Sunday, September 28, 2008

Period Landscapes (Circa 2007)

H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier) and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) Scour the California Countryside for Oil, from Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007)

You may have already noticed, but Hollywood has a pretty good idea of what the 19th and 20th centuries looked like. And this is especially true when studios begin to crank out films that have a distinct emphasis on landscape. I take this to mean that Hollywood films have developed a recognizable visual language used to depict the natural and built environments of the 19th and 20th century.

What are the elements of this visual language? On the one hand, there is the sheer expanse of the framing. Cameras capture and ensnare whole mountain ranges and cloud flotillas within a generously rectangular (and decidedly un-boxy) aspect ratio. On the other hand, colors are either depicted under natural conditions, or else they are almost completely washed out. Sometimes this varies according to the seasons that are being portrayed. Whereas a scene taking place in summer will take advantage of the harsh, natural light and its resultant jagged shadows, a winter shoot make opt for a limited, yet heavily saturated palette. In the latter, figures across a landscape may become lost in a field of scrub brush and snow. This interplay of grays of whites across a limited spectrum creates a moody moire, the end result being an atmosphere of want or fear that resonates at the most basic visual level. In other words, cinematographic and post-production techniques are used to alter time and place.

This is not, however, only a recent phenomena. To be sure, the advent of new projection formats, such as Cinemascope, Vistavision, and Todd-AO have quite literally opened up new vistas for the burgeoning camera eye. And new camera technologies have enabled cinematographers to capture unusual light conditions that help emphasize a particular film's period feel. Two examples of this that come to mind are Nestor Almendros' and Haskell Wexler's work on Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) and John Alcott's shooting for Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975). For Days of Heaven, Almendros and Wexler (who came in after to production ran behind schedule) used natural, undiffused light to capture the feeling of a world without incandescent, artificial lighting. Most of the shooting took place at the "golden" twilight hours, making for a difficult shooting schedule. And two the film's most famous sequences, where the landscape is obliterated by fire and locusts, give the best sense as to how Almendros gave visual evidence to a world that may have had a different quality of light.

Plagues of Fire and Locust, from Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978)

On the other hand, for Barry Lyndon, the development of ultra-fast Carl Zeiss lenses allowed John Alcott to capture a different time and place as well. Consider this excerpt from an 1975 interview for American Cinematographer magazine. When asked about the film's "soft" look and candlelit ambiances, Alcott remarked how
In most instances we were trying to create the feeling of natural light within the houses, mostly stately homes, that we used as shooting locations. That was virtually their only source of light during the period of the film, and those houses still exist, with their paintings and tapestries hanging. I would tend to re-create that type of light, all natural light coming through the windows. I've always been a natural light source type of cameraman - if one can put it that way. I think it's exciting, actually, to see what illumination is provided by daylight and then try to create the effect. Sometimes it's impossible when the light outside falls below a certain level. We shot some of those sequences in the wintertime, when there was natural light from perhaps 9 o'clock in the morning until 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The requirement was to bring the light up to a level so that we could shoot from 8 o'clock in the morning until something like 7 o'clock in the evening -- while maintaining the consistent effect. At the same time, we tried to duplicate the situations established by research and reference to the drawings and paintings of that day - how rooms were illuminated, and so on. That actual compositions of our setups were very authentic to the drawings of the period.
Today's landscape-dominated period films seem to be shot by only a handful of cinematographers. These are the go-to men who studios rely on to depict American vistas from the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, three of the most critically-acclaimed films of 2007 are heavy on landscape. One would be hard pressed to disagree with the fact that Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are period landscape films. These films also exemplify many of the elements I mentioned above: large aspect ratios, extremely natural or washed-out color palettes, and manipulated atmospherics.

Llwellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in a Texas Landscape, from Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men (2007)

These are beautiful, meticulous films. Yet they are oddly similar. In No Country for Old Men, an arid caldera becomes the stage set for a rash of violent killings between American and Mexican drug traffickers. It is similar to the beveled canyons from the opening shot of There Will Be Blood. And in fact, the similarity between the two stems from the fact that parts of both films were shot in Marfa, Texas. In other words, through the camera lenses of 2007, the 1980s and the 1890's shared similar visual cues. In these two films, figures are engulfed by yellowing sandscapes. The effect is not unsimilar to Frederic Remington's landscapes featuring cowboys and Indians. Like the characters in No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the figures in Remington's paintings are caught in a tension between stasis and motion. The flat expanse of earth -- its painterly depiction famously referred to by Jean-Louis Comolli as the "geographic extension of the field of the visible" -- stands in contrast to the figure in motion. The contrast between motion and non-motion, between figure and landscape, human and nature no doubt resonates within the frames of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. These landscapes are all rendered as devoid of human life, with only the smallest hints of habitation.

Frederic Remington, The Scout: Friends or Foes?, 1902-1905, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Although the cinematic elements of Remington's paintings may seem coincidental (he began his ethnographic paintings of horsemen at the same time that Edward Muybridge began his motion studies), there is another reason why these period landscape films from 2007 look similar. It is true that Roger Deakins, No Country For Old Men's cinematographer, and Robert Elswit, who shot There WIll Be Blood, used similar locations. It is no coincidence that Deakins was also the cinematographer for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

A Pensive Jesse James (Brad Pitt) Surveys the Missouri Landscape, from Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

For starters, Dominik's film shares a visual language with No Country For Old Men and There WIll Be Blood. These films share similar color palettes and landscapes. But unlike the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson, Dominik shot his film in Alberta. And here, one wonders if this film owes more of its visual style to Malick's Days of Heaven than to anything else (this film was also shot in Alberta). The shots of Jesse James (played by Brad Pitt) wandering among fields of wheat will no doubt remind some of Richard Gere in Days of Heaven. These shots are also reminiscent of those from the Coens' and Anderson's films.

The similarities extend well beyond their formal compositions. All three films from 2007 were shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio was the anamorphic standard up to 1970. However, new projection technologies and videographic requirements have transformed the 2.35:1 ratio to 2.39.1. Yet in a deferential nod to the history of cinematography and motion picture projection, the aspect ratio is still commonly referred to as "2.35:1."

Unlike Barry Lyndon and Days of Heaven, the makers of No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford had a vast array of digital post-production techniques at their disposal. These techniques were used for image alteration and correction as well as for non-linear editing. The size of the files required for this process continue to grow. Whereas editor Walter Murch required 1.2 terabytes of disk storage to finish Cold Mountain (2003), there is no doubt that this requirement has already increased.

But what about the periodic landscape film? The ability to store and edit footage requires a lot of storage space, but more importantly, this space is also reserved for footage that is color corrected or otherwise altered to give it a period film. In the 1970s, Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler, and John Alcott used painting and photography for visual references. And now, the ability to create Western Texas or the Mojave Desert in the 1890's, 1900's, and 1980's relies on more than the director's figurative vision and the cinematographer's literal eye. These are, after all, landscapes that are stored in computers.


cde said...

an excellent article.

reversealchemy said...

As always, a pleasure to read. This is a really interesting argument, audiences having learned to read color correction, aspect ratio and expansive scenes as period pieces - or simply as arty? One wonders if genre theory would be an interesting bit to toss in here. It's in another sense, a fascinating example of the reproduction influencing what you think the original is - we look at these sepia photographs - but the technology is invisible to us, so we paint the past scenes in those colors.

I am not sure I get your closing paragraphs though, how does this link to the terabits a film takes up on the computer? Is the rate of file size of film expanding at a greater rate than the size of the average hard drive? What's non-linear editing? Just meaning you can jump around like I do when I rewrite my papers?

enrique said...

I think you restated the last paragraph better than I ever could. Indeed, film must be digitized before it is dumped into an editing program. And once at that stage, the film is continuously modified, color corrected, etc. And you are exactly right: non-linear editing is basically computer-editing via tools like Adobe Premiere, Avid, Final Cut, etc. It allows editors to work out of sequence.

And I think you have also captured the essence of the argument. Indeed, all these photographic and editing techniques contribute much to our most popular representations of yesterday's landscapes. A professor of mine who read this piece clarified the argument even further. To paraphrase his comment, the post is "about the small coterie of present-day cinematographers who curate our big spaces." So, your comment and his put together really capture what I am saying. Which is to say, I need to do a better job of making my point!

fleur de gris said...

a little bit of a sidebar, but... this immediately reminded me of the cinematographic tweaks that were used by robert altman (w/cinematographer vilmos zsigmond)in mccabe and mrs miller: the effect of the sepia filtering is sublime.

love this from the wikipedia article: "For the film's distinctive cinematography, Vilmos Zsigmond chose to use a number of filters on the cameras instead of changing the film's look in post-production; in this way the studio couldn't force him to change the film's look to something less distinctive.