Tuesday, September 28, 2010

American Graffiti Style Part I

A discussion on American Graffiti wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the style of the film.  Here, we'll look at some of the elements that make this film unique and give you some idea why other films that have attempted to recreate the Graffiti magic often pale in comparison.  So, don't be a schmo from Kokomo, start readin'!

For Lucas' second feature film, the 28 year-old filmmaker was allotted a small B-movie budget of about $775,000.  In part, it is the lack of a big Hollywood budget that gives the 1973 film it's charm.  A cast of mostly unknown actors working for scale, old-school film techniques, and creative post-production sound treatment were all used.  In addition, clever dialogue, an awesome mix of non-stop oldies, and unrelated stories that interconnect all add up to one great film.

Graffiti is Lucas's attempt to capture his high school days and the cruising culture in Modesto, California.  The film mixes both elements of realism and fantasy as the young filmmaker shows the world the way society was but in an imaginative and entertaining way.  The style of the film is realistic whereas the film itself is not.  Lucas says, "The actual film... is a myth.  For instance, some friends of mine did that to a police car, but it didn't come off like that.  The car just sort of went clunk, and it was really un-dramatic.  But, in the film it comes off."  He further elaborated, "The hoods are another example.  There are groups like that, but their not really like that.  It's been mythized so that its easier to take and more fun. The fact that its shown in a very realistic style makes it believable."

Lucas & Co-Producer Gary Kurtz discuss destruction of the Ford Galaxie

The story has a divergent structure where all the key characters are introduced together at the beginning as we see their separate personalities and how they interact with one another.  Each character is then involved in an unrelated subplot that intertwines with the main story.  This narrative style of storytelling with separate plots was unique for 1973 films subsequently; the technique is now commonly used in most TV programs. "It's funny when you look back now, because everybody's sort of copied those films," says Lucas, "They're so ingrained in our culture now, it's almost impossible to think there was a point where those things were completely odd and unique.

As in Lucas' first feature film THX-1138, Graffiti was shot in the 35mm TECHNISCOPE format.  Many Italian films made in the 60s used this format.  For instance, Italian Spaghetti-Western filmmaker, Sergio Leone had used the Techniscope format for his wonderfully nihilistic and violent 'Dollars Trilogy:' - A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, Bad and the Ugly (1966).

A Techniscope film frame
Lucas preferred the Techniscope process for the filming of Graffiti for several reasons:  The process provided the most economical use of the camera negative.  Not only was it cheaper but also one could film for twice as long without having to reload.  The use of smaller equipment gave the film crew the most mobility in catching the cruising atmosphere.  In addition, more speed in the lenses made it possible to shoot at lower light levels. Since most of Graffiti takes place at night this made it optimal. The Techniscope frame was half the height of the standard 35mm anamorphic, and when the film was at the optical printing stage the frame was stretched vertically to twice the height.  This gave the film a grainy, de-saturated look when it was projected on the big screen.  It has the appearance of being shot with a smaller 16-mm camera much in the same way documentaries and amateur films are only with a wide-screen scope.

To light big, night exteriors took skill and experience that the film crew, unfortunately, did not have.  At first, the film was too dark, Lucas remembers, and he wanted the colors to be similar to those of the mid-60s teenage party movies, like Beach Blanket Bingo, Pajama Party, etc.  "That's what I wanted for the film, and that was one of the problems I was having early in the film," Lucas says.

After a few nights of filming, Lucas contacted Haskell Wexler in Los Angeles and asked if he would come on-location to help out.  The Academy Award winning , cinematographer, Wexler (who'd been working on feature films since the mid-fifties), agreed to lend his expertise and fly up to Petaluma every night for five weeks and act as visual consultant and lead cameraman.  "I was scheduled to do a lot of commercials, so I flew up to San Francisco every night and worked 'till daylight then came back to Los Angeles," Wexler recalls.  "It was incredible fun, but there was no money.  I was so spaced out from not having any sleep at one point I said to George, 'Point me in the right direction and I'll shoot.' "

"I'm not gonna say I was like a son to him, but it was sort of like that: I was like the student and he [Wexler] was like the teacher," says Lucas

Wexler and Bill Maley (Lighting Director) employed the effective technique of putting a truck up on jacks and flashing the headlights on and off to simulate the appearance of passing cars on the actor's faces.  And, by using 4 or 5 battery operated dome lights inside the cars, they were able to light the actors so they were visible in the cars.


One of the most striking aspects of Graffiti is the convincing sound of street-cruising ambience supplied by sound designer, Walter Murch.  Murch, the the son of Abstract Expressionist painter Walter Murch, (1907-68),  had first met Lucas when they were both film students at the University of Southern California (USC).  Lucas wanted something special to be done with the music in the film and Mr. Murch was just the person to provide it.  At the time, Murch felt the available effects machines that produced reverb and echo sounded much too artificial so he set out to create his own effects for the film. To make the music bounce around the environment Murch employed a process he termed, "worldizing."

After filming, but before the mix, Murch and Lucas produced a radio show as if one had happened to tune in to radio station XERB in the late summer of 1962, complete with Wolfman's patter, commercials, songs, and people phoning in requests.  They then took a tape of the radio show into various outdoor environments, and played it back and captured what they heard on a second tape recorder.

Walter Murch & George Lucas
When mixing the sound Murch had separate control of both the original show and the "worldized" version.  By blending the recordings he was able to get the right amount of atmosphere for the right moment in the film. He could make transitions from a live very present sound to something that sounded like it was very distant and bouncing off many buildings.  One of the more extreme examples of this in the film is the period when BARBARA ANNE by The Crests is playing on the radio and 'Curt' is kicked out of the car. Murch explains, "When your in the car, you're hearing the closed in, slightly muffled sound of car radio speakers of the time. Then when he gets kicked out and he's at those crossroads, kind of wondering what's gonna happen next, the music becomes probably the most ethereal that it ever is in the film." With the possible exception of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) sound had not been explored to such an extent in American cinema.  Mr. Murch did an incredible job mixing the sound of those "oldie but moldy" tunes into the film.  In fact it is not just the songs that sound great but the way in which their presented and mixed into the film that makes the music sound so good. Working his wonderful magic Murch created an aural delight that makes the film not only fun to watch but satisfying to listen to, as well.



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