Animation as a Tool for Expression: Examining the Original and Live Action Lion King

By Charlie Donnelly

Prominent film theorists and filmmakers disagree about the role of animation in cinema, with the philosopher Stanley Cavell claiming that “cartoons are not movies” (Frank 24), a stark contrast with educator Hannah Frank’s conjecture that “all works of celluloid animation [are] photographic in origin” (Frank 23). While we’ve discussed the role of animation in cinema in class with varying opinions, there are certainly instances when animation possesses an expressive quality lacking in traditional photographic cinema, especially seen in the differences between the original 1994 animated version of The Lion King and the 2019 live action remake. Although some feel that live action possesses the most varied capabilities as a mode of cinema, I will argue that animation has unique powers of expression in creating vivid and recognizable characters, establishing connotation and theme, as well as creating heavily stylized worlds with their own distinct visual iconography.

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Inside Bresson’s Truth – Cinematic Life In A Man Escaped (1956)

Ben Ratchford

It is often said of Bresson that his films, through their mechanical nature, their minimalist approach to their presentation of human emotion and experience, portray more passion and depth than could be achieved by “showier” directors. Bresson  expresses this as one of his goals in filmmaking in an interview from 1973.

BressonQuote

We have here an opposing view to Bazin’s idea of “total cinema” that cinema ought to re-produce as faithfully as possible the physical experience of real life – Bresson’s “cinematic life,” which is unique to cinema as an art, form seeks something new and otherworldly rather than trying to replicate lived experiences. I will here examine the techniques used on and off screen by Bresson in A Man Escaped to manifest his vision of cinematic life, that we may begin to understand what he means by such a statement. This is by no means an attempt to synthesize a complete definition of Bresson’s cinematic life, but rather a case study of a single film in what is at its heart a much larger project. Ultimately, I argue that through a minimalist construction of the emotional landscape in A Man Escaped, Bresson is able to slowly build emotional investment in Fontaine’s character, finally transcending the real at its end, achieving a level of depth which “places the world in the light of eternity” as Hayman put it in that same 1973 interview.

I want to first discuss the reasons why A Man Escaped feels realistic, and will then talk about how it surpasses this realism to become its own sort of life. At the heart of this question is Bresson’s unique directing style, notoriously “against acting” as it has been put – he told his actors as little as possible about the story before shooting, asking them instead to speak their lines and perform their actions as mechanically as possible, “as though they were speaking to themselves.”

We see this at play at the beginning of the movie – right after Fontaine (François Leterrier) is thrown into his cell, he lays down and we hear him say, “My courage abandoned me for a moment and I cried.” However, on-screen his face is completely flat. The line, too, is delivered with absolute dejectedness. I’ve included the scene below.

Here, the disconnect between visual and auditory information does not detract from the scene, but rather the “emotional space” left open by Leterrier’s performance allows audience to fill in the gaps themselves, which, counterintuitively, lends the film more emotional depth, not less. His voice reads not as bored, but as reflective of his fatalistic attitude. His lack of action on screen reads not as lazy acting, but as Fontaine being too exhausted to emote for the camera. It feels truly like a man who knows he is alone in a hostile world acting for no one but himself.

This trend is carried throughout the film, where even in the most strenuous situations Fontaine’s expression scarcely deviates from its typical inscrutability (see Figure 1).

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To some, Leterrier’s performance might read as emotionally sparse, or even poorly acted, but to me these moments characterize Fontaine as cool, levelheaded, indefatigable. A man in full control of his emotions, someone who is committed to his goals and cannot be shaken by even the most harrowing conditions, rather than an emotionless robot. This is supported by other emotional characters, rare moments of emotion from Fontaine himself, (For example, when he builds a relationship with his neighbors, when he expresses fear upon meeting Jost, his obvious love for his country, or when he laughs nervously after returning to his cell from his sentencing. Still, his expression never changes.) and his regular acts of brilliance and resilience that make up the body of the film. As expressed before, the narration also helps work to this end – we know that Fontaine is experiencing a very intense emotional journey, (something I will elaborate on further down below) but is forced to steel himself against the storm. Courage is the word we hear perhaps the most often over the course of the film – by Fontaine to himself, in a note from the women, and perhaps most memorably in reference to Orsini as “courage incarnate” – and certainly the relevance of this motif in relation to Fontaine’s actions is not lost in translation.

There is a quote from the same interview which I presented at the opening in which Bresson says “You must feed the ear and the eye together if you can because the ear gives something to the eye. When you hear the whistle of the train it gives you the idea of the whole station. The ear is inventive.” This is to say that much can be implied with very little information, and I think this attitude that Bresson takes towards sound, an element of this film which is so crucial in constructing its physical and emotional landscape, perfectly explains why the acting in this movie works as well as it does (the use of sound in this film has been very well explained by others before me, so I won’t recapitulate the arguments here except to say that it is used very sparingly and precisely to establish the space of the film).

The other effect of Leterrier’s acting in this context is that the prison feels exceedingly oppressive, and Fontaine’s escape mission seems to be of the utmost urgency. It is not that he does not feel, he simply has no time to emote – he is already pushed up against his own execution as things are, and each day that passes is already a risk when he is at all times engaged in crimes punishable by death. We hear other prisoners being killed around him throughout the movie, and even from the beginning he accepts that death is an option if he does not act carefully and quickly. There is no time to waste. Emotion of almost any kind, be it early celebration, paralyzing fear, anything less than full commitment to his escape, could prove disastrous.

This reading of Fontaine is enforced thoroughly through the film’s intense focus on manual labor, certainly its most defining visual characteristic. In the first hour of the film, over half of the screen time is spent on Fontaine’s hands – in many shots his face is not even shown at all, opting instead to give the audience something akin to Fontaine’s perspective. They do a number of things in this time: reaching for the door to escape in the first scene, sharpening his spoon, chiseling at the door, unraveling his bed to make rope, ripping up his blanket, braiding shirts into ropes, bending metal frames into hooks, and more (Figure 2).

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Bresson’s intense focus on manual labor in this film is something that we will return to, but in the characterization of Fontaine it serves to strengthen the notion that he is an assiduous worker, and further increases the gravity of his plight.

These shots make up a part of what is the crucial element of the film’s emotional continuity, which is the strict adherence to (and careful portrayal of) Fontaine’s perspective. Throughout the entire film we see only what Fontaine sees; sometimes less, but never more. This is not done in a literal sense – we are at almost no point given a first person perspective of Fontaine’s view – but in the sense that the information the viewer is given is always reflective of what Fontaine’s attention is drawn to, and gives us an idea of his internality. This effect is shown quite clearly in the scene where Fontaine learns how to make hooks from Orsini. What Bresson shows us is just as important as what he does not show us – both tell us relevant information about how Fontaine sees the world around him.

My favorite example of this is the scene in which Jost is brought into Fontaine’s cell.

Here Jost is not shown to us as he enters the cell, even though he is clearly the focus of Fontaine’s attention, and the most important element of the plot by far at this point. Even though we can’t see him, Jost is the most important thing on the screen, despite not actually appearing on screen. Bresson’s decision to keep Jost out of sight as he enters the cell reflects not what Fontaine sees, but what he feels. Jost is a mystery, perhaps dangerous and perhaps not, but at this point there is no way to know – visually, this is exactly what we are shown. By drawing out the tension and not revealing Jost right away, Bresson communicates Fontaine’s feelings to us without ever having to tell us directly what is going on in his head. Again, the audience fills in the gaps all on their own.

Thus, throughout the film the perspective shown to the audience mirrors Fontaine’s internality as much as it does his externality, of which we actually see rather little, given the scale of time over which the movie takes place. This is where we come to understand how Bresson’s cinematic life differs from real life. He is not attempting to show the audience something which parallels each element of living exactly, but rather which mirrors the emotional landscape of life’s journeys. All of the drama, the flair, the monologuing that we come to expect when we go to see shows at the theatre, on TV, or in very highly produced modern films, has been pared down to its most essential parts, until what’s left is not a story that we physically feel is real, for indeed a true “total cinema” experience in this sense would require such a holistic approach, but rather a story that we connect with emotionally. This lack of superficiality, in the design of the set, in the editing and shooting of the film, and in the direction of the actors, is felt as something metaphysical, otherworldly. This is what is meant when Bresson’s work is described as being ascetic or “placing the world in the light of eternity,” because of his unique way of striking the emotional core of the story. The characters feel at a point not as people in the real world, but as parts of some perfectly orchestrated larger machine with an unknowable purpose, as though it might appear in the mind when being remembered.

In A Man Escaped, this is made no more clear than in the final 20 minutes of the film, the escape scene itself. In place of what might have been a heart-pounding action sequence in any other film, Bresson’s escape is an excruciating crawl through the darkness, a primarily silent endeavour punctuated by the wail of the train where the crunching of gravel means the difference between life and death. In the night time and open air, the sounds of the world carry much further and more clearly than they do inside of the cell, and the starkness of the film is brought fully into the light. No more is the story one of a man suffering and laboring tirelessly within an oppressive system, but now that all of the preparations had been made, all that stands between Fontaine and freedom is a single guard. “This man had to die,” says Fontaine. There is no doubt or fear any longer, but the crushing force of fate coming in the form of Fontaine to end a life. It is here that we are reminded of the title, A Man Escaped – we knew that all was set from the beginning. Fontaine is to escape, and this man is to die. A decree from eternity. And so Fontaine, calm as ever, lays down his meticulously crafted hook and rushes into the darkness to kill, off screen. The struggle is not important because we already know what happens, what had to happen, what was always going to happen.

Figure3Fig3Caption

This graduation from emotionally realistic on-screen action to the super-realistic is gradual, if indeed one can even meaningfully distinguish between the two, but important – without the emotional continuity and setup of the first half, aided by the fact that the movie depicts a true story, was filmed in the place where it happened, and used real objects as models for prop creation, the second half could not carry the weight that it does. It is this slow and steady increase in depth which allows Bresson to reach the “cinematic life” which surpasses the real in A Man Escaped.

Citations
Bazin, Andre. ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’, in Andre Bazin, Hugh Gray (trans), What Is Cinema?, Vol. 1, London: University of California Press Ltd, (1967)
Bresson, Robert, and RONALD HAYMAN. “Robert Bresson: In Conversation with RONALD HAYMAN.” The Transatlantic Review, no. 46/47, 1973, pp. 16–23. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41513325.
Burnett, Colin. The Invention of Robert Bresson : The Auteur and His Market. Indiana University Press, 2017.
Ebert, R. (1999, December 23). Robert Bresson was master of understatement: Interviews: Roger Ebert. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/robert-bresson-was-master-of-understatement.
Foster, G. A. (2014, June 4). A Man Escaped. Retrieved from http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/cteq/a-man-escaped/.
Hagopian, K. (n.d.). Film Notes – A Man Escaped. Retrieved from https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/webpages4/filmnotes/fnf04n9.html.
Karp, M. (2009, May 14). Cinema and “Reality”: The Importance of Emotional Truth. Retrieved from https://www.studentfilmmakers.com/news/051409_cinemaandreality.shtml.

Streams of Audio, Visual and Narrative Information in A Man Escaped

By Eric Chang

When watching A Man Escaped (1954) by Robert Bresson, what struck me the most was the lack of uniformity in the ebbs and flows of the different streams of information presented to the audience. However, these streams – audio, visual, and narrative – all coalesce into what is truly a very engaging, balanced, and well-structured film. I believe that a close and individual examination of each will allow us to understand just how this film comes together.

The following analysis of A Man Escaped centers largely around what I consider the “streams” of different types of information provided to the audience. When I refer to a stream of information, I am describing the rate of information provided, an admittedly qualitative measure of just how much and how often (new) information is provided to the audience.

The most noticeable aspect of the stream of audio information in A Man Escaped is actually its lack thereof. This silence is most noticeable in two forms: the silence of dialogue and the silence of all other non-dialogue sounds. From the very beginning of the film, we are presented with an extended length of the former, with the first words we hear a full minute and forty-four seconds into the film after Fontaine, the film’s protagonist, is first seen sitting in the back of a car, escapes, and is ultimately recaptured, handcuffed, and beaten. Furthermore, the first words we hear from Fontaine occur three minutes and twenty-four seconds into the film in the form of narration and the first words that Fontaine’s character actually speaks coming a full six minutes and forty-four seconds into the film.

Non-dialogue silence is also pervasive throughout the whole film. Much of this silence exists in the scenes in which Fontaine spends time in his jail cell, either quietly listening for guards’ footsteps and signals from his friends or sitting on his bed waiting to be let out. At times, this type of silence is also most pronounced when Fontaine is carving at his door. In between each scrape of his spoon chisel, we hear nothing else, leading us to focus on just how silent his cell and hallway are and how equally silent he must be as he works.

As discussed in class, deliberate silences of any kind have become foreign to American cinema audiences (disclaimers had to be issued about the 5-second silence in Star Wars: The Last Jedi). However, in A Man Escaped, both of these types of silences are understandably employed given the prison escape genre of the film. Furthermore, these silences actually accent and draw attention to the scenes that involve the occasional loud noise and/or background music.

For example, the loud sounds that occur while Fontaine is in his cell are perceived by the audience to be even louder than they actually are due to the silence (or relative silence) that exists throughout the film. A great example of this occurs at 53:50 when Fontaine puts the glass from his lantern in between the folds of his blanket and crushes it with his shoe on his cell floor (GIF below). This is an extremely loud sound and is one of the many loud noises that occurs during Fontaine’s escape preparations (others include when a large piece of his door first breaks off at 31:45, when the first panel of his door is pried off at 35:40, and when the glass breaks when Fontaine first tries to climb onto the roof at 42:00). In each of these scenes, the silence preceding and following each noise serves to actually draw more attention to the noises that interrupt it.

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This is once again true when we take a look at the music and dialogue that interrupt the silence. In A Man Escaped, orchestral background music, courtesy of Mozart, swells whenever there are major plot developments, such as when Orsini attempts to escape at 48:50 (GIF below) and at the very end of the film when Fontaine’s escape is complete. Again, these short periods of intense music invite the audience to engage with major turning points of the film.

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Shifting to the dialogue, the short, covert discussions that Fontaine has with the likes of his two different neighbors, the trio of men strolling outside of his first cell, and the various other inmates during their washing period contribute to an atmosphere of muted dialogue. However, similar to the relationship between silence, noise, and music, this muted atmosphere directs the audience’s attention instead to the times in the film when the relative silence is interrupted. Both the brevity of each conversation and the frequent need for quiet whispers are suddenly ended when Jost, Fontaine’s new cellmate introduced at 1:06:00, appears. After this plot point, the dialogue noticeably opens up as Fontaine talks to Jost both frequently and for extended periods of time.

Whereas the rate of audio information presented to the audience in A Man Escaped may have been purposefully inconsistent and variable, the visual stream of information was rather constant, most notably in the types of scenes and shots that were shown. When examining the film as a whole, certain scenes, settings, and actions are repeated throughout the film numerous times. For example, scenes in which inmates must exit their cells and stand in the hallway for roll call are shown a total of nine times, scenes in which inmates empty out their sanitary pails are shown a total of seven times, scenes in which inmates are washing their faces over a communal trough are shown twelve times, scenes in which Fontaine is carving away at his door are shown a total of seven times, scenes in which Fontaine talks to his neighbor through the bars of his window are shown a total of twelve times, and scenes in which Fontaine prepares his ropes and hooks are shown a total of six times. While the above list may seem exhaustive, it goes to show one major point regarding the visual information presented to the audience: it is redundant and regimented, just like Fontaine’s life inside the German prison.

This monotony, coupled with the black and white picture of the time, illustrates the painstakingly mundane nature of life as an inmate. Furthermore, even the scenes in which new information is introduced or a plot twist occurs all exist in the context of the regimented monotony that dominates the visual aspect of the film. For example, when Orsini escapes (GIF above), this escape happens directly after the inmates empty and clean their sanitary pails and are shuffling in a line to return to their cells.

Another example lies in Fontaine’s breakthroughs (literally) that occur while he is chipping, prying, and sawing away at his cell door. When the first large panel of his cell door comes off (GIF below), this is the seventh time we as the audience have witnessed a close-up shot of his slow work with the door, a scene that has already become familiar if not tiresome to both Fontaine and the audience alike. In the preparation work with both his door and his ropes and hooks, the scenes in which we observe Fontaine’s slow, methodical work become a constant throughout the film, a description representative of the film’s overall visual stream of information.

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Similar to the visual information in A Man Escaped, the stream of narrative information provided to the audience tends to be rather constant. This was mainly a result of the sheer amount of narration provided by Fontaine, as it seemed like the majority of settings, actions, and thoughts in each scene were described in detail to the audience. Despite the overall flow of narrative information remaining largely constant, the type of information tended to be one of two types: (1) novel information otherwise unknown to the audience or (2) redundant information already apparent to the audience.

This first type of information comes into play many times when Fontaine is alone and thus cannot communicate with anybody else. For example, at the opening of the film, we see Fontaine thrown into solitary confinement, where he can only communicate with his single neighbor in Morse code. Thus, rather than breaking the fourth wall and telling the audience what he is thinking and feeling, Fontaine assumes the role of a narrator and muses about his uncertain future at 6:30 (GIF below). Here, the audience gains valuable information straight from Fontaine’s stream of consciousness that would otherwise be inaccessible without such narration.

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A similarly useful narration that presents novel information can be seen when Fontaine first begins to assemble the ropes needed for his escape at 44:05. Undertaking a rather complicated process, Fontaine narrates the thought process behind each tear, wind, and twist, making the actions on the screen easy for the audience to follow and understand (GIF below).

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However, for every narration that was novel, there seemed to be two that were redundant. Throughout the film, Fontaine frequently narrated the actions that were already obvious to the layman audience member. For example, after he crushes the glass from his lantern, hides it in his sanitary pail, and then empties the pail into the communal drain, he states at 54:00 that “I emptied everything into the drain,” an obvious piece of information (GIF below). Similar patterns of narrating obvious actions occur throughout the movie – when Fontaine is washing his wounds, climbing up his windowsill, knocking on his cell wall, etc.

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When examined as a whole, the stream of narrative information, both novel and redundant, provides the audience with a constant source of information that closely mirrors the visual element of the film. Thus, when viewed in its entirety, we see that the mercurial nature of the stream of audio information in A Man Escaped is balanced perfectly by the constant nature of the streams of visual and narrative information. The former accents the unpredictability and sharp plot developments necessary to keep the film engaging, while the latter provides the structure and foundation to fill the space and time of a one-hundred-minute-long film.

The Invisible Hours as “Immersive Theatre”

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by Charlie Gallagher

We have all interacted with a classic detective story in the past. With so much media devoted to this genre—novels, movies, video games, and even board games—you would think there is not a lot left to do. After all, everyone knows the butler did it! However, in 2017, Tequila Works came up with a truly original idea using VR technology, “The Invisible Hours.” It plays like a movie, but it is interactive like a video game. The story is predetermined—you cannot change it—but you have the freedom to experience it from an infinite number of perspectives. So, what is it? Is it cinema? Is it a video game? Is it VR? Originally, I was quite skeptical about the game’s verdict about itself, that it is “immersive theatre” (The Invisible Hours). In this post, I will test the title against virtual reality games and cinema to evaluate the game’s verdict.

The clearest difference between “The Invisible Hours” and a more traditional cinematic experience is the ability to interact with objects. Everyone begins their journey as Gustav steps off the boat and onto the dock. Some of the first interactive objects are the gun lying next to Tesla’s body, the gong mallet, and the electrical switch. Throughout the story, the observer will also find a variety of objects, some of which are clues and some of which are Skyrim-like trinkets.

Erika Ishii discovering some of the available in-game haptic interactions.

Even though they have very little meaning, the last remnants of a quest from 2011 that refuse to leave your “quest item” saturated inventory, something about them is just cool to look at. The objects in “The Invisible Hours,” are like that too. Surprisingly, watching others interact with these objects can hold someone’s attention as well. As the observer moves their input devices, whatever those might be, you really get a sense of the object in 3 dimensions. Unlike a Skyrim  inventory model, which feels sort of like interacting with your parent’s priceless vase, you can shake these. Of course, the objects do not have any weight to them, but something about the motion of grabbing and shaking is so much more real than just twirling a 3D model with a joystick. In my experience, this is also true when you are only observing someone else’s gameplay. So, it is clearly different from cinema, but that does not make it virtual reality because it is not an influential interaction—one that has any effect on the story.

With the original Skyrim on PS3, even though you cannot interact with the majority of objects outside of your inventory, you still have the occasional bucket, shovel, or body you can drag around. This seems much more like an actual virtual reality experience, even if it is lacking in the haptic department. “Press X to drag” is hardly the same as moving the Vive’s controller, but the “X” button has something else going for it.

A player of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim uses the drag mechanic to manipulate a bottle.

It creates an interaction that means something. Interactions in the admittedly beautiful and immersive world of “The Invisible Hours,” are not the same. They are augmented spectatorship. When the observer takes the Luger in front of Gustav or steals his briefcase in the opening scene, the characters just ignore the intrusion, as if it never happened.

Gustav could not care less about the floating pistol in his face.

Of course, you could argue that the press “x” to drag mechanic is not very much of anything, but in some cases, it does indeed affect the world, like when you put a bucket on a guard’s head and proceed to steal something without so much as a peep other than the occasional comment about arrows and knees.

Buckethead

In Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim placing a bucket over a shopkeeper’s head effectively blinds them, or at least it did before it was patched.

You could also point out that that there is haptic interaction in the menu, but I do not consider the menu to be part of the game. It is more like a mini-game. Dressing up a menu in this manner can be interesting. Certainly, the hidden terminal in Treyarch’s 2010 “Black-Ops,” added quite a bit of interesting retro content, but at the end of the day, it is still just a main menu. Further, some objects in-game are important to the plot, like Bernhardt’s nose (unfortunately not something you can interact with), or the various pamphlets found throughout the game. In interacting with them, you are advancing the plot, but only so far as you advance your own understanding. The story goes on around you, even when you find a clue that brings the plot together. Secret scenes and “spirit radios” may result in somewhat more interaction but only superficially.

On the other hand, the ability to move around and control your viewing angle is decidedly closer to a video game than it is to cinema. Although, when we play a video game, we expect that our movements will affect what happens. For most of a playthrough, the plot will advance independent of where you are, what you are doing, or what you are looking at. This is a major reason that the “Hours” experience is distinct from VR gaming.

At the same time, the ability to change the point in time you are viewing from is a lot more like home cinema where you can rewind at will. There are so many clues and tricky plot points to miss. Supposing you do not miss them, you will still no doubt be confused, at least at first. Like a confusing movie, you can go back and make sure you understand anything you missed. Alternatively, if you are bored by one piece of dialogue, you can fast forward. There are times where you might want to experience from only one character’s perspective, but at that point in time, they will not be doing anything interesting. As you follow another character, you may converge into a scene you have already witnessed. This sort of feels like watching a movie you have already seen, albeit from a different perspective. Fast forwarding is useful here as well.

Something about making your own stage directions with the HMD on is a little bit disorienting. This would obviously never happen in cinema. The experience is likewise different from a video game, but this is because of its implications. Here, if you miss an important part because you are having trouble turning around, it is not quite the same as it would be in a more interactive environment.  In a game, when you fail miserably to accomplish an objective because of a lack of familiarity with the controls, that can sort of go along with the gameplay. One example is Assassin’s creed.

This is a clip from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, one of the franchise’s best titles. The control inputs for a back-eject are simple, but cinematically, Ezio’s performance is complex. This leads me to not feel as foolish when I fail a back-eject, despite input simplicity.

Movement in Assassin’s creed, especially the later titles, is semi-cinematic. You direct your characters actions, but the character knows quite a bit about what to do. When you execute a back eject and fail miserably, you feel like it sort of makes sense. Back ejects are rather difficult looking, after all. It feels like you could hardly blame Ezio for your foolish mistake. Here, when you are spinning around trying to get a sense of what is going on, it is completely different. It feels like you have suddenly forgotten how to walk, and your vision is cutting in and out.

Erika Ishii demonstrating the difficulty of turning around while still facing the camera. You will notice the same flashing as during a teleport.

Presumably, you get better at it with practice, but it also seems like one of the main reasons for the follow character mechanic. The presence of this mechanic seems to acknowledge difficulty or at least the presence of a learning curve. The problem with the follow mechanic is that it changes the experience from first person to a sort of fly on the wall point of view. This moves you further away from interacting with the world. It looks more like I would imagine “Headsight,” an early example of proto-VR, might have felt. “Headsight” essentially gave the point of view of a security camera.

Erika Ishii making use of the “follow character” mechanic

You could argue that the follow mechanic is just another valid way to interact with the story, and you would be right, but it is certainly less of a virtual reality experience in that it is one extra barrier between the observer and what is actually going on. It also takes away much of what little interactive agency you have. It left me wondering if the controls could have been tweaked. Of course, sometimes it may be interesting to watch a scene from a fly on the wall perspective. If that is the observer’s preference, there is nothing wrong with it; however, it seems more likely that this is for people who are annoyed by the choppy viewing above. That being said, observers in restrictive viewing environments and those who are less mobile will obviously appreciate the mechanic.

The natural product of all the control afforded to us is circular storytelling, and that is where “The Invisible Hours” really shines. Even if we had all experienced the story for the full session, it is unlikely that we could have fully appreciated this property. It is a product of the interplay between changing camera angles, locations, and times that allows the observer to experience the story from a variety of perspectives. In fact, circular storytelling essentially requires this variety. You will never understand the full story by merely following Gustav around.

Here we have the “spirit radio” one of the main drivers of circular storytelling. It only activates at the moment a character dies, in order to use it you are almost required to go back in time. Immediately after, we have the one of the menus, an easy way to change your location, view, and time.

Cinema, at least in its presentation of events, is mostly linear, even if the events themselves are not. Typically, in storytelling videogames there is some element of choice, but in one playthrough, you are mostly stuck in a linear presentation of events, at least the first time. “The Invisible Hours” is nothing like that. It gives you the choice to create your own perspective. This choice does not change the actual events of the story, only how you perceive them. In this way, the title is quite distinct from both cinema and more traditional video games.

You might ask what makes this different from spectating, a common feature in many multiplayer video games. This is different because spectators are not typically bound by many of the physical rules of the game they are watching. When you spectate your friends in a first-person shooter, you are usually free to take the camera anywhere. Occasionally, there are games which only allow spectating from the view of the player, but this typically occurs in competitive gameplay during matches, where spotting could give some players a competitive advantage. It hardly compares to the sort of active spectatorship in this single-observer experience.

More traditional video game spectating, as seen in Modern Warfare 2 (2009).

“The Invisible Hours,” can teach us much more about how to create an immersive experience with quickly evolving VR technology than either video games or movies alone. As a sort of hybrid between cinema and virtual reality, it also has a lot to teach us about the relationship between cinema and VR. No doubt this game will be referenced as turning point for study in the future, especially as the field of video game studies continues to grow.

Ultimately, “The Invisible Hours,” is neither a piece of cinema nor true virtual reality. In many ways, it is the best of both worlds. It offers the aging detective story we have all experienced many times in an entirely new and amazing way. Even almost 3 years post launch, the experience is as timeless as the genre it brings to a new generation of equipment.

 

Trailer

Games

Bethesda. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Bethesda, 2011.

Tequila Works. The Invisible Hours. Tequila Works, 2017.

Infinity Ward. Modern Warfare 2. Infinity Ward, 2009.

Ubisoft Montreal. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. Ubisoft Montreal, 2010.

Treyarch. Call of Duty Blackops. Treyarch, 2010.

Youtube Clips

The Presentation of Scopophilia in Rear Window (1954)

By Hasnat Ahmad

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Rear Window is a 1954 film by Alfred Hitchcock which follows a globe-trekking photojournalist named Jefferies who’s been confined to his home due to a leg injury. While Jefferies is sitting in his wheelchair, he decides he has nothing better to do but spy in on the going-abouts of his neighbors, leading him to suspect a certain Mr. Thorwald of murdering his wife. But the film is not so much a murder mystery as it is a film about voyeurism and the pleasures of viewing other’s lives without their express knowledge or consent. Hitchcock uses multiple cinematic techniques, including camera movement, set design, editing, and zoom to create an effective presentation of the role of scopophilia in an increasingly modernized and urban society.

Camera movement

The camera movement of Rear Window is an important factor that Hitchcock utilizes to create an effective presentation of voyeurism. The point of view shots which slowly pan across the screen are a critical reflection of what the movie-goer themselves might do in a similar situation to observe ongoing events. This creates a unique sense of shared voyeurism for both the viewer and Jefferies himself, as the viewer is viewing him view the hectic lives of his neighbors. Hitchcock almost paradoxically also emphasizes the fact that this voyeurism can also have its positive benefits as well. If Jefferies had not violated the privacy of his neighbors while he was bedridden, he would never have implicated Mr. Thorwald in the murder of his wife or grown closer to Lisa, who he mostly brushes off and ignores during the first half of the film.

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As viewers, we come to the stark realization that the definition of voyeurism, to seek sexual pleasure from being a peeping tom, is not always applicable to every voyeuristic situation, many times such as in Jefferies’ case it is simply an individual attempting to be alive and gain a sense of meaning in a world where their profession depends on them being able to walk. Picking up his lenses and observing the neighborhood is nearly all he can possibly do to find personal meaning while he is confined to his wheelchair.

“Hitchcock uses long continuous shots during points of dialogue or non-action to lull the audience into a false sense of security and to make them focus on the dialogue or the significance of the image itself, while in scenes of action, he cuts from shot to shot anxiously trying to squeeze in as many shots as possible, especially at the climax as Jeff struggles for his life against the villainous Thorwald. The cinematography is bound by the apartment as well; there is very little tracking, making us feel as immobile as Jeff, and any tracking that is done usually follows a character.

There is, however, a lot of tilting, panning, and dolly shots. These are the motions Jeff is able to accomplish with the aid of his binoculars and long-focus lens. This choice means that the viewer does not get every detail of every event happening in the other apartments. Their residents drift in and out of view due to blinds, doors, walls, and the angle of the view from Jeff’s apartment. These decisions are all done to equate Jeff to the viewer, an observation that has led many scholars to conclude that Jeff represents the movie-goer, looking for entertainment wherever he can find it.” -Kevin S. Brennan

What is most striking about the camera movement of Rear Window is how little the inhabitants of the neighborhood truly interact with each other. The viewer almost gets a sense that they each live in their own little worlds with their own lives on tangents far from ever intersecting. Each time the camera slowly shows us the ongoings of the neighborhood, it is clear how isolated each apartment is, just as or even more so than the isolation of Jefferies. Jefferies is in fact so alone that he is not so much isolated as he is living his life through the lives of the people he spends his days watching.

Set Design

Set design is another effective tool that Hitchcock utilizes in Rear Window to implement a theme of voyeurism. The feeling of confinement and alienation is incredibly important to the film, as even when Lisa and Stella come to check on Jefferies, he pays as little to no attention to them as possible in pursuit of watching Mr. Thorwald’s every move. This entrapped feeling is created by the fact that the viewers of Rear Window can only see what is within the scope of Jefferies’ lenses most of the time, creating a feeling of powerlessness, as we can only see as far as he does or is willing to do so. From Hitchcock’s perspective, the set is designed in such a way to create an effective voyeuristic experience for the viewers of Rear Window. There are clear wide shots of the entire group of apartments which Jefferies is observing from his sedentary state.

This explicitly leads to the viewer understanding and recognizing the layout and structure of the neighborhood, similar to as if they were looking at a map while playing a video game, allowing the viewer to put themselves as shadows right behind Jefferies, following his every move with a telepathic understanding of his emotions and actions. There aren’t many things in Jefferies’ room, but of what does exist the most intriguing is definitely his photographs, which is no shock, of course, as he is a photographer and not a shabby one at that. They all contain images of events scattered across the spectrum of everything imaginable, but the single trait they share in common is that they all depict tragic destruction and devastation.

Another critical observance is the shot of a broken camera in his otherwise very basic room, which indicated how he has previously undergone danger in desperate pursuit of his job, not very dissimilar to what he is doing by pursuing Mr. Thorwald.

This undoubtedly brings a sinister tone to his pursuit of voyeurism. It begs the question, what line does one cross to become a voyeur? Is it not true that every person behind a camera is a voyeur in some sense? But what is for sure is that Jefferies receives pleasure from viewing scenes of unhappy endings, such as the demise of Mrs. Thorwald.

“By maintaining the voyeuristic point of view from the rear window of Jefferies’ apartment, the audience views the same events that Jefferies stumbles upon from the same limited perspective. Hitchcock is the renowned ‘master of suspense’ because of his expert use of revealing just enough information to the audience to keep them on the edge of their seat as events unfold in the movie’s narrative. Because the viewer knows as much as Jefferies does, they are forced to make their own conclusions regarding this mysterious murder plot. They must decide if they will believe Jefferies, in which case Lars’ apartment across the courtyard lurks ominously as a scene of a gruesome murder or follow the advice of Doyle and believe the entire story is the figment of a stagnant imagination” -Greg Beamish

Editing

Editing is another method Hitchcock utilizes in Rear Window in order to implement an effective presentation of voyeurism. During the film’s opening sequence, Hitchcock implements the Kuleshov effect in order to tie together the actions of Jefferies with the camera in hand.

He uses this effect to tie together shots which otherwise the viewer might not make any connection between. This effect blossoms into a broader theme throughout the entire film, as it is used by Hitchcock through the performances of Jefferies, Lisa, and Stella.

“By sharing this voyeuristic activity with the audience, Rear Window shows Hitchcock’s view on voyeurism that it is a universal pleasure that all human beings pursue. In the story of the film, Jeffrey’s spying of his neighborhood starts off as his private hobby, but it eventually becomes a shared experience with his fiancé, Lisa, and his nurse, Stella. They are wary of the ethical issue with peeping at first, but later, they become more enthusiastic about finding out about Mr. Thorwald’s murder case than Jeffrey has been. Through this sharing, Jeffrey and Lisa even develop a fonder feeling with each other.

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Outside the story, Hitchcock further expands this excitement onto the audience and makes their interest in watching a film also a kind of voyeurism. Therefore, in Rear Window, voyeurism is not as much as an unhealthy desire, but a very natural one that normal people also can possess” -Johns Hopkins Film & Media Studies

These effects could only come to fruition through the editing decisions of Hitchcock, which he performs masterfully and in great taste. The way Jefferies rolls up his blinds to observe the neighborhood through a mid-shot of the open windows lets the viewer see how many different places your eyesight can potentially travel to, creating almost a sense of desperation to try to seek out what is most important. Each and every frame exists only to exponentially magnify the voyeuristic effect within each and every individual shot.

Shot Size and Framing

Shot size and framing is another important method which Hitchcock utilizes in order to effectively implement a theme of scopophilia in Rear Window. Visual shots of the camera panning across the neighborhood and zooming in on happenings within various apartments are especially critical in creating a sense of voyeurism for both Jefferies and the viewer, as he holds the lenses which act as a second pair of eyes not only for himself but also for us. These lenses almost indicate a form of handicap or paralysis of Jefferies, as his own eyes are too weak so he must use other means to view what he needs to, further indicating his extreme isolation within the film. One particular method of shooting which Hitchcock utilizes especially well in Rear Window is the framing of shots within shots, such as the windows of the apartments across from Jefferies. This is what makes the ending scene of Mr. Thorwald angrily entering Jefferies’ apartment and physically assaulting him so dramatic, as he is in a sense breaking the fourth wall by doing so.

The entire length of the film where Jefferies has been watching Mr. Thorwald through his camera and further his window turns him into a moviegoer in some sense. This layering of frames is critical in Hitchcock’s attempt to create an intense theme of voyeuristic tendencies for not only Jefferies but also viewers of the film. The viewer is viewing Jefferies view through his camera the view through Mr. Thorwald’s apartment window. However, when Mr. Thorwald enters Jefferies’ apartment, the streak of voyeurism is hastily broken and the viewer is snapped back into reality, showing how no matter how far off what one is viewing might be and however much isolated one might feel, the events you are viewing are much closer than you might have initially imagined, very much like a car side-view mirror where “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” All of this is not even mentioning the camera used to film Rear Window itself. There are, however, many ways Hitchcock uses framing to indicate other themes, such as whenever Jefferies is looking at Lisa, she is always the only thing in the frame, indicating his strong attraction and love for her.

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Wrapping Up

By utilizing clever cinematic techniques such as camera movement, set design, editing, and framing, Hitchcock creates a voyeuristic viewing experience for the movie-goers themselves. Not only is Jefferies watching the neighborhood with his steady gaze, but we are also watching him with ours. This means that as opposed to a simple static experience, the viewer is actively participating in the film, piecing together the clues just as fast as Jefferies. Hitchcock masterfully recognizes the fact that viewers are intrinsically motivated by personal means, and the most effective way to keep them involved is to create a voyeuristic experience that draws them in themselves due to fundamental human nature.

Sources:

Greg Beamish, https://the-artifice.com/hitchcock-rear-window-1954-voyeur/

Johns Hopkins Film & Media Studies, https://hopkinscinemaddicts.typepad.com/hopkinscinemaddicts/2013/04/voyeurism-in-cinema-rear-window-and-the-conversation.html

Kevin S. Brennan, https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1150&context=cine

When Splitting Up a Narrative Gets Dicey

by Eric Chang

Now that we have transitioned to studying Hollywood’s narrative tradition from the perspective of screenwriting guides, it is important that we understand that our analyses focus on just that: tradition. In the paradigms advanced by Syd Field and Kristin Thompson, both models of Hollywood-style narration are based on the then-historical body of work produced by Hollywood cinema. Thus, I view the following discussion as a matter of discerning which model is a more faithful representation of a fixed set of cinematic work rather than a matter of discussing the merits of non-tangible theories regarding ideal narration structure.

Syd Field’s book Screenplay, published in 1979, proposed the “three-act structure,” where the majority of Hollywood’s films could be divided into three distinct acts: the setup, confrontation, and resolution (see below). These acts are divided by major plot points and would take up 1/4, 1/2, and 1/4 of both the script and the film’s run time respectively. Since its publication in Screenplay, this model of the prototypical Hollywood narrative has become a staple in both film production and analysis.

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However, in 1999, Kristin Thompson, in her book Storytelling in the New Hollywood, proposed a revised version of Field’s model, citing problems arising from the Field conception of a narrative. According to Thompson, Field’s model shifted the focus of screenwriters and film analysts away from the dramatic logic of cinema scripts to the page number and minute-count of each film’s separate acts and their respective partitions. In reality, the demarcations between Fields’s three acts were arbitrary – each film could be divided into infinitely many narrative acts. Thus, a total and rigid allegiance to Fields’s three-act model should be seen as the misguided transformation of a helpful and flexible framework into a hindrance. Furthermore, by having a lengthy and ambiguous middle act in the “confrontation,” Fields’s model caused difficulties for screenwriters to fill the section (comprising of over half the film’s script and screen time) with action that had both a clear direction and natural exigence.

As a result, Thompson proposed her own four-act model for traditional Hollywood narratives. By inductively studying a large sample of Hollywood films, Thompson observed that the majority of films could be broken into four main acts: setup, complicating action, development, and climax (see below). By functionally splitting Fields’s “confrontation” act in half, Thompson’s model created four acts of equal length while also identifying a crucial “central turning point” wherein there exists a clear break between the complicating action act and the development act. These turning points are indispensable in understanding Thompson’s model. According to Thompson, these turning points provide functionally-crucial transitions between acts and can be easily spotted. Some main examples cited by Thompson include the articulation of new goals, a shift in the protagonist’s tactics, the introduction of a new premise or goal, etc.

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Taking a step back from the heavyweight cinematic analysis showdown between Fields and Thompson, it appears that the major difference between their two models is that Thompson’s model functionally adds an extra partition in the middle of Fields’s model. While this may seem arbitrary and self-defeating given Thompson’s claim that films can be divided into innumerable acts, each with their own functional differences, there is a very real and beneficial consequence resulting from this change. Calling back to Thompson’s identification of the protracted and difficult task of writing such a long middle act in Fields’s model, what Thompson’s “complicating action” act and “development” act provide is more structure. With Thompson’s description of the “complicating action” act’s necessity for a new situation for the protagonist to face followed by the “development” act’s description as the bulk of the protagonist’s struggle towards their goal(s), there is a clear difference in the two parts that now constitute Fields’s amorphous middle act.

Thus, Thompson’s revised model provides advantages for screenwriters and screen-watchers alike. For screenwriters, more structure allows for an easier way to ideate and capture the “dramatic logic” so important to an interesting and engaging screenplay. For screen-watchers, this four-act model allows for clearer expectations regarding traditional Hollywood films, which can translate to heightened awareness and easier identification of important plot points and segments, increasing audience engagement and information retention.

This latter result is directly relevant to Thompson’s focus on the Hollywood cinema consumer: the audience member. According to Thompson, the very basis for the need for narrative models is so that films can be more engaging to audiences, with each segment of the narrative achieving what is hopefully an optimal length to prevent both the shortchanging of information provided to the audience and the boredom wrought from unnecessarily-drawn out plotlines. With Thompson’s newly-enumerated middle acts, this can be accomplished much easier with clear guidelines that can keep a movie’s plot moving along at both a concise and engaging pace.

An interesting question posed by Thompson revolves around just how Fields’s three-act model came to be such commonplace in Hollywood films’ narrative tradition. Thompson has two theories. The first possibility is that the three-act model is truly the most optimal segmentation for Hollywood films, where less-optimal segmentation methods have been phased out and selected against through years of the optimality of Hollywood films being judged by the reviews of critics and the revenue generated from moviegoers. The second possibility is that the Hollywood academic tradition of learning how to screen write from watching past films has created a positive feedback mechanism, wherein the current prevalence of three-act model narratives is simply the result of its popularity in past films and not evidence of its innate optimality.

Personally, I believe that both theories are not mutually exclusive and that both have played a part in the modern prevalence of the three-part narrative model seen in so many Hollywood films. I also do not see Thompson and Fields’s narrative models as mutually exclusive. In tandem, it seems very possible that both models will continue to be perpetuated and popularized by both the academic tradition of Hollywood screenwriters as well as the easily-digestible, engagement-conducive nature of these structured narrative models.

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Thompson, Kristin, Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999

Classical Hollywood Narration and its Limits

By Kelly Mu 😀

In his essay Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedurals, Bordwell seeks to highlight how classical Hollywood narration constitutes a specific and normalised way of representing and presenting a particular story, through manipulation of compositional style and techniques. According to Bordwell, there are three components, or purposes of a narrative: representation, structure and act. Bordwell focuses on the former two to show how classical Hollywood narration (prevalent in American films in the 1960s and 1970s) is able to differentiate itself from other narrative modes.

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