Category Archives: Fire and Light

Visual storytelling in Westworld

I will take any excuse to go back and re-watch Westworld. Today, after reading something by another filmmaker, Arthur Woo, I went back and looked through what at first appears to be a very simple scene in season one: Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) having a conversation. However, with Westworld, deceptively simple things are often more complex.

Here are my thoughts on how the camera placement and movement reinforces and expresses the narrative in this scene. In other words, how the camera’s visual storytelling works with the actors and the screenplay. Production design, blocking, sound design, lighting, and lots of other factors are important, but I’m just concentrating on this for now.

Westworld EP104: Dolores and Bernard opening scene. Running time 3 minutes.

Starting with a reflection of Bernard in Dolores’ eye, the camera pulls back to reveal her face, at eye-level. Dolores describes being trapped in a dream. Cut to wide shot showing both characters inside a glass room. They are literally trapped in a physical space that itself is a visual conflict; the glass makes it appear open, but it is actually closed. Bernard is standing, pacing a little. Dolores is seated, still.

Starting on Dolores at eye level with the camera—and therefore with the viewer—establishes/reinforces that this is Dolores’ scene and it is told from her dramatic point of view (although it’s not necessarily her literal POV). Bernard is guiding her in finding the truth of her existence. He provides the conflict through a series of questions and orders, but every decision in the scene—every decision that moves the story forwards—is hers.

As Dolores describes her dream and the murder of her parents, Bernard gives an order: “Limit your emotional affect, please.” The camera crosses the line of action at this point. Reality has changed. The camera switches to an objective, profile view of Dolores, putting the viewer outside her as she states, “Everyone I cared about is gone. And it hurts…”

Bernard offers to make the feelings of pain and sadness go away, seeing them as a result of her programming. “Why would I want that?” asks Dolores. The camera is facing her again, allowing us to identify with her. And we are below her eye-level, emphasizing the importance of her decision: to keep her emotions. “The pain. Their loss. It’s all I have left of them.”

At its core, Westworld is a story about the nature of consciousness and sentience. What is it that defines us as living beings? As self-aware? Sentient? This scene touches on a theme which continues throughout the series, across seasons: the philosophical idea that we are the stories we tell ourselves. Dolores’ story is initially a result of programming; she is programmed to re-enact a complex storyline on a repeated cycle. In this scene, we see that change.

For the show’s creators (Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan), Dolores’ story—and therefore her sentience—might be as valid as that of the humans, despite the fact that her story, the story she believes, was originally written for her by others. This is partly because it develops and branches away from the initial narrative she was given. Dolores goes on to talk about this. “I feel spaces opening up inside of me. Like a building with rooms I’ve never explored.” She is becoming self-aware by adding to her own narrative.

Cut to a three-quarter profile of Bernard’s reaction. Before he speaks, we see he is stunned by her words. He tries to dismiss them, “That’s very pretty… Dolores…” He questions the origin of her assertion. The camera becomes looser. There’s almost a hand-held feeling. We aren’t as certain any more. Dolores asks, “Is there something wrong with these thoughts I’m having?”

The camera crosses the line a second time, to outside the glass room. We see the invisible trap, but this time it’s from Dolores’ side, looking towards Bernard, pushing in as he sits down. “No. But I’m not the only one making these decisions.” This is new information. Bernard is not fully in charge or in control. The visual shows he is trapped too.

Again, the camera crosses the line, switching to the other side of the action. “Can you help me?” asks Dolores. “What is it that you want?” asks Bernard. “I don’t know. But I think there may be something wrong with this world.” Camera is now in an objective profile again. We are observing Dolores, instead of identifying with her at this point. It encourages us to think, “What does she know? What does she guess?” Cut to Bernard’s reaction. He thinks he knows what she means. Cut back to high angle extreme close up on Dolores; we are looking into her mind as she reflects on her self: “Either that or there’s something wrong with me. I may be losing my mind.”

Camera comes back to a two-shot, this time inside the room, same side of the action, from Dolores’ side looking towards Bernard. Camera moves down, indicating what’s coming is increasingly important. Bernard cleans his glasses, symbolically finding a fresh way to look at things. Cut to close up of Bernard, on same angle, slightly to one side as this is also an objective view; it is not his scene. Although we see both eyes, so his reaction is important.

“There’s something I’d like you to try. It’s a game. Called The Maze.” Cut to close up, almost straight on, low angle, on Dolores, with looking space to the right as she looks to Bernard: “What kind of game is it?” Bernard describes the maze. “If you can do that, maybe you can be free.” At this point Bernard is framed in an off-axis, tight close up, from slightly below his eye-line, indicating power.

Cut to camera pushing in to tighter and tighter shot of Dolores’ face. She considers. “I think… I think I want to be free.” She has made her choice and the shot on her now matches the close up on Bernard. The camera is also below her eye-line, indicating that she has made a powerful decision which will drive the story forwards. Dolores and Bernard finish the scene as equals, visually and narratively.

Note from Saint Basil Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Vasco seems smaller today. It’s not just his absence. It’s a physical thing. I’m surprised how much smaller Vasco seems as he lies dead at the viewing at St Basil Catholic Church. Like all the life has been taken and it diminishes him physically.

The sun is shining yet it’s a hazy sun. It doesn’t shine as brightly today. The LA people wear smart black clothes and sunglasses. I think they don’t need the glasses to shield against the sun today. I think, at least maybe one or two, wish to hide their eyes and keep their feelings inside.

And of course, there’s a guy selling rosaries. $5. Can you help out with any change? I’d light a candle but you have to buy them from the Rectory and the Rectory is closed. Hazy sunlight is enough today.

I don’t really know anyone here. I just remember Vasco, meeting him just a few weeks ago and finding this person with all this incredible energy and zeal. And so I sit and listen to the people talk. And they talk about Vasco. And their memories of him, how they knew him.

A pigeon flies straight at me, startling me. It lands near my feet. I watch it strut, noticing the colors on its neck. Pigeons are beloved by some for their homing ability.

The people talk softly around me. In the church, people cross themselves with holy water. There’s lots of sniffing. Crying, softly. The organ begins to play and people file in quietly. A homeless woman stirs on a pew at the back of the church then goes back to sleep.

Beautiful colored light hits the plain concrete wall, streaming through a modern stained glass window. Orange purple green yellow, a touch of cyan, a mote of red. Now on the statues of St Joseph. Now diagonal bands on the wall. Some of the colors match the iridescent pigeon.

The priest exits and blesses the coffin, closed now. A final baptism. The coffin is draped in white and brought in, the processional. The rest of the mourners fill the church. There’s a hymn. The slashes of light are red and yellow. Joseph is the colors of the homing bird.

Beautiful singing, someone holds up their phone to record it. Just one among a hundred. Maybe two hundred. Actually they’re not recording. It’s a different face. A mourner who can’t make it. They’re streaming. Just the song. The homily. Parts.

Guy takes pictures because, I suppose, the lens is his fallback. I write because the written word is mine. Behind me, a woman sobs, completely. How can Vasco Nunes, this man so vibrant so alive be gone?

Siri shares directions to another place from an unsilenced cellphone in the pews ahead. People fluster and smile nervously. At the Eucharist, a second homeless woman comes in, makes her way near the front and prays for her wine fix. I don’t think she knows anyone. I’ve seen maybe two other African American people, the other homeless, the other well dressed. Communion lady wears a grey hoodie and carries a giant bag.

The priest invites us to share a sign of peace with those nearby. I shake two hands, peace be with you. There is peace. Communion begins. I quietly exit.

Afterward, I sit in Carl’s Jr inhaling a burger without really tasting or chewing before I go to meet writers. I’m glad I got to see Guy and Lisa and Jonathan. I’m glad I got to see Vasco one more time, although it was sad not to feel his presence. I reflect I’m probably too cynical. I hope the poor woman got a good draught of port. I hope everyone did. It’s a Catholic Church and this is a wake. It’s also communion.

Being present is being connected and at some point, it dawns on me, Vasco hasn’t shrunk. He’s grown, diffused. His spirit is all around me, kept alive through all these memories, these people, these friends. Vasco didn’t go. He’s still here, thanks to his spirit, and those who met him continue to feel his presence.

Don’t fear life, my friend. Life is fleeting. Life is good. And our spirits know how to get home after.

Content Theft

We got an email today from an astroturfing (look it up) “charity” called Creative America. Creative America (funded by the studios and unions) wants to expand the movement for intellectual property security. That sounds like a good thing, right? Right?? Wrong.

When distributors regularly take producers’ works and make profits from those works but don’t pay the creative talent a realistic return because they allegedly spent all the money on distribution and marketing, that’s content theft. When Instagram asserts that it “does not claim ownership” of your pictures but claims a “fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license”, that’s content theft. When a studio takes taxpayer money (incentives) to produce a film but avoids paying taxes on a billion-dollar grossing movie by creating subsidiaries to hide the income, that’s another kind of theft. Maybe content theft should be the name given to the RIAA campaign to deprive recording artists of residuals from radio airplay. That one was pretty blatant theft because it’s not standard practice in most other countries. Or is content theft what happens when Disney perverts the law intended to encourage creativity by having the copyright term extended to life plus 75 years?

None of these things help me, the creative monkey who dances when someone pays the organ grinder. The only thing which helps me is when producers, distributors and/or studios or clients invest in NEW work and pay a realistic amount for that. That doesn’t mean bullshit tentpole sequel movies with overpriced stars and under-written scripts. Uwe Boll is the poster child for movies that fail despite big names, big marketing and being created on the backs of related successful franchises. That model doesn’t work. What actually works is new movies that the public can afford to see without add-on price-hyping gimmicks like 3D or IMAX, without outdated distribution methods and “windows”, and with realistic marketing and marketing budgets based on realistic expectations of the actual value of the intellectual property. New good work where everyone working gets paid at a realistic, reasonable rate.

And take that further, new work where everyone involved shares in the success through residuals. New work is the only thing which helps me. None of the posturing. None of the criminalizing. Not SOPA. Not PIPA. Not threats of 35 years of imprisonment which is what these companies demanded for Aaron Swartz, the co-creator of RSS who committed suicide this weekend after being hounded with legal threats generated by the interests of these parasites. None of that helps. Just bookings for work where the profits are shared equitably with the participants instead of siphoned off by a few at the top. That’s what helps me.

So, yes. Content theft. A red herring to fuck up the creative world of the internet. Where studios don’t have to produce a damn thing, just keep milking the money cow and attacking creativity in the world where the rest of us live. This attitude has become pervasive. Distributors and agents are demanding releases for images of property that is so far out of copyright it’s a joke (eg. European castles). Yet this protectionism only works in one direction. Getty Images pissed photographers off royally this week by freely giving pictures to Google for them to sublicense without attribution or recompense. Hollywood has enough money to employ shills but not to actually make movies without taxpayer handouts (aka incentives) while avoiding actually paying tax back into the system. It’s fucking remarkable.

How the did copyright law become this screwed up by companies that don’t actually pay fucking income tax? This nonsense has been tried since movies first began, with Edison and his compatriots seeking to monopolise the film industry through use of patents a century ago. Trying to control access didn’t work then and won’t work now. Independent artists, distributors and exhibitors have always been extremely important in the world of the arts but now we have threats of life incarceration for copying publicly available documents—not secrets, but academic journals; work in the public domain. Meanwhile bankers and CEOs blatantly destroy jobs, create homelessness, steal pensions and launder money for terrorists. Terrorists, you know, people who actually fucking blow other people to bits, shoot our troops, kill and maim for their cause—banks can help fund those guys and there are no consequences because something like “HSBC is too big to jail” so is therefore outside the law? But distributing the results of publicly funded research—papers actually in the public domain—might be grounds for effectively ending an individual’s life?

Current intellectual property law is outdated and nonsensical. Academics are showing support for Mr Swartz by actively tweeting links to PDF’s of their journal articles. []. Did you know that the only reason prints of Nosferatu still exist is because of piracy and subverting copyright? In the real world, Disney should never get to own your arm just because you got a tattoo of Mickey Mouse. In the real world, the rules should apply equally to the little guy and the big corporation. The so-called creative industry needs to get sensible about what makes art, instead of hoping art “just happens” like a natural bodily function in a world where we see identical bland sedans being burped out by every single car company on the planet. And Government needs to embrace its role in this with better access to information in the digital age instead of trying to kill the messenger (or finding some dubious sex charges to keep him locked up in Scandinavia).

The GOP had a wonderful opportunity for real IP reform during last year’s elections. Imagine, a real platform that Republicans could use with strong appeal to young voters and the tech-savvy Generations X, Y and Z. This was a platform they could have used to actually change and improve lives. Instead, the paid-for politicians retracted the Republican Study Committee Intellectual Property Brief [], a report which would have simplified the legislation and actually encouraged creativity. And last month the GOP fired its author Derek Khanna.

Democrats are no better when it comes to embracing the potential of the internet and fair access to everything it can provide. Notwithstanding the attacks on investigative journalism through misuse of the Espionage Act of 1917, last year saw Obama’s Whitehouse demanding tougher federal penalties for suspected copyright infringement, including adding copyright to the list of serious crimes that can justify wiretapping in the expanded Patriot Act. Imagine, copyright is now as serious as blowing up a plane full of people. Unless you’re a banker.

Tough laws, harassment and life sentences for copying and distributing work, especially work in the public domain, is bullshit. If it didn’t work with the dismal failure of a war on drugs, how can it work in a war on access to artistic works? Obviously the old paradigm is dead in a world where everyone is connected, in the world of the internet. If a motion picture production company can’t make money within 10-20 years of creating a film, then chances are pretty high that it wasn’t commercially viable. You don’t need life plus 75 years to create a library of financial flops in the hopes of a long tail well after the author’s children are collecting pensions. And at the same time, we can clearly see that the Department of Justice doesn’t give a shit when an offender is rich, which just tells us that these so-called get-tough policies are really only about who is paying whom. The goal shouldn’t be to create bigger legal departments but to create art.

So, our message to Creative America is, no. No, you’re not. You’re not creative in any sense of the word other than creative lying, bullshit and ignorance. Get fucking real and we might have something to talk about. Right now, we don’t. Go back and read Derek Khanna’s RSC brief and start working towards that kind of system. You need to understand that copyright is a bargain between the public and the creators, trading some freedoms in return for more artistic works. Until you understand that copyright is ultimately about what benefits the public, first and foremost, you’re a bunch of astroturfing shills, riding the backs of truly creative people and doing nothing to help them.


Updated Jan 4, 2018: because have ironically used electronic protection to prevent downloading the text of Derek Khanna’s RSC brief. Nevertheless, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has made it accessible

Serious not serious

I was thinking I might start this series of Wisdom From Laura. However, I’m fairly bad at blogging lately (you might have noticed) so who knows how many I’ll do. Here’s the first.

We were talking about Nicolas Cage the other day and Laura mentioned about how he’s gone from this good actor who didn’t take himself too seriously to an actor who is serious about his craft but also, unfortunately, seems to take himself way too seriously. And that’s the insight:

Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

I think I’ve been doing this for many years, just never saw it in those terms. I’m living the dream, man. Something like that, anyway.

Breakfast Insights of the Day

Sarcasm, mon petite dejeuners, is a way of skating a fine line between humour and passive aggressiveness. And passive aggressiveness is damaging because it’s (a) not adult behaviour and (b) it leads to a lot of bottled up emotions that eventually culminate in an explosive outburst. All very unhealthy.

I believe passive aggressive behaviour or its opposite, outright confrontational behaviour, occur when someone’s confidence is less than a hundred percent. Witness that attractiveness is a by-product of someone’s confidence and you can see that any kind of graceless confrontation, passive or not, makes someone less attractive. The two–confidence and confrontation–are related. Passive aggressive is but a shade somewhere on that spectrum.

I’m not saying that my frequent rants are good either. However, I will say that I lead a generally happy life and that, my little breakfasts, is as much as anyone can wish.


I had all this intellectual drivel ready to spout forth but then this other thing came up. Part of the drivel was a whole thing about going to a talk by Peter Chung, the creator of animated series Aeon Flux and one of the Matrix episodes, Matriculated. Actually, I may as well drivel a bit since I seem to have started.

Peter talked about filmmaking and how important it is to plan and direct, how important it is to have action. He mentioned Waking Life and an argument he once had with his flatmate about how Waking Life has some great things, but it isn’t really a film. It’s just a recording of events.

This reminded me of a conversation Laura and I have had a few times about filming versus directing. A lot of modern films are simply filmed and not directed. The filmmaker points the camera towards the subject, presses the record button and hopes. This is not filmmaking in the sense of artistic creation, and it’s certainly not directing. It’s more electronic visual note taking. Not good enough.

That was some of my drivel. I’d remember more but then there was this thing came up and I know you’re dying to know. Bedjump. Yes, there’s a website for people who like to bounce on hotel beds: and you know you want to visit it. Check out October 9th…

Coffee And Bagels

Two things. One, coffee. Coffee should never be served in a glass. What is this ridiculousness that permeates far too many coffee shops around these parts? Hot liquid in glass. Gosh, doesn’t it look trendy? Complete cobblers. It makes the glass hot, you burn your fingers and it doesn’t keep the coffee warm. Coffee should be served, at best, in a proper mug, otherwise in an insulated container. Glasses are for wine, beer, spirits and soft drinks. Tea? Don’t even go there.

Second thing, bagels. What’s the point? Big lump of chewy dough with a hole in the middle. There is no point. If I want a sandwich, I want proper bread or a bread roll. If I want a cakey thing with my coffee, I’ll eat a cakey thing. Preferably with a lot of sugar and chocolate therein. I don’t want something that’s going to sink to the bottom of my stomach and sit there like jurassic clay. The stuff they make bagels with would be better used to make coffee mugs, if you ask me. Mould it, bake it, just don’t expect me to eat it.

Thirdly, I appear to have started going to coffee shops. And ranting about it. I’m beyond hope.

Behind The Curtain

Today I receive an email from an American university undergraduate whose ability to write coherent English is the equivalent of a seven year old. Today I talk to an American university secretary who can’t see past the bureacracy of her organization which insists on a multitude of forms, including one for paying prize money. Today I try to deposit a check for $1500 into my own account and have to wait for the manager’s approval. Yes, today I deal with the American Educated Class.

And I am appalled. Education in America appears to exist outside of reality and to be measured by the standards of Oz. You know, where the Great Oz hands the Scarecrow a piece of paper and claims it proves he’s intelligent. Scarecrow’s head is still full of straw but now he has credentials. That may work for children—build them up to raise expectations. For children, yes, this is a good thing. For adults? I think not.

Yet, that’s what education here appears to be all about. Pay the money, pass the test, get the piece of paper. Don’t think; obey. And pay up while you’re at it. Curse those pesky free-thinkers who somehow slip through the cracks, maintain intellectual rigour and end up being able to question for themselves. Thinking without paying and undermining authority with their accursed questions.

Of course, in the end, society is to blame for the bureacracy gone mad. But never mind them; we’ll be investigating them later. (rimshot)  For further amusement combined with head-bang-on-desk disbelief over what’s happening in the US school system, go here and check out the article “Let’s Get Back to Education in Education”. Oh, you’ll need a time machine because that link has expired.

Memes Evolve

One of the most fascinating people I’ve met at A2FF this week has been media ecologist Gerry Fialka. Gerry is not only well-informed, off-beat and articulate, but he’s willing to enter in new discussions even if they go against his current views. He was on a panel with Scott Beiben of the Lost Film Festival this afternoon. Gerry says we need to look for new questions to ask and new paradigms.

Started me thinking. About chaos theory. And about leadership (again). Chaos theory shows chaotic systems going through periods of temporary stability; periods where it looks like order. Like, maybe, society. Maybe society is in a transitional phase, looking for the next paradigm; the next period of order. Maybe the memes are evolving.

Scott spoke about lots of cool stuff too. The panel was about Cultural Jamming, or Culture Jamming. I’ll look it up later. Anyway, Scott’s approach to film exhibition (and I guess production) is way on the fringe. At one point he said something like, “I don’t believe in law or nation states or sovereignty.” Yours truly heckled, “Hey, you’re George Bush!” Minor titters.

There does seem to be a shared worldview at opposite ends of the American political spectrum. Do what you want, it’s not right or wrong, just “appropriate” or “inappropriate”, a “service” or a “disservice”. Is it too politically correct? Or are the memes, also, evolving? It feels like America needs those new paradigms, the new metaphors arising from the new questions.

Perhaps, once it’s got a handle on them, there’ll be some real leadership at the top, on both sides, instead of vaccillation countered by tantrums and people in the middle looking for an easy buck. It occurs to me, though, that the meme everyone’s looking for is “think global, act local”. Humans still want to reach other humans; community spirit. It’s about what’s pro-social. That’s good.

Here endeth the thought bubble.


PS. Sometimes engaging people doesn’t work. You can talk and talk but if they don’t want to listen, don’t want to change, you’re wasting your time. You can also preach to the choir but so what? Frankly, the answer to that is: you can’t force people to change. You can create the opportunity for them to change, support their freedom of expression. In the end, though, change is about leadership and, yes, there is more to that meme than engagement alone.

Shove This In Your Name Brand

Today I hit a car. I knew I was going to do it, to hit another vehicle, from a day-dreamingyetstrangelysimmeringwithanger moment as I was driving towards the lights on Maple and Dexter. Just a feeling. I didn’t hit anyone at precisely that moment, though. In fact, it was nearly eight hours later that I hit the actual physical car.

Today’s been like that. I’d been out filming a lecture by a Jewish lesbian from Cuba—one of Ann Arbor’s defining moments, perhaps—and had hauled my sorry ass (or dejected pack mule, if you prefer) back to the parking structure. There, some cunt had parked their pointless four wheel drive so close to me that I was compelled to thwack my door against his/hers a few times. Then I reversed out and started to turn and, yeah, I scraped my fender along his/hers/its.

Of course, I stopped and checked for damage. My car wasn’t, so that was okay. Now I can concentrate on matters of great moment and import. Matters like why there are so many two-faced back-stabbing bags of shit in the world and why I can’t get a gold medal on Project Gotham Racing 3. These are tough questions and I don’t really have any answers right now. Okay, I have one.

Sock puppets. Sock puppets are the answer. Yes. I’m thinking of naming my first sock puppet Mardi Grease Burger and I’m going to make it wear a hair shirt and have a special tube that makes it drool from the side of its mouth. But even before that Hendersonesque moment, I need to figure why Apple’s Compressor 2 software is a piece of soul-sucking crap and then practise PGR3 some more.

Once that’s achieved I can ask for a second opinion. Which reminds me of a joke. A man goes to the doctor.  He says, “Doctor, I’ve got this terrible pain. I think it might be caused by the stress of sitting too close to a television screen.” The doctor says, “No, it’s not that. I used to be in charge of terminal dullness and I can categorically say it’s because you’re terminally dull.” The man says, “Hey, that’s outrageous! I demand a second opinion!” The doctor says, “Alright. You’re ugly as well.”

I thenkyew.