By Mark Nickolas, on Wed Nov 30, 2011 at 8:16 AM ET
This week’s project in Media Practices: Film Form is an assignment that all film students do at one point: editing dailies from a scene in a 1958 episode of the television show Gunsmoke into something coherent. In addition to editing the 14 minutes of footage into something a little less than five minutes, I also added some sound effects and music.
Here’s the actual class assignment:
Mini-Tech Assignment: Editing Gunsmoke
For this assignment you will be provided with dailies from the old television series Gunsmoke. Using these dailies and FCP, I would like you to produce an edited scene from the 14 minutes of footage being provided to you. To a large degree, the footage will tell you how it should be edited. You can choose to follow the “classical” conventions as closely (or as loosely) as you like. Whichever option you choose though the scene that you submit should feel fully edited and complete. (Note: you won’t be penalized for not adding additional sound elements; however I certainly wouldn’t object to the addition of an effective audio track.)
As a mini-tech assignment, it will be evaluated on a scale from 1 to 5 points (as opposed to 1 to 10 points for the other exercises). It should be submitted on a disc to me at the beginning of the Tuesday, November 29 session. Late submissions will receive a reduced grade. A small selection of these works will be screened near the end of the semester. Ryan will review these works and submit comments to me. He will curate the screening.
These points will be added to your total for Tech Assignments (50% of grade)
And here’s my final cut as submitted:
Here’s the original footage that we had to work with:
By Mark Nickolas, on Thu Nov 17, 2011 at 9:43 AM ET
In my Cinematography class, 15% of our grade is based on a short paper which analyzes the cinematography and lighting of a film of our choice. I chose to focus on the iconic snow scene of the young Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941):
Citizen Kane: An Analysis of Cinematography of a Scene
For this paper, I have chosen to explore the cinematography of one of the most iconic and revolutionary scenes in American cinema: the snow scene of the young Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).
The cinematic style of Citizen Kane, especially its use of extreme deep-focus photography, was groundbreaking and innovative as the film’s narrative technique. At the time, the prevailing Hollywood style was characterized by diffuse lighting and shots with a very shallow depth of field. It was Welles’ cinematographer, Gregg Toland, who pioneered this use of deep-focus. Despite Hollywood’s standard of using apertures of between f2.3 and f3.2 for interior shots, nearly all of the film was shot at f8 or smaller.
Shots 1-2 (0:00-0:09)
The first two shots of the scene last about nine seconds and they consist of the young Charles Foster Kane playing outside in the snow. The mood is very upbeat (as reinforced by the playful soundtrack), showing a young boy throwing snowballs and riding his sled on a snowy day in Colorado (though shot on a sound stage).
From the perspective of lighting, the set-up is not very subtle. As Welles and Toland wanted to shoot this scene (as well as the others in the film) in extreme deep-focus, the key lighting on the boy is very pronounced as the entire frame must soon be visible from more than 100 feet. In shot 1, the camera angle is slightly above and in front of the boy, with the falling snow front lit. The lighting is fairly uniform, with no discernable key light direction. As the boy throws a snowball, and the shot cuts to it hitting boarding house’s sign, we look upwards, almost a POV shot from the boy’s perspective.
Shot 3 (0:09-1:55)
Shot 3 is the most remarkable of the entire scene and lasts one minute and 46 seconds. It begins with young Charles continuing to throw snowballs from the same vantage point as Shot 1. Though, now we can conclude that the key light is coming from his left, as evidenced by the reflection off the left side of the snowman beside him.
Within a second or two, the mother appears between us and the boy, revealing that shots 1 and 3 were filmed from the inside and through one of the windows in the house. Moreover, the side of the mother’s face, as she leans out of the window, is lit by the exterior (outside) light. As she leans back into the house, the face quickly shifts into a shadow (as it moves away from outside light), and then lit again as the interior key light comes from her left side. On the other side of the window is Mr. Thatcher (the boy’s soon-to-be guardian) who appears only lit by the light behind him (evidenced by the bright back of his neck as he begins to turn around) with minimal light coming from the left side of the screen.
Immediately, the camera begins to track backwards as the mother, Mr. Thatcher, and the father come into frame and walk towards the camera, through the living room, and eventually stopping at the kitchen table. At all times, the boy remains in full focus in the background, placed in the middle of the frame as he plays, and in between the three adults. While the camera began the shot below the mother as she leaned out the window, it quickly shifts to a little above eye level as it dollies backwards.
As the three adults walk through the living room, only the left side of their faces are lit. This changes at the moment when they cross into the kitchen, as the new key light shifts to the left side of the screen, illuminating their entire faces. This is necessitated by the movement to the kitchen table where the mother sits and faces the left side of the screen and is fully illuminated. The father, who pauses between the two rooms, is now lit on his right side by the new key while his left side is shifting to shadow as it clings to what is left of the key from the front of the room, the effect presenting him as a more suspicious, and distant, figure.
The camera tracking shot from the window to the kitchen table is quite spectacular. Apparently, the kitchen table was split into two to allow the camera and dolly to move through it, requiring stage hands to snap it back together before it appeared in the frame. You can see Thatcher’s hat – which was left on the table – shaking when it is first seen in the frame as a result of the table movement. Then the mother and Thatcher sits at the table as they finalize the guardianship papers. Across from them, the father remains standing at a distance, while young Charles remains sharply in focus at least 100 feet away, as does Thatcher’s hat which is no more than a foot or two from the lens.
The camera angle is at its lowest position of the scene – shoulder-height of those sitting. At this moment, all three vectors of filmic space are fully engaged and in focus: the horizontal x-axis is bordered by the hat and the mother; the vertical y-axis from the base of the hat to the ceiling above the father; and the z-axis from the front of the hat (and the mother) all the way back to the boy outside.
By mid shot, the mother and Thatcher stand-up and pause for a few seconds to allow the table to be split apart again out of the shot. The camera then follows the three adults back to the living room, in the same direction as they left it. The scene ends with a match cut of the mother closing the window.
Shot 4 (1:55-3:50)
Shot 4 begins with the mother again looking at the boy through the window, but this time in the direction of the camera which is a little below eye level. Here the key light appears to be coming from their left (right side of the frame). Soon, the three adults walk outside towards the boy and we see a reversal of Shot 3 in that the camera was shooting through the window, but this time from the outside looking in. During this shot, Welles keeps the camera anchored to the boy, as the three adults hover around him, metaphorically cutting off his escape as he is about to be told of his fate.
Once outside, the key light appears to be coming from above the camera on the left, with a kicker or cross key coming from the right. The camera angle is between the eye levels of the boy and the mother and again everything in the background is in deep focus.
The scene ends with an extreme close-up of the mother and boy and then a shot of the now abandoned sled in the snow. The scene ends with a lap dissolve that is executed literally according to Toland – as the lights on the set were dimmed in two stages: first dimming the background and then the actors. In the next scene, the lights were turned on in two steps to match.
The marvel of Citizen Kane’s cinematography is much less an artistic application of light than it was the use of large quantities of light which permitted the film’s unprecedented use of extreme deep-focus. Welles’ discards the usual cinematic approach of shot/reverse-shot during this scene, instead using a mobile camera with deep focus that keeps us continually aware of everyone. This technique, couples with Welles’ use of long takes, permits that “our eyes have the same freedom to wander around the screen image as we have in the theater. We can focus on the actor who is speaking or instead watch the actor who is listening. Our eyes can move around the frame, focusing on whatever we choose.” Moreover, as Toland notes:
The normal human eye sees everything before it (within reasonable distance) clearly and sharply. There is no special or single center of visual sharpness in real life. But the Hollywood cameras focus on a center of interest, and allow the other components of a scene to “fuzz out” in those regions before and beyond the focal point. The attainment of an approximate human eye focus was one of our fundamental aims in Citizen Kane.
Additionally, Welles’ ever-changing camera angles, and his constant use of hard light and strong shadows, have a strong effect on our emotional approach to characters and scenes. According to film critic Andre Bazin, this stretching of the image in depth, along with its pronounced camera angles, “produces throughout the film an impression of tension and conflict, as if the image might be torn apart.” Certainly, one gets this very feeling after watching this scene.
 Fabe, Marilyn. Closely watched films: an introduction to the art of narrative film technique. University of California Press, 2004. Print, p. 84.
 Toland, Gregg. “How I Broke the Rules in Citizen Kane.” Popular Photography 8 (June 1941): 55. Print.
Said Toland: “The tendency in Hollywood has been to stop down to f3.5 occasionally in filming interiors. More often the working aperture is between f2.3 and f3.2. The use of the f3.5 aperture is still uncommon enough to be cause for conversation in the film capital. 
“But we wanted to stop down considerably further. By experimenting with high-speed films we discovered that lens aperture could be reduced appreciably, but that we still weren’t able to stop down enough for our purposes. This meant that an increased illumination level had to be obtained.
“The Yard “Opticoating” system developed at the California Institute of Technology, proved to be one factor in the eventual solution of our lighting problem. Being essentially a method of treating lens surfaces, Opticoating eliminates refraction, permits light to penetrate instead of scattering, and thus increases lens speed by as much as a full stop. Our coated lenses also permitted us to shoot directly into lights without anything like the dire results usually encountered.
“Another aid in solving our small-aperture problem was the twin-arc broadside lamp, developed for Technicolor work. We began to employ these lamps before we hit upon the use of the high-speed film which we eventually chose. The combination of coated lenses, arc broadside lamps, and the fastest available film made it possible to photograph nearly all interior scenes at an aperture of f8 or even smaller. I shot several scenes at f11 and fl6. That’s a big jump from f2.3 and it’s certainly unconventional in Hollywood filming.”
By Mark Nickolas, on Tue Nov 8, 2011 at 9:35 AM ET
For my video project in Film Form (as explained here), I chose to explore the temporal nature of the cinematic medium by capturing a day in the life of New York City from Brooklyn Bridge Park beginning before sunrise and ending after sunset through time-lapse video using more than 5,000 still images taken, on average, seven seconds apart using a Canon DSLR camera.
Here’s the final project:
Here’s the paper that accompanied my film:
Media Practices: Film Form (NMDS 5430)
Prof. Sam Ishii-Gonzales
November 8, 2011
What Are We Busy About? (Video Project)
The idea for my video project – which explores the temporal nature of the cinematic medium – was to capture a day in the life of New York City from Brooklyn Bridge Park beginning before sunrise and ending after sunset through time-lapse video using more than 5,000 still images taken, on average, seven seconds apart using a Canon DSLR camera.
My concept was anchored upon both Tarkovsky’s argument that the film image consists of both images in movement and time, but also of movement and time, as well as Antonioni’s argument in Imprinted Time that “the cinema image is essentially the observation of a phenomenon passing through time.” I was intrigued to try to capture the phenomenon of the never-ending motion on an ordinary work day in America’s largest and busiest city, and doing so, somewhat paradoxically, through the use of thousands of still images assembled into a single time-lapse video, which is essentially a form of cinema. The video also juxtaposes the old and the new throughout, as commuters pass over the 19th century bridge on their way to 21st century skyscrapers.
Moreover, the capture of the movement of time, and in time, of New York City, would also be presented with the simple question that Henry David Thoreau asked more than 150 years ago:
“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”
Through the time-lapsed images, we see a city come to life. A procession of boats passing before us on the East River; construction cranes allowing men to build new skyscrapers (including what will be the nation’s tallest, once again); workers repairing a century-old bridge that remains a main traffic artery connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan; and the lights being turned, floor by floor, in office buildings throughout lower Manhattan. We also see time represented in the passing clouds and changing climate, ripples in the flowing water, and the strong winds blowing construction tarps on the bridge (as well as the camera’s tripod).
III. Technical Elements
Despite extensive planning, this project proved especially challenging. The location for the photography would be directly along the East River between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The main method of photography was to be with my Canon Rebel t2i (550D) camera with a back-up Canon 60D checked-out from the school (as well as a standard tripod) in case such a contingency would be needed.
In the week before the shoot, I walked through the site twice and took test shots as well as video. Separately, in order to become proficient at using time-lapse photography, I shot a number of practice projects through the 29th floor window of my Upper West Side apartment, and then assembled the thousands of photos into time-lapse videos the following day using a free Mac program called Time Lapse Assembler.
It was clear that the biggest anticipated technical challenge would be how to provide enough battery power to keep the camera operating for more than the 13 hours necessary to capture sunrise and sunset. Unfortunately, the 60D camera battery was a different model than those for the t2i. Nevertheless, I had three batteries available for the t2i and two for the 60D. However, the biggest unanticipated technical challenge would prove to be the very strong winds which blew through the entire day of filming. Despite a fairly sturdy tripod, the winds would blow strong enough to occasionally, and minutely, move the camera. The result are a series of small but perceptible shifts in the camera frame during the video.
I began shooting at the time the park opened: 6 am on Friday, November 4. By noon, it was apparent that there would not be enough battery power to continue using the t2i for the duration. In additional, I was not confident that the 60D would be able to shoot for an additional seven hours to complete the project that evening. As a result, and partially due to the unabating weather conditions, I decided to complete the first half of shooting on Friday, and return on Monday for the remainder, which would act as my second take. With a Sharpie pen, I marked the location of the tripod’s three legs. By 1pm, I had taken 2,072 still images.
On Monday, I resumed shooting at the same time I had departed on Friday – adjusted for the end of Daylight Savings Time over the weekend. The weather proved ideal – if not a bit boring – for resuming photography. The winds had ceased, which is apparent in the final video. The Canon t2i used up all three batteries just before sunset, so I was required to use the 60D for the final two hours (since the project was a series of still images taken in successive intervals, the very quick change of camera – no more than 30-45 seconds – should not have violated the “two take” limit of the project [nor would the need to periodically change batteries] as the tripod remained stationary at all times. The shooting was successfully completed about 90 minutes after sunset on Monday, November 7. That day, the t2i took 2,296 photographs and the 60D took 1,014.
IV. Assessment of Final Project
I was generally pleased with the final product. The combined images for the 4-plus minute time-lapse video consisted of a little less than the 5,382 photographs taken (about 100 were eventually discarded due to obstruction or significant movement due to wind). Despite some trepidation to include a sound component to the video, I opted to add a piano instrumental track that I found on ccmixter.org (a Creative Commons site), and cited in the end credits as such.
I believe the video was quite successful in accomplishing its goal of capturing images in, and of, movement and time. One certainly experiences a day in the life of New York City with its spectacle of lights and motion. The music seems appropriate for the images and the use of Thoreau’s quotes as the introduction (overlaying the final, and out-of-focus, still image taken on Monday night) offers a strong and coherent theme for what the viewer will see. Finally, after the time-lapse video ends, and credits are displayed, the offer of actual hi-def video – the last images captured on the camera – juxtaposes the viewer from the world of time-lapse motion to that of being able to see what I saw from the water’s edge in Brooklyn.
Where the project may have missed the mark somewhat was 1) in underestimating the very small effect that wind had on the images taken on Friday, and 2) the difficulty in taking still images spanning night and day which required nearly constant adjustments of f-stop and ISO. Hence, some images taken at night appear overexposed, despite never increasing the ISO levels above 1,000 out of concern for excessive granulation in the images.
By Mark Nickolas, on Thu Oct 20, 2011 at 9:14 AM ET
The midterm exam in Professor Boyle’s class — which is worth 30% of our grade — was due this evening. We had a choice of two of seven questions to answer. I chose to compare and contrast the styles of John Grierson and Pare Lorentz, as well as explore the issue of propaganda in documentary films by focusing on Frank Capra’s Prelude to War (1942) and Humphrey Jennings’s London Can Take it (1940):
Documentary: Its Art, History & Future
Prof. Deirdre Boyle
October 20, 2011
QUESTION 1: Masters of the documentary form emerged early, each different in their styles, values, and interests in filmmaking. Compare one pair of filmmakers (John Grierson and Pare Lorentz) and examine their divergent approaches to the documentary by analyzing the various reasons (intellectual, aesthetic, political, economic, etc.) behind their similarities as well as their differences.
John Grierson’s documentary style developed largely during his time spent in the U.S., beginning in 1924, as a Rockefeller Research Fellow where he studied the impact of the press, film, and other mass media on forming public opinions. At the same time, he was greatly influenced by writer and political philosopher Walter Lippmann who, according to Patricia Aufderheide, “argued that our increasingly complex society required professionals who could translate issues for the masses, who otherwise would become overwhelmed by the level of expertise needed to address any particular issue.”
Grierson concluded that the collective complexity of the problems facing the public demanded “a kind of democratic education that went beyond the individual stuffing himself with knowledge.” In a 1943 speech, he recounted how this thinking led him to filmmaking:
The idea of documentary in its present form came originally not from film people at all, but from the Political Science school in Chicago round about the early twenties. It came because some of us noted that Mr. Lippmann’s argument closely and set ourselves to study what, constructively, we could do to fill the gap in educational practice which he demonstrated…We thought, indeed, that even so complex a world as ours could be patterned for all to appreciate if we only got away from the servile accumulation of fact and struck for the story which held facts in living organic relationship together.
Eric Barnouw states that Grierson believed that the problems raised by Lippmann might be best handled by the filmmaker who could effectively dramatize the issues and their consequences and thereby “lead the citizen through the wilderness.” Following Lippmann’s suggestion that he investigate the evolving patterns of American film forms – and after visiting Hollywood – Grierson concluded he would not secure needed film financing through the established movie studios declaring, “Our cinema magnate does no more than exploit the occasion. He also, more or less frankly, is a dope pedlar.”
Meanwhile, Grierson continued his work in journalism, which began as graduate student in Scotland. His writings turned to film and that opened the door to work in New York City as a film critic for The Sun. A crucial outcome of this work was that it brought Grierson into close contact with Robert Flaherty, a relationship that would become a major building block of the documentary film movement. In fact, it was in his review of Flaherty’s second film, Moana, that Grierson would be the first to publicly use the term documentary. However, as Barnouw notes, Grierson hailed Flaherty as the father of documentary while at the same time “deploring his obsession with the remote and primitive.” Instead, Grierson began to show an affinity in his columns for Soviet cinema which stressed the “fluidity of its dramatic movement, the robustness of its approach, and the social reality of its content.”
By the time Grierson returned to England in 1927, he was convinced that film was the vehicle to shape public opinion during the Great Depression. Eschewing its value as art, he considered it a malleable form of publication, “of these the most important field by far is propaganda.” Richard Barsam says that Grierson saw the filmmaker as “a patriot first, and an artist second.” Having already excluded traditional options for financing, Grierson set out to find a government agency he might convince of his vision for the value of films. Soon, Grierson was hired as a film officer for the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), the government office responsible for promoting inter-Empire trade.” It was through EMB’s efforts that the modern documentary form began to be revealed.
Grierson then flashed one of his most effective personal attributes: his salesmanship ability. As Barnouw describes, while EMB wanted to pursue film work, it met resistance from its sole patron – the Financial Secretary of the Treasury, Arthur Michael Samuel, who opposed the effort. Grierson, not to be denied, realized that Samuel was the leading authority on the herring industry and proposed a film on the subject. In 1928, Drifters, the only film Grierson would ever direct, “brought the daily work of the herring fisheries to life in a way that astonished the audience.”
That Grierson would shine light on the everyday lives of British workers, even casting them as heroes, was revolutionary. While Flaherty might have trained the lens on the charming fishing villages, Grierson’s eye was squarely on “the teamwork of man and machine;” his emphasis on the working man, his skills and rituals. Deviation from Flaherty was clear, as we would see in subsequent films like Night Mail (an ode to the postal worker) and Housing Problems (spotlighting slum conditions at housing projects brought to us by direct address by the tenants themselves).
Drifters’ success catapulted Grierson’s career. Instead of directing films, he would now become “creative organizer” of EMB’s film unit, focusing on production and administration, recruiting and training budding filmmakers, closely monitoring projects (even watching dailies), securing ongoing funding, and “fanatically” shielding his units from bureaucratic interference. Grierson sought left-leaning political activists as recruits, like himself – a remarkable achievement and a bow to his political acumen, since funding would come by way of the British government’s Conservative Party. Grierson also ordered his teams to avoid the “aestheticky.” Per Barnouw, “they were propagandists first, film makers second. Art is a hammer, not a mirror.”
Despite his reluctance to get pinned down on his methods, Grierson did reveal his “first principles” of documentary: the cinema’s capacity for observing life (it could capture the living scene and the living story), its refusal to use actors, the belief that stories taken from “the raw” are finer and more real than those made by the “shim-sham mechanics” of the Hollywood studios. Aufderheide notes Grierson’s 1942 statement which summarizes his philosophy: “The documentary idea was not basically a film idea at all [but] a new idea for public education.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s aggressive efforts to tackle the Great Depression would find Americans seriously engaging with documentaries on its own soil for the first time. Aufderheide argues that the government’s massive investment – and intrusion into the lives of citizens – necessitated a proactive sales pitch by the Roosevelt administration. In 1934, the Resettlement Administration (RA), the agency responsible for combating rural poverty, tasked Pare Lorentz to lead the way.
Like Grierson, Lorentz had no previous filmmaking experience. Similarly, he had worked as a journalist, including writing film criticism, and was well known in music circles having often written about the role of music in film (likely an outgrowth of his mother’s career as a professional singer). In 1930, Lorentz collaborated on a book concerning the social role of cinema where he articulated his belief in the enormously powerful medium of film: “At its logical development…it could dwarf the stage, the press and literature with its power.”
The book was seen as an indictment of the film industry, a charge that would cause Lorentz problems throughout his career. His early attempts to make commercial films were unsuccessful, as were efforts to obtain footage from the studios, which later tried to keep his films out of theaters. Lorentz concluded that only the government could use film as a tool to truthfully inform the public. Barnouw adds that many in Hollywood viewed government film production itself as an outrage (some deeming it “socialism”), and Lorentz sought to overcome this attitude. Aufderheide notes that Lorentz – like Grierson and Vertov before him – “strove to make works of art in the service of state objectives he profoundly believed in.”
Lorentz’ first film – The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) – depicted the social and economic effects of the Dust Bowl that some equate with John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Lorentz described the film as telling “the story of the Plains and it tells it with some emotional value – an emotion that springs out of the soil itself. Our heroine is the grass, our villain the sun and the wind, our players the actual farmers living in the Plains country.” It was considered a powerful indictment of social and economic policies that ravished farm families, but also a strong endorsement of Roosevelt’s reforms. Despite being shunned by Hollywood distributors, Lorentz’ personal efforts ensured that the film was booked into 3,000 of the nation’s 14,000 theaters.
Lorentz’s style argued for films that were both aesthetically pleasing and politically relevant, blending images with music and a lyrical and poetic commentary never before seen in American documentary film. Compositionally, the films differ greatly from Grierson’s as they contain few close-ups and do not focus on specific people or personal stories. From the outset, Lorentz married his films to music. Betsy McLane suggests that Lorentz’s choice of utilizing “hypnotizing blank verse spoken over images and music” instead of typical narration in The River hints at influence from Grierson’s Night Mail released a year earlier which also linked images to poetry by W.H. Auden, along with a musical score by Benjamin Britton. Instead, “Lorentz found an American equal in Virgil Thomson” who combined American folk tunes and hymns with original themes.
Lorentz followed Plow with his greatest work: The River (1937), which poetically traced the history of the Mississippi River and its tributaries (his character) and made in association with the Tennessee Valley Authority. His theme was the relationship between the water, land, and people. With a budget ten times that of Plow, and with Roosevelt’s personal endorsement, the acclaimed film was distributed by Paramount to 5,000 theaters. Lorentz was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for the poetic narration he wrote for it. Roosevelt then named Lorentz to lead the newly-created U.S. Film Service to make films for various federal agencies, similar to that of Britain’s GPO Film Unit under Grierson’s command.
Thomson’s composition has been praised not just for its beauty and creativity, but for “the way that they work with the visual and narrative elements of the film to create a single work of art.” So important was Thomson’s work that Lorentz edited and cut the film to match the score in places and changing the music to match the images in others, giving the film balance and harmony:
My intent almost a half-century ago was to have the pictures tell their story; to augment that story with music that would not only be an accompaniment but would also evoke emotions related to the lives of the people concerned, and finally to write the fewest possible words, solely for explanation and clarity, and to have them as much as possible in time with the music.
In contrast to Grierson, many view the scripts to Lorentz’s films as closer to poetry than film narration. Barsam argues that “Lorentz’s films consistently achieve an artistic distinction, blending sight, sound, and theme in a way that few Grierson productions (Night Mail is the exception) ever matched.” While Grierson’s films teach, Lorentz opts instead for a less edgy emotional style that establishes a relationship with viewers as though they are being taken on a ride and free to roam.
In fact, following a 1938 meeting of the men in London, Lorentz “was somewhat scornful of Grierson’s theories about documentaries, which seemed to him those of a school teacher, precluding beauty. In fact, Lorentz didn’t like the term ‘documentary’ – didn’t care what the impulse was called but tried to avoid that label. In relation to his own work he applied the term ‘Films of merit.’” In this context, I would argue that Lorentz’s films are situated stylistically between Flaherty and Grierson.
While their films are both considered examples of the “problem-solution” type of documentary, Brian Winston has criticized Grierson’s approach for depicting problems just as they are about to be solved, or failing to evoke a call to action when they are not. But where Lorentz fell short was on the business and public relations side. Unlike Grierson, Lorentz was not a savvy politician and badly failed to see the big picture when it came to the economics of his filmmaking. Said Barnouw:
Lorentz seemed to have achieved a status comparable to that of Grierson, watching over a spreading documentary empire. But Grierson was a skilled politician who knew how to keep his fences mended; Lorentz was not. Lorentz was in the field, trying to maintain artistic control over diverse enterprises. In the midst of his whirlwind efforts, he received a shock: the appropriations committee of the House of Representatives had scuttled the U.S. Film Service.
QUESTION 2: “Propaganda,” as Abbie Hoffman once said, is “establishing vision as reality.” Select two films screened in class that you consider to be examples of propaganda, and explain why they are propaganda, how effective they were (and are now) as propaganda, and how your idea of “propaganda” has been impacted through this study.
The two films which will be discussed for their propaganda qualities are Frank Capra’s Prelude to War (1942) and Humphrey Jennings’ London Can Take It (1940).
London Can Take It (1940)
By 1939, with World War II looming, John Grierson left Britain’s GPO Film Unit and was dispatched to Canada to study the state of its government film production and established the National Film Board of Canada. At the same time, the GPO Film Unit (now Crown Film Unit) was tasked with making war films for the Ministry of Information. Grierson’s years at GPO’s helm had well prepared the nation for what Barnouw calls a “documentary war.” The GPO filmmakers were then seasoned veterans and the mission fell to Humphrey Jennings who had been brought to GPO by Grierson in 1934.
Jennings’ background before joining GPO was diverse and artistic: a theatrical and fabric designer, a painter, a literary critic, a poet, and a broadcaster. He was also credited with having had a major hand in bringing surrealism to Britain and starting the Mass-Observation project (a project in 1937 aimed at recording the everyday life in Britain using 500 untrained volunteer observers). While other “artists” working under Grierson found his avoidance of the “aestheticky” stifling, eventually leaving to pursue art on their own, Jennings wholly embraced the documentary form as another canvas to showcase his talents.
Jennings’ first project was the short film First Days (1939), done in collaboration with Henry Watt (who directed Night Mail). Barnouw claims the film “caught the spirit of the moment” with a style “precise, calm, rich in resonance.” The following year, as Nazi Germany launched its air assault on Britain, Jennings would again collaborate with Watt on a film whose intended audience was not British public as much as an isolationist American public. London Can Take It (1940) was a piece of British propaganda devised to push the U.S. into war against Germany, as well as boost morale at home. The film was shot over a two-week period – though cinematically portrayed as one night of bombing – during the “blitz” on London in the fall of 1940. The film was narrated by an American journalist, Quentin Reynolds, a war correspondent for Collier’s Weekly.
According to author Nicholas John Cull, the choice of Reynolds came from the Information Ministry which “wanted British authorship to be unobtrusive and decided that an American should provide the commentary…Reynolds repaid them by delivering an electrifying commentary and thinking up the title.” In fact, the U.S. release print credited only Reynolds. Jennings, Watt, and the British government went unmentioned. Watt later noted that “all America imagined that this was an unbiased, personal report made by one of their own people.”
Jennings’ film was a contrast in style from most government-sponsored war films, which Barnouw claims is a reason for its great impact. In a departure from the typical Griersonian approach, the film does not try to explain the British predicament, nor does it castigate or attempt to lay blame with the Nazis. Barnouw notes the absence of “hate-the-enemy incitements – which did crop up in British newsreels.” Its tone is calm and even, projecting Londoners as a stoic and hardy bunch who have learned how to deal with the nightly bombings that have continued for many weeks, yet return to a sense of normalcy by sunrise. It simply observes, depicting the blitz’s effect on ordinary people, an attempt to alter the perception of Britain as the huge empire which then comprised 20 percent of the world’s population.
Stylistically, like Lorentz, Jennings envelops his film with music, infusing it with Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms. Brian Winston argues that Jennings “filmed with rare understanding and empathy” and called the “multi-layering and juxtapositioning of sound and image that they achieved in the cutting room, working at the edge of what was then technically possible, render the film astonishing and challenging.”London was nominated for an Academy Award in 1940 in the short subject category. Even Joseph Goebbels called the film “a masterpiece of propaganda.”
No doubt, the film had to walk a tightrope in the U.S.: it needed to engage the American public to its plight without seeming to be either a lost cause or the likely victor. Either sentiment would likely fail to rouse Americans into such a sacrifice for another country without having first been attacked by the Axis powers. In Barnouw’s words, Jennings “seemed to be saying that time was short for humanity; that being human could not be postponed until some postwar era.”
As a piece of propaganda to generate the American public’s sympathy and change its opinion of Great Britain, it was wildly effective. According to Cull, the film would be shown in 12,000 theaters and seen by 60 million Americans. During its first run, eight theaters in “downtown New York” were showing the film. Public opinion during the run showed that Americans’ perception of the British had improved considerably. However, as in marketing, the goal is less to be loved than to get the public to buy your product. In the case of London, its emotional connection with Americans and its government did not translate into a drumbeat for war. Not yet, at least. That would come only after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
John Grierson was “bitterly critical” of the GPO’s propaganda efforts in the U.S. and expressed his sentiments directly to the Information Ministry:
Sympathy is only a second-class propaganda gambit and doesn’t create participation. It doesn’t create confidence. London Can Take It though…had I think the wrong secondary effect. “Boy was I sorry for London last night!.” Tear dropped, job over.
The British government agreed and instructed the BBC:
At the last meeting of the planning committee it was agreed that the phrase “Britain Can Take It” and the other members of the “Can Take It” family had become ineffectual and therefore undesirable. We should be glad therefore if you would discourage the use of such phrases in broadcasting.
Prelude to War (1942)
Once the U.S. entered World War II, the war propaganda effort was launched in its typical can-do fashion, with healthy doses of gaudiness and American exceptionalism added. Rather than returning to talented socially-conscious artists with no previous filmmaking experience (and who may have previously antagonized Hollywood), this time the federal government – specifically General George C. Marshall, President Roosevelt’s trusted Chief of Staff – went for pure Hollywood gold, tapping famed and beloved director Frank Capra, the champion of “the forgotten man.”
Though a Republican himself and having never created a documentary film, Capra was tasked with making a series of films collectively known as “Why We Fight” which would be primarily used as training and indoctrination for the millions of soldiers now forced to support the war effort and their viewing was compulsory. Equally critical was the need for the film to overcome the strongly held isolationist mentality of the American public. To combat this, Capra created Prelude with all the trappings of an over-the-top, big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Aufderheide points out the film’s interwoven images from Hollywood films, animated maps from Disney studios, U.S. Army footage, and use of enemy propaganda as a “portrayal of danger.” Barnouw refers to the film as “muscular and down-to-earth.” Aufderheide adds that its “style is jaunty, confident, even brash” and it use of “[p]olitical arguments are simplified, sometimes into falsity. No mention of segregation, for instance, creeps into the rosy portrait of American democracy.”
As a work of government propaganda, it was masterful. It shocked, rattled, and uplifted the nation, masterfully feeding the bitter medicine of military service in the form of a big screen epic on terms they understood – intellectually and emotionally. Notions of good and evil are prominent, so is the repeated invocation of the existential threat to Christianity that loomed. Maybe more than anything, Capra’s efforts would demonstrate that America had not really gone soft over the years. It simply needed a reason to rally and live up to its historic mission as a beacon for democracy and free people. More than 50 years later, it is difficult not be seduced and swallowed by the film.
Eventually, Prelude was released to the public to explain why the nation was at war, unifying Americans, and encouraging all to do their part in the war effort. Prelude, as well as the other films, were very successful and boosted public support for the war. In 1943, Prelude won the Academy Award for Best Documentary film and came with the Academy’s notation: “A special award to Prelude to War for its trenchant conception and authentic and stirring dramatization of the events which forced our nation into the war and of the ideals for which we fight.”
The Use of Propaganda
Personally, neither film altered or impacted my own idea of propaganda, even when the term is not limited to efforts by governments alone. I consider all documentary filmmaking as an exercise in someone’s propaganda, that is, each creator is presenting a point of view in accordance with his or her own view of the world, or the truth as they see it. Especially when it relates to political films, creators are surely attempting to promote or publicize a particular cause or point of view. In my opinion, we live in the present and can only approximate the past. It is impossible to eliminate subjectivity to documentary filmmaking as choices are constantly made by filmmakers.
Patricia Aufderheide reminded us that “documentaries are about real life; they are not real life. They are not even windows onto to real life. They are portraits of real life, using real life as their raw materials’ constructed by artists and technicians who make myriad decisions about what story to tell to whom, and for what purpose.” I agree whole-heartedly. Whether the effort is a government film to sell the benefits of the TVA or entering a war or shining light on British slums or saluting the workers, each is attempt to bring us to a particular point-of-view and, sometimes, a call to action. We are seduced by images and music and poetry or are moved by fear of an enemy. The films discussed above by Grierson, Lorentz, Jennings, and Capra are examples of ones which have stuck with generations of viewers. Many, many more will never be discussed after they are released. It is for each of us to decide how much weight to give a point of view, rather than be simply seduced by what is presented.
Notes for Question #1
 Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary film: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press, 2007. Print, p. 33.
 Ellis, Jack C. John Grierson: life, contributions, influence. SIU Press, 2000. Print, p. 22.
 Aitken, Ian. Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film. Routledge, 2006, pp. 823-26.
 “Pare Lorentz and the Films of Merit.” Reaping the Golden Harvest: Pare Lorentz, Poet and Filmmaker. American Studies at the University of Virginia. 1998. Web. 18 Oct. 2011 <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/FILM/lorentz/bio.html>.
 McLane, Betsy A. “‘The River’ Runs Through It: The Legacy of Pare Lorentz.” Documentary.org. Nov/Dec 2007. Web. 18 Oct. 2011 <http://www.documentary.org/content/river-runs-through-it-legacy-pare-lorentz>.
 “The River.” Reaping the Golden Harvest: Pare Lorentz, Poet and Filmmaker. American Studies at the University of Virginia. 1998. Web. 18 Oct. 2011 <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/FILM/lorentz/river.html>.
 Winston, Brian. “Books: Humphrey Jennings: Lost Star of the British Screen ; Humphrey Jennings by Kevin Jackson.” The Independent Dec 10 2004: 27. ProQuest. PROQUESTMS. 20 Oct. 2011 <http://search.proquest.com/docview/310752821?accountid=12261>.
 “Mass Observation.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2011 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_Observation>.
 Matthews, Peter. “Fires were Started.” Sight and Sound 2000: 34,34, 3. International Index to Performing Arts. PROQUESTMS. 20 Oct. 2011 <http://search.proquest.com/docview/1820853?accountid=12261>.
By Mark Nickolas, on Wed Oct 12, 2011 at 9:26 AM ET
Our second tech project in Film Form involved video, as follows:
Take-Home Tech Project #2 – MP: Film Form
This is the second of your three main Tech Projects. This one involves the use of the Panasonic HD camera (or, if you prefer, the Canon SLR). For this assignment, I would like you to use this equipment to develop a small project that explores the temporal nature of the cinematic medium. As Tarkovsky and others point out, the film image doesn’t consist merely of images in movement and time but images of movement and time. This leads filmmakers like Antonioni to claim that the task of the filmmaker is “to catch a reality which is never static, is always moving toward or away from a moment of crystallization, and to present this movement, this arriving and moving on, as a new perception” (Antonioni, “Event and the Image,” p.51).
Using the “Imprinted Time” essay from Sculpting in Time as a starting point or source of inspiration, I would like you to use the HD/SLR Camera to compose and record a scene that exemplifies the durative quality of the cinematic image; its ability to capture a process, a progression, the unveiling of an idea, the passage through which something emerges, comes into being, flickers, and disappears. By “scene” I have in mind one (possibly, two) long takes, which combined should be no more than 5 minutes in length, although I will consider other ways of interpreting this assignment. To be clear: you can simply plan one take that would be between 4 to 5 minutes in length; or you can combine two shots that should, in total, add up to no more than 5 minutes. (Any significant divergence from the description on this sheet would need the instructor’s approval to receive credit.)
The purpose of the assignment is both to allow students to familiarize themselves with the equipment available at The New School as well as to encourage the student to engage with a central cinematic problematic, i.e., a problem specific to film. For this reason, I’m less concerned at this point in technical mastery than in the quality of your ideas, and the effort you put into the task. Remember too that since this is largely an exercise in mise-en-scène (or, as Eisenstein would say, mise-en-shot), some attention to composition, to framing and perspective, would also be appreciated here.
Assignment is due at the beginning of the November 8 session. All late submissions will receive a reduced mark. The date of the class screening, you should submit two items:
(1) A disc with your exercise on it; properly formatted (as per TA’s instructions, to be posted to BB).
(2) A TWO to THREE page written report on the exercise in which you will discuss:
(a) The concept you tried to realize in your work.
(b) The idea/argument from the reading material that you used as a starting point to develop your film, and why (what was it about this particular idea/argument that you found intriguing or interesting)? This section should be a MINIMUM of one full paragraph and should demonstrate a real engagement with the arguments made in the essay you have selected.*
(c) A short review of the technical elements of your work, focusing on the specific equipment you utilized, and any attempts to use the equipment in a specialized way (e.g., experiments with color temperature, use of special lenses, tripods and dollies, etc.).
(d) A brief assessment of how the project turned out: did it succeed in the way you planned, or not, and for what reasons?
* I said this before but will repeat it here: the written report officially counts as part of your Short Writing Assignment grade, but your comments here may also influence, for better or worse, the score you receive for the Tech Project. It should not, therefore, be considered a throwaway assignment.
**Note too that while you may choose to include some sort of basic audio component to accompany the visuals, it is not required. Send me an email at if you have any questions.
By Mark Nickolas, on Tue Oct 11, 2011 at 3:28 PM ET
After much thought, I decided to create my 16mm Bolex camera film project in Lincoln Center at night. As I wrote in the accompanying paper to the project below, the idea for a ‘night at Lincoln Center’ was to reveal elements from the iconic Manhattan location, at first allowing a peek at the micro – such as tight shots of flowing water and portions of its digital wall, without context or hint of location – and then slowly widening the frame to allow access to macro elements — the water fountain and the Metropolitan Opera House – before ending with the familiar wide-angle shot of the plaza from the vantage point of Columbus Avenue. The goal was to present the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle before revealing its full form. While native New Yorkers might discern the location after a few shots, a tourist might require several more before situating himself.
It was a challenging assignment, as I discussed in my paper, but a great learning experience in working with film and creating a project which required a great deal of thought with respect to composition, framing, structure, and planning.
Here’s the video of the project (since the product was film that required a projector to be shown, this is a digital video of the projected film, so the quality is degraded a fair amount):
Here’s the paper that was submitted along with the film:
Night at Lincoln Center (Bolex Project)
The executed idea for my Bolex project is a ‘night at Lincoln Center’ where the film reveals elements from the iconic Manhattan location, at first allowing a peek at the micro – such as tight shots of flowing water and portions of its digital wall, without context or hint of location – and then slowly widening the frame to allow access to macro elements — the water fountain and the Metropolitan Opera House – before ending with the familiar wide-angle shot of the plaza from the vantage point of Columbus Avenue. The goal was to present the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle before revealing its full form. While native New Yorkers might discern the location after a few shots, a tourist might require several more before situating himself.
From the outset, the goal was to capture the experience of Lincoln Center at night, where the lights from the water fountain and the various concert halls illuminate and isolate the location from the surrounding lights and din. However, the initial goal was to construct a character-based narrative, following a woman emerging from the subway who presumably comes to the Center for a show and then enjoys the sights from the edge of the fountain. After walking through the location one evening and taking test shots (digital and video) with a Canon Rebel t2i, it became apparent that such a narrative would be difficult to construct given the issues with lighting. Any attempt to draw out a person’s face sitting next to the self-illuminated fountain would run the risk of either overwhelming the frame with the fountain’s strong light or presenting a woman poorly lit or simply in silhouette. As such, the idea was modified to present Lincoln Center as its own character and incorporating the elements already present while filming.
II. Technical Elements
The film stock used was Kodak’s Vision 3 500T color negative film. Only one roll was shot. In executing the goal of slowly revealing elements of the location, the challenge – primarily in the early shots where the 75mm lens was used – was to overcome the lack of available light since all shooting was done after 10 p.m., the reason for choosing 500T film stock. Light meter readings taken the previous night often failed to move to the meter’s needle at all. As a result, most of the shots – except those near illuminated objects such as the water fountain or digital wall – were taken with the camera lens fully “open,” especially when using the 75 mm telephoto lens. Additionally, several very low light shots, where no motion would be detected in the frame (i.e., people walking or traffic), were shot at 12 frames per second in order to gain one full stop of additional light.
As a result of these challenges, and after spending two evenings taking test shots and light readings, I prepared a spreadsheet of the tentative shot sequence (a copy of which is attached) which specified the style of framing, lens, duration, and frames per second, along with notations to help guide me while shooting. However, since the spreadsheet was an estimation – as the Bolex itself was not used to gauge framing during the walkthroughs – it was largely followed as far as shot sequence, but lighting and framing during the actual filming required considerable adjustments, if used at all.
III. Assessment of Final Project
Several problems were encountered during shooting which I anticipate will adversely affect the final product (I write this before having screened the film).
First, while Lincoln Center security permitted me to film on location, they would not allow a tripod to be set and used. As a result, all of the shots – other than of the digital wall and the final wide-shot of the plaza which were taken from the sidewalk – were done with the camera hand-held which I suspect will be noticeable in telephoto shots where shaking will appear pronounced.
Second, in order to minimize shaking of the camera, the cable release attachment was used for some of the shots. In one of the later shots, the attachment remained stuck as the camera was running. Since the camera was being hand-held, it had to be turned on its side to disengage the cable and the final film will no doubt reflect this problem.
Finally, in a few early shots taken in very low light, it was especially difficult to properly set focus since the view through the diopter appeared darker than the human eye and there were no clear objects to establish focus (for example, one shot was of slowly rippling water in the unlit reflecting pool).
Despite these hurdles and challenges, the intended narrative of Lincoln Center slowly revealing itself appeared to have come together, and I was particularly pleased with the final wide-shot of the plaza as I was able to capture several visitors posing for someone else in silhouette in front of the fountain.
Finally, here’s the report from my professor on the project:
By Mark Nickolas, on Fri Sep 16, 2011 at 10:28 AM ET
After several weeks of instruction, and passing a written and practical test by the film office in the operation and care of the Bolex 16mm film camera, I get a chance to jump into my first-ever attempt at working with 16mm film…real celluloid.
Since we’re working with a single 100ft roll of film — that must be developed — you are unable to see what you are filming, must shoot sequentially, and are constantly challenged by the operation of this pretty neat machine.
Here’s is our first tech assignment for class:
Take-Home Tech Exercise #1
This is your first take-home tech project. It involves the use of the Bolex film camera and a single roll of film. There will be no editing after the fact. All editing as such will take place “in camera” while shooting the 100-foot roll. (Since the maximum “shot” length is 20-30 seconds – the maximum time that the camera will run without having to be re-cranked – your film will have a minimum of 6 shots. Based on the average shot length it could have significantly more than this.)
Since the purpose of the assignment is to encourage you to think about the specifics of the equipment that you are using – and to conceive a project with this specificity in mind – you will be asked to also include another additional challenge: you must choose no more than two or three formal techniques to execute your film. Among the techniques to consider: rack focus, slow motion, fast motion, stop motion, matte shots (or split screen), double (or multiple) exposure, pans/tilts, tracking shot/dolly shot, handheld camera. Other elements not mentioned here – such as shot duration, film stocks as well as choice of lenses and filters – do not fall under the same constraints (although I encourage you to think carefully about your choices here as well). The goal is to make purposeful choices about the techniques you are employing, and to let these choices help determine the direction or shape of the project so that you can create a work that feels formally and thematically unified.
I’m less concerned here with technical mastery than in the overall quality of your ideas, as well as the effort you put into the task. Assignment is due on Tuesday, October 11. They will be viewed in class on that day. Late submissions will incur a deduction.
On October 11 you should submit TWO items:
1. A 16mm print of your film. (It will eventually be returned to you.)
2. A TWO to THREE page written report on the exercise in which you will discuss:
a) The concept/idea you tried to realize in your work. (If you developed more than one project, or the project evolved while you shot the roll, or tried a second or third roll, you can discuss this as well.)
b) A short review of the technical elements of your work, including the choice of techniques, film stock, etc., and a few words about why you chose them.
c) A brief assessment of how the project turned out: did it succeed in the way you planned, or not, and for what reasons? (If you like you can submit this portion of the written report after the screening. However, portions (a) and (b) should be complete and submitted in hard copy form the day of the class.)
Note: while your written reports officially count as part of your Short Writing Assignment grade (consult syllabus), they can also play a positive role in how I access your tech projects. You should thus put some time into these reports, taking the opportunity to demonstrate the work you put into the overall project. Don’t forget that, along with creativity and inspiration, you are also being graded on commitment and engagement. Your written report is one place to communicate this to me.
By Mark Nickolas, on Fri Sep 9, 2011 at 9:28 AM ET
As we are learning about the history of film, one must start with the invention of the movie camera by Auguste and Louis Lumiere in 1895 in France, called the Cinematographe. At about the same time in United States, Thomas Edison created his own version called the Kinetoscope.
The main difference between the two cameras was that the Lumiere camera was meant to be projected on a screen. In fact, its cameras literally served three simultaneous functions: it filmed an event, it developed the film within the camera’s housing, and the cameras would serve as its own projector. Moreover, it weighed about 10 pounds so that it was portable and could be carried to remote locations. Edison’s camera was enormous and not portable and, unlike the Lumiere, was designed for films to be viewed individually, not projected on the screen. As a result, the Cinematographe became the established camera during the birth of cinema.
Our first assignment in Media Practices: Film Form was to watch one of the short films made in 1995 by several dozen of the top directors in the world in commemoration with the 100th anniversary of the Lumiere invention, as follows:
Short Writing Assignment #1 – Film Form
1. View a selection of the short pieces made for the anthology film Lumière & Co. (1995), each of which is roughly 40 seconds in length. You can watch these either on DVD or posted to YouTube.
2. After viewing a number of them (there are 39 total, but you don’t necessarily have to view all of them), choose ONE to write about. In a 1-2 page essay discuss the reasons behind your choice. In what way did this particular film stand out for you? How did the filmmaker manage to creatively work within the boundaries/limitations imposed by the film’s producers? (If you like, you can compare your preference to one or two other works made for the collection, but this should not be the emphasis in the paper.)
3. Submit this paper in hard copy form in next week’s class, September 6.
I chose to focus my paper on the film created by Chinese director Zhang Yimou (see below). Here’s what I submitted, as well as final remarks from my professor:
By Mark Nickolas, on Tue Aug 30, 2011 at 9:09 AM ET
Today, the Fall 2011 semester begins and I am enrolled in three courses — all of which I’m quite excited about. Though both Film Form and Cinematography are geared towards more traditional (i.e., fiction) filmmaking, I’ve long believed that documentarians need to be familiar with and embrace the history, theory, and techniques of the cinema. Not only does a strong understanding of theory and history inform your practice, but the aesthetic component of the art of making films — fiction or non-fiction — are also paramount. You want people to embrace both the content and style of your work. So, I’m excited about diving into those areas and becoming a better filmmaker.
In this hybrid theory/practice course, students will immerse themselves in a number of aesthetic questions that will challenge them to think precisely and creatively about the properties of the medium. What are the fundamental structures at the basis of film? What role do these structures play in the spectator¹s cognitive and affective engagement with film? Rather than presume an answer derived from the other arts, students will be encouraged to engage with cinema on its own terms, to engage with film as its own unique system of sign production. Through the close study of a select group of films in a variety of styles and genres (shorts and features, fiction and documentary, narrative and experimental) students will be introduced to a number of key topics, including framing and perspective; open and closed forms of montage; movement- and time-image; on- and off-screen space (actual and virtual space); audio-visual relations. In-class discussion and analysis will be supplemented with five Saturday afternoon tech labs. Tech labs consist of instruction in film (Bolex), sound (Flash), video (mini DV) and editing (FCP).
*Prerequisite: Media Practices: Concepts or instructor permission.
*Students registering for ‘Media Practices: Film Form’ must also register for the Saturday technical lab. The lab does not carry course credit and no tuition is charged. The purpose of the lab is to provide additional technical assistance and outside of class hands-on practice for all students enrolled in the sections of Media Practices: Film Form. The labs will be conducted by the course Teaching Associates. Students are required to attend at least 7 sessions and are encouraged to attend all.
This workshop combines theoretical and practical elements of cinematography with special emphasis on cultivating a film sensibility. While learning techniques of studio and location lighting, students also study composition and coverage, and how movement, angles, and placement create a cinematographic style. In this class students will learn the tools, hardware, and technology used in the industry, as well as work through the aesthetic decisions that contribute to how a story is told. Looking at the special advantages, particular limitations and collaborative possibilities of both digital and film cinematography, the class will address issues of integrated media. Exercises will include: essential lighting and grip equipment, color film stocks, hard light vs. soft light, location shooting, color temperature and fluorescent lights, exterior lighting and control of natural light, covering a scene and continuity from a cinematographer, point of view, and camera and actor choreography. Practical tests and scenes are shot using color and black & white 16mm film stocks, as well as digital video.
*Permission required. Contact the Film Form Academic Coordinator.
The documentary is arguably the most challenging and influential form of film and video. It touches, informs, and sometimes outrages millions of viewers seeking facts and insights in a complex world. This historical introduction to the genre begins with the earliest “actuality” films of the Lumiere brothers and ends with the latest postmodern explorations of film truth. The course examines how changing technology, shifting social and political realities, and the personalities and talents of influential individuals have continually re-defined what documentary means. Ethical as well as aesthetic issues are considered. Weekly screenings are of classics by Vertov, Flaherty, Grierson, Riefenstahl, Rouch, and Wiseman, as well as contemporary works.
By Mark Nickolas, on Tue Jul 26, 2011 at 12:31 PM ET
For my final project in Media Practices: Design, I chose to create a movie campaign for a film called the Harlem Clubhouse, a project that I am actually working on separate from my film school studies. The film is about the history of the four men who were the kings of political power in Harlem since the mid 1960s: Charlie Rangel, Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson, and David Dinkins.
The final project for my Design class was to create a movie poster and a mock-up of a website. After about a week of work in Adobe Illustrator, here are my final drafts:
HARLEM CLUBHOUSE Movie Poster (click twice for larger version):
HARLEM CLUBHOUSE Movie Website (click twice for larger version):
By Mark Nickolas, on Sun Jul 24, 2011 at 4:21 PM ET
My artwork educates the public about the happenings in the American political system as well as providing itself a catalyst for meaningful political and social change. During my 15 years in national Democratic politics, I first worked as an actor in managing political campaigns across the country and later an observer and commentator to help translate and put into context the political events of the day through the vehicle of print and online media. It is through my artwork that I have been able to complete the shift from actor and observer to creator.
Those years in politics demonstrated to me that one person with some talent and experience, a little courage, and, importantly, a megaphone, could be an effective catalyst for meaningful change. Nowhere is the ability to inform and educate the masses about the happenings in its political system more evident than in political documentary films. One need look no further than Fahrenheit 9/11 or An Inconvenient Truth to understand how documentaries are able to circumvent the media and political filters and speak directly to the public about the critical issues of our time.
It is through this form that I intend to spotlight, translate, and educate, using my own experience as my compass and the camera as my canvas. As our political system becomes more caustic, officials less willing to address the vital issues of concern, and the traditional media abdicating its historical role as watchdog, the role of the documentary filmmaker takes on even greater importance as a counterweight for the public.
By Mark Nickolas, on Thu Jul 21, 2011 at 6:56 AM ET
For our brand design project, we were asked to work as a team to design a brand from scratch including mission statement, logo, print ad, and website layout. I was responsible for both mission statement as well as the website layout:
Soap Box Media is committed to financing and distributing feature-length documentary films that seek to advance the urgent social justice and human rights issues of our times with strong preference given to emerging and first time filmmakers. The company’s primary goal is to support the creation of socially conscious films that entertain audiences and ignite social change.
Soap Box Media works through two channels: providing strategic financial support and creative guidance to projects in their infancy, as well as distributing films nationwide, securing all rights for theatrical, DVD, television, mobile and online platforms and providing strong backing during their releases with major marketing campaigns.
Our philosophy embraces a “double bottom line” approach as we seek to enrich civic dialogue through creation and distribution of powerful documentary films while utilizing a hybrid business model that, unlike some major commercial studios, properly respects and rewards independent filmmakers without requiring full surrender of proprietary rights to their projects.
By Mark Nickolas, on Tue Jul 12, 2011 at 12:57 PM ET
Our photoshoot assignment this week in our Media Practices: Design class was to focus on objects in studio lighting. I choose the Egyptian Art exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Below are my top 9 photos. All 24 photos can be viewed on my Flickr page.
After 15 years in Democratic politics and media, I returned to school this year with the goal of becoming a political documentary filmmaker. In January 2011, I began work on a Master's of Arts degree in Media Studies and Film at The New School in New York City. This website will serve to document my journey.