Interesting Thoughts video

Chaos Cinema and the Rise of the Avid

This two-part video essay by Matthias Stork on the style of modern action films considers the rise of chaos cinema.

The first part contrasts traditional, composed action set-pieces in Die Hard (1988) with the frenetic approach adopted in more recent films from directors like Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay, as well as highlighting the importance of sound in shaping our perception of a scene.

The second part explores the way dialogue scenes have also been affected, but also points out the benefits of chaos cinema if used for a specific purpose, using the example of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009).

I’m not sure I agree with all examples here, as the Greengrass Bourne films – The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) – are exhilarating and shouldn’t be blamed for the lame copycats that followed in their wake.

The question I was left pondering after watching these videos is why did ‘chaos cinema’ really take hold over the last 15 years?

One could cite the influence of a generation of directors who ‘graduated’ from MTV videos and commercials, such as Michael Bay, Gore Verbinski and David Fincher.

Or perhaps the rise of handheld visuals and quick cutting has roots in trying to satiate the attention spans of the younger audiences used to first person video games, as shooter games like Overwatch, people play with the use of services as Overwatch boosting from sites online.

In a sense, the GoldenEye first-person shooter game which came out in 1997 proved more influential and prophetic than the actual film that inspired it two years beforehand.

Perhaps audiences got used to shorter attention spans in the age of the Internet and this frenetic multi-tasking was somehow reflected on screen.

My theory is that computer based non-linear editing systems, such as the Avid and Final Cut Pro have had a major influence.

Back in 1990 when Bernardo Bertolucci was editing The Sheltering Sky (1990), the Italian director was asked by a BBC film crew to compare the old editing system with a new non-linear based one.

Filmmaker and author Michael Rubin worked on the production and discussed in 2006 how it used the laserdisc-based CMX 6000 editing system:

“No-one was using non-linear on feature films at the time. We set it up at the post-production in Soho …the English [producers] were waiting for this computer to crash, so we could get back to film.”

This was a pretty extraordinary development, given that Bertolucci, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and editor Gabriella Cristiani had all just won Oscars for their sumptuous epic The Last Emperor (1987).

Bertolucci admitted to the BBC crew that he missed the feel and smell of celluloid on a traditional flat-bed system, but seemed impressed by the unprecedented freedom offered by a computerised system.

It was clear that a gradual revolution was taking place, roughly at the same time as computerisation was changing visual effects with ILM doing ground-breaking work on Terminator 2 (1991), partly thanks to a new program called Photoshop.

In the past, using machines like a Steenbeck – which physically cut and spliced celluloid – made editing a much slower and more considered process.

When you see someone like David Lean editing A Passage to India (1984) on a moviola, you realise what a skilled and mechanical process it was to physically cut a film:

The rise of the Avid in the 1990s changed all that, giving editors astonishing flexibility and freedom to arrange sequences and cut them with precision.

Bill Warner, the pioneer who came up with the basic idea of the Avid, mistakenly thought that such as system already existed in the late 1980s when he developed what was essentially a software program that ran on a Macintosh.

When early computerised editing systems first came in, the challenge they faced was convincing directors and editors who were used to editing on older systems they were familiar with.

After all, if traditional editing machines like the Moviola, Steenbeck and KEM weren’t broke, then why fix them?

In the high-pressure world of film post-production time literally is money and there is often a rush to get the scenes arranged for the score and final sound mix.

It would have been quite a challenge to explain to experienced editors used to cutting the old way that Avid offered a compelling alternative and that they had to learn how to use a computer.

*UPDATE 01/06/15* Filmmaker IQ do a nice history of the transition here:

Given the steep learning curve, it was no surprise that change was gradual but by the early 1990s Avids began to replace older flatbed editing machines and by 1995 many major productions had made the switch to scanning their films in via telecine and then cutting them on computer.

When Walter Murch won the Oscar for editing The English Patient (1996) on an Avid, it became the first editing Oscar to be awarded to a production that used a digital based system, even though the final print was still celluloid.

Whilst mainstream Hollywood has made the switch, Steven Spielberg has been a famous hold out against editing machines like the Avid, because he dislikes the very speed of the modern workflow, saying he needs time to think during editing.

Although even he admitted at a recent DGA event that he has surrendered to the new system whilst editing his latest film, War Horse, which will be cut by his longtime collaborator Michael Kahn.

This freedom to quickly arrange and cut together elements of a film seems to have had a profound influence on the work of ‘chaos cinema’ directors.

Paul Greengrass shoots lots of footage so he can assemble it in the editing room; Tony Scott shoots on multiple cameras with such ferocity that his films are almost avant garde; and Michael Bay’s career seems like a case study in applying techniques of MTV videos directly to the multiplex.

These filmmakers get a lot of attention for how they shoot action, but the way they piece it together in the editing room is as fundamental to their visual style.

Would they be agents of chaos without modern, lightweight cameras and faster editing systems?

> IndieWire essay on Chaos Cinema
> David Bordwell on ‘intensified continuity’
> Find out more about non-linear editing systems at Wikipedia


Is Michael Bay a Coen Brothers Fan?

Michael Bay is a very different director compared to The Coen Brothers, so why does he keep casting actors from their films?

It was during the latest Transformers film, as Chicago was being destroyed by intergalactic robots, that it struck me that its director might have a thing for America’s leading fraternal auteurs.

When John Turturro (perhaps the quintessential Coen actor) and Frances McDormand (another Coen regular who also happens to be married to Joel) appeared in the same scene, it was hard to ignore the weird sensation that the spirit of the Coens had entered into the most commercial blockbuster of the summer.

If you take a close look at the films of Bay and the Coens, there has been a lot of crossover in terms of the actors who have been in their films.

Examine this chart:

[Click here for a larger version]

The pattern seems to be that Bay casts actors who have established themselves in the Coen universe.

With The Rock (1996), Nicolas Cage was cast in his first blockbuster lead role after appearing in Raising Arizona (1987). A coincidence? Then why does William Forsythe crop up in exactly the same films?

John Turturro is the wild card.

Perhaps the actor who embodied the Coens early period – with key roles in Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991) – he has also carved out a parallel career in Adam Sandler comedies such as Mr. Deeds (2002) and You Don’t Mess With The Zohan (2008), as well as the Transformers franchise.

Actors and directors often like to mix commercial pay cheques with more personal projects, but it seems Turturro is on a one man mission to create the most interesting acting CV in American history.

This is a man who’s acting career begins with Raging Bull (1980) and takes in such films as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Quiz Show (1994), The Luzhin Defence (2001), Collateral Damage (2002), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and Cars 2 (out this summer).

Steve Buscemi is just below Turturro when it comes to paying his Coen dues, with roles alongside him in Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, as well as a fantastic turn in Fargo (1996).

But he has also been a quirky presence in Bay’s spectacular’s such as Armageddon (1998) and The Island (2005).

These last two movies expand the Coen-Bay matrix further still, as Peter Stormare starred alongside Buscemi in both but only after notable appearances in Fargo and The Big Lebowski (1998).

He also squeezed in a role in Bad Boys II (2003) for good measure.

Billy Bob Thornton somewhat bucks the trend as he appeared in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003) after a supporting turn in Armageddon.

But things get back on track with Scarlett Johansson – cropping up in The Island after her role in The Man Who Wasn’t There – and John Malkovich, who appears in the new Transformers film after his role in Burn After Reading (2008).

So, what does this all signify?

When it was announced that Turturro and McDormand were cast in Transformers 3, Matthew Fleischer of Fishbowl LA highlighted a comment on Deadline that joked about Bay making a Coen Brothers movie.

Movieline recently had a post titled ‘5 Coen Brothers Stock Players Who Haven’t Appeared In a Michael Bay Film, But Should‘ and Row Three also chipped in with some thoughts on this odd phenomenon.

So, when he isn’t shooting high-octane action movies, filming Victoria Secret’s commercials and driving around in his Ferrari, is Bay logging on to Criterion’s website to see if they are releasing The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) on Blu-ray?

Well, it turns out Bay is actually is a big Coen Brothers fan, as he revealed in an interview back in 1998, which can be found on his website:

I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan, and I’d love to find some dark, quirky comedy or some thriller. Nothing to do with special effects or explosions.

Perhaps this will be his next film project?

> Michael Bay and The Coen Brothers at Wikipedia
> Reviews of Transformers: Dark of the Moon at Metacritic

Cinema Thoughts

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The latest Transformers film is almost precisely the hollow exercise many were expecting. But will it save 3D?

How do you really ‘review’ a film like Transformers: Dark of the Moon?

After all, this is a tent pole release that gives a huge middle fingered salute to the critics who loathe them and revels in the mindless thrills it serves up to audiences eager to part with their cash.

For two and half hours, we get the same template: alien robots transform before beating each other up, military people debate what to do (before deciding to blow up stuff anyway) and a young man (Shia Le Beouf) is caught up in all the action with his girlfriend (the fact that he has a new one here really makes no difference).

At times, the story didn’t entirely seem to make sense but involves the evil alien robots (Decepticons) tricking the decent ones (Autobots), after an important discovery which the US government has kept secret since 1969.

So in essence, this is just an empty retread of the basic elements of the series and whilst not quite as bad as the previous film, still provides precious little in the manner of genuine excitement or emotion.

But there is another side to the third Transformers movie which makes it an interesting case study, as it contains many elements (expensive visual effects, 3D) that typify the modern Hollywood release in 2011.

As we speak, an army of regular critics are desperately trying to pen anguished words on why a film like this even exists, why Michael Bay is Satan and that they got a headache from all the noisy action.

But we all kind of knew that going into this didn’t we?

It’s not like he hired Bela Tarr to do a page one rewrite of the script because of the negative reactions to the last film.

However, this release may have interesting implications for mainstream cinema going, coming after two blockbusters this summer (Pirates 4 and Green Lantern) were judged to have disappointing returns on 3D tickets.

Bay and Paramount have spent a lot of time and money trying to make this not only a big summer blockbuster, but one that gives an extra lift to the 3D format, which some see as vital to Hollywood’s long term future.

So instead of writing a ‘regular review’, here are 10 points that struck me after watching it.


This film almost plays like an extended tribute reel to the director.

At times it feels like that self-deprecating commercial he did for Verizon:

All of the signature Bay touches are here: swooping helicopter shots, an ‘inspirational’ musical score, fast cars, women filmed like models (he’s even cast one in a lead role), bright colours, men walking towards the camera in slow motion and – of course – slick, hyperactive editing.

And let’s not forget the choppers at sunset:


Whatever side of the 3D camp you are on (and I’ve been very disappointed with the mainstream releases over the last 18 months) there is no doubt some are looking for this to inject new life back in to the format.

Previously a sceptic, Bay has admitted producer Steven Spielberg and James Cameron persuaded him to use the special 3D cameras invented for Avatar.

Bay and Cameron even recently had a lengthy sit-down together at a preview screening in order to build excitement for the film (which judging by the early geek reaction largely worked).

Paramount has gone to great lengths to combat the traditional (and accurate) complaint that 3D films are just too dim.

This resulted in the studio coming up with enhanced prints and Bay has even penned a letter to cinemas urging them to set the brightness levels correctly.

After watching this at one of the best cinemas in London (Odeon Leicester Square), it still looked too dark.

An inherent flaw with 3D films (as technology currently stands) is that they lose up to 80 per cent (!) of their brightness.

Here some sequences have shots which utilise depth well, but Bay’s natural tendency for quick cuts and frenetic action isn’t really suited to the format.

Bay also admitted that he shot faces with 35mm as he wasn’t happy with the conversion process, which sounded like a lot of time and money was spent on it.

But was all this effort worth it? When I looked at the spectacular action scenes, part of me just wanted to see them with proper levels of brightness and colour.

The bottom line is that when I go to the cinema I want that extra visual pop, because that’s part of what makes the medium so special and visually superior to home entertainment.

As it stands, 3D is hindering and not helping cinemas.


The silly comedy characters are now just annoying: in the first film Sam Witwicky’s parents were an acceptable supporting act, whilst in the second film they had become a serious nuisance.

Here their screen time is mercifully brief but weird, comedy supporting characters appear seemingly at random.

John Malkovich crops up as a boss with a weird voice who has an unexplained fetish for yellow, whilst Ken Jeong is a strange, hyperactive office worker and there are some dumb ‘pet’ robots thrown in for good measure.

I guess the point is to provide comic relief but it just ends up as distracting.


The final battle sequence is epic but drags in the context of the overall film.

Lasting over over an hour, it contains some impressive scenes (such as live action skydiving stunts) but the curious side effect is that you become numb to it the longer it goes on.

That said, a lot of paying audiences are going to eat up he sky diving scenes and the bit where a building is being squeezed.


Lazier critics might just assume the visual effects on these films will be good given their budgets.

But treated separately, the work ILM and Digital Domain have done in bringing these robots to life has been stunning.

The level of detail in some of the set pieces (especially a collapsing building, complete with reflective glass) is extremely impressive, whilst the integration with the lighting gives it an extra kick.

Although the first film was robbed of the visual effects Oscar in 2007 (to The Golden Compass!), it is now the clear frontrunner for this category.


It seemed that this film was done with the co-operation of NASA (you’ll see why if you watch the first teaser trailer) and it even features a surprising cameo from a certain astronaut.

Only the most deranged viewer would believe in the fictional events depicted here, but could this film help stoke the popular mistruths about the Apollo missions that Capricorn One (1978) helped usher in during the 1970s?


A significant plot development (which is firmly in spoiler territory) appears to be some kind of weird metaphor for World War II and how certain nations collaborated with an occupying invader.

This plot line also features the obligatory scene where the villain explains everything. Maybe Bay was getting nostalgic for when he shot Pearl Harbor

These films also have a fetish for the military running right through them, so maybe it stems from that.

Watch out too for a bizarre reference to Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, which I certainly never expected from a Michael Bay movie, although his DP Amir Mokri is Iranian, so possibly its some kind of in-joke.


This franchise exposes an interesting divide between the discerning critics who almost universally loathe them and the younger, paying audiences that lap them up.

Although even some fans of the first film didn’t like the second, it still grossed an enormous amount (over $800m worldwide), which suggests that despite their obvious shortcomings they provide the kind of action spectacle mainstream global audiences enjoy watching during the summer.

At the screening I attended, sections of the crowd were visibly excited and even cheered at one scene.

Despite the lack of interesting characters and story, their financial success seems to be because they mix elements of computer games (all shoot ‘em up and fighting robots) with a fairground ride (bright colours, quick movement).

Plus, we shouldn’t forget that an influential group of geeks grew up with the TV show and toys during the 1980s.


Employing Dolby’s new 7.1 surround system Bay’s sound team have really surpassed themselves here. This Soundworks video explains how the many sounds were achieved:

The range of sounds is fantastic and although they sometimes go overboard with the levels, it gives some sequences a real lift. As with the visual effects, this is a likely contender in the sound categories come the awards season.


This might sound odd, but for stretches of the film I got the feeling that Bay is a big fan of the Christopher Nolan Batman films.

Not only does the climactic battle take place in the same Chicago locations as The Dark Knight (especially Wacker Drive) but there are little music and sound beats that seem to echo that film.

Shia LeBeouf has revealed that Bay wanted to play him some ‘Batman orchestral’ music (presumably Hans Zimmer and James Newton’s score) before a key sequence.

One wonders if the director secretly craves to make an action movie that is embraced by both audiences and critics in the way the Batman films or Inception were.

Of course there are major differences (in quality as much as anything else) but in the last hour Nolan popped into my head more than once.

So where does this all leave us?

Pretty much where we began, as critical opinion and commercial success will follow the usual Bay formula.

Whether it can save the current trend for 3D is the really interesting question.

> Find out more about the Transformers movies at Wikipedia
> Reviews of Transformers: Dark of the Moon at Metacritic
> Hilarious GQ profile of Michael Bay featuring input from people he’s worked with down the years
> Variety on the 3D release of the film


Letters to Projectionists

Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Michael Bay form an unlikely quartet of directors who have written letters to cinema projectionists.

This year has seen some interesting correspondence surface between filmmakers and projectionists about showing their film correctly.

Recently Glenn Kenny published a letter given to him by former Time critic Jay Cocks found a letter Stanley Kubrick wrote in December 1975 about the correct way to screen Barry Lyndon:

That also triggered a debate about the aspect ratio of the recent Blu-ray release from Warner Bros.

Recently, Ray Pride published a 2001 memo David Lynch wrote to cinema ‘projection departments’ in order to remind them of the aspect ratio, sound (‘3db hotter than normal’) and slight tweaks to the ‘headroom’ for screenings of Mulholland Drive.

(By the way, Lynch has also announced plans to open a themed nightclub in Paris, inspired by the film).

Last month the San Diego Reader reported that Terrence Malick penned a ‘fraternal salute’ to projectionists showing his latest film The Tree of Life in which he asked them to:

  1. Project the film in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
  2. The correct fader setting on Dolby and DTS systems is 7. Malick asks that faders be kept at 7.5 or even 7.7, system permitting.
  3. The film has no opening credits, and the booth operator is asked to make sure the “lights down cue is well before the opening frame of reel 1.”
  4. With all the recent talk of “darkier, lousier” images, operators are asked that lamps are at “proper standard (5400 Kelvin)” and that the “foot Lambert level is at Standard 14.”

At the other end of the directing spectrum, the Facebook page of American Cinematographer has posted a letter from Michael Bay in which he outlines to projectionists how to screen the ‘Platinum 6’ version of Transformers: Dark of the Moon for the ‘ultimate 3D experience’.

Interestingly Paramount, who are releasing the film, are the only major studio not to embrace the controversial pay-per-view plans which caused such a stink with theater owners back at Cinema Con in April.

After some high profile disappointments (3D versions of Pirates of the Carribbean 4 and Green Lantern grossed less than expected) this tentpole release will be keenly watched by Hollywood.

One recent complaint has been that US cinemas are not changing the 3D lenses for 2D screenings, which dims the brightness levels on the latter.

The letters are also timely as projection in multiplexes is often poor, with multiplex chains skimping on bulbs and often showing a movie with the incorrect aspect ratio.

With the advent of digital projection systems these problems were supposed to be addressed, but it seems that some cinemas are still cutting corners and shortchanging audiences and filmmakers.

This video demonstrates how modern cinema projectors work:

Back in 1998, Paul Thomas Anderson spoke to Mike Figgis about the old saying that the ‘projectionist has final cut’ and how he witnessed a bad Fuji print of Boogie Nights at an LA cinema (relevant part starts at 6.24):

To some this may seem like technical trivia but if cinema is to survive in an era of digital downloads and shortening windows, then projection standards must remain high.

> More on Movie Projectors at Wikipedia
> Wired on how modern 3D projectors work
> Guardian article on the life and work of a cinema projectionist
> How Stuff Works on movie projectors

Interesting Thoughts

Interesting Filmmaker Websites

In the year 2011 how do filmmakers use the web for more than just promotion?

I often wonder how famous directors from the past would used online tools in either the making or the promotion of their films.

Maybe Orson Welles would have put out his 1938 interview with H.G. Wells as a podcast.

Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock would have filmed his classic trailers especially for YouTube.

One can only guess what Stanley Kubrick would have made of the more developed online world we now live in.

Like many celebrities, over the last couple of years various actors, directors and producers have embraced Twitter as a self-promotional tool which use to engage fans and post updates.

But what about those filmmakers whose online activities go a little deeper?

Here are my pick of the most interesting.


I can’t remember when I first heard that David Lynch had a website, but it was a few years ago and when it turned out he was selling ringtones and doing weather reports, I had to check it out. Designed and maintained by the indexsy seo agency, it is now mostly dedicated to his music and you can also see the live Duran Duran concert he recently directed, as well as various music tracks from his films and TV shows. He also occasionally does cooking videos.


Ever since securing the ingenious URL (sadly no longer active) for his breakout film Shaun of the Dead (2004), Edgar Wright has been fairly active online with behind-the-scenes video podcasts for Hot Fuzz (2007) and his own website which seemed to start in 2009. He regularly posts articles, videos and a lot of photos (at one point he even did a daily photo thing), but he also engages with people in the comments section, puts up videos he’s directed (be they music promos or early experiments in editing) and generally has a bit of a laugh whilst doing so. He’s also pretty active on Twitter.


What does one of the world’s greatest cinematographers do when he’s not shooting films like True Grit (2010), No Country for Old Men (2007) or The Shawshank Redemption (1994)? It turns out he runs a pretty active forum on his own website, where he answers questions from readers all around the world. Whether you have a query about cameras, lighting, digital intermediates, whether 4K really matters or the merits of anamorphic over super 35mm, Roger is there. It is more for the technically minded film fan, but given his amazing back catalogue of films, there are some illuminating stories on how scenes were shot and put together. An incredible resource, it’s a bit like having Paul McCartney give out song writing tips at your local music venue.


Although his site probably won’t be getting bookmarked by Sight and Sound readers any time soon, Bay is one of the few A-list Hollywood directors to have his own website and forum, where he posts quite candidly about his films. Whatever you think of his work, his official forum provides some interesting insights into the blockbuster process. Just a month away from Transformers: Dark of the Moon being released, we learn: he is curious to hear about local advertising from readers around the world (to keep Paramount’s marketing folks on their toes?), his displeasure with a ‘cheap ass trailer company’ who apparently stole Transformer sounds to use in a Green Lantern TV spot, the fact that Mercedes wouldn’t allow him to make their cars into a bad Decepticon and that he cut out a stunt because a building “wanted a $40,000 location fee”. Oh, and the Autobot Twins are not back in Transformers 3.


The screenwriter of Go (1999), Big Fish (2003) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) runs a site he describes as ‘a ton of useful information about screenwriting’ and he’s not wrong with that description. When you think of screenwriting gurus who charge hefty amounts for books and seminars, it’s worth noting that a successful, working screenwriter is giving away lots of useful advice for free on a regular basis. More than that, he takes time to answer reader comments and also blogs with a lot of insight about storytelling and the wider industry. It is particularly useful for those little practical details which confront the working screenwriter, be it formatting, genres or pitching. He has also created an iPad app for reading screenplays (FDX Reader) and a web browser extension (Less IMDb) that makes the movie reference site easier to navigate.


The producer of Natural Born Killers (1994), Apt Pupil (1998), From Hell (2001) and the Transformers franchise runs what appears to be a fairly old school site. But look deeper and you find some hidden treasures, such as a message board, genuinely interesting links, and some fantastic Hollywood stories. There are sections titled good guys (Michael De Luca), bad guys (Peter Biskind), fun with lawsuits (eye opening to say the least) and an archive of related stuff going back to 1997. You can also make him happy by sending him the front page of the LA Times from June 18th 1952.


The successful US indie producer (American Splendor, In The Bedroom) has been an active blogger and Twitter user at a time of great turmoil and change for the independent sector. Part of that is down to the challenges facing filmmakers and distributors in a world where old economic models have been disrupted by new technologies and the financial crisis. His previous blog has now moved over to IndieWire and is a good place to visit to find out what the future of the industry might look like, as the ideas and debates he encourages may filter through to the mainstream.

If you have any other examples of filmmakers using the web in interesting ways, then leave them below.

> Movie Directors, Writers and Actors on Twitter at /Film
> Filmmaker Magazine
> The Daily MUBi on Twitter