Thanks to Kristina (Speakeasy) and Ruth (Silver Screenings) for initiating and administering the “Things I Learned from the Movies” Blog-a-thon. As in the past their “assignment” has sent me on a more introspective and autobiographical journey than I might normally attempt or share.
Please be sure to see the blogathon nightly round-ups at their websites for the wealth of interesting features this virtual gathering will surely generate. Send some comment love to the ones you really like, and consider following them.
Gimme a Second…
Stop Motion. It’s what I’ve done most of my life, from behind a camera and usually at 1/60th or 1/125th of a second. Film’s light sensitivity, as in ASA/ISO ratings, in pre-digital days offered limited choices.
Stop Motion, the animation technique, was an obsession throughout my pre to mid-teens, until the first two Led Zeppelin albums and The Who’s Live At Leeds caught my ear and I had to learn how to make that sound.
During those years I spent hours methodically clicking off one frame of film at a time through the Keystone 8mm camera my father gave me. Dad was pragmatic. It was already clear that I wasn’t going to be the fastest left handed pitcher in the history of National League Baseball, but I did share another skill set with him and that was photography and a seemingly natural understanding of visual composition.
Most of my films centered around the adventures of a clay “everyman” I called Glip. In retrospect Glip was a Gumby analog who ran around my home, raiding the refrigerator, climbing ladders, literally swinging from the chandelier. In other films Glip took on the personas of Ebenezer Scrooge, Long John Silver and Mr. Hyde, in (purportedly) comedic spins on classic literary works.
When more majestic scenarios were required my articulated 12 inch tall G.I. Joe’s became helpless subjects and were buried under plasticine to emulate my favorite fantastic film creatures. Ray Harryhausen’s mighty Cyclops was rendered – as best possible – with green clay, a faux pearl eyeball, and a toothpick horn.
Thinking In Stills…
When not producing these meisterwerks an inordinate amount of time was spent staring into a consumer grade moviola screen pouring over Castle Films’ ruthlessly edited collector’s reels. Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was my favorite. I scrubbed that film back and forth intently absorbing the specific movements applied to the Dragon versus Cyclops battle, and I was particularly obsessed with the exact frame in Jason and the Argonauts where actor Todd Armstrong drops his real sword and it is replaced by Harryhausen’s miniature blade which plunges into the heart of the seven headed hydra model.
Simultaneously I was introduced to the work of photojournalist Arthur Fellig by my Father. Fellig became popularly known as WeeGee (think Ouija board) because of his ability to divine the right spot to be in and capture the action. As my Dad pointed out, the goal is not only to produce a technically efficient photograph but to capture an image that encapsulates the event if only a single photo goes to print. In fact, with WeeGee’s rig of a 4X5 Speed Graphic camera, and single flash bulb illumination, there was no room for error. It was a “bring ‘em back alive” style of street photography and a high contrast graphic look that I began to emulate.
Looking back, these were clearly the formative seeds of my fixation with “the instant.” I watch a motion picture but recall it in primary still images. I see a still image and envision the action.
Fractions of Actions…
Eventually I came to see stop motion, the animation technique, as a misnomer. Whereas a still photographer freezes a split second of action, the animator is not stopping motion at all. The subject is static, it “moves” by virtue of a fault of human visual perception. Persistence of vision. All those incremental movements rushing by our eyes can’t be processed as single images and blur into an illusion of life. It works, from the simplest flip book to the most epic mega film.
Even so, the inverse appears to apply. As “move-y” as movies get they are still ultimately built as series of frames with some being more potent or dominant than others. Those key frames appear to be what impact on our brains when we remember a scene. I applied this perception to my animation work with a method of capturing the peak of action with additional frames, thereby boosting it’s visual imprint.
I Scream, You Scream…
Thinking in stills is not a cinematic aberration. Director Sergei Eisenstein knew it. Every film 101 student has been introduced to The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and his triptych of stone lions juxtaposed to seemingly rise to the battle call. It is a hallmark of film editing for effect called montage. Director James Whale seems to have cribbed its timing in the treble of jump cuts to close-up that underscore the first entrance of the monster in Frankenstein (1931).
Eisenstein’s then experimental editing technique is most obvious in the famous Odessa Steps sequence. The scene is filled with examples of “stills in motion,” from the careening baby carriage to the shock and horror on the faces of the victims. Often emulated, I believe never equaled, the sequence also owes part of its origin to the iconic instant of horror portrayed by artist Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893).
Munch’s painting is one of the most familiar and widely appropriated images of this and the previous century. It represents a second in time when artist perceived “the shriek of nature” as he watched a blood red sunset over the Oslo fjord in Norway. It is a single image but it is also a movie. It contains all the information required to allow us to extrapolate a story, perceive an emotion, even if we know nothing about it before our first viewing. It conveys its peak psychological power and elicits a palpable reaction that appears to be universally, and non-verbally, understood. It’s a proto-emoji.
Impactful visuals don’t die, they get reinterpreted. Eisenstein clearly understood the psychological power of this image and utilized it to great effect in several shots during his famed sequence. Later on, influenced by the Eisenstein scene, artist Francis Bacon rendered the screaming amorphous thing that inhabits the right section of his triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1950).
Munch’s distressing vision, one which he revisited in different media several times between 1893 and 1910, appears to tap into the collective human unconscious theorized by Professor Carl Jung. Art historian Robert Rosenbaum’s postulation that Munch may have found his initial inspiration in the gape mouthed pose of a Peruvian mummy exhibited at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris deepens the possibly of ancient archetypal connections. We only need to view the “Captain Howdy” stingers of The Exorcist series or the photo of an immolated Iraqi soldier from the first gulf war to find modern correlations.
While Eisenstein’s work presents a prime example of the frozen moment technique, other staples abound. Carl Theodor Dryer’s restriction of characters to extreme close-ups throughout The Passion of Joan of Arc reduces them to nearly static icons. There’s also Luis Bunuel’s use of freeze frames in Viridiana that transmute his beggar’s banquet tableau into an irreverent “snap shot” of Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper.
Historically, freeze frames and framed friezes relate. The Roman Catholic “stations of the cross,” are essentially a 14 panel storyboard of the passion of Jesus Christ and present everything a mostly illiterate medieval congregation would have required to understand the narrative. Director Chris Marker took this concept to its filmic extreme with La Jetée, (1962). Its 28 minute runtime is composed almost entirely of black and white still images. The outcome has the feel of reading a fumetti, the pulpy “photo novellas” popular in Europe during the 1950s and 60s.
In fact, movie storyboards so closely resemble comic strips that it is no surprise that early animator Windsor McCay was also a preeminent cartoonist of his time. His Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland are still revered as blueprints for outsider work on the printed page. As his characters’ exploits often broke through the walls of their outlined panels, McCay also broke the “fourth wall” of the cinema screen when he toured his animated featurette Gertie the Dinosaur (1919). During the showing McCay would engage the projected cartoon creature to do his bidding, much like a trained circus elephant.
The Frame Game…
So what have I learned from the movies? Although I did not continue to pursue three dimensional animation, even as an avocation, I did take away an appreciation for the peak moment of action.
As a photojournalist I’ve aspired to catch those key moments that make images memorable. It’s not just about freezing the height of action. On candid shoots, I’ve learned to watch for the “a-ha” or eureka moments in people’s faces, the body language that reveals their personalities, and the eye contact between subjects that conveys to the viewer something special has just transpired.
Solely as a personal challenge, I often try to capture that instant by attempting to “read” the subject without resorting to rapid frame mode. It’s very hard not to succumb to the temptation of over shooting that digital photography allows. I try to honor the methods of my film days when I had to reduce an entire story to a maximum of 72 exposures. On a current photo shoot, with a DSLR and unlimited digital film resources, it appears to be anathema.
I know it’s old school, but I’m an old guy now. Utilizing the skills I’ve polished over 50 years is not just a comfort zone but offers a real sense of satisfaction. Recently I’ve been using the camera in my iPhone and Instagram, it seems the perfect platform to keep refining single image as story skills. It may even lead to doing some simple animation again.
Soon even the best sports and event photographers will begin to supplant their still imaging methods with 4K and 5K video captures that facilitate grabbing that peak moment from the overall action effortlessly. Does it feel like a cheat? Sure, but maybe the wheel felt like a cheat to the guy who was used to pushing a square boulder up the hill. I’m no luddite, and I look forward to working with these new technologies with the knowledge that a great image will continue to evoke authentic response no matter its creative vehicle.
I had a wonderful time putting this piece but finding the flow to complete it wasn’t easy. Writing about visual communication leaves much in the synapses that (for me at least) cannot be expressed accurately with words. The thought belatedly crossed my mind to present the post as a storyboard, but deadlines (and meager skills) precluded that.
Finding Dr. Temple Grandin’s Thinking In Pictures during my research was a revelation, and an affirmation of my own previsualization techniques. I highly recommend you take a look as well.
“Embarrassment of riches” is a phrase that always comes to mind when I do my annual overview of the spring and summer music scene in New York City. These outdoor concerts feature a treasure trove of listening opportunities that when amassed across a short three month period is not only mind boggling but for the most part offered FREE to the general public.
On May 18th, The City Parks Foundation launched its 30th Central Park SummerStage season with a great show by what I think is the quintessential American band of our time, The Tedeschi Trucks Band. They are also currently my favorite band. You may have already read my rhapsodizing about why I love them here and as far back as my Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010 BluRay review on PiercingMetal.Com. I’ll give you the spiel anyhow.
S’oul in the Family…
By design, TTB is a 21st century Delany and Bonnie and Friends with a twist of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishman. Those bands form the roots of a tall family tree that includes Derek and The Dominoes, Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge, The Grease Band, mid-period Rolling Stones and George Harrison’s masterpiece, the All Things Must Pass album (1970).
Though the namesake of wife and husband Susan and Derek, TTB is also the vehicle for a boatload of musicians who could equally front their own bands. These are 11 amazing players, vocalists, and songwriters who make what appears a juggernaut run like a Ferrari.
Derek Trucks – Guitar
Susan Tedeschi – Guitar & Vocals
Kofi Burbridge – Keyboards & Flute
Tyler Greenwell – Drums & Percussion
J.J. Johnson – Drums & Percussion
Mike Mattison – Harmony Vocals
Mark Rivers – Harmony Vocals
Kebbi Williams – Saxophone
Maurice Brown – Trumpet
Saunders Sermons – Trombone
Tim Lefebvre – Bass Guitar
Strains of blues, gospel, free jazz, southern soul, and “Americana” run through the veins of TTB. While they embody the ethos of a jam band they also never lose sight of the song in favor of endless extrapolation. That said, you will find that their studio recordings, while excellent, are merely a starting point for evolution. Like The Allman Brothers Band before them the real way to appreciate TTB is live onstage. Surprises like opening their swampy barn burner “The Storm” with the coda from Led Zep’s “What Is and What Should Never Be” make the shows exciting and fun for savvy listeners.
Though a few tunes like Mike Mattison’s “Midnight in Harlem” have deservedly become fan favorites and apparent staples, the group continuously juggles their set-lists to keep things interesting for camp followers and they always pick great cover tunes (from Bobby “Blue” Bland to The Beatles) that inform the audience of their musical lineage.
Like the Foo Fighters they are extremely respectful of what came before them, the musical shoulders they stand on, and also like FF they are not shy about shining a light on those progenitors. For instance this summer at the Interlocking Music Festival in Arrington, VA., TTB will pay homage to the late Joe Cocker with a tribute concert (including original members) to the aforementioned Mad Dogs and Englishman band. They’ve already regularly played “Space Captain” in the past, but the idea of having this band dive into “Delta Lady,” “Cry Me A River,” “Feeling Alright,” and Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham’s “The Letter” is beyond exciting for this fan.
Join Together with the Band…
Inviting fellow musicians to join them on stage is also a standard practice. At Summerstage, Clapton cohort Doyle Bramhall II augmented the group for a healthy portion of the set including a funky workout on Derek and the Dominoes’ “Keep On Growing” and blues standard “Key to the Highway.” They also hosted Ms. Sharon Jones who delighted the capacity crowd performing two classic soul numbers, Etta James’ “Tell Mama” and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me.” Jones and her band The Dap Kings will support TTB this season on the “Wheels of Soul” Tour. It seems a perfect match, and I suspect we will be treated to many more duets between Susan and Sharon.
TTB Central Park SummerStage Setlist, May 18, 2015
Made Up Mind
Do I Look Worried
Midnight In Harlem
Get What You Deserve (Mike Mattison, lead vocal)
I’ve Got A Feeling/Jam (Beatles cover w/ Doyle Bramhall II)
Keep On Growing (Derek and the Dominoes cover w/ Doyle)
Key to the Highway (Charles Segar cover w/ Doyle)
Break in Every Road
Bring It On Home To Me (Sam Cooke cover w/ Sharon Jones)
Tell Mama (Etta James cover w/ Sharon Jones)
I Pity the Fool (Bobby “Blue” Bland cover)
Bound For Glory
More and More (Little Milton cover)
Give that show, and so much more, a listen by exploring the wonderful tapers’ community at the Internet Archive. There’s lots of Soulive and Lettuce there too. Also, be sure to treat yourself to a ticket or three to see Tedeschi Trucks Band as they tour throughout the year.
September will see The Tedeschi Trucks Band roll into New York City’s beautiful Beacon Theater for a residency that I hope eventually grows to rival The Allman Brothers’ now legendary March encampments.
Before that, be sure to check out the schedules of amazing free shows throughout NYC this summer.
The City Parks Foundation SummerStage offers concerts in all five boroughs, BRIC’s Celebrate Brooklyn series has a great line-up at the Prospect Park bandshell, and City Winery has outdoor shows (5:30 – 7:00 pm) behind the venue on their loading dock (which they like to call Hudson Square Mall) on Tuesday evenings starting June 2.
Here’s a photographic homage to those thrilling days of “yester-play.” It’s first in a series I hope to continue as the muses allow. The idea is to periodically root through my old basement toy barrel for inspiration and attempt to artistically photograph whatever I pull out. The first “excavation” yielded this fanciful two-headed Tyrannosaurus and triggered a remembrance of one of my favorite comic book series, Star Spangled War Stories.
What It Is…
Some of my earliest comic book encounters came when my parents or grandparents would walk me to the corner candy store to peruse the newsstand and there before my wondering eyes would be a new issue of DC Comics’ Star Spangled War Stories. Why was Star Spangled so special? Well, because in May of 1960 (with Issue #90) DC began an incredible run of stories that mashed up World War II tales with a land-that-time-forgot motif. In other words, G.I.’s versus dinosaurs stories. Usually heralded by spectacular Joe Kubert or Ross Andru/Mike Esposito rendered covers, they launched me into innumerable hours of pitting my John’s Bargain Store green plastic soldiers against an onslaught from my Louis Marx dinosaur collection.
So here for your approval is my imagining of a Star Spangled tale never told. As with my Safari Ltd. “Good Luck Mini’s” tribute to King Kong, this shot was staged as a table-top tableau using bath towels, house plants and garden rocks for the scenery. The really neat metal tank was a serendipitous discovery in the local 99 Cent store, as was the G.I. in the foreground.
For more information on the original books, here is the Wiki.
All the great covers can be found in DC Comics’ Archive. The “War That Time Forgot” and “Dinosaur Island” stories began with Issue 90 and ended with Issue 137 (March 1968,) after which the book became a vehicle for the Enemy Ace character.
DC Comics recently announced plans to revive the Star Spangled War Stories title with issue #1 arriving in July 2014. Focus will be on a G.I. Zombie character, but I can’t imagine that the temptation to revisit the land of tanks vs. dinosaurs can be resisted.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today, Literally…
I’m writing this at 11:12 AM on Sunday February 9, 2014. 50 years ago, at this moment, America at large was mostly unaware of a group of four long haired lads from someplace in England called Liverpool, though a persistent gnat-like buzz about something called The Beatles was infiltrating their consciousness via a building media feeding frenzy.
That evening, introduced on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Sunday night staple of family television viewing, 73 million people tuned in and everything changed.
Tell Me What You See…
As a February 1964-2014 celebration The Morrison Hotel Gallery has mounted a 30 image collection, curated by Julian Lennon, mostly focused the events of the Fab’s American arrival, first US concerts, and Sullivan show appearances.
Guests crowded the gallery’s opening night event, discussed their favorite images and the influence that The Beatles have had on their lives, to a background of the Sullivan show performances.
Gallery owner Peter Blachley greeted Pattie Boyd, the former Mrs. George Harrison, who has several images in the exhibition. Boyd was interviewed by Japan Broadcasting Company NHK. CBS’s Anthony Mason, who will host an online “warm-up” for tonight’s commemorative broadcast, was also in attendance. (Editor’s Note – 02.10.14: An overview of that event, featuring Pattie Boyd, Peter Asher, Andrew Loog Oldham, Neil Innes, Felix Calvaliere and many others can be found here)
There are plenty of iconic images, like the Fabs’ emerging from the airplane in New York City to screaming fans, along with a nice selection of shots new to even those of us who have been following along since 1964. Of interest to photographers will be Robert Whitaker’s proof sheet from the Sullivan show appearance.
Along with the familiar on-stage and staged images we’re treated to a number of peeks at the group behind the scenes. These fly-on-the-wall moments, in the back of a limo or relaxing in a hotel room, nicely balance with the running, jumping, standing still PR confections. They are like a look inside the eye of a publicity hurricane.
Charles Trainor’s documentation of “the boys” Goon Show style encounter with Muhammed Ali (then Cassius Clay) still stands as a brilliant, though last minute, press coup that in its time seemed to legitimize the careers of each burgeoning star.
The Morrison Hotel Gallery exhibit includes the work of the aforementioned Trainor, Whitaker and Boyd, along with images by Curt Gunther, Terry O’Neill and Ken Regan. Limited Edition prints are available for purchase in a number of sizes. The exhibition runs through February at the Gallery’s Loft space, 124 Prince Street, 2nd floor, SOHO, NYC.
I was 9 years old when that first Sullivan Show appearance was broadcast. As with so many others, The Beatles became part of my personal timeline and their artistic growth always of interest, but nothing ever really matched the sheer exuberance of that experience.
As someone who in the past has surreptitiously used February 9, 1964 as the Facebook birthdate for my own band, it was great to meet so many people who have only experienced The Beatles in historical retrospect but are appreciative of that performance which turned into a cultural watershed.
The original 1933 King Kong – toys and miniatures – close-up photography. These are a few of my favorite things, and a bit of serendipity helped me mash them all up all into this one image.
Let Me Explain…
In the process of preparing continuing coverage of the 2013 American International Toy Fair I opened the little bag of goodies Safari Ltd offered to press folks reporting on their product line. Low and behold out fell a Tyrannosaurus Rex and great little gorilla, both part of Safari’s Good Luck Minis collection.
Since this coming weekend marks the 80th anniversary of RKO’s King Kong, I thought I’d have some photographic fun with the two Minis and a Polaroid close-up lens kit I purchased recently. I wanted to see how far I could push these simple screw-on adapters before shelling out for a “real” macro lens. I’ve also been contemplating what my first posting to Flicker’s Toy Photographers Group might be and this seemed a perfect opportunity to create a table-top tableau mimicking the thrilling battle between Kong and the T-Rex.
What It Is…
Using mostly household items, I did my best to recreate the mise en scene of Gustave Dore’s etchings which inspired the art direction of Kong 33’s Skull Island.
Along with the two Safari LTD. miniatures – which measure 7/8’s of an inch tall – there are brown and green bath towels as the foreground, plastic Christmas flowers that didn’t get stored away yet as the canopy, and a few slate drink coasters are the middle ground. A small acrylic painting of the Sedona, Arizona landscape I did twenty years ago is the distant background and some twigs from my front yard complete the effect. A frosted glass candle holder and a clear plastic bag were used to modify the output of a battery powered 126 LED light source.
Shot on a Nikon D300 with 50mm lens and +2 close-up adapter. I think the super-shallow depth of field produced by the adapter helps convey the look of an other worldly jungle. Aside from a slight crop the image is posted as shot, there’s no Photoshop post production.
Calling All Scream Queens…
Along with other “Kong-o-philes”, I’ll be celebrating the king’s birthday at NYC’s Film Forum screening this Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 11AM. The event includes a Fay Wray “scream-a-like” contest which should be a highlight.
What’s Up Doc…
Also see my recent post about Altus Press’s soon to be released pulpy pairing of Doc Savage and King Kong on Skull Island.