Half-Year Awards — Film Design and Technique

The midpoint of the year is a fantastic time to highlight the amazing films we’ve seen so far, many of which have passed hidden underneath the bigger event films of the summer. Let’s get on with the design portion of our Half-Year Awards:

Under the Skin sound studio

Best Sound Design: Johnnie Burn, Under the Skin
Best Musical Score: Mica Levi, Under the Skin

Eavesdropped conversation on the downtrodden streets of Edinburgh, Scotland. The digestive system of an alien beast. Wind bending the pines. The raging ocean and the cry of a child. Feet racing through falling snow. The back of your jacket rubbing mossy bark off a fallen tree.

And Mica Levi’s score over all of it, spare, atonal, discordant, threatening and yearning, relentless yet lost, pulsing, an organic system all its own, a sound that exists before you walk into the theater and stays with you long after you walk out. She may even hijack the movie’s conclusion through a shift in musical cue, perhaps one of the most important musical moments since Jaws.

How do you portray the remorseless sociopathy of a rapist in music? How do you communicate the aching you feel in your chest on witnessing the beauty of nature, the hard stone in your stomach on spying its unfeeling violence? This is the score you’ve felt in your bones when you look at the dark woods under a bruised sky and feel like all the menacing possibilities of your imagination lurk in those shadows. This is the soundtrack you’ve felt all your life when chills run up your spine. Mica Levi gives our most basic impulses and fears notes to play by.

The Raid 2 prison

Best Art Direction: The Raid 2

This could just as easily be The Monuments Men, but The Raid 2‘s production design isn’t quite as piecemeal; it comes together to form a more cogent whole with its other elements. The Indonesian film’s red-walled dining hall is straight out of a Kubrick film, its vibrant night clubs would feel at home in a Nicholas Winding Refn piece, and its snow-draped alleys speak to Zhang Yimou’s influence on martial arts production design. To design a movie at once gangster, drama, spy, war, and martial arts film demands an eclectic mix. To bring it all together into a whole that feels part of a singular world is nothing short of breathtaking.

The Raid 2 heartbreak

Best Make-up: Kumalasari Tanara, The Raid 2

With a core cast that becomes progressively more bruised and bloodied over the course of the film, and dozens of extras sliced and diced along the way, The Raid 2 separates itself from other martial arts films by taking its technical elements the extra mile. Director Gareth Evans doesn’t want your basic henchmen, though. He wants each to have their own story, so that one man’s victory is always another’s tragedy. In this way, he crafts an incredibly bloody film that’s simultaneously anti-violence. Evans often tells these smaller stories through Tanara’s make-up design, which allows lengthy fight scenes to develop their own emotional pulse free of the choreography.

The Raid 2 chess match

Best Stuntwork: Yayan Ruhian, Fight Choreographer;
Iko Uwais, Fight Choreographer;
Bruce Law, Stunts Coordinator, The Raid 2

There are basic rules about fight choreography that are there to keep directors from biting off more than they can chew. Director Gareth Evans breaks most of them. The more difficult the choreography, the more impractical his shot selection. Ruhian and Uwais’s choreography is presented in long, unbroken takes, much like dance choreography is. In one fight, dozens of fighters are filmed in a space so narrow that cameras barely fit. In another, 30 combatants wage war in a muddy prison yard. Choreography in thick mud is already ill-advised – shooting it with overhead crane shots that show every fighter at once is next to impossible.

A later sequence involves three fighters in a narrow hallway. Most films would cut back and forth, shooting the fight from behind one side and then shooting it from behind the other. Here, the camera is choreographed with the actors, swinging in between and under them as they fight. The fight choreography itself is already top-notch, but nothing like the intricately choreographed camerawork in The Raid 2 has ever been done before. It’s too impossible a task. Or at least, it used to be.

Noah lead

Best Costume Design: Michael Wilkinson, Noah

Noah wins this by default. There just haven’t been a lot of strong entries so far this year. However you feel about its story, its technical elements are brilliantly executed, and its costuming is very detailed.

Noah birds

Best Visual Effects: Industrial Light and Magic, Noah

Darren Aronofsky uses a number of techniques that are inherently broken or hopelessly dated in modern cinema. The quick montage. Stop-motion. Time lapse. BodyCam. Shooting in silhouette. Yet he translates all of them into his own cinematic language, and for Noah that means implementing visual effects.

It’s not just about the rock giants and the mythical Great Flood Noah depicts, it’s also about how Aronofsky uses visual effects to enhance and emulate his other cinematic techniques, to create a big-budget version of his particular views of religion and philosophy. For me, visual effects aren’t just about fidelity, but also about how they are used, and few films use visual effects so effectively and experimentally as Noah does.

Edge of Tomorrow beach

Best 3-D: Edge of Tomorrow

Like it or not, 3-D is here to stay. It’s unlikely it will ever overwhelm 2-D film – people work on a visual level in too many different ways, and until we can take the burden off the human eye and put it on the technology itself (read: a big step forward in holographic tech), 3-D will remain too uncomfortable and unhealthy for too many people.

That said, it can be fun for some. In terms of 3-D, no film takes full advantage of it this year quite like Edge of Tomorrow does. Is it as revolutionary as Gravity? No, and we’re not going to see 3-D used as well as Gravity used it every year. But there were moments when I’d move a hand to wipe incoming debris from my eye only for my brain to check myself and remind me it was only in the film. That’s the measure of 3-D for me – how well can it trigger kneejerk physical responses in ways that 2-D can’t. Edge of Tomorrow wins that comparison handily.

httyd Dragon Thief

Best Animated Film: How to Train Your Dragon 2

I look for an animated film not just to be beautiful, but to communicate meaningful themes to adults and children alike. How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a lot to say about growing up, trusting oneself, and taking responsibility, but most big-budget computer animated movies do that. What puts it in a class all its own is what it has to say about betrayal and forgiveness, about divorce, about death and loss.

Combine this with its bright color palette and phenomenal mythic imagery that speak to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins’ consultancy on the film, and – despite being a cameraless film – you have no idea how tempted I was to suggest How to Train Your Dragon 2 for this next award as well.

Under the Skin lead

Best Cinematography: Daniel Landin, Under the Skin

There’s something in the cinematography of Under the Skin that’s like looking at Winslow Homer’s “Wild Geese in Flight.” In the painting, those geese are being cut down by something unseen as they fly in. Countless more are on their way. We don’t know what’s killing them. In Homer, the perpetrator is out-of-frame. In Under the Skin, the perpetrator is largely silent. In both, the artist imitates your perspective well enough to make you believe it’s your own, and so that pile of dead animals becomes a weight on your conscience. Except here, while death of nature is still the subject, it’s not geese being shot – it’s sexual assault, acts of possession and consumption.

This is fused together with an approach that highlights bright figures in dark surroundings during the film’s first half, only to switch to dark figures in frames only edged with light in its second part. In many ways, the visual approach shifts us from a documentarian beginning to a narrative end, while also reflecting the powerful predator’s burgeoning confusion as she begins to identify with her prey and their natural environment.

Edge of Tomorrow Blunt

Best Editing: James Herbert, Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is nothing particularly new. On paper, it falls into the gimmicky column that thousands of other action movies inhabit. But this is a film that lives or dies in the editing room, and I’ve rarely seen a film edited so tightly. If it were beef, it’d be 99.999% lean, and that sounds fricking delicious. So it is with Edge of Tomorrow. You’ve tasted this movie before in Aliens, Predator, Terminator, (oddly enough) Groundhog Day, and Saving Private Ryan flavors. But Edge of Tomorrow does it all so well that it ceases to matter – it puts its own stamp on things and it does it through editing.

Moreover, it’s a throwback breed of action movie that’s not all that heavy on action – visual effects used to cost tons of money, and that meant you had to have a lot of character. While Edge of Tomorrow isn’t short on visual effects, it harkens back to the days when an action movie’s intensity relied on caring about its characters first and foremost, and the action was secondary. I’m glad I caught this in the theater, and I intend to watch the crap out of this movie once it’s streaming. I highly recommend you do the same.

I’ll publish my choices for Half-Year Awards in acting tomorrow, and for screenplay, director, and film on Thursday.

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