Things I learned yesterday 21/09/15

I’m trying to get into a habit of writing regularly so I’m spending a few minutes every day thinking and writing about what I learned yesterday.

On Alfred Hitchcock

Despite using music brilliantly to create suspense in his other work there was no musical soundtrack for The Birds. However he did use musical moments within the film to subtly draw the audience in. One of the few moments where music occurs in the film is when the schoolchildren are singing “Ristle-tee, rostle-tee”. Birds slowly begin to congregate one by one on the playground. Brief elements of the children’s tune are woven through the “Schoolhouse Swarm” as the sounds flapping wings incites terror on the children. Also Debussy’s “Arabesque #2” was cleverly disguised during a scene where the main character, Melanie Daniels plays a few bars on the piano. The Arabesque is a departure from what one would expect from a suspense/horror film. With no threat present, it lulls the audience into a false sense of security. It’s the sound of safety and the sound of victory. When compared to the movie, this uplifting track is contradictory in many ways, because we know there is no victory for the main characters.

With no soundtrack Hitchcock had to create tension by manipulating natural sounds and using them in a context that lead the viewer down a desired path:

“For instance, when Melanie is locked up in the attic with the murderous birds, we inserted the natural sounds of wings, but we stylised them so as to create greater intensity. We wanted to get a menaing wave of vibration rather than a single level. There was a variation of the noise, an assimilation of the unequal noise of the wings. Of course, I took the dramatic license of not having the birds scream at all.

To describe a sound accurately, one has to imagine its equivalent in dialogue. What I wanted to get in the attack is as if the birds were telling Melanie, “Now, we’ve got you where we want you. Here we come. We don’t have to scream in triumpgh or in anger. This is going to be a silent murder.” That’s what the birds were saying, and we got the technicians to achieve that effect through electronic sound.”

On the Shirley Card

Until recently, there has been a light-skin bias embedded in colour film stock emulsions and digital camera designs. Due to this colour bias, rendering non-Caucasian skin tones was difficult to do well and required various technical compensations. The colour bias comes from the Shirley Card. For many years, the Shirley Card — named for the original model, who was a white employee of Kodak — was used by photo labs to calibrate skin tones, shadows and light during the printing process. The earliest colour film was not sensitive enough to accurately capture darker subjects subjects, especially when the scene had brighter, whiter elements. In 1978, the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously refused to use Kodak film to shoot in Mozambique because he declared the film was racist.

On a ‘Best Leading Actress’ Emmy given to a black woman for the first time

It shocks me when I hear stuff like this. I shouldn’t be shocked, I know, but I am. Without giving it too much thought my head tells me this probably happened in the mid-70s — not 2015. But then I think about my favourite shows from childhood right up until now and the absence of black women in leading roles is remarkable. Her speech was great: “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

On Woody Herrleson’s dad being accused of shooting JFK

Woody Harrelson’s dad was a serial killer. Charles V Harrelson was jailed in 1973 for the murder of grain dealer Sam Degelia Jr. He was sentenced to 15 years, but released after five for good behaviour. In 1981 he was given two life sentences for the assassination of district judge John H Wood — the first murder of an American judge in the 20th century. At times, he also claimed to have assassinated John F Kennedy. It was in 1981, after he heard his father had been arrested for killing the judge, that Woody tried to get in touch with him, aged 20. Woody then spent years, and millions trying to get him a new trial.

More learnings…