Friday, August 24, 2012

The Searchers

  I am a huge John Wayne fan. One of my earliest memories is of seeing True Grit at the drive-in. I couldn't have been more than three or four, but the memory of the snakes and the big man with the eyepatch remains as an indelible image on my brain. Since then, I have voraciously read every biography of the man I could find, and seen as many of his movies as I could. In that vein, I recently read a biography of John Ford. Aside from all of the stories of his legendary venom towards his cast and crew, I learned a few things about composition and movement. Ford rarely moved the camera. He believed that it would disorient the audience. While this may be a quaint notion today, after watching  The Searchers again tonight (under the influence of The Captain, of course) I was amazed at how right he is. In my daily work life I long for challenging camera moves. I get bored with the same old drifts and pushes. Ford, however, believed that the action within the frame gave the movie interest. His compositions moved the story along without a lot of fancy camera moves. He rarely moved the camera. In fact, he hated it so much that when he finally did, it was much more effective. Today, we move the camera constantly. It swoops and glides and never stops just so that some former music video director can "make the scene interesting." John Ford would have punched him in the mouth and said, "If your story isn't interesting, moving the f&;$;*^ing camera won't save you." I did a movie years ago that was basically shot like a music video The camera swooped and pushed and drifted for no reason at all. We never blocked a scene, we just stood the actors in a room and swooped around them. As a result, when we reached a shot that would have benefitted from a dramatic push-in, the move had no power. Watch The Searchers. Watch the push-in on John Wayne as he leaves the asylum. It's like a punch in the gut because the camera has been mostly fixed up until then. Until you watch this film, you don't realize how much we over move the camera. This movie was made in 1958, and it holds up so well, unlike the crappy "remake" The Missing of a few years ago. John Ford would have punched Tommy Lee Jones in the mouth too. And Ron Howard.  So if you've never seen The Searchers, watch it. And learn.


  1. I agree.

    You would go mad on a Bollywood film :-)

  2. Great post. The visual language of cinema has been evolving ever since the invention of film, but too few directors ever bothered to learn it in the first place. Instead -- like infants smearing their own shit all over the bedroom wall -- they just do whatever feels good at the moment without much thought.

    You're dead right in laying much of the blame at music videos, which -- like Shakespeare's famous tale told by an idiot, truly are much sound and fury, signifying nothing. What's worse, directors (and too many viewers) have come to consider a hyper-kinetic camera as the norm in films. Using motion sparingly so that when the camera does move, it has enormous impact, is a foreign notion to the current generation of directors.

    And speaking of John Wayne, if you haven't seen "The Long Voyage Home" -- one of his early Ford films -- you're in for a treat. Not just from the very young big John, but the entire cast.

  3. I agree with every word of this post. Well said. I often lean over to the camera operator and say, "why are we moving the camera on this shot?" I'm usually just responded to with a shrug.

  4. Coming from a dolly grip, it's a hard one to admit, but so true. I love the collaboration of making a really great shot, but I also like it to make sense and to add something to the story. I honestly don't know much about John Ford movies but your post has inspired me!
    Thank you for the compliment on D. Drive was shot in 34 days, the DP operated most of the shots, and it was shot with wide lenses and very sparse camera movement. The story was told in front of the camera, not with it.

  5. We watched the Olympics on the Tivo, and fast-forwarded over the studio commentary shots at high speed.

    That made it easy to see that the video camera was in constant random motion, back and forth, in and out, I guess to add some dramatic impact to the blather of the hosts. TV has learned this from Hollywood, I guess.

  6. Anonymous8:16 PM

    Watch any roy andersson scene from any of his film. Most powerful stuff. Perfect frame and amazing set design. He's my inspiration to not move the camera. If your going to move it Nicholas Winding Refn's team seems like they have it down, bronson and drive were great examples.

  7. This is a great post, My job is as much not moving the camera as it is moving it.