Basic Film Techniques: Wipe

The much maligned wipe – infamous for its inclusion in “tacky” wedding videos – has recently become a regularly implemented but rarely seen, or noticed, technique. The wipe is the technique where one shot is replaced by another by the movemnt of an edge, or line, which replaces the previous shot by “wiping” it. By revealing a new scene, environment or space the wipe offers a spatial or temporal transition to the director. The line-wipe, which just replaces shot A with shot B with a vertical line which moves across the screen, is the most basic wipe technique and is found in the earliest cinema. The line-wipe obtained a certain popularity in the 20’s and 30’s. The technique fell into disfavour due to its overt formal nature which foregrounds the construction of a film to an audience, an effect opposed to the philosophy of the continuity editing style.

One contemporary usage of the wipe technique is the reference to a by-gone era, a nostalgic replication of a previous era’s television or cinematic form. The television series The Nero Wolfe Mysteries utilizes the technique attempting to add to the verisimilitude and aura of authenticity established by the use of historical costume and dialogue. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) also uses the wipe technique, reputedly a reference to older science fiction films. In the early science fiction films and television serials, such as Flash Gordon, the wipe is intended to replicate the turning of a page or movement between boxes in a comic book. George Lucas allusion to these older serials, through the technique of the wipe, is meant to convey the personal enjoyment and impact early science fiction had on the Star War’s universe.

 

As I noted before, the wipe fell out of favour due to it foregrounding a film’s construction. The wipe however is a common technique due to the rise of the “invisible”wipe which implements the continuity editing system’s general guidelines. The invisible-wipe can be seen, however contradictory that sounds, in The Usual Suspects (1994). The invisible-wipe uses an object, or some other aspect of the screen, instead of an imposed line, to perform the wipe. In The Usual Suspects a police officer walks from right to left and as he does his back is used to signal the transition from shot A to B. The police officer’s back replaces the line in the traditional line-wipe technique. Due to the use of the the object within the digesis to facilitate the transition between shot A and shot B the invisible-wipe does not foreground the construction of the film; the invisible-wipe does not highlight the film’s editing. [In the video below this technique can be seen around 3:20 into the clip].

 

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Basic Film Techniques: Match-Cut

A mach-cut is a cut between two shots which match graphically. This match establishes a sense of continuity and interconnectedness between two different spatial or temporal spheres (space and time). The matching between a shot Z and shot X tends to produce a sense of importance in the connection. The match cut is an editing technique which imbues the different spheres with a sense of metaphor or symbolic relationship. If shot Z has a violent connotation and is matched with X then the action of X will also be imbued with that violent connotation [Although a part of the continuity editing style the match cut is linked to and could be argued inspired by, the montage style and theory of parallelism].

In the beginning of the film Strangers On A Train (1951) we see two different pairs of shoes walk towards a train. The two characters’ footsteps are linked together by a match cut which indicates an inevitable meeting and connection between the two characters’ fate. Essentially the characters are walking the same “footsteps” towards a linked fate. The match cut is primarily a graphic or visual connection between two different spatial or temporal locations. The second function is metaphorical or symbolic and a tool in which to produce meaning by matching two ideas together producing a synthesis of major importance. 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968) matches the throwing of a bone to a space station. The throwing of a bone, after the use of it as a weapon, indicates a leap forward towards humanity [evolution] and a movement forward in scientific progress and the use of tools. These concepts are linked to the space station firstly as the station itself is a tool as such and an indicator of scientific progress but also in larger context of the film as the technology of the space station is a movement towards another leap in evolution: that of artificial life.

The Function of Chiaroscuro Lighting and Analepsis in Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity is a classic film noir. The film noir is a hard genre to define, but it is commonly said to be a collection of Aesthetical Principles and a more cynical outlook during and after WWII.1. Double Indemnity starts with non-diagetic music which installs a sense of urgency and action that mirrors a speeding car. The editing is smooth, as each cut dissolves into another, ensuring a clear understanding that time and space has moved in a linear fashion. The establishing shot of Walter Neff’s workplace stunts this fluid action, the camera then pans right, slowly following Neff into an office; which, conversely to building drama and frenetic action, constructs a sense of suspense. The editing, although linear, manipulates clock time, as the frame speed and scene change slows down as he enters the insurance building, this technique is the editing of a frames’ rhythm between shots. What this editing technique does is change the rhythm and pace of our perception, ensuring we gain a sense of drama and suspense.

 

In film noir lighting is an important aesthetical principle as this give clues to the characters’ function. As Neff enters the office we only see thin bars of white light, projected across his chest, as if he was in a jail. As he switches the light on, the room is flooded with white and all shadows are removed. This technique is called Chiaroscuro2, the artful use of shades in black and white photography. This technique gives the viewer clues about the nature of Neff’s actions; that he is seeking redemption, bringing himself out of the shadows metaphorically, in the form of a confession, into the light. This functions as an instantly identifiable trope which helps the viewer to understand Neff’s character and narrative function as the Male Protagonist – a key component of the film noir. The understanding of characterisation is essential in Classic Hollywood cinema; the opening scene unmistakably uses generic conventions of the film noir to construct Walter Neff, from the lighting of the set, his bare and uninspiring office, the mise-en-scene, and the continuous motif of lighting a match between his finger and thumb.

 

In film noir the narrative is always centred on partial redemption and rationalisation of the male protagonist’s actions. In Double Indemnity this is done through the narrative technique of analepsis, or the flashback. The narrative device of analepsis is a classic film noir device which critic Schrader tells us creates a sense of ‘an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate, and an all-enveloping hopelessness’3 this outlook is culmination of the pre-war depression and WWII. As Walter Neff starts his confession the camera focuses on his face with a medium close-up. The camera position is mimicking the relationship between police and suspect, and although he’s talking into a voice-recorder, we can assume that we are meant to be placed in that moralising position. The combination of chiaroscuro and analepsis gives Double Indemnity a dark, unsentimental vision of America and in this way Billy Wilder’s Film is a classic film noir.

 

1. Michael Walker ‘Film Noir: Introduction’ in Ian Cameron (Ed) The Movie Book of Film Noir. (London: Studio Vista) 1994 PP 8-38

2. Billy Wilder was earlier in his career a German Expressionist, and the expert use of Chiaroscuro is most likely due in part to this fact.

3. P, Schrader. ‘Notes on Film Noir’ in B.K, Grant. (Ed) Film Genre Reader II ( Austin: University of Texas Press) 1999 PP 119-221 P220

Subjective Realism in Sandrine Veysset’s Will it Snow for Christmas?

Will it Snow for Christmas? (1996)

The opening scene of Will it Snow for Christmas? is shot like a home movie. It begins with a handheld shot, filmed at the children’s’ eye level. The scene contains jerking movements, which replicates the rushing anarchy of children playing. Though the colours are saturated, the lighting of the scene is naturalistic. After an establishing shot, filmed from the perspective of the Father’s Truck – a fact we are not yet made aware of – we see a point of view shot from the children looking back towards the red truck. It then cuts back again to the fathers P.O.V, who again situates the viewer in the surroundings of the isolated farm – this isolation, introduced by the technique of loose framing, becomes a repeated motif. The continuity of the trucks continued voyage, between cuts to the children, is called Match on Action and is a traditional rule of continuity editing, which relates to spatial and temporal issues. These combined naturalistic techniques help to create an aesthetical sense of the real. This issue of the aesthetically real is combined with a concern to present normal diction and dialogue. The work of the farm is also represented as hard and the issue of immigration is treated as matter of fact. The use of exposition is characteristic of many films, and Will it Snow for Christmas? Is no different. It is this phase of the film that motifs are established; the irregularity of this film is that its aesthetics are more akin to documentary than other forms of French Cinema, such as the Heritage films, the Cinema du Look and French New Wave. 1.

The motif of the real is also encapsulated in the representation of time. The changing seasons bring corresponding activates and problems for the Mother and her Children. And in this way the story is represented as real through an episodic narrative, which moves along with simple cause and effect logic – a convention of most documentary films. The simplicity of seasonal change affecting the narrative ensures a sense of repetition is imbued in the films structure, along with a sense of the inevitable among the characters. We believe the films representation of life due to the seemingly logical procession of the seasons, but within this we also expect narrative closure with reference to the films title. As winter closes in we expect the narrative to change from an episodic collective into a neatly tied up ending, a closure of narrative found regularly in the nostalgia films of the 1980-90’s. 2. The last scene, where the mothers P.O.V shot shows the children enthusiastically playing in the snow, could be seen at a basic level as a tying up of narrative, the question in the title of the film is answered by its snowing on Christmas. In essence this ending is a continuation of the episodic nature of the film, all we were allowed to see before were episodes of experience, and the viewer can presume that as the seasons change again, the children, though older, will go through the same cycle every year.

1. Pramaggiore, M. & Wallis, T (Ed). Film a Critical Introduction, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2007). PP 286-289

2. Lanzoni, R.F. French Cinema – From its Beginnings to the Present, (London: Continuum International Publishing 2004) PP 299-347

 

A Review of a Combat Scene in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now (1979)

 

In Apocalypse Now‘s combat scenes we are given a fragmented, disjointed view which Coppola used to communicate the true nature of the Vietnam war and every modern war. Coppola commented, in a brochure released with the first screenings, that ‘The most important thing I wanted to do in the making of Apocalypse Now was to create a film experience that would give its audience a sense of the horror, the madness, the sensuousness, and the moral dilemma of the Vietnam war. . . . I tried to illustrate as many of its different facets as possible. And yet I wanted it to go further, to the moral issues that are behind all wars.’1 In the now famous battle scene where the Air Cavalry attack a Vietcong position while playing Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries Coppola achieves that which he set out to, namely the horror, madness, sensuousness and moral dilemma of Vietnam. The choice of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is interesting as it serves an important function in the film. The music is majestic, composed and a symbol of both heroism and riding into hell itself. The music also represents by an association with Wagner a hatred of Jews and a recent enemy of America’s Germany – the use of music associated with Germany the Americans are superimposed into the position of the traditional enemy in War films. The music basically represents both heroism and dubious moral justifications. The soldiers are heroic riding into hell, but they are here for a rather poorly justified reason. The horror of the war is indicated in the smashing of helicopter fire into the Vietcong town, the strafing of machine gun fire into the village. The madness is indicated in the personal motivation in attack; the search for a good surfing position. The insanity is also indicated by bounty for making a good shot; a large case of beer. While the helicopters are in the air, and the music remains, the editing ensures a decent level of spatial continuity is maintained, we are regularly allowed to see the helicopters in formation and every attack is shown with a corresponding target, conflict and resolution of that conflict. When the helicopters sit down we lose a sense of spatial continuity, the camera circles around a wounded victim intimating a panicked soldiers swirling terrified head filling with nerves at the sight of blood and guts. Another interesting feature in communicating the sensory confusion is when the American bombers drop napalm on a line of trees the sound waivers and drops out of existence relating the deafening madness that is modern warfare. In this battle scene we see Coppola’s aims communicated by his use of music, shot selection and composition. Marsha Kinder explains that Apocalypse Now

‘illuminates the madness and horror of the Americans who experienced it. No matter how good or how strong, everyone who was touched by that war had a change in consciousness. Not only the fighting men, but also those who experienced the war second-hand through accounts by veterans, through television coverage, and now through seeing Apocalypse Now.2

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness communicated a lost sense of rebirth (I will do a full side by side textual analysis of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now later on in the year) and Coppola’s film also seems to communicate this. The change, or rebirth, of those who experienced Vietnam isn’t a heroic one that is portrayed after a tour of combat in many WWII films and even Westerns, it is a loss of self, a crisis and destruction of all things held to be honourable. Even returning home is impossible as Captain Benjamin L. Willard remarks “home… I knew it just didn’t exist any more”. Coppola, in Apocalypse Now, is explaining that every aspect of American culture has been infected by the loss of faith and loss of self because it journeyed into a heart of darkness either through the medium of television or through active combat.

 

1Marsha Kinder, The Power of Adaptation in “Apocalypse Now”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Winter, 1979-1980), pp. 12-20 p. 13.

2Marsha Kinder, The Power of Adaptation in “Apocalypse Now”, p. 14.