Saturday, April 29, 2017

What Made 70s Movies Look So...Well...70s?

An Ongoing Question

I don't remember when I first noticed the distinctive look of a 70s movie. I know it was long before I knew anything at all about the filmmaking process. The things I've learned in the past ten years or so have answered a great many of my questions, but not all.

I've tried doing Google searches to find the answers which still elude me, but cannot seem to find any articles, blog posts, or discussion threads that can tell me what I want to know. So I'm putting this out on my own blog. I'll start with what I've already figured out, then present the questions which still linger. If anyone who knows their way around film stock happens to drop by, please take a moment to leave a comment. It will be much appreciated.

What I Know

I know that the seventies represented a shift toward realism in film. The trend actually began much earlier. In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) are two prime examples from the late sixties. You can even see some aspects of this gritty realism as far back as 1954 in On the Waterfront. But for the most part, films from those two decades and earlier were dressed up to look anything but real. Ladies had perfect clothing and hairstyles no average woman would ever be able to pull off on her own. They were also made up to the same degree one would expect from a big Broadway musical. Filmmakers apparently didn't realize that a camera ten feet from an actress would pick up facial features much better than an audience member on the back row of a large theatre. Sets were lavish and the lighting was a work of art in its own right. It all worked together to create an illusion of life which in actuality had nothing to do with real life at all.

Fast forward to the seventies, and you've got movies about people who look like they could be your next-door neighbors. Sure, actors still wore make-up, but more often than not care was taken to make them look like they weren't wearing make-up. Scenes took place in rooms that looked like they could be in your own house.

Coinciding with this emphasis on realism was a shift in hair and clothing styles in the world at large. Things in the seventies became much more casual than they had ever been before. For the first time women were just as likely to be wearing pants as dresses. And when they wore pants, those pants were just as likely as not to be jeans. These fashion trends are reflected in the movies of the time.

Another trend, specifically related to filmmaking, that occurred in the seventies was the use of the zoom lens. It was so popular that its presence will often immediately date a movie. This is another thing that began gaining popularity before the seventies. I can't think of any specific examples right now (sorry) but I know I've seen a great deal of 60s movies which employ heavy use of zoom lenses. But, still, in my mind they scream seventies, which means if I ever wanted to make a movie, and make it look like it was shot in the seventies, I would be employing a considerable amount of zoom.

What I Don't Know

Okay, this is the question I've been unable to answer. I want to know if there was something different about the mechanical process of filming that set 70s movies apart from other decades. Because they have a different look to them which goes beyond just hair, makeup, and costumes.

I've done numerous Google searches on this question, and have found no satisfactory answers. Most people who try to answer it usually bring up the fact that 70s movies are...well...getting on in years and film deteriorates over time. But the seventies occurred between the sixties and the eighties (duh), and even compared to those two decades, 70s movies have a certain look. If that look is caused by the deterioration of film, wouldn't 60s movies have even more of that look than 70s movies do? They don't, so it must be caused by something else.

If you've read my post, Why I'm Still Embroiled in the Film Vs. Digital Debate, then you know I've dabbled in still photography quite a bit, and that my experience with that art form has been limited to actual film (because I can't afford a good digital camera at the moment). So I know some things about film, but I'm still an amateur and there are many things I know from books (and Google searches) which I've never witnessed firsthand. I don't have much experience bracketing, I've never played around with pushing film, and I've never seen the inside of a dark room. But I have a rudimentary understanding of the kinds of effects those practices can have on a photograph. If still photography can be manipulated in those ways, surely motion picture photography can too. So was there something different about the camera settings which were used in the seventies which marked a change from what was done in the sixties? Were people experimenting with lower lighting, which created a darker, grittier look than what had been seen previously? Were they using different film stock which resulted in a distinctive look? Was there something different about the way film was processed in the seventies which contributed to the appearance of the finished movie?

Maybe this makes me a colossal nerd (a title I wear proudly), but I think about these questions all the time. So if anyone knows any answers beyond the ones I've already provided in this article, please leave a comment. You will have my undying gratitude. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Recovering My Sense of Direction

All Mapped Out

For years I prided myself on the fact that I had everything figured out by the time I was seventeen. While many girls my age were drifting aimlessly through life, I already knew who I was going to marry, where I was going to college, what I was going to study in college, and what my five, ten, and thirty year plans were with regard to a career after college. I even had an idea of how many kids I wanted.

What I learned, the hard way, is that no one has everything figured out at seventeen. You may think you do, but you don't. One huge problem is that you don't really know who you are at that age. Yeah, you may have a huge chunk of your identity figured out by the time you graduate from high school, but until you've experienced being out in the world trying to actually live that identity, you can't know for sure if the one you've chosen is really yours.

The other issue with having your future mapped out at a young age is that life can throw you more than a few curve balls. If you've only considered one path for your life, a derailment can be devastating.

My Own Derailment

As I said, by the time I finished high school I already knew who I was going to marry. No, that is not the area where my derailment occurred. I did marry my high school sweetheart, and we are still very happy together. But finding the love of my life at such an early age set me to dreaming about a life centered around hearth and home. I chose "stay-at-home mom" as my identity long before I ever started having kids. It wasn't until I lived it that I realized how important it was for me to have a career. Unfortunately, it was the career that got derailed.

At seventeen I was dating the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I was also preparing to go to college and major in Music Education. My long-term plan after graduation was to spend a couple of years teaching music in a school, then quit that job and have kids. I did want to keep my music career going after the kids came along, so I set my sights on a part-time job directing church choir. I had to wait a few years to make the dream a reality, but when I was twenty-six, the opportunity finally came along.

I could not have been happier. I had everything I thought I wanted. No. It was more than that. I had everything I did want. I was content with my life, which is a rare thing in this world. I had arrived. I was set. Then I discovered the hidden danger in thinking you've arrived anywhere.

Two years after taking the job, I lost the job. The decision was made as a part of a broader effort to expand church programs. The music program was a part of that expansion. Because I was only part-time, and because I had no experience in some of the areas into which the church was looking to grow, I was let go from my job.

There's no way I can explain how I felt when that happened, but I did write about it a few months back in my post, Do People Grieve After a Job Loss. That post sums up my feelings pretty well.

So I lost the job, and with it my sense of direction for my life. It's been ten years, and I'm just now starting to get things figured out again.

A Period of Wandering

My life spiraled in so many different directions after losing that job. Everything I tried boiled down to me needing a new creative outlet. I spent a few years performing in community theatre. I took dance lessons. I bought a camera and made a couple of short films. I recorded an album. I wrote books. All of these things brought me some fulfillment, but I still had the feeling that I was stumbling around blind. I knew what I was doing, but I didn't know where I was going. I was trying everything, just to see if I could get anything to stick.

A New Plan

It hit me today. I finally have a new plan. All those various experiences have lined up before me and have taken the shape of a path. A new path which I have now determined to follow.

Writing was the catalyst, though I didn't know that when I began publishing my books two years ago. I just knew I had to write, and once I'd written something I had to get my work out there. I had no idea it could lead to anything else.

Here's what's happening. Because I'm an indie author, I have to do a lot of the legwork myself in terms of getting my books into the world. One thing which that entails is book cover design. I've made three book covers now, and that experience has renewed an old interest in photography which has been on my back burner for a lot of years. I wrote about my journey as a photographer last week.

Now three of my paths--writing, photography, and filmmaking--have converged into one, and I can see with clarity, for the first time in years, certain milestones looming ahead of me. I want to keep writing, but I also want to explore those other creative outlets. Through my book cover design, I've been learning a lot about cameras, lighting, and photo editing, which I can use to develop my knowledge of photography to the point that I can consider going professional, which will in turn benefit my writing career as I learn to make better and better book covers. I can also use what I'm learning about still photography to begin exploring filmmaking again. None of this is going to happen overnight, but that's fine. It's a long-term goal, which is what has been missing from my life for far too long.

A Dose of Reality

So I have a new plan for my life. Will it unfold the way I foresee it? I hope so, but my previous experiences have taught me never to assume I'll end up where I think I'm going. Life could throw me another curve ball. Or I could discover that I would rather be doing something else. The most important thing I've learned in all this is to remain open, because there's no telling where I'll end up.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Why I'm Still Embroiled in the Film vs. Digital Debate

My journey as a photographer consists of a long series of starts and stops, with important lessons learned at each stage. Rather than a learning curve, I've experienced a learning staircase. And an irregular one at that.

Phase One: Subject Matter

I hit this phase when I was about ten years old. I became obsessed with taking my little 35mm point and shoot camera with me everywhere and taking pictures of the oddest things. I remember my mom fussing at me because I was wasting film, but in my mind I was creating art. Pretty crappy art, if I'm honest, but we've gotta start somewhere.

My only concern at this stage was what I was photographing. I didn't think about camera angles or lighting or any of that. That stage would come later.

Phase Two: Color

This phase hit when I was in high school. I still had that same point and shoot camera, but I decided I was going to get more sophisticated with my photography. So I loaded a roll of black and white film into my camera, and I was off to the races.

This roll of film was going to revolutionize my photography. My pictures were going to look just like those old pictures I had seen of my grandparents when they were young. They were going to look like the headshots of famous actors from the thirties and forties.

Of course, my pictures didn't look like that. I still had a lot to learn before I could really take a picture that looked just like I wanted it to.

Phase Three: Composition

This phase came in college. I wasn't majoring in photography, but I was still interested, and an awareness of composition was a huge leap for me. I finally realized the importance of camera angles. I realized that pictures of people look better if you get closer to them. I began to understand the rule of thirds.

It was at this time that my parents bought me my first SLR, a Minolta Maxxum QTsi. Now I had a zoom lens! Perfect timing, considering the learning curve (learning step?) I was on. If I couldn't stand as close to my subject as I wanted, I could zoom in. Yay!

Phase Four: Studio Lighting

This occurred right after college, and grew out of the composition phase. Every time I took pictures of people, I wanted to play around with posing them. This led to an interest in portraiture.

To take portraits, I needed studio lighting, so I bought a Novatron Fun Kit, which is one of the cheapest lighting sets you can find. I also had to have a new camera, because I discovered that my entry-level SLR did not have enough manual controls to be used with studio lighting.

My upgraded camera was a Minolta Maxxum 5. I stayed with Minolta for the obvious reason. Lens compatibility. I didn't know at the time that Minolta would be going out of business in just a few short years, which meant I was basically digging myself into a hole with my brand loyalty.

Phase Five: Natural Lighting

This is where I am now. After struggling for a few years after college to get a portrait business off the ground, I gradually gave up on the idea and my cameras have sat idle ever since. But now the interest has been renewed, and what I'm suddenly noticing is sunlight. This started a couple of years ago when I wanted to take a new profile picture for my Facebook page, so I dragged my husband out of the house at seven in the morning to take backlit images of me at sunrise. Here's one picture that resulted from that venture:

My profile picture on this page is another.

That was it. I was in love. Backlighting, or at the least diffused side lighting, was the key to a beautiful photo. Since that picture was taken, I've designed three book covers, two of which required a photograph. Here are the results of that:

The top photo was just a landscape, and I knew I was going to be heavily manipulating the colors, so lighting was not a huge issue, but the bottom photo required a little more care. Yes, it's another backlit shot taken at sunrise. And I think I can safely say that once you've experienced lying on your belly in dewy grass on the side of the road at 7:30 in the morning taking a picture of a hat, you can officially call yourself a photographer. Congratulations! You've arrived.

Phase Six: Media

All of the above photos were taken on my Minolta Maxxum 5 on Fujicolor Superia 400 speed film. That's right, I'm still shooting film, and I'm not even using a professional grade. I'm buying the stuff from Walmart of all places. But I'm gradually becoming aware of the importance of professional film if you want to take a professional photo. I'm considering playing around with some different types.

So Why Film?

Why film indeed? Okay, so if we're talking making a movie, I can see a lot of reasons for continuing to use film. Not that I think it's of superior quality to digital. Today's digital cameras are actually surpassing film when it comes to that. But film does have a distinctive look, and if you like that look and you've got the money, why not use film to shoot your movie?

Still photography is a different story. Especially if you want to get into the portrait business, there are very few good reasons to continue to use film. Black and white photography, used primarily for artistic purposes and not so much commercial, is a different story. But color portraits? seriously need a digital camera.

And yet I'm still using film. Why? It really boils down to one fundamental reason. Cameras are expensive. The DSLR I want costs around $1500 dollars, and I just don't have that much money to drop on something that is, at the moment, only a hobby. Yes, I know that continuing to use film accrues its own expenses, which means that if I do get into professional portraiture, a digital camera will basically pay for itself in a couple of years. It's still a lot of money for me to spend all at once. And because my old camera is a Minolta, I won't even be able to use my lenses without an adapter.

Ah, the joys of pursuing our passions. I'm still not sure where this is going, but for now I'm stuck doing things the old-fashioned way. Which is okay for what I'm doing now, but if I decide to move forward with this, I've got some major decisions to make.  

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Indie Book of the Month: April 2017

The book I chose this month is Undertow by Christina Morgan.

Okay...this one's going to be a little hard for me. The truth is, I liked this book, but I didn't love it. In fact, I had several issues with it.

What I liked

I liked the pacing. I liked the introduction of little details in the beginning which turned out to be significant later. I'm also a sucker for a good mystery, so I felt compelled to keep reading and find out what, exactly, really did happen to Marissa Taylor. Overall I found it to be an enjoyable read which kept my interest from beginning to end.

The Problems I Had

1st: There are quite a few typos. This is something I'm normally willing to look past because, lord knows, I understand how easy it is to miss those things, especially when you've proofread your book so many times it doesn't even look like words anymore. But this book has a heck of a lot of them. It just needs a couple more read-throughs with the editing glasses on before it's really ready for public consumption.

2nd: There is a recurring grammatical error. I'm always careful to differentiate between typos and errors. To me a typo signifies that the author knows better, but just missed something. An error is an indication that the author does not know what is correct. I only found one major error, but still it bugged me. The author repeatedly used "drug" for the past tense of "drag" instead of the correct "dragged." A small detail, but one that stuck with me nonetheless.

3rd: The book takes place in North Carolina on the Outer Banks. This is, of course, on the East coast, but there are two moments in the book where the narrator describes watching the sunset over the ocean. The sun does not set over the ocean on the East coast. Since it is the Outer Banks, it's possible that the character was actually watching the sunset over Pamlico Sound, but if so that should have been specified.

4th: I questioned the believability of the ending. I won't give out any spoilers, but it just made me scratch my head and wonder, "Is that what would really happen?" I wish it had gone into more detail about the investigation and the trail so I would maybe see some of the evidence and courtroom arguments that would have led to the end result.

Nonetheless, I'm glad I read this book and would definitely recommend it to others. I just felt I needed to point out the above so people will know exactly what they're getting with this book.

Undertow can be purchased on Amazon here.