Sunday, August 25, 2013

How Do You Relate to Stories




From the bedside lullaby to the remembrances of the past, in the old age, we are always wrapped around by stories.

We love to tell stories.

 We love to listen to them – from the coffee-shop table to the public spheres and social gatherings such as clubs, parties, office, school and even bus-stop.

Stories define our lives in the society.

They make us what we are.



                                                            








Story comes from the Latin word historia, meaning history and fabrication both.



It would not be wrong to assume that initially story meant exact oral reproduction of actual events for the absent members of the society.


In the hunter-gatherer days, humanity was vaguely divided between members away for hunting, and those near the caves or dwellings.


At the end of the day, when the early heroes sat for munching cooked meat, encircling fire, they used to recount the day’s events to the other group.





This lead to the best reproduction of actual sounds and movements.

 With time, and generations, actual representation led to different types of symbolic representations – dance, music and speech.

 It is a different story, however, how speech became more important than the others, and also became most sophisticated and symbolic.






Gradually, the exact recording of actual events gave way to more fabrication. 

Even today, we nurture this practice. Rumor spreads this way. 

Finally, the stress came to metaphoric representation – allegories.





 And the story in its modern form was born about 1500 AD. 

It is not that there was no sense of conscious fabrication or fantasy before this.

But, they were more religious in nature, or demi-historic, like the Epic or the Mahakavya forms.

There were lyric and other types of poems. But, they were more like slices of emotion, than a type of extended tale.

However, the classical Greek or Sanskrit plays were kins of today’s stories. And they were meant to be enacted, much like today’s movies, serially unfolding in time.

For a modern approximation of how they used to be acted, in the amphitheater, you can watch this





But the initial question remains.

 How do people relate to stories?

All stories start from an urge to visualize, to make an external event internal, to assimilate reality.

 In short, stories act as our vehicles to internalize reality. To make sense of things happening all around.

 Automatically, the urge for drawing a conclusion in the form of a moral comes from the same vision.

 But, how much one can preach directly, without being obstructive to the free flow of events, depends on the culture where the story is told.

In turn, this dictates the storytelling form.

Epic and the Greek plays were composed in the days of uncertainty of human life and its relation to natural events.

 In those early days of civilization, gods existed in human reality. Our forefathers were mere puppets in their hands.



Fatalism was the philosophy of the day, and to add savor to it gods granted free will to select individuals from time to time.

Extreme play between fate and free will characterized the early heroes like Odysseus or Oedipus Rex.

Greek stories always ensued from major flaws – either in the situation or in the character’s life itself.

A flaw inbuilt in a character, or a fracture in the situation, would lead to a conflict. The Hero's journey would be to resolve this conflict.

Point to be noted, Hero always not used to be men only. Characters like Iphigenia or Electra were key figures in solving problems in their life, or society.

After European Renaissance, with the separation of the State from the Church, more secular stories could be told in a serious way. 

Tales of carnal love and human aspirations placed themselves in mainstream human culture for the first time.

Where there was human tales wrapped around religious allegories like Dante’s Divine Comedy before, simple love stories like Tristan and Isolde could appear now.



Elizabethan stage, with the reverse approach of showing great historical and semi-mythological heroes like Caesar and King Lear as frail, flesh and blood human beings, took the story further, closer to contemporary lives.

 And after the navigation and geographical expansion of the late fifteenth century Europe, novel emerged as the principal genre of story telling – the genre of industrial civilization and colonization.



Cinema came at a critical juncture in civilization.

With the mass migration for bread and shelter, some family members were always absent in the household.

Photographs helped to create a very realistic bridge between the absent dad, and the son staying with his mom in the village.


Already, in still frames, the extremely real silver representation told innumerable stories about the city and its attractions. Cinema took that several steps ahead.


It was reminiscent of early days of human civilization.

 Absent hunters from the commune’s dwellings returning in the evening to narrate the day’s happening in the wild, to the avid listeners around the fire. Remember? 

Cinema is very similar in its purpose and approach.


With colonization and modern education, people wanted to know more about other people in their own society, and in others'.

 An Indian could see the Yorkshire hills for the first time, without leaving his familiar physical space, and the citizens there.

It was a revelation in the sense that the universality of human qualities – love, anger, greed and peace – were shown for the first time to an unsuspecting mass.



 People saw themselves in the stranger’s persona. Spectators got stitched to the screen, passing life to those shadows, in the darkness of the theater.

Suspension of disbelief prevailed. The first screen heroes were born.



Cinema borrowed lots from other modes of storytelling – from plays, novel, dance, folk theatre and pantomime.

With the coming of talkies, the three basic media – dance, music and speech – were incorporated totally in the new medium of moving images.



And cinema kept on following the individual aspirations in the changing social atmosphere.

The days of assimilation and migration were reflected in the Western. 

The plight of the Immigrant during the great depression was showcased in Chaplin’s movies. 

The new structuring of the State and the accompanying philosophies were showcased in the hordes of movies made by the Russian filmmakers like Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko.

 And the recent cold war and its aftermath echoed in hundreds of films from Hollywood, made in the last four decades.



People still center their lives around stories just like they did ten thousand years ago.

Nothing much has changed.

We still dream of a happy family, secure future and immortality.

We still crave for the same bedtime stories.




Thursday, August 22, 2013

Book Review


'How to Read a Film,' by James Monaco; Fourth Edition, OUP, 2009


 
Although this is not a site for reviews, occasionally we shall take up the responsibility to familiarize ourselves with certain seminal works in the field of cinema and its understanding.

The book showcased here is aptly one of the best modern candidates for that.

James Monaco, as a Professor of communication studies, saw cinema as the apex of mass-communicative effort in the modern society. 

He wanted a primer encompassing all sides of cinematic activities both from the makers' and the receivers' ends. 

He also visualized cinema in the greater context of human expression, psychology and interaction. 

The result was How to Read a Film.

The book is neatly divided into seven sections, followed by two appendixes and an index.

A short look at the chapters is enough to see the extent of this mammoth work. 

It starts with the old question - What is art? 

To answer that, it puts cinema in the context of traditional arts and shows its relation to each.

Monaco classifies all major art-activities into six abstraction levels – from most practical, functional ones such as architecture to the most abstract art of music. 

Interestingly, he could show how film as a medium, and as an art, fits all the abstraction levels as per the particular genre.

It is necessary to understand cinema at a technical level. 

Until and unless one knows what it takes to make a film, one can never relate to it fully as a medium of communication. 

And the tension among the three axes of communication – the maker, the viewer, and the film – would never be fully understood.

The next section in the book takes us there.

 Beginning with Image Technology and sound Technology, the following chapters- The Lens, The Camera, The film Stock, The Soundtrack, Post Production, Video and Film, Projection – talk in details about the film craft. 

A Basic overview in making a film prepares the reader for the next step – how films make meaning to viewers.

Is cinema coded in a language? Do images have their own grammar? 

Is that grammar universal and natural, or are they culture specific and arbitrary? 
Is cinema itself a master language? 

How far one can translate from one language to another – from word to image?
 Is cinema form or content? Is it the medium or the message? 

Or is it both, as Marshall McLuhan proposed in his famous statement, "The medium is the message?" 

Chapters on Signs and Syntax try to answer these questions.

Cinema, unlike many other forms of creative expression, is a money-intensive collaborative art. 

That makes it a full-fledged industry. Salability of a particular instance of creative expression ensures its existence in the first hand. Thus, what started as personal becomes public. 

Market dictated the form and the content through the history – from Lumière and Méliés to today's critical, personal cinema vis-à-vis Hollywood blockbusters.  

How to Read a film discusses this aspect from some fresh points of view.

After the grand tour through this history, the book returns to where it began- the necessity of cinema in human life. 

It talks about the choices – Cinema as idle art, as utilitarian expression, as critic of culture and society, and finally as critique of itself .

The last two sections in the book – Media : In the Middle of Things, and Multimedia : The Digital Revolution, are later additions in the new edition.

In the Media section, Monaco tries to show film's relation to the other media of mass communication, ie, newspaper, radio and TV. 

When one is informed that the total revenue earned from TV and radio from movie and song reruns amounts to more than half of the total earning in the movie industry, one understands the sheer hugeness of the media conglomerate and film's symbiotic position in that.

 Monaco taps into that to show the reality.

The last section carries this forward to the realm of new media, sharing, piracy and copyright issues. 

He rips many myths off in this section of the book.

In short, How to Read a Film is a book to have for all. It offers something for everyone, beginning from the serious academic student to the overworked assistants and pas on the floor.




Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Colors

                       
 Color is a great cinematographic tool. 

 All human emotions, moods and cultural symbols are connected to specific colors. 

Colors make spaces personal, and convert mundane situations to magical. What are these colors?


                              








It is very interesting to note that colors exist only in our minds. 

It is necessary to know how one sees, before one tries to grasp the complex phenomenon of color image.

Human eyes are light receptors. When a light source (such as, the sun, or a candle) emits light, that light travels in a straight line through the space. 

If our eyes are on that straight line, certain areas in them get excited. That behavior is like a pool of water creating ripples when a stone is thrown. 

It is easy to visualize light consisting of small stones (ie, energy packets), and the eyes of chemicals. When light hits the chemicals, depending on the force and the speed of the stones the chemicals create different types of ripples.




      

Photo-receptors in the human eye: diagrammatic representation 


Light particles strangely behave like waves themselves when they just travel in empty space, not hitting anything in the path. 

The ripples created by light in the human eye are related to the waves associated to the light themselves.

Similar to any other uniformly moving wave, light waves are named by two basic characteristic features – wavelength and amplitude.


Just like the water waves, light waves have upper maximum energy points (peaks), lower maximum energy points (troughs) and point of no energy (zero crossings.)

The distance between two peaks (or two troughs, or two zero crossing points) shows the way a light looks. 

As that distance changes, the ripples created in the eyes also change. That changes the color in effect.



Color, very significantly, has no relation to how high the peak is (or how low the trough.) 

The sensation of color is the distance between any two peaks, as already stated. This distance is technically known as the wavelength of the light wave.

However, besides color, light is also known by how bright or dim it is. 

Height of the peak (or, the trough) starting from the zero crossing point determines the sensation of brightness. 

The higher the peak, the brighter is the light (regardless of its color.) This height is technically known as amplitude of the light wave.

Hence, color and brightness are two unrelated elements of light. One can be changed without changing the other.

All these light waves, mixed in some proportion, look white or gray. 

In turn, when white light is passed through a dispersion medium (such as, a prism) that separates the elemental wavelengths of white light, different colors can be seen as color bands.

 A range of such color bands is called spectrum.



However, as can be seen in the image above, only certain wavelengths can cause sensation in the human eye. 

Like any other distance, wavelengths are measured in meter (or fraction of a meter, nanometer in this case.)

Beyond these wavelengths, both on the longer and the shorter sides, waves cannot be seen. These are invisible waves that we use for purposes other than seeing.


Coming back to colors, it is not surprising to know that some people cannot see a few colors, some have problems in separating one color from another and some do not see any color at all. 

After all color is a human sensation. 

Depending on some minor defects in the human eye or in the brain, light waves may cause sensations different from the standard.

Colors are created in the human mind. 

 So, they build up a major part of our reality. Enhancing moods, creating very interesting contrasts, used symbolically for statement or comment, colors are the building blocks of any visual expression next in importance only to the tonal contrast.

Before taking a journey in the symbolic meaning of colors, it is necessary to know how color is reproduced in traditional motion picture photography, the traditional videography and the modern age digital images. 

Only the basics can be discussed in this article.

World's first color photograph was printed as far back as in the 1850s. The modern color printing method, however, was officially first tried in 1861.


It was made by a simple process of mixing three monochrome channel information – the red, the green and the blue images.

The three basic building blocks for any color light were well known for many years. 

One can get any color of light, by mixing light of colors red, green and blue in different proportions. 

Mixing any two or all the three in different brightness of each yield all the other colors human eyes can perceive.

Black and white photography was created on the basis of Silver bromide's quality of undergoing chemical reaction as light falls on it.

A plastic strip coated with silver bromide particles is exposed at the camera gate. Variation of exposure across the frame is recorded as variation of chemical reaction in the corresponding areas.

 Simply put, that means bright objects reflect more light to that part of the frame and more chemicals undergo reaction there.

When such an exposed filmstrip is washed with mild alkaline solution (known as developer), bromine is washed out, and metallic silver comes out to make an image according to the tonal contrast across the frame. 

That metallic silver looks black (unlike the normal metallic silver's white appearance.)

The brighter an object is in a photographic frame, its corresponding image area undergoes more chemical reaction. 

More reaction leads to darker image area (ie, more metallic silver) after development
.
As brighter, whiter, objects are represented as darker areas in such an image, it is called negative.

A negative can be copied by transmitting light through it to a similar photographic filmstrip.

Negative of a negative yields a positive, where white looks white in the image.

However, such an image is black and white, with shades of grays in between. It is not color!

However, the same image can be taken thrice putting a different color filter on the camera lens each time – the three primary colors – red, green and blue. 

There will be three different grayscale images, but each of them will be different from the others in tonal variation.

If these images are overlapped on one another at that time of printing, the resulting image is color!

Reproducing color this way is known as the additive color image reproduction.

Later, films took a different route to reproducing color in a cheaper way – the subtractive method similar to what painters had used for ages in their paintings.

 But, modern digital images follow the same additive route.



In a modern digital camera, just like the human eye, there are three types of wave receptors – one each for Red, green and blue light.


                            
Working together, they create all different colors.

In different cultures, same color has different symbolic meanings and psychological associations.

Movies are built up on color coding and mythic symbolism.

However, a lot in the storytelling is based on the universal reaction to color.

Warm colors between 600 and 700 nm wavelengths mean life, excitement, activity.




Cool colors, on the other hand, evoke lethargy, sleep, serenity, lack of activity and sex.




 It takes the whole team of screenplay writer, director, production designer and cinematographer to harp on the emotion of the story, and to see how the plot extracts that emotion from the audio-visual imagery.

That is called imagination. Colors play a big role in that.









Sunday, August 18, 2013

Science of Art



In 1959, British scientist and novelist C P Snow delivered a lecture aptly titled The Two Cultures

Snow, like many other intellectuals of his day, felt shocked to see the world divided into two camps – science and humanities. 

In the lecture, he tried to show that the divide was very recent, largely a modern phenomenon, that came out of industrial revolution, colonization of the world by Europe, and the two World Wars.

Since prehistoric times, man has been trying to interpret his connection to the rest of the universe. 

This interpretation took different approaches in history, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, religion and art. 

All these evolved to be complete disciplines of study, in the historical periods. All these were connected.


Art and articulation possibly came from the same root. 

When man could not explain some of his connections with nature he took recourse to the unexplainable – to magic. All art in the beginning were probably magical.

 Altamira's cave paintings, pre-Vedic triatonal music, symbolic clan representation in the Stonehenge, or ancient dance of Siva which possibly talks about a clash between two civilizations in India, began as something beyond calculative logic.

Religions sprang up from the cult of the dead, as well as the fertility cult. 

As celebrations of life, the magical art forms were inherently related to the ancient rites that these pantheistic religions produced. 

Man wanted to get rid of uncertainties of death, and to celebrate life. 

Fear and uncertainties came from the unknown. Death and future both were unknown. Art was a solace.


Initially, Art meant skill. That usage can still be seen in the art of public speaking, or the art of cooking

Artists and artisans were not different people before the Art for Art's sake movement, which came to the forefront in the Eighteenth century Europe, and paved the way for fine arts.

But, if following those purists, art is something "which appeals to the mind and the imagination", why does it appeal at all?

 Art may not have direct practical utility. 

One does not die if s/he stops consuming art. But, artists make lots of money. At least many do; more than the people of utility. 

So, art is in demand. Society needs art. The question is why.

Mechanical engineering or open heart surgery is a skill. One knows how to teach and practice that, precisely because one knows how to put that skill to use and why it is useful.

Can art be used like that? If artists know how their art is going to affect the public sensibilities, they can make it more saleable. 

On the other hand, if art is something to tune up public psyche, it can be used very effectively for any change in the collective mind of the masses, for propaganda.

Can art be scientifically anatomized, taught and put back to practice with a precise agenda?

Is there a science of Art?

The answer comes from both the camps – from the artists' and the scientists'. And the answer is, largely, "Yes".

(to be continued)