Monday, October 25, 2010

Understanding Acting

One of the traps in discussing media products is treating characters as if they were alive. Students love saying that Buffy thinks something in a particular scene or that Xander was feeling jealous when he lies about Willow's second attempted casting of the re-ensoulment spell in Becoming. But Xander is not "feeling" and Buffy isn't "thinking". They're two-dimensional patterns of light, shadow and color. They don't have feelings. What happens to them does not matter. What matters a great deal is how they affect us. That's the point: characters are catalysts constructed by writers and actors to create particular emotions and thoughts in the viewing audience. When we say "Buffy feels sad," we're summarizing a half dozen or more techniques used by Sarah Michelle Gellar to convey that particular meaning. And that short-hand is fine when you're consuming fictions, but when you're training people to make them, they have to get out of that habit. After all, how are they going to be able to give direction to actors if they can't observe acting techniques? This assignment should help you to look at the creative contributions of an actor to the series.

For this assignment, students write a 3-5 page paper precisely describing a single actor’s techniques in any episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or “Five by Five” and/or “Sanctuary” in Angel. While students may make reference to other episodes, you should do so only to show how that context reveals something about the actor’s techniques in this episode.

A close observation of performance is what is desired here. What does the actor physically do to convey the meanings you ascribe to the moment? How do they use their hands, faces, bodies? How do they deliver their lines using rhythm, pitch, volume, and tone? How do they interact with the sets, props and costumes? How do they move? How do they interact with others? With whom do they work well? Papers that rely exclusively on scripted lines are doing half of the assignment AT BEST.

There are few high-quality comprehensive analyses of performance in film and television studies, and even fewer specific to Whedon studies. Still, if you want a guide, two articles assigned for 10/27 might help:

· Ian Shuttleworth, “‘They Always Mistake Me for the Character I Play!’: Transformation, Identity, and Role-playing in the Buffyverse (and a Defense of Fine Acting),” Reading the Vampire Slayer. p. 233-276.

· Gwyn Symonds, “‘A Little More Soul Than Is Written’: James Marsters’ Performance of Spike and the Ambiguity of Evil in Sunnydale,” Slayage: The Journal of the Whedon Studies Association. 4.4, 15 pages http://slayageonline.com/PDF/symonds2.pdf .

Feel free to use those articles to provide a critical frame, but you should note that even these works, fine as they are, could use much more detail in describing the “how of characterization.” Your job is to talk about the embodied meanings that an actor contributes to an episode independent of the writer and director’s contributions.

Papers will be evaluated based on the following criteria:

· Title: Does the title prepare the reader for the argument to come? Does it describe the paper? Is it catchy? Or is it a simple statement of the topic question answered?

· Quality of Introduction: Does it have an introduction that directly declares the thesis, briefly states 2-4 premises that the paper will use to support its point, and indicates the impact of the argument (i.e. why the topic matters)? Does the reader know what to look for in the body of the paper or are they uncertain what the author is trying to prove?

· Writing and Rhetoric: Does the paper undermine the author’s authority by having basic writing errors in spelling, word choice, paragraph transitions and grammar? Does the author craft an argument that demonstrates their insight into the question posed or do they simply provide a summary? Does the author anticipate reasonable counter-arguments, summarize them fairly, and refute them?

· Evidence: Does the paper use concrete examples or does it simply refer to the episodes in question? Does the paper precisely describe the acting or does it use empty adjectives like “interesting” or “meaningful”? Does the paper describe the actor doing things on screen to create meaning or the character?

· Impact: Does the author impact their analysis or are they trapped on the screen? Media is one of the more social human endeavors, made and consumed by a great number of people. The media arts are social and thus political. What is the social result of encouraging these ways of seeing, listening, feeling and thinking?

· Variety: Does the paper understand the entire work or do they understand only a part of it? Each media product works on several levels at once:
o text (narrative, character, form)
o viewer (individual perception, audience, social use of the product, author’s construction of preferred readings and viewers)
o author(s) (intention, previous works, influences)
o genre (patterns of pleasure, narrative and formal expectations)
o art history (genre across media)
o economic (placement within industrial, national, and global economic structures of production, distribution and exhibition)
o medium (means of communication)
o culture (ideology, myth)

One goal of this course is to foster your ability to discern the entire meaning of a media product.

· Mastery of Course Content: Does it demonstrate fluent understanding of the theories, evidence and arguments raised in class and the readings, or does it ignore them?

· Citations: Do the citations follow the MLA format such that readers can verify claims made by the paper?

· Quality of Conclusion: Does the paper have a conclusion that briefly restates the main points and best evidence to leave the reader with the best understanding of the argument? Or does the paper just end when it reaches the page minimum?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Understanding Carey Meyer

This assignment should help you to look at Production Designer Carey Meyer’s contributions to the series. One of the temptations when running a seminar on this series is to get stuck talking about theme, character, foreshadowing... all the writerly aspects that makes the series great.

For this assignment, students write a 3-5 page paper precisely describing a single setting used anywhere in the series and the effects created by décor, props, space, color and shape. In Reading the Vampire Slayer, Karen Sayer offers a productive notion that places are not just location or territory, but are inseparable from the consciousnesses of the people in it, writing, “Places are fusions of human and natural orders and are significant centers of our immediate experiences of the world. They are defined less by unique locations, landscapes and communities than by the focusing of experiences and intentions onto particular settings…. Place, whether fictional or real, is always imagined.” Places are products of discourse: multiple, contingent, and in flux. The student's job is to talk about this intersection of experience and design, the imagined and the physical. The students should not feel the need to do research for this assignment, although they may, of course.

Questions to consider for this assignment: What does this space look like? What colors dominate? What props are to be found here? How are they used? How does the space impact blocking? What does the set design say about the characters found there? How does the camera work and the lighting design typically affect how the set is rendered? What are the typical associations an audience has about this type of space and how does the series play with those understandings? How is this space similar to or different from other related spaces in the series?

Papers will be evaluated based on the following criteria:

· Title: Does the title prepare the reader for the argument to come? Does it describe the paper? Is it catchy? Or is it a simple statement of the topic question answered?

· Quality of Introduction: Does it have an introduction that directly declares the thesis, briefly states 2-4 premises that the paper will use to support its point, and indicates the impact of the argument (i.e. why the topic matters)? Does the reader know what to look for in the body of the paper or are they uncertain what the author is trying to prove?

· Writing and Rhetoric: Does the paper undermine the author’s authority by having basic writing errors in spelling, word choice, paragraph transitions and grammar? Does the author craft an argument that demonstrates their insight into the question posed or do they simply provide a summary? Does the author anticipate reasonable counter-arguments, summarize them fairly, and refute them?

· Evidence: Does the paper use concrete examples or does it simply refer to the episodes in question? Does the paper precisely describe the sets and props or does it use empty adjectives like “beautiful” or “striking”? Does the paper link its observations to events on screen or use quotations from the readings to advance its argument?

· Impact: Does the author impact their analysis or are they trapped on the screen? Media is one of the more social human endeavors, made and consumed by a great number of people. The media arts are social and thus political. What is the social result of encouraging these ways of seeing, listening, feeling and thinking?

· Variety: Does the paper understand the entire work or do they understand only a part of it? Each media product works on several levels at once:
o text (narrative, character, form)
o viewer (individual perception, audience, social use of the product, author’s construction of preferred readings and viewers)
o author(s) (intention, previous works, influences)
o genre (patterns of pleasure, narrative and formal expectations)
o art history (genre across media)
o economic (placement within industrial, national, and global economic structures of production, distribution and exhibition)
o medium (means of communication)
o culture (ideology, myth)

One goal of this course is to foster your ability to discern the entire meaning of a media product.

· Mastery of Course Content: Does it demonstrate fluent understanding of the theories, evidence and arguments raised in class and the readings, or does it ignore them?

· Citations: Do the citations follow the MLA format such that readers can verify claims made by the paper?

· Quality of Conclusion: Does the paper have a conclusion that briefly restates the main points and best evidence to leave the reader with the best understanding of the argument? Or does the paper just end when it reaches the page minimum?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Buffy vs. Her Very Mind Itself!

WJ's Web Editor, Kristen Romanelli, participates in the Whedony chats on Twitter that occur every Monday night for two reasons:

1. She knows how Twitter works and I refuse to learn until I see that it's got a valid business model; or, I'm an old man.
2. I'm in class, teaching Images of Disability on Monday nights.

So, she told me when I got home after 11 p.m. that the chat had been about madness in the various Whedonverses. She was happy that she got to talk about her experiences at the Slayage Conference this year.

I actually have taught the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, "Normal Again", in that class on representations of disability. I usually pair it with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. (I also assign a history of the Mad Pride movement and contexts from the asylum reform movements of the 1800s and early 1900s.) For lecture notes, however, Caitlin Peeling and Meagan Scanlon's excellent conference paper, "'What’s more real? A sick girl in an institution… Or some kind of supergirl...': The Question of Madness in “Normal Again,” a Feminist Reading." I'll talk about some of the things that I find notable about the article, then end with my own fannish take on the episode.

Scanlon and Peeling remark upon the ending of the episode, in which it's difficult to discern whether Buffy's confinement in an asylum is an alternate reality, the dominant reality or a hallucination due to the final objective shot, unframed by shots that would indicate it was a mindscreen of Buffy imagining the asylum from Sunnydale. They then proceed to frame that choice with another choice with how to read madness itself in two feminist readings.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar pioneered the feminist tradition of reading female madness as a challenge to patriarchy, drawing on representations found in 19th century women's literature in The Madwoman in the Attic. (And, to be frank, if Joss Whedon didn't read Gilbert and Gubar at Wesleyan, I'd be a bit surprised due to their iconic status.) And Marta Caminero-Santangelo questions the subversive power of the madwoman in her 1998 book The Madwoman Can’t Speak, Or Why Insanity Is Not Subversive by arguing that Gilbert and Gubar underestimate the marginalization that results from being labelled insane. (Since "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a classic that both books deal with, you can now see why I assign it with Normal Again.) I'll paraphrase Peeling and Scanlon's reading below, with my observations in parenthesis:

Gilbert and Gubar argue that for Jane Austen, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Brönte, literary culture is so profoundly patriarchal that the literary creativity is strictly a male quality. The "metaphor of literary paternity" dominated Western culture to such an extent that for a woman even to “attempt the pen” was considered almost insane; hence, you know, Mary Anne Evans' pen name,
George Eliot. Buffy articulates the anxiety female authors face when female creativity (read: literary power) is monstrous or impossible when she says, “Cause what's more real? A sick girl in an institution... Or some kind of supergirl ... chosen to ... fight demons and... save the world. That's ridiculous.”

Because women had for so long been the objects of male writing, it was extremely difficult for them to take up subject position of author and creator. These women writers “almost obsessively create characters who enact their own, covert authorial anger ... [T]hey project what seems to be the energy of their own despair into passionate, even melodramatic characters who act out the subversive impulses every woman inevitably feels when she contemplates the ‘deep-rooted’ evils of patriarchy ... [It is] as if the very process of writing had itself liberated a madwoman, a crazy and angry woman, from a silence in which neither she nor her author can continue to acquiesce.” As Whedon had to navigate a new way between the helpless blonde of horror films, the traumatized final girl of slasher films and the male figure of the warrior hero, these authors had to write a new way between the dominant male-authored stereotypes known as the “angel in the house” and the “monster woman”.

The “angel in the house” is “the eternal type of female purity”. These “women are defined as wholly passive, [and] completely void of generative power." In the metaphysical emptiness their ‘purity’ signifies they are, of course, self-less. Such a woman “has no story of her own” as they exist only at the service of others. (Joyce serves as this figure in the Buffyverse at times, but she gets stories of her own in Gingerbread and season five.) The monster woman threatens to replace her angelic sister. She embodies intransigent female autonomy and thus enacts male dread of women and, "specifically, male scorn of female creativity.” Unlike the angel in the house, the monsterwoman has her own story.

For Scanlon and Peeling, Buffy can serve as a monster-woman. Buffy is a powerful young woman and the story of her life is her own and she is its author. She rejects the patriarchy of the Watcher's Council and her second death in "The Gift" comes at her own choice. They then note that Buffy "loses the pen" in season six. After her return from heaven, Buffy is less and less sure of herself. Willow and the other Scoobies essentially revoke Buffy’s authority over her own life by bringing her back into the world – into her story, which she felt she had definitively finished – without her consent. Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew stand in for the dismissive men that Austen and the others face, angered by their loss of traditional power, making her believe that her own life story is ridiculous. For Scanlon and Peeling, in choosing the antidote Buffy regains authority over her own story.

Scanlon and Peeling note, however, that from Gilbert and Gubar's perspective, Buffy is still a subversive feminist figure even if the asylum is the “real” reality. Buffy is the author of her own delusion. She has created a world based on, to quote Joss Whedon, a “very simple concept, that this silly woman no one takes seriously is actually the most powerful woman in the world”. Inside her delusion — and her fiction is obviously very, very real to her — she has felt, until her moment of clarity in Normal Again, empowered and respected. Her insanity is indeed an experience of “authority” for her, as she lives by her own standards and on her own terms. Her parents labelling her insane and having her committed is an attempt by patriarchal society to silence her and infantilize her. (As in The Wish, nightmare Joyce is the female face selling patriarchy.) Buffy’s clear choice to live in her delusion can be viewed in this light as a rebellious and subversive act.

Scanlon and Peeling note that contemporary responses would find this to be rubbish. Caminero-Santangelo argues that by celebrating madness, Gilbert and Gubar “duplicate the essentialist thinking that identifies women with irrationality.... Madness is not rage or even hate but hopelessness — not a challenge to constraining representations but a complete capitulation to them.” Scanlon and Peeling note that Buffy lost the ability to communicate effectively with others and thus her ability to transform her societal surroundings. The madwoman offers only the “illusion of power” for in her moment of madness she is denied both credibility and agency. Buffy’s hallucinations are debilitating and they undermine her ability to communicate with others. (Buffy can say only “Dawn, I... I didn’t mean” before Dawn leaves in a huff over her absence from the “ideal reality.” Oh, Dawn! And Buffy's unable to respond to Spike’s ill-timed relationship ultimatum.) Buffy explicitly equates being institutionalized with being forced into silence: “[T]hey completely freaked out. They thought there was something seriously wrong with me. So they sent me to a clinic. [...] I was only there a couple of weeks. I stopped talking about it, and they let me go.” There's an important distinction between the madwoman and a female author, which hinges on the woman’s ability or dis-ability to “produce representations recognizable as meaningful within society.” The author is able to respond to patriarchal discourses and “counters representation with representation.” The madwoman lacks that power. Asylum-Buffy lacks both credibility and agency. Asylum-Buffy’s decision not liberating from this viewpoint, for, if liberation is the recovery of agency, she has fully retreated from the social order. Retreat can be considered resistance, they observe, but “when the social order leaves no alternative but madness, the next logical step is to assert that the social order must be changed.” Rejecting asylum-Buffy as a subversive figure, however, does not, for them, deny the show’s potential to communicate to viewers the necessity for social change.

My own take as a fan? Honestly, when I first watched it, my mouth dropped open from the first scene in the hospital. These alternate reality episodes are very dangerous, precisely because they derive their power from an alienation effect. And the links between the psychological processes of Buffy in the episode and the audience outside the episode are extremely disconcerting. And yet, since I know some of the history of the representation of female madness as a subversive response to the constrictions of patriarchy, the presence of the nuclear family and the comforting male doctor itself testifies to the series' productive ambivalence towards such treacherous and tempting normalcy. It was like pieces of a puzzle snapping into place or keys in a lock.

I feel that this episode played a role in supercharging the fan revolt surrounding Tara's death. After all, its central premise is that there is a peculiarly close connection between faith in the image and madness. That death depended for its effect on an erasure of the usual safe distance offered by mainstream media and it occurs immediately after this episode. The final episodes of season six, dealing as they do with hitting bottom, draw a link between the temporary madness of addiction, fandom, and theater. (As did the Greeks, actually, as Dionysus was the god of madness, wine, and theater.) And madness, after all, is very close to the frenzy of creative inspiration.

There's a greater punch to the sense of the uncanny here than in The Wish or Doppelgangland, the prior Capra-inspired alternate reality episodes, which is not to slight either episode in the least. This episode is a natural extension of those two episodes, which take the viewer off the hook with their neat closed endings. (Or is it?) Long-running series that work hard to create an active viewing experience are peculiarly able to exploit such narrative techniques. These characters are not real, but they're more than fictions after 118 episodes (by that point).

I think there's something ultimately healthy about that, actually. It might be a necessary step for artists towards the production of meaning. For joining the community of authors to have the kind of importance necessary to motivate people to deal with the disappointments and humiliations of the art and media worlds, you have to first know the worth of belonging to that community of culture producers. I think of it as one step along the road to thinking, "you know, I could do that."

Besides, the experience of the series was an ongoing fight to justify its meaning, with disbelieving friends and dismissive students (let alone the online battles over the meaning of the ending of season six or Restless). It actually takes a great deal of poise and grace under fire to speak up for the merits of the series. After all, I'd just had two of my best students in my intro class dismiss the series because of its title and because of the prettiness of Sarah Michelle Gellar. The battle for your understanding of the series in the face of light entertainment like ER and Friends was pretty much a constant pressure that Buffy's psychotic break provided an apt metaphor for. I can't tell you the number of times that a student's said, "Are you nuts?" when I've argued for the merits of this series.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Film Terminology for Talking about Buffy

Generally, I hand out a refresher on basic film terminology, as it can be helpful for class discussions. My terminology is deliberately stripped down and perhaps a bit old-fashioned; most production professors will make it much more complex. In this kind of studies class for my Buffy seminar, however, accurate and efficient communication is what's best. What follows is the terminology that I think leads to better writing and reminds us to talk about how images are presented beyond what can be found in the script. As a grad school professor once observed to me, "If it's all in the script, why film it?"

Film Technical Terms:

Diegetic: the conditions and events within any part of a recounted film world that is accessible to the characters within that fictional world.

Extra-diegetic or non-diegetic: those elements that are not accessible to the characters, e.g. score or voice-over narration, which is still part of the film’s discourse. Can you think of an example of both diegetic and non-diegetic moments in Buffy?

Framing: Extreme close-up (a detail of a detail), close-up (a detail, a shot of somebody's face in shallow focus typically), medium close shot (the equivalent of a bust in sculpture, a head and shoulders shot of a person), medium shot (1/4 to 3/4 of the subject, balances the subject and her environment), full shot (fully captures the subject, often used as the first shot of a sequence to establish the geographic location in an establishing shot), medium long shot (fully captures the subject and leaves room above, below and to the sides; often describes as a wide or loose framing), long shot (the environment is the subject more than the figures within it), extreme long shot (the figures within the shot are hard to identify). 

All directors use all framings, but what framings directors prefer at moments of great narrative or stylistic importance can suggest their overall philosophy. John Ford is famous for his long shot framings of Arizona, amongst other locales. He made the environment, the frontier, the west an unusually important part of his narratives. If you want to know a character in a John Ford film, knowing how he responds to the dominating presence of his environment can be important. Alfred Hitchcock, however, is best known for his use of close-ups in rapid montage. Despite notable long shots of the UN and Mount Rushmore, his sequences have a consistent general pattern of starting with looser framing (MLS or FS) and then gradually homing in on his subject to tight framings of CUs and closer. (Take a look at Psycho with this pattern in mind.) For Hitchcock, knowing a character's environment is much less informative than isolating that character and getting to know their consciousness: their desires, fears, sexual impulses, sins, etc. Howard Hawks, however, centers his framings in the middle of the spectrum, at the medium shot. He made important and popular films in virtually every notable genre, from noir to musical to screwball to western. Yet, despite the varying genres, his films focus more often than not on man's relationship to men. Conversation around campfires, newsroom desks, or bar tables is the center of his films. To really know someone in a Hawks movie, you have to know their place in their society. Framing gives clues for the philosophy of each director: humans are defined by how they eke out a place in a dominating environment (be it town, foreign land, or frontier); humanity's most telling trait is their consciousness; and the social is the best means to understanding what it means to be a man. Where on this continuum do you feel that Whedon and Gershmann fall as directors?

Editing: cuts (instantaneous juxtaposition of two pieces of film), fades (in to black or out from black), dissolves (two shots coexist on frame momentarily as one fades out and another fades in simultaneously), and wipes (often seen in 70s films, the frame pushes one shot off screen to be replaced by black or the next scene). 

Match cuts are when you smooth the disruption caused by the abrupt spatial shift of a cut by either cutting on action (showing the start and then the end of a movement common to both shots), by composition (in 2001, Kubrick cuts between a space station and a femur thrown into the air, but both have the same general shape; it's also a conceptual cut, suggesting a commonality between these two tools) or on eyeline (shooting a conversation such that one character speaks, looking off screen right at a certain level and then following with a shot of another character reacting to the dialogue and looking off screen in the opposite direction screen left but at the same level, creating the sense that the characters are "looking at each other," when, in reality, the actor from the first shot was in his trailer drinking bourbon while the second actor was being shot.)

Montage: from the French word, meaning “mounting,” used to describe the assembly of a film through editing.

Accelerated or rhythmic montage
  • gives impression of increased speed of action by decreasing the length of shots
  • imposes an external pace on the rhythm of the film
  • examples: nearly any car chase, D.W. Griffith in many of his melodramas;
  • Can you think of one from Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
  • One can, of course, reverse the principle to stretch out an event, think of Sergio Leone duels or how Kurosawa will insert slow motion reaction shots into an action sequence to get a "stutter step" effect.
American (or Hollywood) montage
  • A series of short, quick shots that suggests in a brief period the essence of events occurring over a longer period of time
  • Often uses dissolves to soften the effect
  • Example: Rocky training montages; swirling newspaper headlines in war docs
  • Can you think of one from Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
Relational montage
  • A form of narrative montage wherein two or more shots create meaning by their relationship to one another 
  • Kuleshov effect: Acting via editing
    • Antonin Kuleshov constructed a filmstrip consisting of a single take of a stage actor’s expressionless face intercut in the following manner:
      • Empty soup bowl
      • Actor
      • Dead woman in a coffin
      • Actor
      • Child playing with a toy
      • When shown to audiences, they highly praised the actor’s ability to express a wide range of emotion. He was hungry, sad and joyously happy in such a short time! The actor, in this style, is a blank canvas upon which meanings are painted.
    • shots are like links or bricks: building meanings but retaining their integrity
    • think of it as A + B = AB
    • Can you think of one from Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
    Conceptual montage
    • meanings created only by the arrangement of various shots
    • Used for emotional/intellectual impact as well as for narrative flow
    • More a clash between the shots
      • Example: Strike shot of a slaughtered cow and then a shot of massacred strikers, when no cow has been in the movie or will be in the movie. (The remake of Psycho does the exact same insert for the shower sequence, incidentally.)
    • Meanings not as smoothly assimilated into narrative as in relational montage
    • think of it as A + B = C
    • Can you think of one from Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
    Shot composition: the organization of 2 dimensional space
    • Everything in a shot becomes elements of the composition. People, objects, and light itself become lines and fields, vacuums and volumes.
    • Divide up the frame into thirds FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE AS A VIEWER: screen left, center screen, screen right, down screen, and up screen. Thus, you could have a figure down screen right.
    • Balanced composition: evenly weighted
    • Geometrical composition: shots whose composition fall into a particular pattern: circular, triangular, rectangular.
      • Example: triangles w/ base at bottom gives impression of extreme stability, apex of the triangle is site of greatest visual interest. On the stage, actors who stand at the apex of a triangle often face the audience frontally, while her conversation partners face 1/4 or 3/4 away from the audience, limiting the expressive techniques that they can use.
      • Inverted triangle gives opposite effect, as composition wobbles on the triangle’s apex
    • Lines: horizontal (stable), vertical (more dynamic, less stable), diagonal (most dynamic
      • According to many filmmakers and art historians, point of greatest interest in a frame lies along line running from bottom screen left to top screen right.
    • Composition in depth: the use of background, middle ground, and foreground to vary the placement of significant information. Thus, one can then talk about how a small object up screen right in the foreground balances a more graphically massive object down screen left in the background
    • Lines of sight can also direct audience interest
    • Color (reds) and light (brights) and movement (fast) and focus (deep or shallow) can draw the viewer's eye to certain places in the frame and not others.
    • Composition is important because it conveys layers of meaning visually and literally directs the viewer's gaze.
    Camera angle: eye-level (or simply level if the camera is at a low placement), high angle (looking down on the subject), low angle (looking up at the subject), bird’s eye view (shot from directly above the subject), oblique angle (if the camera is my head, I have cocked it quizzically at a 45 degree angle).
    Sound:
    • Score: music played which is not heard within the diegesis
    • ambient sound: environmental sounds, noise, and music which occur within the diegesis, but whose source is not seen
    • source sound: sound that originates from something that is seen on screen
    • contrapuntal sound: the art of deliberately mismatching picture and sound, allowing the two tracks to play off each other to create new meanings (for example, Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck strums a guitar and a machine gun sound results).
    Lighting: I'm simplifying this terminology most here. For our purposes, all you need to know are these terms to provide an overall picture of the lighting design before discussing particular effects.
    • contrast ratio: ratio of key and fill lights to fill lights
    • low key lighting scheme:
      • contrast ratio is high
      • set is dimly lit with rich shadows and occasional highlights
    • examples: film noir, horror movies, and gangster films
    • high key lighting scheme:
      • low level of contrast
      • brightly lit
    • example: most musicals
    Camera movement:
    • pan (camera swivels left or right), tilt (camera swivels up or down), track (camera moves in or out), dolly (camera swoops in or out), hand-held.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Writing about Whedon as a Director

I thought that readers of the blog might like to see some of the assignments that go along with the Buffy seminar at Emerson College. The first assignment is designed to encourage students to look at the series not only as a narrative with a novel's narrative complexity, but also as a visual art form with a corresponding artistic complexity as well. In addition, this assignment should help students to look at Joss Whedon as a director, rather than an auteur, a producer/creator, or a writer.
 
Students write a 3-5 page paper comparing Whedon's choices as a director in his very first attempt, the unaired production pilot whose link is in the syllabus, with another episode that he has directed, either in this series, another of the series that he produced or as a guest director. (In the latter case, please provide a link to the episode, as I may need to refresh my memory of it.) Students may NOT compare the aired “Welcome to the Hellmouth” to the unaired pilot, as Whedon did not direct the aired pilot. (IMDB’s designation of him as an uncredited director of the aired pilot references the production pilot.) Students should not feel the need to do research for this assignment although they may, of course.
 
Questions to consider for this assignment: What virtues and flaws do you see in the unaired production pilot? What remains the same in his approach and what changes? What techniques does he turn to in each case and why? How does genre impact his choices? Budget and available resources? Medium? How does he position his viewers? What is the impact of these choices?
 
Papers are evaluated based on the following criteria:
 
· Title: Does the title prepare the reader for the argument to come? Does it describe the paper? Is it catchy? Or is it a simple statement of the topic question answered?
 
· Quality of Introduction: Does it have an introduction that directly declares the thesis, briefly states 2-4 premises that the paper will use to support its point, and indicates the impact of the argument (i.e. why the topic matters)? Does the reader know what to look for in the body of the paper or are they uncertain what the author is trying to prove?
 
· Writing and Rhetoric: Does the paper undermine the author’s authority by having basic writing errors in spelling, word choice, paragraph transitions and grammar? Does the author craft an argument that demonstrates their insight into the question posed or do they simply provide a summary? Does the author anticipate reasonable counter-arguments, summarize them fairly, and refute them?
 
· Evidence: Does the paper use concrete examples or does it simply refer to the episodes in question? Does the paper precisely describe how various techniques in framing, composition, color, set and costume design, editing, sound design, lighting design or does it use empty adjectives like “beautiful” or “striking”? Does the paper describe what the actors physically do to create meaning or does it describe the 2D patterns of light and shadow we call characters as feeling or thinking certain things? Does it use quotes from the script or does it paraphrase? 
 
· Impact: Does the author impact their analysis or are they trapped on the screen? Media is one of the more social human endeavors, made and consumed by a great number of people. The media arts are social and thus political. What is the social result of encouraging these ways of seeing, listening, feeling and thinking? 
 
· Variety: Does the paper understand the entire work or do they understand only a part of it? Each media product works on several levels at once:
o text (narrative, character, form)
o viewer (individual perception, audience, social use of the product, author’s construction of preferred readings and viewers)
o author(s) (intention, previous works, influences)
o genre (patterns of pleasure, narrative and formal expectations)
o art history (genre across media)
o economic (placement within industrial, national, and global economic structures of production, distribution and exhibition)
o medium (means of communication)
o culture (ideology, myth)
 
One goal of this course is to foster the student's ability to discern the entire meaning of a media product.
 
· Mastery of Course Content: Does it demonstrate fluent understanding of the theories, evidence and arguments raised in class and the readings, or does it ignore them?
 
· Citations: Do the citations follow the MLA format such that readers can verify claims made by the paper? 
 
· Quality of Conclusion: Does the paper have a conclusion that briefly restates the main points and best evidence to leave the reader with the best understanding of the argument? Or does the paper just end when it reaches the page minimum?
 
Some of the more interesting comparisons used Prophecy Girl (the first season finale was Whedon's first aired effort), The Freshman (Buffy's season four re-boot), and Serenity (the original pilot for Firefly).
 
What do you think? Which would you choose?