Monday, April 18, 2011

Michael Scott Made a Good Movie

One of my biggest pet peeves in movies and TV shows is when a video is supposed to look amateurish or technically simplistic, but it ends up looking better than anything the average person could create.  You've probably noticed it yourself, just never bothered to linger on it.  But linger you should.  Because, of all the common shortcuts filmmakers use to get a point across, this is the one that filmmakers themselves should find the most egregious.

Here's the routine: an amateur of some sort -- very often a child -- picks up a video camera and decides to start making a movie.  Or perhaps it's someone documenting some important event, like a wedding or a party.  We, the audience, are watching the end result of this non-professional documentation.  (It's a whole different scenario when episodes or sequences are structured around the conceit of a professional film crew coming to town.  In that case, we expect them to create a professional-looking product.)

In order to sell us on the amateurism of what we're seeing, the cameras will be placed at unusual angles; shots are overly shaky and framed oddly; focus will be in and out; important people or objects will fall off screen.  On an acting level, everyone becomes stiff and self-conscious; they ham it up for the camera; they use stilted line delivery.  The dialogue itself is horrible, the story is intentionally clunky and obvious, every moment is a cliche.  The point is loud and clear: we're watching something made by amateurs.

So why is it that the lighting and the editing always remain at the highest level of excellence?

Editing and cinematography are notorious for never getting their due.  Editing is frequently referred to as "the invisible art" - if the editing of a movie or TV show stands out to you, then it was done wrong.  Even in attention-grabbing cases when a movie is intentionally choppy -- Tarantino-style time fragmentation; Aronofsky-style hip hop montage -- most people don't understand what goes into truly excellent editing (myself included).

Likewise with cinematography.  Extreme camera movements or unusual lighting will stand out to the general audience and provoke them say, "the lighting in that movie is really incredible."  But you're still missing the complexity and, frankly, even the basic elements of what cinematography needs to accomplish.  We take it for granted that we'll just be able to see everything we're supposed to see, the way we're supposed to see it.  But it takes a great deal of skill and knowledge to make film "see" things the way our eyes do.

Which is why, even when an episode or sequence is supposed to have been made by an amateur, the cinematography and editing will always remain 100% professional.  Anything less would be unwatchable.  Which is a testament to how important they are.

One of the most recent examples is the "Threat Level Midnight" episode of "The Office."  As fans of "The Office" know, Michael Scott is a well-meaning fool who occasionally dabbled in amateur screenwriting.  "Threat Level Midnight" was devoted to the end result of all that dabbling: Michael's homemade spy thriller, starring himself and all his coworkers.

The episode has all the hallmarks of this conceit noted above.  Stiff acting, bad camerawork, childish storytelling.  But throughout the whole thing, the lighting is perfect - there are no hard shadows on anyone's faces, backgrounds never drop off to blackness.  And the editing is snappy and sophisticated - cutting on the action, matching eyelines, great pacing.

On top of that, Michael did a great job recording and editing the audio.  That's one of the first things to go wrong with amateur productions.  He also did a great job shooting coverage and reverse angles, two things missing from most amateur productions.

Overall, Michael Scott made a good movie.

Look, folks, I get it.  The joke is that Michael Scott is inept as a filmmaker (as most people are), and we're supposed to laugh at the obvious shortcomings of his movie.  I'm not saying that "The Office" failed at delivering exactly what it set out to deliver in that episode.  I'm just saying that the creative and technical professionals responsible for making "The Office" know better: true amateurism looks much worse than the movie Michael Scott made.  And thanks to YouTube, we all know how dreadful amateurism can be.

"The Office" did what it needed to do to get the point across the Michael Scott made a ridiculously bad movie.  But I think they should have done more, taken in it further.  In this day and age of the pervasive amateur, professionals need to work much harder if they want us to believe they don't know what they're doing.

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