Friday, November 6, 2015

Moving point-of-view shots in TOY STORY

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the TOY STORY premiere (Nov 19, 1995) I have put together my very first video essay. A lot has been written about how the success of this first fully computer animated feature film was based on the great storytelling and how plastic toys were an ideal subject for computer animation. But the Pixarians also played to the strengths of computer animation in the way they organically incorporated three-dimensional compositions and camera movements hardly possible in hand drawn animation. Thus, in my essay I focus on the crucial functions of the moving point-of-view shot in TOY STORY. Here, the narrative perspective is more restricted than in all of Pixar's subsequent films. 

Since the video essay was done for the Swiss magazine filmbulletin, the commentary is in German only. Therefore, I provide you with an English translation of my running commentary and the German intertitles. filmbulletin is not an animation specific publication so there might be some explanations in the video that are second nature to anyone working in animation.

Please find the video essay here.


In computer animation, the virtual camera is theoretically able to move completely freely. TOY STORY is consistently told through the eyes of toys. In order to communicate this perspective, the filmmakers resort to a popular storytelling device of adventure and horror films that is especially suited for computer animation: the moving point-of-view (POV) shot.

I. An unusual perspective
Many Pixar films show us a well-known setting from an unusual perspective. In TIN TOY for instance, we see a playing baby through the eyes of maltreated toys. In order to visualize this narrative perspective the camera is lowered to the tin toy's eye level. From this angle the baby becomes a monster.

The toys' strong facial expressions suggest that these toys are consciously acting beings.

Compare them with the mechanical doll in CHILD'S PLAY: Here, the mechanical expressions do not hint at any real consciousness. However, the film tells us that Chucky is indeed a living being in a different way: the camera lets us see through his eyes and shows us his subjective view in a so-called point-of-view (=POV) shot, which I will henceforth mark with a yellow frame.

Likewise in TOY STORY the toys do not seem to have a life of their own as long as humans are present. However in the opening scene John Lasseter shows us by means of interspersed POV shots that the cowboy Woody is perceptive and therefore has a consciousness of his own even though his eyes look lifeless from outside.

Without these POV shots the exterior action would still be completely comprehensible. WITH the POV shots the audience gets the additional information that Woody is perceiving these actions consciously.
        Point-of-view     vs     blank reaction shot
Yet, the POV shots do not reveal any of Woody's emotions. Characters are emotionally charged not by POV but by reaction shots of the viewing character's face. In the company of humans Woody's face remains blank, though. Therefore, his reaction to gazing at the birthday garland is only revealed after Andy has left the bedroom.

From then on, we do not need any POV shots any more to be reminded that the toys are alive.

II. Visual rollercoaster
In adventure films moving POV shots are often used to convey a physical experience to the audience. For technical reasons, such forward movement (trucking in) is very rare in hand drawn animation.

Visual depth can be suggested in horizontal und vertical movement by moving several painted (multiplane) layers in relative speed to one another. If the camera is trucking in through these layers, the two-dimensionality of the painted objects becomes visible because they lack perspective distortion. Real trucking POV shots are mostly so short that this is not showing.

If the truck-in-movement is the focus of a shot, the background has to be redrawn for every single frame (24 times per second) in hand drawn animation. In western commercial animation, such a painstaking technique is hardly used for anything else than cartoon settings without too many details.
Since this kind of POV shot is often conveying the experience of a rollercoaster I like to call it the "rollercoaster perspective".

In computer animation the virtual camera is indeed able to move freely within the three-dimensional space. Ever since the late 1980s computer animated POV shots are integrated into hand drawn features as well.
In the completely computer animated TOY STORY the rollercoaster perspective shows us the psychologically distorted perception of Buzz Lightyear.
Buzz does not know that he is a toy. He believes he can really fly. From Buzz's first person perspective it may look like he is flying. In reality, the alleged "flight" is the result of gravity and coincidence.
Buzz also believes that his toy weapons are really working. We see them like in a first-person-shooter (complete with gun in the middle perspective of vintage arcade games). When Buzz realizes he cannot fly after all, we get two POV shots again.

After Buzz has accepted his existence as a toy we learn from Woody's perspective that flying is not a question of capability but of perception.

III. Creating suspense
Since we cannot control the characters' subjective perspective in films the restricted field of vision is creating tension because danger in films is mostly lurking off screen. This can come as a surprise (Woody: "hello?"). It is much more suspenseful when we expect a potential threat.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS we know that the heroine is in the house of serial killer. By alternating POV and reaction shots of Jody Foster's face the filmmakers let us read her emotional state.
In TOY STORY Buzz and Woody know that the neighbor Sid is fond of destroying toys. Like the audience, Buzz and Woody cannot control their restricted view because they are trapped in Sid's bag while entering his home.

Only later on the run they are controlling their own perspective again. In addition to Sid, this house (which alludes to the hotel in THE SHINING) holds many more threats.
One of them is a pit bull called Scud. Since Scud is able to see the secret life of toys we can assume his POV as well. However, knowing his emotions and seeing through his eyes does not automatically lead to emotional identification with the gruesome dog (although we may be fascinated by his villainous behavior). Our emotional commitment to a character is much more dependent on his behavior towards other characters. Thus, Scud remains a threat even though we see share his perspective.
POV dog
IV. Insight into the toy world
The moving POV shot is fulfilling three basic functions in TOY STORY:
1. we see that supposedly lifeless toys are conscious beings.
2. it conveys physical experience from the perspective of toys.
3. the restricted field of vision is creating suspense.

Since TOY STORY is consistently told through the perspective of toys (and animals), we share their visual POV exclusively - for the most part that is. Towards the end, however, we surprisingly see through the eyes of Sid (unlike the many overshoulder shots we get before).

Although the restricted narrative perspective only allows for scenes in which toys are present we can - as we have seen with the dog before - share the visual perspective of all those characters who can see the secret life of the toys. After all, the toys reveal their parallel reality to Sid for a short moment (technically, this still does not explain the first Sid POV, but better break a rule than minimize impact).
Andy's baby sister Molly catches a glimpse of the living toys as well. However, she will not be able to tell someone and no one will believe Sid, anyway. That way, Andy will never find out that his toys are really alive.

Note: In subsequent Pixar films, point-of-view shots assume may different, sometimes really original functions like a "second person flash forward" in FINDING NEMO or a view through the mindless eyes of Emperor Zurg in TOY STORY 2.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Companion Blog

Central framing in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
"The films that I constantly revisited or saw repeatedly held up longer for me over the years not because of plot but because of character and a very different approach to story." (Martin Scorsese)
Whenever I see a film there usually are some technical or narrative aspects or peculiarities which I would like to look at more closely in comparison to other films. But since I hardly ever have time to do so I plan to store such raw material for potential analyses in an "archive blog" called FILM STUDIES RESOURCES. At best, this will eventually become a non representative online resource for film enthusiasts who want to look at a film from a specific angle or who are just interested to find out what might be interesting to pay attention to during a film.

The posts contain only the bare bones, but to make access easier they are labelled quite extensively. There are already about 15 entries right now and I plan to post a new film every Friday. The same film can get multiple entries for different aspects. So if you are interested in such a thing, take a look at:

Monday, July 27, 2015


Chiyoko Fujiwara and Genya Tachibana, the protagonists of MILLENIUM ACTRESS.
It seems that I have never written about Satoshi KON or any of his mind-boggling films. Kon (1963-2010) was one of the great visual storytellers and a true visionary whose parallel editing and overlaying of several levels of reality influenced film makers like Aronofsky or Nolan. Today, I will focus on the first scene of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (2001) which is practically a master-class in how to open a movie.

[SPOILER ALERT] This analysis naturally reveals a lot about the storylines of the works discussed.

The first page
Novelists usually introduce us to characters, settings, conflicts and tone of a novel in the first few paragraphs, quite often on the very first page. Most of the time we do not consciously take in all of this information. It nevertheless shapes our expectations and influences our decision to read on. Sometimes a narrator even foreshadows the outcome or parts of the narrative arc as can be seen on the first page of two of my favorite novels:

Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird the first three paragraphs tell us that the narrator is relating events that happened some time ago in her childhood. The first sentence belongs to her older brother who used to be a primary source of knowledge to her at the time and whose broken elbow marked the end of a chain of "events leading to his accident" - in fact, the events that make up most of the novel's storyline.

Already in the second sentences she addresses the recurring motif of fears that are finally assuaged but define much of the atmosphere, especially in connection with the Ewell family as well as the children's interest for their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley. By the end of the third paragraph, the narrator's father Atticus - the novel's most beloved character - is introduced as a wise but unconventional consultant on what is right or wrong

Only then the narrator delves into the quasi-prologue of the family history and the Southern sense of ancestral roots. But now the reader is already hooked and at least wants to know why Jem broke his arm and why both Jem and the narrator can be right about who started what.

Many of the same narrative devices can be found in a much more recent and experimental novel like Paul Auster's City of Glass:

Paul Auster: City of Glass

The narrator is again concerned with how "it" all began and how much time has passed since then. In fact, the key to the whole book is right there at the end of the first paragraph: "The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell." Even though the second paragraph begins with "As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance.", the reader is provided with information about Quinn's age, relationships, work, personal interest and that "what he liked to do was walk". 

At the same time, the setting of New York City is introduced both as an defining part of the protagonist's life and as "a labyrinth of endless steps". Although we might not yet know what all this means, through the words of the narrator the author primes us for a story that revolves around a relationship with a stranger, a man who endlessly walks around the City and a protagonist who will eventually get lost. Having read this setup, we are hopefully eager to get answers to enough questions (who was on the phone, what did he say, what happened) so that we continue reading even if we as readers get lost in the narrative labyrinth Auster is drawing us into.

The opening scene of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS

A similar interplay of parallel realities and subjective perception is at work in Satoshi Kon's anime MILLENNIUM ACTRESS. When you see the film for the first time, you only gradually realize how great this opening scene was:

If we take into account all we know by the end of the movie, we see how well this completely mysterious scene prepares us for the following story: 

Synopsis: A beautiful girl named Chiyoko Fujiwara falls in love with a mysterious stranger she has only met briefly. Searching for her long lost love defines her adult life as a travelling actress. At least in her memories she practically acts out her own story in films set in different historical eras and genres. After 30 years of living in seclusion, Genya Tachibana – a former employee of her film company who she did not remember but who saved her life and has been secretly in love with her for decades – is granted one last interview and thereby learns that she is still driven by her yearning for the stranger.

The moon and beyond
The moon as a visual motif.
First the camera pans past planet earth to a slowly opening space base. Strangely the rocket that is about to launch seems to be stationed on the moon. Throughout MILLENNIUM ACTRESS the moon serves both as a metaphor and a visual motif for Chiyoko's hope that drives her search for the stranger she met on a night just before the moon was full.
Plant: Chiyoko meeting the stranger who links the moon to hope.

In a subjective flashback that mixes blurred memories, fever dreams and scraps of a movie plot Chiyoko even travels to the moon - only to find that her lover has already left.
The "lonely white landscape" later on changes between moon and snow.
A final farewell

In the best dramatic tradition, we enter the scene in the last possible moment when the astronauts say goodbye. Soon we realize that MILLENNIUM ACTRESS on the whole is about an actress' farewell. From the sparse dialogue we overhear, it becomes clear that the woman is looking for another man while the astronaut on the platform would like her to stay knowing that she may embark on her last journey. So we already know that Chiyoko is determined to sacrifice everything in order to be with her object of desire.

Doppelgänger and Alternate Realities
Then we get a closer shot /reverse shot situation when the young man on the platform tries to hold her back by confessing his true feelings. More importantly however, Kon cuts to an extreme close-up of an older man mimicking the young man's words we now hear coming from a video tape creating an audiovisual link between the two men while doubling the hint that this will be a story about longing for someone who will be out of reach forevermore.

In a film titled MILLENNIUM ACTRESS we most likely expect to see scenes of movies within the movie. So it only takes a few sounds, bluish color and fragments of VHS cassettes in the background for us to understand that he is watching a movie. Apparently this man has seen the scene many times before.

Much later, Chiyoko learns that Genya was a young assistant who once saved her life.
The following group of shots emphasizes the connection between the young astronaut and the old man in front of the tv screen. But then Kon creates an impossible shot - reverse shot juxtaposition of the old man in his room and the astronaut actress.
Top: reflection; middle and bottom: a shot/reverse shot across time and space.
Since lonely middle aged men gazing at beautiful movie actresses has become such a well-worn stereotype, we might not yet understand that Kon has just established not only the actual male protagonist (Genya) of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS but also the core relationship that motivates the whole movie. This setup emphasizes the fact, that - as we later find out - the relationship is basically one-sided with the man gazing at an inaccessible object of desire. 

Moreover, we are getting prepared for the movie's formal structure of seamlessly matching shots across time and reality levels in a rather unobtrusive, comprehensible way. When this farewell scene recurs in the last part of the film, Genya as a middle aged man will actually be there in the frame which by then we have learned to accept as Chiyoko's memory filtered through the interviewer's own perception and imagination.
Genya in the frame during an intense re-imagining of their shared memory.
And if you pay close attention you can see the reflection of the young man (above) observing the rocket launch. Reflections are fairly common in subjective films about self-reflexive characters. But as you can see in the pair of screenshots below (from later in the film) Kon draws parallels between Chiyoko's life and her movies by exchanging characters from her life (in this case her mother) with characters/actors from her movies (her senior rival Eiko). Although Chiyoko herself is in both scenes, first we see her real reflection and in the soundstage scene we see the ghostly reflection that haunts her.

Later in the film, reflections are not always what they appeared to be.
Then the take off does not only shake the frame within the video but metaphysically affects the viewing situation as well - or so it seems. Even the tapes and discs around Genya fall off the shelf as if he were close to the rocket.

But what could easily have been an expression of the emotionally agitated protagonist's subjective perception is finally revealed as an objective earthquake. Unfortunately, I do not know what the actual Japanese wording is but the English and German subtitles imply that earthquakes are quite common to these characters because when the lights go on again, Genya does not say "oh, an earthquake" but rather "That was a big one!"

It later becomes clear that earthquakes have been pivotal in both Chiyoko's life (e.g. being born during the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake) and in Genya's relationship with her.
Then we really see Genya's office for the first time and from the dialogue we learn that he is the long haired young man's boss and that they are about to leave for an assignment. As it turns out, they are about to interview Chiyoko, the very actress we have seen as an astronaut.

Non-Linear storytelling
There is one last formal information left, however: just before Genya leaves his office, he rewinds the VHS tape in play mode and primes us for the fact that MILLENNIUM ACTRESS will not only seamlessly alternate between reality and film but jump around in time.

As it later turns out, this space adventure was Chiyoko's very last film before her withdrawal into seclusion for 30 years. And the image below will be one of the last shots of MILLENNIUM ACTRESS as well. While it is not uncommon to begin a film full of flashbacks with an enigmatic scene the significance of which will be understood only after it is replayed at the end, here we are introduced to both Genya's story about interviewing Chiyoko (forward) as well as Chiyoko's trip down memory lane (backwards) in the same frame.

During the immediately following credits sequence everything around Genya triggers memories of Chiyoko's films which Kon juxtaposes based on visual connections.
Within less than two minutes, Kon has introduced the protagonists and their relationship as well as the setting, tone and narrative structure while planting bits of information that only pay off up to 70 minutes later.
Hold back the key!
However much is alluded to in the opening scene, the narration holds back one crucial piece of information until an excited Genya meets Chiyoko face to face: the literal key that triggers her memory, has guided her life for many years and is instrumental in revealing Genya's true feelings for her. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Roy Andersson Reklamfilmer and the Complex Image

Falcon Bayerskt Commercial by Roy Andersson
With his trilogy on "being human" (SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (2000), YOU THE LIVING (2007) and A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING EXISTENCE (2014)), Roy Andersson has made a name for himself as one of Sweden's most original film auteurs.

While his first two narrative features from the 1970s already explored similar themes, the establishment of his signature style of one shot scenes (dubbed "the complex image") is usually traced back to his 1991 short film WORLD OF GLORY. For Swedish tv viewers it might be obvious however, that Andersson was working in this peculiarly funny style for many years as a director of commercials.

As Andersson himself wrote in 1995:
"I have not only worked on feature films, but also commercials, and there too I have worked with the complex image. I would like to suggest that it is during this work with commercials that I have realised the advantages, even superiority, of the complex image. I can find no reason to communicate something in several images if it can be done in one. I enjoy both watching and describing someone within a room - in the widest meaning of the word."

In the following two compilations of his commercials (two more are available on youtube) you can see many of his signature traits such as:
  • one-shot scenes
  • exclusive reliance on deep focus long shots
  • sickly greenish gray colors
  • the importance of offscreen sounds
  • relationship between inside and outside action and doorways
  • absurdist humor
  • and most of all disrespectful behaviour towards one's fellow human beings, especially older people and spouses.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Colors of Room 237

Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING (1980) has popped up in connection with many films I have been occupied with during the last few months. There has been so much written about colors in Kubrick's oeuvre and in the Overlook Hotel especially that I limit myself to one scene that I can't get out of my mind: exploring room 237.

Subjective films like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Coen, 2007), BIRDMAN (Iñarritu, 2014) or THE SHINING which are told from the unreliable perspective of one or several characters often undermine our expectations by fooling us with point-of-view (POV) shots. When people "shine" in Kubrick's film, they share visions and it is not always clear who sees what and why. There are some clues however which most people register only subconsciously. As we see in the following screenshots, even those may be ambivalent or even misleading on purpose.

Danny has just told his mother Wendy that he was abused in room 237. When Wendy tells her husband Jack (Nicholson) about it he asks her which room she is referring to. At that moment, Kubrick cuts to Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) hundreds of miles away in his bedroom watching the news.

What caught my eye was the  combination of Halloran's violet pajama and the greenish-teal bed-clothes which is at odds with the rest of the room. As we zoom in on Halloran having a fit - or in the film's language a "shining" - the other colors are eliminated:
After an cutaway to Danny telling us that he and Halloran share a vision, Kubrick cuts to a steadicam shot inside room 237 that looks like a depersonalized POV shot. Apart from symmetrical lamp shade setups the dominant element is a carpet that mirrors the colors in the above screenshot.
The pattern and especially the colors of this carpet seem to be unique to this room and this one scene (location colors happen to change in this film disturbingly often). Subconsciously we believe that we share a vision by Halloran (and probably to some degree Danny who visited the room offscreen earlier) which is reinforced by the POV quality of the single take steadicam movement through the room towards the bathroom door.
But to our surprise when the camera is near the door a hand comes into view. It opens the door for the viewer/camera to enter the room...
... and only then do we see that it is in fact Jack whose POV we shared. Also note the mirrors in the bathroom that are always present when Jack has one of his (creepy) visions. This time however Jack is not looking at himself in a mirror and seeing somebody else. There is no mirror in the center above the bathtub where the object of his desire sits.

This seemingly random SHINING observation also serves as an entrée to a planned series of posts about the original TOY STORY (1995).