Friday, December 08, 2006

Cinemastudies: Montage in Motion

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Street of Crocodiles

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Prison Sex video

Hope the title isn't too misleading - this isn't intended to be a complete study of montage in motion, just a comparison between two sequences to see what we can learn by analysing them. I've chosen two similar(ish) sequences from two excellent films; Street of Crocodiles by the Quays and Tool's Prison Sex video. It's obvious the Tool videos are strongly influenced by the work of the Quays, but it's also obvious that the directors/animators have tried to go their own way, as difficult as that is under the monumental infuence of something so startlingly original and powerful. In this day and age, with the work of the Quays becoming more and more well-known, anyone influenced by them is in the same boat as the fantasy illustrators of the 70's who labored in the mighty shadow of Frank Frazetta.... it's impossible to do anything that isn't either a tribute to (or in some cases outright plagiarism) or a reaction against that work. And that's the crux of the problem faced by so many of us animators who are fascinated by the Quays - how to break away and not end up copying them!

But I digress - that isn't the point of this entry. Rather I want to go in-depth and really analyse what's happening in each of these clips, at least from a cinematography viewpoint.

One of the major differences is in the design of the set for each clip. As the Quays stated in an interview, they like to (and I paraphrase as well as my memory allows): " design the decor in such a way that the action of the scene can be framed through the portals of the architecture of the set". And this does always seem to be the case in their films - we're usually seeing puppets through framing devices like windows or doorways, archways, or something similar. It makes the sapce seem more complete, or in theatrical terms completes "the illusion of the fourth wall". In the Tool video we only see a corner consisting of two walls meeting, which comes across as rather bare in contrast (not that it's really fair to compare the two, I do it only for purposes of comparison and contrast in order to point out things that might be hard to express otherwise). So already, before even introducing a puppet or movement of any kind, we see the excellent design aesthetic of the Quays and how important it is in creating their little worlds. I think it would be fair to say that at least 99 percent of all stopmotion films fall into the category opf the Tool clip, utilising a simple three wall configuration. Let's face it, it's a heck of a lot easier to build and to animate in!

The next immediately apparent difference to me is in the puppets. Quay puppets are cobbled together from scavenged pieces of antique dolls, bringing to bear a certain sense of antiquity and of stylishness that's lacking in (again) 99% of stopmotion films. In nmoist stopmo productions the puppets are freshly cast from molds or built up, and the aesthetic is toylike - super-clean and brightly painted, or else it's an attempt at realism as is the case in more naturalistic creatures of the Harryhausen/O'Brien ilk. I know it sounds like I;m knocking these types of puppets... I really don't mean to! It's just so rare to run across something at the level of what the Quays do, and it's hard not to let the praise seep into my rhetoric. Here's a thought that once again relates to my iodea of "Things that work well (in stopmotion) and things that don't" (which was originally a result of studying Quay films) - how hard do you suppose it was to build that puppet from Street of Crocodiles compared to the (from what I understand) almost 4 foot tall silicone puppet in the Prison Sex video? I believe the Quays will use (often mismatched) parts of old dolls or puppets and insert custom-made joints between them. They both make puppets, and I assume they're making ball and socket joints and somehow fitting them into the parts. If you study the puppets you notice the proportioning isn't right, in fact it's downright bizarre.... necks are twice as long as they should be, wrists don't bend in the right place. These are practically the only determining factors in the design of most puppets fabricated specifically for a production, within the limitations imposed by the materials and size of joints needed. And yet somehow the Quay puppets come out looking more natural, more "right" than even the most carefully designed and painstakingly fabricated rubber puppets. At least for their intended purpose... I'm sure a Quay puppet wouldn't look right wandering around in a Tim Burton film, nor would Jack Skellington or the Corpse Bride be at home in a Quay film. I think it works because the Quays are so true to their "found object" aesthetic. Just as when they build a set they don't attempt to imitate realistic textures or proportions.... "The Zone" for Street of Crocodiles, while built to represent a dilapidated and rundown warehouse district was far from naturalistic. Instead they basically used large sheets of material (I'm assuming wood for the most part, though there were also sheets of grimy glass) on which were applied various widgets and textures and some attempt was made to create a surrealistic sense of a warehouse district. An approach like this is more organic and process-oriented than the more fastidious and painstaking process that begins by designing a set and then building it so that realism is imitated. I still wince when I remember how much effort and time went into just making two brick-textured panels for my Race the Wind tests a while back! Yeesh! Then I look at the old Hat Tip Test where all I did was pour out some Durham's Rock Hard Water Putty onto a sheet of cardboard and press in a bricklike texture with the edge of a lathboard and it looks even better! somehow it suits the aesthetic better too.

Ok, on to the fun stuff! this is the main point I want to make - the use of montage technique in each of these clips. In Street of Crocodiles it's subtle and sophisticated, conveying a continual sense of movement through space (albeit a twisting motion) whereas in the Tool video it's patchy and fails to really move in any direction. I'll examine my reasons for saying this, but first a bit of quicktime lore to help you get the best use out of this exercise - the beauty of using quicktime for an animated clip like this is that you can pause it by tapping your space bar, and then progress frame by frame either forward or reverse by using the arrow keys. I don't know of another type of online video viewer that allows this. Also, to really examine the animation or the cinematography closely, turn the volume all the way down so you're not distracted by sound. As you read each part of my commentary you might want to go back and watch the part I'm discussing. Ok, on to our discussion....

Street of Crocodiles clip:
We begin with a view of/through a sheet of dirty glass. Already this is multi-layered, because you're seeing the surface of the glass as well as what's beyond it. The camera is in motion, seeming to seek out something. The camera moves in the quay films always seem to be active, seeking something - be it the next interesting object or area, the next puppet to be introduced, or a reaction shot looking toward some sudden action. This makes the camera a sort of narrator, and brings the viewer into the film almost actively, or rather as if he's being led through it by a storyteller. It's like being on a guided tour rather than just wandering the streets on your own not knowing where to look next. So often when i see montage or camera movement used in movies these days it's completely unmotivated, apparently just for the sake of making a movie more exciting like a roller coaster ride. But the Quays are very "old school", and use camera movement only to make a point.

So, we begin with the camera drifting sort of aimlessly across this expanse of dirty glass, while something mysterious is pulsating slowly behnd it (or is it reflected on the front, who can tell? Another level of mystery). The pulsations have an almost living quality to them, like the rhythm of a heartbeat. This parallels certain other rhythmic movements they've populated this wasteland with, all seeming to be dictated by the rhythm of the "rubberband cutting machine" at the heart of "the zone". Only for a second is the camera's wandering aimless, then it's suddenly drawn by the appearance of our nameless hero, who's on the other side of the glass peering through it intently (almost as if looking out at us, but trust the Quays never to do anything so tacky). Not only is he looking through the glass, but he's rubbing a tiny hand against it, strengthening its tactile quality and giving the impression of maybe wanting to wipe away some of the grime to see better through it. Like the camera before spotting him he's looking around kind of aimlessly at first, then suddenly seems to spot something. He whirls, lifting to more completely fill the scene. It's a beautiful entrance, done with incredible subtlety. He sees something else on the other side, whirls again, and rises even more fully into view, changing the composition. He rapidly flees this shot to appear in the next, raptly intent on whatever's caught his attention. He keeps this behavior up, looking into windows on either side of the street, as if fascinated by the strange things he sees in these shops. The rhythm of his movements is important... as in a lot of european animation there's a sort of flow/pause/flow quality, fluid and graceful, but punctuated by sudden abrupt changes of direction or complete reversals (in the sequence there don't seem to be any complete reversals, which would interrupt the constant forward progression, though at times he spins into almost the opposite direction> It's important to note though that even when he does this, he seems to actually be still moving forward in a twisting path dictated by his random noticing of shiny things in shop windows). His movements, like those of the camera util spotting him, are exploratory, leading him deeper into this glass maze. This section serves as a transition from one part of the film to the next, leading him (and us along with him) into the tailor's shop, where the rest of it takes place. Cutting is always "on the action", meaning an action will begin in one shot, an action that would take the character out of that shot, and when the next camera setup is revealed that same action is continuing. It helps make cuts less visible, or to bridge them smoothly. If he whirls and is leaving a frame off the left edge, he enters the next frame from the right, still moving toward the left. It's continuity in effect.

He dodges across the street and looks in the opposite glass wall, and this time there's a reflection of him, adding yet again to the sense of his being actually enclosed in this glass space. Note the way he leans so far forward, his torso diagonal. So often puppets walk around upright and just stroll lazily from one place to the next. This guy always seems to be moving dynamically - rising into a shot or dropping out of it as if going to his knees for a better look. He spins into a shot and whirls out. Its like a dance, graceful and elegant. And in fact, the Quays always say they work from a very musical standpoint. Their action is in rsponse to musical and auditory cues, or rhythmical like music, rather than being propelled by drama or narrative.

And the final shot of this sequece adds another level of mystery and artifice, when it's revealed that what you at first think is the puppet himself is actually only his reflection, and when that spins off the edge of the shot the hand of the real puppet glides in, closer and still continuing the same twisting motion begun by it's reflected doppleganger. Absolutely brilliant! And "All done with mirrors"! This kind of motion couldn't be pre=planned and storyboarded... I believe it could only occur when you've got your set put together and you play arpund a bit with the camera and puppet, watching carefully for new possibilities. That's one of the greatest strengths the Quays have, their ability to 'listen' to a puppet, to notice the possibilities offered by a particular setup. If you're working from a strict storyboard you're blind and deaf to those possibilities.

finally, (though I already sort of covered this it bears re-examining) think about the way the puppet moves through space - the flat space of the frame in each shot, as well as the 3 dimensional space of the set. He's down low, only the top of his head and a hand visible, then he rises up (the movement motivated by his exploring of the set) to move more fully into the center of the composition, to become the focus of it as it were. Then he moves from a half-up shot to an extreme closeup, focus on his eyes, giving the impression of thought going on (because he's exploring and that's made palpable by use of cinematography and staging). And when you examine his movement, be it across the flat surface of the computer monitor or through the fully 3-dimensional space of the set, he's always twisting and snaking forward. I could go on and on, but this is long enough already! Time to move on....

Prison Sex video
First let me say, I Like this video, though I'm basically using this sequence to illustrate some common mistakes in cinematography (or what amount to mistakes when compared to the sublime work we've just seen). I won't examine this one as in-depth as I did the Quay clip (you can breathe easier now - it's almost over!). I feel like what we have here is a typical american action-movie montage, like sopmething where you'd expect to see an explosion or a car crash, maybe with the hero and his girl flying in slow motion through the air toward camera in front of it.

We begin with three successive shots of - essentially the same motion from differnet camera angles. It all takes place in this simple corner set, and the movement is completely unmotivated. Why is this puppet standing up (over and over again)? We don't know. I suppose it's her entrance, but nowhere near as effective as that brilliant scene just analysed (though that wasn't even our hero's entrance, just his entrance into that particular sequence). The standing-up motion is kind of dull to begin with, rising from a hump-backed lump. It isn't visually compelling enough to warrant three successive views. And the use of three separate camera angles to shoot the same action is annoying to me - it's what's done as I said in action movies to ensure good coverage of an unrepeatable event like an explosion or a crash, and today's rather unimaginative directors simply don't want to choose between all the coverage, so instead they show each shot one after the other, doubtless thinking it's exciting and that it increases the film's dynamism and appeal. Wrong! It could, if it was done effectively, with continuous motion as was demonstrated in the Quay clip, but instead we see part of the action, then in the next shot it's rewound back to the first frame and we have to watch it again. And again...... point taken I trust. What I'm saying is, once the character has stood up, why do we want to see her crouching down again/! It's self-thwarting behavior... it takes us back to square one. In a game, if you keep going back to square one it means you're not doing well.

There's something else I find annoying about this clip as well.... it's about the positioning of the puppet relative to the frame. She always seems to be centered and upright, after completing the standing up gesture. Take the shot where her hands are right in front of the camera in extreme closeup.... there's a centeredness to them as well. Each hand takes up half of the screen space, divided neatly across the center. They move in opposite directions, but at exactly the same rate, so the movement balances out any dynamism it could have had. It IS a neat visual, but could have been so much more powerful from a different camera angle or with a little shifting of visual elements. Instead it becomes like a simple gate opening, revealing the puppet standing perfectly upright and centered behind it. And then the final shot - where I ended the clip. Something annoying about it as well to me. She's not centered now - or is she? The head is off to one side, and looking away at an angle, but then up comes the hand and now head and hand are perfectly balanced against each other, each occupying the center of its screen section. And that final shot (of my clip).... does anyone really stand like that? I mean even in mid-gesture, with the hand pointing straight up and palm flat directly forward? It just seems really fake and unnatural to me. As bizarre as some of the Crocodile man's movements were, they always felt natural and were motivated.

Ok, guess I'll wrap this up now. See ya next time!


Anonymous said...

Mike - it sure is easy to get into over-analysis on the Quays, especially Street of Crocodiles, isn't it? I am not poking fun, it's a very interesting and positive act in the fact that there IS much to learn from analysis. I remember going into a very long 'rant' (seems like a negative term, although it isnt at all) regarding the aesthetic of the Quay's musical sense in Street. It's a beautiful film, and as you said, the vast shadow of it is something which won't be easy to move out of. And yet, maybe we shouldn't try to 'move out' of it. Instead, we should take all that we learn from it and mould it into the structure of our own visions, learning so much in the process.

Anonymous said...

DUDE, the clip like Tools music is mean't to be stange and bazzar , thats what draws people to this , I have been a HUGE fan of tools stopmotion clips since 1996.

To be honest if the clips were normalised it just wouldn't fit at all, I personaly think these clips are a work of art, to understand the clips you MUST first know the music then , you will appreciate the stopmotion that is with the music.

Darkmatters said...

I knew somebody would misinterpret this! Anonymous, as I said already, I really like the Tool videos - I was just using this particular sequence as reference to point out some things about the Quay clip. They're very similar, but the Quay clip is powerful and subtle where the Tool clip is comparatively weak and rather clumsy. But still it stands head and shoulders above most music videos and stopmotion films. Not being up to the standards of the Quays doesn't mean something is bad.

Andrew, thanks for weighing in! Yes, the Quay films really do lend themselves well to analysis, because they're strongly cinematic, which most stopmotion flims aren't, with the exception of a few high-profile big-budget ones like the Tim Buirton flicks and some Aardman films.

Anonymous said...

This was fun to read, Mike -- good to hear you spell-out your thoughts. (Uh, mixed metaphor...)


Re the two-wall set in the Tool video... My first impression was that it was an "homage" to the set in "Cabinet of Svankmajer."


Excellent point about the Quay pup's posture! Yes! 95% of stopmo shorts we see would benefit from breaking the vertical, sending the pup off moving at angles.


Re the repetitiveness of the Tool pup's initial standing up sequence: Not sure I agree with you. (Nor that I *disagree*.)

For Crocodiles, the film comes first, and then music is added as accompaniment -- as a pianist accompanies a silent film.

But for Prison Sex, the music is primary, and the visuals are created as accompaniment. Given the primacy of the music, it sort of makes sense to me that you would take a different approach to creating what we see on screen.

I read the pup standing up three times as establishing rhythm... A way to put a film that doesn't necessarily connect up with the lyrics much (um, not that I've really been able to make them out yet) more in sync with what you're listening to.

The video may well have been more effective with more of a narrative structure... I just want to suggest a positive argument for the initial repetition.


Re the layers of glass in Crocodiles: The layers are transparent, but in essence the Quays are establishing foreground, midground, and background....

Depth! That's part of what made O'Brien (and Harryhausen) so effective. If I recall right, Harryhausen talks about that a bit on the "Early Years" DVD with regards to little red riding hood. 'Always put something in the foreground.'

Darkmatters said...

Thanks Sven! It's great to get some constructive critique from another viewpoint in here. You've got a good point about the music coming first in the Tool videos and the visuals accompanying it. And to be completely honest, (as much as I seemed to be ripping into the Tool video) I never even noticed any of the things I critiqued it for until just now, after capturing that sequence and comparing it to the Quay sequence. Maybe I should explain how I ended up doing this....

Of course I have a renewed interest in the Quays now since getting the PAL set with commentary tracks, and not only that, but I now look at some of what they've done in a different light. So that sparked off an interest in more closely examining some of their work. That sequence in particular jumped out at me because it's so powerful and so brilliantly handled (far more so than I realized at first... it's the kind of thing where as you examine it closer you find more hidden levels of brilliance that you took for granted before). Street of Crocodiles is like the Citizen Kane of stopmotion.... sheer virtuoso cinematography sparkling through every shot.

Then recently the Tool videos came up onthe message board, prompting me to dig out the old Salival box set and watch the videos again. I couldn't help but notice the strong similarity of that sequence with the man from Crocodiles, and that's when the idea was borne that I should capture both scenes and compare them. I had no intention at the time of slamming either of them, and in fact I really am a Tool fan from way back and love their videos, in particular the stopmo ones done by Fred Stuhr and Adam Jones (and later of course Adam alone). But as I compared, I couldn't help feeling that the cinematography in the Quay film was utterly superior on every level (of course that's like saying Citizen Kane is cinematically superior to..... *any great film of your choice*).

I expect to be posting more Cinemastudies in the near future focused on the Quays. Look for it on a computer near you!

Darkmatters said...

I see your point also about the repetitive movement establishing rhythm, though that could of course be done in many ways, without sending the poor viewer back to square one over and over again! And I still feel that if the movements (of both puppet and camera) were motivated it would make for a far stronger sequence. It's a very subtle difference, but it's part of that 'underlying philosophy' of a story (or film or music video) that Uri Schulevitz mentions in Writing With Pictures.... it happens on a subliminal level but it informs our feelings and ideas about the piece.

I'm not saying it has to make sense... technically the Quay films don't make sense either for the most part, but just an idea of why it's important that the puppet is standing up. Is she coming to menace our poor little broken puppet-boy? Probably. But that's not made palpable the way the idea of *exploration* is in Crocodiles, both for the camera and the puppet.

Ok, I'm probably beating a dead horse here. But it's fun to watch the legs twitch! ;)

Darkmatters said...

Oh, and here's another horsie I can thwap a few times! ;)

I agree the set in Prison Sex is a tribute to the nested drawers sequence in Cabinet, but if you would compare the two I'm sure the differences would immediately jump out. Essentially, until the scene where a drawer actually opens (in the Tool video) it's just a simple corner setpiece... two walls and a floor. The drawers do add some complexity, and the texturing is really nice (texturing is beautiful all throughout this video). And while there is such a corner in the Quay's film, it's only part of a very complex room, walls themselves pulling out and completley changing the shape of the room. Even before that happens, the room isn't just a rectangular space.


There! Take that horsie! ;)

I hope people understand that my reason for doing this isnt to badmouth the excellent videos made for the Tool songs, but just to try to imporive my own chances (and hopefully those of other fledgeling filmmakers with similar tastes and interests) to avoid some of the common mistakes, and to strive toward a sophisticated cinematography in my own work. We must learn to see it before we can learn to avoid it, and it's a lot easier (and less humiliating) to see it in the work of others than in your own after you've already made the film! I find it's best to be brutally honest in analysis (um no... not THAT kind of analysis, though I'm sure it's a good practice on the couch as well!).

Shelley Noble said...

Mike, Would you like the absolute exact same hand-blown glass eyes shown in your top Quay shot up there, only in green? I bought a couple pair of them for my project in 1993 at Manhatten's finest eyeball store. And now, I'm not into them for my project, afterall. You could use 'em to Quay yourself silly.

Darkmatters said...

Sure! I can find a nice home for 'em!

Shelley Noble said...

On their way! The only stipulation is that you have to show us what film you decide to make with them!

Anonymous said...

Mike, I enjoyed reading your post and all the comments. All this Quay stuff on your site is making me want to watch my Quay DVD again real soon! I love your quote..."Street of Crocodiles is like the Citizen Kane of stopmotion". 8-)

mefull said...

For a lot of reasons it's unfair to compare the two films, after all one is a music video made to sell CD's one is a short film. I would guess the Brothers Twin had a lot more time to devote to their film and a few more years of experience under their collective belts. I could go on, but all that said, I see what you are trying to do. I agree there is much to be learned by studying other films and analyzing what works and what could be improved upon; then applying that to our own humble films or at least trying to.

The comparison and contrast of these two film clips works pretty well to make your points.

The Quay puppet seems to be trying to solve some problem, find a way out, search for something or to figure out where it is, in short, the Quay puppet seems to be thinking and alive. It is shot in an interesting way with mirrors that also adds to the confusion of where the puppet is. Is there more than one puppet etc?

As a viewer this helps to gets me emotionally involved. I want to figure out what is going on, help the puppet escape or find what the puppet is looking for, or to figure it out myself. I become much more engaged in the film.

I have not seen the entire tool video so I don't know if this comment will hold up but based on the short clip you posted, I don't see the point of animating something that could be done easier with live action.

The Tool puppet is interesting by design, but the movement does not imply a thoughtful alive creature. Maybe it's dancing or acting out some theatrical scene. I am not sure and since the clip is so short and the same movement is repeated from different camera angles it's hard to tell. We also don't see much (or any?) of the puppets face which does not help the viewer to connect to the character. (than again maybe that's not the point of the music video)

I have to add that I am not familiar with the tool video or their music so maybe I am at a disadvantage, but personally as a viewer I do not get as engaged with the tool video because the puppet does not seem to be thinking or alive. - just moving.

I don't mean to sound like I am trashing the tool vid because I am not. I think it's an unfair to compare them to each other period. They both stand alone. I am just contrasting the two film clips to each other for the purpose of learning something about animation and film technique. (As I think you are doing also) Not really a fair comparison as I said at the beginning.

All that said, I think one of the more difficult things to do in animation - any kind of animation is to bring a character to life. It is one thing to move a puppet or draw 2D cell animation and create movement. It is entirely another to make that movement looks like it is coming from within the character. Like it is self motivated, moving for a reason.

When you forget that you are watching some drawings or a puppet and make an emotional connection to the character like you would in a live action movie, that is quite an accomplishment IMHO. (Probably just another day in the life of a pro animator.)

It is one step beyond that to animate a character to the point that the audience can SEE what a character is THINKING--without dialog.
The Quay's almost pull that off, you can see the thinking going on, but you just don't know what those thoughts are, at least I don't.

They are both interesting to watch, the Quay film is interesting to watch many times. I get a bit more out of it each time.

Anonymous said...

The Crocodile/Prison Sex dialogue has been percolating in the back of my head... Here's another "can't compare apples and oranges" argument:

The Quay pup is performing theatre; the Tool pup is performing dance.

I kinda feel like folks are arguing that an Oscar Wilde play is inherently more compelling than a Martha Graham dance -- because the narrative is clearer.

Truth be told, I probably do find a play more immersive than a dance, because It's easier to identify with the characters... But I don't want to leap to saying that dance is an inferior art form, or that it ought to just give up and become theatre!

...Not that anyone has truly made this argument -- we've all been pretty careful with our caveats. But there's an undertone that I wanted to try to articulate. Something that was bothering me...

I guess I'm not convinced that stopmo should be theatre. I think that puppets can act. And I think that puppets can dance. And either course of action has the potential to be an artful, intriguing experience.

Darkmatters said...

Hey, nice to hear from both of you! I appreciate it.

Mark, thanks for really getting into the spirit of it. You're right of course, it's completely unfair to compare the two, and that's not what I'm doing really (at least not the films in their entirety).

I just noticed how similar they are... obvious;y the makers of the Tool video were influenced by the Quays strongly, and to some extent the scene I posted (for the Tool video) could have been directly influenced by the Quay scene I posted (not necessarily though). By comparing them like this I found it shed some light on just what's happening in the quay clip - the contrast really helps you (me anyway) see things you wouldn't have noticed otherwise. It seems to me there are a lot of rather - (I hate to say it) pedestrian choices made in the Tool video (from a cinematography viewpoint, and I'm speaking only of this particular scene from it when I say this), at least compared to the choices made by the Decadent Duo.

That's not a slam by the way... compared to what the Quays do, most films are pretty pedestrian! And that includes a lot of really good films!

Personally I found when I looked closely at both clips I was able to notice things I wouldn't have otherwise. I think it's a good way to analyse scenes... I might have stumbled onto a secret technique here!

Anyway, here's the complete video on YouTube if you want to see the whole thing: Prison Sex

The puppet in the clip I posted is actually the villain in the piece... the other puppet is much more easy to identify with. I think it's a brilliant video, actually one of my favorites. You Tube has all the Tool videos, you might want to check out a few more: Tool videos. The ones to look at are Sober, Aenema, Stinkfist (no stopmo, but nice Quaylike imagery). These all seem to be on the first page (stay away from the live versions of course). Some excellent videos!

Darkmatters said...

Oh Sven - your response wasn't there when I started mine!

And that's a good point. But the two are so close when you consider the Quays don't do true narrative film. Not only is it very surreal, but they have said that they don't even worry about story, instead they think musically. So I think that makes their films very close in spirit to a music video.

Really though, I don't think the difference between a music video and a film affects the cinematography much if at all. And the main point of my comparison is the cinematography. I know I touched on other things along the way, but my focus is on cinematography (in this post).

I don't believe that unmotivated character or camera action is any more valid in a music video than in a film (I've seen plenty of it in both). Sure, the director has the right to use unmotivated movement if he chooses (or more likely if he just didn't notice he was doing it). But it results in a weak experience (not something a viewer will notice consciously, but it does register at a deep level).

And of course, all my views here are totally my own opinion. My (not so) secret agenda of course is to teach myself (and anyone else who cares to tag along) about cinematography so hopefully I can start to use it in powerful and compelling ways, and avoid what I see as mistakes or weak choices. That's why it's important to me to seek out those weak areas and pinpoint why they don't work. I think it can be dangerous when first we attempt some powerful or tricky cinematography. Just attempting it is admirable, and puts a filmmaker out ahead of 90% of the competition, but it also raises the stakes dramatically. If you attempt something and fall flat, it's probably worse than if you had just done a nice straightforward film with no fancy stuff in it!

And, a side note. It's funny to me - it seems like a lot of people feel sorry for the poor Tool video! Like they're afraid my critiquing it might make it cry or something. You can't pull any punches... if you're going to critique something, give it all you got! If it doesn't make the grade, then say so. Being nice or diplomatic doesn't earn you any brownie points in this game. But this is why I'm taking aim at professionally produced fims and not anything made by anyone I know. If I were to critique a friend's film (or another amateur like myself) I couldn't do it so ruthlessly (and don't feel like I should... it's a different matter entirely).

But I just don't feel like I could learn a lot by sitting here saying nice things about videos and stroking their poor little egos. ;)

Darkmatters said...

Oh man, I can't believe I'm coming in again! But this is a very compelling discussion I think, and I keep thinking of things I want to try to clarify or delve deeper into.

Sven, I totally agree that stopmo pups can act AND dance! I think there are almost equal elements of both in both performances above, though you're right that the Prison Sex puppet is a bit more on the dance side of things.

Now (how to effectively convey what I'm trying to say.... talking about art, as they say - like dancing about architecture).....

Let's forget about the entirety of each film (if that's possible). For the sake of this discussion, let's try to look ONLY at the actual movement conveyed in each scene. Divorced entirely from any narrative or music... turn off the volume in your mind. Watch the complex series of arcs described by Crocman... now low, now high, rapidly turning his head this way and that.... making those quick darting movements to each window, and factor in the movement of his reflection(s) and the fact that he does progress from the beginning of that lengthy sequence to the end of it (though not very far, and in a somewhat circuitous manner) AND that by the end of it he's gone through a transition to the next scene of the film in a very effective manner that brings the audience with him (well ok, maybe forget that since we're looking only at movement itself).

Now think about that standing up motion described by the prisonbitch (as I've affectionately dubbed her/it). First it begins from a pretty ungraceful and rather ugly (IMO) position, and it doesn't progress anywhere... just keeps rewinding (it actually happens 4 times, I went back and checked) like that old Purina Cat Chow commercial - remember? They keep playing the film back and forth so it looks like the cat is shaking its head 'no'. To me there's just something deadly dull about that kind of straight back-and-forth movement.

To speak of it in terms of dance, imagine a dancer doing it... completing a rather uninspired move and then repeating it several times, making the audience watch it over and over. In dance it's important to pay attention to the way you use space (Not that I really know! Except from reading about it of course).

And (I hate to keep having to say it....) inherently the scene in Prison Sex isn't bad. Keep in mind when I speak of it it's not "on its own terms", it's only as comparison and contrast with the Quay clip in order to point out (by contrast) how effective it is.

Sometimes I think I get to complicated for my own good! People inevitably go off on side tracks and seem to miss my point. But that in itself can lead to more stimulating conversation.

Darkmatters said...

I've thought of a caveat that applies to all my Cinemastudies:

These are simply my own very personal (and personally biased) studies of motion in cinema, aimed toward developing my own language of motion, and at times I'll post something just as counterpoint to what I consider a well-done scene, so that by contrast it becomes easy to see just HOW well done it is. I suppose that's exactly what I did with the Tool video here.... it served as a sort of sacrificial lamb.

Darkmatters said...

I've deleted a few comments here because things got a bit heated. There was a bit of a "cerfuffle", but it's been resolved, and everyone is still friends. I now return you to your regularly scheduled bloggage.

Darkmatters said...

Here's some nice commentary provided by Boy Oyng direct to my email:

Hi Mike,

I really enjoyed your analyses of the Crocodile and
Prison videos. As it happens, I agree with your ideas.
But even if I didn't agree with the ideas, I would
agree that it's fair to compare them. I believe it's
not only valid, but extremely useful to compare
different works, especially when the purpose is to
learn from them. You could analyze and compare The
Apple Dumpling Gang and Clockwork Orange and learn a
lot. Having said that, I think many of the commenters
contributed interesting points. I thought Sven's
notion of theater vs dance was insightful, to choose
just one example.

Let me add another thing that, to my mind and taste,
makes the Prison video a less effective piece. I find
the use of the dip-to-black transitions from shot to
shot faddish. It's a common technique these days,
which I find self-consciously "cool." It strikes me as
a 2000's version of the "shaky cam" that blighted
camera technique in the '90's and late 80's. So say I.
In this clip, it's almost necessary because the action
is repetitious (though it would be interesting to see
it with jump cuts). Maybe they were trendsetters...

One thing I'll disagree with you on, though, is your
use of the term "montage." (I know you already put
caveats about that.) I wouldn't really describe either
of these videos as particular examples of montage (the
best simple definition I've seen of montage is "1 + 1 =
2"). I'd say you're looking at mise-en-scene, if
we're going to go all french/cine academe on it.

Perhaps I misunderstand "montage." I think of it as
the assembly of separate images to convey a distinct,
almost separate meaning, and that meaning derives from
the assemblage. To my eye, the Crocodile sequence is
straightforward continuity editing (very well done).
The Prison sequence is closer to montage. Heck, maybe
it fully qualifies.

Cinematography is such a pas de deux between
technology and art: the art is relatively stable, at
least relative to the change of technology partners
every few months!

Anyway, I look forward to hearing about your


- Thanks Bruce! Always good to hear your input.

Darkmatters said...

It actually took me by surprise that you don't consider these scenes examples of montage! I think your knowledge of film technique far exceeds my own feeble beginnings of an education. I need to bone up on exactly what some of these terms mean.... in particular montage and mis-en-scene.

I know Eisenstein considered montage the synthesis of a new idea in the mind of the viewer by juxtaposition of two other visual ideas, but I thought that was just his own rather dubious idea of it. I remember Jim Danforth cautioned me against this kind of montage because he didn't believe it was possible for all viewers to be given the exact same ideas and to force them all to synthesize the same new idea each time (not that this is exactly what you're talking about - or is it?). Danforth steered me instead toward the idea of (what did he call it? - motion montage? Something like that) as used by another great cinematographer named Vorkapitch. Unlike Eisenstein you can't find anything written by or about Vorkapitch, but he was one of those Europeans hired by Hollywood as a "ringer" to shoot specific montage sequences that generally ended up being the most memorable thing about each film.

As I understand it (and I'm actually a bit cloudy on it) his concept wasn't about ideas at all, rather just about motion. I haven't been able to see any of his sequences yet, though I know he did the opening montage sequence for Meet John Doe and a few other films (I believe you can discover which ones at the IMDB - of course).

I guess my understanding of montage is simply a series of rather quick cuts to piece together a sequence that could have been done all from one camera position. Need to look into that.

Darkmatters said...

Here's a good Wikipedia article about Montage, featuring quicktime examples of the 5 types of montage as concieved by Eisenstein: Montage wiki.

Darkmatters said...

... And the wiki page on Mise-en-scene. Hmmm. Still a bit opaque. I think the term Mise-en-scene is the film theory equivalent of "When you can take the stone from my hand...".... meaning when you finally actually understand it, you're done!

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

I'll try this anonymous posting...

One little note about my first post. The "simple definition" for montage that I saw is 1 + 1 > 2... Not = 2. "One plus one is greater than two."

I got it from this site:

They also have a page on mise-en-scene:

It's still a bit fuzzy. The way I was using mise-en-scene was in the sense of "What are all the visual elements that have been combined within the frame, including movement, to create the experience for the audience?" I just made that up.

Keep it up,

Bruce (Boy Oyng)