Talking Movies

September 2, 2016

It’s just me and my drone

While watching three different BBC documentaries recently I was struck by the unusually expansive quality of their aerial photography; and then realised they were all using drones.

drone-filming-other-drones-for-bbc-simon-reeve

The first documentary was Simon Reeve’s travelogue in Greece, in which elaborate pull-out shots of mountainous Greek landscapes seemed to come from nowhere; starting too close to Reeve to be a zoom from a helicopter, but ending up too far away to be a crane shot. They were of course drones, and Reeve even made the drone the centre of attention when he and its operator jumped out of a van in a salubrious part of Athens and surreptitiously sent their drone straight up to see how many of the local worthies were cheating the government of tax by pretending they didn’t have a swimming pool when there were clearly nearly twenty in the drone’s frame. Such guerilla tactics would make Werner Herzog proud, and of course Herzog has employed drones himself; nearly making everyone sick in Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D by flying from a vineyard up to the titular site. But drone technology has developed since Herzog’s 2010 shoot.

Brian Cox’s recent Forces of Nature loved nothing better than tracking Cox from a hundred feet above as he walked along English beaches or Icelandic glaciers, and the images were startlingly good. Whereas Herzog’s drone imagery was disjunctive, Cox’s drone imagery was notable only for the style it employed, not for any difference in quality to more traditionally mounted cameras. One of those signature styles was a reprise of the Reeve special, narrating to the camera which suddenly tumbles back in space and reveals itself to now be airborne and the narrator standing near the edge of a Greek valley or the white cliffs of Dover. Peter Barton’s The Somme From Both Sides deployed its drone in a related manner to great effect. At a fraction of the hassle of using a crane camera Barton delivered his narration to a drone which then swooped upwards to reveal the landscape beyond him, so that we went from a trench’s view of the battlefield to an aerial vantage point in seconds. This was tremendously effective in conveying why the Germans made the Somme so bloody for the British; from the trenches you miss the obvious differences in height over the wider landscape which the Germans consistently put to work in their defensive strategy.

But can advances in drone technology and falling drone prices make for a new cinematic aesthetic? David Fincher in Side by Side notes that he was able to place a camera in a boat for a sequence in The Social Network because of how lightweight a digital camera could now be. If a drone camera needing only one operator can achieve a shot that would have taken Orson Welles days to prepare for with the technology of his time then could we be in for a new avalanche of style in indie movies? If someone wants to achieve the isolating effect of the pull-out from Gary Powers in the dock in Bridge of Spies they don’t need the resources of a Spielberg, they could just hover their drone and then fly it away and make their low-budget drama suddenly seem incredibly slick. Forget filming your movie on your iPhone like Tangerine, imagine sitting in the IFI’s smallest screen watching a low-budget film in which unknown actors look out a window when the camera suddenly pulls away from them and keeps on retreating, observe them fading away into irrelevance as just some of the people with stories in this city.

The Drone Aesthetic.

March 22, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D

Werner Herzog uses 3-D technology to show off the cave-paintings of the Ardeche region of southern France in his straightest documentary in years, but some characteristic madness still shines through…

The Pont d’Arc-Chauvet cave-paintings, discovered by the intrepid Chauvet in 1995, are 32,000 years old; more than twice as old as any previously discovered cave-paintings, but because of a collapse in the cliff-face thousands of years ago which sealed the cave they remain as startlingly fresh as if the artist had just ceased work five minutes ago. The impressionistic stampeding buffalo, the fearsome lions and rhinos, and the centaur originating merging of woman and bull in one fertility image offer testament to its cultural importance, which is why the French government has closed access to the cave and treats it extremely delicately. For that reason you should watch this film in the cinema as you will never get a chance to see the real thing and 3-D for once actually earns its keep by allowing you to grasp fully the texture of the cave interiors, where the artists have used rock formations to add effect to their sketching.

Having uncharacteristically praised 3-D let me add an important rider; it is a wonderful innovation for scenes inside the cave but unbearably awful outside. You would be well advised to shut one eye during any outdoor scenes as foliage and hand-held 3-D camera-work make for a terrible viewing experience, not to mention the demented sequences shot by a miniature camera on a radio-controlled toy helicopter. Aside from that latter eccentricity the film finds its groove of ecstatic madness with the continuing phenomenon of any and all craziness in the universe gravitating towards Herzog; only he could find the sole serious archaeologist in the world who had previously pursued a circus career as an unicyclist. And that’s before he meets Wulf Heine, experimental archaeologist (whatever that may be), and then an embittered perfumier, before commanding another archaeologist, wandering off to demonstrate how to hunt with a spear, “Stay where you are”, which will bring down the house down as it recalls Alan Rickman’s delivery of “Remain seated” in John Gabriel Borkman.

That last archaeologist claims we should be dubbed Homo Spiritus not Homo Sapiens as we do not know; all philosophy tells us uncertainty is our lot, but we have always striven for the eternal. Carl Jung claimed that civilisation was an inbuilt human instinct, one which we always turn to immediately after we satisfy our most basic needs. Heine even plays ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ on a replica of an 8,000 year old musical instrument to demonstrate how far back our liking for tonality goes. In the Chauvet cave Cro-Magnon man started to dream; about his soul, his purpose in the world, and he expressed his need to celebrate both, and perhaps tangibly grasp immortality, through his art. Herzog’s enigmatic postscript visits a nearby alligator farm, created to re-use coolant water from its neighbouring nuclear power-plant. Predictably any alligators born there have a mutation, they are all albinos. Herzog thus muses on how unrecognisable we would be to our ancestors. We arrogantly think we know everything, they knew they did not, and so venerated in their art powers beyond their grasp.

Given events in Fukushima, perhaps we could use their humility.

4/5

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