogs) are their dog-like characteristics that obviously allow for a bond of trust between Dart and Dustin which means that unlike the JAWS-inspired Demogorgon of Season 1 they are not just mindless killing machines.

In fact, all the villains got more complex: the Upside-Down is now run by a bodiless "feeling", a shadow monster or Mindflayer (to stay within the D&D analogy) that controls those hive-minded demodogs. On the human side, the faceless secret government agents may still be the real scare, but Dr. Owens and his scientist colleagues are more ambiguous than we first thought. Besides, there is a hint that Papa Brenner is still around somewhere.

Beyond Pop References
In fact, binge-watching STRANGER THINGS 2 felt less like watching a movie than reading a Harry Potter novel - a sensation I had not experienced for years. Like Rowling's page-turners (and the many Stephen King stories it is partly based on), STRANGER THINGS is essentially a coming-of-age story in a horror-thriller format that made me drop my guard and suspend any disbelief completely right from the beginning. For me, the key to the show's giant success lies in the strength of the relationships and of course the immensely talented (and professional) actors that infuse those children with relatable emotions. Besides, missing sibling stories always draw me in.

I think STRANGER THINGS works so well because even though it lures you in by its obvious play on pop references and cinema tropes, the protagonists themselves don't seem to know any of that (at least no more than Elliott knows about Yoda in E.T., a template for season 1) and all the characters and relationships feel sincere. Thankfully, STRANGER THINGS never breaks the fourth wall. Even when Max mentions that the story Lucas just told her (essentially the plot of Season 1) sounded derivative and lacked originality, it taps into the whole conspiracy theory/lies theme instead of feeling like a meta-comment for laughs. We can absolutely see what she means and still feel the urge to yell at her that this was for real. Because – let's face it – the plot of STRANGER THINGS sometimes feels like it really could be from the 80s.

Chief Hopper
There are two main narrative strands in Season 2: Firstly, Will's attempts at reintegration, his infiltration by the Mindflayer and the party's mission to save Will, Hawkins and possibly the world. As the boys are not pitted against any external bullies, the tensions within the group are foregrounded and Mike struggles the most until Will confides in him after the Halloween vision. The other one is Eleven's slow path to a normal life and is fuelled by a strong desire (strongly shared by the audience) to reunite with Mike while in reality she is hidden from the "bad men" for almost a year. Eleven's story also discusses the overarching themes of "promise", "friends don't lie" and "mutual protection" most elaborately.

Both strands are linked by chief Jim Hopper who - after wearing Chief Brody's clothes and Indiana Jones's hat - takes on the John Carpenter-Kurt Russell role and graduates at the same time not only to surrogate father to Eleven but an admirable hero much stronger and complex than I had ever expected him to become after Season 1. Despite his shortcomings and overprotectiveness, Hopper may be the best father in Hawkins based on what we learn about the homelives of the other children.

So while the events around Will pulled the heartstrings - Noah Schnapp really rose to the occasion - the relationship between Eleven and Hopper provoked so many concurring emotions that by the time Eleven finally met her real mother for the first time in the masterfully directed Andrew-Stanton-episodes, I was actually wanting to follow her story more than the approaching demodogs in the lab.

My only Inktober drawing...
Chapter Seven
Of course, right from the initial precredits sequence I was looking for clues that connect the Chicago gang to Eleven's story. So while I was interested in how the story world could be opened up beyond Hawkins I also secretely hoped that we never left that microcosm. And when she got on the bus, it was all "no, no, no, don't do it." Yet, maybe this was exactly the reaction Chapter 7 was made to provoke. It didn't feel like a backdoor pilot to me (it would have, if I had watched the episodes one at a time), and if it was, I certainly would not want to see that show. But that is besides the point. That chapter is all about the road not taken, the Darth Vader that could resist the dark side. From that standpoint it made sense that it was the only one directed by Rebecca Thomas (whose ELECTRICK CHILDREN I now want to see) and had a different visual look.

After all, Eleven finds herself in an environment that remains stranger to her than Hawkins even after she found "friends" (I could very much relate to that part of it). The channel-your-anger-and-find-yourself-clichés as well as the fashion-mag-punk caricatures aside, there was enough interesting material in that trip down the rabbit hole: STRANGER THINGS is so emotionally rewarding because all the characters at some point can share their emotional turmoil, fears and insecurities with someone. Yet, however Mike and Hopper love Eleven, they will never know what it was like to grow up as a lab rat with a father like Brenner. So I found it a relief that she could share those memories with someone with a similar background, even if Kali (Linnea Berthelsen succeeded in transforming a plot device into a real character) ultimately pursued a different agenda.

It is true that there could have been a way for Eleven to confront her childhood self-defence killings and put them into context of a revenge mission. But the most emotionally draining moment for me was Eleven's confrontation with Kali's Brenner projection. Before, Modine was just the onedimensional blond villain type, but here it actually struck me how confusing it must be to call someone like that Papa.

While some have argued that the block construction of Chapter 7 broke the notion of one 7.5-hour-movie, I think that exactly because the show is conceived as one long film (binge-watching is encouraged), "The Lost Sister" works as a side story. Besides, one of the joys of the long form is that structurally, it resembles novels more closely than three-act films. And side stories or even embedded stories that take up considerable portions of a book are not uncommon.

But I certainly agree that leaving the escalating tension in Hawkins suspended for more than 50 minutes seems to overspend the bow since it cannot match the intensity of the Andrew-Stanton-chapters. And of course, if you are only interested in what happens to the guys in the lab, then Chapter 7 is breaking the perfectly built pace considerably instead of just delaying the showdown for a bit too long.

Two things I might want to study more closely:
1) Although I am not really comfortable with the concept of having some episodes done by different directors if a show is so clearly designed as one consistent movie, I thought that Andrew Stanton's direction of chapters five and six was outstanding. Would be interesting to also look at the writing by Jessie Nickson-Lopez and Kate Trefry.
2) During STRANGER THINGS 2 I found proof for something that occured to me a few years ago while studying suspense techniques: the most thrilling moments that are usually credited to twists are not the twists or revelations themselves but the moment when the character on screen realizes the very thing we wanted to tell him so badly. This works if we know something for several hours before the character discovers it (the truth about Eleven's mother, Hopper having lost his daughter) as well as if we only learn about it minutes before the character finds it out. And STRANGER THINGS 2, like Harry Potter and most thrillers or comedies that lets us share more than one perspective seems to have an abundance of these "realizing moments".

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Showreel and Video Essays

A few weeks ago I have finally come around to compile a new animation showreel. These are mostly scenes from films I have been working on. The music is by Christian Wallner and performed by his band Piri Piri:

Animation Showreel 2017 from
Oswald Iten.

Video Essays
If someone asked me a few weeks ago, I told them that I would never do a video essay on Christopher Nolan's films because there are already so many out there and his films get a disproportionate amount of attention compared to many filmmakers I wish would be household names by now.

Besides, I think that formally (how he structures plot/narrative) his films are much more interesting than stylistically (blocking, framing, editing). But when I studied the temporal structure of all his feature films for a lecture on DUNKIRK (2017), I just found too many interesting aspects that I have never seen somebody analyze in detail. So whenever I have some time at my hands, I am trying to shape these observations into video essays.

In the meantime, here is a silent video essay about a prop from DUMBO (1941) that hasn't found its way to this blog so for:
Inanimate Objects #1: The Versatile Bathtub from Oswald Iten.

Apart from the really obvious ones like the bicycle in LADRI DI BICICLETTE or some McGuffins, props as storytelling devices have been neglected in comparison to many other aspects of film making for too long a time.
This video essay is an attempt to highlight what I have thought to be a perfectly economical use of a visual element and a prop in DUMBO.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Locarno Film Festival #movieofmylife

On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Locarno (Film) Festival launched a competition called #movieofmylife:
Tell us about the movie that changed your life, the one that got under your skin the most, to the point where nothing’s ever been the same since. We all have at least one film, one scene, one shot, that we still can’t get out of our minds. We want you to recall the big screen moments which left such a lasting impression on your life.
The rules are: no more than 70 seconds and don't reveal the title of the movie until the end of the video. In the meantime, people have participated in many different ways with videos ranging from cellphone selfies to re-staged classic scenes. Since I don't like to see my face on video and I am invited to join a round table about video essays, I have opted for animation with voice over narration.

You can see my video here:
Unfortunately, I can't embed it because you can only vote on the competition website.

If you go there make sure to check out some of the other videos, there are really great examples of capturing films without a single word! Sometimes, you recognize the film right from the beginning, sometimes the whole video only makes sense when the title of the portrayed film is revealed (like in one of my favorite videos (so far) about a neorealist classic).

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Introduction to SUNSET SONG and Terence Davies

Terence Davies is one of those masters of cinema who is still struggling to find the audience he deserves. Even such a beautiful literary adaptation like SUNSET SONG (2015) did not make it to cinemas or even blu ray around here (Switzerland, Germany...).

However, it is available with English (for those who are put off by the Scottish accents) or French subtitles. Since SUNSET SONG is relatively conventional compared to Davies's autobiographical masterpieces DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES (1988) and THE LONG DAY CLOSES (1992), this more easily accessible narrative serves as an ideal introduction to the cinematic universe of a highly idiosyncratic film maker every cinephile has to know.
This video essay was originally made for where you can find a version with German voice over narration.

An Introduction to Terence Davies's SUNSET SONG from Oswald Iten on Vimeo.

Note: Last year, for the first time (ever?) Terence Davies was able to release two feature films within two consecutive years which means that A QUIET PASSION (2016), his highly acclaimed portrait of poet Emily Dickinson is already available in some territories. Unfortunately, due to the circumstances described above, I have not seen it yet.

Planimetric Shots
If you have ever seen a Terence Davies film you might probably remember his "planimetric" compositions (which is a term that David Bordwell had originally borrowed from Heinrich Wölfflin), i.e. the more or less flat staging of characters in parallel layers with the camera often perpendicular to the back wall of a room. Although this type of shot has become much more common in mainstream movies and especially period pieces, most people associate it with Wes Anderson who has been excessively using it ever since THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001).

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (Wes Anderson, 2001)

You couldn't mistake Davies's compositions for Anderon's, however. While Anderson's candy color fantasies often look as if they were freshly painted or arranged by a doll house manufacturer, Davies's rooms and costumes are carefully selected to look lived-in and well-worn.

Green Scottish Life
Although he seems to prefer washed out colors (not the digitally desaturated DC kind, of course) in SUNSET SONG his director of photography Michael McDonough captured with his 65mm (exteriors) and large format digital (interiors) cameras a wide range of subtle shades of green...

...that in the second half are often balanced with red garments:

Monday, June 26, 2017

Annecy 2017 Impressions

Annecy always reminds me how thriving the animation community is and this year's edition was no exception. In the end, I may not have seen as many films as I would have liked but the combination of wonderful people, sunshine and two pedalo rides more than outweighed that, especially looking back eight days later.

As always, I also discovered bandes dessinées I have never heard of and was introduced to the works of inventive animation directors that had previously slipped under my radar. For example, I wouldn't have chosen to go to a screening of Crystal winner LU OVER THE WALL (Yoake tsugeru Rû no uta) if my friends had not already had tickets and knew what they were in for with Masaaki Yuasa.
Overwhelming water animation in LU OVER THE WALL.

Some 2017 Favorites

My favorite film was certainly MIN BÖRDA (Niki Landroth von Bahr, 2017) from Sweden in which a couple of lonely animals "sing" about their isolation. If you're not sold after seeing the singing fish in the trailer below (how could anyone not be), then surely the prospect of an animated Roy Andersson short film will get you interested.

The Burden (Min Börda) - trailer from Niki Lindroth von Bahr on Vimeo.

MIN BÖRDA was one of several stop motion films that included a long shot showing the whole set from an outside perspective. In contrast to the more meta-level versions (akin to Fellini's E LA NAVE VA, 1983) in several other puppet films, in MIN BÖRDA it actually was a diegetic shot, though.

NEGATIVE SPACE (Ru Kuwahata/Max Porter), another stop motion short, stood out to me not only because the tone of the storytelling was just perfect but also because I really admired the careful animation, especially the make-believe wave on the beach.

Negative Space - Trailer from Tiny Inventions on Vimeo.

With the advent of digital cinema, the once extravagant cinemascope aspect ratio (1:2.39) is available to even the most underfunded film maker and therefore increasingly popular. What does not automatically come with a wider frame are the skills it takes to make such compositions work (as has been already proven during the 1950s in live-action cinema). Thankfully, Michelle and Uri Kranot mastered the format in NOTHING HAPPENS, a film "about watching and being watched". And as I have learned on vimeo, the film that with all its fixed camera setups looked so non-digital on the big screen is also a virtual reality experience:

Nothing happens- an animated virtual reality experience from Michelle & Uri Kranot on Vimeo.

Being always alert to color trends, I noticed how many of the films I liked made heavy use of blue either in conventional terms of cold v warm, orange - teal or more boldly like in MATERIAL WORLD (Anna Ginsburg) that won the Annecy Crystal for best commissioned film.
The beauty of instructional videos: MATERIAL WORLD
In that light, it certainly fitted perfectly well that in the very same commissioned film program a CNN explainer addressed the very color:

Blue - CNN from Moth on Vimeo.

The commissioned films program was a real delight because it provides a nice usually give you a nice overview of current styles popular in the more inventive sections of advertising. And for me, getting an overview is one of the things that also draws me to internationally renowned annual short film competitions like Annecy.

Some concerns about short film compilations

The programming of this section, however, is highly problematic. If you saw only one or two screenings instead of all six, you would come to an extremely distorted conclusion about current trends in animation. Because:
A) not only are many of the more experimental films lumped together into one single "off-limits" program (which both makes it harder to process them all and turns away many a viewer who normally would not mind a challenging experiment in between more easily accessible films), but also
B) the films in the five "normal" competition compilations seem to be increasingly segregated as well by style/technique and even content (I wasn't alone with the impression that I saw a program full of meta-stop motion films and one full of either handpainted or pixilation/live-action-animation combinations). It may make sense from a critic's point of view to compare three similarly themed stop motion films that feature invisible imaginary walls, but to the audience the effect is more like "oh, another one of those" which does not do the individual films justice.

Brush strokes and the power of voice acting

But to close on a more positive note: a packed Bonlieu, Grande Salle is still the most exciting place to see a film on the big screen simply because it produces the most enthusiastic audience I have ever seen. And this, of course, was the case on my first day, when I thoroughly enjoyed the first "public" screening of LOVING VINCENT and contributed to a ten minute standing ovation that made it into Variety.

Writer-director Dorota Kobiela had the crowd on her side right from the beginning when she emotionally dedicated it to her grandmother. What most surprised me - and ultimately convinced me despite the film's many flaws - was the fact that the concocted mystery plot worked so smoothly. Maybe a bit too smoothly and certainly too rushed at times when everything that vaguely resembled a reflective moment was plastered with Clint Mansell's far too obtrusive score before I had time to catch a breath.

But - and that is a much more serious problem - the film, well-acted as it is by the likes of Chris O'Dowd and Soairse Ronan, would easily work as an Irish radio play which literally means that apart from a few imaginative scene transitions the filmmakers failed to make use of the visual potential of a feature film consisting exclusively of oil paintings and simply illustrate talking heads. For sure, the paintings are expertly executed, the flow is a lot better than in almost any rotoscoped feature I have seen and the colors alone are a fantastic treat. But narratively, there is nothing gained from the brush strokes, no new insight into the characters that is not already in the dialogue. Stylistically, despite the unifying rotoscoping, the well-proportioned actors walking through off-perspective backdrops often reminded me of the Dali dream sequence in Hitchcock's SPELLBOUND where Gregory Peck stumbles through deliberately unbalancing expressionist/surrealist sets.
LOVING VINCENT: live-action v rotoscoped in oil.
But still I enjoyed it and I warmly recommend seeing it. Even if mostly for pulling this feat off and hopefully making people all around the world re-discover an artist who is so popular today that we take him for granted. And if that comes through a combination of eye candy and tv style murder mystery, so be it. I'd rather see that one again over yet another superhero origin story.

Speaking of origin stories: the basic parent - child relationship inherent to any origin story seems to have replaced the love story as the primary emotional trajectory of mainstream films from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Condon, 2017) to LOGAN (Mangold, 2017) or ROGUE ONE (Edwards, 2016). Thus, it came as no surprise that many films in the shorts competition dealt with remembering a recently deceased parent. A special treat was PÉPÉ LE MORSE (Lucrèce Andreae): a prime example of fluid, atmospheric storytelling - at 15 minutes it never dragged - and strong voice acting which I am very partial to yet which is not so easily found in animated short films.

Pépé le morse - Teaser from Lucrece Andreae on Vimeo.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


It has been quite some time since I posted some of my own work on this blog. But in the last few months, there have been a few illustration assignments that I really enjoyed doing.

Recently, a good friend commissioned a large format (digital) painting from one of his holiday photographs. At first, I was not sure if that was a good idea and if I was able to make it look good at a size of about 2.7m wide, but then I really enjoyed to slightly tweak the composition of the well-known Lofoten vista. Since I knew where it would eventually be displayed, I even managed to change the lighting situation so that now the light comes from where the window (and the lamp at night) is located in the room.
Lofoten in summer - Click on the image to see a slightly larger version.

Besides, I always like to paint mountains as can be seen in this color/lighting study below.

Mount Hahnen - Click on the image to see a slightly larger version.

I have also had the opportunity to illustrate Robert Jakob's well written children's book "Max, die Kletterschildkröte" about a Hermann's tortoise who travels to Kasachstan. It was probably the first children's book where I had complete freedom with the color scheme which meant that I could narrow it down to basically two colors (plus earthly grays and browns). The publisher's only input was that they did not want another green tortoise character (we agreed upon the warm orange skin tone shortly before I saw the first image of Michael Dudok de Wit's THE RED TURTLE).

Click on the image to see a slightly larger version.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Color Poster Triptych 07: Space Balls

For larger version click on the image.
Most of us have probably encountered that design a few years ago when Sam Rockwell made an unsettling discovery in MOON. Spheres against a dark background as symbols for planets, the moon or other objects in outer space are quite common, though. What strikes me about these three posters is how similar they are in the use of composition and especially the black and white illustration style not uncommon in Eastern European movie posters during the 1960s and 70s.

The initial enigma of MOON did in fact remind me of Tarkovsky's SOLYARIS (which I wasn't really able to appreciate at the time I saw it). But seeing the poster next to COLOSSUS: THE FORBIDDEN PROJECT, it is hard not to see that as a major influence on the graphic design even though that sci-fi-thriller does take place on earth.

The uniformly distributed white lines look like outward radiation in COLOSSUS, self-contained circles in MOON and combined like the grid on a spherical map in SOLYARIS. Apart from the faint blue in MOON, the only major color to balance the black and white is red. I could add one of the fan posters with the reddish eye of HAL from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Kubrick, 1968) which probably served as an inspiration for the SOLYARIS poster. I do not believe, however, that there was a HAL's-eye poster during the initial theatrical release.

Note: the moiree effect is due to resizing the pixel images and did not appear in the original printed artwork.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Color Poster Triptychs 06: The Persona Image

for larger version click on the image.
The composition of a profile shot partly obscuring another character's near-frontal view is usually associated with Ingmar Bergman's black and white masterpiece PERSONA (1966). The iconic setup that was referenced or spoofed in countless films about split or merged personalities was not new and only one among many compositions built on half, overlapping and merging faces (now is as good a time to watch this groundbreaking film as any).
It also appears in Agnes Varda's LA POINTE-COURTE (1955) many years before, however, and Bergman also used it in earlier films.

Referenced famously in Woody Allen's LOVE AND DEATH (1975) and obviously in Kon's PERFECT BLUE (1997).
In the artworks above for three really great films, the black and white aspect is retained. While FRANTZ is, in fact, a black and white film with only a few hints of color, the sepia tone of the DEAD MAN WALKING poster not suggests skin tones but also matches the emotionally dreary tone of the movie. The stylized colorisation in the HABLE CON ELLA ("talk to her") poster combines the monochrome nature of the original image with the strong primary colors associated with the works of Spanish auteur Pablo Almodovar.

In contrast, the three posters below discard the monochrome aspect by keeping more or less natural skin tones. However, the overlapping aspect is much stronger here: unlike the characters that face the viewer in the posters above, one eye of those below is obscured. That way, we only see one half of each face.
for larger version click on the image.
Why are the men always in front of the women?
There is something in all six posters, though, that I was initially wondering about: why are the men (present in four of the six including the young Kevin in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN) always the ones in front obscuring part of the women's faces? It certainly is more equally distributed in LA POINTE-COURTE.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is really a coincidence. First of all, a poster has to prime us for a story by telling us already part of that story. The setup in question basically tells us that character A is looking at (or at least in the direction of) character B who is staring into space and is not returning the look. So there is at least a visual disconnect between them. Because of the profile shot, we also do not have a direct visual connection between B and the viewer, we see him from outside, while we are looking directly into A's eyes. In the Almodovar example, character A (the blue woman) is unconscious for much of the film while other characters look at her, "talk to her" and even behave unethically towards her.

So let us look closer at those four posters that place men closer to us than the women: Three of the four men are slightly out of focus and thus draw our attention to the woman's face. But in GIFTED and FRANTZ the women's gazes only lead us back to the male face, whereas in all the other images everyone is staring into the distance.

In the case of DEAD MAN WALKING the male profile makes sense to me: Sister Helen is by nature a much more open and well-rounded character (hence we see her face more fully) than the arrogant murderer she visits. Actually, the same is true for FRANTZ: protagonist Anna is trying to discover the truth about the mysterious Adrien, who is depicted with closed eyes so that we subconsciously accept Anna as the active, more important character.

In WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, the boy does actively ignore and metaphorically obscure his mother who increasingly seems to lose focus and the connection to her son. Kevin is indeed dominant and manipulative. I haven't seen GIFTED yet, so I can't say anything about that.

There is, in fact, a contemporary poster (left) that shows the man in the back and blurred even though he is much more well-known than the woman. Considering RETURN TO MONTAUK is based on the semi-autobiographical novel "Montauk" by famous Swiss author Max Frisch, this is even more interesting. I am probably going to use this later in a "beach scene with heads in the clouds" triptych.

Note: I do not think the artwork for THE TOURIST (below) falls into this category, by the way, because both characters look actively away from each other.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Color Poster Triptych 05: Warriors

Click on the image for a larger version.

It has become a bit of a cliché to stage nonhierarchical groups flatly walking towards the viewer. As can be seen above, the lack of a strong focal point is often compensated for by a washed out, receding or even non-existent white background. Considering the equality concept, this staging makes perfect sense in the case of the two 1970s stories DIE GÖTTLICHE ORDNUNG ("the divine order" about the fight for women's vote in Switzerland) and KOLLEKTIVET ("the commune" about a married couple inviting their "friends" to live with them). That also dictates the muddy costume colors.

In contrast to the Swiss poster, the others two look much more color coordinated and restricted to two or three basic colors (this is even more obvious in the original Danish version of the poster in the middle). In my opinion, the blandest one also primes us for the blandest concept which seems to be GOING IN STYLE. Like seemingly 40% of all movie poster (even beyond Hollywood), it entirely draws on the old blue v yellow contrast.

When I see a poster like this, especially the one about fighting for equality, I am usually reminded of THE WARRIORS. As you can see below, this has a lot more going for, in fact: a more interesting angle, the blue background, the reflections and a less in your face attitude. Besides the typeface is much more interesting.
Click on the image for a larger version.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Color Poster Triptychs 04: Sunset

The release of the latest BLADE RUNNER 2049 teaser artwork reminded me that I have to dig deeper into the "giant broken statue head alludes to ancient culture" trope one of these days. That aside, it also triggered the following three sunset themed poster triptychs, one with lone women, one with lone men and one with couples:

click on the image for a larger version.
All of these posters are mainly conveying a certain mood. In THE LADY and WONDER WOMAN, the radiant orange associate these women with warmth but also power. On the other hand, the desaturated colors in the SUNSET SONG poster feel much more receding (the contrast on the character is definitely lower than in the one on the right), although the camera angle is much lower (compare the horizons). Needless to say, this is a low-budget realistically filmed literary adaptation rather than a catchpenny mainstream film. Stylistically, both the left and the middle poster capture the tone of the respective films quite well, even though the colors are more unified and stylized than in the actual films. Regarding the WONDER WOMAN poster, however, I have my doubts if DC is really going to give us a film that does not revel in the desaturated bluish gray dreary look with occasional red spots.

click on the image for a larger version.
In contrast to the inert women above, all three posters depict determined men that are actively walking towards us. I assume that a poster like the one from WHAT DREAMS MAY COME would probably look quite different if it were remade today. Probably, Robin Williams' color would reflect more of the orange surroundings. Since the middle and left one are staged against the sun/reflection, we only see them as dark and mysterious silhouettes. Again, the one in the middle is from a British arthouse film. In the case MR. TURNER about the later years of atmospheric landscape painter William Turner, the choice of a late-in-the-day mood poster is obvious. The sparse LOGAN poster, on the other hand, implicates  a tired old western outlaw coming back from the sunset without his horse, which is basically what happens in the film.

click on the image for a larger version.
Finally, here we have three unexpected pairings in more or less fantastical settings. Granted, WAR HORSE takes place during the Great War and A UNITED KINGDOM is based on the true-life romance of the royal couple of Botswana, but the films themselves feel more like fairy tales (if not as openly fantastical as THE SHACK) which is picked up by the soft background clouds and sky stylings. All of these characters are looking at something outside of the frame while their heads visually overlap. What I especially like about these three posters is the clearly stereotyped serif typeface for these kinds of stories. Just compare them to the simpler, plainer fonts used for the comic adaptations LOGAN and WONDER WOMAN above.

Monday, May 8, 2017

THE LEGO MOVIE: Creative Imitation of a Brickfilm (Video Essay)

There are many reasons why you should watch THE LEGO MOVIE (Lord/Miller, 2014) at least once (and I am certainly not talking about the worn-out "special one" fantasy formulas). 
Some things that I keep being fascinated by are A) the film makers' total commitment to make their computer generated blockbuster look like a real brickfilm, and B) how they adapt techniques and stylistic devices of hand drawn cartoons into three dimensions in order to compensate for a conceptual lack of motion blur. And C) there is an annoyingly jolly unicorn-kitten called, well, Unikitty.

So without further ado, my latest animation analysis video essay:
(works best in full screen)
Note: All the video, images and sounds in this animation analysis are the property of their respective copyright holders. They are displayed for educational purposes only with no commercial intent.
This video essay was first published (and is also available) with German voice-over narration for "film bulletin" here:

Introducing the Animation Rules

THE LEGO MOVIE does a really great job in establishing not only its setting but also its basic animation style and premise. After a classic pre-credits scene introducing the main villain, the super weapon and the prophesy about an average Joe becoming the great saviour, we enter the main story on an extreme close-up on Emmet's eyes. Emmet is said average Joe, of course.

Here, we clearly see that Emmet's face is two-dimensionally animated and basically flat on the yellow surface of a typical minifigure head piece. In the next shot, we see a close-up of Emmet's rigid hand that tries to turn off the alarm clock which shows us right away how in this film the materiality of plastic LEGO pieces will not be digitally bent. After that, most of us will - subconsciously, at least - assume that this is a concept the film adheres to. Especially after we see that Emmet's flexibility is restricted by the available joints in his body parts...
...which work exactly like the trademark LEGO instruction manual demonstrates.
During Emmet's morning exercises, he jumps a few times:
And now we come to an observation that did not make it into the video analysis: the interesting thing here is how the briskness of the jumping motion is achieved by abstaining from inbetweens during the up and down movements. As you can see from the timecode of the GIF below, the character just goes from anticipation to the up-position and after a few cushion frames back to the down position with a "falling" inbetween.
You can also see that despite this being a computer animated film the film makers tried to animate the characters on twos whenever possible like in a real stop motion film. Most often, the characters are even animated on twos during camera movements which are naturally animated on ones:

2 poses held for 2 frames each.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Color Poster Triptych 03: backlit silhouettes in yellow and blue

There are quite a few visual similarities between these three posters to widely different movies: the old blue-yellow contrast in its simplest non-cliché form (blue sky, yellow writing), the diffused backlight, the silhouettes of characters wearing at least one yellow piece of clothing, the similar shapes of the two cars and the rooftop. The "landscape", however, is in a different color in each of them (gray, brown, green).

I like all three films quite a lot and recommend them.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Color Poster Triptych 02: Space Faces

The unifying elements here are the blue and red/purple as well as the head-on face illuminated by strong sidelights against a dark background. The colored light on the face and the "spots" connect posters 1 and 2, while in 2 and 3 a hand is involved and we see the circle-framed face through some object. All three suggest a character in a dreamlike outer or inner space/dimension.

The films: UNDER THE SKIN is a must-see for everyone interested in contemporary science-fiction, sound design or film music. THE NEON DEMON is a rather empty style exercise in Dario-Argento-colors and de-Palma-cinemascope about the empty superficiality of the L.A. model business. Or is it science fiction, too? Elle Fanning is intriguing as always. DOCTOR STRANGE is one of the few superhero flicks I enjoyed, mainly because of its mind-blowing kaleidoscopic special effects in 3D.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Color Poster Triptych 01

In an attempt to keep this blog up to date on a more regular basis for the next few months, I will post a series of "color poster triptychs" between the longer, more substantial articles. 

There are only two rules: 1) The three officially released posters (including re-release but not fan-made artwork) within one triptych have to be from different films. The same poster can be part of several triptychs. 2) Their juxtaposition should highlight some aspect of their color design (and composition, if possible). Comment or discussion of these aspects is not necessary but sometimes provided. Sometimes they highlight characteristics of a specific era, genre or target group, sometimes they open up a dialogue between vastly different subjects and storytelling traditions.

So today, enjoy and compare these three rainbows. It would have been easy to put this more similar WIZARD OF OZ video release poster in the middle, but the one from NO with only one head gives the triptych a bit more tension.

Click on the image for larger version
Since the size of actual movie posters is quite important to their impact, it would be fun to do something like this in real life some day. But in the meantime, let's have a look how this develops in digital form.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Video Essays: The Music of LA LA LAND in Context

Final moments of GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (Chazelle, 2009)
Final moments of WHIPLASH (Chazelle, 2014)
Final moments of LA LA LAND (Chazelle, 2016)
For the last few weeks, Barry Jenkins' masterpiece MOONLIGHT and its inspirations from THREE TIMES (Hou, 2005) and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (Wong, 2000) to KILLER OF SHEEP (1977) were heavily on my mind. And I urge anyone who still has not seen MOONLIGHT to give it a try (around here, it only just hit theaters, in the US it is already available on blu-ray and Netflix, so no excuses there)!

But now to the other greatly deserved - aside from the rather complex issues of whitewashing both L.A. and jazz-saving - awards season darling LA LA LAND, aspects of which I analyzed from mid-December to February: I have finally put together three clips for a soundtrack analysis in Swiss German magazine The German text (which you can find here) goes far beyond the aspects analyzed in the videos. But since LA LA LAND is still in theaters I have limited myself to officially available tracks and clips. 

I/III A Lovely Night 
Mia and Sebastian cross paths twice before they finally meet cute like Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (Donen/Kelly, 1952) at a pool party. Despite superficially despising each other, Seb walks Mia to her Toyota Prius. On their way through Griffith Park, Seb subtly segues into a singing about how nice this view at dusk would be if only they were "some other girl and guy" who could appreciate the moment together. After a few seconds, this turns out to be an homage to the mating ritual of Mark Sandrich's RKO musicals with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The only difference being that when Astaire woos Rogers in their so-called "integrated" (i.e. off stage) musical numbers we accept them to be world class dancers (and suave singers) because we know about their meta personae. LA LA LAND on the other hand follows all the same moves while celebrating the "authentic" by keeping the protagonists' singing and dancing abilities within reach of what these characters (i.e. rehearsed and well-trained amateurs) would be able to do.

Nevertheless, "A Lovely Night" is the only swing induced song and in the "Summer Montage" version also serves as an ideal example of how Damien Chazelle stages jazz performances. In all his films, Chazelle depicts jazz as an extension of his male protagonist's mindset. And for nonverbal jazz dialogue scenes he likes to use the "jazz whip", a whip pan back and forth between musical dialogue partners.

II/III The Melancholy of Michel Legrand 

Writer-director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz have repeatedly expressed their adoration for Jacques Demy's French new wave musicals LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG (1963) and LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT (1967). Apart from direct references to the overarching structure of PARAPLUIES and the opening dance sequence from DEMOISELLES, Hurwitz' music is very much influenced by Michel Legrand whose scores for Demy are impregnated with his trademark cheerful melancholy. Legrand usually builds his easy listening arrangements out of a tight jazz rhythm section with piano and vibes that is overlaid with a romantic orchestra, woodwind solos and sometimes a big band. In this second video I focus on some of the more straight forward influences on Hurwitz' music*. 

III/III Internal Monologue 

The deliberate artificiality of movie musicals allows for storytelling devices that go beyond dialogue scenes. Instead of voice-over monologuing, characters often sing about their innermost feelings and worries. One particular genre convention is the interior monologue after a protagonist has fallen in love. In WEST SIDE STORY, Tony belts out Maria's name in expectant ecstasy, for example. In many movie musicals, however, these songs feel like guarded introspective questions brought forth in a seamless transition from dialogue to song, often in a solitary or indifferent environment. By means of a clip from Stanley Donen's FUNNY FACE (1957, a film that LA LA LAND literally references in the epilogue) where Audrey Hepburn sings in her own natural voice - as opposed to the trained voice of Marni Nixon who dubbed all her singing in MY FAIR LADY (Cukor, 1964) - we see how Chazelle and Hurwitz adapt this musical staple into "It Happened at Dawn" (GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, 2009) and "City of Stars". Despite the superficially obvious difference between Sebastian's "City of Stars" and Mia's "Someone in the Crowd" the two interior monologue songs share surprisingly similar structural elements. And considering the duet version of "City of Stars", both songs express a solitary as well as an exuberant collective version of the same interior feeling. 

* In my opinion, Hurwitz' personal style of arranging and orchestrating is also heavily influenced by Danny Troob's orchestrations of Alan Menken's 1990s Disney scores.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Belated End of Year List 2016

I try to forget all the awful news of 2016 for a moment and focus solely on the films I have seen over the past year. This has probably been the first year (since I started to keep records of my cinema going habits) during which I have seen more films at home than in a theater, even if I am not counting the ones I watched on a computer screen for closer analysis. 

Most memorable cinema moments 
Nevertheless, there were some truly memorable cinema moments in 2016: two of them happened in June, when I visited my sister in London where we enjoyed TRUE ROMANCE (Scott, 1993) - which I had actually never seen before - in a rooftop cinema on the top of an abandoned multi-storey car park wrapped in blankets because of the ice-cold drizzle. And then I even got to see one of my all-time favorites VERTIGO (Hitchcock, 1958) in revelatory 70mm in the Prince Charles Cinema!

After studying Spielberg's first decade as a movie director in detail, I witnessed a truly collective emotion in an E.T. (1982) screening. While I still think that JAWS (1975) and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) are almost perfect masterpieces of entertainment filmmaking, the "shameless", childlike suburban fantasy of a positive poltergeist from outer space is the most (cornily) affecting and personal movie of Spielberg's whole career, even more so than CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (1977).

Of all the new releases I have seen, LA TORTUE ROUGE by Michael Dudok de Wit moved me in a profound way animated films have not moved me in years. I also had a great time at the Annecy Animation Festival with the most memorable event, oddly, being not a screening but a work in progress presentation of MOANA by Ron Clements and John Musker. As they often say, you could not imagine a more enthusiastic audience than the one in Bonlieu theater. 

Music and Lyrics 
In the first half of 2016, in celebration of Erik Satie's 150thanniversary I wrote an article for filmbulletin about how Satie's most famous music is used in contemporary films. For the same magazine I also studied the film music of Howard Shore with a special focus on his collaboration with David Cronenberg.

And just before the year ended, I revisited some of my favorite movie musicals from TOP HAT (Sandrich, 1935) to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (Donen/Kelly, 1952), A STAR IS BORN (Cukor, 1954) and LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT (Demy, 1967) in preparation for a lecture on Damien Chazelle's LA LA LAND. 

Wide angle cinemascope
location shooting / color scheme

colored lighting for dreamy states of mind
Favorite Films of 2016 (in alphabetical order)
  • FINSTERES GLÜCK (Haupt, 2016): Visually coherent literary adaptation about a psychologist who tries to take care of a little boy who lost his family in a car accident. The rare Swiss feature that really moved me.
  • FRANTZ (Ozon, 2016): Ambivalent characters, unreliables narrators, atmospheric black and white widescreen cinematography, suspense, emotional tension and an exceptionally strong leading actress. 
  • I, DANIEL BLAKE (Loach, 2016): If Ken Loach is still decrying similar injustices after almost 40 years, then maybe the world (and not just the British health care system) has not advanced that much, after all. 
  • LA LA LAND (Chazelle, 2016): a mesmerizing experience, Damien Chazelle creates an entirely contemporary love story by combining film making devices of the 1930s to 60s without getting lost in superficial references.
  • LA TORTUE ROUGE (Dudok de Wit, 2016): so simple and archetypal, yet so deeply  philosophical and touching. Sublime.
  • MA VIE DE COURGETTE (Barras, 2016): merely an hour long, but sweet, funny, touching and most of all authentically childlike.
  • OUR LITTLE SISTER/UMIMACHI DIARY (Kore-eda, 2015): For the past few years, Kore-eda's latest family melodrama always made it on my favorites list.
  • SUNSET SONG (Davies, 2015): an underrated (and in Switzerland undistributed) Terence Davies period picture of harsh beauty captured on high resolution celluloid (exteriors) and digital (interiors).
  • TONI ERDMANN (Ade, 2016): a complex father-daughter relationship in a comedy with its own peculiar but extremely rewarding rhythm.
  • VOR DER MORGENRÖTE (Schrader, 2016): a refreshingly static biopic that boldly focuses on a few separate moments in the life of writer Stefan Zweig.
In my book, 2016 was a strong year for animated features. While LA TORTUE ROUGE and MA VIE DE COURGETTE (MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI) were among my favorite films over all, I really enjoyed Sébastien Laudenbach's one man feature LA JEUNE FILLE SANS MAINS (THE GIRL WITHOUT HANDS, 2016) and Rémy Chayé's TOUT EN HAUT DU MONDE (2015).

Laika's overwhelming 3D stop motion feature KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (Knight, 2016) got so many things right that I easily forgive the few wrongs (Matthew McConaughey's character, American idiosyncrasies among Japanese villagers). And within the same year, Disney Feature Animation released two interesting if not wholly convincing films both of which served as perfect examples for explaining specific film making devices (stereoscopic 3D in ZOOTOPIA, digital water in MOANA/VAIANA) in my introductions for children and families.

Watching short films from all over the world, I am delighted to discover that especially the works of young film makers and students demonstrate an overwhelmingly strong color sense. Even if you just look at a random sample of cartoonbrew's "artist of the day" posts (examples see below), this almost universal new "color consciousness" (to abuse Natalie Kalmus' Technicolor term) becomes obvious.

Restraint candy colors in SCAVENGERS (Bennett/Huettner, 2016)
Kevin Phung

Jose Mendez

Mel Tow
Woonyoung Jung

Carrie Hobson

Anete Melece

  • ACE IN THE HOLE (Wilder, 1951): Masterpiece. If you only see one media satire in your life, it must be this one.
  • JACKIE BROWN (Tarantino, 1997): Tarantino's most laid-back and straightforward character study reveals a great deal about how much his trademark dialogue writing is influenced by Elmore Leonard's prose.
  • KISS ME DEADLY (Aldrich, 1955): Cinematic invention, quintessentially lush noir lighting and camera angles and "the great whatsit" as more than a mcguffin in this entertaining Mickey Spillane adaptation.
  • KUROI AME (Imamura, 1989): Realist take on long term effects of the Hiroshima bomb, shot like a post-war picture with incredible music by Takemitsu Toru.
  • PRIDE & PREJUDICE (Wright, 2005): Here, Joe Wright's long takes are unobtrusive and really the perfect device to tell the story of Jane Austen's Bennet girls brought to life by a stellar cast and Dario Marianelli's piano score.
  • SHADOW OF A DOUBT (Hitchcock, 1943): Never mind the production code ending. This tight and funny suspense picture - one of Hitch's personal favorites - about a fascinating and ambivalent uncle-niece relationship grows on me every time I see it.
  • SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (Park, 2002): Not everyone's cup of tea but a truly cinematic kick-off for Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy most famous for OLD BOY (2003).
  • THE QUIET MAN (Ford, 1952): Thanks to the British "Masters of Cinema" blu-ray series I now own a pristine transfer of Ford's nostalgic Irish Technicolor picture.
  • THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (Gessner, 1976): An unexpected discovery: What an entertainingly zeitgeisty and creepy little film by a Swiss director. Just think of Jody Foster from TAXI DRIVER meeting Martin Sheen in BADLANDS mode.
  • WEST SIDE STORY (Robbins/Wise, 1961): As far as broadway adaptations with dubbed actors go this is still the benchmark. Upon seeing it again in a theater, I came to appreciate Robert Wise's contribution to a film of which I would have always preferred to see a complete Jerome Robbins version.
Amazing cinematography in ACE IN THE HOLE.
Widescreen staging in PRIDE & PREJUDICE

Technicolor location shooting in THE QUIET MAN
In 2017, I have already seen the stylish if slightly inflated Tom Ford thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, Asghar Farhadi's latest humanistic thriller THE SALESMAN and another Billy Wilder masterpiece (STALAG 17, 1953). Now I am looking forward to the Swiss release of Martin Scorsese's SILENCE (2016) and especially to all those films that I hopefully will discover by chance. 

And maybe I even find the time to finish the video essays that I have started to put together in the last few months...

Note: I have also been busy on my companion blog film studies resources:
Two GIFs composed from the "Masters of Cinema" blu ray of ONIBABA (Shindo, 1964).