Categories
Cinematography Filmmaking Technology

“On the Set with Video Assist” and Jimmie Songer

noisy_toy

Photo from the Jerry Lewis Comedy Museum.

While I was at CineGear Expo, I met Michael Frediani at the SOC booth and thanked about about his research into Jerry Lewis and told him I would post his article on video assist. I also included an article from the 695 Quarterly about Jim Songer about his development of thru the lens video assist. There is a lot of debate on the topic of who “invented” video assist. Like most technical innovations there is no one single inventor, but many improvements from each contributor. Here is the earlier post about Jerry and video assist.

Audio interview: Jerry Lewis + Peter Bogdanovich

Video assist section starts at 1:09:09.

Jerry Lewis was an influence on Francis Ford Coppola.
ONE FROM THE HEART, Francis Ford Coppola, 1982
ONE FROM THE HEART, Francis Ford Coppola, 1982

Francis Ford Coppola later developed his own “electronic cinema” previsualization called Image and Sound Control. 

As well as being an entertainer, “Jerry Lewis was a major innovator in motion pictures,” stated director Francis Ford Coppola. “His invention of putting a video camera next to the motion picture camera so he could play it back and direct himself, has been used for decades by every director in the movie industry. I watched him on the set of The Ladies Man in 1961 and was amazed by his groundbreaking innovation, the Video Assist.”

The wonderful book DROIDMAKER by Michael Rubin has more info.

 

Two articles from Peter Glaskowsky at CNET.

Video assist predates Jerry Lewis ‘patent’

Jerry Lewis and the elusive Video Assist patent

 

This illustration, from an article written by Jim Songer for American Cinematographer magazine, shows a Panavision camera with the video assist subsystem integrated into the loading door. Jim Songer and Video West
This illustration, from an article written by Jim Songer for American Cinematographer magazine, shows a Panavision camera with the video assist subsystem integrated into the loading door. Jim Songer and Video West

Jimmy Songer and the Development of Video Assist

by David Waelder

From IATSE Local 695 Quarterly

Video Village is a standard feature on the modern movie set. Producers, writers, clients and others can view the action clustered around a monitor far enough away from the set to stay out of trouble. Their segregation in the video ghetto allows camera people and others to go about their tasks without the distraction of people jockeying for position at the viewfinder. It also helps makeup and wardrobe personnel to see how their work appears on camera and it has become an essential tool for the director and continuity person. Even the sound crew benefits by having extension monitors to see the frame and position the boom microphone. All this is made possible by a video assist system perfected by Jimmie Songer, a Local 695 technician.The advantages of using a video camera as an aid to directing movies were apparent from the very beginning. Several directors began to set up TV cameras adjacent to the film camera so they could see an approximate frame. This became a common practice particularly on commercials where the placement of the product is crucially important. To match the view and perspective, assistants would carefully adjust the aim and image size to closely approximate the view of the film camera.

Of course, that isn’t really a video assist system. The image is useful for the simplest shots but not much help when the camera moves or the lens is adjusted. Every setup change or lens adjustment necessitates a recalibration of video camera position and exposure settings. To be a fully functional system, both the video and film cameras would have to view the scene through the same lens to avoid parallax errors and exposure sensitivities would have to track together. This presents a series of technical challenges.

It was a cowboy from East Texas with little formal education who took on the challenge and worked out all the engineering obstacles. Jimmie Songer grew up on a ranch in Burleston, south of Fort Worth, with a keen interest in how radio and television worked. He and his friend, Don Zuccaro, would purchase crystal radio kits, assemble them and string the antenna wire along his mother’s clothesline.

As a teenager, he took a road trip that would set up the course of his life. He and his friends traveled north as far as Bloomington, Indiana, when funds began to run out. Looking for a job to replenish assets, he applied to the RCA plant on Rogers Street. Ordinarily, his lack of formal training would have been an impediment but RCA was just then experimenting with designs for color sets and there was no established technology to learn. By diagramming from memory the circuit design of a popular RCA model, he demonstrated familiarity with the major components and was hired on the spot to be a runner for the engineers developing the new color system.

His duties at RCA consisted largely of gathering components requested by the engineers and distributing them. Along the way, he asked questions about the function of each element and how it fit into the overall design. He stayed about a year, not long enough to see the model CTC4 they were developing go on sale. That didn’t happen until a couple of years later in 1955. But, when he did move back to Texas, he had a pretty good understanding of how video, and color video in particular, worked.

Graduating from crystal radio sets, he and his friend, Don Zuccaro, made a mail-order purchase of plans for a black & white television. Components were not readily available at that time but Jimmie and Don were ingenious and purchased a war surplus radar set with A&B scopes and cannibalized it for parts. The task of hand-winding the tuning coil was simplified because Fort Worth had only one TV station so there was no need to tune anything other than Channel 5.

With skills honed from building his own set and working at the RCA plant in Indiana, Jimmie Songer quickly found work with appliance shops in the Fort Worth area that were beginning to sell television sets but had no one to set them up, connect antennas and service them when needed. This led to an offer, in 1953, to work setting up KMID, Channel 2, in the Midland Odessa area. After a few years with KMID, he worked awhile in the Odessa area and then returned to Fort Worth but he stayed only a year before setting out for Los Angeles in April 1963.

In Los Angeles, he worked at first for a TV repair shop in Burbank while he tinkered with his own experimental projects. Hearing that Dr. Richard Goldberg, the chief scientist at Technicolor, was looking for people with experience with color, he sought him out and secured a job calibrating the color printers. Dr. Goldberg was also developing a two-perforation pull-down camera for widescreen use. Songer became fascinated by the possibility of using that design at 48 fps to make alternate images, one atop the other, which might be used for 3D and built some experimental rigs to test the idea.

This work with Dr. Goldberg in the early ’60s brought him to the attention of Gordon Sawyer at Samuel Goldwyn Studios. Sawyer wanted him to help with an ongoing project for Stan Freberg involving simultaneous video and film recording. Freberg was using side-by-side cameras to create video records of film commercials. The side-byside positioning produced parallax errors but his commercials were mostly static. Generally, the results were good enough for timing and performance checks. But issues of accurately tracking motion would arise whenever the camera did move and Stan Freberg wanted a better system.

Under general supervision from Gordon Sawyer, the team first addressed the issue by adjusting the position of the video camera. They attached a small Panasonic camera to the mount for an Obie light. This put the video lens exactly in line with the film camera lens and only a couple of inches above it. Left-right parallax was effectively eliminated and the vertical alignment could be adjusted to match the film camera with only minimal keystone effect. By affixing a mirror just above the lens mount at a 45-degree angle and mounting the video camera vertically to shoot into the mirror, they reduced vertical parallax to almost nothing. Jimmie Songer addressed the keystone problem by devising a circuit that slightly adjusted the horizontal scan, applying an opposite keystone effect to neutralize the optical effect that was a consequence of slightly tilting the video camera to match the film camera image. Most of the time, this system worked well but there were still limitations. The video system needed to be recalibrated with every lens change. Even with careful adjustment, use of a separate lens for the video meant that depth of field would be different so the video image would only approximate the film image. Blake Edwards knew Gordon Sawyer and approached the team to design a system suitable for movies with moving cameras and frequent lens changes.

The limitations could only be resolved if the video camera used the very same lens used by the film camera. Accomplishing that would require exact positioning of the video lens and adjusting sensitivity of the system both to obtain sufficient light for exposure and to track with the film exposure. Jimmie Songer set about developing a system that could be built into a Panavision Silent Reflex camera (PSR) that used a pellicle mirror to reflect the image to the viewfinder. They left the image path from the lens to the film completely untouched but introduced a second pellicle mirror to reflect the image from the ground glass to a video camera they built into the camera door. This one design change eliminated many of the limitations of previous systems in one stroke. Since the video used the film camera lens and picked up the exact image seen by the film and the camera operator, issues of parallax and matching depth of field were completely eliminated. There was no need to recalibrate the system with every lens change and the video camera was configured to use the same battery supply as the camera. The introduction of a second pellicle mirror did flip the image but Songer corrected this easily by reversing the wires on the deflection coil. But the issue of having sufficient light for the video image still remained.

In one way, a pellicle reflex system is ideal for video use. Unlike a mirror shutter, the pellicle system delivers an uninterrupted image to the viewfinder so there is no need to coordinate the 30-frame video system with a 24-frame film camera. While there would be more frames in a single second of video, the running times would match and that was all that was important. Furthermore, the video image would be free of the flicker seen in the viewfinder of a mirror shutter camera. However, the pellicle mirror used in the reflex path deflected only about one-third of the light to the viewfinder. That was no problem when filming outside in daylight but there was insufficient light when working interiors.

Jimmie Songer needed to make three refinements to the system to address the exposure issue. First, he replaced the vidicon tube that was normally fitted to the camera with a newly available saticon tube that was more sensitive and also provided 1,600 lines of resolution. That helped but wasn’t enough. He then adjusted the optics so that the image, rather than being spread over the full sensitive area of the tube, was delivered only to the center portion. By concentrating on the image, he obtained more exposure and adjusting the horizontal and vertical gain allowed him to spread out the smaller image to fill the monitor. But, there are limits to how much can be gained by this approach. Even with a high-resolution saticon tube, the image will begin to degrade if magnified too far. There was still not enough light for an exposure but the video system had been pushed to its limits so Songer turned his attention to the film camera.

Recognizing that the ground glass itself absorbed a considerable amount of light, Songer contacted Panavision and asked them to fabricate a replacement imaging glass using fiber optic material. Although the potential of using optical fibers for light transmission had been recognized since the 19th century, the availability of sheets of tightly bundled fiber suitable for optics was a recent development in the 1960s. The fiber optic ground “glass” was the trick that made the system work, allowing the video camera function with the light diverted to the viewfinder.

Jimmie Songer and his assistant used the system, first called “instant replay” but now renamed “video assist” to avoid confusion with sports replay systems, on The Party in 1968 and then Darling Lili in 1970. It worked flawlessly, delivering the exact image of the main camera so Blake Edwards, the Director, could follow the action as it happened. It never held up production; to the contrary, Edwards said that it streamlined production because the certain knowledge of how the take looked freed him from making protection takes.

After Darling Lili, the key figures behind the project formed a company, Video West, to further develop the system. They met with rep representatives of the ASC to draw up a series of specifications for video assist systems. Don Howard was brought in to interface the camera with the playback system and operate it in the field. Harry Flagle, the inventor of Quad-Split viewing technology and one of the Ampex engineers who worked on the development of the Model VR-660 portable two-inch recorder, joined the team soon after.

They next used the system on Soldier Blue, directed by Ralph Nelson, and then Wild Rovers, again with Blake Edwards. It proved so popular with producers that Songer and Don Howard, his assistant who was primarily responsible for operating and cuing the video recorder, scheduled projects months in advance and went from film to film. The work was so tightly booked that they sometimes had to ship the camera directly from one project to the next without a return to the shop.

Jimmie Songer joined Local 695, sponsored by Gordon Sawyer, shortly after Darling Lili and continued as a member until his membership was transferred to Local 776 in 1997. In the course of his career, he obtained seventeen US patents for a variety of innovations in high-definition TV and 3D video imaging.

In 2002, he received a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy for his work developing video assist. He lives today on a ranch near Fort Worth but continues to refine the video engineering work that has been his life.

Video Assist

A quote, attributed to Tacitus, claims that success has many fathers while defeat is an orphan. It’s just so with the invention of video assist which is claimed by several people. Jerry Lewis is often cited as the inventor and he certainly incorporated simultaneous video recording in his filming practices very early. He began development work in 1956 and first used a video record and playback system during the filming of The Bellboy in 1960. He used the system to view and evaluate his own performance immediately after each take. But the system he used on The Bellboy was the simplest version; a video camera was lashed just above the main lens and would be adjusted to approximately match the view of the film camera lens with each setup. Later, Jerry Lewis also worked to develop a system that would use a pellicle mirror to view the image through the primary lens.

The assertion that Jerry Lewis “invented” video assist is overstated. The original patent for a video assist system dates to 1947 and subsequent patents in 1954 and 1955 added the refinements of merging optical systems to eliminate parallax and adding a second beamsplitter to permit simultaneous use of video and film viewfinders. The integrated video systems that came into general use in films were the work of many individuals each building on the accomplishments of predecessors. Jimmie Songer’s contributions were many and essential as recognized in 2002 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


Glossary for highlighted words

Deflection coil – In a CRT (cathode ray tube), the beam of electrons is aimed by magnetic fields generated by coils of wire surrounding the tube. Adjusting the electrical energy sent to different coils directs the electron stream.

Obie light – A diffuse light mounted very near the camera lens, typically just above the matte box, to provide soft fill on faces in close-ups. Lucien Ballard, ASC developed the light to photograph Merle Oberon after her face was scarred in an auto accident.

Pellicle mirror – A semi-transparent mirror used in optical devices. A pellicle reflects a certain percentage of light and allows the remainder to pass through. In the Panavision PSR camera, a pellicle mirror deflected approximately 30% of light to the viewfinder and passed about 70% to the film plane.

Saticon tube – A saticon tube is a refinement of the vidicon tube design that adds particular chemicals to the photosensitive surface to stabilize the signal.

Vidicon tube – A vidicon is one of the early image capture devices made for television cameras. An image focused on a photoconductive surface produces a charge-density pattern that may be scanned and read by an electron beam.

 

Categories
Cinematography Filmmaking

Vittorio Storaro ASC at CineGear 2016

I went to CineGear this year. It was great, was able to catch up and reconnect with some old friends and make new ones.

  • I got a picture of the new Leonard Nimoy street sign on the Paramount lot where the Expo was held.

Nimoy sign

He was also a photographer as well as a director and did many projects at Disney including Body Wars.

  • Zeiss was there with a cut away of one of their lenses.

Zeiss cut away

Stage 19 Kane

  • Panavision showed the new DXL 8K camera. The footage shown was very nice!

panavisionDXL

  • The best thing was seeing Vittorio Storaro ASC.

He talked about working with Woody Allen on his new film for Amazon Studios, Cafe Society.

This is Woody’s first digital feature and Vittorio used the Sony F65;

“I had seen that the Sony F65 was capable of recording beautiful images in 4K and 16 bit-colour depth in 1:2, which is my favorite composition,” Storaro said. “So when Woody called me this year asking me to be the cinematographer of his new film with the working title ‘WASP 2015,’ my decision was already made. I convinced him to record the film in digital, so we can begin our journey together in the digital world. It’s time now for the Sony F65!”

He spoke of the Technicolor IB process, light, shadows and color and said that digital makes it too easy.

He stated that a trend that has emerged with the use of digital cameras is that “people want to work faster or show that they can use less light, but they don’t look for the proper light the scenes needs. That isn’t cinematography, that’s recording an image. … I was never happy in any set to just see available light,” said Storaro, who has won Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor. “Even in very important films that take Academy Awards, you can record an image without location lighting. But that’s not necessarily the right light for the character. We have to always move a story forward, not step back.”

Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

He elaborated on his work with Coppola and that he hasn’t used anamorphic lenses for many years. Sorry Mr. Tarantino.

The best and most important part though, was when he got even more philosophical. He mentioned Mozart, the Lumiere brothers, Newton, Caravaggio, architecture, and Plato and the Cave. From his website:

Ever since Plato’s “Myth of the Cave” we are used to seeing Images in a specific space. In Plato’s myth, prisoners are kept in a cave facing an interior wall, while behind them, at the entrance to the cave, there is a lighted fire, with some people with statues and flags passing in front of the fire. At the same time, their shadows are projected onto the interior wall of the cave by fire’s light. The prisoners are looking at the moving shadows in that specific area of the wall. They are watching images as a simulation, a “simulacre” of reality, not reality itself. The myth of Plato is a metaphor for the Cinema.

He believes that film is a collaboration as opposed to the auteur theory and emphasized the importance of story.

“You need to find the balance of technology and art,” continued Storaro, who was inspiring and thought-provoking in his speech, also raising an argument against the use of the term ‘director of photography’ to define the role of the cinematographer. “That’s a major mistake. There cannot be two directors. … Let’s respect the director,” he asserted, saying that ‘cinematographer’ is the appropriate word, and adding that it’s not interchangeable with photographer. “Cinematography is motion, we need a journey and to arrive at another point. We don’t create a beautiful frame, but a beautiful film. That’s why I say ‘writing with light.'”

lastemperor

 

Categories
Photography

Jeff Bridges and his Widelux camera

I have always enjoyed Jeff Bridges in films like The Fisher King, both the original Tron and Tron Legacy, as well as the overlooked Lucas/Coppola film Tucker. When I found out he was into Widelux photography I was excited to show some of his photos on my site.

 

tucker
Francis Ford Coppola & George Lucas with a Tucker car

From the New York Times Lens Blog.

Some photographers are drawn to dramatic events in exotic lands. Others are compelled to stay closer to home and burrow into the stories they know best.

The actor Jeff Bridges gets to do both. He photographs the world he grew up in, movie sets — each one a world never seen before. And he earns a little more than your average photographer while doing it.

Since 1984, Mr. Bridges has documented the sets of most of his movies, compiling a large collection of wide images that give an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at movie making.

“My photography is mainly focused on my work making movies, which I’ve done my whole life,” he said in a phone interview. “I think I have a perspective that not many people have. And I get to take advantage of all of the strange sources of light on a set.”

Though Mr. Bridges is better known for his acting roles — The Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit,” Kevin Flynn in the Tron movies — he will receive special recognition tomorrow at the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Awards dinner in New York.


This is not the first time Mr. Bridges has been honored: he has been nominated for six Academy Awards and received an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as Otis Blake in the 2009 film “Crazy Heart.” But he says it is “wonderful to be recognized by people who love photography.”

Mr. Bridges uses a Widelux camera for almost all of his photos because he says its ultrawide images are close to how the human eye really sees. It’s a quirky camera that allows photographers to emphasize both foreground and background. In the introduction to his book “Pictures,” published in 2003, Mr. Bridges wrote about his favorite camera:

The Widelux is a fickle mistress; its viewfinder isn’t accurate, and there’s no manual focus, so it has an arbitrariness to it, a capricious quality. I like that. It’s something I aspire to in all my work — a lack of preciousness that makes things more human and honest, a willingness to receive what’s there in the moment and to let go of the result. Getting out of the way seems to be one of the main tasks for me as an artist.

The Widelux has a lens mounted on a moving turret. As the lens moves, a slit shutter sweeps across a wide plane of film, creating a sometimes blurry cinematic effect. It can take two and a half seconds for a normal exposure (at one-fifteenth of a second). This gives the photographer less control of the result, because when one starts taking a picture, it is hard to know exactly what will happen two seconds in the future on the far side of the frame.

“I look at the camera as sort of a missing link between motion picture photography and still photography,” Mr. Bridges said.

Photography is different from movie making because it is more of a solitary endeavor, even when one is photographing a lot of people. But in both disciplines, the product doesn’t always turn out as expected.

“You show up, you practice, you have as much technique that you can bring, and then the reality has much to give to the experience,” Mr. Bridges said. “That’s what makes it such a joy to look at the contact sheets. You see what you thought you had and you did, and what you didn’t think you had and you got, and that’s very similar to making movies.”

Mr. Bridges has acted professionally since he was a young child, when he appeared with his father, Lloyd Bridges, star of the television series “Sea Hunt,” on that show. While attending high school in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, he built a home darkroom in a bathroom and fell in love with black-and-white printing. As his acting career took off, he left photography behind — until he appeared in the 1976 remake of “King Kong,” in which he played an paleontologist who always carried a camera. That rekindled his interest, and after his wife bought him a Widelux, he brought it to the set of “Starman” in 1984.

His co-star Karen Allen suggested they make a book of photos for the cast, and for almost every film he has been in since then, Mr. Bridges has made a special, limited-edition book for the cast and crew.

His purchasable collection, “Pictures,” was published by PowerHouse Books, and he donates the proceeds — including from sales of individual prints — to the Motion Picture and Television Fund and several organizations that fight hunger in the United States.

At times, his photographs form a visually refined family album that includes his father; his brother, the actor Beau Bridges; and his fellow actors. They provide a behind-the-scenes view of movie making and sometimes resemble early silent slapstick shorts more than they do fine art films.

Mr. Bridges revels in using the Widelux’s long exposure time to take in-camera photos of his acting friends (Slide 12 and above) making comedic and tragic faces. During a single exposure, they run from one end of the frame to the other and pose goofily for the camera.

He wants to publish a book of his newer images and intends to continue photographing the sets of his movies.

So, Mr. Bridges will abide. You can take comfort in that.

 

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Above photo set from Fstoppers.

The Widelux his wife had given to him barely leaves his side, as you will notice in these rare black-and-white photographs from behind the scenes of some of his movies. Co-star cameos, interesting anecdotes, and filmmaking secrets are revealed in his galleries which have also been published into a photo book, Jeff Bridges: Pictures.

Panoramic photos by Jeff Bridges while on the sets of _Crazy Heart_, _Iron Man_, _True Grit_, _TRON: Legacy_, and The Amateurs._

“The Wide-Lux is a fickle mistress; its viewfinder isn’t accurate, and there’s no manual.”

Visit Jeff Bridges for more info. Sources include IMDB and Wikipedia.

From Lomography.

Categories
Filmmaking Interview People

William Friedkin Talks ‘French Connection,’ ‘Sorcerer,’ & ‘The Exorcist’ In This Podcast Interview

The director of “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” “Sorcerer,” “Cruising,” “To Live and Die in L.A.,” “Bug,” and “Killer Joe,” to name just a few, William Friedkin is one of the greats to emerge from the 1970s brat pack director’s scene that included Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and more. Now 80-years-old, the mythic filmmaker recently sat down with podcaster Marc Maron for an epic two-and-a-half-hour chat on his “WTF” podcast.

There are great stories about “The French Connection” — “I found by treating Gene Hackman harshly, even cruelly, would motivate his anger. He didn’t like authority and he didn’t even like acting that much”— including Friedkin’s own admission that he recklessly put lives in danger during most of the movie’s driving stunts. “I don’t boast about it. People’s live’s were in danger including my own,” he said. “And I frankly didn’t give a damn. I didn’t devalue human life, I just didn’t think about it! [It was like], ‘We’re gonna do THIS, this way!’ [and] there was nobody to resist me.”

It’s also interesting to hear an 80-year-old cinephile — who is old enough to remember the advent of the television and to have witnessed culture and taste change over decades — who does not lament the decay of the theatrical experience and champions digital VFX. Friedkin at one point says Netflix and streaming outlets are a boon to cinema. “Things change, you watch [the world change] and manifest differently, but I’ve absolutely [made peace with that].” Friedkin says, countering Maron’s comment that it’s a shame that audiences today don’t know Orson Welles, Fellini, Billy Wilder, and many of the masters.

The best story of the bunch perhaps is Friedkin’s connection to “The Exorcist” screenwriter William Peter Blatty. It’s an involved tale, but an incredibly amusing one that starts with Friedkin coming to meet the legendary director/writer Blake Edwards (“Breakfast At Tiffany’s,” “The Pink Panther”) in the nascent beginnings of his career. Edwards was producing a feature version of the successful “Peter Gunn” TV show and wanted the up-and-coming director to helm the big-screen update. Friedkin read the draft before meeting with Edwards and hated it.

As Friedkin was leaving the lot from his meeting, a man began chasing after him and calling his name. It was William Peter Blatty, the screenwriter of “Peter Gunn,” who, at the behest of Blake, was sitting in the shadows listening to the conversation. Friedkin said that Blatty thanked him for his candor (“You’re right. We all know the script doesn’t work”) and said that everyone on Blake’s team knew the screenplay was garbage, but the iconoclastic producer and filmmaker was convinced that his vision for the movie was perfect.

Three or four years later, Friedkin came across a screenplay that he loved called “The Exorcist,” by one William Peter Blatty. “It totally zombied me out. I canceled dinner, read it in one sitting,” the director said of his reaction. “The French Connection” had yet to come out, and when he met with Blatty, the screenwriter offered the film to him immediately. Friedkin was baffled as to why. Blatty responded, “Because you’re the only director I’ve met who didn’t lie to me.” The one snag was the studio wanted to take it to bigger names, but Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, and Mike Nichols all passed. By the time the directing assignment opened up again, “The French Connection” had opened, was a smash, and Friedkin easily secured the gig.

Another interesting tale spun by Friedkin is the duress that “The French Connection” was made under. “ ‘I’m gonna be fired in six months,’ ” then-head of production at Fox, Richard D. Zanuck, warned Friedkin (true to his word, he was). Zanuck gave Friedkin a small $3 million budget, but the clock was ticking. If the film wasn’t in production by the time Zanuck was out, the next regime would probably pull the plug.

Friedkin quickly hired Roy Scheider, but for Popeye Doyle, his first choice was, strangely enough, Jackie Gleeson. Zanuck told him, “You don’t need a movie star, just get the right actor in there,” and so emboldened, he hired a non-acting journalist Jimmy Breslin. Eventually, after a few days of premature shooting, Breslin showed up drunk, and was AWOL the next. Friedkin quickly fired him and Gene Hackman was in, though he certainly wasn’t a first or second choice. “But he was the last man standing,” the director told Maron. “Zanuck was going to get fired and we had to go.”

From The Playlist over at Indiewire.

Note: strong language.

 

 

Categories
Film Editing Filmmaking Interview People

Walter Murch at CAMERIMAGE 2015

by Sven Mikulec

After the Camerimage international film festival’s special screening of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anthony Minghella’s wonderful and haunting 1999 film with Matt Damon in the starring role, I had the unique pleasure and honor of seeing and listening to probably the greatest film editor and sound designer of the last half a century. Walter Murch, the living legend of the filmmaking business whose career was built on films such as Apocalypse Now, The Conversation and The Godfather trilogy, was invited to Bydgoszcz, Poland to receive the festival’s Special Award to Editor with Unique Visual Sensitivity. This is the first time I’ve ever had the chance to see him in person and, besides coming off as a very nice and humble human being, to listen to him talk about filmmaking, editing and the history of film was incredibly inspiring and satisfying.

Sitting at a small table on stage, with a glass of water at his side, Walter Murch engaged the audience and the crowded theater—mind you, many of the audience are filmmakers themselves—bombarded him with questions, seeking his advice and wanting to soak up as much wisdom as possible. Murch briefly discussed his relationship with Minghella, calling him an extremely collaborative director who wanted and accepted input from his crew (but “still had strong vision and ideas”), recalling how they met and how Minghella explained to him that, when he found a perfect T-shirt, he’d buy hundreds of them, never to have to set out on the risky task of finding new clothes. The message was clear—if Murch proved to be a capable editor, Minghella would want to work with him for the rest of his life. They did three films together (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), and would definitely collaborate again had it not been for the director’s tragic death in 2008.

One of the most interesting parts of the conversation was when Murch explained one the things that inevitably changed with the rise of digital technology and its use in filmmaking. Back in the good old days, after a hard day’s work on set, the crew would gather and watch the ‘dailies,’ the material they filmed that specific day. With minds clear and concentrated on the film, they would immerse in their footage and have discussions on the material. Dailies became a part of history, as there’s no need for them when the crew can monitor what’s being filmed on set simultaneously on their screens. Since during filming people have tons of things on their mind and can hardly relax in front of the screen, Murch believes dailies should be brought back into practice, as they proved very useful in the past.


Walter Murch mixing Apocalypse Now in 1979

On the unsurprising question of what you need to have to be a good editor, Murch said you needed to be ready to spend 16 hours a day in a small, stuffy room with no windows, being repeated the same things over and over again like torture. Furthermore, a good editor has to have a good sense of rhythm because, after all, editing is basically choreographing a line of images. The other important thing is to be able to anticipate the audience’s reaction. According to Murch, the editor is the only representative of the audience in a film crew: his job is to predict how the viewer will respond to the movie, and to do so, he has to place himself in their shoes. Therefore, Murch tends to avoid seeing any part of filming, he visits the set only if really necessary, believing too much information would prove to be a burden, as it will distance him from the position of the viewer, who will see the film without any knowledge of the size of the set or the sort of sandwiches served in breaks. The editor, Murch continues, is one of the few people on set with great effect on the film who can completely isolate himself if he wants to.

What I did not know was that Murch had some influence on the script for The Talented Mr. Ripley. As he was sent the screenplay six months prior to filming, he made a couple of suggestions regarding the way the film should open and how it should end, and Minghella listened. But it’s not strange, Murch says, that editors get the screenplay months, or even a year, in advance: it’s actually common practice nowadays.

Needless to say, I left the theater impressed like a school boy, as I should be in the presence of a professional of such caliber. This made me a little more nervous during our interview, but it turned out there was no need whatsoever to feel uncomfortable. That’s who Murch is—an editing genius capable of making you feel as if he’s your friend from elementary school.


Fellow USC alums Walter Murch and George Lucas

In an interesting interview you recently gave to Indiewire, you said that films are called motion pictures, but that they could be easily called emotion pictures since the point of every film should be to cause an emotional response in the audience. Do you think this should be top priority in any film?
Yes, with the proviso that it should be the correct emotion. Films are very good at stirring up emotion but you have to be careful about which emotion you’re stirring up. So in a sense the filmmakers, from the directors to anybody else, have to really say—what emotion are we going for here and why are we going for it? And how does that emotion relate to what we had in the previous and will have in the following scene? And can we also track not only the emotion but the logic of everything that’s happening, basically is the story understandable? So this dance between intellect and emotion, which is kind of basic to what human beings are, is something that we have to be very careful about. In a film, for instance, you could stage a murder in a very brutal way which would stir up emotions in the audience, but is that going to confuse things later on in the story?

You also talked about over-intentionality in movies, how it’s easy for the audience to feel manipulated into feeling something if things are edited in a certain way. How difficult is it for you not to cross that border, to cause an organic feeling in a viewer rather than a manipulated one?
It’s very difficult. Because films are evolving under our fingers, so to speak. And we want to communicate certain things and we’re anxious that the audience understands what we’re trying to say. And so many things are uncertain in a making of a film that you can sometimes hold on to a scene as being important, but you can learn later that, in fact, by removing that scene in a strange, sometimes mystifying way the whole film relaxes, and the audience gets everything you’re saying even without this very definite moment. I remember many years ago working on a film with Fred Zinnemann called Julia. These arrows began to point at one scene in particular at the beginning of the film. Maybe we should lose this scene, because again, there was this over-intentionality to it. And so we, meaning Fred and I, said let’s take it out. So I was undoing the splices, back in the day when we made physical splices, and he observed, you know, when I read the script of this project, when I read this scene, I knew that I should do this film. In other words, the very scene he connected with was the scene we are now taking out. So I asked myself, am I removing the heart of the movie? Or am I removing the umbilical cord of the movie? This scene was important to connect Fred with the film, but let’s say, once the nutrients have flowed into the whole film, not only now can you remove the umbilical cord, you have to remove it. We walk around with the belly button, but not with the umbilical cord. So there are scenes like that that deliver their message very particularly, but you should be suspicious of those very scenes and wonder if this film can ride the bike without these training wheels.

A lot of big American movies these days treat the viewers as if they are incapable of connecting the dots, explaining far too much in the process. Do you see that trend in American cinema today?
Yeah, I think so. I think that’s partly down to everything we’ve just been talking about. It’s also that, in quotes, American cinema is also global cinema, in that American cinema is more than Chinese cinema, more than Indian cinema, more than European cinema. It’s the one cinema that goes all the way around the world so it has to be understandable by the Chinese, Africans, South-Americans, Europeans. Inevitably, there is a coarsening of the message there because of trying to adapt to all these different sensibilities and different ways of thinking on the different continents of the globe. But very often it’s simply lazy filmmaking. It’s hard to make it the other way because of the uncertainty of it all, because it’s risky. I find it much more interesting to make things this way precisely because it does involve the audience in the film. And really the last creative act of any film is viewing by the audience. The audience are really the ones who are creating the film, it doesn’t really exist on the screen, it exists in a kind of penumbra between the audience and the screen, the interaction of those two things. And exactly what you’re saying allows that interaction to take place. Otherwise, the audience is just blasted by the things coming from the screen, and they just have to sit there and take it.

Since Return to Oz wasn’t a critical or commercial success, the film practically blocked your potential directorial path. But it must be nice to see what happened to the film in the decades that followed. How do you feel about the project now?
I’m very happy that it has this afterlife. The film was made in the early 1980s, really at the dawn of home cinema. VHS had just come in at that point, I think. So I made it not knowing everything that was going to happen in the next thirty years with DVDs, Blu-rays, streaming and all of these other things that allowed people to see the film in a variety of different circumstances. On the other hand, it has to be good enough for the people to want to see it. So I’m very pleased to see it has this afterlife to it. Ironically, one of the things that happened is that the studio, Disney, at the time of the release of the film had changed management, and the new management really had no interest in Return to Oz at all, really. It was kind of abandoned, but that meant ironically that I had more control over it because if they hadn’t abandoned it, they would have been far more aggressive with me, trying to bend it this way or that, kind of like what happened with Orson Welles on The Touch of Evil. The finished film is as much as any film pretty much as I wanted to make it.

But you said you had some projects you wanted to make, but you were force to abandon it. You stated one of the movies you wanted to make was about Nikola Tesla. Why him?
I’m just fascinated with him as a character. I discovered him in the process of doing research for Return to Oz because the inspiration for the Emerald City, this fantastic place, was the Columbia World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. And that was the fair that Tesla appeared at, and he was the one that electrified the fairs. This was the first World’s Fair to be electrified with Tesla’s alternating current, and he was at the fair giving demonstrations. So he was arguably the living wizard of that festival, and he was called The Wizard. So I think L. Frank Baum, the author, who lived in Chicago, went to the fair and saw Tesla and Tesla was the wizard. But the more I learned about Tesla and his story, the more fascinated I became. I wanted to do a kind of Mozart-Salieri story on the tension between Tesla and Edison, who were two very, very different personalities, both competing in the same territory.

This story might have made for a great film.
Yeah.

You’ve worked with a lot of great filmmakers in your career. Which collaboration holds a special place in your heart?
It has to be Francis Coppola because the first feature film I’ve worked on was his film, The Rain People in 1969. And I worked with him in 2009 on Tetro, the last film. Which is… how many? Four decades of working together? And on some remarkable films. There’s a gap between Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux. But he and I share many sensibilities and he gives a great deal of control to the people who work with him. Working with Francis, I was astonished how much control he gave. We was, like, just go and do something.

A lot of trust.
Yes, a lot of trust, but the surprising thing about trust is, if you’re given all of this trust, you repay it, you know how much he has given you and so you are anxious to fulfill and more the trust he has given you. And that works in opposite way with directors who are always controlling everything, did you do this, I want this, I want that… At a certain point you say, OK, let’s all do what you want. But this other way of working, the Francis way, is a wonderful way of working.

When we compare what editing used to be to editing today, with the development of technology and the trend that movies resemble music videos, what would you say about contemporary, modern editing?
There is a shift. On the other hand, also if you look at the decades, the fastest editing ever in a motion picture was Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov’s film from 1929. Well, not the whole film, but there’s a section of the film that’s so rapidly cut that you just kind of had to stand back the way you look at fireworks. We, meaning in the larger sense, are investigating the borderline between effect and comprehensibility. And it’s clear that, to achieve a certain effect, this kind of fireworks in editing—you can do that, but you lose comprehensibility. Things are happening on the screen and maybe you’ll capture a thing here or there. For briefs periods of time this is fine in any film. But as a general principle, it’s something to be wary of. Without question, music videos and commercials and even videos you see in clothing stores on video-screens, have all affected the way we see edited images, and they’ve worked their way into the theaters. And we’re looking at films on very different mediums, on iPhones or 20-meter screens in a movie palace, or on virtual reality goggles. So all of those are very different formats, and yet at the moment we have to edit as if they are all the same. This creates dissonances with the rate of cutting.

For example, the videos on screens in clothing stores. They are rapidly cut with lots of moving, so as to make you look at them. So you’re in a store that’s mostly static, people moving fairly slowly, and yet over here there’s a screen going like this (waves his hand frantically), forcing you to look at it. Taking that sensibility though and transposing it into a movie palace, where that’s the only thing we’re looking at and the screen is sixty feet wide, can create undesirable side effects, people get sick looking at it. In the long term, we’ll figure all this out, and it does change from decade to decade. Dialogue, for instance, in the 1930s and 1940s was said much quicker than it is today. The cutting was slower, but people talked much faster, quick, quick, quick. His Girl Friday, for instance. Films just don’t sound like that today. That’s the dialogue equivalent to quick cutting. You can’t see that today. The closest thing would probably be The Social Network, those scenes very quickly paced in terms of dialogue.

The experience of watching feature motion pictures in theaters is barely one hundred years old. Birth of a Nation came out in 1915, and it’s 2015. And I’ve been working in films for half that time. (laughs) We’re still learning how to do this, and adapting to different circumstances, so it’s natural for the pendulum to swing far in one direction, and then far in the opposite direction. Inarritu’s film last year had no edits in it, at all, there were technically concealed edits in there, but the experience of watching it was that there were no cuts whatsoever.


Francis Ford Coppola and editor/re-recording mixer Walter Murch (back) in the Philippines during the shoot of Apocalypse Now in March 1977. Photo by Richard Beggs. Courtesy of Walter Murch

Would you say that The Apocalypse Now was the most troublesome project you ever worked on?
It was troubled, but in a good way. Meaning, it’s a very contentious subject matter, especially at that time. And we were investigating all the possible ways to tell this story. It was turbulent and maybe troublesome, but in a good, creative way. In any film you’re working on, there’s a great deal of uncertainty. Can we do this, is this going to work, do we have time to do this… Everyone is wondering how it is going to work. But it was certainly the longest postproduction of any film I worked on, I was on it for two years, Richie Marx was on it even a year longer. It was a long period and you have to also gage your own energy level and focus on something that lasts that long. That was another kind of an invisible challenge for all of us involved.

You mean coming back to ordinary life?
Sure, that’s an occupational hazard of any film, it completely occupies a great deal of real estate in your brain as you’re working on it, and then suddenly it’s over and all of that real estate is available, empty, and now you have to re-program your brain to get to normal. It’s the equivalent, I think, to a kind of sea sickness. You know you’re finished objectively, but you’re body is still working on something, but there’s nothing to work on. The collision between those two things, what you objectively know and what you feel… it usually takes from two or three weeks to two or three months for these things to come back in alignment.

How long a pause did you have to take after Apocalypse Now?
After that, I started writing a screenplay, one of the projects I was going to direct. So… six months. But at the end of those six months I started writing, which is different than making films, a different rhythm. So after Apocalypse, the next thing I did was Return to Oz. We began preproduction in 1983, so it was almost four years since Apocalypse. So, first I wrote an unproduced screenplay, then Return to Oz.

What was the screenplay about?
It was about an archaeologist in Egypt, a kind of a ghost story, but more along the lines of what you were talking about earlier, one that was ambiguous. There were not a lot of special effects in it, it was about a personality change. Was that down to an accident that happened, or did something spiritual happen to this person? But it ended up in a drawer somewhere.

Mr. Murch, thanks for your time. It was a pleasure.
Thank you.


Sound montage associate Mark Berger, left, Francis Ford Coppola and sound montage/re-recording mixer Walter Murch mixing The Godfather II in October 1974. Photo courtesy of Walter Murch

From Cinephilia & Beyond

I’ve seen Return to Oz and the audience expectations of the Disney name and the original MGM film were much different than what Murch did. It is a gloomy cult film, but not bad.

Here are some books about Walter Murch and Editing that I recommend.

Categories
Film Sound Technology

Synthesizers in the Movies

Hans Zimmer and his Moog Modular

Composer Neil Brand celebrates the art of cinema music, Neil explores how changing technology has taken soundtracks in bold new directions and even altered our very idea of how a film should sound.

In the last of three programmes in which composer Neil Brand celebrates the art of cinema music, Neil explores how changing technology has taken soundtracks in bold new directions and even altered our very idea of how a film should sound.

Neil tells the story of how the 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet ended up with a groundbreaking electronic score that blurred the line between music and sound effects, and explains why Alfred Hitchcock’s the Birds has one of the most effective soundtracks of any of his films – despite having no music. He shows how electronic music crossed over from pop into cinema with Midnight Express and Chariots of Fire, while films like Apocalypse Now pioneered the concept of sound design – that sound effects could be used for storytelling and emotional impact.

Neil tracks down some of the key composers behind these innovations to talk about their work, such as Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner), Carter Burwell (Twilight, No Country for Old Men) and Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream, Moon).

Sound of Cinema: The Music that Made the Movies

Categories
Documentary People

Milius, a documentary about John Milius

I watched Milius on Netflix and it is great, I recommend it!

Steven-Spielberg-John-Milius-George-Lucas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Milius is the writer of some of the most iconic films of the 70s and 80s.

John Milius interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola

One of my favorite Milius films is Dillinger.

Dillinger

Starring Warren Oates, who is very good in it, Michelle Phillips of Mamas and the Papas fame, Steve KanalyHarry Dean StantonRichard Dreyfuss as well as Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman who were also in The Last Picture Show. It is better, I think, than the recent Public Enemies.

Categories
Cinematography Film Editing Technology

Video Assist, Jerry Lewis 1966 behind the scenes featurette “Man in Motion”

Jerry Lewis first used video assist on his film The Bellboy in 1960.

Fontainebleau

JERRY LEWIS IS THE BELLBOY AT THE FONTAINEBLEAU HOTEL

 

Lewis himself received a Technical Achievement Award for his invention of the video assist, a device that allowed him to view footage right after it was filmed. That way, he was able to jump back and forth between directing and acting.

Watch this on The Scene.

Here is a more advanced system seen in the behind the scenes film “Man in Motion” shot during the making of “Three on a Couch.” The video will start at the section that shows video assist, you can go back to the beginning if you wish.

A very good video about “Jerry’s Noisy Toy.” On location it was in a trailer like Coppola’s “Silverfish.” Coppola’s system was also a previs tool.

Here is a follow up post on video assist.