Voice-Over Narration as an Active Agent in Film

December 9, 2009

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I wrote this essay for my MHIS 429 Topics in Film/Video course this semester at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Special thanks to Sarah Wichlacz for her essay titled, “Issues of Narration: Voice-Over in Film” which definitely helped me in the writing of my own essay. You can see her very well written piece at http://sarahwichlacz.com/?p=74

– FlashAddict

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Voice-Over Narration as an Active Agent in Film

The use of voice-over narration can and has been used in film to help convey greater depth and meaning to the audience. Whereas on the one hand, there are some who see it as a crutch when the director or writer is unable to move along the storyline effectively within a given scene; yet on the other however, when it is used effectively, voice-over narration can be inserted as an active agent to help provide greater impact and understanding to the audience in a way that a complex actor’s performance or scenery cannot convey. It is within this context that this essay will explore individual examples of voice-over narration from select films in which both sides of the issue will be explored; by not simply analyzing each voice-over narration example as either good or bad, but looking deeper at how the context and overall delivery affect the films, scenes and actors within.

To begin with, a proper definition of voice-over narration in film must be established, “Narration, or voice-over, is used in both documentary and fiction. It may be used to deliver information, provide the point of view of an unseen character, or allow an onscreen character to comment on the action.”(Ascher and Pincus 493) Put more simply, “A narrative text is a text in which an agent relates (‘tells’) a story in a particular medium, such as language, imagery, sound, buildings, or a combination thereof.” (Bal 5) By using this standard, multiple methods of providing voice-over narration in film can be utilized to help tell their respective stories, “In documentary filmmaking some of the key stylistic questions relate to how much the filmmaker attempts to control or interact with the subjects, and to the way information is conveyed in the movie.” (Ascher and Pincus 332)

The style adopted by U.K. documentarians such as John Grierson in the 1930s and 1940s is a kind of hybrid that can involve staged events and real people (non-actors)…Many of these films use a ‘voice of God’ narration-the authoritative male voice that provides factual information and often spells out the message intended for the viewer to take from the film. (Ascher and Pincus 333)

On the other side of the spectrum, Ascher & Pincus further explain:

Cinema vérité (also called just vérité or direct cinema) films attempt to spontaneously react to events and capture life as it is lived…Many of these films use no narration or interviews and attempt to minimize the sense that the material has been influenced or interpreted by the filmmaker. (Ascher and Pincus 333)

Within this context, one of the most notable examples of the use of voice-over narration can be seen in the opening of the film, Citizen Kane (1941), “The film’s plot sets another purveyor of knowledge, the ‘News on the March’ short. We’ve already seen the crucial functions of the newsreel in introducing us both to Kane’s story and to its plot construction, with the newsreel’s sections previewing the parts of the film as a whole.” (Bordwell and Thompson 105) In essence, this scene of paramount importance was purposely written by Orson Welles in order to allow the principal characters follow-up with further details later on in the film in their own flashback narrations.

The reinforcement of the scenes, characters and events detailed in this brief montage showcasing Kane’s life over the span of only a few minutes is accentuated, as referenced earlier by Ascher and Pincus, via the deep authoritative voice in which the booming male narrator speaks, which was quite representative on the actual newsreel footage of the era. In other words, by creating a fictionalized representation of a factually based newsreel within a film and having a similar sounding voice actor provide the narration within it, Welles provided the audience with further reinforcement of the importance of Charles Foster Kane on a global scale, in which he truly was within his own Xanadu.

Further evidence of life imitating art and vice versa comes from the voice-over narration within the film, Little Children (2006) which featured the deep resonating male voice of Will Lyman as the film’s narrator. Lyman’s voice was already recognizable, even his face wasn’t, for the 125 episodes of the PBS documentary television show Frontline (1982-2009) that he has narrated. With such various titles as, A Death in Tehran (2009), Breaking the Bank (2009), and Black Money (2009), Lyman has narrated multiple episodes for the series, while remaining unseen to the audience, in which investigative journalists scour the globe looking for corruption, abuse of power and instances of government, humanitarian and ecological tragedies.

To that end, Little Children (2006) director Todd Field must have realized the impact that Lyman’s voice would have on the film’s audience as an implied and trusted broker of knowledge and wisdom. “In the history of the documentary, this voice has been for the most part that of the male, and its power resides in the possession of knowledge and in the privileged, unquestioned activity of interpretation.” (Doane 369)

One scene of particular note from the film is where the character of the husband, Richard Pierce, shows the length to which he will go in order to satiate his obsession. The scene opens up with him in his work office as his secretary heads home for the night and now suddenly alone, Richard decides to indulge his favorite pastime of late, masturbating to pictures of the internet sensation that is Slutty Kay. In comes the booming, authoritative and faceless voice of narrator Will Lyman, as the audience begins to realize the level of Richard’s obsession at not being able to truly connect with her.

Lately, Slutty Kay had become a problem. He thought about her far too often and spent hours studying the thousands of photographs available to him…Though as close as Richard sometimes felt to Slutty Kay, as much as he believed that he knew her, he could never get past the uncomfortable fact she existed for him solely as a digital image. The panties were an attempt to solve this problem, maybe a sniff or two would hurry things along so he could get back downstairs to his real life, where his wife was waiting for him; her impatience increasing by the minute…(Little Children)

To that end, the scene changes to his home office as he now tries to put on her soiled panties over his head in order to accentuate the experience, as the frame changes yet again to show Richard’s wife coming upstairs as Lyman explains her growing impatience and finds him masturbating while breathing deeply into the soiled panties. Lyman’s matter of fact and monotonous voice-over breathes, for lack of a better term, immense irony into the scene and provides a very functional backdrop in order to place such an absurd setting as a woman walking into her husband’s office and finding him masturbating to a Polaroid of a naked woman while gasping into a pair of soiled woman’s panties. “The different components of the cinematic narrator as diagramed usually work in consort, but sometimes the implied author creates an ironic tension between two of them.” (Chatman 484)

An additional aspect of voice-over narration is when the director or creative vision behind the film as a whole provides the narration themselves. Take for instance the case from the film, A River Runs Through It (1992), in which director Robert Redford took on the persona of the book’s original author, Norman MacLean, and provided the film’s flashback voice-overs.

…films often create the sense of character-narration so strongly that one accepts the voice-over narrator as if he of she were the mouthpiece of the image-maker either for the whole film or for the duration of his or her embedded story. We put our faith in the voice not created but as creator. (Kozloff 45)

After auditioning several different prominent voice-over actors, Redford was not happy with any of the takes and as a result, he decided to try it out himself. Given Redford’s long standing stature within the film industry and recognizable voice, what followed was that he was able to further personify the essence of what the author and main character experienced while growing up in small-town Montana, the trials he went through with his younger brother Paul and how the quiet and serene beauty of glacier fed streams full of trout could help heal the soul. This was especially evident in the final scene of the film in which the viewer sees what is now an elderly and frail looking Norman MacLean fishing the river alone, with Redford’s voice-over providing the full meaning as Paul reflects on his life.

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.  Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters. (A River Runs Through It)

The next logical focus to explore is whether or not to use voice-over narration at all and how the format is different from written media for example, “Unlike in literature, in film the distinction between telling a story through verbal narration and showing it on the screen through images and action is not so easily discountable.” (Kozloff 13) A case in point for this argument comes from the multiple versions of the film, Blade Runner (1982), in which it has gone from its original theatrical release to being re-edited seven times to its most recent ‘Final Cut’. The most obvious change that was made from the original film was the removal of Deckard’s voice-over and while this had already been removed from an earlier 1992 ‘Director’s Cut,’ this final version of the film was also the only version that director Ridley Scott had complete artistic control over.

The climactic scene of the film in which the removal of the voice-over warranted greatest scrutiny was the scene near the end of the film, where on the original inception of Deckard’s monotonous voice-over was further evidence, although somewhat ambiguous, of him being a replicant (a humanoid looking robot who cannot show or feel emotion), from a viewer’s perspective, the use of the voice-over caused more controversy than it was worth according to prolific filmmaker, Frank Darabont:

There’s one area where I thought the voice-over was so clunky; it landed with such a hollow thud, was the ‘Tears in Rain.’ I remember when I first saw the movie, I’m in the theatre and I am so drawn in by what Rutger Hauer is doing and I am so drawn in by what the theme of the movie has brought us to, this magnificent moment where he is letting go of life…‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe, all these moments will be lost, in time, like Tears in Rain. Time to die.’

And right as I am just…it’s like having sex and someone dumps cold water on you. Right at that moment where I am at my most emotional crescendo as a viewer, here comes this thudding, dunderheaded voice-over, ‘I don’t know why he saved my life, maybe in those last moments, he loved life more than he ever had before.’ Yes, I know that, thank you. Thank you for kicking this beautiful, delicate, emotional note that we were achieving right in the nuts. (Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner)

Conversely, in the subsequent versions of the film in which Deckard’s monologue has been removed, greater emphasis has been placed on Rutger Hauer’s performance of Roy when he releases the dove as he dies and it flies up to the dark and stormy clouds above. Layered over all of this is the minimalist orchestration by the film’s composer, Vangelis and the slightest of crescendo booming sound as Deckard slowly closes his eyes and deeply inhales as he bears witness to his former foe’s final testimony; all of which is realized without the use of the voice-over.

At the end of the shooting cycle and on the bottom of the cutting room floor, directors, editors and screenplay writers have debated the merits of inserting or removing voice-over narration in film for decades now. In some instances, overall theme, plot and character development or simply personal taste can dictate whether or not to use voice-overs to help provide the audience with a greater understanding of what they are seeing on the screen. To that end however, and when it is an active agent in the storytelling process and manufactured to cater to the targeted audience in subtle and imperceptible ways, then voice-over narration can help bridge the gap between what can and cannot be shown on film. But if it is used in a contrived and convoluted manner, then the opposite can occur and further alienate the audience from being able to fully appreciate the level of understanding that the filmmakers are trying to achieve.

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Works Cited

A River Runs Through It. Dir. Robert Redford. Allied Filmmakers, 1992

Ascher, Steven, and Pincus, Edward. The Filmmaker’s Handbook. New York: PLUME, 2007

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Bordwell, David, and Thompson, Kirstin. FILM ART: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Chatman, Seymour. “The Cinematic Narrator.” Braudy and Cohen, 473-86.

Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. Dir. Charles de Lauzirika, Frank Darabont, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_nsSxblpoI

Doane, Mary Ann. The Voice in the Cinema: The Articulation of Body and Space. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980

Kozloff, Barbara. Invisible Storytellers: Voice-Over Narration in American Fiction Film. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Little Children. Dir. Todd Field. New Line Cinema, Bona Fide Productions, Standard Film Company, 2006.

Wichlacz, Sarah. 27 May 2006. Issues of Narration: Voice-Over Film. http://sarahwichlacz.com/?p=74


John DeVeaux – Portfolio

May 17, 2009

To download a high-res PDF version of my portfolio, please click the link below (17 MB in size):

http://www.ecuad.ca/~jdeveaux/john_deveaux_portfolio.pdf

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John DeVeaux - Portfolio

About the Artist

John DeVeaux is a third year Film, Video and Integrated Media student at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Classifying himself as a Digital Artist with future aspirations to be an accomplished professional in either the film or video game industry, his work focuses on combining a wide range of media including crowd sourcing, data capture, film/video, installation, storytelling and internet blogging.

Artist Statement

clean   [kleen] -er, -est, adverb,  -er, -est, verb –adjective
1. characterized by a fresh, wholesome quality: the clean smell of pine.
2. free from all writing or marking: a clean sheet of paper.
3. complete; unqualified: a clean break with tradition.
+
sim·ple   [sim-puhl] -pler, -plest, noun –adjective
1. easy to understand, deal with, use, etc.: a simple matter; simple tools.
2. not elaborate or artificial: a simple style.
3. not ornate or luxurious: a simple gown.
+
ef·fec·tive   [i-fek-tiv] –adjective
1. producing the intended or expected result: effective steps toward peace.
2. creating a deep or vivid impression; striking: an effective photograph.
3. able to accomplish a purpose: an efficient secretary.
=
de·sign   [di-zahyn] –verb (used with object)
1. to plan the form and structure of: to design a new bridge.
2. the combination of details or features of a picture, building, etc.: the design on a bracelet.
3. to intend for a definite purpose: a scholarship designed for foreign students.

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World of Warcraft: The Burning Addiction
Research Project – ECUAD Creative Process 2007

World of Warcraft: The Burning Addiction

For this project, I wanted to focus on what extent people would spend time from their real lives on their virtual ones. I then went to the Alcoholics Anonymous website and took their manifesto of questions that they ask potential addicts (ie: Have you ever missed school or work due to alcohol?) and then remixed the questions to ask my fellow Warcraft players (ie: Have you ever missed school or work due to Warcraft?) and was amazed at how honest their responses were.

Click the link below to download the full project PDF and explore the addictive qualities of video games in greater detail (1 MB in size):

http://www.ecuad.ca/~jdeveaux/addiction/addiction_print.pdf

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World of Warcraft: Haikus
Video Editing and Production – ECUAD Video Art 2009

This Video Art project required us to use found footage and splice it together within the theme of a haiku and I chose to focus again on World of Warcraft. Several different scenes from official game play trailers were used along with my own poem sequences in order to create its own unique storyline set to a haunting yet beautiful soundtrack.

I also received some additional publicity from a major World of Warcraft fan blog and as a result, have now had over 6,000 views on YouTube:

http://www.wowinsider.com/2009/05/12/wow-moviewatch-world-of-warcraft-haikus/

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Medal of Honor: European Assault
Poster Design – ECUAD Design Essentials 2005

Medal of Honor: European Assualt

With creative control to choose our own subject matter, I decided to create this poster for the soon to be released add-on of the popular Medal of Honor video game using World War II imagery and incorporating pertinent graphics and typeface layouts, with the centerpiece being this iconic image of the D-Day landing.

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Emily Carr Foundation Exhibition
Poster Design – ECUAD Digital Basics 2008

Emily Carr University Foundation Exhibition

In my Digital Basics course, our instructor challenged us to create our own poster design that would be submitted for that year’s Foundation Exhibition. The design that I chose focused on a clean and precise grid layout, with the typeface echoing this overall theme as well.

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Read Between the Lies
Poster Design – ECUAD Visual Communication 2008

Read Between the Lies

With an overall political theme required for this project for my Visual Communications course, I decided to focus on the ongoing tragedy occurring in Iraq. I wanted my critique to be bold and biting, yet symbolic at the same time by using George W. Bush’s own words being contradicted by documented facts on the ground within the layout of the American flag.

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The Starlight Express
Poster Design – ECUAD Design Essentials 2005

The Starlight Express

One of the first poster design projects that I worked on in the Design Essentials program at ECUAD and BCIT, I wanted the overall theme to reflect a bygone age in which the Royal Hudson train serviced passengers from Vancouver to Squamish. This was all tied in with the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics along with using Futura as the typeface.

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International Campaign to Ban Landmines
Layout Design – ECUAD Design Essentials 2005

International Campaign to Ban Landmines

This layout design was created to reflect on the tragedy that landmines cause in third world countries by mirroring two family units. Where the Nuclear Family is shown with the requisite two parents and two children, the Landmine Family is shown with obvious limbs missing and the daughter being replaced by a tombstone due to a landmine explosion.

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Tribeca Film Festival
Layout Design – ECUAD Design Essentials 2005

Tribeca Film Festival

Tribeca Film Festival

Utilizing still images from the films playing in that year’s festival, a double-sided handbook spread was made highlighting film screenings and appearances in a clean and elegant design.

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Phoenix Rising v1.0
3D Design – ECUAD Design One 2007

Phoenix Rising v1.0

These sculptures were created for my Design One class as the project called for us to construct new and unique 3D sculptures by combining a singular object in a repetitive fashion so that the original object would get lost in the sum of the whole of the new piece. Version 1.0 is a freestanding structure and able to balance on the tips of plastic spoons.

Phoenix Rising v2.0
3D Design – ECUAD Design One 2007

Phoenix Rising v2.0

Version 2.0 was created as an alternative and two interpretations that I have with this sculpture are that of a Phoenix Rising out of flames (hence the title of the pieces) or of a frame-by-frame rotation of a high board diver tucking in as he falls to the water below.

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OBSCENE
Flipbook – ECUAD Digital and Interactive Arts 2008

OBSCENE

Wanting to play on my audience’s moral standards, this flipbook showcased a woman performing an otherwise overtly sexualized activity, yet because I enlarged and hyper pixilated the original video footage, the viewer is not able to immediately ascertain what they are viewing. On initial viewing, they may in fact realize what they are seeing, but due to their personal embarrassment, may not give in to such puerile thoughts.

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HDR Porteau Cove
HDR Photography – ECUAD Digital and Interactive Arts 2009

HDR Porteau Cove

On a very windy and cold January afternoon, my girlfriend and I drove up to Whistler from Vancouver and stopped briefly at the Provincial Park in Porteau Cove where I wanted to capture the incredible whitecap waves and this beautiful island in the distance. I took my original shot into Photoshop and digitally manipulated it in order to create this much richer and vibrant image.

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Oppositions
Design Exploration – ECUAD Design One 2007

Oppositions

Playing around in Illustrator for one of my Design One projects in 2007, I became transfixed in creating artificial 3D perspective illustrations on a digital 2D plane that draws the viewer in to mesmerize and make them dizzy.

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Compression
Typography Exploration – ECUAD Visual Communication 2008

Compression

For this typography exploration, I decided on taking words at their literal meaning and creating abstract illustrations out of the words themselves. Compression being a thematically delicious word to utilize in such a fashion, the word is repeated and imploded without end into itself.

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Poster Girl
Illustrator Project – ECUAD Design Essentials 2005

Poster Girl

One of my first major digital illustrations, this image has always been a favorite of mine and its title harkens back to the process of origination by using the Posterize tool in Photoshop to create the initial blueprint and then cleaning it all up within Illustrator.

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ROLEX Submariner
Illustrator Project – ECUAD Design Essentials 2005

ROLEX Submariner

Another of my digital illustrations, I spent over 20 hours on this perfecting every detail in order to match the precision of the original watch itself. Created entirely in Illustrator, this illustration could substitute for the original any day.

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Idris Salih Photography
Website Design, Identity, Logo 2005

IDRIS SALIH Photography

IDRIS SALIH Photography

One of my freelance web design clients back in 2005, I was originally hired to just design and produce his portfolio site, but after seeing the logo and identity that he had been using, I challenged myself to provide him with a new one which would reflect the high contrast and starkness that is representational of his b/w portraiture photography and he loved it.

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John Fortunato Photography
Website Design 2005

John Fortunato Photography

Another of my freelance web design clients from a few years back, his work reflected a lot of what my design philosophy entails as well: clean + simple + elegant = design. With that in mind, I decided to use a clean palette with a lot of white space and simple, yet intuitive navigation, in order to allow the photographs to stand out and have greater impact on the viewer.

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The Canadian Oil Boom – National Geographic Magazine

February 25, 2009
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Very relevant piece done by National Geographic, even more so after going to the Surrey Art Gallery and listening to Edward Burtynsky’s lecture on his photographic work done at the Oil Sands in northern Alberta…
– FlashAddict

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Scraping Bottom

Once considered too expensive, as well as too damaging to the land, exploitation of Alverta’s oil sands is now a gamble worth billions.
By Robert Kunzig
Photographs by Peter Essick

oil_sands_industry
Dust hangs in the sunset sky above the Suncor Millennium mine, an open-pit north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Canada’s oil sands are layers of sticky, tarlike bitumen mixed with sand, clay, and water. Around a hundred feet of soil must be stripped off to reach many deposits.

One day in 1963, when Jim Boucher was seven, he was out working the trap­line with his grandfather a few miles south of the Fort McKay First Nation reserve on the Athabasca River in northern Alberta. The country there is wet, rolling fen, dotted with lakes, dissected by streams, and draped in a cover of skinny, stunted trees—it’s part of the boreal forest that sweeps right across Canada, covering more than a third of the country. In 1963 that forest was still mostly untouched. The government had not yet built a gravel road into Fort McKay; you got there by boat or in the winter by dogsled. The Chipewyan and Cree Indians there—Boucher is a Chipewyan—were largely cut off from the outside world. For food they hunted moose and bison; they fished the Athabasca for walleye and whitefish; they gathered cranberries and blueberries. For income they trapped beaver and mink. Fort McKay was a small fur trading post. It had no gas, electricity, telephone, or running water. Those didn’t come until the 1970s and 1980s.

oil_sands_vehicles
Squeezing Sand for Oil
At the bottom of a mine, a giant shovel devours sand and delivers it to trucks like this three-story, four-million-dollar Caterpillar, which muscle up to 400 tons at a time to extraction plants.

In Boucher’s memory, though, the change begins that day in 1963, on the long trail his grandfather used to set his traps, near a place called Mildred Lake. Generations of his ancestors had worked that trapline. “These trails had been here thousands of years,” Boucher said one day last summer, sitting in his spacious and tasteful corner office in Fort McKay. His golf putter stood in one corner; Mozart played softly on the stereo. “And that day, all of a sudden, we came upon this clearing. A huge clearing. There had been no notice. In the 1970s they went in and tore down my grandfather’s cabin—with no notice or discussion.” That was Boucher’s first encounter with the oil sands industry. It’s an industry that has utterly transformed this part of northeastern Alberta in just the past few years, with astonishing speed. Boucher is surrounded by it now and immersed in it himself.

Where the trapline and the cabin once were, and the forest, there is now a large open-pit mine. Here Syncrude, Canada’s largest oil producer, digs bitumen-laced sand from the ground with electric shovels five stories high, then washes the bitumen off the sand with hot water and sometimes caustic soda. Next to the mine, flames flare from the stacks of an “upgrader,” which cracks the tarry bitumen and converts it into Syncrude Sweet Blend, a synthetic crude that travels down a pipeline to refineries in Edmon­ton, Alberta; Ontario, and the United States. Mildred Lake, meanwhile, is now dwarfed by its neighbor, the Mildred Lake Settling Basin, a four-square-mile lake of toxic mine tailings. The sand dike that contains it is by volume one of the largest dams in the world.

Nor is Syncrude alone. Within a 20-mile radius of Boucher’s office are a total of six mines that produce nearly three-quarters of a million barrels of synthetic crude oil a day; and more are in the pipeline. Wherever the bitumen layer lies too deep to be strip-mined, the industry melts it “in situ” with copious amounts of steam, so that it can be pumped to the surface. The industry has spent more than $50 billion on construction during the past decade, including some $20 billion in 2008 alone. Before the collapse in oil prices last fall, it was forecasting another $100 billion over the next few years and a doubling of production by 2015, with most of that oil flowing through new pipelines to the U.S. The economic crisis has put many expansion projects on hold, but it has not diminished the long-term prospects for the oil sands. In mid-November, the International Energy Agency released a report forecasting $120-a-barrel oil in 2030—a price that would more than justify the effort it takes to get oil from oil sands.

Nowhere on Earth is more earth being moved these days than in the Athabasca Valley. To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then two tons of the sand itself. It must heat several barrels of water to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it, and afterward it discharges contaminated water into tailings ponds like the one near Mildred Lake. They now cover around 50 square miles. Last April some 500 migrating ducks mistook one of those ponds, at a newer Syncrude mine north of Fort McKay, for a hospitable stopover, landed on its oily surface, and died. The incident stirred international attention—Greenpeace broke into the Syncrude facility and hoisted a banner of a skull over the pipe discharging tailings, along with a sign that read “World’s Dirtiest Oil: Stop the Tar Sands.”

oil_sands_waste
Squeezing Sand for Oil
Sand, water, and bitumen residues are finally piped to a tailings pond, where the water is extracted, cleaned, and reused in the mines.

The U.S. imports more oil from Canada than from any other nation, about 19 percent of its total foreign supply, and around half of that now comes from the oil sands. Anything that reduces our dependence on Middle Eastern oil, many Americans would say, is a good thing. But clawing and cooking a barrel of crude from the oil sands emits as much as three times more carbon dioxide than letting one gush from the ground in Saudi Arabia. The oil sands are still a tiny part of the world’s carbon problem—they account for less than a tenth of one percent of global CO2 emissions—but to many environmentalists they are the thin end of the wedge, the first step along a path that could lead to other, even dirtier sources of oil: producing it from oil shale or coal. “Oil sands represent a decision point for North America and the world,” says Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, a moderate and widely respected Canadian environmental group. “Are we going to get serious about alternative energy, or are we going to go down the unconventional-oil track? The fact that we’re willing to move four tons of earth for a single barrel really shows that the world is running out of easy oil.”

That thirsty world has come crashing in on Fort McKay. Yet Jim Boucher’s view of it, from an elegant new building at the entrance to the besieged little village, contains more shades of gray than you might expect. “The choice we make is a difficult one,” Boucher said when I visited him last summer. For a long time the First Nation tried to fight the oil sands industry, with little success. Now, Boucher said, “we’re trying to develop the community’s capacity to take advantage of the opportunity.” Boucher presides not only over this First Nation, as chief, but also over the Fort McKay Group of Companies, a community-owned business that provides services to the oil sands industry and brought in $85 million in 2007. Unemployment is under 5 percent in the village, and it has a health clinic, a youth center, and a hundred new three-bedroom houses that the community rents to its members for far less than market rates. The First Nation is even thinking of opening its own mine: It owns 8,200 acres of prime oil sands land across the river, right next to the Syncrude mine where the ducks died.

As Boucher was telling me all this, he was picking bits of meat from a smoked whitefish splayed out on his conference table next to a bank of windows that offered a panoramic view of the river. A staff member had delivered the fish in a plastic bag, but Boucher couldn’t say where it had come from. “I can tell you one thing,” he said. “It doesn’t come from the Athabasca.”

Without the river, there would be no oil sands industry. It’s the river that over tens of millions of years has eroded away billions of cubic yards of sediment that once covered the bitumen, thereby bringing it within reach of shovels—and in some places all the way to the surface. On a hot summer day along the Athabasca, near Fort McKay for example, bitumen oozes from the riverbank and casts an oily sheen on the water. Early fur traders reported seeing the stuff and watching natives use it to caulk their canoes. At room temperature, bitumen is like molasses, and below 50°F or so it is hard as a hockey puck, as Canadians invariably put it. Once upon a time, though, it was light crude, the same liquid that oil companies have been pumping from deep traps in southern Alberta for nearly a century. Tens of millions of years ago, geologists think, a large volume of that oil was pushed northeastward, perhaps by the rise of the Rocky Mountains. In the process it also migrated upward, along sloping layers of sediment, until eventually it reached depths shallow and cool enough for bacteria to thrive. Those bacteria degraded the oil to bitumen.

oil_sands_fish

Ronnie Campbell hauls whitefish from Lake Athabasca, downriver from Fort McMurray, to use as feed for his sled dogs. Locals say their catches are often covered in unusual red spots, and many no longer eat lake fish. While the cause of the spots is unclear, some believe toxic chemicals, such as those released during bitumen production, are leaching into Alberta’s rivers and lakes.

The Alberta government estimates that the province’s three main oil sands deposits, of which the Athabasca one is the largest, contain 173 billion barrels of oil that are economically recoverable today. “The size of that, on the world stage—it’s massive,” says Rick George, CEO of Suncor, which opened the first mine on the Athabasca River in 1967. In 2003, when the Oil & Gas Journal added the Alberta oil sands to its list of proven reserves, it immediately propelled Canada to second place, behind Saudi Arabia, among oil-producing nations. The proven reserves in the oil sands are eight times those of the entire U.S. “And that number will do nothing but go up,” says George. The Alberta Energy Resources and Conservation Board estimates that more than 300 billion barrels may one day be recoverable from the oil sands; it puts the total size of the deposit at 1.7 trillion barrels.

Getting oil from oil sands is simple but not easy. The giant electric shovels that rule the mines have hardened steel teeth that each weigh a ton, and as those teeth claw into the abrasive black sand 24/7, 365 days a year, they wear down every day or two; a welder then plays dentist to the dinosaurs, giving them new crowns. The dump trucks that rumble around the mine, hauling 400-ton loads from the shovels to a rock crusher, burn 50 gallons of diesel fuel an hour; it takes a forklift to change their tires, which wear out in six months. And every day in the Athabasca Valley, more than a million tons of sand emerges from such crushers and is mixed with more than 200,000 tons of water that must be heated, typically to 175°F, to wash out the gluey bitumen. At the upgraders, the bitumen gets heated again, to about 900°F, and compressed to more than 100 atmospheres—that’s what it takes to crack the complex molecules and either subtract carbon or add back the hydrogen the bacteria removed ages ago. That’s what it takes to make the light hydrocarbons we need to fill our gas tanks. It takes a stupendous amount of energy. In situ extraction, which is the only way to get at around 80 percent of those 173 billion barrels, can use up to twice as much energy as mining, because it requires so much steam.

Most of the energy to heat the water or make steam comes from burning natural gas, which also supplies the hydrogen for upgrading. Precisely because it is hydrogen rich and mostly free of impurities, natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, the one that puts the least amount of carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Critics thus say the oil sands industry is wasting the cleanest fuel to make the dirtiest—that it turns gold into lead. The argument makes environmental but not economic sense, says David Keith, a physicist and energy expert at the University of Calgary. Each barrel of synthetic crude contains about five times more energy than the natural gas used to make it, and in much more valuable liquid form. “In economic terms it’s a slam dunk,” says Keith. “This whole thing about turning gold into lead—it’s the other way around. The gold in our society is liquid transportation fuels.”

oil_sands_boreal_forest
Beneath a green sweep of fen and forest in northern Alberta lies a promise of wealth—vast layers of hydrocarbons that can be refined into petroleum products like gasoline. Undisturbed until now, these trees may soon fall: This land has already been staked out by prospectors.

Most of the carbon emissions from such fuels comes from the tailpipes of the cars that burn them; on a “wells-to-wheels” basis, the oil sands are only 15 to 40 percent dirtier than conventional oil. But the heavier carbon footprint remains an environmental—and public relations—disadvantage. Last June Alberta’s premier, Ed Stelmach, announced a plan to deal with the extra emissions. The province, he said, will spend over $1.5 billion to develop the technology for capturing carbon dioxide and storing it underground—a strategy touted for years as a solution to climate change. By 2015 Alberta is hoping to capture five million tons of CO2 a year from bitumen upgraders as well as from coal-fired power plants, which even in Alberta, to say nothing of the rest of the world, are a far larger source of CO2 than the oil sands. By 2020, according to the plan, the province’s carbon emissions will level off, and by 2050 they will decline to 15 percent below their 2005 levels. That is far less of a cut than scientists say is necessary. But it is more than the U.S. government, say, has committed to in a credible way.

One thing Stelmach has consistently refused to do is “touch the brake” on the oil sands boom. The boom has been gold for the provincial as well as the national economy; the town of Fort McMurray, south of the mines, is awash in Newfoundlanders and Nova Scotians fleeing unemployment in their own provinces. The provincial government has been collecting around a third of its revenue from lease sales and royalties on fossil fuel extraction, including oil sands—it was expecting to get nearly half this year, or $19 billion, but the collapse in oil prices since the summer has dropped that estimate to about $12 billion. Albertans are bitterly familiar with the boom-and-bust cycle; the last time oil prices collapsed, in the 1980s, the provincial economy didn’t recover for a decade. The oil sands cover an area the size of North Carolina, and the provincial government has already leased around half that, including all 1,356 square miles that are minable. It has yet to turn down an application to develop one of those leases, on environmental or any other grounds.

From a helicopter it’s easy to see the indus­try’s impact on the Athabasca Valley. Within minutes of lifting off from Fort McMurray, heading north along the east bank of the river, you pass over Suncor’s Millennium mine—the company’s leases extend practically to the town. On a day with a bit of wind, dust plumes billowing off the wheels and the loads of the dump trucks coalesce into a single enormous cloud that obscures large parts of the mine pit and spills over its lip. To the north, beyond a small expanse of intact forest, a similar cloud rises from the next pit, Suncor’s Steepbank mine, and beyond that lie two more, and across the river two more. One evening last July the clouds had merged into a band of dust sweeping west across the devastated landscape. It was being sucked into the updraft of a storm cloud. In the distance steam and smoke and gas flames belched from the stacks of the Syncrude and Suncor upgraders—”dark satanic mills” inevitably come to mind, but they’re a riveting sight all the same. From many miles away, you could smell the tarry stench. It stings your lungs when you get close enough.

picture-9

On the banks of the Athabasca River, Suncor’s upgrader plants refined an average of 235,000 barrels of petroleum products a day in 2008. A narrow dike separates the river from ponds that hold water used during the industrial process, which will be cleaned before being reused.

From the air, however, the mines fall away quickly. Skimming low over the river, startling a young moose that was fording a narrow channel, a government biologist named Preston McEachern and I veered northwest toward the Birch Mountains, over vast expanses of scarcely disturbed forest. The Canadian boreal forest covers two million square miles, of which around 75 percent remains undeveloped. The oil sands mines have so far converted over 150 square miles—a hundredth of a percent of the total area—into dust, dirt, and tailings ponds. Expansion of in situ extraction could affect a much larger area. At Suncor’s Firebag facility, northeast of the Millennium mine, the forest has not been razed, but it has been dissected by roads and pipelines that service a checkerboard of large clearings, in each of which Suncor extracts deeply buried bitumen through a cluster of wells. Environmentalists and wildlife biolo­gists worry that the widening fragmentation of the forest, by timber as well as mineral companies, endangers the woodland caribou and other animals. “The boreal forest as we know it could be gone in a generation without major policy changes,” says Steve Kallick, director of the Pew Boreal Campaign, which aims to protect 50 percent of the forest.

McEachern, who works for Alberta Environment, a provincial agency, says the tailings ponds are his top concern. The mines dump waste­water in the ponds, he explains, because they are not allowed to dump waste into the Athabasca, and because they need to reuse the water. As the thick, brown slurry gushes from the discharge pipes, the sand quickly settles out, building the dike that retains the pond; the residual bitumen floats to the top. The fine clay and silt particles, though, take several years to settle, and when they do, they produce a yogurt-like goop—the technical term is “mature fine tailings”—that is contaminated with toxic chemicals such as naphthenic acid and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and would take centuries to dry out on its own. Under the terms of their licenses, the mines are required to reclaim it somehow, but they have been missing their deadlines and still have not fully reclaimed a single pond.

In the oldest and most notorious one, Suncor’s Pond 1, the sludge is perched high above the river, held back by a dike of compacted sand that rises more than 300 feet from the valley floor and is studded with pine trees. The dike has leaked in the past, and in 2007 a modeling study done by hydrogeologists at the University of Waterloo estimated that 45,000 gallons a day of contaminated water could be reaching the river. Suncor is now in the process of reclaiming Pond 1, piping some tailings to another pond, and replacing them with gypsum to consolidate the tailings. By 2010, the company says, the surface will be solid enough to plant trees on. Last summer it was still a blot of beige mud streaked with black bitumen and dotted with orange plastic scarecrows that are supposed to dissuade birds from landing and killing themselves.

oil_sands_bird

Floating among mats of leftover bitumen on a thousand-acre tailings pond, a radar device scans for incoming birds. The fake falcon flaps its wings, and predator calls blare to scare off waterfowl that would die if they landed on the surface and their feathers became soaked with sludge.

The Alberta government asserts that the river is not being contaminated—that anything found in the river or in its delta, at Lake Athabasca, comes from natural bitumen seeps. The river cuts right through the oil sands downstream of the mines, and as our chopper zoomed along a few feet above it, McEachern pointed out several places where the riverbank was black and the water oily. “There is an increase in a lot of metals as you move downstream,” he said. “That’s natural—it’s weathering of the geology. There’s mercury in the fish up at Lake Athabasca—we’ve had an advisory there since the 1990s. There are PAHs in the sediments in the delta. They’re there because the river has eroded through the oil sands.”

Independent scientists, to say nothing of people who live downstream of the mines in the First Nations’ community of Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabasca, are skeptical. “It’s inconceivable that you could move that much tar and have no effect,” says Peter Hodson, a fish toxicologist at Queen’s University in Ontario. An Environment Canada study did in fact show an effect on fish in the Steepbank River, which flows past a Suncor mine into the Athabasca. Fish near the mine, Gerald Tetreault and his colleagues found when they caught some in 1999 and 2000, showed five times more activity of a liver enzyme that breaks down toxins—a widely used measure of exposure to pollutants—as did fish near a natural bitumen seep on the Steepbank.

“The thing that angers me,” says David Schindler, “is that there’s been no concerted effort to find out where the truth lies.”

Schindler, an ecologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, was talking about whether people in Fort Chipewyan have already been killed by pollution from the oil sands. In 2006 John O’Connor, a family physician who flew in weekly to treat patients at the health clinic in Fort Chip, told a radio interviewer that he had in recent years seen five cases of cholangiocarcinoma—a cancer of the bile duct that normally strikes one in 100,000 people. Fort Chip has a population of around 1,000; statistically it was unlikely to have even one case. O’Connor hadn’t managed to interest health authorities in the cancer cluster, but the radio interview drew wide attention to the story. “Suddenly it was everywhere,” he says. “It just exploded.”

Two of O’Connor’s five cases, he says, had been confirmed by tissue biopsy; the other three patients had shown the same symptoms but had died before they could be biopsied. (Cholan­giocarcinoma can be confused on CT scans with more common cancers such as liver or pancreatic cancer.) “There is no evidence of elevated cancer rates in the community,” Howard May, a spokesperson for Alberta Health, wrote in an email last September. But the agency, he said, was nonetheless conducting a more complete investigation—this time actually examining the medical records from Fort Chip—to try to quiet a controversy that was now two years old.

One winter night when Jim Boucher was a young boy, around the time the oil sands industry came to his forest, he was returning alone by dogsled to his grandparents’ cabin from an errand in Fort McKay. It was a journey of 20 miles or so, and the temperature was minus 4°F. In the moonlight Boucher spotted a flock of ptarmigan, white birds in the snow. He killed around 50, loaded them on the dogsled, and brought them home. Four decades later, sitting in his chief-executive office in white chinos and a white Adidas sport shirt, he remembers the pride on his grandmother’s face that night. “That was a different spiritual world,” Boucher says. “I saw that world continuing forever.” He tells the story now when asked about the future of the oil sands and his people’s place in it.

A poll conducted by the Pembina Institute in 2007 found that 71 percent of Albertans favored an idea their government has always rejected out of hand: a moratorium on new oil sands projects until environmental concerns can be resolved. “It’s my belief that when government attempts to manipulate the free market, bad things happen,” Premier Stelmach told a gathering of oil industry executives that year. “The free-market system will solve this.”

But the free market does not consider the effects of the mines on the river or the forest, or on the people who live there, unless it is forced to. Nor, left to itself, will it consider the effects of the oil sands on climate. Jim Boucher has collaborated with the oil sands industry in order to build a new economy for his people, to replace the one they lost, to provide a new future for kids who no longer hunt ptarmigan in the moonlight. But he is aware of the trade-offs. “It’s a struggle to balance the needs of today and tomorrow when you look at the environment we’re going to live in,” he says. In northern Alberta the question of how to strike that balance has been left to the free market, and its answer has been to forget about tomorrow. Tomorrow is not its job.

oil_sands_grave

In the small town of Fort Chipewyan, Emma Michael stands beside the grave of her sister who, like her mother and brother, recently died of cancer. Michael herself is a breast cancer survivor, and the family is among the victims in a cancer cluster that includes, among other forms of the disease, cholangiocarcinoma, a rare malignancy attacking the bile duct. About 1,200 people live in Fort Chipewyan, an isolated community more than a hundred miles downstream from Fort McMurray and its massive mining operations. For several years residents have wondered if pollution from upstream could be causing local health problems. John O’Connor, a physician in Fort Chipewyan for seven years, was among the first to report the high cancer rate. He says the government has not done enough to investigate. “How could such a small community in such a pristine place have such illnesses?” O’Connor asks. In late 2008 the provincial government completed a cancer study, but Fort Chipewyan community leaders rejected the results before they were made public, complaining the study was poorly done.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Feature Article Links:

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/kunzig-text

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/essick-photography

Peter Essick’s website:

http://www.rolphoto.com

Additional Links:

http://www.surrey.ca/Living+in+Surrey/Arts/Surrey+Art+Gallery/Exhibitions/Exhibitions+-+Current.htm

http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/


Reading Media Culture – Friday’s class notes

January 19, 2009

FIRST WRITTEN ASSIGNMENT DUE NEXT WEEK – NEEDS TO BE PRINTED – NOT EMAILED!!!
Summarize in 500 words (2 pages) one of the readings for next week
– Digital Encounters – deal with animation and interface
– Introduction to Gramophone – linking technologies / theorizing military and ideological reasoning behind the technologies

MEDIATION
– film, video and media were used to expand our minds to make us speculate and understand what Egoyan was up to when he made the film, Calendar
– we are all media consumers, producers
– medium = plural of media = collective of mass types of media
– ceramics, painting, writing = media as well (think outside the box to what is considered media and artists who create them are still media makers)
– systems or vehicles for the transmission of ideas or entertainment = transportation method
– media are the materials that communicate – early examples, hieroglyphs, alphabet, radio, moving image…
– the human body produces a form of mediation such as shown in the public performance (dance, spoken word, music…)
– Calendar had multiple types of media and media technologies listed
– translation, transcription and interpretation or size have an effect on the distribution method and overall interpretation that the media has on the audience (ie: watching a movie on your iPod vs. watching it on an iMax screen)
– all media give shape to experience – human experiences are affected
– selectivity of media and method of distribution helps set the tone of the piece (amplify, extends, restricts or prohibits)
– may open or close doors (reveal, conceal)

Issue of memory / morality
– rise of video distribution has enhanced the dissemination of culture, thought, ideas and art can be compared to the Guttenberg press – more people who can read and access information
– the loss that results is that people do not have to remember anything when they can simply look it up
– medium is another term for language (create dialog and communicate with an audience and articulate an idea or way of thinking)
– The medium is the Message
– mode of transmission that forms part of our total environment
– in the film Calendar, the telephone becomes a medium that mediates communication between two people on either end of the phone
– character relationships are mediated through the various technologies shown in the film (phone, video camera, answering machine, many different languages, written notes and letter, human body of Egoyan’s wife in the way she interacts with the guide)

Marshall McLuhan
– canadian scholar who embraced various media technologies during the 1960’s
– the professor in the film Videodrome, by David Cronenberg was a satire of him


– book called Understanding Media – Extensions of Man and Guttenberg Galaxy
– metaphor of a paradox – medium is the message – global village
– most important = tools to provide understanding technology
– all technological advances produce a new type of sensorial experience and alters human embodiment and reaction to the technology
– seduction and power of media technology – humans become mesmerized by technology
– called his ideas prose so they are designed as thought pieces to change perspectives in the reader
– writings were prophetic – anticipated the persuasiveness of the extent of media technologies available to the general public today
– cross-disciplinary media has further contributed to his idea of the global village and is being documented by a new generation of media savvy artists
– size of the day changed for many with the introduction of the electric light = communication media with no overt content
– message of electric light = purest form of information because it makes thing instant – acceleration of time
– invention of electrical light irrevocably changed human culture (revolutionary media)

“The message of electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, persuasive and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone and TV, creating involvement and depth.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gutenberg_Galaxy
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Understanding_Media

Mothlight – Stan Brakhage

– this is used as an example of McLuhan’s ideation about technology being required to disseminate information
– the purest form of watching this film would be to watch it on film and have the actual light to shine through the moth wings onto a screen

MEDIA SPECIFICITY ESSENTIALISM
– what are the properties common to all media and what and what are the specific to individual types of media – what are the properties associated with that media? (ie: film vs video vs photography vs print vs painting vs sculpture…) – what is essential for the medium to consist of in order to convey the associated ideation to the audience?
– McLuhan talks about when we use the medium for a particular purpose, it becomes a part of that purpose (form of content)
– subscribe to the idea that the medium that is chosen to convey the art that that technology becomes prominent and has a voice
– technologies become interpretative frameworks – representation is a major theme of this course
– what messages are encoded in the choices made in how they publish their work
– ie: Fast Film
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Td6UObEEaQQ
– brain shifting = ability to question to what you as the audience are viewing – what is the artist trying to convey to me and not in any other way?
– process by media and process of mediation interact with one another
– personal, social consequence of particular types of media – introduction of TV changed the family dynamic (eat dinner at the table or in front of the tv)

FUJI – by Robert Breer (1974)
– an experimental animation – very original for its time – good use of rotoscoping – animating over existing film stock and combining film footage with animated overlays
– framing an artwork is a method of mediation (process of inclusion and exclusion)
– composing the frame and deciding more importantly what is in the frame is also an act of mediation
– framing devices used in both Calendar and Fuji
– page 375 (bordwell & thompson) – use of rotoscoping – use of motion picture footage and print over it with frame by frame animation or otherwise manipulate
– original derivation comes from motion picture (series of images)
– motion capture is a form of rotoscoping (different but related)
– Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly are contemporary examples of this process
– window frame of the picture frame is on display in Fuji = frame within a frame
– 24 views of Mount Fuji is mediated by this footage of the place on the train and looking out of the window and then further extrapolated by the rotoscoping
– technological applications that appear in the film (line art, colour splotches) become mediations in their own right as well as existing as the sum of the piece
– perspective is dictated by the person who took the footage (north american tourist visiting Japan and the inaccessibility to outsiders = culture is alien to him)
– commentary on representation – as a cultural outsider truthfully represent that culture or that cultural icon in a media presentation
– the subject matter is further mediated by his body language and interaction with Japanese people on the train
– he’s not trying to be politically correct and act with reverence to such an iconic Japanese symbol – he was simply trying to illustrate his personal connection to Mt. Fuji as a tourist and as an artist — he’s acknowledging his own subjective, highly mediated experience of Mt. Fuji

Calendar – by Atom Egoyan
– deals with issues of tourism and also uses framing devices
– various storylines run through the film and they each have their own transmission mode
– the film itself exists as a signature medium to begin with – base layer for the other transmission methods to be projected
– video footage within the film acts as above as a frame within a frame so as the audience to experience and feel different emotions then the base film itself
– video camera is mobile and handheld lacking the resolution of the high-end production film camera
– a trauma has been inflicted on the Armenian people by the Ottoman/Turkish empire – not overtly referenced yet that is the reason why the Churches were abandoned and now revered as holy shrines
– they were the headquarters of religious identity and for the christian armenian population but also their own headquarters of population control (christian dogma being forced on the masses)
– cultural tourist in Armenia but also in his own marriage – without knowledge of what the significance of the churches signify, but more importantly without knowledge of the significance of the growing relationship between his wife and the guide
– ideation of separation and language barriers are developed and referenced
– obsession – he becomes paranoid at the aspect of feeling estranged of losing understanding of the situation
– interesting duality in the fact that Egoyan himself appears in it and plays the part of the fool and not understanding the importance of what the churches represent to the history of the massacre of the Armenian people – he would eventually make a future film called Ararat which specifically addresses this massacre, which is still denied by the Turkish government to this day
– further framing is shown in Egoyan’s kitchen as he has multiple dinner encounters with several different escorts, yet whom each are a different cultural background and speak different languages
– the phone scenes are further compared as each escort asks to use the phone and make outgoing calls vs. his ex wife making incoming calls
– there is a sick fascination for Egoyan to reconstruct the visceral and deeply hurtful experience of losing his wife in order to create the urge to write the letter
– forced alienation is the message being portrayed in each location (Armenia, kitchen)
– idea that memory is as collective as it is individual – community of two and individual conscience of the cameraman
– engages in a pathetic way in how he responds to his lack of interest in the history behind the churches and also in his pathetic attempt to write the letter but only with the reconstruction of traumatic memories with the escorts

http://www.ecuad.ca/~rburnett/calendar.html

A new type of media permeates the scene, a new problem of memory can be observed. (positive and negative charge – change for both good and bad)


A day in the life of an Emily Carr Film student…

September 15, 2008

Here are my notes from Friday’s Reading for the Screen course at Emily Carr – I will be uploading my daily class notes to the blog to allow readers to follow along with me and my studies here at ECIAD – Enjoy!

Off-Topic
The following video clip was shown within the context of the class itself, but I found it while searching for clips for the films we discusses in class, The Player, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Touch of Evil.

“This short segment from Orson Welles’ cinematic essay, F for Fake, may be the profoundest moment in cinema history. It is both uniquely moving, as well as stunningly deep philosophically—a truly rare cinematic combination. This clip should be required viewing, not only for every student of cinema, but for everyone who seeks an antidote to the world’s increasing descent into cruelty and darkness. Here, Welles achieves the miraculous with amazingly simple means (note the lack of music as an emotional “guide”, for example). God created Orson Welles…then broke the mold. Introduced by media psychologist, Dr. James N. Herndon.” (www.orsonwelles.tv)

In-class notes/general comments from Wednesday’s screening:
– author was talking about big budget film productions
– unless you are in the union, you can’t pickup anything
– back in the day, production board / production manager = THE BIBLE
– strip of cardboard/posterboard in different colours
– day/night/interior/exterior shots
– find most expedient production time wise/budget wise
– shoot scenes at the same time to streamline production
– having things in front of you = air traffic controller (new york times article)
– each aircraft is on a strip of paper = visual representation / better memory and recognition
– you will still see the production board today, even in a digital world
– Frank Capra – very egotistical, yet talented – as a director, you need to know your vision, because you are asked thousands of questions everyday
– “The Fastest Runner” – group decision film production process
– get the audience “sutured” into the film story

Film, Film, Film – Patterns
– people joining the elevator
– keep going through all of the door, so many steps/people to get approval from
– hurry up and wait analogy with moments of pure action to long pauses with nothing to do
– different colours for different scenes (ie: Traffic having different colours for different locations)
– opening montage with stars and glitz, yet the reality of making moveis is so far from the glamour
– the screenwriter’s muse’s wings were incorporated into the logo of the studio
– cast and crew waited with baited breath for the audience reaction
– labeling – letting the average viewer know exactly who is who, what departments are involved and the steps needed to complete the project
– emotes were used instead of actual dialog – even though it is Russian, it is universally recognizable
– Film, Film, Film = same in Russian and English

Chicken Run
– Aardman – successful British studio run by Nick Park and Peter Lord = Wallace and Gromit
– animation style = portrait emotions very effectively with a plump of eplasticine
– “The Wrong Trousers” – remember the penguin (the eyes = evil bird!!!)
– they had a fixation on machines/gadgets = putting contraptions together to create a great machine
– mechanization can be a threat to people and society or a help to it
– Tweedy montage = building pie machine / genocide
– chickens montage = building plane / freedom
– obsessive compulsive disorder = Babs always knitting
– always like using feathered creatures through their previous work

How “Chicken Run” got made:
– contacted Jake Eberts (Pathe) – his kids loved Wallace and Gromit
– he set them up with a NAPKIN deal = had lunch meeting and worked out details on a napkin
– Michael Rose = Producer
– Sundance 1996 – Nick and Peter pitched the idea of a “Chicken Escape Film”
– Jake called Dreamworks which had just formed (SKG)
– Dreamworks flew their jet to Sundance to bring the 4 of them to LA
– Katzenberg says the chicken is the best at the restaurant they met at
– pitch = The Great Escape…with CHICKENS
– talented independent animators who were confident enough to make their pitch work!!!
– also based on Stalag 17

FILM CONVENTIONS
– western = shoot out at the end /  good guy and bad icon
– icon = cowboy hat = western genre
THE PLAN / building montage / blueprints / secret compartments / promise of positive change = the dream / teamwork / guard dogs / Ginger kept getting put in solitary confinement (Cool Hand Luke / Steve McQueen) / military context to a chicken farm with the soundtrack / morning roll call / always a party (Bridge on the River Kwai)

Great Britain vs. America
– swing dancing / there was no reason to have a love story between rocky and ginger / cliche of almost kissing, then finally kissing
– the only shot Katzenberg wanted to change was on the roof with Ginger and Rocky – he wanted to spend more time on her face to accentuate that she is falling in love with Rocky (Nick said uh uh, we Brits don’t do that)
– the escape scene from the pie machine was so Indianna Jones (Spielberg’s influence no doubt)
– homage to Hogan’s Heroes as well
– Brits don’t show emotion, americans do
– tough thing having Ginger being the leading lady (she wasn’t as funny or charismatic as normal leading characters)
– history period American GIs = The Yanks – British women were charmed by them, British men were jealous, British parents were resentful
– influence for Rocky = Burt Lancaster (The Rainmaker), The Fonz (Heyyyyyyyyy!), John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever)
– Mel Gibson was too busy to do his voice overs alone in LA while the others did it together in London
– Mel took the role because his kids loved Wallace and Gromit
– slow mo shot when Rocky flies over the fence on the trike
– Mrs. Tweedy on the rope with a knife then hitting the billboard with her face
– always gotta have an explosion at the end

– puppets are articulated steel frames, heads are plasticine
– dancing sequence was choreographed from actual dancers
– they had to put rubber hip contraptions because the dancers were too skinny
– Talisman – object that has tremendous emotional value = Mac’s RAF pin

Shadow of a Doubt – Alfred Hitcock (1943)
– Hitchcock loved to storyboard his films in detail – constructed the film meticulously step by step
– look at complacent America before WWII – took place in Santa Rosa, CA and also filmed there
– Uncle Charlie and Little Charlie – little charlie’s mom absolutely adores him and little charlie idolizes him = kindred spirits
– Uncle Charlie however, is a serial killer who preys on elderly women and then steals their money/jewelry
– group of elderly women dancing to a waltz named, “The Merry Widow” = further pattern to tie in to the rest of the film

– little charlie’s father’s favorite past-time is to theorize the perfect murder mysteries with his friend, yet little does he realize that he has a murderer under his own roof

– Shadow of a Doubt trailer

– Shadow of a Doubt – part 1/11 – you can continue watching the rest of the film on youtube

CONVENTIONS
– shadows of the railing banisters against the wall, Little Charlie is trapped between telling the truth about her uncle or letting things lie as they are
– Uncle Charlie walks very forcefully towards Little Charlie when she brings out the paper – then the close up show when he grabs her wrist to show his anger and power
– he is also the dominant persona in the family, sets the tone of conversations, yet can also force conversation to end when he knocks over the glass to stop Little Charlie from saying the name of the waltz
– he offers to give $40,000 to his brother-in-law to show that he is very important and powerful

*****Down and Dirty Pictures – book about Miramax – recommended by fellow student in class*****

The Player – Robert Altman (1992)
– made some successful Hollywood movies and then some not so successful movies
– this film is an incredible satire of the whole Hollywood scene as a whole
– opening shot is an homage to, “Touch of Evil” – Orson Wells and “Rope” – Alfred Hitchcock
– old painting on the wall showing the golden age of Hollywood – turns into business of it all
– MTV, cut cut cut – Touch of Evil
– The Graduate, Part II (25 years later lol) – spooky house in northern California, dark and weird and funny and with a stroke!
– couldnt make out the picture on the ground when boy got hit by cart but it is a postcard for Griffin which tells him he is going to die
– japanese tourists with Ari from Entourage – SONY PRODUCTS
– the hens are all talking about heads rolling
– replace Griffin?!?!? with Larry Levy
– I’m right in the middle of a pitch – I’ll call you later…Goldie Goes to Africa = Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman

– politely political scary but funny with Bruce Willis with a heart in the right spot!

– “The Player” Opening shot

– “The Player” trailer

– “Touch of Evil” opening shot

– “Touch of Evil” trailer

– “Rope” opening scene

– “Rope” trailer

Asparagus – Suzanne Pitt
– In the beginning there was animation and it was overrun by Disney
– he setup a production machine that was the monopoly of innovation certainly within North America – Mickey Mouse still is pervasive
– Mrs. Frances Brewer – letter to her back in 1939 – women do not do any of the original work in the process – as a result, girls are not considered to join animation studies – they were only allowed to trace work already created
– it was believed that women were better at tracing then men because they already knew how to apply makeup and do their nails – they could stay within the lines!!!
– this animation was created in 1979 – shown on art circuit/festivals
– combination of cell and clay animation

Questions:
What would tell you as a spectator that this is an independent film?

What patterns do you see?

My notes:
– woman’s bare leg, with a snake rolling around it = men vs. women
– harsh saxophone music = sex
– flowers remind me of Gerald Scarfe’s work in Pink Floyd The Wall
– red nail polish on her fingers
– dual lights = breasts?
– takes a dump in the toilet – see asparagus come out of her ass
– which then magically rises up and spells out “ASPARAGUS”
– dead man’s head as a bust on the railing
– red curtain opening up to scenes of flowers scrolling by the window
– flower buds look like vaginas – asparagus look like penises – she starts stroking one of them
– wall ornaments look like vaginas as well
– keeps repeating shot of turning the dial on the lamp
– miniature version of herself within the doll house?
– eerie looking Santa head on the shelf – she grabs a different mask though – kabuki mask with red cheeks
– we see the snake again slither by as objects fall into her hand bag
– she goes outside with her mask on to hide her true identity from the public
– passes a dildo store, then a gun store – while we hear muttered whispers/voices of people around her
– claymation sequence – curtain opens up to reveal another curtain and then another and another
– finally swaying wave like pieces – with what looks like mountains and a waterfall
– she is still hand drawn, yet the other characters are claymation
– horizon perspective black hole on the stage now
– she gets into a cab and pulls down the mask slightly to reveal that her face is actually blank except for her mouth
– now she deep throats an asparagus, regurgitating water and then the penis disgorges inside her mouth (back and forth different susbtances)
– scene ends with the asparagus reappearing as she raises her mouth one final times – END SCENE

In-Class discussion:
– soundtrack was uncomfortable and discordant
– the entire film sequence made the audience uncomfortable
– sounds in the theatre assaulted the senses and attacked you
– Why Asparagus?!?!?!
– source of creative power comes from the phallus
– dream state to just let go and not psychoanalyze everything – just experience the moment

Gravity – Frank Rofuze (1981)
– Hungarian animator who had to work in government studios or else he wouldn’t work at all
– “The Fly” nominated for academy award in 1981 – but he couldn’t leave Hungary to attend the ceremony
– Gravity was made in 1984
– you are working for the state, paid by the state and commenting on the state – all at the same time

Questions:
How does gravity convey the complexities of living in a totalitarian state?

My notes:
– scene opens with a beautiful tree in an open meadow
– you hear rustling in the bushes
– camera zooms in and then shifts left and right when we hear mumbling/crying
– sounds like a guy taking a shit
– apples are human faces
– main apple is trying to jump up and down to release himself from the tree
– slow motion sequence is hilarious
– everyone else is static and complacent
– FINALLY he is released and enjoys the joy of freefall/FREEDOM
– only to smash into pieces as he hits the ground
– everyone is oblivious to it
– butterfly lands on one of the other people
– one tree in one field = one system