Albert Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin on Cinéma vérité documentaries

maysles bros


The Maysles brothers were huge proponents of Cinéma vérité documentary filmmaking. Some of their most critically acclaimed documentaries are Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens. As a piece of trivia, in preparation for last year’s film Killing Them Softly, Andrew Dominik would watch Salesman. Below you will hear both Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin – close collaborator on other documentaries and editor – talk about one of such cinema verite offerings, and dissect the specifics of shooting and editing such a piece.



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Kuleshov on finding your style

I read an amazing passage from this book I’m currently reading, written by Lev Kuleshov. It’s in Russian but I felt the urge to translate it and share it with everyone. It’s very helpful in that he gives very good advice to young filmmakers about how to approach filmmaking and style. As it should be obvious by now, he makes a case that the content and story of whatever it is you are to turn into a filmic form dictates largely every element of a film. But, I’ll let the man tell this to you.


Frame as an element of visual style


kuleshovThe nature of a frame, the style of images in a film depends largely on the choice of angles. Light and tone of an image is of great importance also.

A correctly found iconic nature of the frame helps the director to properly convey to the audience the content.

At the same time, every director and cameraman, in selecting the shots, has a “signature” – a favorite style in finding and establishing shots and angles.

degaspushkinIf you’re familiar with the works of art (and you should know painters, otherwise you won’t be very good filmmakers), then you have no difficulty in distinguishing paintings of Isaac Levitan from Vasily Surikov, Degas from Vrubel and so on. Just as a well-read man immediately distinguishes the works of Pushkin from Nekrasov, Gogol from Gorky, Leo Tolstoy from Chekhov and so on. Works of artists and writers are distinguished from each other by content, themes, images, language, compositions and so on.

A true artist, his “handwriting (style)”, his artistic personality, is pronounced on the screen. Nobody confuses films of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Chaplin. No one confuses cinematographers like Moskvin, Kosmatov, Urusevsky.

The style of a painting, the director’s or cinematographer’s “handwriting” are determined by a number of components, from the choice of the topic, its resolution – the approach to working with an actor, the approach to musical formation of a film, the characteristic combinations of sound – all ending with the construction and assembly of the frame.

tolstoyGraphic (visual) interpretation of the film depends on the style of frames; for example, a film shot primarily in a medium shot, close-up, extreme close-up, with frequent or rare use of low or high angles shooting, bright colors, dark colors, in certain color combinations (color contrast), with movement, etc. .

Finding the frame is the result of understanding the important task of interpretation, themes, plot, and through a whole chain of tasks that define the film to be shot. Therefore, a certain nature of frames is mainly dependent on idea of the story, the director’s and cinematographer’s interpretation of the story.

eisensteinThat is why a bad director or cinematographer is the one who chooses in advance a particular style of approaching the work (in this case we are talking about the nature of the images, their style) A painter’s style is formed as a result of his deep work over the painting (Director-cameraman’s interpretation of the film’s tasks creates needed pictures), and the more correct the interpretation, the more truthful will be images and the more determined their nature.

Candid CameraWe say this to warn you – the young cameraman, director, film enthusiast – from seeking to, in advance (prematurely) work out for yourselves the manner of shooting, notionally to find your own style of shooting films. Such an attempt will not be successful. Think about the story, by all means, try to bring your ideas to the audience. Always think about the main thing required first – only that way you will gain your “signature” and your creative individuality. It will come gradually, as a result of great experience and hard work.

Thoughts on the style of a film’s images, isolated from the specific tasks for which it is necessary to select and define frames – are barren thoughts of an empty artist. Do not spend the gift of time on the development of a creative style for yourself – As a result you will get nothing but affectation.

Sea-WolfOld sailors walk with their feet wide apart, because they are used to walking on a constantly moving deck, golf shoes are worn as to not get wet in the damp grass. But a man dancing in sneakers and on this basis considers himself “elegant” is a deplorable spectacle. And it’s just as funny to look at a youngster who has never been at sea, who has read a lot of sea stories after which he begins to walk like a “Sea Wolf.” (If it doesn’t make sense, a sea wolf is essentially an old sailor (think of classic, Moby Dick like sailors)

Do not think about your style ahead of time, work hard, and your individual directorial style will come by itself.