Antonioni, a Filmmaker with an Eye for the Invisible
by Neda Ulaby
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1999
Photo by Steve Pyke
Michelangelo Antonioni had a long, solemn face and hooded eyes — he looked like Humphrey Bogart. But the work of the Italian filmmaker, who died at home on Monday at the age of 94, couldn't be further from the traditions of Hollywood.
Antonioni, whose name became synonymous with European art-house cinema in the 1960s, began his career as part of the Italian filmmaking movement known as Neorealism. Their style, says film scholar Peter Brunette, was obsessed with the visual — in the sense of what we can see, the visible surfaces of reality. But Antonioni was different from such gritty Italian Neorealists as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sicca, who focused on postwar problems; Antonioni preferred stark, existential meditations on the things you can't see and things you can't say.
"And so you have to read between the lines," Brunette says. "Everything is powerfully expressive, but you can never exactly pin down what it means."
The film that swept Antonioni before an international audience in 1960 was L'Avventura, which in Italian means both an adventure and a fling. Brunette says the movie is visually compelling, but the vague plot belies the title. The film, frankly, can be trying.
"They're out there on this rock in the middle of nowhere on this island, and people are wandering around looking for someone, and can't find her," Brunette says. "L'Avventura was shown at the Cannes film festival, and people were booing — those supposedly sophisticated critics were booing and yelling 'Cut, cut!' …. And that film went on to become known as one of the greatest films of all time."
It's true that Antonioni's visuals pack much more drama than his narratives. His characters drift through their movies with a preoccupied air, trying to connect, and failing. Much more important to the director, Brunette says, were the pictures they made — "the characters as graphic images."
Monica Vitti [left] in L' eclisse, 1961
The liquid-eyed actress Monica Vitti was one of Antonioni's favorite graphic images. But the idea of using actors as props shocked Jack Nicholson, who starred in Antonioni's 1975 film The Passenger. On a DVD reissue of L'Avventura, Nicholson remembered Antonioni telling him that his performance was fine — but "'for me, the actor is a moving space.'"
A moving space didn't even have to move, as far as Antonioni was concerned. He could find an epic in a blank stare. And why complicate a close-up with a distracting tear or smile? In the late '60s, Antonioni's movies — already abstract and philosophical — became even more so.
"They're trying to talk more about the meaning of vision," Brunette says, "what it means to see the visual world — how do we understand it, how do we see reality through visuality and through vision."
The most accessible example of Antonioni's vision may be the 1966 movie Blow-Up, about an amoral photographer blithely swinging through London. David Hemmings' protagonist snaps a series of voyeuristic pictures in a public park, outraging a woman who's caught unawares in his lens — and upon developing his film, he comes to believe he's inadvertently documented a murder.
"But as he blows up the pictures more and more and more," Brunette explains, "he sees less and less and less."
That's the kind of conundrum Antonioni cherished — how reality is called into question in what we see and what we don't. But Blow-Up may have been the director's last great film.
"After that, I think, he became a parody of himself," Brunette says. "The character who was the protagonist becomes more obviously him."
The photographer in Blow-Up, the TV reporter in The Passsenger, the director in Identification of a Woman, or the novelist in La Notte ... and the aging filmmaker played by John Malkovich in one of Antonioni's last movies.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not a philosopher," Malkovich's unnamed character says in Beyond the Clouds, which Antonioni co-directed with Wim Wenders. "On the contrary, I'm someone profoundly attached to images. I only discovered reality when I started photographing it — photographing and enlarging surfaces of things that were around me. I tried to discover what was behind them. I've done nothing else in my career."
For Michelangelo Antonioni, that may have been enough.
Saturday, August 4, 2007
Antonioni, a Filmmaker with an Eye for the Invisible
Fights, Footsteps and Thrills
Aug 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson
FOLEY ADDS REAL-LIFE DRAMA TO THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
Matt Damon reprises his role as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum.
Photo: Jasin Boland/Universal Pictures
In our September 2005 issue, we ran an in-depth story about the often-misunderstood and under-appreciated art of Foley recording — the post-production process that adds everything from footsteps to door slams to tea cup clinks to clothes rustles, and a zillion other big and small sounds to make movies sound as true to life as they are. To revisit the topic, we chose to zero-in on one particular film and discuss specific issues related to Foley.
In this case, we looked at The Bourne Ultimatum, the third installment in the popular series of action films starring Matt Damon and based on Robert Ludlum's best-selling spy novels. The first two films — The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004) — have earned more than half-a-billion dollars worldwide, and the promise of more fast-paced thrills in exotic locales (Russia, France, Spain, Morocco) and some measure of resolution of the complicated story of agent Jason Bourne's mysterious past will likely translate to another box-office smash.
Paul Greengrass, who directed Supremacy (and, more recently, the exceptional United 93) is back at the helm. So is much of the same post sound team that helped make the first two films so compelling. Working out of Soundelux, Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers were supervising sound editors; Craig Jaeger was Foley supervisor; and Kelly Oxford, Foley editor. The Foley recording team came from Burbank, Calif.'s One Step Up, which also handled the first (but not the second) film in the series, with Dan O'Connell and John Cucci the Foley artists, and James Ashwill the mixer. The re-recording mixers at Todd-AO West were Scott Millan — a veteran of all three films — and “newcomer” to this series, David Parker.
Hallberg and Baker Landers have been working together for nearly 20 years now on dozens of excellent films, including Braveheart, Gladiator, The Patriot, Black Hawk Down, Seabiscuit, Ray, The Island and many more. According to Baker Landers, the first step in the Foley process is, “Per and I will spot the film together — we'll go over it and make a game plan for the effects and the Foley and all the other elements. One of my favorite things to do is to cover the Foley stage; I'm a big fan of Foley. When we go through it, there are obvious Foley things we know we're going to be doing. Other things we'll discuss and figure out what's going to come from effects and what will be Foley.”
Foley artist Dan O’Connell amid the props in the main room at One Step Up, a leading Foley facility he operates with John Cucci.
At this point, Foley supervisor Craig Jaeger and Foley editor Kelly Oxford come into the picture, so to speak. Jaeger was born into the business — his father, Donald, was an effects editor — and he worked as assistant effects editor beginning in the late '70s before becoming a Foley artist in the late '80s, then a Foley editor and, with Air Force One in 1997, a supervising Foley editor. It is Jaeger, in consultation with Baker Landers and Hallberg, who is primarily responsible for laying out the specifics of the Foley sessions for the group handling the actual Foley recording — in this case, One Step Up. “The way Per and I like to do it is get everybody in a room and run reels,” Baker Landers says. “I like everybody to sit and watch the movie together if we can and talk during it and bounce ideas off of each other. A lot of ideas come from our group spotting sessions.”
“Karen and Per will also usually have special notes they'll hand me,” Jaeger adds, “and it might include things the director really wants, as well as other things we need to cover that might not be so obvious.
“Then I go through it and program in Pro Tools,” he continues. “For years, we used to make what was called a ‘shopping list.’ I'd go through and do a footstep pass, for instance, and handwrite it. I'd make a list of footage in and footage out: ‘Okay, I want Jason's footsteps on wood here,’ and where it would change I'd write, ‘Carpet at 55 feet.’ It was a lot of work, a lot of typing and I wasn't a very good speller or typist. [Laughs]
“Now I'll create and build a session [in Pro Tools]. I'll put in a ‘record’ file, and when I see something I want to cover, I tag it and give it a name. Then when it goes to the Foley stage, they pull up that session, and they say, ‘Okay, here are Jason's footsteps all the way through. We need this prop for this character here,’ and everything is laid out clearly. It can be very, very specific: ‘This “grab” is only this number of frames.’ Dan [O'Connell] will look through it and know exactly what they need to do or need to find.”
“Craig lays out the session for us to follow,” O'Connell says. “From having worked with them so much, though, we also know the kinds of things that Karen and Per really like, and Karen also gives us the notes not just from the director, but from the picture editor. Knowing what the picture editor [in this case, Christopher Rouse] wants is as important as knowing what the director is looking for because they have a vision of how the cut film is all going to tie together. So we get all these notes and get a sense of what everybody is thinking about. Then we head off and try to fulfill that: hitting everybody's mark and adding our own special touches along the way.”
“Every movie is different,” Jaeger comments, “and that's part of the challenge: ‘Okay, what are we going to do better than we did on the last two [Bourne films]?’ Which is hard because I think we did a pretty good job on both of them! What can we do differently? Let's get into it and find out.”
Adds Baker Landers: “We know what we wanted Bourne to sound like in the past, but we also say, ‘Let's try to change it up a bit.’ You can't make it too different because you have an audience that's in love not only visually, but also sonically, with certain aspects of Bourne. The most important thing about Jason Bourne's character is he's very solid and fast and deliberate. He's not real high tech-y; he's not flashy. He's down and dirty — he gets it done and he's precise; he's a machine. So the Foley movement has to reflect that. It's not just the surface he's on or the shoes he's wearing; it's his attitude, his confidence. And that's something we try to follow all the way through with his movement. There's nothing messy or sloppy.”
I ask how Bourne's confidence and purposefulness is conveyed by Foley. “The movements are precise and solid,” Baker Landers answers. “They don't sound wimpy or tentative. Remember, Foley artists are actors. So a lot of the attitude is coming through Dan and John [Cucci]. The art of really capturing a character is amazing, and when it's good you don't even notice. When it's bad, though, it's distracting and maybe you don't feel the presence of the character, or his size, or his speed, or his dexterity.”
In O'Connell's view, “Jason is not tentative at all. He's a highly trained individual and he doesn't stop to think. It's always a go. It's all bam-bam-bam! So I have to be sure that what I do [in Foley] is going to sound like that. He's climbing up sides of buildings and going from rooftop to rooftop and jumping through glass windows, running down hallways, down stairs. Then there are the hand-to-hand combat fight sequences — because of his training, he is able to fight with almost anything in a room; anything becomes a weapon. It may be a book or it may be a candelabra or something just sitting on a table, but it is weapon of choice for that moment, so we have to find those things and make sure they sound right and that the mood of the scene reflects the unpredictability and the spontaneity of the situation he's in.”
One Step Up has been a top L.A.-area Foley company for the past 13 years, though O'Connell's career stretches back much farther. Their new facility in Burbank is state-of-the-art, with multiple walking/running surfaces (of course), two different dirt pits — “your Western dirt, which is hard-packed, and forest dirt, which has a softer, moister quality” — an area for water Foley, a Pro Tools rig, a large complement of microphones with different characters — including Neumann and Sennheiser shotguns (industry-wide favorites) — and a huge storage facility down at the other end of the block filled floor to ceiling with every prop/noise-generating object imaginable. Their prop assistant, Gabriel Elliott, “is a really important part of all this,” O'Connell says. “He'll set up in the morning, and all through the day he'll be getting us special things. I'll give him the weirdest request and somehow he'll find it.”
Supervising sound editor Karen Baker Landers (seated) and Foley supervisor Craig Jaeger
In the early days of One Step Up, they recorded to 24-track tape. That was followed by DA-88s, then MMR-8s and now, of course, most Foley sounds are shot from multiple angles directly to Pro Tools, which is now an integral part of every facet of the post sound chain in nearly all film productions. “Pro Tools has made it more efficient in terms of getting tracks from the Foley stage to the editing room and laying things out and cutting them,” Baker Landers says. “Even on the Foley stage itself, you say, ‘Well, can we move that a couple of frames?’ and you can do that very quickly now. ‘Can we play these three tracks together but move that other one?’ Trying different things is much easier now, but what the guys actually do on the stage hasn't changed that much. It's still a process that takes a lot of time to get it right, though hopefully [the technology] gives you the luxury of being able to do a few more takes if you need to.”
O'Connell says that when possible, they'll try to match the feeling of existing production tracks: “If we can fall into that area sonically, it helps the dubbing mixers in the long run because if they have to match something we're doing into a scene that exists, it's an easier time for them.” Adds Baker Landers, “The art of great Foley is that it sounds like it was recorded on the day [the visuals were shot].”
Foley runs the gamut from subtle clothing movements to augmenting ear-splitting FX, and all agreed that each is as important as the other. “Sometimes the subtle movement is more challenging,” Baker Landers comments. “If it's something in a quiet scene that's going to play and you're on a mixing stage and you're finaling and putting everything together and hearing it really loud, it's all about that detail, and you have to get it perfect or it can be jarring.”
When it comes to FX, “Everything is so intertwined, whether it's Foley, effects or backgrounds,” Baker Landers adds.
O'Connell: “A lot of times, the effects editors will have a car crash or a huge explosion, but they may not have the piece of something that falls in your face, like a big spring or a piece of fender or a tire that rolls by. Those kinds of things are where [Foley] can come in and add another dimension to the sound job. Sometimes they'll send us temp tracks or some rough representation of what an effect is going to sound like; then we can get an idea of what frequency we need our stuff to fall into to make it come alive. A lot of times, it's broken glass or small pieces of metal debris; little things like that. We're adding the cherry on the sundae that the effects editors make. [Laughs] Most of what you hear is many layers that all play together, and each little bit of detail heightens what the audience is going to take in as their reality. The more that we can provide, the more they're in the film and excited by it.”
Jaeger cites a car chase in The Bourne Ultimatum that neatly combines Foley and FX, noting that engine sounds and tire screeches and the like were the natural domain of FX, but “where the bumper flies off and there's a big whump-whump-whump-whump as it rattles off, that was done in Foley [with Dan O'Connell dragging a trunk lid across the ground]. At one point, the bumper's still on the car but it wobbles, and Dan created a really great metal sound and then a kind of plastic-y wobble and then I put them together so they matched because it's right there in your face — you see it so you want to hear it.” Foley was also key to the sounds inside the cars during the chase: “Bodies are flying against the door; hands are turning the wheel real fast,” Jaeger says. “These are all things that build tension in the scene.”
Foley editor Kelly Oxford worked with Foley supervisor Craig Jaeger.
Baker Landers was at One Step Up for many of the Foley sessions, which is consistent with her and Hallberg's great attention to detail and intimately knowing every element of the sound tapestry. As O'Connell notes, “The great thing about Karen and Per is that they really love to find out what each element is going to be so that when they get to the dubbing stage and they're sitting there with the director and the picture editor, they can say, ‘We shot a really cool thing for this — let's listen to it!’ The fact that they know each piece of their project is really helpful. Karen sits with us and we'll get a direction from her, we'll go with that and then play back the reels for her and we'll do fixes based on our playback.”
Once the Foley for a reel or section has been recorded, Jaeger takes the material and he and Oxford cut it precisely to picture. “We'll get it in the ballpark,” O'Connell says, “and we'll give them our final choice, which is usually the one we think blends best with the overall feel of the scene, as well as other options.” Later in the process, the director or picture editor or re-recording mixers may ask for additional elements or strip away layers for whatever reasons. Picture changes or the arrival of new visual FX late in the process often necessitate shooting new Foley. Baker Landers estimated that Foley for The Bourne Ultimatum — considered a big job — would take more than 25 days, “whereas a regular film usually tries to do it in 10 days or less. Foley schedules have gotten crunched on some of the smaller films and that's usually not a good idea.”
Asked about the most challenging aspect of creating Foley for The Bourne Ultimatum, all three interviewees mention the same area: footsteps. Bourne is constantly on the run — literally and figuratively. “There's lots of storytelling through feet,” Baker Landers says. “We spent a lot of time on specifics capturing the right texture and the right feeling, whether it was a chase on foot or something less frantic, like in a dark room where you can't see much but you can hear the creeeak of a footstep — that can be a cool moment for the audience.”
Adds O'Connell, “There are a lot of one-on-one foot chases that go up halls, down halls, down stairwells, over rooftops, climbing up here, climbing up there. That was a huge part of it this time. So that's a lot of different surfaces and different sound environments. But that's part of what makes it fun and interesting: figuring out how to make what you see on the screen sound real and exciting.”
Monday, July 30, 2007
Ingmar Bergman, Director and Cinema Icon, Dies at 89
By Janina Pfalzer and Benedikt Kammel
Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film director whose depiction of anguished human relationships made him an icon of the art-house cinema and inspired followers including Woody Allen, has died. He was 89.
Bergman died today at his home on the isle of Faaroe, off Sweden's east coast, the Swedish Film Institute said in a statement. In his lifetime, he directed more than 50 movies, wrote scripts for another dozen, and was responsible for 168 works for the stage, television and radio.
"This is an enormous loss, not only for artistic Sweden but because he was one of the most well-known Swedes in the world,'' Jon Asp, a spokesman at the Ingmar Bergman Foundation, said in a telephone interview today. "Had it not been for his struggles in the 40s and 50s, Swedish directors such as Jan Troell and Bo Widerberg may not have been able to make films.''
During a career spanning eight decades, Bergman developed a body of work known for austere drama with recurring themes such as art, faith and the meaning of life. Three of his movies won Academy Awards for best foreign language film and one, "Fanny and Alexander'' in 1982, grabbed four awards. It was also the beginning of a 21-year hiatus in his film making.
Before spending his final years in seclusion on the windswept Baltic island of Faaroe, Bergman made his last film, "Saraband,'' in 2003. It was greeted in a review by Time magazine as "the last roar from a legend,'' a work that showed he was still "the greatest living filmmaker,'' with a gift for finding "universal significance in his private agonies.''
Chess with Death
His international breakthrough had come in 1956, when "Smiles of a Summer Night'' won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. A love comedy set among the Swedish upper class, the film was still "a reaction to his icy delvings into the human soul,'' Peter Cowie wrote in "Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography.''
The success of 'Smiles of a Summer Night'' allowed Bergman to turn away from the comedies that made his name and to direct "The Seventh Seal,'' possibly his best-known and most- celebrated film. The story, about crusaders returning to a Sweden plagued by the Black Death, was a religious allegory that pointed toward a run of existential films by Bergman.
The 1957 movie also launched the international career of actor Max von Sydow, whose knight dares Death to a game of chess as he tries to stave off the inevitable. The image of Death in "The Seventh Seal,'' portrayed as a man in a hooded black robe with a white-painted face, has been both paraphrased and parodied in films ranging from Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life'' to "Last Action Hero,'' an action comedy with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
U.S. director Woody Allen holds "The Seventh Seal'' as his favorite movie ever. In a New York Times review of Bergman's 1988 autobiography, "The Magic Lantern,'' Allen called the Swede "a master with an inspired personal style; an artist of deep concern and intellect, whose films would prove equal to great European literature.''
Bergman's oeuvre inspired Swedish directors including Troell and Widerberg. Troell's 1972 movie "The Emigrants'', starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann as two Swedes who emigrated to the U.S. during the great famines of the 1850s, was nominated for an Academy Award. Widerberg's films earned him accolades at the annual Berlin Festival and an Oscar nomination for "All Things Fair'' as best foreign movie.
Aside from the recurring themes in his movies, Bergman's work is signified by the repeated use of similar images, such as clocks and mirrors, environments and names of characters. He was consistent to such a degree that film critics still use the word "Bergmanesque,'' though much of the time only to denote any film depicting painful relationships.
'Bergman evolved a style to deal with the human interior, and he alone among directors has explored the soul's battlefield to the fullest,'' Allen wrote in the Sept. 18, 1988, article. "With impunity he put his camera on faces for unconscionable periods of time while actors and actresses wrestled with their anguish.''
Bergman, who cut a gaunt figure sporting a beret and a goatee in his early years, frequently referred to the "demons'' that haunted his inner life, as well as his constant sufferings from stomach ailments. "Flocks of black birds often come and keep me company: anxiety, rage, shame, regret and boredom,'' he wrote in the 1987 autobiography. He called exercising his profession a "pedantic administration of the unspeakable.''
Haunted by Demons
An early Bergman mentor, Carl Anders Dymling, called him "high-strung'' and "short-tempered,'' characteristics that showed when he punched a reviewer from the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter in 1969. On the other hand, his actors considered him kind and compassionate, and Bergman became known for skilful portrayals of women in films such "Summer With Monika'' (1953).
That film also drew crowds wanting to catch a glimpse of nude scenes with Harriet Andersson, the first in a series of leading ladies with whom Bergman had love affairs, straining his five marriages to women including Else Fisher, his first wife, and Kaebi Laretei, an Estonian-born pianist. He remained married to Ingrid Karlebo -- a woman with whom he had a child in 1959 -- from 1971 until her death in 1995.
Bergman only publicly acknowledged his daughter by Ingrid, Maria von Rosen, in 2004 when they published a book together. His nine children include Linn Ullmann, the novelist daughter of Norwegian-born actress Liv Ullmann.
The son of a priest, Bergman described his own childhood as based on concepts such as sin and confession, punishment in the form of brutal floggings, forgiveness and grace. Bergman settled the score with his father, Erik, with the partly autobiographical "Fanny and Alexander,'' where a stern, Lutheran bishop torments his stepchildren.
Bergman said his authoritarian upbringing may have contributed to an "astonishing acceptance of Nazism'' before World War II, a stance for which he was later deeply apologetic.
He was born July 14, 1918, in Uppsala, and moved 50 miles (80 kilometers) south to Stockholm two years later. While not poor, the family had some trouble making ends meet in his early years, a circumstance that improved in 1924 when Bergman's father was appointed chaplain to the Royal Hospital.
In the account of his childhood, Bergman says he was a sickly boy who suffered from "several indefinable illnesses and could never really decide whether I wanted to live at all.'' At the age of 10, Bergman began to visit the theater, and after trading his brother 100 tin soldiers for a cinematograph, he was struck with "a fever that has never left me.''
Bergman made only a brief attempt at university studies and directed his first amateur play in 1938. A year later, he was employed as an assistant director at Stockholm's opera house after being turned down for a job at the Swedish capital's Dramatic Theater, for which he became the manager in 1963.
Three films made just before that appointment, the "trilogy of God's silence,'' are often considered Bergman's greatest achievements as an artist. "Through a Glass Darkly,'' "Winter Light'' and "The Silence'' all experimented with ascetic visuals, intense close-ups and limited dialogue.
In "Persona'' (1966), Bergman developed those themes with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, a longtime collaborator and two- time Academy Award winner. Nykvist died in 2006. For Bergman, the film was also significant for personal reasons: It was his first starring Liv Ullmann, who bore him Linn and remained a friend, and it was shot on Faaroe, or Sheep Island, where he was building a house.
Love for Faaroe
"If one wished to be solemn, it could be said that I had found my landscape, my real home. If one wished to be funny, one could talk about love at first sight,'' Bergman wrote in "The Magic Lantern.''
Bergman shot seven films on Faaroe, a limestone island off Sweden's east coast, and he took refuge there when accused of tax crimes in 1976, before going into exile in Germany for some years. The charges against Bergman were dropped.
During the years abroad, he directed "Autumn Sonata'' in 1978, with Swedish Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman in her second- to-last role. Ingrid Bergman, not a relation, died of cancer in 1982.
Ullmann and another actor who stayed close to Bergman, Erland Josephson, featured in a number of 1970s films in which Bergman focused on tortured families, including "Cries and Whispers,'' "Scenes From a Marriage'' and "Face to Face.'' Bergman revisited the characters from "Scenes'' in "Saraband,'' casting both Ullmann and Josephson.
Bergman is survived by children Lena, Eva, Anna, Mats, Ingmar and Daniel -- who all bear his last name -- Maria von Rosen and Linn Ullmann. A date for the funeral has not yet been set, and close family and friends will attend Bergman's burial, newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported, without saying where it obtained the information.
To contact the reporters on this story: Janina Pfalzer in Stockholm at firstname.lastname@example.org ; Benedikt Kammel in Stockholm at email@example.com .