A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Crispin Struthers...and a Parrot

The film industry a century ago was like the wild wild West...wide open for pioneers with vision, talent and guts. Fast forward fifty years, and all the real estate had mostly been grabbed by the big studios. You had to be in Hollywood to do anything, you had to be in the club, and you had to play by the rules. Change your name, sleep with the producer, work your way up from the bottom, whatever, because only the big studios had the money for all the equipment and sets necessary to make a movie.

Technology has changed all that, and now it seems to me a whole new frontier has opened up. Anyone can make a movie--I myself made one a few years ago with a pocket camera and zero budget, and won top prize in a film festival with it. As in everything else, in every era, 99% of everything that's produced is crap--but there is plenty of amazing good stuff, too. Much of it made by young kids.

Crispin Struthers is one of the new breed. He's an editor who's worked on David O. Russell's last three movies (his "trilogy"): The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle. Crispin is American-born but raised in the Scottish Highlands, and he majored in physics in college. Fast forward a few years and has he become a high school science teacher? A geek living in his parents' basement, busy inventing a bicycle-powered microwave oven? No, he's somehow gotten himself into the movie-editing business, big time. He was working in the studio next door to David O. Russell's, they needed someone to help out for a bit, he came aboard, he was amazing, and the rest is history.

Editors still work mostly on the West Coast. Although American Hustle was filmed in Boston, it was edited in California. Crispin Struthers was in Boston last week, however, speaking to some members of the Boston Creative Pro User Group, and I wanted to meet him, so I went. A disarming guy with a charming accent that's not quite American, but not really Scottish, either. A guy who doesn't mind posing with a parrot who somehow happens to be in the theater.

The most interesting part of Crispin Struthers's discussion, for me, was around David O. Russell's use of the Steadicam. That's a product invented in 1975 by Garrett Brown to combine the features of a traditional, clunky, dolly-mounted camera and a versatile, but shaky, hand-held camera. The Steadicam is a camera mount, or "sled," attached to a harness worn by the camera operator. The whole business is weighted and counterbalanced in such a way that the center of gravity is exactly at the cameraman's fingertip. Instead of a viewfinder, it has a monitor. The operator can walk and film, tracking the shot in the monitor, and still get smooth, steady footage. The Steadicam is what was used to get all those shots of Rocky Balboa jogging through the streets of Philadelphia, fighting in the ring, and of course running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Russell likes the Steadicam so much because he can have it swing around in a dramatic scene, capturing, for example, both sides of an intense dialogue. With this method, cinema actors can really get into a part, much as stage actors do. Anyone who's been on a movie set knows how artificial traditional moviemaking is, with green screens, multiple takes, scenes filmed out of order, actors reacting not to what the audience ultimately sees, but to a blank-faced stand-in mouthing a part in a monotone, etc., etc. The Steadicam allows a movie to be filmed more like a play, and lets the director capitalize on all that dramatic intensity. Polly want an Oscar?

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