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The new Disney/Pixar film Coco has topped the box office for three weekends in a row, and is well on its way toward passing Justice League and becoming the biggest hit movie to come out during the mid-November-to-mid-December corridor – in other words, in between Disney/Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok and Disney/Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Disney owns a lot of stuff, you guys, and they’re angling to own more with a possible purchase of Fox’s movie and TV studios). This is not surprising in the sense that Pixar movies are often big hits (and, again, Disney owns everything) – but it is notable that this particular Pixar production features almost entirely Mexican characters (and I say “almost” only because the origins of its happily mangy dog sidekick are technically unknown).

 

I just edited a new edition of our intro to film studies book The Film Experience, and one of our objectives for the new edition was to revamp our history coverage to talk more directly about major contributors to the medium’s development who happen to be members of marginalized groups – and whose stories are not always told in traditional narratives about how film got to where it is today. And where it is today, incidentally, still requires a ton more work to do, especially in Hollywood – it’s rare to see a live-action big studio film as dominated by non-white people as this animated one, though Universal’s Fast & Furious series does its part. But we are seeing progress, and it’s particularly heartening to see this progress coming from Pixar, because the company hasn’t made that many movies focusing on humans, period, as opposed to the secret lives of toys, bugs, monsters, fish, scarily sentient planet-dominating cars, and so on.

 

Coco isn’t just a movie where the characters happen to be Mexican (though there’s value in that kind of creative choice, too, of course; that's closer to the kind of inclusive casting choices Disney has made on the new Star Wars pictures), but one that specifically speaks to the dynamics of a large Mexican family, that takes place on the Day of the Dead, and immerses itself in a particular culture’s notions about family, memory, and the afterlife. It’s not as hilarious as some past Pixar movies, but it’s a lovely little film. A lot of cartoons have trouble telling human stories that are actually about humans (perhaps understandably; toys and monsters and bugs are probably more fun to animate), and in a relatively weak year for family-targeted animation, which has seen plenty of big-studio product scrambling for a marketable hook (The Boss Baby; The Emoji Movie), it’s nice to see Coco create a fully felt character out of Miguel, its young hero. The movie is still wildly imaginative in its designs – Pixar’s vision of a city populated by the deceased does not disappoint – but it never feels desperate to throw everything it can think of at its audience As a result, it also feels confident that the audience will find it.

 

One interesting aspect of Coco’s success is only tangentially related to the movie itself, but does have to do with the notion of an audience finding it despite the lack of Nemo, Dory, Woody Buzz, or the Incredibles. Coco was initially released in theaters with a short subject in front of it, as has become tradition for most Disney animated features, and just about every Pixar feature. But this wasn’t a Pixar short attached to Coco; rather, it was a 20-minute “featurette” starring the characters from Disney’s megahit Frozen. If 20 minutes sounds like it stretches the definition of a short subject (especially for a family audience), that’s because Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is, in fact, a TV special (an airdate of 12/14 on ABC was recently announced) tacked on to the front of Coco, ostensibly as a special treat.

 

Both the specialness and the treatness have been in doubt, however. There’s speculation that Disney may have been nervous about the financial prospects of a non-sequel Pixar joint with such a specific cultural focus, which would explain why they gave so much screentime over to perhaps the whitest set of characters in the current Disney stable (I mean, the main character in it is a dang snowperson). But what happened next, as the clickbait headlines say, may surprise you: Audiences reacted with irritation towards the Frozen spinoff. Now, a lot of this is anecdotal, as almost all chronicles of audience reactions tend to be, and some of it has to do with the simple yet nearly unsolvable math problem of how to make a kid sit for a 20-minute “short” plus a 105-minute feature (the only real solution: have extremely patient kids). It’s probably a mistake, as ever, to confuse Twitter-complaining with a popular sentiment.

 

Olaf: newfound public enemy number one?

But over in Mexico, where Coco has become the highest-grossing movie in the country’s history (!), the results have been a bit more quantifiable: Though Disney stopped running the Olaf special in front of Coco after a few weeks of its U.S. release, some Mexican theaters (which got the movie several weeks before their U.S. counterparts) began taking it upon themselves to not show Olaf’s Frozen Adventure after some audiences complained. The audiences were – get this – wildly excited to see Coco itself, to see powerful representation from a beloved studio, moreso than whatever bonus Disney thought might draw bigger crowds. U.S. audiences, too, turned out not to need hand-holding from Olaf to lead them into Coco. It's a potent example both of how Disney may be thinking more progressively than they were even five or six years ago... and how audiences around the world may be even further ahead than that.

 

 

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A while ago, I wrote a bit on COMMblog about the idea of "one perfect shot" that encapsulates a movie perfectly (or just looks really, really nice). That's been on my mind again as I finish up helping the authors of The Film Experience with the visual program for our new fifth edition of the book, which is coming out this fall. Editing lots of different types of books is fun, but I can say confidently that the visual side of editorial work is most fun with film books. The authors and I are constantly looking for examples to illustrate technical concepts (related to editing, cinematography, and, trickiest of all, sound!) as well as broader categories (like genre or narrative).

 

We want some examples that students will know immediately -- often this involves looking at a list of the highest-grossing movies of the last year or two, and then trying to figure out which of those are most likely appeal to a wide-ranging "college student" demographic that can include teenagers, adult learners, and plenty of people in between (it helps if they're good movies, too). But we also want examples that come from classic movies, or obscure titles that students may not know right away, but should. We've heard from film instructors that they have similar struggles in the classroom: Trying to teach concepts through instantly recognizable movies but also trying to expand students' horizons and include movies from -- get this -- before they were born! 


Here's a little preview of just a few of the images we're going to include in the fifth edition:

 

Ghostbusters wasn't a huge hit last summer, but it's a good go-to example because it includes comedy (including good examples of comic framing, as in the frame below), special effects, four excellent female leads, and "intellectual property" from the past that so many studios are desperate to mine.

 

 

Of course, there are always superhero movies. No matter how you feel about them, at least a couple images from them will make their way into an intro to film book these days. The first frame below is from X-Men: Apocalypse, which I admit wasn't the biggest hit in terms of recent superhero movies, but on the other hand, has this really cool shade of purple in this scene. Contrast with Captain America: Civil War, a very entertaining movie that, as you can see, has far less purple. I may sound flip, but that's also part of our consideration: How these images will look and catch students' eye on the page, be it in print or on an ebook reader.

 

 

 

Not everything has to be super-current, either. In the Cinematography chapter, the authors use a series of images from Carrie (1976) to show different points of view within the same sequence. This overhead shot is one of my favorites.

 

A box in the book's final chapter on writing about film discusses the creation of a video essay on Touch of Evil, which has similarly striking images to choose from. A lot of students supposedly don't watch black-and-white movies so it's especially important to choose memorable images to get them interested in the form.

 

 

Finally, sometimes when a movie is being used for an example that's not 100% shot-specific, you can suggest particular shots that you just love. These images from God Help the Girl (2014) and It Follows (2015) perfectly convey aspects of their genres (musical and horror, respectively); it doesn't hurt that they're two of my favorite recent films.

 

 

Don't you want to see those movies now, if you haven't?!

The Film Experience will be out in the fall with literally dozens more new shots like this. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from any film or media instructors who have favorite frames or other visual cues they use for teaching!

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Adam Leipzig is an entrepreneur, filmmaker, producer, publisher, and the author of Filmmaking in Action and Inside Track for Independent Filmmakers. He is the COO of CreativeFuture, a non-profit organization advocating for the creative community. He is also the CEO of Entertainment Media Partners, which provides informed guidance for independent media companies, financiers, and producers, and is the publisher of Cultural Weekly. Adam teaches at Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, in the Executive Education program of UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, and in UCLA's Professional Producing Program. He has overseen more than 25 movies as producer, executive, or distributor, including March of the Penguins; Dead Poets Society; Titus; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; Amreeka; and The Story of the Weeping Camel. Adam served as president of National Geographic Films and as senior vice president at Walt Disney Studios, and in each of those positions was responsible for the movie industry's most profitable film of the year.

You’re both a filmmaker and an educator. What are your favorite courses to teach, and how do your Hollywood experiences inform your teaching?

I enjoy teaching marketing and distribution because it sounds so dry, but it is really exciting. The class brings in their laptops every day. We burrow into databases and learn how to reverse-engineer trailers, one-sheets and distribution patterns. They teach themselves. In this way, we discover how to demystify Hollywood really operates. Everything I do is informed by my Hollywood experience because that's the world I come from and students love practical as-it-really-happens information.

 

You also have a lot of experience as a public speaker outside of the classroom, including a talk for TEDx. How does teaching compare to, say, delivering a keynote address to an industry audience?

Well, teaching is interactive. In fact, when you're teaching, the more the students participate and do the work themselves, the better the learning outcomes. When I give a keynote, I'm pretty much doing the work.

 

What advice to you have for instructors who teach filmmaking and production courses?

The film and production educators I have met are so smart and committed, they could probably give me advice!

 

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges students interested in filmmaking and video production face?

1. Have higher standards -- your work can always be better. 2. Get over the idea that you want to be a director. The world does not need a zillion more directors, and there are more than 200 other fabulous creative jobs in film and media. 3. Only 20% of the jobs in film and media are in Los Angeles or New York. Most of the jobs are elsewhere in the nation, and not in traditional movies or TV.

 

What inspired you to get into the world of instructional/educational publishing with Inside Track and Filmmaking in Action?

At a certain point in your life, you just want to share information. I have been down all these roads before. I see the next generation of independent filmmakers in the rear-view mirror, and I would like to give them a faster track to knowledge and success.

 

How does your work as CEO of Entertainment Media Partners inform your work as an educator? Or vice versa?

Entertainment Media Partners keeps me in the day-to-day of film and media. I stay current and I'm always learning new things.

 

You have a pretty busy schedule. Do you get a chance to go out to the movies much? Have you seen anything you really loved lately?

Last night I watched a Korean noir-action movie called The Divine Move on Netflix. Terrific movie that’s way better than its title. Kept me up ‘til three in the morning. I am paying for it today.

 

What was the last book you read?

Speculative Relationships, Volume 2, by Tyrell Cannon.

 

What are some of your hobbies outside the film industry?

Bike riding. Love it.

 

What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you? Your “fun fact,” in other words.

I'm a really good cook. Want to come over for dinner?

Last Film Friday, I talked about using clips or even single frames from movies to teach film – the way that a single shot can crystallize a particular aspect of a particular movie. Part of the reason this is done, of course, is to reproduce the sight of movies online or on the printed page. But I think it’s important to stress that even in their best, most edifying or electrifying forms, these excerpts don’t communicate the same thing as seeing a movie in the dark, on a big (or biggish) screen, with a bunch of strangers. As a part-time movie critic, I’ve even found this true outside of “real” paying audiences. Though some types of movies (comedy and horror, most often) play best to a less stuffy crowd, the simple math of dark plus screen plus strangers can still add up to a noticeably different experience than the one you got at home, or on a phone, or in a two-minute excerpt that distills a movie’s thesis into a particular evocative sequence.

 

Take for example the movie Green Room, which is going into wider release this weekend for a final pre-summer push. I saw it with a bunch of other critics (and, okay, one friend, who I brought with me) at a press screening a few weeks ago, and I felt like I’d been put through a wringer in the best way. The movie starts as an indie-rock slice of life, following a punk band on a DIY tour in the Pacific Northwest. After one gig goes bust, they schedule a make-up at what turns out to be a skinhead bar. They want to just play their songs, get paid, and get the hell out, but one of the band members stumbles into a scene of violence, and the club owners insist that they “wait” there for the police to come. You may infer, as the band members do, that perhaps the police aren’t coming to save them, and Green Room eventually turns into a sort of siege film, populated by people who have never, ever been in a siege before.

 

There are certainly particular shots and sequences in Green Room that play particularly well, and that I remember now. But excerpting them wouldn’t capture the movie’s cumulative power – the escalating tension of the first half and the sustained tension of most of the rest of it. I was sitting there in the relative sterility of a screening room, alongside other hardened critics, and I was damn near sweating. I’m sure streaming the movie will do a fine job showing off how well-made and engrossing it is, but I can’t imagine it feeling more visceral than it did up there on the big screen.

 

Sometimes that collective experience can redeem, or at least enhance, even a nightmarish experience. Which is to say: Earlier this week, I went to a press screening of the movie Mother’s Day. It is the spiritual successor to director Garry Marshall’s romantic comedies Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, so you kind of know what you’re getting into. Except you kind of don’t, because I foolishly assumed that this paean to moms might, at very least, not be any worse than its predecessors (then again, I also foolishly assumed this movie would actually be about characters’ relationships with their mothers, while in fact it’s mostly about the absence of mothers from various situations).

 

Mother’s Day is a comedy, I guess, although considering Marshall’s handle on the composition and delivery of jokes, it might as well be science fiction (at one point, he soft-pedals a pratfall, seemingly afraid that having someone in a comedy actually fall down might be too hurtful). But that led to an unusual experience at a screening room. Critics are usually relatively quiet, especially during deadly-terrible comedies with few discernible laughs. So really, the amount of laughter that Mother’s Day generated was pretty remarkable, and all the more so for being unintentional. It’s hard to make a comedy so bad it’s funny, but Garry Marshall has done it, and a roomful of critics confirmed it.

 

One of the reasons we often keep quiet in press screenings is basic common courtesy, but like a dysfunctional family meltdown at brunch, Mother’s Day obliterated any sense of decorum. As the movie’s inane attempts at comedy (llama reaction shots) and drama (book-signing author: “Who should I make it out to?” Secret daughter: “Your daughter!”) accumulated, the laughter grew louder and more open. The stranger sitting next to me and I exchanged glances more than once, as if to say: Is this really happening? The simultaneous admission that we were all (or anyway, most; I don’t want to speak for everyone there) mortified, confused, and irritated by this movie actually gave the screening a smidge of something utterly lacking in the movie itself: joy. It was a strangely joyful experience. While I wouldn’t want other critics snidely guffawing through a movie most people hated but I happened to love (and there are plenty), our mutual derision was, in the end, a more effective (and amusing) form of communication than this movie itself. This couldn’t be conveyed in a single shot, or even a clip of the moment where a character says “it’s a karaoke machine!” twice in about five minutes. Sometimes, even if it’s just a movie, even if it’s just a terrible movie, you have to be there.

Followers of the nebulous, broad-based collective known as “Film Twitter,” as well as social-media-savvy film fans in general, might be aware of the Twitter account known as One Perfect Shot. The concept is simple enough, and will be familiar to anyone who’s used a film textbook: The authors take individual frames they think are particularly iconic, emblematic, or just plain beautifully composed, and tweet them out to their followers.

 

This account has inspired a mostly-abandoned parody account and I’m sure that if you look hard enough, you can find a more detailed takedown essay, presumably based on the idea that film is more than the sum of its static frames, and that using screen grabs robs movies of a crucial component and maybe turns them into dorm-room posters.

 

In other words, I’m sure that takedown exists and this is not that takedown.

 

Though if it were a takedown I would use this frame to encapsulate it:

 

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(Honestly, I would use this one to encapsulate as many situations as I could get away with.)

 

Anyway, even though this isn't a takedown, I do understand those objections – and while I hesitate to add “better than most,” I will say that editing film books at Macmillan has made me particularly aware of both the delights and challenges of choosing “one perfect shot.”

 

It is, I admit, one of my favorite parts of my job. Of course, it’s not solely my job – in fact, in most cases, when we pull together the visual program for our books, our superhumanly talented film authors have particular movies, scenes, or even shots in mind to use for examples. But I do sometimes find myself in the position of “getting” those shots (which is to say, taking a screenshot of a particular frame), or occasionally suggesting a particular moment that might be worth highlighting in the book. And it’s a lot of fun! I also write a column for The A.V. Club called Together Again, and whenever possible I try to use frames for my visuals there, so I’m not relying on stills (which are often much higher resolution, but are not actually exact shots from the film in question) to get my point across.

 

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As much fun as it is to try finding frames from a movie that perfectly encapsulate one of its ideas or visual qualities, though, there are limitations on this method. Most notably: in movies, the camera often, well, moves. Not always, and not always a lot; some directors rely far more on cutting than on camera movements. But in most movies, the camera tracks or pans or pushes in or pulls out, and those movements tell you things about the story, the characters, or the filmmaker. One Perfect Shot captures a certain type of shot very well. But still images by definition can’t tell the whole story with moving pictures. This can make visual aids in teaching film trickier to use, especially when instructors don’t want to screen an entire film (or even haul out the projector or DVD player for such a short segment).

 

We’re starting to get closer to an age where examples of great or important shots will move like, you know, movies. Our LaunchPad for the newest edition of The Film Experience has actual film clips – short excerpts from actual feature films that better illustrate some of the concepts (particularly involving cinematography and sound) than single or even multiple frames ever could. One Perfect Shot has started to incorporate videos and video essays into its repertoire; I guess that’s still the optimal social platform, because Vine videos are too short (though maybe Instagram videos could work?). There’s also Every Frame a Painting, a video essay series with a lot of instructional value, and less in-depth but still fun compilation videos like this one. Film teachers will have to continue piecing together solutions, at least until we all watch holographic film clips inside of our eyelids. (Holographic eyelid clips are not yet available in the print edition of The Film Experience.) We'd love to hear more from film instructors about how they keep the movement in moving pictures.

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