Mamoru Oshii and The Sky Crawlers

Mamoru Oshii’s criminally under-seen existential ariel-combat science fiction film, The Sky Crawlers, recently screened in Toronto as part of Techno/Human retrospective on the master animators body of work. Oshii was on hand to discuss the film prior to the screening, which I captured on video, and subtitled via the interpreter. If you are a fan of films like Blade Runner, Code 46, Solaris and Never Let Me Go, than consider picking up the BLU. I will let the director give to you skinny on the ideas and craft behind the film, which was animated by Production I.G.; the same folks behind the Ghost in The Shell OVA/TV show and the O-Ren Ishii animated sequence in Kill Bill Vol.1

My original review of the film is below:

“Somewhere, in a country similar to ours There are children who do not become adults. They are very similar to us.” goes the tagline of Mamoru Oshii’s 2008 film. One that carried the promise (during its production cycle) of a more linear form of story telling after the convoluted Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and the strange Tachigui. I am overjoyed to report that while the story is linear, it is anything but straightforward or simple, and not the least bit diluted or dumbed down in regards to his philosophical and social musings – basically the essence of what makes Oshii stand out from his generation of masters of the Japanese animated feature. Using a pastiche of elements of contemporary science fiction (From “Ender’s Game” to “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”) mashed up with stirring World War II aerial dogfights and a his unique brand of austere and cold melodrama, The Sky Crawlers certainly will not be for everyone. The film is a feast for the senses, not only in the gargantuan fighter plane battles, which may be safe to say are the best ever committed to celluloid (and yes, that includes Hell’s Angels and the space climaxes of any of the best of the Star Wars pictures). This is true in ever single detail of the film (bravo Production I.G.) even the small moments: The cigarette smoke swirls, a Vespa engine hums as it idles, the airplane hangars and living quarters are textured, lived in, and the apple pie and coffee diners are gorgeously rendered down to the most minute detail. And the sound design (courtesy of Skywalker Sound) is among the best work they have ever done.

But wait, much this technical praise could be more or less said of, say, Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s equally well crafted Steam Boy, and that movie was more or less a failure due to overly convoluted and stilted story telling. The narrative may be cool and deliberately paced for a film with designs on a gigantic canvas, but that dovetails beautifully with the story Oshii is trying to tell. Make no mistake, this is social science fiction, and tonally controlled storytelling at its finest.

The world of The Sky Crawlers is a social and geographical fusion of 1950s America, Japan and Western Europe where propeller styled fighter planes co-exist along side satellite television, large multinational corporations and cloning science. While it is a time of apparent peace and prosperity, the large corporations conduct ‘real wars’ (mostly over the border ocean zones), televised of course, to placate any unrest or rebellion from the masses. Contrary to Orwell’s “1984”, where London is a perpetual war wreck and society fragmented and controlled, Oshii (and the writer of the original novel, Mori Hiroshi) postulate that for the most part, this ‘perpetual war’ has actually benefited society. Wars and equally importantly, all the social problems of an idyll, purposeless populace, involving real people can be avoided if they are fought in a fully manufactured way which has ‘real consequence’ built into the equation. The fighter pilots that fight for their parent corporations are of a genetically modified race who never age, fittingly called Kildren. Set in state of perpetual adolescence, they live to fight and pilot the fighter planes, and die for the entertainment and attention of the worlds citizens. The fact that this race is immortal otherwise, only ups the ante and the dramatic spectacle of flaming angels falling from the sky from the fantastic machines.

The Sky Crawlers Movie StillThe story revolves around one of the bases of Kildren and the little ecosystem in which they inhabit. Yuichi arrives to a new posting for the Rostock Corporation. The pilots there are kept under tight wraps from their base commander Suito Kusanagi (a fellow Kildren) and the lovingly stern chief mechanic (and ‘adult human’), both of whom immediately have an eye on Yuichi. This sets Yuichi on edge along with the stories of the non-Kildren ace pilot, a Red Baron type named ‘The Teacher’ who fights for the ‘enemy’ Lautern Corporation. The first half of the film focuses on the ecology of the air-base with a few combat laden sorties to get the adrenaline flowing. The drinking and sexual exploits of Yuichi’s roomate pull Yuichi into a few encounters of his own that strike odd chords of familiarity. This leads to Yuichi questioning his bosses mysterious past while the Rostock Corporation plans its biggest offensive to date. The findings of Yuichi in regards to his bosses and himself are the engine of the plot, but really not the films chief concern, and thusly the storytelling is not the least bit concerned with ‘twist endings’ or other high-concept gimmickry so often favoured within the genre.

Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful novel (and to an extent, Mark Romanek’s film adaptation) Never Let Me Go, Oshii does not bury the mystery or secrets of the narrative so deep that a conscientious observer won’t have things figured out within the first quarter of the film. But the joy here is in how things reflect and refract current social trends, and draw commentary and observation into the forefront of the storytelling. The film is postulating some big questions in amongst the lives of pilots, war melodrama and simply stunning action set-pieces. It is a film concerned for the future, while not necessarily nostalgic of the past. There is a character, one that goes unnamed, in the film (in the background really) that sits alone and silent on the front steps of a diner. The Kildren all look at him, but never make any real contact. This old man weeps for the world as it is, a peace bought at a curious price of static non-progress and cyclic stagnation. A moment in the film when another adult human, the lively cook and bartender at the diner, joins the old man in his silent withdrawal. This moment resonates. Oshii, who was 57 at the time was (and probably still is) concerned with the consequences of the punishing media distractions and general white noise of modern Japanese society, which leaves many young folks in a state of perpetual adolescence. He has constructed a curious epic that is evocative of history, while starkly original in tone and execution. A message movie that is subtle, urgent, and most certainly worthy of your time and consideration.

The Director’s Club: SAM FULLER

I recently made a guest appearance on the Director’s Club Podcast talking at length with Patrick Ripoll about the career, craft and overall style of the great Sam Fuller. Over the course of a few hours we also talk about Do The Right Thing, the short films of Kenneth Anger, the bawdy polish mind-melt film, The Saragossa Manuscript, and many more tangents and such.

Specific Fuller films covered at length are The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor and Pick Up On South Street, but we touch upon many others with the exception being his film and TV westerns.

You can find the full podcast over at The Director’s Club.

Help Build a Time Machine!

Jay Cheel from the documentary blog and director of Genie Nominated Beauty Day is gearing up to complete his next full length feature documentary, How to Build a Time Machine. As Jay puts it,

HOW TO BUILD A TIME MACHINE will be a genre-bending, true life sci fi mystery that will tell John Titor’s story through interviews with the incredible web of people who were drawn into it, and through a recreation of his journey … As a lover of film and filmmaking, I attempt to make movies that would excite me as a fan. I want to tell this story in the most cinematic, engaging, and entertaining fashion possible.

But to get this all done they need YOUR help to film cinematic recreations of John’s mission to 1975 based on his original Internet posts. To accomplish this, they will need money to help cover the costs of costumes, props, locations, and actors. With your help, they’re hoping to reach $25,000, which will enable Jay to create a great experience for you, the audience.

Please head over to Doc Ignite and help Jay out with a couple thousand dollars. Or ten. Whatever you’ve got to spare. Don’t do it for Jay, don’t do it for the love of independent film making. Do it for me so I can see thing as soon as possible!

If I don’t convince you, let the film do the talking…


Lars von Trier: Discuss

With Melancholia opening this Friday in select cities, and a lot of Lars von Trier films showing in Toronto, the folks at the Substream with Mamo!‘s Matt Price have a new episode of Very Important Dudes and Dudettes in Film History (VIDADIFH), which brings out all the interesting contradictions and misconceptions of the worlds most famous Danish filmmaker; yes, budding filmatists, more than Carl Theodore Dreyer.

Here is your chance to weigh in on the travel-phobic provocateur enfant terrible auteur tyrant film-guy. Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr. Lars von Trier

115 Years of Color and the First Color Films

Well not really, but this is a wonderfully preserved look at some of Kodak’s first experiments into the newly colorized medium. Kodak began working to improve on existing color photography that already existed at the time and from what I can see here truly succeeded. The hues and contrasts in this short experimental footage look absolutely fantastic compared to what came before it and was a major step-up in color film technology that paved the way for classic and epic films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

“In these newly preserved tests, made in 1922 at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, actress Mae Murray appears almost translucent, her flesh a pale white that is reminiscent of perfectly sculpted marble, enhanced with touches of color to her lips, eyes, and hair. She is joined by actress Hope Hampton modeling costumes from The Light in the Dark (1922), which contained the first commercial use of Two-Color Kodachrome in a feature film.” – Kodak Blog



So after seeing this glorious footage, I started doing a little more research on color and found some conflicting reports. Wikipedia claims that something called “Kinemacolor” was the first successful color motion picture process, used commercially from 1908 to 1914. They also say that A Visit to the Seaside was the first successful film produced in natural color (which I couldn’t find a video of). I think “successful” and “commercially” might be the important words in that sentence because I then tracked down this clip on YouTube which claims it is from 1906.

would you like to know more?
Would you like to know more…?

Rogue Film School II: Jersey Edition


Yes, Werner Herzog may read Curious George for you in New Jersey if he manages to track it down on You Tube. With the first edition of Rogue Film School (a crash course in filmmaking for people not afraid to forge permits in a military dictatorship and steal cameras from college campuses) already complete in Los Angeles (read this report of someone who apparently (or facetiously is lying about it) snuck into the school here) here is a short promo of the teacher himself shilling for round two which is taking place from June 12th – 14th.

Also, some comments on the reading list for the class here. And for those of you who do not like to read, Werner says you will not make a good filmmaker if you do not read on a diverse number of topics (none of these books on filmmaking itself). Listen to Werner. Read more books.

Ana’s Playground

Always proud when a worthwhile film, no matter how short or small, makes its way out of the frozen tundra of Minneapolis. Especially when said film is not only a magnificent watch, but also supports a good cause and delivers a message without being ham fisted. Quite the opposite actually. Ana’s Playground is a 20 minute short, sculpted so carefully that while it tackles the social injustice of children involved in armed combat, it never delves into a specific territory, conflict or racial divide. Rather, the film keeps it attention on where it should: the effect and involvement of children during armed conflict; using an unknown, war torn location and even going so far as the utilization of a made up language.

The locale is key. Since the actual city is never specifically mentioned, this could be any war torn city in the heart of chaos. It’s reminiscent of an Eastern European city that we’ve seen in many a film, but keeping the actual name from us leaves it more internal and possibly even relatable. The story depicts a group of children playing soccer (also a key instrument of storytelling as this is probably the world’s most popular sport (especially in Europe)) in the street. Forced to dodge tanks and machine gun fire rather than the usual passing sedan we might see in any typical American suburb, one of the children finds herself in the heart of no man’s land when their ball accidentally goes over the dividing wall. As children often do, ignoring the consequences, young Ana cautiously takes her time exploring the area and scavenging for food before retrieving their soccer ball. Suddenly the whiz of a bullet zips by her ear before an eruption of sniper fire rips from a nearby high rise. Now Ana is caught in a cat and mouse survival game with an unknown assailant. What makes the plot work, beyond the edge of your seat intensity is the intertwining of blunt social commentary twisted into the action effectively and with quality, but without being heavy handed.

Since its September release, the film has been receiving rave reviews and loads of festival awards just about everywhere it goes (including top honors for Best Live Action Short Film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the Norwich, New Hampshire, Cenflo and Foyle film festivals, including a ‘Best of the Festival’ and an Academy Qualifying win for the 2010 nomination cycle) – and it’s easy to see why. Director Eric Howell has crafted a film that is amazingly well shot, has great set design, fast paced action (dare I say Hurt Locker-esque?), something meaningful to say (and said well) and the capper is its unique way of being relevant to all.

The film was funded entirely by donation and necessities were provided by countless organizations in and around the Twin Cities, MN area. Focus Features pitched in quite a bundle of scratch, Skywalker Sound did all of the post sound-engineering work and The Coen Brothers themselves provided a lot of the physical set pieces. Sorry, but if they’re behind this endeavor, so should we be.

The film has helped raise awareness and funds throughout the world to children involved with armed conflict and brought people closer together. The proceeds and leftovers from the production (including loads of soccer equipment and hundreds of jerseys) have been donated to various organizations around the globe. You can read a lot more about the film and its endeavors by heading over to Unfortunately the film isn’t available for viewing yet online, but it’s still making its way through the festival circuit, so you might look for it there. There is a nice looking trailer available however and I’ve stuck it below the seats. Have a look and seek out this quality short film if ever and whenever you can.

Would you like to know more…?

Soderbergh and Crew Talk About “The Red” and The Digital Revolution

Steven Soderbergh talks about “The Red” and digital technology in regards to his film Che (recently released under the wonderful Criterion label for both standard and Blu-Ray). I have yet to pick up this astonishingly overlooked, under-appreciated and unfairly shit upon (by audiences and the studio) DVD version of the film, but as I understand it, it is a must have for not only history buffs, but also anyone interested in the art of film making in the new decade.

Soderbergh’s commentary track is apparently fascinating and of course well though out and articulate. I look forward to rewatching the film (in its four hour entirety) through his eyes, so to speak. Also included in the DVD set is a 33-minute featurette entitled “Che and the Digital Cinema Revolution” which has recently been posted online for those of us who can’t put together the scratch for the DVD. I’ve posted this video below for your enjoyment. God bless Steven Soderbergh; yes, cinema matters to us Steve! Keep it coming!

Watch: “Che and the Digital Cinema Revolution”


First Movie Shot on Canon 7D

Yes, more frakking zombies. I love the sub-genre, but enough is enough. The point of this post isn’t about zombies though; or even this particular movie. What is significant here is the look of this “film” shot on a $1700 camera. Almost anyone can now make a movie that looks good – or at least they can afford to make one.

The camera quality is sort of a mixed bag for the bloody independent film. High resolution coupled with gorgeous depth of field tricks emulate Hollywood (or at least, TV-level) production. But, while you can call me old fashioned, blood and guts only look better in low-fi. Best of luck to the group finishing the film. These dailies from week one have some nice moments.

New Trek Props

So I can admit it: I like Star Trek. I’m certainly not a “Trekkie,” but I do find most of the stories and characters interesting and fun to think about. The creators of the various series usually came up with something interesting to deal with in terms of discussion, examination and exploration.

Part of what is cool about the Star Trek franchise is the fabulous technology and theorems that come along with the show. Ask any NASA engineer or particle physicist and they’ll tell you that a lot of the “fiction” that was portrayed on the Trek shows was partly based on fun and partly based on science. The parts that were theoretically based on science, have not only become reality, but the show actually coined some scientific terminology and/or scientific basis in fact that had not been explored at the time of the original show; “antimatter” for example.

Anyway, this is a round-a-bout way of getting to the point that JJ Abrams (creator of LOST) has come up with his own ideas of what technology might be like 100 years from now and we have pictures to show you. While some of what is cool about the Trek franchise is the scientific reality of all of the gadgets and technology, another aspect of the show is also the mystery. It just works. We don’t necessarily have to know the whys and hows or all of the intracacies of each bit of techno-babble; we just need to know that when a tri-corder scans a rock, it can tell us where that rock has been and what compounds the rock has contained for the last billion years.

Kirk’s communicator: Tri-corder: Uhura’s comm device:

Thanks to, we’re getting a first hand look at some of the gadgetry from next summer’s highly anticipated Star Trek “re-boot.” Myself, I’m interested in Kirk’s communication device. Again, I’m not interested in how or why it works; as a cinemaphile, I’m just more interested in how it looks and the fact that it does work at all.

To see the above images in a little bit more detail, peek under the seats…
Would you like to know more…?

On Filmmaking: Werner Herzog

Just yesterday, I began reading Herzog on Herzog (published in 2002 by Faber and Faber, inc)., a series of interviews in which Paul Cronin (who also edited the book) discusses a variety of topics with the renowned director, covering all of his films up to and including 2001’s Invincible. I came across the following this morning, and thought the rest of the Row Three community might find it interesting. In it, Herzog offers his views on filmmaking, and what he feels it takes to become a director.

Paul Cronin: What are your views on film schools? I gather you’d prefer people just went out and made films than spending years at school.

Werner Herzog: I personally do not believe in the kind of film schools you find all over the world today. I never worked as another filmmaker’s assistant and I never had any formal training. My early films come from my very deepest commitment to what I was doing, what I felt I had no choice but to do, and as such they were totally unconnected to what was going on at the film schools – and cinemas – of the time. It is my strong autodidactic streak and my faith in my own work that have kept me going for more than forty years.

A pianist is made in childhood; a filmmaker at any age. I say this only because physically, in order to play the piano well, the body needs to be conditioned from a very early age. Real musicians have an innate feel for all music and all instruments, something that can be instilled only at an early age. Of course, it is possible to learn to play the piano as an adult, but the intuitive qualities needed will not be there. As a young filmmaker, I read in an encyclopedia the fifteen or so pages on filmmaking. Everything I needed to get myself started came from this book. It has always seemed to me that almost everything you are forced to learn at school you forget in a couple of years. But the things you set out to learn yourself in order to quench a thirst, these are the things you never forget. It was a vital early lesson for me, realizing that the knowledge gleaned from a book would suffice for my first week on a set, which is all the time needed to learn everything you need to know as a filmmaker. To this day the technical knowledge I have is relatively rudimentary. If there are things that seem too complicated, I experiment; if I am still not able to master it I hire a technician.

PC: You’ve talked in the past about how collaborative film is, and how many different and varied skills it requires.

WH: Filmmaking is a more vulnerable journey than most other creative ventures. When you are a sculptor you have only one obstacle – a lump of rock – on which you chisel away. But filmmaking involves organization and money and technology, things like that. You might get the best shot of your life but if the lab mixes the developing solution wrongly then your shot is gone forever. You can build a ship, cast 5,000 extras and plan a scene with your leading actors, and in the morning one of them has a stomach ache and cannot go on set. These things happen; everything is interwoven and interlinked, and if one element does not function properly then the whole venture is prone to collapse. Filmmakers should be taught about how things will go wrong, about how to deal with these problems, how to handle a crew that is getting out of hand, how to handle a producing partner who will not pay up or a distributor who won’t advertise properly, things like this. People who keep moaning about these kinds of problems are not really suited to this kind of business.

And, vitally, aspiring filmmakers have to be taught that sometimes the only way to overcome problems involves real physicality. Many great filmmakers have been astonishingly physical, athletic people. A much higher percentage than writers or musicians. Actually, for some time now I have given some thought to opening a film school. But if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you have traveled alone on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about 5,000 kilometers. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking than if you were in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about what your future holds than in five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion.

PC: Tell me about your ideal film school.

WH:This is something we can talk about later when we discuss Film Lessons, the programmes I made for Austrian television, but let me say here that there are some very basic skills that any filmmaker must have. First of all, learn languages. One also needs to be able to type and drive a car. It is like the knights of old who had to be able to ride, wield a sword and play the lute. At my utopian film academy I would have students do athletic things with real physical contact, like boxing, something that would teach them to be unafraid. I would have a loft with a lot of space where in one corner there would be a boxing ring. Students would train every evening from 8 to 10 with a boxing instructor: sparring, somersaults (backwards and forwards), juggling, magic card tricks. Whether or not you would be a filmmaker by the end I do not know, but at least you would come out as an athlete. My film school would allow young people who want to make films to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind. This is what ultimately creates films and nothing else. It is not technicians that film schools should be producing, but people with a real agitation of mind. People with spirit, with a burning flame within them.