Watching Movies/TV, Listening to Music

Since I've started talking about the different layers that make up a scene in a movie or television show (i.e. by talking about scripts), let me go ahead and tell y'all how I watch movies in the first place. No, not the obvious open-eyes-stare-at-screen type how I watch movies, but more like what my movie-watching philosophy is. Of course, calling it a 'philosophy' gives it a little too much credit, but it sounds much cooler that way so I'm going to stick with it. (Also, when I say just 'movies', I do actually mean both movies and TV. It's just that it's much easier to stick to the one word, which is exactly what I'll do for the remainder of this post.)

Levels & Layers

Simply put, I watch movies at multiple levels and often (usually when I really like a movie) I watch it at least twice. When I say 'multiple levels' I mean that, because I know a little about how movies are made, I can see and appreciate the inputs of various contributors to the overall product. Let me give you an example from the first part of 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'. And from that let's take the scene in which Gandalf and Frodo are riding on Gandalf's cart towards Bag End (i.e. Bilbo's house). The scene seems to be reasonably straightforward but there's a lot going on in there. For example:

  • The two actors are actually sitting five feet away from each other on a specially designed cart that, when viewed from the side, uses perspective to make Frodo look much smaller than Gandalf. As it moves along, the bench they're sitting on adjusts to ensure that there is no break in scene continuity.

  • The actual jump that Frodo makes into Gandal's arms was made by Elijah Wood's stunt double, Kiran Shah.

  • This is an important scene for Gandalf because, first, it's the first time we're seeing him on screen and he has to look believable and, second, because Ian McKellen worked really hard to get Gandal's voice, humour, mischievous nature, concern for Bilbo, and hidden power all just right for this scene.

  • A lot of work went into Gandalf's costume. It comes from drawing by John Howe (created for the cover illustration of the one the book editions) and both he and Alan Lee worked extensively with the producers to get the look and feel of Middle Earth just right.

  • The firework effects were added later and, in the scene, the children are reacting to just audio (if that). One of the children in the scene is actually Peter Jackson's.

  • The location of the scene is a park in New Zealand and all of the construction that was done to make it look like Hobbiton was completely undone after filming was completed.

  • Howard Shore's musical score is currently on the hobbit theme. This theme will be played (sometimes intermingled with other themes) every time there's talk about hobbits and the Shire. Bits of the fellowship theme are thrown in throughout the first half of the movie, but that theme won't be fully developed (i.e. played) till the famous crossing-the-mountain-ridge scene later on in the movie.

Now it's true that I know a lot of this stuff because (a) there is a lot of production information available about the LoTR movies in the DVD extras as well as online, (b) I'm a Peter Jackson fan and so I keep up with his work, and (c) I'm a huge LoTR fan. But that's part of the point: it is because I know about all this stuff and have read about it that I know a lot about what's going behind the scenes. And it's that which helps me watch the movie at multiple levels.

The fun thing is that, even if I don't know a lot about the movie I'm watching, I can still see how it was made. For example, regardless of which movie I'm watching, I will consciously notice continuity mistakes, the score and what it is trying to convey, the lighting, the cinematography, the camera angles, the number of cameras being used, the cuts between takes and scenes, the work being put in by the actors, the effects added on by the visual effects people, the audio being added on by the folio people, and so on. This is in much the same way that an editor would look at a book and see spelling and grammar mistakes, different font faces, writing and editing styles and choices, printing and layout choices, etc. (Aside: Being a web developer and designer, I do the same when viewing web pages.)

Layers in Music

Being a musician, meanwhile, helps me do the same thing when listening to music. For example, I can usually tell what bit was recorded live and what was added on later, what the song structure is all about, what the time signature is, when the key changes are, how the song is arranged spatially, what is being done with the backing vocals (when, who, how many, higher/lower, how spatially arranged, etc.), which instruments are playing in which audio frequency areas, what melodies and counter melodies are being used, what exactly each instrument is contributing to the song (which individual melody they're playing, etc.), and exactly which drum component the drummer is striking at any given time.

The Benefit

All of this, for both movies and songs, does a couple of things for me. First, it helps me get a lot more from the movie I'm watching or the song I'm listening to. I end up appreciating them not just for what they are, but also for how they came to be that way. Second, it makes me doubly dislike badly done songs/movies and makes me really like those that have been well done. That doesn't seem like a big thing but, believe me, it is. Take Shakira's song 'Hips Don't Lie' for example. The song is really good and it's great to dance to but, dammit, its production could have been better. Or take 'Rock the Party' by the Bombay Rockers in which the chorus sound like "frack the part, frack the party" instead of "rock the party, rock the party".

On the other hand, it is thanks to this that I can appreciate just how awesome the band Dire Straits was because its production is just incredible. (Unfortunately, Knopfler's obsession with getting everything exactly right led to a high turnover of band members). You also start to appreciate different individual music producers -- like Steve Lillywhite, Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, Butch Vig, Mark Knopfler, Rick Rubin, Mike Campbell, and Peter Gabriel, to name some of my favourites -- and what they bring to bands and their sounds. To get an idea of the same thing happening in a different context, ask Nadia how she likes Dan Brown's 'The DaVinci Code' and why she has never been able to get past the first page because the writing is so darned crappy!

To make my life a little happier, by the way, I have had to develop both the ability to separate content from production and the ability to enjoy something even if it's not all that well done. So I can still enjoy listening to 'Hips Don't Lie' and I can still enjoy reading 'The DaVinci Code' (without cringing all that much) and I can still have a great time watching 'Terminator 3' even though there are minor acting issues and storyline inconsistencies.

Let's Watch That Again

Last thing: I mentioned at the start of this posting that I like to watch good movies more than once. One of the advantages of doing this is that I can peel off additional layers with each new viewing. And when a movie is really good, you get something new from it almost every single time you watch it. It is especially useful to watch good comedies more than once because you don't always get all the jokes the first time round (presumably because you're laughing so hard the first time round). Another advantage of multiple viewings is that, at the first viewing, you can leave your technical eye at the door and simply enjoy the story and get caught up in the action and excitement (especially if you're watching it in the cinema). Once you've done that, you can think "that was cool, how did they do that?" and then watch it again.

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I watch movies, TV shows, and plays; view websites; read books; and listen to music. Yes, life is rich and life is fun.