mad men - the quality of mercy
dir. phil abraham
here’s a brand new spot i directed for the toronto institute for the enjoyment of music.
uncle boonmee who can recall his past lives (2010)
dir. apichatpong weerasethakul
mysterious, tantalizingly oblique filmmaking with well-chosen moments that subvert the rules of traditional cinematic perspective, geography, and point of view. like much of the film, these choices are more to be felt than understood, so i’ll try to focus more on the mechanics and less on their significance.
1 to 4: sitting, eating dinner, the family/group hears boonsong before he arrives. we’re shown static images of the mountain and jungle with no movement, indirectly asked by the characters to focus on what we hear (“what’s that sound?”). we cut back to the family, who turn towards camera, and then we cut to see what they’re looking at: boonsong climbing up the stairs to join them.
so what perspective is the mountain and the jungle, really? is anyone present even able to ‘see’ it? we can start by ruling things out — it is not the omniscient horror/suspense perspective where the camera is placed in special positions for the audience to learn information before the characters onscreen do. it isn’t even omniscient in an ambiguous way — in this film, shots are consistently tied to characters. at the height of the film’s most surreal moments, we feel the imagery through the characters even if there isn’t a literal or direct connection to their line of sight because we see them seeing. in this case, we feel this is some approximation of roong’s perspective (he’s in the red shirt) since he’s looking into the brush when we cut back to the dinner table.
5 and 6: here’s another good example of this kind of perspective: in the same scene, jen leaves the table during boonsong’s story to gaze at the farm, and we cut to the farm. the director does not seem concerned with accurately recreating jen’s perspective; we know everyone is on the second floor of the house, but in this ‘reverse’ of the farm, the camera is more or less on the ground. there’s also nothing done to create concrete geography for us — no one’s shoulder is dirty in the frame, there’s no familiar landmark or reference point. still, we know this is jen’s perspective somehow, since we cut back to her from the same angle, slightly closer.
7 and 8: the princess looks at her catfish-engineered reflection. this is completely different from the other sequences i was describing before since we’re directly inside this character’s point of view. we see her reflection, then we see her looking at the reflection. the slightly wider focal length when we look up at the princess is part of what makes this so haunting.
9 and 10: tong sees himself watching television, seemingly moments earlier. we see him looking off-camera, and then we cut to what he’s looking at. this is a more traditional use of perspective and point of view to show something surreal and unexpected. when we see the group watching television, the camera is very closely approximating his perspective, but the coverage does not give us any part of tong observing in the foreground (dirty). it’s worth nothing that by this time in the scene, we’re intimately familiar with the room’s geography, so we know where everything is supposed to be.
to finish up, here’s cinematographer roger deakins discussing clean and dirty coverage in the context of clean singles, (a ‘clean single’ being a shot with only one person in it, without anyone else in the foreground).
“I think the Coens generally prefer singles. Singles tend to put the viewer right inside a conversation and can be, perhaps, more intense. I would say that overs [over the shoulder shot] give a more observational feel depending on the length of the lens used but they also give interesting possibilities for framing. Much of the time I find the choice quite personal and intuitive. I don’t really prefer one to the other.”
the key here is his comment that clean singles can be ‘more intense’. in the case of ‘boonmee’, there’s something confrontational and starkly compelling about the choice to have so much clean coverage.
it’s 2013, and within days of its premiere on netflix, you can’t watch the new season of ‘arrested development’ in HD, anywhere. this might seem like small potatoes, but stick with me.
for context, the show’s new incarnation is unflinchingly self-aware of how much has changed since its initial run ended in 2006. at that point, its intricate sight gags (small text in newspaper articles, hidden jokes in split screens, and seemingly peripheral details that become hugely important later in the narrative) were nearly ahead of their time, waiting to be discovered on DVDs. today, with a core audience primed to devour these new episodes on an explosion non-TV devices, the time seems perfect for the show’s visual puzzle to be experienced looking its best. sure, netflix viewers who stream video regularly might be more tolerant of subpar picture quality than most, but for a show that slips in gags based on floating subtitles in the deep background, you’d think this would be a priority for everyone solely for the sake of comedy.
so what’s going on? the new season is only streaming in SD, but it was finished in HD — you can even see the trailer in 1080p. footage was shot on RED in 5K, which looks fantastic, and we can assume it may even be finished for viewing in 4K at some point. netflix’s CPO neil hunt, talking to the verge a couple months ago about this:
“4K will likely be streamed first before it goes anywhere else. To that point, our own original House of Cards was shot in 4K. It’s being mastered in full HD, but the raw footage, or a good chunk of it, was shot in 4K, and we hope to have some House of Cards 4K encodes later this year.”
episodes of ‘house of cards’ (which is one of the best visual benchmarks you could pick) top out at 3000kbps on desktop computers, and 6000kbps on ‘super HD’ capable devices, which is netflix’s fancy branded version of 1080p. ’arrested development’ comes in at 1750kbps no matter where you watch it. it’s DVD quality-ish, at best. this isn’t even a service or a demand issue, if you were thinking that somehow there’s too many fans requesting high bandwidth streams at once — according to netflix itself, the show “has not yet been added in the HD side of [their] streams”. remember, netflix accounts for one third of total downstream internet traffic on any given weeknight in north america, so they’re more than capable, not to mention notoriously picky about the quality of their content sources. this ‘arrested development’ thing strikes me as odd for a company in a refreshingly progressive position to disrupt content distribution, not to mention telecom monopolies and their artificial bandwidth caps.
here’s netflix CCO ted sarandos, in response to a question as to whether or not netflix will ever approach blu-ray quality.
“it literally costs a couple of pennies to deliver an extra gigabyte of bandwidth to your house which would get you that better quality and the ISP and MSOs charge two to five dollars for that gigabyte. so it’s a very, very kind of unfair situation for consumers [in canada]. so there’s no technical constraint to having an incredibly high resolution picture except for the access to a lot of bandwidth. so globally the world is enjoying these kind of improvements and we certainly are enjoying them just across the border. and i think that’s an issue that has to be addressed here as well.”
right now it’s hard to point to any real reason behind ‘arrested development’s current lack of picture quality, but even if it were to be upgraded to HD tomorrow (and it ultimately will, at some point), it’s still the premiere of their flagship show that inexplicably got pooched. to sum this up, i have to quote that verge interview again because it hits on exactly what i was talking about earlier — why picture quality matters:
are people really asking for this? is there a demand for higher quality video?
“our goal is for people to get immersed in the story, whatever that is. and to that end we try to make the technology as seamless and smooth as possible. if people notice the rendering of the picture or the user interface, then that’s subtracting from the experience we’re looking for. the goal is to deliver the best possible picture that your equipment and network and source material is capable of. that way, we let people connect most closely to what they’re watching. but we intend to stay on the leading edge of what i call the “quality of experience”, so that poor quality does not become a discussion or competitive point.”
this is now a discussion point. if there was one show meant to be in HD on netflix, it’s this one. to neil hunt’s point, keeping the viewer immersed in the story is why filmmakers are flocking back to showing films their films in IMAX and 70mm, and why streaming technology is being developed accordingly. those details matter.
‘photos every day’
this is a spot by tbwa/chiat/day for apple, called ‘photos every day’. the craft is fantastic, and there’s some subtle, unusual attention to detail in it.
let’s take a look at the sound mix. here’s a waveform of the spot:
and now here’s the waveform of a conventionally mixed spot — this is that ‘old spice’ commercial everyone flipped out for a couple years ago. it might as well be any ad you see on tv today.
huge difference. there’s incredible restraint in the amount of compression applied to the music in ‘photos every day’. (from wikipedia, compression “reduces the volume of loud sounds or amplifies quiet sounds by narrowing or “compressing” an audio signal’s dynamic range”.) my point here is that if you caught this on tv, it would be substantially ‘quieter’ sounding than other ads around it.
the other interesting thing about the mix is that the iPhone shutter click sound is substantially undermixed. it comes across as incidental, and unobtrusive. the ambiences are the real star here, and the sound editor wasn’t even afraid to drop them out entirely for effect (see snowy skyscraper, 0:23).
• there’s a real nice match-cut at 0:06 of the guy jumping off his skateboard into the shot of the jogger running.
• 0:25, the iPhone bobs up and down at a concert, and halfway through, the shot itself starts bobbing with the phone, keeping the screen stationary in the frame.
• overall, there’s a very careful variety of perspective, scale, and involvement. are we peering over someone’s shoulder? watching from across the street? ostensibly taking the picture, ourselves?
• i could have done without the voiceover at the end.
the red shoes (1948)
dir. michael powell & emeric pressburger
the continuous shot through the house in ‘panic room’, specifically the segment through the kitchen, was well documented as a visual effects nightmare with many failed attempts, each reboot requiring more and more labour-intensive work. below, david fincher defends the shot’s cold, mechanical feel. there’s a subtext in his comments that suggests that he wasn’t totally happy with the way it turned out, or alternately, a general misunderstanding of what the shot was supposed to accomplish.
“i don’t think it has a personality, maybe it does. i sort of saw it as: there’s no one there. there’s no one pushing the dolly. there’s no one pulling focus.”
the hudsucker proxy (1994)
dir. joel & ethan coen
cinematographer roger deakins
the hudsucker proxy (1994)
dir. joel & ethan coen
cinematographer roger deakins