All Movie Talk, Episode 30

Posted in Episodes at 9:46 am by Sam

Show contents, with start times:

  • Series Spotlight: Looney Tunes, Part 1 (1:28)
  • Trivia Question: Charlie Chaplin’s Oscar (20:47)
  • Film Buff’s Dictionary: Close-Up, Medium Shot, Long Shot (21:11)
  • Top 6: Ghost Movies (29:38)
  • Film Spotlight: Modern Times (41:53)
  • Closing: Trivia Answer, Preview of Next Week (56:23)

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Show Notes:

Series Spotlight: Looney Tunes, Part 1

The Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon series consist of some 1000 classic theatrical short cartoons between 1930 and 1969, plus revival shorts, compilation films, and unending merchandising in the years since. The star character of Bugs Bunny is one of the most recognizable characters in the world, and the series launched many other characters — Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester, Tweety, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner, Foghorn Leghorn, and more — to enduring stardom as well. More than mere cartoons for kids, many of these short cartoons are masterworks of art and comedy and are as popular today as they ever were — as much with adults as with children. The Looney Tunes directors were fond of saying that, no, the cartoons weren’t made for kids; they were made for themselves. That personal investment in the work is apparent in the final products.

In the early 1930s, these cartoons were created as accompaniment to popular music, as a way of selling the songs to theater-going audiences. But when Mickey Mouse became a phenomenon in 1929, gradually the other cartoon studios followed suit and sought out star characters. The Looney Tunes tried out a few, now lost to the ages — Bosko, Buddy, Beans, Oliver Owl, Little Kitty, Ham and Ex, and more — before finally hitting upon Porky Pig (named after director Friz Freleng’s childhood friends, nicknamed “Porky” and “Piggy”) in 1935, who caught on with audiences in a big way. Porky Pig started out as a chunky kid, then gradually aged and slimmed down into the character we know today.

The perfect foil for Porky Pig was found in Daffy Duck, who debuted in 1937, and, in stark contrast to the greedy, scheming duck of the 1950s, was originally an out-of-control lunatic, whose wild antics drove Porky crazy.

Bugs Bunny’s origins are tough to track, as he evolved from another character, Happy Rabbit, before finally settling into his New York tough guy personality. But most people agree that the first time Bugs appeared as a fully developed character was in Tex Avery’s A Wild Hare, co-starring Elmer Fudd. When Bugs casually sidles up to Elmer, munches on that carrot and says, “Eh…(munch munch munch)…what’s up, doc?” audiences went wild.

The cartoon studio that produced the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies was set up on the Warner Bros. lot, but Warner Bros. didn’t originally own the studio itself. A shrewd businessman named Leon Schlesinger ran the company until 1944 until he sold his assets to Warner. Schlesinger was smart about hiring great talents, but he didn’t care much about the cartoons themselves. It is said that the speech patterns of Elmer Fudd and Sylvester the Cat were both based on him, and he never seemed to catch on.

When Warner took over, the new producer was Eddie Selzer, a guy who not only didn’t understand what the cartoons were all about but kept trying to interfere in the creative process as well. Stories abound about how Selzer would say how some particular idea wasn’t funny, and that would be the Looney Tunes directors’ cue to use that idea and turn it into a cartoon, which would invariably be successful.

The cartoon studio was set up with several mostly independent units, working simultaneously. Each unit would be headed by a different director, with his own team, usually consisting of one writer, a few animators, and a background artist. Other talents — such as the legendary vocal talent Mel Blanc, musicians Carl W. Stalling and Milt Franklyn, and sound effects editor Treg Brown — were utilized in turn by all the different units.

These cartoons are exceptional for their visual and musical artistry, in addition to their well-defined characters and precise comic timing. We go into more detail in the podcast about the visual and musical accomplishments of the series, but suffice it to say that there was often great innovation in these cartoons, and they may be appreciated for their artistry and craft in addition to their obvious entertainment value.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be talking about each of the seven major Looney Tunes directors and discussing what they each brought to the cartoons and what makes theirs different from the others.

Trivia Question: Charlie Chaplin’s Oscar

The great Charlie Chaplin won only one competitive Oscar, for this film. (Note what he won the Oscar for, and when he won it.)

Film Buff’s Dictionary: Close-Up, Medium Shot, Long Shot

Shots of people are generally divided into three categories based on the apparent distance of the viewer from the subject. A close-up generally focuses only on the face of an actor, though some people include the tops of shoulders in the definition of this shot (some texts refer to this shot as a medium-close shot). It’s used particularly for conveying emotions and is truly cinematic — stage plays cannot have close-ups.

The medium shot is one of the most common shots, used especially when shooting conversations between two actors. It’s generally from the waist and above. It is an unassuming shot that is used a lot to accurately convey the sense that the viewer is in the room with somebody. Our normal point of view of people in everyday life is probably roughly a medium shot.

Long shots are anything longer than medium shots, meaning that we see an entire person, plus usually much of the environment around that person. Long shots tend to be objective, and they are good at conveying a sort of detached sense of realism, whereas the closer shots are more subjective, more likely to make the audience identify with the characters.

Top 6: Ghost Movies

See our separate Top 6 entry for more information about our picks.

Film Spotlight: Modern Times

Chaplin’s 1936 classic Modern Times is one of his last films, and it marks the retirement of the Little Tramp character. Not quite a full sound film and certainly not a silent, it does some interesting things with sound, silence, and the last title card in a film from the studio era.

Most of the film features Chaplin’s silent comedy, as the Tramp does not speak despite now inhabiting a noisy world. Much of the comedy comes from the Tramp’s inability to cope with the mechanized world of the 1930s. Equal bits Depression-era satire and classic Chaplin goofiness, the film is funnier and a bit more lightweight than his previous film, the acclaimed City Lights (1931).

It’s famous for several of its set pieces, especially the opening in which Chaplin falls afoul of complicated factory machines, eventually leading to one of the most famous shots of the silent era as he passes through the gears of a giant conveyor belt. The movie is a showcase for Chaplin’s constant inventiveness, though some of its best gags are relatively simple.

Modern Times represents a good starting point for those interested in watching silent films. It preserves the spirit of silent comedies but has enough synchronized sound and dialogue that it isn’t strange to those accustomed to watching modern movies — as its title might suggest, it is one of the most modern-feeling of all the classic “silent” films.

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  1. joem18b (231) said,

    April 24, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    Nice segment! Couple of questions:

    I was watching Sunset Blvd last night, with its closeups of Swanson as the final shots in the movie, and I was wondering (I think you explained this in an earlier podcast but I can’t remember) how those shots would be handled on a wide screen. Does the director cut off the top and bottom of the face to make the aspect ratio change, or do we get the whole face in the middle of the screen but with extra stuff on either side of the screen, or what?

    Likewise, you know how Sergio Leone would do a closeup of just the eyes? Like in the final showdown in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, going from eyes to eyes to eyes? Too cool. But remind me, did those eyes stretch all the way across the whole wide screen? If so, in the front row you’d have to turn your head back and forth to check out both eyes in the same face.

    You mentioned how closeups are used to emphasize beauty (but not in M, which I watched the other night, and not with Leone either). Will HD make closeups a thing of the past, or can changes in makeup and lighting keep the actors looking good even when the viewer can see too much? Or is HD just a TV thing?

    You were mentioning different lenses and focus. I know that in movies, at least in the past, every camera had a focus-puller person on it. But I think I read recently that digital camera pictures are in focus from foreground to background no matter where they’re pointing. (Wonder how that works?) Does this mean that directors can’t intentionally blur the background to focus on the foreground, or vice versa?

    Keep up the great work!

  2. K.T. Slager (55) said,

    April 24, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    Concerning your last question: Whether the background is blurred or not really depends on the lens you’re using. Longer lenses equal a much shallower depth of field, meaning more blurry space. I’ve seen pictures taken with digital cameras that act just like analog cameras — shallow depth of field.

  3. Stephen (221) said,

    April 24, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    Yeah, I think Leonne’s extreme closeups go all the way across a wide screen. Closeups since the advent of widescreen usually just use neutral space on either side.

    As for HD, its resolution is still probably less than that of 35mm film. If it seems more detailed, remember that you’re also not blowing it up nearly as big. HD DVDs with a good transfer look as nice as any TV shows shot in HD, which wouldn’t be possible if the original 35mm film didn’t capture all the information needed for a good HD transfer.

    So I don’t think HD — in its current incarnation — means too much for closeups. 70mm film has a much, much higher resolution than any current digital format, and the great 70mm films didn’t shy away from CUs either. Lighting and make-up are everything.

    And KT has it right about digital cameras. It’s all about lenses. A lot of digital camera systems can take standard film lenses, so they have the same capabilities in terms of focus. The big deal relating to focus pullers is probably the advent of really good autofocus systems.

  4. joem18b (231) said,

    April 25, 2007 at 1:19 am

    Thanks, KT and Stephen!

    I read or listened to a movie review a while back and it seems to me that its thrust was that the advent of digital film with simultaneous near- and distant-focus would make some significant difference in the subjective experience of the viewer. But what that difference might be, or even if I’ve got that right, I can’t recall.

  5. wintermute (157) said,

    April 25, 2007 at 8:30 am

    Stephen is slightly wrong about the physics of camera lenses. “dognose” distortion is not a feature of wide-angle lenses, but occurs with any lens if the subject is very close to the camera. However, if you want to fill the frame with a face using a wide-angle lens, you need to get very close to the camera, which is why this is often associated with wide-angle lenses. With a longer lens, you can get the same coverage with the subject being further away, leading to less distortion. Though if they’re too far away, they can appear too flat.

    For portraits, 4-6 feet is considered a good distance for flattering proportions which, if you want to fill the frame of a 35mm camera with head and shoulders, means a lens with a focal length of 85 to 110mm; moderately long but not massively so.

    As for depth of focus on digital cameras, he’s right that the lens length is important, but it’s only one step in a chain that starts with the size of the sensor. The “normal” focal length (one that gives an angle of view of 45º - 50º; about the same as the area where human eyes give detailed vision) is equal to the diagonal of the image sensor. For a 35mm film camera, this is 50mm (actually 43mm, but for historical reasons, it’s rounded up), whereas compact digital cameras generally fall between 6 and 11mm. Digital SLRs (unless you spend around $5,000) are either 25 or 33mm*. For large-format cameras, it might be anywhere up to 325mm.

    What this means is that a compact digital camera with the same field-of-view as a 35mm film camera has a far shorter focal length (6mm instead of 50mm, for example). This means that a given aperture (which is expressed as a function of the lens length - f/2.0 means that the aperture is half as wide as the lens is long) is much narrower on a compact camera than on an SLR. And it is this that drives the depth-of-focus. The wider the aperture, the more paths that light not from the point the camera is focused on can take to get to the imaging plane, and the more out of focus it is. Closing down the aperture forces light to take a specific path through a very narrow hole, thus making light from all distances register as sharp.

    You can always (as ever, there are exceptions, such as catadioptric lenses but we can generally ignore these) reduce the size of the aperture, increasing the sharpness of the background (this also cuts down the amount of light entering the lens, requiring that the scene be brighter or the exposure longer, but lighting is normally not an issue on a film set), so any advantage from a smaller digital sensor can easily be replicated with film.

    Sensor size => lens length => maximum aperture width => minimum depth-of-field

    Hope that makes sense.

    *As an example, many digital SLRs can take lenses designed for film. If you take a lens rated at 50mm with a maximum aperture of f/2.0 and put it on a camera with a 25mm sensor (because it makes the maths easy), it will have the field of view of a 100mm lens, but the aperture will still open up to a maximum of 25mm, which means that the depth-of-field will be the same as it is on a film camera, and more than than a 100mm f/2.0 (maximum aperture 50mm) lens would be. In terms of image quality (but not in terms of exposure time), it actually acts like a 100mm f/4.0 lens on a film camera.

  6. SplishFish (29) said,

    April 25, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    wintermute, your post reminds me of how much I’ve forgotten about photography since I last took a class (>10 yrs ago!). ;)

  7. joem18b (231) said,

    April 28, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    So what is the deal with movies made using digital cameras, anyway? I just heard a guy on a podcast say that he didn’t like Robert Rodriquez because he used digital so much. I’ve been watching Rebecca and M and The Third Man. Can digital match that sort of photography? I also heard that with digital cameras, you don’t have to worry about lighting so much. Just use ambient light and shoot away. But don’t directors spend a lot of energy with lighting to get the effects that they want?

  8. K.T. Slager (55) said,

    April 29, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting digital or film, you always, always, ALWAYS worry about lighting. Good lighting is the difference between an amatur video and a professional-looking production. You usually need a lot of light to expose film, expecially when working with black and white or reversal film. In general, digital doesn’t take as much light as film does, but as a trade-off you get a noisier, pixel-y image when shooting in dark spaces. Plus, how could you achieve a moody, noir-ish look using only existing light sources? Lighting is used for atmosphere just as much as its used for getting an image.

    Digital these days can get really close to looking like film, but in the end, it just isn’t the same. I think the general aversion to people who use digital filming techniques comes from purists, and I have to admit that I’m one of them. I just feel like film is a lot more beautiful than digital — and it’s harder to work with. In addition, sometimes when people think ‘digital’ they think ‘fake’. Rodriquez movies are definitely eye-catching and vivid, but often they don’t look ‘real’.

    But then again, sometimes I wish we could all go back to editing black and white film on a flatbed, taping together little tiny pieces of celluloid for hours on end in a dark room. So I’m prone to bias. As it were.

  9. joem18b (231) said,

    April 29, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    Thanks, KT. Does “noiser” mean that the internal electronics of the camera produce some fake light pixels and so you don’t get true blacks? The resolution is high enough that you don’t get actual visible square pixels of course? But you get some jumping around in the shapes when there isn’t enough light to drown out the noise? What is the resolution of a digital camera comparable to 16mm, or 35, or 70mm film? Will digital cameras improve to the point that blacks will be black and the resolution will be finer than the finest film?

  10. Sam (405) said,

    April 30, 2007 at 9:53 am

    I can’t take on all those questions, but I’ll tackle the first. I think you have the right idea, although it’s probably wrong to say that there are “fake” light pixels. The thing about black is that it’s rarely truly black.

    My high school art teacher had a demonstration of this that made an impression. She had a small cardboard box that had been completely inked up by a black permanent marker. Everybody agreed it was pretty black. But the box had a hole cut in the cover, and with the cover on, you could see that the blackness you saw when you looked in that hole was SO much blacker, it made the box itself look almost gray. The lesson was, black, as we perceive it, isn’t always black. And in the real world, most of the time we see black, there is still some light there that is tempering it somehow.

    Well if you’re watching a movie, it stands to reason that black areas of the screen could potentially be pretty pure, or perhaps not so pure. I don’t know the why of it, but film is just currently better at recording true blacks than digital is. Probably that’s just because, as KTS says, digital is more sensitive to lower light levels, so it’s going to be quicker to register the subtle differences between degrees of blackness, perhaps even when our eyes can’t.

    Here’s the other thing. Our eyes perceive changes much more easily than constants. If you’re in a dark room, and you’re holding still, someone else will be far less likely to be able to see you than if you’re moving around. As soon as you start to move, people will be able to see you, because they’ll see the changes to the degrees of blackness.

    Well unless a camera lens, whether you’re using film or digital, exactly replicates the vision of your own eyes — and that’s absolutely impossible, because, hey, there is focus, focal length, angle, the precise sensitivity to each color, etc, etc, *and* the weird image corrections your brain applies to what you physically see — then that camera cannot pick up on exactly the same tiny fluctuations in light levels that your eyes normally see and your brain normally accounts for. They’ll be slightly different fluctuations, and because they’re slightly different, your brain will zero right in on them.

    Well, with digital being more sensitive than film, it’s going to pick up more of those fluctuations. And you’ll notice them more in the dark areas, perhaps because a small fluctuation there represents a greater percentage of change than it would in a bright area.

  11. wintermute (157) said,

    April 30, 2007 at 10:59 am

    It’s not accurate to say that digital cameras are more sensitive than film cameras; generally, the range of sensitivities is approximately equal. The difference is that changing the sensitivity of of a film camera means changing the film, which cannot easily be done on the fly. Digital cameras, on the other hand, can have their sensitivity changed by simply altering the gain on the sensor.

    At low sensitivities (ISO 50-64 or so), both film and digital are very clean, with little to choose between them (if anything digital images will be cleaner in this range). It is possible to distinguish the response of the two technologies at low sensitivities, but more by looking at tone curves than artefacts.. At high sensitivities (ISO 800+), however, they respond differently. Film cameras have obvious grain this picture of a lion is a good example of film grain, but I can’t find a good enough scan online to show it properly), while digital cameras show noise.

    Digital noise comes in a number of flavours, of which the most notable are dark frame noise, chromatic noise and abberant noise.

    Dark frame noise is most notable on long exposures (several seconds), and so is not terribly relevant to movies, and happens because specific pixels within the sensor overheat, and this is registered as light falling on the pixel when it actually isn’t. Because of imperfections in the sensor manufacturing process, this will be the same pixels in each case (for a given sensitivity and exposure length), so you can remove it by simply taking a dark-frame image, where the shutter isn’t opened, for the same amount of time, and subtracting one from the other. This is probably what you’re referring to as fake light pixels. Take a 10-second exposure of the inside of your lens cap at the highest ISO you can set your camera to, and you’ll see this.

    Chromatic noise happens when light scatters from one brightly-lit pixel to a neighbouring one that is receiving less light. Each pixel can only register absolute intensity of light, and not its wavelength (which defines the colour), so to create a colour image, there is a coloured filter above each pixel which means it only sees a specific colour. The sensor then works out the colour of a given pixel by analysing the intensities of the various colours around it. But, because this means that sharp edges would become softened, an array of microlenses deflect part of the light that would fall on a given pixel onto its neighbours. But this causes problems where there’s a massive change in brightness, leading to purple and yellow fringing (as can be seen here. Again, this is fairly simple to remove.

    Abberant noise occurs due to the stochastic nature of light; at high sensitivities, a distinct difference in recorded brightness might be the result of a small number of individual photons. As these photons are not necessarily evenly distributed, one pixel might get more photons than its neighbours, even though they’re pointed at a smooth, evenly lit surface that isn’t, objectively, any different. This difference in number of photons that just happen to strike one point instead of another can lead to a difference in apparent brightness. Due to the way sensitivity varies across the brightness range, this is most notable in areas of shadow and less noticeable in very bright areas. This is the type of noise that is hardest to clean up, as it’s almost impossible for an algorithm to distinguish between the noise and actual detail.

    In terms of benefit from using digital cameras, I know that Danny Boyle says that the beginning of 28 Days Later would have been unfilmable without digital cameras, as he only ever had a few minutes a day to capture London looking completely abandoned, and by the time film cameras could have been set up, he’d have missed the window. But I doubt that can be extrapolated to more general shooting situations.

  12. joem18b (231) said,

    April 30, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks, Guys! Great job.

    I seem remember that Boyle had to erase a person or moving vechicle or two from the movie, even at that.

    I was talking to a wedding photographer the other day, who told me that he was still strictly film because for his work, file remained superior to digital. But that if he were a news reporter, he’d need to be digital.

  13. wintermute (157) said,

    April 30, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    The thing about wedding photography is that you have lots of pictures with black tuxedos or morning suits next to white dresses and you need to capture fine detail in both for the picture to look good. This requires a high dynamic range, which is an advantage that film tends to have over digital sensors.

    Though, to be fair, Fujifilm are the only digital camera manufacturer to seriously address this issue. They use a combination of small (low sensitivity) and large (high sensitivity) photosites on the same sensor to mimic the response of film, and vastly increase the range of tones that can be recorded. While Fuji’s dSLRs account for a tiny fraction of the market, they are very popular with those wedding photographers who are shooting digitally.

    The other issue is that many wedding photographers use medium-format cameras rather than 35mm (because a larger negative means more detail at lower sensitivities), and digital medium format is out of range of most mere mortals; you can expect to pay a minimum of $25,000 out of the box.

  14. K.T. Slager (55) said,

    April 30, 2007 at 7:48 pm

    Whew. I didn’t have to try wading through technical explanations. This is why we need at least one math course at art schools.

  15. Jeffrey (84) said,

    May 1, 2007 at 10:54 am

    Wow, this is like a free photography class. More of the same please.

  16. joem18b (231) said,

    May 11, 2007 at 4:35 pm

    I’ve been wondering about closeups in widescreen ever since I listened to this segment. The other night, “American History X” answered all my questions. Lingering shots of Avery Brooks, Edward Furlong, etc., from above the eyebrows to below the lower lip. Everything I wanted to know about close and medium shots.

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