The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Team-work vs. solitude: or the medium and the artist

The following was recommended to me by Robert Nagle of Idiotprogrammer. It is from The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Cinema. The original post is highly worth reading. But what struck me in particular was Murch's comments on how visual artists once worked by necessity as part of a team when painting in fresco but how they eventually were able to work solitarily when painting in oils. Murch extends this comparison with how visual/text artists (if one could call a movie-maker that) work now again in teams when making movies.

This, though, might change once more. Movies (and art that possesses some of the qualities of movies) are in the process of adopting digital technology.This technology once more allows the creator more individuality of expression, in part because digital technology allows more solitude.

Some of the greatest, if not the greatest triumphs of European pictorial art were done in fresco, the painstaking process whereby damp plaster is stained with pigments that bond chemically with the plaster and change color as they dry. One need only think of Michelangelo’s frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the pictorial equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.A great deal of planning needs to be done with fresco, and the variables — like the consistency and drying time of the plaster — have to be controlled exactly. Artists needed a precise knowledge of the pigments and how they would change color as they dried. Once the pigment had been applied, no revisions were possible. Only so much work could be done in a day before the plaster applied that morning became too dry. Inevitably, cracks would form at the joins between subsequent applications of plaster, so the arrangement of each day’s subject matter had to be chosen carefully to minimize the damage from this cracking.

There was more, but it should be clear that for all these reasons, fresco painting was an expensive effort of many people and various interlocking technologies, overseen by the artist who took responsibility for the final product.

The invention of oil paint changed all this. The artist was freed to paint wherever and whenever he wanted. He did not have to create the work in its final location. The paint was the same color wet as it would be dry. He did not have to worry unduly about cracking surfaces. And the artist could paint over areas he didn’t like, even to the point of re-using canvases for completely different purposes.

Although painting in oils remained collaborative for a while, the innate logic of the new medium allowed the artist more and more control of every aspect of the work, intensifying his personal vision. This was tremendously liberating, and the history of art from 1450 to the present is a clear testimony to the creative power of that liberation — and some of its dangers, which found their ultimate expression in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the emergence of solitary and tortured geniuses like Van Gogh.

The nature of working with film has been more like painting in fresco than oil. It is so heterogeneous, with so many technologies woven together in a complex and expensive fabric, that it is almost by definition impossible for a single person to control. There are a few solitary filmmakers — Jordan Belson comes to mind — but these are exceptional individuals, and the films they make are geared in their subject matter to allow creation by a single person.


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