Birdman: Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is Phenomenal

by Erik Harty

Birdman-1Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a phenomenal film.  Written and directed by the lesser-known Alejandro González Iñárittu, it finds its life very much in the technical magic behind the scenes.  It is made to look like it is one continuous shot until the end of the movie, where some obvious hard cuts take place. But was it actually one continuous shot?  Absolutely not.  There are dramatic shifts in setting and time, not to mention the insanity of trying to choreograph every single moving part for nearly two straight hours.  So no, the film is not one single shot. Rather, it is a magical tapestry, woven together by the magic of clever cinematography, solid editing, and polished visual effects.

As an aspiring editor, I thoroughly enjoy learning about the inner-workings of the post-production process.  I love hearing editors, colorists, sound mixers, and visual effects artists discuss their work and the very specific decisions they made during their time with a particular film.  In the case of Birdman, the editors have actually kept a lot of their “secrets” to themselves, but that doesn’t mean their work can’t be dissected from the outside.  

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When examining the film to find its edits, one of the things that immediately struck me were the interior/exterior transitions.  At many places throughout the film, a character will be moving from indoors to outdoors, or from one room to another through a doorway.  Often times, the camera pushes in to fill the frame with the character’s back or the area around the doorway is so dark that the frame is briefly entirely dark.  Assuming that lighting and color are consistent, a cut can be placed unnoticeably at the point where the frame is completely dark.  This particular method is very reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), where he attempted to make a continuously shot film, but was limited by the amount of film that a camera could hold.  To hide the cuts, he had the camera push in to fill the frame with someone’s back.  Fortunately for Iñárittu, technology has progressed enormously since Hitchcock’s time.  The other two methods of hiding Birdman’s cuts require a little more post-production magic.

birdman_movie_stillThe first of these two methods is dramatically simpler than the second.  Known as “whip” or “swish” pans, these cuts find their strength in movement.  They work by cutting on the action, where the action is blurred because of fast camera movement.  The effect is further improved by using a frame rate near the cinematic standard of 24 frames per second.  Often times, a well-executed whip pan can even provide an unnoticeable transition between two completely different settings, so a discreet transition between two shots in the same setting is very feasible.  Birdman utilizes this technique all over the place, which actually helps add some energy to the film, in addition to its function as a transition.

birdman-emma-stone-changing-room-xlargeThe final technique used to mask transitions in Birdman is really more of a category than it is a specific technique.  “Visual effects” is a broad term than can mean a whole lot of things, but in the context of the cuts in this film, it refers to a method of smoothing transitions.  In some cases, such as the small number of exterior shots that showcase the transition from night to day, the effects are more akin to a very complex dissolve.  In other cases, they may add some extra blur to a whip pan to make it more believable.  Depending on the situation, they may even be a reanimation of some aspect of a cut that makes it almost unnoticeable.  Some might consider this category cheating, since it wasn’t how the film was originally shot, but it certainly rounds out the continuous feel of the movie.

Birdman-5Ultimately, I love Birdman because the unique way that it was shot and edited contributes significantly to the film.  It isn’t made to look like a continuous shot just for the sake of being different.  Rather, the continuous, almost dreamlike flow of the framing assists in characterizing this chapter of Riggan Thomson’s life as confused, dazed, and lost.  Birdman is a film worth viewing for its success in accomplishing a technical feat, but more importantly, for how its technical feat contributes to the overall character of the movie.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel Shines

by Leif Erik Harty

GBH_Title_meteormermaidIn Wes Anderson’s latest cinematic adventure Ralph Fiennes stars as M. Gustave, the concierge of a hotel in the fictional European nation known as the Republic of Zubrowka. Joined by his newfound lobby boy, Zero (played by the relatively unknown Tony Revolori) he seeks to avoid detainment for the “theft” of his rightly inherited property. The movie follows their escapades across fictional alpine Europe in a time period designed to mirror that of World War II. And the effect shines like pure Anderson gold.

Grand-Budapest-Hotel-Actors-Talk-About-Director-Wes-AndersonFor the longest time, I have been wrestling with the issue of my favorite movie. It’s one of those questions that people ask pretty frequently, but I’ve always had trouble answering. The main reason I’ve struggled with it so much is that I thoroughly enjoy so many movies. I decided the best way to finally make a decision was to approach my thinking from two directions, effectively creating two sets of favorites. The first method revolved around how the movie made me feel, while the second method focused on my admiration for the mechanics of the moviemaking process (use of lighting, quality of editing, cinematographer’s preferences, etc.). Then it happened. I sat down to watch The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time earlier this year and discovered a movie that hit both criteria out of the park. The narrative follows a grandiose and ever-winding path, but tells the majority of its story (like most good movies do) through exceptional visuals. I’ve walked away from each subsequent viewing with a continued sense of this movie’s masterpiece quality.

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Despite its fictional nature, it’s really quite an experience taking the 100-minute vacation to the Republic of Zubrowka. Any good movie will draw you in, but few movies transplant you quite the way Grand Budapest Hotel does. The hotel and all of its guests live a regal lifestyle, even through some very dark moments. In complete honesty, the hotel is a den of pomp and lavish living, but it never feels quite that way. The goal appears not to be to create a feeling of disgust within the viewer, but rather a feeling of fondness, which is exactly what happens. Throughout the ups and downs of the plot, there is always a fanciful touch to everything, which is part of the comedy. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but a large portion of the amusement comes from the persistent elegance in the face of blatant misfortune. In addition to its comedic value, the atmosphere is also just downright pleasant. However, it isn’t innately well done. The atmosphere is successful because of several technical aspects that work well together.

The Grand Budapest HotelCinematography is the first of these aspects that I’m going to touch upon. There are a few visual qualities that really set The Grand Budapest Hotel apart, the most pervasive being its thematic color. While it’s not necessarily unique for a movie to have a color theme, it is unique for that color to be primarily pink. Within the bulk of the movie, there are shades of pink everywhere. For the brief parts of the movie that take place in the late 60s and mid-80s, the thematic color is orange. Both colors are rather unusual, but they do a great job of constantly reminding the audience where things are in the overall timeline. The pink adds to the flowery feel of the hotel’s heyday, while the orange adds to the dull feel of the hotel’s declining years. The system works very well, but never makes itself overly present.

GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL_426.jpgThere is also another visual achievement that succeeds by making its presence known. Films need establishing shots. They really do. It can be very disorienting to the audience if the narrative lacks any visual encompassment. I admire the way that Wes Anderson’s team decided to tackle such a standard element. There are a good number of typical wide shots, showcasing the outside of a building or something along those lines. However, there are also many wide shots composed in such a way that they take on a Charlie Chaplin-era feel. They’re actually rather hard to describe, but the most accurate description is that they make the scenery look like high quality backdrops. These shots, combined with slides separating acts and the occasional vignette, ingrain a golden-age-of-cinema feel within the movie. Visuals aren’t everything, though. The Grand Budapest Hotel would fall flat on its face without the aid of some excellent dialogue.

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Keeping in line with the elegant feel of the hotel itself, much of the movie’s language is quite fanciful. The narrative is full of metaphors and figures of speech too flowery for the average Joe to come up with, but it never becomes stuffy. In fact, things progress quite differently. In the same way that the film creates comedy by contrasting pomp with turbulent situations, it also contrasts the linguistically proper with the linguistically crass. The elegant language of the upper class is often broken up by a cruder, but equally colorful, way of speaking. Part of the movie’s R rating can be attributed to its crude language, but it isn’t overdone. It’s present just enough to create a very nice contrast and provide some variety, which is something this film has in abundance, especially in the casting department.

budapesthtelCatPeople don’t pay enough attention to casting. I have to admit that I fall into that group. Fortunately, this movie woke me up. The array of actors is pretty unique and it creates an interesting setup. For one, the list of notable actors is pretty lengthy. Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, to name just a few. The thing that particularly sets The Grand Budapest Hotel apart in the realm of casting is that many of the big-name actors receive only a short amount of screen time. At first, it’s a bit strange to see them in minor roles, but ultimately, it’s a nice twist on typical expectations. On the flip side, one of the leading roles is the lobby boy, Zero, played by the no-name Tony Revolori. The genius in having the unknown actor play such a key role is that he brings no baggage with him. The audience gets to experience him in a completely fresh way since he has no past characters for which people to connect him. The freshness of Zero’s character and the celebrity casting contribute to the film’s pleasant, but unique feel. 

In short, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fantastic movie. It tackles many familiar conventions with new thinking, makes great use of contrasting realities to tell a funny story, and pulls the audience into a world with more strength than many films could every dream of. I highly recommend it.