Monday, February 26, 2007

My Gifted Dad

I watched the Oscars last night with my father, 86. It's an emotional time as he packs up his apartment to go into assisted living near my brother. After eating Vietnamese take-out we settled into two unpacked office chairs amidst piles of boxes to watch TV.

In 1963, during a brief respite from an illustrious career as a still photographer, my father was Director of Photography for the film, "Lord of the Flies". The renowned British stage director, Peter Brook, asked my father to shoot this award-winning film and gave my father ten days to learn to use a movie camera before film production began on the island of Vieques. My father had never touched a movie camera before.

The rest is history. My father, a genius of sorts, developed a whole new system for tracking and zooming. He created a gate that swung and panned along the actors as they moved. In fact Tyson Kubota, a film student at Dartmouth, recently posted this critique of my father's shooting technique. I don't think he knew about Dad's swinging gate.



First, some technical lessons:
Zooming may not be so bad after all! The cinematographer Tom Hollyman (trained as a still photographer, Lord of the Flies is his one and only credited feature film) claims that this was the first feature ever shot [entirely?] using a zoom lens. He explains an efficient technique used for camera movement: walk at a right angle to the subject and pivot the camera/zoom in slowly to create a faux-dolly effect: this allows one to continually vary the background to obscure the fact that you’re zooming (so you’re not zooming in on the same spot, which is the core reason why static zoom-ins often look ‘cheap’).



Zooming Back to Puerto Rico


Brook and my father worked in the second floor of our apartment in Puerto Rico to develop Dad's tracking technique. If you look to the left of this photo you can see me watching. If I look solemn it's because maybe I felt the production of this movie was a family affair in which everybody but me played a role. Perhaps I took the constant commands for " All Quiet On Set!" too personally.

My brother Burnes, an extra, shown here, behind his father's camera, played Douglas, while my Mother took stills and helped with casting. I flirted with the Surtees twins and did get to play a stand-in for Piggy while my father learned to use a movie camera by making tests. Click here to see a slideshow of some low res pix of my father at work with Peter Brook.

Last Night

During a commercial break in the Oscars last night I asked my father why he didn't get further into film-making after " Lord of the Flies."

He said that after shooting Lord of the Flies he realized how much there was to learn in the craft of cinematography and that he felt he was too old at that time to begin at the bottom, learning the craft.

Kubota on Dad

Kubota continues in his critique:

On improvisation:
Famed director theater director Peter Brook got these non-actor children to convincingly live the experience of their characters—he reportedly shot over 60 hours of footage. Onscreen I could sense the free, wide-open editing process this approach must have allowed him. Each shot, no matter how briefly held, has a unique richness, an eloquence and brevity that comes from a confluence of unpredictable factors: the child performers, the environment, weather and lighting conditions, not to mention everyone behind the camera and offscreen.

The precisely exposed, carefully modulated tonalities contrast with the sense of contingency and spontaneity in the framings and actor movement. The way Hollyman/Brook shoot faces is particularly inspiring: the frequent close-ups on faces with starkly lit sky backgrounds or negative space decontextualize each boy’s position in the narrative, imbuing each image with a mythic weight (I could sense the cinematographer Tom Hollyman’s background in still photography most strongly in these moments).

The film is also a masterclass in the efficient and effective use of location shooting. The film’s power comes from the aesthetic tensions it contains: between the boys’ completely ‘real’ physical ‘performances’ (their physical presence in the actual conditions of the narrative) and the almost-entirely-postdubbed dialogue that they ‘speak’; between the gritty, pocked texture of the hunters’ volcanic rock fortress and the smooth grey tones of the open sky; between the use of unexpectedly disjunctive shot compositions and editing rhythms and the supple gliding camera movements; and between the occasional music (almost always used ironically or as thematic counterpoint, never in a conventional melodramatic sense) and the ambient beauty of the rest of the naturalistic sound design. The overall attention to detail and affect is staggering; I am convinced that Brook’s daring formal approach was the perfect choice to balance the broad-strokes allegory of Golding’s storyline.


Strut Your Stuff Dad @ The Heritage

Hey Dad...Someone's blogging about work done some 36 years ago--if all of us could be so lucky. Kubota says the film is a "masterclass in the efficient and effective use of location shooting."

So Dude, listen here. You may be difficult. But you're also gifted.

You're a true Technoratti presence. Cool enough. The ladies at the Heritage will surely swoon when you show them Kuboda's blog post.

Way to go.

I be proud.

1 comment:

nancy said...

This really got to me. It's so nice that you are able to share this with your dad, and he with you. Lord of the Flies is an incredible movie. It, along with To Kill a Mockingbird, are two films that completely capture the mood and atmospheres of their source books. That is so rare. I hope your dad's transition is smooth and easy.
(this is from nancy)