Friday, July 27, 2007

The Film Techniques of Koichi Mashimo?

Subject: Noir
I stumbled on a brilliantly concise summary of the various written insights on Alfred Hitchcock's techniques, and it struck me immediately that a lot of it described the cinematic techniques that I saw Koichi Mashimo using. I'll highlight a few key points:

2: Frame for Emotion
[...] Emotion comes directly from the actor's eyes. You can control the intensity of that emotion by placing the camera close or far away from those eyes. A close-up will fill the screen with emotion, and pulling away to a wide angle shot will dissipate that emotion. A sudden cut from wide to close-up will give the audience a sudden surprise. Sometimes a strange angle above an actor will heighten the dramatic meaning.

This one is a staple of Mashimo's, even in his earlier old-skool works. A lot of anime fans complain about all the closeups of eyes; me, I revel in them! *grin*

3: Camera is Not a Camera
The camera should take on human qualities and roam around playfully looking for something suspicious in a room. This allows the audience to feel like they are involved in uncovering the story. Scenes can often begin by panning a room showing close-ups of objects that explain plot elements.

While not exactly mapping to what Mashimo does, I've long noted that he treats the camera as another character, more than just a viewport on to the scene.

4: Dialogue Means Nothing
One of your characters must be pre-occupied with something during a dialogue scene. Their eyes can then be distracted while the other person doesn't notice. This is a good way to pull the audience into a character's secretive world.

“People don’t always express their inner thoughts to one another," he said "a conversation may be quite trivial, but often the eyes will reveal what a person thinks or needs.” The focus of the scene should never be on what the characters are actually saying. Have something else going on. Resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.

"Noir" is famously light on dialogue, yet very strong on storytelling. And you can read a lot into the character's inner dialogue because of this technique. No need to resort to voiceovers or soliloquy.

5: Point of View Editing
Jimmy Stewart looks at dog and then we see him smiling. Jimmy Stewart looks at a woman undressing and then we see him smiling. Those two smiles have completely different meanings, even if they are the exact same smile.

Putting an idea into the mind of the character without explaining it in dialogue is done by using a point-of-view shot sequence. This is subjective cinema. You take the eyes of the characters and add something for them to look at.

- Start with a close-up of the actor
- Cut to a shot of what they're seeing
- Cut back to the actor to see his reaction
- Repeat as desired

You can edit back and forth between the character and the subject as many times as you want to build tension. The audience won't get bored. This is the most powerful form of cinema, even more important than acting..

6: Montage Gives You Control
Divide action into a series of close-ups shown in succession. Don't avoid this basic technique. This is not the same as throwing together random shots into a fight sequence to create confusion. Instead, carefully chose a close-up of a hand, an arm, a face, a gun falling to the floor - tie them all together to tell a story. In this way you can portray an event by showing various pieces of it and having control over the timing. You can also hide parts of the event so that the mind of the audience is engaged.

These two are really Cinema 101; it's why storyboarding is so important, and why editing is more than just splicing camera shots together.

7: Keep the Story Simple!
If your story is confusing or requires a lot of memorization, you're never going to get suspense out of it. The key to creating that raw Hitchcock energy is by using simplistic, linear stories that the audience can easily follow.

"Keep It Simple, Stupid". This maxim was boldly pronounced on the old original Bee Train web site (archived), and was another thing that attracted me to these shows. Complicated and epic stories can be fun to geek out to, but simplicity is often superior. And scratch the surface of something "epic", and you may just find a simpler core...

8: Characters Must Break Cliché
Make all of your characters the exact opposite of what the audience expects in a movie. Turn dumb blondes into smart blondes, give the Cuban guy a French accent, and the criminals must be rich and successful. [...] These sort of ironic characters make them more realistic to the audience, and much more ripe for something to happen to them.

Anime is so rife with cliché, it's no wonder that a lot of Mashimo characters leap off the screen as being "different". Refreshing.

11: Suspense is Information
Once you put tension into your scene, you build it toward something, creating suspense. "Information" is essential to Hitchcock suspense; showing the audience what the characters don’t see. If something is about to harm the characters, show it at beginning of the scene and let the scene play out as normal. Constant reminders of this looming danger will build suspense. But remember - the suspense is not in the mind of the character. They must be completely unaware of it.

They don't mention the role of music in this aspect, but otherwise, more Cinema 101 and a key ingredient in the best arcs of many series.

13: Warning: May Cause MacGuffin
The MacGuffin is the side effect of creating pure suspense. When scenes are built around dramatic tension, it doesn’t really matter what the story is about. If you've done your job and followed all the previous steps, the audience is still glued no matter what. You can use random plot devices known as the MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin is nothing. The only reason for the MacGuffin is to serve a pivotal reason for the suspense to occur. (Schickel) It could be something as vague as the "government secrets perhaps" in North by Northwest, or the long detailed weapons plans of Mr. Memory in the 39 Steps. Or, it could be something simple like the dog blocking the stairway in Strangers on a Train. Nobody cares about the dog. It's only there for one reason - suspense. It could have just as easily been a person, an alarm, a talking parrot, or a macguffin!

Heh. Another fun geek-out thing to do is to overanalyze every little thing in every little shot to see what it symbolizes -- and I'm very guilty of that. But I forget the "MacGuffin" principle. Honestly, in some ways, claiming "MacGuffin" is a bit of a cop-out; the situation or object in question must have come from somewhere in the writers' subconcious in connection to the rest of the story.

I'd like to go deeper into all of these and try to illustrate each "technique" with examples at some point. Seeing as Mashimo has mentioned that Hitchcock is one of his influences, it should be pretty easy to find a lot of them.

(also don't forget to read the companion article on Hitchcock's use of humor... it'll be a little tougher to fold these into a Grand Unified Mashimo Theory, but it's good stuff nonetheless!)

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