I finished reading Kuleshov’s The ABCs of Film Directing – which was never published in the US – and took notes on every section. The book is in Russian, but it has diagrams and animated pictures that you can refer to. I made sure to note some of these images in the notes. You can also use the book as a reference while you’re reading the notes because I noted page numbers of each section so you’ll at least be able to get a ‘clearer’ picture. Again some of you may know this info, but I’m posting it anyways – there’s some good info in there. Get both of the files below. I intend on posting more material and different kind of writings from Kuleshov and other well known film theorists.
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
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.
If 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.
Graphic (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.
That 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.
We 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.
Old 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.
Last week it was Renny Harlin, now it’s Jan De Bont; it’s a two for two in action director commentaries. It’s great listening to all these different directors talk about cinema and illuminate us about their craft. Jan De Bont’s insight into action filmmaking and filming technicals was a treat for me. It’s especially nice to listen to this one because De Bont was also a cinematographer before he made Speed – so he throws some information on how he shot a few scenes in order to keep the energy going by using various camera tricks.
Also I’ve cut out this segment from a Soviet documentary on the Kuleshov effect, where the man himself – Lev Kuleshov talks about the origins of this discovery and its need for cinema.
Just a reminder: Some of you reading these may have known this or grasped it a long time ago, so if this isn’t new information to you – you can skim over it. For those who aren’t that well versed in the language of cinema, this might be an insightful read.
So in the past two weeks or so I’ve been actively reading Pudovkin’s Film Technique book. For those who are pretty noob, or want to better grasp cinematic language – read this book. What you see today – 99% if not a full 100% – is largely based on the writings of Pudovkin’s, Eisenstein’s, Kuleshov’s film theory writings. Obviously there have come many more theorists after them who have influenced cinema – such as Andre Bazin (McTiernan was clearly influenced – I love using him as an example because not only is he a great filmmaker, he really grasps the cinematic language. Well, all the successful filmmakers grasp it too, but indulge me on always bringing him up. I guess I’m biased) Kubrick actually made the transition from photography to film after reading Pudovkin’s Film Technique, believe it or not — well, you’ll believe it after you read what the man himself has said…
“The most influential book I read at that time was Pudovkin’s Film Technique. It is a very simple unpretentious book that illuminates rather than embroiders. It certainly makes it clear that film cutting is the one and only aspect of films that is unique and unrelated to any other art form. I found this book much more important than the complex writings of Eisenstein.”
So before I even began to read the book, I was aware of what to expect and around what “findings” Pudovkin formed the film theory and techniques. In that quote Kubrick mentions cutting – indeed Pudovkin makes a big case that a film is not shot, but built out of editing. Meaning, the actual film, the narrative aspect – what we all watch and understand what we see is happening on screen is largely a product of a construction and careful selection of the images that have been shot. Well, dur some of you say – but really it’s true. However it goes a bit deeper than that without becoming complex, and Pudovkin discusses editing in great detail in the book.
But there’s the other aspect of his film theory that was a lot more eyeopening to the world of cinematic language. It’s the fact that the camera are your eyes… it’s simple once you truly grasp it. Obviously I’m not going to summarize his writings in this post, it wouldn’t do service to him nor the actual theory. But I want to share this passage that I’ve read today and immediately grasped and saw later tonight. You really have to work your brain muscles when you study cinematic language, you can’t slack off, and you can’t half-ass it by reading something or analyzing something with having only one part of your brain active – you have to focus 100%.
In this passage, Pudovkin brought up an example of – say hypothetically – we imagine a bystander observing an action. He’s close to it, say, a few feet away from it all. He sees a man standing by the wall of a building, then the observer looks left and sees another man walking towards the man that’s standing by the wall…
The man by the wall shows the man opposite of him an object and begins to mock him.
The other man clenches his fists and lunges at the man mocking him. At this point a woman on the third floor above looks out and shouts “POLICE!”
The men who were going at each other disperse and run away in opposite directions.
He then writes; “How would this have been observed?”
- The observer looks at the first man. He turns his head.
- What is he looking at? The observer turns his glance in the same direction and sees the man entering the gate. The latter stops.
- How does the first react to the appearance on the scene of the second? A new turn by the observer; the first takes out an object and mocks the second.
- How does the second react? Another turn ; he clenches his fists and throws himself on his opponent.
- The observer draws aside to watch how both opponents roll about fighting.
- A shout from above. The observer raises his head and sees the woman shouting at the window.
- The observer lowers his head and sees the result of the warning—the antagonists running off in opposite directions.
“The observer happened to be standing near and saw every detail, saw it clearly, but to do so he had to turn his head, first left, then right, then upwards, whithersoever his attention was attracted by the interest of observation and the sequence of the developing scene. Suppose he had been standing farther away from the action, taking in the two persons and the window on the third floor simultaneously, he would have received only a general impression, without being able to look separately at the first, the second, or the woman. Here we have approached closely the basic significance of editing. Its object is the showing (illustration) of the development of the scene in relief, as it were, by guiding the attention of the spectator now to one, now to the other separate element”
This was in essence the theory at play. He mentions editing here, but also it is closely interrelated with shooting. His theory was formed around how eye perceives what it sees. Essentially what Pudovkin has done is he replaced the eye with a camera lens. Afterall, it is a mechanical eye.
Take this passage that follows the above observation.
“The lens of the camera replaces the eye of the observer, and the changes of angle of the camera—directed now on one person, now on another, now on one detail, now on another — must be subject to the same conditions as those of the eyes of the observer.”
So now this brings me to my own “A-ha” moment when I observed a scene consciously and truly grasped what he was talking about.
I was having dinner a few hours after having read this, and out of the blue my mind picked up on what I read and made me consciously observe and understand the writing. I’m not new to understanding how shots work and that they’re essentially words in a language – I mean just the acronyms themselves; CU, MS, MLS – read like some words of a language. And its vital to realize is that afterall cinema has its own vocabulary, its own language that one must be fluent in.
However, what I saw today was that, really, the story is everywhere.
I was eating, and then as I reach towards a glass, I looked at it quickly…then at some point I looked at the plate, and the various objects and food that lay on the table. Then I began to look at the walls, and the mirror that was attached to the wall close by. And it really dawned on me — that concept of camera lens being your eyes.
Essentially the bigger picture of this was that — there was a story to tell, right there – at the dinner table. It doesn’t matter, the specifics of it – those things could get worked out. For instance, a theme (which is also crucial, a clear theme) – but it’s all there already.
Many filmmakers, writers and directors and DP’s and just all people involved in making films use real life as a ground for inspiration. So for me to just sit there, having dinner and seeing with my eyes the surroundings. I could write a story around it, and by using my eyes as I have done just by having dinner I could translate that story through images, to the screen.
I can’t stress it enough though, you guys have to read Pudovkin’s writings on cinema, they’re the basis for what cinematic language is.
As an exercise, just be conscious next time of observing your surroundings and then visualize how you would translate what you’ve observed using a camera, and how you would construct those shots into some clear and cohesive. It’s actually not too complex once you grasp it. The complexities come in when you’re trying to be ambitious.
[ Film Technique And Film Acting ]
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