The Director as Servant

I've not seen The Lost City of Z, James Gray's film about British explorer Percy Fawcett, but I recently read the screenplay. So when I noticed an interview with James Gray about the film on the DGA podcast, I was curious enough to listen.

Near the end of the interview, Gray talks about Carlos Kleiber, a relatively unknown orchestra conductor who had a humble outlook on his talents. Gray summed up Kleiber's belief about the role of the conductor in this way:

"The conductor is not playing the instruments; the conductor's job is to summon the magnificence of others."

James Gray

There are many different styles of creative leadership. Some are auteurs, others intensely collaborative, others demanding. But the Kleiber style of leadership really struck a chord with me. It takes what can be a huge and intimidating job, with enormous pressure bearing down on one person, and spreads it out among a group of excellent artists, technicians, and craftsmen. Surrounding yourself with people who can do their jobs far better than you ever could, and giving them the freedom to do so, liberates the creative leader and elevates the creation.

It's almost a servant leadership approach to creating. Yes, there is someone leading the project; but that person is also facilitating—fielding ideas, seeking input, encouraging people to try new things and surprise them. Bringing out their magnificence.

William Goldman says something similar in Adventures in the Screen Trade:

"The best [directors] are wonderful storytellers. Those best do one thing superbly well: They help. Everybody."

William Goldman

I don't believe that is the only approach to creative leadership. But it's one that appeals to me and that I'd like to embrace.


Further Listening: The Lost City of Z with James Gray and Matt Reeves
Further Reading: Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman

The Faith of Glen Keane

Glen Keane is more than an incredible artist. He's one of the finest animators the world has known, a man who creates magic from a Mitsubishi 10B pencil and a sheet of paper. His work has shaped childhoods and expressed feelings difficult to put into words. You've seen him act, though you may not realize it; it was disguised as Ariel, the Beast, Tarzan, and Rapunzel. But underneath those costumes was Glen Keane.

"I can't believe life can be this wonderful."
Glen Keane

On the Bancroft Brothers Animation Podcast, Glen spoke in depth about his faith as a Christian. He discusses reconnecting with his faith while a young animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios, the influence of fellow animator Ron Husband, wanting to leave animation to go to seminary, finding God's purpose for putting him at Disney, and the spiritual elements behind scenes in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Glen is a deep thinker, and imparts his reflections and wisdom with an ease that comes from his depth of faith and feeling. It's a fantastic interview that greatly inspired me as a Christian working in a creative field.


Further reading: The Adventures of Adam Raccoon by Glen Keane

Spielberg the Educator

For an artist, every work of art is instructive, even if only as a cautionary tale, an example of what should not be done. But some works, and some artists, teach us more than others.

Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was briefly in theaters again in celebration of its 40th anniversary. It's a beautiful, strange, and unconventional piece of filmmaking. Through it Spielberg inspired filmmakers like J.J. Abrams and Denis Villeneuve, and it continues to educate us today.

Cut in Camera

The moving master, or 'oner', is one whose history includes legends like the openings of Touch of Evil and Back to the Future. Spielberg is a master of this shot, because rather than wowing us with an obviously long take, he orchestrates the camera to move from one composed shot to another. It's effectively cutting without cutting, and is invisible to the audience.

One of the best examples in Close Encounters is when the fighter planes are found in the desert. Spielberg starts in a medium shot of a plane, moves wide to track the characters as they run to the aircraft, settles on a composition of a plane, and then turns it into a two shot as David Laughlin walks toward camera and yells to someone off-screen. It's an immersive set of individual shots blended seamlessly by motivated camera movement.

Naturalistic Conversation

Characters talk over each other throughout Close Encounters, sometimes making it difficult to understand the dialogue. This reminds me of Christopher Nolan's approach to dialogue, one which he has taken some criticism for:

"I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound."

Christopher Nolan

The effect in Close Encounters often provokes a feeling more than a clear understanding of what is being said. It is also more realistic, as real-world conversations routinely involve people interrupting and talking over each other. This is something that films from the golden age of Hollywood did very often, and while it requires a few minutes to adjust, it makes those films all the more witty and enjoyable. You have to run to keep up.

Directing Our Attention

My favorite moment in Close Encounters is the audience's first introduction to an alien ship. Roy (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is lost and has parked his truck in the middle of the road to look at a map. A car pulls up behind him, headlights filling the frame, and Roy waves them on. They drive around him and Roy continues to study the map. Another pair of headlights appear, and a frustrated Roy waves them on as well. But while Roy continues searching the map, the headlights slowly rise behind him and float off-camera—and suddenly we realize this is not a car at all, but something more alien:

All of this happens behind Roy and out of focus. The shot is clearly composed to direct our eyes to Roy and his predicament. But by deciding not to call attention to the alien ship, Spielberg brilliantly does call attention to it, shocking the audience and eliciting smiles and laughter. It's a wonderful moment that illustrates the power of restraint and showing less.

One more lesson from Close Encounters comes up again and again in Spielberg's body of work. It's something he's both celebrated and criticized for, and I believe it's an important reminder for artists in any medium. It's far too easy to center on the dark and difficult. But as Close Encounters reaches its lyrical climax, Spielberg reminds us once again:

Remember your childlike sense of wonder.


Further reading: ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’: Steven Spielberg’s Gamble That Paid Off Generously by Cinephilia & Beyond
Further reading: Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Steven Spielberg

The Archives

Moving my writing to a new system means there's a lot of content left to sit in a dark corner of the web. And while some of it is dated, there's actually some good stuff there. For now, the entire archive is still available here.

Here are some of my favorites:

Shudder Angle
The Cinematography of The Force Awakens
The Cinematography of The Force Awakens, Part II
Men Without Chests
On Repetition as Exhortation
Interstellar and the Power of Analogue
The Simple Art of Doing
It's All the Same Mission Field
Movies Aren't Dialogue, They're Pictures!
The local cinema is not a pulpit.
Steve Jobs
Sage Spielberg
Finding a Job, or Using Naiveté to Your Advantage

David Condolora is a storyteller in games, film, and beyond. Follow him on Twitter or send him an e-mail.