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Filmmaking tips from J.J. Abrams - plus is he actually any good?


Andrew Reid
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The problem is everyone wants to put their mark on things. To improve on the original trilogy and to forever be credited with genius. No one wants to take the original trilogy and give you more of the same but different.

 

Abrams has put his mark on Star trek. A very big mark and will want to do so on Star wars. If the cast are also going to have a say as well then this will be even worse. All they need to do is go back to the original and remake it exactly except different. Use 35mm film and real models with painted backdrops and then use computer generated effects when it really matters and sparingly. Keep the muppets out make the story king. Build a full size millenium falcon X wings and real storm troopers (There are plenty of fans who love to dress up) Not some weta generated long overhead shot of plastic men fighting robots but REAL stuff and sets with SFX and artist painting backdrops.

 

Just please you will have to tone Abrams right out of the frame or genuinley convince him of the value of recreating the success of the first two films.

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On the apology of the blockbuster look:

The old SW didn't have it, 2001 didn't have it, Blade Runner didn't have it, the Alien films didn't have it, The Silence Of The Lambs didn't. Had any of those film difficulties in directing the audience's attention to their actors?

We've seen examples of how a banal scene in a banal shopping mall can be turned into something looking like from a summer blockbuster by simply applying some MBL. I suspect more than one blockbuster would indeed look depressingly uninteresting without that one-fits-all two-tone grading.
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There were far fewer means to alter a film's look, photochemically, in any surgical way in those examples.  Though, actually, you can see it in many of those earlier films at certain points.  What this look does is extend the sunset palette to any portion you wish.  The look is blamed on DI but it's been employed in photography and standard photochemical processing going back to at least the late 1970s or early 1980s in commercial cinematography.  The catch is, you couldn't achieve it in post production you had to do it in camera with your lighting and filtration.

 

Even with the DI process, Michael Bay (I know, I know) was still carrying the traditional lighting technique forward so that it was mostly baked into the neg, at least moving forward into the early '00 when DI was already becoming standard.  Witness the best, most attractive, most radiant version of Scarlett Johanson to ever grace the screen in The Island.  Nice as Transformers 2 looked you could tell by this point it was a more synthetic approach to achieving the flesh tones on Megan's rear and sun-kissed cheeks.

 

The color science is sound.  It's pleasing yet ubiquitous now.  It's not the only pleasing look though.

 

 

PS> the old Star Wars didn't even have "a look" apart from the desert scenes shot with a panty over the lens.

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is he actually any good?  is that really the headline you just used in reference to JJ Abrams? You may have a following on your blog- but don't let that go to your head!  His quality of storytelling is a dying breed... go see the new star trek and then see if your headline holds up. 

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 His quality of storytelling is a dying breed... go see the new star trek and then see if your headline holds up. 

Well the first star trek film storyline was crap (In my opinion)

I'm curious what does a modern day director on a blockbuster movie actually do?

The scriptwriters write the story. I doubt JJ does the storyboards The cinematographer shoots the film If the directors job is to direct the actors then I'm sorry but the cast of the first star trek film dont have the same charisma or appeal the first generation had and by trying to replace the first generation with clones that are by design bratish impetuous and downright silly is the only job of a director then I think that it didn't work that well I also think the Trek universe as depicted by Rodenberry was succesful because of its tennants and principles.

So the only succesful thing I can see is the use of anamorphic lenses torches and lights to create a futuristic prettyness. I remember the rainbow colours from the 1978 movie on the ships nacelles and engines as perhaps being a starting point for this idea. The problem was it is is a distraction and maybe a welcome distraction from the rest of the film. I think the best part about Abrams first star trek film were the trailers. Now they were impressive. I also liked spocks look almost like a palitoy doll.

 

What do you think modern directors do and are they neccessary or can they be detrimental. In the case of star wars I think most people agree the first three made were the best and for my money that was down to a very well assembled cast including the droids whose acting was fantastic and copying Stanley Kubricks artistic vision of 2001 for space and making it a family adventure film with a wonderful score.

 

CGI is a great new tool but a film is always a sum of its many parts.Star Wars once made magic. It would be nice to have that magic again. Is Abrams the right man for the job It is a huge responsibility. Even Lucas wasn't right for the last three films. I say give it to Spielberg. The force is with him.

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Well the first star trek film storyline was crap (In my opinion)

 

It was a story that hinged on time travel.  There is no need to say anymore.  If he really wanted to reboot the very concept of Star Trek with any hint of being different or better or any reason at all to exist in light of the previous offerings, most of them bad, the first order of business should have been no stories, ever, involving time travel.

 

The ST franchise has abused time travel so many times I'm instantly turned off by any new film exploring this concept.  I don't care.  I've come to associate it with lazy, bad writing.

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Time travel in my opinion fits well in the star trek world after all they warp space with their warp drive which was the reason for the wormhole in the 1978 film Some GREAT episodes where Kirk rescues Joan Collins. Also the one where Kirk took onboard a 60's pilot Loved those episodes.

 

The voyage home although not my cup of tea was loved by many when they came back to save the whales. I also liked first contact and the borg

 

Abrams claimed he offered Kirk a part in the new movie.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzOs4WEutQ8

 

What Abrams did with the new star trek film was by going back in time he changed the entire trek history so the whole thing can start again with his rebooted version. Basicly saying that the old trek no longer exists no longer relevent.

 

Bill Shatner is haunting him like the ghost from xmas past even with the new Star wars. Kind of funny but maybe there is a point there and that is Star trek had a history and dedicated fans and that should have been repected.

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is he actually any good?  is that really the headline you just used in reference to JJ Abrams? You may have a following on your blog- but don't let that go to your head!  His quality of storytelling is a dying breed... go see the new star trek and then see if your headline holds up. 

 

The headline is a question, not a statement, so I don't get this thing about it holding up or not.

 

In my opinion, he's a bit overrated.

 

His story telling is not a dying breed, it is stuck in the past. There's a difference :)

 

Far more innovative filmmakers around.

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He good at making shallow yet entertaining movies. Maybe I'm being too nostalgic(for TNG), but shallow and Star Trek don't sit well with me.  Furthermore, Star Wars was already turned into a shallow POS with EP.I-III, so I don't think he's the right guy to turn the ship around. 

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I feel that J.J. Abrams may be overrated but when compared to a lot of other blockbuster directors (cough cough Michael Bay) he is actually good. He is far from perfect but his visual flare (lens flare?) and his character work is solid. I enjoyed his first Star Trek despite some major issues I had with it. I thought the "bad guy" in it was completely lame. Super 8 had some moments but then kind of degenerated as it went on. He is by no means in my top list of directors but he does make blockbusters actually watchable for me at a time when I can't stand most of them.

 

As for the Orange/Blue I'd say just because it is scientifically the best look doesn't mean it best suits the mood all the time. The use of blue without the orange was quite stunning in Blade Runner and set a sombre mood. Hugo I found took the blockbuster look to an extreme and I personally thought they went a bit overboard. Some scenes even seemed like the image quality suffered. Maybe I'm crazy though because I've never seen anyone else complain about it.

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He is by no means in my top list of directors but he does make blockbusters actually watchable for me at a time when I can't stand most of them.

 

Thank god I'm not alone. According to the industry everybody wants to see blockbusters, so we two must be the exceptions. We should found an anti-blockbuster-club. Who wants to join has to complete the following trailer lines:

 

Forget everything you have ever seen before ... (... or else you might find this very familiar.)

This summer ... (Has it really been a year?)

From the people who brought you Pearl Harbour ... ( Oops! They resurrected some japanese veterans?)

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVDzuT0fXro&NR=1

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...The use of blue without the orange was quite stunning in Blade Runner and set a sombre mood....

 

 

Hmmm, not really.  This is the palette of Blade Runner, though not always at the same time, in the same frame.  Scenes with characters were predominantly warm.  Effects and process shots of the rainy, urban vistas had mostly cool light.  Characters were almost always shot with warm light, sometimes backlit with cool light...creating the blockbuster palette.

 

bladerunner1.jpg

 

blade-runner-harrison-ford-and-edward-ja

bladerunner460.jpg

 

bladerunner_harrison_ford.jpg

 

 

This color palette can and is achieved even pre-DI by the thoughtful mixture of color temperature on your lights with respect to what stock you're using.  Warmed tungsten sources on your talent with tungsten film, using daylight balanced sources in the background for moon and fill and, voila, blockbuster color scheme without DI.

 

Bay and loads of commercial directors achieve it in daylight scenes by lighting talent with tungsten fixtures and shooting daylight balanced film...expose for a deep, rich blue sky while pumping up the warm light on the talent to compensate.

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You are right. But then again, the look of Blade Runner is not typical insofar as the lights are cold and the shadows tend to be warm. Mixed color temperatures is not the principle of the BBL.

 

It absolutely is the principle of the BBL.  The DI implementation is a means to achieve an approximation of a look that used to be done totally in-camera.  And while I don't know that they invented it, the pre-DI body of work from both Ridley and Tony Scott is filled with the the orange and blue palette that is practically synonymous with the BBL. 

 

The basis of the DI BBL is warm light on talent, cold light in the background, which affects shadow color.

 

 

 

Die-Hard.jpg

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Alan+Rickman+Die+Hard.PNG

LastActionHero-Still7.jpg

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days_of_thunder_concealed_weapon.jpg

 

 

...besides the whole complementary aspect, even going back to the Old Masters paintings, the eye moves from dark to light and, given a color scheme mixing cooler and warmer colors, from cool to warm.   The latest DI trend just gives it a hue-shift and does it in perhaps a more self-conscious way.

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A really curious example of this look pushed to near DI level extremes, but on non-DI film, is Swordfish:

 

Swordfish.jpeg

snapshot20091129193740.jpg

swordfish720pmp4aacbrri.png

 

...the cool part of the palette is skewed green but the principle is the same though way more stylized.  I think the look of CSI:Miami is at least partially influenced by this film.  Just a theory.  

 

edit: and at the end of the day, I do prefer it done in-camera and then maybe just sweetened in the DI.   Maybe just not quite as radical as Swordfish, though I do remember at the time being really taken aback by how striking it was.

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You are right again, and your examples two posts above prove it.

 

Could you accept the view that in the wake of the Matrix success a lot of films exaggerated the BBL? It's not all about highest color contrasts, colors (not just two) do influence the mood, the emotional impact. And it's not a very original look anymore. 

 

My fellow projectionist test-viewed Avatar. He studies film and happened to learn color correction then. He said we obviously projected the film in the wrong color space or whatever, because the faces had a green cast.

avatar_quaritch.jpg

 

Cameron almost made a parody of the BBL in Avatar. The schema is only prominent when the stubborn military is associated. But even there, he broke the Maschwitz-rule (I call it that because I first heard of it in the Prolost-blog), that 'porange' (Maschwitz again) needs to be protected. Quaritch in the image above looks down to the Pandora forest, and the green forest reflects subtly on his face, giving the impression he was filmed with a GH2, before someone could apply Andrews WB-shift (The EOSHD-GH2-guide, page 79).

 

Of course, green and blue are not too rare in Avatar :mellow: .

 

And elsewhere humans are'nt protected either. Lights, computer screens and natural light are allowed to eat in their skin tones, obviously intentionally:

avatar_movie_image_james_cameron_sam_wor

 

For my own taste, there should be another rule: If there is a color in the image, it has to be justified. There must be a source that may plausibly have emitted this color. I don't know how you feel about it, but I am getting used to realize the BBL as something very artificial and lumpen. Some make the look so extreme, it doesn't help the least, it's only distracting (Swordfish, CSI Miami).

 

The BBL is like the slice of tomato you have to put onto your beefsteak before you shut the hamburger, the better to counterbalance the dry saltyness. The necessity is confirmed scientifically by ecotrophologists. Add remoulade, and a Big Mac tastes the same all over the world. Films resemble each other visually more and more, they turn McMovies. I admit, the colors are merely a symptom, hardly the cause.

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