Happy Birthday, Orson. May 6, 1915


“It has no boundary… It is a ribbon of dream.”

– On the Movies

“Everyone will always owe him everything.” – Godard

In Ray Kurzweil’s fantasia, Orson Welles is with us today at one hundred. But the great ones remain regardless – nanobots or no, and Orson Welles’s work keeps unfolding, keeps revealing itself, keeps offering new surprises and fresh discoveries. How much he accomplished in how many spheres remains Herculean. There were some six thousand productions in radio, theater, film and television. No other artist can claim numbers within even an order of magnitude of that achievement.

What’s more, this summer we’ll have a great deal to say on this blog and elsewhere about his civil rights work – he was the first director in history to stage an all African and African American version of Shakespeare, sometimes called ‘The Voodoo Macbeth” – a massive success during the Harlem Renaissance. He directed Raisin in the Sun a year later – both shows are recounted by James Baldwin in his indispensable book on our national divide as seen through the theater and cinema: “The Devil Finds Work”. His final radio program through the summer of 1946 centered around the brutal beating in South Carolina of a black soldier, Isaac Woodard,  and led directly to a federal investigation and finally to President Truman’s integration of the federal work force and shortly afterward the entire armed services.

Still, while his political work remains largely uncelebrated, the artistry continues to grow, and I have learned as much from Welles as from any other artist, including Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Wordsworth, Dali, Nabokov, Page – thinker or craftsman. My catalogue of insights inspired by him fills several notebooks, so I’ll mention just two of the indispensable lessons I’ve learned studying Welles’s films these last twenty odd years.

First, it’s possible for narrative arts to be baroque and commonplace at the same time – in both character and conceit. It’s a rare sensitivity that can marry the majestic and the mundane and find in each characteristics of the other. The dynamic is abundant in Shakespeare and Dickens; otherwise it’s a rarity, and it showed diminishing returns with the fade of romanticism toward the end of the Victorian era. Welles was the first (was he the only?), to show us that these extremes could live comfortably even among the various austere and internal modernist idioms of the twentieth century. Kafka’s particularly intricate banality, to point to one example, was called and raised in Welles cubist masterworld rendering of ‘The Trial’ – it’s an intuitive adaptation to set beside Kubrick’s Lolita.

Second, having spent his formative years in the theater, Welles always understood that the camera wasn’t a single perspective, or a single viewer, but that inside the theater of that black box, in row after row behind the ground glass, sat eight or nine hundred people. He used the camera accordingly, and in every shot Welles ever made he maintained that pronounced and affectionate awareness of his audience.

Both of these intuitive capacities go to the Power of Scale, one of the most potent tools in the Conceptual Screenwriting box.

Happy Birthday, Orson.

JP Saladin

Tom Swift V

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The Power of Scale with Orson Welles

Happy Birthday, Orson. May 6, 1915

“Everyone will always owe him everything.” – Godard

We’re all filmmakers now, so on his slightly belated birthday we can finally ask ourselves what it is we all really owe Orson Welles. My own catalogue fills several notebooks, so I’ll mention just two of the indispensable lessons I’ve learned studying Welles’s films these last twenty odd years.

First, it’s possible to be baroque and commonplace at the same time – in both character and conceit. It’s a rare sensitivity that can marry the majestic and the mundane and find in each characteristics of the other. The dynamic is abundant in Shakespeare and Dickens; otherwise it’s a rarity, and it showed diminishing returns with the fade of romanticism and the Victorians. Welles was the first (was he the only?), to show us that these extremes could thrive even among the various austere and internal modernist idioms of the twentieth century. Kafka’s particularly obscene banality, to point to one example, was called and raised in Welles cubist masterworld rendering of ‘The Trial’ – it’s an intuitive adaptation to set beside Kubrick’s Lolita.

Second, having spent his formative years in the theater, Welles always understood that the camera wasn’t a single perspective, a single eye, or a single viewer, but that inside the flickering theater of that mechanical box, in row after row behind the ground glass, sat a doll’s house audience of hundreds. His use of the camera brought to bear all the accordant pressures of a full house, and in every shot Welles ever made he maintained that pronounced and affectionate awareness of his audience.

Both of these intuitive capacities on Welles’s part utilized massive counterpoints of scale, only the most obvious example of which is the jarring opening – childhood home to smashed snow globe – of Citizen Kane.

Metaphors of Scale

We live in a universe of uncanny spatial relationships – hearts to heavens, bosons to branes. These visual metaphors briefly close the gap on what are normally inconceivable gulfs of scale.

From the great Keith Loutit. More here, and here.

Metaphors of Scale

“A million dollars isn’t cool, you know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”

So much of Fincher and Sorkin’s “The Social Network” is wound up in matters of scale and scalability: orders of magnitude are a new kind of currency, a new way to keep score – for the current oligarchy maybe the only way that matters anymore: ninety-nine to one % in our time. In the film, the night Facebook signs it’s millionth user, Zuckerberg’s originating partner Eduardo Saverin finds his 34% stock holding in Facebook has been diluted by more than three decimal places – the new offering leaves him with .03% of the company. He recouped somewhat in the settlement negotiations that bookend the film, but the Winklevoss twins (Winklevii?), featured here as runners-up in the Henley Royal Regatta, fared worse: so far Zuckerberg has made 9 billion from Facebook, the twins settled for 90 million, that’s two full orders of magnitude difference – or the same relationship the earth has to the sun.*

In this sequence shot with tilt/shift lenses and with various uses of tight focus and extremely narrow depths of field, the old ‘social network’ of crew clubs, school penants and crested blazers seems to be constricting, its significance dilating out through the back end of a telescope. The self-importance is still there – witness the remarkable way the athletes seem to force themselves into closeups as they row – but the world (and many others) has grown tiny, especially by comparison to the giant social club Mark Zuckerberg has created: as of January, 2013, it has 1.1 billion members.

*In terms of diameter that is. When it comes to their relative masses even Zuckerberg hasn’t outpaced his competition by quite that margin.

Hat tip to Durga Chew-Bose.

Metaphors of Scale

I’ve made the case before that one of the most powerful, unique (and still underused), practical strengths of film language is its aptitude for metaphors of scale. Here’s a recent proof of concept. (Here’s another.)

And here’s the theory: the uncanny pleasure to be found in these macro-miniature toyscapes is so pronounced because paradoxes of scale appeal simultaneously to two separate brain regions: one responsible for processing metaphor, the other for metonymy. [See below for the neuroscience.]

In brief, these paradoxes are packed with comparisons of both kind (metaphor) and degree (metonymy). That’s shorthand, but will do for the moment. A miniature is a model metaphor for our own world, but the miniature relationships within that model are metonyms of compressed degree; the fisherman and the super-tanker suddenly don’t seem so different here – they’re both just toys in a toy universe. Whereupon we return to the broader metaphor in an endless, mind-churning loop.

[For an intro to the linguistic and neurological backgrounds of metaphor and metonymy see Saussure via Jakobson in this short paper by Edward Jayne.]

We’ll continue on this theme in future posts, but take the moment to revel in the ticklish pas de deux of brain regions which seldom even shake hands, and keep an eye out for possible metaphors of scale in your own work.

Here are some other well known examples of this neural enjambent using different scaling methods:

  • The snow globe opening in Citizen Kane.
  • The match cut to the sun in Lawrence of Arabia.
  • Jack Torrance studying the maze (and his tiny, tiny family), in The Shining.
  • Roy Neary trying to understand his obsession with a haunting shape and finally discovering The Devil’s Tower National Monument in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (An entire movie about the haunting pleasures of scale).
  • The opening crane shot over the city of London in Olivier’s Henry V.
  • The tiny moth returning to Gandalf on the Orthanc followed by the arc light reveal of an approaching eagle the size of a Beechcraft in Peter Jackson’s LOTR.

We live in a universe of uncanny spatial relationships – hearts to heavens, bosons to branes (so far). These visual metaphors briefly close the gap on what are normally inconceivable gulfs of scale.

[Look to see this technique, using a tilt-shft lens with a DSLR or the Red Camera, coming to a credit sequence near you! (David Fincher, are you reading this?)]