The Spielberg Hundred #005: The Magic of Special Effects

This is the complete screen recording of a paper I gave last month at a conference in Montreal, The Magic of Special Effects: Cinema, Technology, Reception, 10 November 2013. Aside from the final plenary talk by Tom Gunning, I was the last speaker at this intensive, 6-day conference, so I will plead a little bit of fatigue and befrazzlement; I mostly resisted the urge to rewrite my paper over the course of the week as I heard so many stimulating ideas from the other speakers, but I will no doubt feed some of that stimulation back into the next draft of my paper. What I presented was an early sketch of my chapter on Spielberg for a forthcoming book, and thanks to helpful comments and questions from other delegates, I have a better idea of what I need to do to develop it into a longer, stronger essay. I hope you enjoy this snapshot of a work-in-progress, but let me know in the comments section if you have suggestions for improvement. Although the finished chapter will explore in more historical depth the relationship between Spielberg and Industrial Light and Magic, what I presented here is an attempt to characterise what Spielberg does with visual effects set-pieces, and how the audience is embedded in a “spectacular venue” for the presentation of marvellous things. 

Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #004: Speaking for Ventriloquism

Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen, Candice Bergen

Last week, I traveled to Bournemouth to give a talk at the Arts University. I think I got lucky with the weather, and it was a pleasure to enjoy the mild temperatures, intermittent sunshine and bouts of dryness. The other pleasure was addressing Bournemouth’s staff and students. They managed to sit still for a full hour while I pontificated about ventriloquism and cinema. This was the first outing for some new research I’m working on, drawn from a bigger (and long-gestating, oft-delayed) project on Cinema and Puppetry. It’s coming along slowly, but it’s getting there and gathering some speed now that I have more time to devote to it. AUB’s Animation Research Pipeline talks (of which this was one) provides a space for people like me to share work in progress.

I made a complete screen recording of my talk, and while my voice is quite clearly recorded, some of the sound on the clips might need you to raise the volume once or twice. I hope you enjoy it, but I’d love to hear any comments you have, good or bad; it’s not a short lecture, and the first half is quite theoretical, but I promise you it contains good stuff on Charlie McCarthy, The Great Gabbo, Lon Chaney in drag, Mel Gibson having a fight with a glove-puppet beaver, and tastefully coloured Keynote slides.

Here’s the video. It’s available in HD, which should help you if you want to read the text on the slides:

Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #003

Here, in four chapters, is a lecture I gave to undergraduate students in the Department of English at The University of Exeter in 2010. The students had already watched the film, so if you haven’t seen it, you should probably avoid this talk until you have, as it discusses important plot developments. The title I was given was “The Politics of Privacy”, but my talk doesn’t address that idea directly: Michael Haneke’s Cache was one of several texts for that week on a module dealing with personal expression in writing and film, often focusing on postcolonial subjects. My lecture introduces students to the film and suggests some ways to interpret it and start to unravel its mysteries.

For reasons of upload limits, I have had to divide this lecture into four segments,. These were obviously not planned breaks, so each chapter will start and stop a little abruptly, I’m afraid. If anyone’s interested, I’ll also post the complete audio file for the lecture, but the video version includes slides, text, and video clips that should help to illustrate it, especially when I’m reading out long quotations.

At present, I’m only able to post all four chapters to my YouTube channel, though these are at least available in HD – Vimeo has tighter upload restrictions, so I can’t post all of them yet, but you can find updates, and earlier video podcasts, at my Vimeo page.

Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #001

This week, I present the first of what I hope will develop into a regular series of short video podcasts. Last year, I experimented with ten audio podcasts, most of which adapted posts previously published on this blog. As much as I enjoyed making those shows, I missed being able to show images and clips, so this is an opportunity to refer very directly to particular scenes from films; sometimes I’ll analyse a single clip, and other times the subject will be more of a video essay like this first entry, which revisits a post about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can read the original entry here, but I really wanted to start with something familiar to get used to the editing software. I’m using iMovie for now, but might progress to something more complex if needed. This equipment serves my purposes for now.

I plan to follow this with two more short videos about 2001, and then a broader variety of films. If time allows, new video podcasts will appear every fortnight. Feedback on episode #001 would be greatly appreciated:

Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #001: 2001: A Space Odyssey – This Way Up from Dan North on Vimeo.

Fragment #34: A Scene from Novvy Gulliver

For your amusement and amazement, I present a sequence from Aleksandr Ptushko’s excellent Novyy Gulliver (“The New Gulliver”, 1935), which retells Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century satire for its contemporary Soviet audience. During a break from sailing lessons young Petya Gulliver falls asleep while reading Gulliver’s Travels, and dreams that he has been washed ashore in Lilliput. Armed with an array of rote-learned communist slogans, he eventually instigates a proletariat revolution to overthrow the pompous aristocrats who rule over the island. The Marxist speechifying seems rather blatant now, but the film’s main attractions lie in Ptushko‘s incredible animated sequences, often using hundreds of individual puppet figures for the Lilliputian crowd scenes (publicity at the time reported that he’d used three thousand miniature figures, but this may be a slight exaggeration). See, for example, this clip from Gulliver’s arrival in Lilliput, a well-known scene made even more striking with a long tracking shot that incorporates fluid movement through space and efficiently establishes the hierarchical communities attending the scene.

Born in 1900, Ptushko had begun working for Mosfilm in Moscow by 1927, making puppet models for other animators to use, but by the following year he was working on his own stop-mo films. He was developing his own craft, and testing the integration of puppets with live action. Novyy Gulliver was his first feature; he began production in 1933. Halfway through the production, Ptushko saw King Kong and, convinced that it was showing the way forward for stop-motion animation integrated with live-action, incorporated some of the same techniques. The film was a big success, and Mosfilm allowed Ptushko to set up his own stop-mo team, known as the Ptushko Collective, which made 14 shorts between 1936-8.

Koko in 1999 (1927)

One thing that will strike you about the Fleischers’ 1927 cartoon short Ko-ko in 1999 is how it anticipates other motifs in science fiction cinema. Most notable is the moment where the eponymous clown finds himself trapped in a feeding machine with more than a passing resemblance to the feeding machine tested by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936). When a stern Max Fleischer tries to bring Ko-ko down a peg or two by creating a bunch of rival clowns, Ko-ko rebels and shunts the competition out of the frame. Fleischer punishes his creation by conjuring Father Time, who pursues Ko-ko into the future – 1999, to be precise. There, he is assailed by all kinds of automated obstacles, and acquires a wife out of a vending machine. Like A Trip to Mars, which I posted here a couple of weeks ago, this is an extract from the excellent Inkwell Images DVD set, which also features documentaries about the Fleischer Bros. Studios. The music is Stereolab‘s remix of Shonen Knife‘s Hot Chocolate, taken from the Ultra Mix album.

Fragment #29: Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion

Still playing around with iMovie, which lets me make short videos, I made this quick piece that features a montage of Eadweard Muybridge‘s Animal Locomotion photographic series. The music is an excerpt from Philip Glass’s 1982 opera The Photographer, which took its libretto from documents and transcripts from Muybridge‘s life, and in particular the court proceedings from when he was on trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. If you want to keep up with these videos, and hopefully watch me get better at making them, you can now subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Picture of the Week #78: Charlie McCarthy & Edgar Bergen in ‘Nut Guilty’

I have another movie treat for you today: a complete short film starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, the courtroom comedy, Nut Guilty (Lloyd French, 1936). At this point, Bergen and McCarthy had appeared in a few shorts, including The Eyes Have it and At the Races, but within the year they had landed a contract for their own radio show that would keep them on air, with huge audiences and a string of major guest movie stars, for almost two decades. Many people find it odd that ventriloquists performed on radio, but it’s not so strange. Ventriloquism is only partly about the visual illusion of two voices emerging from two separate bodies; also important is the creation of two distinct voices, and the aural illusion that you’re hearing a back-and-forth conversation rather than a monologue. Bergen admitted that years of performing on radio left him out-of-practice at hiding his lip movements (something McCarthy would often tease him about), but his banter with McCarthy is exemplary for its speed and timing. It’s also a bit saucy, and bordering on the inappropriate when you consider that McCarthy is meant to be a schoolboy delivering a stream of flirtatious innuendos.

For more on radio and TV ventriloquists, Kelly Asbury’s (the director of Gnomeo and Juliet, no less) book Dummy Days is a good start. You can hear more about it here. For now, though, enjoy ten minutes of ventriloquial fun with Bergen and McCarthy: