Dispatches from TIFF

Tiff09

Earlier this month, while flipping through the Toronto International Film Festival program guide, I glanced past the inclusion of a spotlight on Tel Aviv filmmakers, which encompassed a set of ten films. Frankly, I didn’t think much of it, since it’s common for the Fest to profile a city or country with a vibrant and emerging film culture. I made a note of the other Israeli films on offer, as I normally do, and moved on to other categories. Around the same time, I started to hear the faint murmurs of a protest aimed at TIFF, with the Tel Aviv selection at its focus.

At first it seemed to be a local skirmish, covered by the Toronto papers, with brief mention on local news — but nothing broader than that. Then, within a day or so, there was a group of names attached to the protest: Jane Fonda, Harry Belafonte, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, John Greyson. I was in disbelief that a group of prominent Canadian and American personalities would try to censor the work of Tel-Aviv filmmakers simply for being from Tel Aviv.

Surprisingly, they did not call for a boycott of the Festival. Remember, some of the voices of dissent had films premiering here (Viggo Mortensen with The Road, for one). So instead, they aimed their outrage at the Festival programmers and organizers who chose Tel Aviv as the spotlighted city. Around went a petition, encouraging more dissenters to lend their names to the growing protest. I guess they wanted ticket-buyers to avoid the Tel Aviv program, or at least share an unkind word with Cameron Bailey and Piers Handling, the Festival’s co-directors.

Arguing that TIFF is helping to support “brand Israel” and promote the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s new advertising campaign, the protesters stated that the Festival “has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.” Strong words from a group of people who had yet to see the ten films comprising the program. No matter if the films glorified or critiqued Israeli domestic policy, these folks were acting on principle. Never mind that these films were made by talented individuals, who likely spent months or years making their film projects. In my view, these artists deserved better than to be the subject of a misdirected attempt to raise awareness to a controversial subject.

I felt compelled to respond to this story not because I saw the need to defend fellow Jews, but because so much of this protest is misdirected, uninformed, and ignorant. We can speculate on the reaction that another controversial choice may have garnered — say, Tehran. Iranian filmmakers have for decades been lauded for pushing cultural, aesthetic, and political boundaries within their own film community. Would the same folks who protested the Israeli spotlight have had the same worries over an Iranian focus?

Obviously, not all Iranian films support Iranian government policy. Several Iranian films have attempted to push back against the fundamentalist nature of the government regime (see the films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf). The fact is, Israel and its cities remain politicized targets, even as Israeli filmmakers attempt to reach a global audience with thoughtful stories and commentaries. Why should an intimate story (The Bubble) about dealing with modern life in Tel Aviv, warts and all, be treated as a site for international conflict? Why not celebrate the technique and artistry of the film, as well as its confrontation with some very delicate issues, including homosexuality, fundamentalism, and nationalism.

In fact, one voice of dissent, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson lamented the lack of focus on Palestinian films at TIFF 09 to offset the strong Israeli contingent. Actually there were a handful of films by Palestinian filmmakers on the Festival roster. I seriously wonder if the next time Greyson applies for a funding grant from the government of Canada if he will see the irony in that decision. Anyone on this side of the border knows that Canada Council grants and others like it aim to promote a certain–some might say restrictive–image of Canadian arts to Canadians and a global audience. Some might call it “Brand Canada.”

The double-standard at play here seems pretty obvious. I may not support everything the Israeli government does, but that should not preclude me from supporting individual filmmakers, who have a story to tell.

In the last few days of the Festival a counter-protest finally emerged. On the front page of the Toronto Star were two sets of photographs — one with Tel Aviv supporters and the other with the original protesters. Of course, most of the counter-protesters were Jewish personalities in film and television, which will simply reaffirm the notion that Jews will support Israel at any cost. I can’t speak for people like David Cronenberg and Natalie Portman, but maybe these filmmakers also realize that censoring a group of filmmakers for belonging to a city, a culture, and a religion should not be tolerated by anyone, especially those who seek to speak for minorities. You don’t have to be Jewish to see that.

Now with that out of the way, here are some thoughts on a few of the films we caught at TIFF this year.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Beauty and the Beast

The highlight of the Festival was, for me, the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty. Getting its world premiere here in Toronto (after a sneak preview in Telluride the previous week), the film offers a glimpse behind the scenes of one of the most celebrated periods in animation history: Walt Disney Studios’ resurgence in the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. From The Black Cauldron to The Lion King, filmmakers Peter Schneider and Don Hahn utilize found footage (mostly home videos) to explore the corporate culture at Disney and the relationship between Disney animators and the executives who wrote their paychecks. The tone of the film is captured best in an early scene, where we are shown outtakes from a corporate video presented by Michael Eisner, Disney’s CEO at the time. Eisner smiles and congratulates the crew of The Lion King on a job well done, then looks off camera, loses the smile and snaps, “That good enough?” He looks tired, defeated, and angry. Apparently, he was. While the Disney animators have a lot to say in the film about their work and crazy schedules, the picture belongs to Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who emerge as great Shakespearean characters at a time when the company was producing some of the most memorable and successful films. Eisner comes off as the better man, even after his two-faced display in the corporate video. While Eisner seems genuinely interested in the quality of Disney animation, Katzenberg has trouble connecting to his employees — the animators. He struggles to communicate, and when he does he ends up angering them even more with his aloofness. Interspersed with the found footage are high-def snippets of the films themselves, which have never looked better — from The Little Mermaid to Aladdin to Beauty and the Beast. It’s all topped by a moving section that details the work of Howard Ashman, the co-composer of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, who died of AIDS before Beast was completed. We were told that the film will be released in April. When it comes to your town, be sure to check it out.

The Hole

the-hole

I was excited to see Joe Dante’s new film, which turned out to be the first 3-D film ever exhibited at TIFF. The Hole is a predictable, if somewhat uneven, horror tale that represents the first live-action 3-D film I have seen since Captain EO back in the eighties. Dante’s use of 3-D is surprisingly underwhelming since he avoids the obvious z-axis stingers and arranges his 3-D mise en scene with subtle depth. Foreground and background planes are noticeably more pronounced, but focal problems were apparent. This may not be a glitch with the 3-D process, but a rack-focus error that occasionally threw the background into sharp focus when the foreground action was unintentionally blurry. In several sequences, Dante is in fine form, as he cleverly mixes humor with genuinely frightening imagery. The bathroom sequence is a real highlight, as is any scene with the demonic clown doll. During our screening, however, the fire alarm was pulled fifteen minutes before the end of the film, which forced us to abandon our seats and exit the theater. Looks like we’ll have to catch the rest of it some other time.

Get Low

Get Low

This is a low key affair with Robert Duvall in a rare starring role and Bill Murray in another memorable supporting part. This might be Bill Murray’s first period piece, actually. The film takes place in the early part of the 20th century, with Duvall playing a feared recluse who one day decides to drive into town on his donkey-drawn cart to ask the local priest for a living funeral. He intends to “get low” (i.e. down to business) and wishes to stage a funeral so he can hear what people really think of him. Duvall plays it close to the chest, emoting only when he absolutely must. As Murray’s character says late in the film, “Is it just me, or is he extremely articulate when he wants to be?” It’s still looking for a distributor, which will hopefully happen, since Duvall and Murray are terrific in the scenes they share together. First-time feature director Aaron Schneider stays away from “homespun” cliches and lets the story breathe on its own without showy editing, camera movement, or musical choices. Getting to see Murray and Duvall in person was a real treat, along with Richard Zanuck whose son Dean produced the film.

Les Herbes Folles

Les Herbes Folles

I was looking forward to Alain Resnais’ newest film, Les Herbes Folles, but left the screening scratching my head. Was he being deliberately playful with his narrative structure and tone? It was slowly building to a romantic pay-off, or at least an ironic punchline, but instead Resnais pulled out the rug from under us, and we were left with a seemingly unrelated and unmotivated question: when a young girl becomes a cat, will she be able to eat cat munchies? The audience, almost in unison, shouted “Huh?” when the screen cut to black. For most of the film Resnais hooked me with a rather simple love story that begins with a woman losing her purse and a lonely house husband retrieving it for her. He falls for her and finds it hard to stop thinking about the stranger whose wallet he found. He fantasizes about her, while she seems completely uninterested in his advances, and seems only content flying her plane. Maybe someone needs to explain this one to me.

Good Hair

Good Hair

Lastly, I wanted to mention Chris Rock’s documentary on African-American hair, called Good Hair. As a white man myself I never knew the complexities associated with black hair. Rock does a good job as on-camera interviewer and voice-over narrator, taking us through the many ways women style their hair. As the father of two young daughters, Rock sees himself as protector and educator. He digs deep and examines the social and cultural roots of what constitutes “natural” black hair (i.e. white Eurpoean hair), and the lengths black women will go to achieve straight, bouncy hair. There’s the highly toxic chemical, sodium hydroxide, which is the main ingredient in most relaxers. Rock and a scientist show how prolonged exposure to the hydroxide will disintegrate a soda can, even though it is commonly used on toddlers and young girls. To explain the origins of weave hair, Rock travels to India and finds that thousands of young women routinely shave their heads as part of a religious ceremony. This hair is then processed, dyed, cleaned and eventually sold to African-American women. Rev. Al Sharpton offers some insightful commentary, as do several other prominent celebrities.

Reading up on TIFF coverage in Variety and other trade sources, it sounds as if this was a pretty mediocre year in terms of film quality and acquisitions. Some blame the recession on the slow acquisition of titles by major distributors, others blame the quality of films for the slow sales. The film Creation, about the relationship between Charles and Emma Darwin, left the Festival without an American distributor, leaving some to wonder if its subject matter would prove too controversial for American audiences or if the film just isn’t that good. I was surprised to see Get Low leave the Festival without a major distributor either — even though the film’s pedigree (produced by the Zanucks, starring Murray and Duvall) suggests that it would be a no-brainer for anyone interested. Which is why I was relieved to hear that Waking Sleeping Beauty will actually get a release, unlike the 2002 behind-the-scenes-at-Disney doc, The Sweatbox. Many other notable features went home without a deal, making it the topic of conversation in the TIFF post mortem. Check out Roger Ebert’s blog post about some other titles that may not be coming to a theater near you.

It’s always a shame that none of the films my wife and I love are ever recognized by the TIFF award juries. This year, Precious: Based On the Novel Push By Sapphire won the People’s Choice Award, which seems to be building Oscar momentum. Last year we thought JCVD was a shoe-in for the audience prize, but then Slumdog Millionaire premiered. As a consolation, it was nice to see that the documentary category finally became eligible this year for the People’s Choice Award. Which is why we were keeping our fingers crossed for Waking Sleeping Beauty to take home that prize. Oh well.

Ben in 3-D

monsters vs. aliens

Hear it in 3-D!

With a busy summer winding down, I’m staring down an equally busy fall. Unfortunately this summer produced fewer blog essays than I intended, as I was busy conducting interviews and developing other research for my doctoral project. I hope to remedy that in the coming months, as I prepare for another round of festival-going at TIFF and take on a teaching challenge at my alma mater, the University of Toronto, where I was offered a full-year course on the history of American filmmaking in the studio era. So, along with my usual thoughts on film style and technology, there will be plenty of film for thought to keep this blog busy.

Today, a few more thoughts on 3-D.

In transcribing some interview material from my conversations with sound practitioners, I came across an interesting point made by a notable re-recording mixer. In addition to finding the right balance among sound effects, this effects mixer is often responsible for placing sound effects in the 5.1 sound space. This means, for example, spreading explosions across the front channels or sending a variety of “bys” or passes from the front to the rear surround channels.

Before the re-emergence and hype surrounding modern 3-D presentations, 5.1 audio represented one way to immerse the audience in the space of a film. Sound mixers routinely envelop audiences in different sound spaces as a way of conveying the spatial geography of a scene; to provide clues to the location of a scene; and to embellish the sound signatures of a particular locale. Sound was a natural choice to convey immersion, since it fills the entire theater space with speakers not only behind the screen but along the side and back walls of all modern auditoriums. But now with 3-D all the rage, it seems that immersive 5.1 audio may not be immersive enough.

Speaking casually about sound technology and the aesthetics of modern film sound, this mixer — who has some experience mixing for recent 3-D fare — expressed frustration with the state of sound in relation to the 3-D format. Here’s the whole quote:

“At the moment I feel it is just a strictly visual experience. With 5.1 you can’t make it sound like special venue sound. In a standard theater, you just can’t do it. You try. You try to exaggerate surround. You try to get more special with things. But you can only do so much because you don’t have a speaker over your head. You don’t have a wall lined with them, like they do in some theme parks.”

With so few films being prepared for release in 3-D, the reality of this situation has yet to be felt by the majority of Hollywood re-recording mixers. Many have noted that norms and conventions have yet to be augmented to better suit 3-D because time, resources, and the small number of actual 3-D films prevent people in sound editorial and mixing to re-conceptualize sound style. While visual effects departments get the time and financial resources they need to refine and complete shots, sound departments are routinely told by post-production supervisors that there isn’t extra time or money for fringe benefits like reconfiguring the 5.1 layout.

The traditional press, along with the blogosphere, have had a lot to say about 3-D (including my own essay on the subject), but few have noted how the sound track might work in relation to eye-popping imagery. I naturally assumed that the 3-D sound track must be exploring new avenues of immersion, or responding in some way to the illusions of depth. If hardware firms like IMAX and Dolby are spending millions developing 3-D technology and studios are readying a growing number of 3-D releases, then surely sound must be part of the innovation party. Well…yes and no.

No one can say for sure what the future will bring, but at this moment the state of the 3-D sound track is unchanged. That is not to say that mixers aren’t working with sound differently than with traditional 2-D films. As the effects mixer noted, they will sometimes push more “hard” effects into the split surround channels to mimic an action that sends the image “into” the theater. Backgrounds (also known as ambiences) may also be treated with more gusto. In this sense, mixers are pushing more sound into the theater space to complement the visual push. It also helps that most 3-D movies has been animated, a genre which often affords mixers greater play with sound level and placement. Things can be more lively, full, and bright with films like Monsters vs. Aliens and Coraline.

Mixers are, therefore, tweaking current practices to suit the new image. They are not, as one might imagine, re-configuring the sound of sound. Why not? Well, a new delivery system for sound would be costly for exhibitors, who have already had to install digital cinema projectors to offer films in 3-D. A new sound system may involve not only new processors, but also more loudspeakers behind the screen and along the side and back walls. For years Tomlinson Holman has been arguing for 10.2 surround sound, which adds a pair of left and right overhead channels, a pair of wide left and right channels, a second subwoofer, and a center rear channel (which Dolby introduced in 1999 with the release of Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace). This layout would add the overhead channel desired by our effects mixer, and gives more latitude to the behind-the-screen channels to localize sound more precisely.

This report from Audioholics points out that psychoacoustic experiments suggest that human sound localization is far greater on the horizontal plane and front hemisphere than on the sides or rear. Unfortunately, the home theater industry continues to emphasize the importance of surround channels, and continues to add rear channels to the home array as some 7.1 systems demonstrate.

10.2

In Japan, NHK has proposed a 22.2 system to complement their super high-def television technology. Another re-recording mixer introduced me to a new sound system out of Germany called IOSONO. Here’s a brief excerpt from their description of its cinema applications:

An IOSONO system really comes into its own with IOSONO-encoded material. Sound designers can place up to 32 independent sound objects anywhere outside of, or within, the theater, either far behind the walls or right next to any member of the audience. What’s more, these sound objects can be made to move along any given path, at any desired speed. Ever experienced a helicopter slowly flying into the middle of the theater and hovering right above your seat? With IOSONO, you can.

Here is a description of the technology itself:

A computer controls each loudspeaker separately and actuates it the moment the desired wave front would pass through it. To synthesize a spherical wave front originating from a point behind the speakers, for example, the speaker closest to the virtual source is actuated first, followed by the speakers to the right and left of it. This results in a wave front with a relatively large radius and a virtual source point outside of the listening space. Reversing the order of actuation (where the speakers closest to the virtual point source are actuated last) results in a wave field corresponding to that of a source within the listening space.

The result is a stable wave field in which the listener can localize the virtual sound sources as if they were emanating from actual objects. The loudspeakers themselves, however, cannot be localized. Wave field synthesis thus creates a stunning illusion of acoustic events in a space, adding a whole new dimension to audio in the entertainment and other industries.

Beyond the marketing language of the IOSONO system, it is easy to see how this type of application could be attractive to Hollywood sound mixers who seek to augment the soundscape of a 3-D film by adding more localized channels. As the effects mixer stated, 5.1 is not broad enough to pin-point sound in space. In fact, several mixers agree that 5.1 is a digital compromise between exhibitors and industry practitioners. More channels may represent greater creative control, but it inevitably costs more. And, according to Tom Holman, 5.1 achieves the minimum number of discrete channels required for an immersive sound field.

In practice, mixers often avoid pin-pointed sound in 5.1 sound space because of its potential to distract audiences from the screen. Which is why many supervising sound editors and final mixers aim to fill the rear channels with rich but undefined backgrounds. Very rarely is dialog placed in the rear for the same reason. With 3-D, mixers are faced with an image that calls attention to itself, so why can’t sound do the same thing? If an arrow is shot out from the screen and lands somewhere to the left-rear of the viewer, why not indicate the arrow hit with a sound effect in the left-rear of the auditorium? As I mentioned earlier, mixers already use the rears as transport channels for fly-bys or car-bys or other moving objects.

As much as mixers are frustrated with the financial constraints to 3-D sound, there are some theoretical issues that still lurk in the shadow of 5.1. Mixers may want more channels capable of reproducing localized sound, but they must first overcome the conventional logic of surround sound mixing: avoid localized sound in the far left, far right, and rear. Tom Holman once quipped, “In Top Gun, when jets fly left to right across the screen and then exit screen right, what may be perceived aurally is the jet flying off screen as well, right into the exit sign.”

That is why Holman, among others, has opted for immersive film sound not localized film sound. Unlike a theme park ride which often directs your attention through sound cues placed in a 360 degree fashion around a room (think of the Hall of Presidents in Walt Disney World), cinema sound must contend with a two-dimensional screen on which audiences must stayed focused, even with 3-D presentations where your eyes remain fixed on a general axis, where any movement outside that axis might reveal the images to be cardboard cutouts — a phenomenon all too familiar to me.

The call for special venue sound for 3-D presentations seems to be an unlikely reality given the cost and small base of films released in the format. The desire for special venue sound also hides a fundamental aspect of Hollywood filmmaking that James Cameron continues to emphasize, even as he touts his upcoming Avatar as a veritable “game changer” in the way we experience our movies. In an interview with the Daily Mail he stated,

The irony with Avatar is that people think of it as a 3D film and that’s what the discussion is. But I think that, when they see it, the whole 3D discussion is going to go away…That’s because, ideally, the technology is advanced enough to make itself go away. That’s how it should work. All of the technology should wave its own wand and make itself disappear.

He is emphasizing story clarity and intelligibility, two of the most fundamental building blocks of American cinema. As much as the technology can wow our eyes and ears, the experience is in service to something else: the story. So as much as Cameron is prepared to awe his audience, he’s acutely aware that the illusion will fail if the audience isn’t taken on a journey that means something more than eye-popping visuals.

Filmmakers, including sound professionals, have always had to reconcile the spectacular nature of technology with the need for narrative invisibility. This is especially the case with sound mixing, where their art is based on the fine balance of story comprehension and environmental immersion. It is, therefore, hard to imagine sound acting any other way than it currently does in 3-D environments, especially if directors like Cameron subscribe to the story-is-paramount ideology.

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