Looking closer in Skyfall

Skyfall was directed by my favorite director Sam Mendes, who by the way directed my beloved American Beauty. American Beauty is a very cinematic movie, because everything (staging, costumes, colors etc.) was carefully planned and elaborated. You just have to LOOK CLOSER to see it. The movie is also rich in symbolism, which we’ve discussed at length with my WordPress friend Andrew in the comment section.

Well, Andrew wrote yesterday a great article about the new Bond movie. There is a paragraph that deals with movie symbolism and I thought it would be a great example of cinematic storytelling. So with Andrew’s permission, I copied the aforementioned paragraph:

In my favourite scene for instance, Bond is fighting silhouetted on a rooftop, which speaks volumes to me.  The action is literally not in focus, and instead we get the idea that though we can see that Bond can keep perfect fighting form, when he kills as part of his job he loses his personality.. Boom, subtle art film.

Skyfall (2012)
Skyfall (2012)

In fact, I want to break this scene down even further. Let’s examine it at an artistic level (remember what Sam Mendes taught us in American Beauty …. to LOOK CLOSER!)  We see:

(a) a fight with the aforementioned silhouette implying that Bond has lost his personality, but also

(b) a jellyfish in the background.  Jellyfish, as you are all aware, have no brain.  The director has thus revisited the theme of Bond not knowing whether he should be “a blunt instrument” that acts without using his brain, or “half monk and half hitman” that not only pulls triggers but also knows when not to pull them, a dilemma he has been wrestling with since Casino Royale.

If you liked this post, I highly recommend to read the whole article by Andrew, it’s amazing.



Visual accident in In Cold Blood

Let me start this article by a great quote by Scott Adams:

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

If you work in some creative field, you know that mistakes happen from time to time. Well, I like to call them happy accidents. One of the best examples I can think of in music is Cher’s ‘Believe’. The vocal effect that is on the record is basically a happy accident resulting from experimentation with vocoding and filtering.

Here is a historical footnote from Sound on Sound article (originally published in February 1999):

It was the first commercial recording to feature the audible side-effects of Antares Auto-tune software used as a deliberate creative effect. The (now) highly recognizable tonal mangling occurs when the pitch correction speed is set too fast for the audio that it is processing and it became one of the most over-used production effects of the following years.

However, the happy accident is not enough to make a monster hit record like Cher’s ‘Believe’. It’s just a starting point. So the reason why the record sounds so great is that the producers (Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling) used it very creatively – they applied the vocoded sections only to parts where they had the most striking effect and not to the whole vocal track. Overall, it was very painstaking process, but well worth it – Cher was amazed!

This blog is focused on the art of cinematic storytelling, so I won’t write more about recording process of Cher’s song, since this was supposed to be only a short introduction to happy accidents, but if you are interested in music, sound design or just curious, I totally recommend reading the whole article at soundonsound.com, where you’ll learn more about the recording process of Cher’s ‘Believe’.

Now, back to the art of cinematic storytelling! Today’s article deals with a purely visual accident that happened in one of the last scenes in In Cold Blood.

The scene in question is when Perry Smith (played by Robert Blake) is about to be hanged at the end of the movie. It’s very sad and you do feel sorry for him, even though he committed such brutal crime.

The whole scene was shot on stage – they made an artificial rain and they also had a fan to the side, which was blowing the spray from the rain against the window.

When they were rehearsing the scene, Conrad L. Hall (cinematographer responsible for such great movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke or American Beauty) noticed a very interesting light effect that happened once on Perry’s face. He loved it immediately.

After the discovery, they changed the blocking (staging) so that the light effect would stay on Perry’s face all the time.

As the water is running down and light hitting his face through that window, it seems like he is crying. It makes the scene extremely emotional and hard to watch. He talks about his father, how he hates him and loves him at the same time. He is not crying, but the visuals are crying for him. I think this has to be one of the most beautiful examples of cinematic storytelling.

And the best part about it is that it was “just” a visual (happy) accident, it wasn’t planned at all!

Now, there are other examples of rain running down on window used for similar purposes. One of them is a scene in Toy Story 3. In this case it wasn’t an accident probably, because Pixar storyboards everything very carefully. Nevertheless, it is still a beautiful example of cinematic storytelling.

Toy Story 3 - Lotso
Toy Story 3 – Lotso

The picture above was taken from a scene, where Lotso learns, that he was replaced by another toy. Even though he is not crying, the visuals tell everything!

I usually have problem with the last sentence in my blog posts, what to write, how to finish, but here it is easy: Make mistakes, use your tools in unusual ways, think outside the box, look for happy accidents and who knows – maybe one day you’ll make a monster hit record or an unforgettable movie scene!


Other Examples

Team America - Gary Johnston
Team America – Gary Johnston

Symbolism of rain

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

When I write an article, I tend to skip the parts you’d skip anyway, that means that my blog posts are usually between 300 to 500 words long. But this time, I have to make it even shorter – I’m currently preparing for state exams (leaving exams from my university – I have to re-learn basically everything from the past 3 years) and I’m running out of time.

Anyway, I was reading through some crappy economical theories and just couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided to give myself a short 15 minute break. I went to TV and tuned the MGM channel, and from 15 minute break was suddenly 2 hour long break. The movie I watched was gangster drama Hoodlum (1997). Firstly, I was really angry at myself, that I was watching TV for 2 hours, when state exams are so close, but now I feel little bit better about it, because the final scene gave me the idea behind this article. So let’s cut to the chase!


The final scene takes place in a church. Our main character – Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) came to say last goodbye to his cousin Illinois Gordon (Chi McBride), who was brutally murdered.

Hoodlum (1997)
Hoodlum (1997)

Then he goes outside,

Hoodlum (1997)
Hoodlum (1997)

and stands in the rain.

Hoodlum (1997)
Hoodlum (1997)

I thought this was really powerful and emotional scene. During the movie, Bumpy says to his girlfriend Francine (Vanessa Williams): “I told you Francine, Good Lord and I have an arrangement, I don’t go to his house, he doesn’t come to mine.”

But now, Bumpy did visit the church and finally found peace inside him (and trust me, his cousin Illinois was not the main reason he came there – other people very close to him died as well and he didn’t go to their funeral).

However, what makes the scene (the final shot) really powerful is the presence of rain: It acts as a symbol of forgiveness and redemption. Also, during the gang war, lot of young and innocent people were killed, so the rain metaphorically cleans his hands from blood and gives a new life to him (I believe he’s changed). Obviously, I could rant about symbolism of rain for much longer, but I think what was important was (hopefully) said already by now.

Shawshank Redemption

Another great example of rain scene is Shawshank Redemption (1994). I’ve never thought about it before, but after Hoodlum, I realized, that the rain served here to very similar purpose.

Andy (Tim Robbins) was innocent from the beginning, he didn’t kill his wife, but he felt responsible for her death, he felt guilty and that’s why he accepted the prison. During his stay there, he was helping others -this way, he was seeking his redemption. And he finally found it.

So when he escapes through the sewage tunnels, the rain cleans him both physically as well as metaphorically. It’s such a powerful scene! Also, the rain symbolizes freedom (you won’t probably experience the rain in the prison). And speaking about freedom, do you remember the very last shot from the movie? Doesn’t the ocean symbolize freedom as well…?

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

If I’ll ever create my top 10 examples of cinematic storytelling, the Shawshank Redemption rain scene is going to be definitely a hot candidate!

P.S. I think, that the Korean expression for the word “clean” is actually composed from two characters: First one meaning “young” and second one “water“. Can anybody speaking the Korean language please confirm that? Soy?