Monday, March 12, 2012

Take Two

Thirty years ago, I was a Radio-TV-Film student at the University of Texas. I thought I was going to be involved in the film industry, and I studied editing, lighting, and cinematography.

Life intervened, and my career took a different path. While I watched the industry from afar, I saw the techniques I learned in college become obsolete or outdated.

Three decades later, I have an opportunity (through the good graces of the Rhode Island School of Design) to catch up on some of the widgetry that's replaced the old kinescopes and editing benches of my undergraduate days. I'm taking a course in Adobe After Effects techniques that seems to marry what I used to know with what I don't know now.

My first homework assignment for After Effects was an open-ended project: I could choose any opening credits sequence from a film or television show, and "re-imagine" the sequence in whatever way I'd like. The only restriction was that I needed to use three of the After Effects techniques I had learned in class dealing with opacity, scale, and position of image layers.

I chose to remake the title sequence of what is undoubtedly my favorite film: director William Wyler's 1946 classic, The Best Years of Our Lives. Although the movie was beautifully filmed by cinematographer Gregg Toland, the opening credits were dull, static title cards dissolving into each other.

The Best Years of Our Lives was a story about soldiers, sailors, and airmen returning to civilian life after their struggle for survival through World War II. Audiences of 1946 knew that struggle intimately in their own lives, so there was no need at the time to portray that struggle on screen. Seventy years have put a lot of distance between us and that incredible time, so I thought I would try to show a few moments of that global battle as the credits appeared. Here's my attempt at condensing years of history into a minute and seventeen seconds:

(Apparently Youtube isn't going to let me upload this video correctly, so you'll just have to click the link. Sorry!)


  1. Nice titles! I don't know much about filmmaking (although I did work as a local TV cameraman/director while in high school (!)), but I wonder if your experience is similar to mine in graphic arts. I learned a lot about photography, photostats, color separations, etc. while working at a newspaper nearly 30 years ago. Although the specific technology is all obsolete, its digital replacements still use analogs--and in many cases the exact same language--of the old techniques. It really didn't take me long to get up to speed on Photoshop. I often think familiarity with the old physical ways lends more depth and understanding to the new digital ones.

  2. Thanks, Brian! It's true that the concepts of editing remain the same, even when razor blades and acetone glue are replaced by screen icons and keyboard combinations. And yes, After Effects is very much like a moving-image version of Photoshop.

    I think the major difference between the current crop of editing folks vs. an old-timer from Jurassic days is my reluctance to use effects that once cost a lot of money. I rely on "butt-cuts" instead of dissolves because, back in the day, every multiframe transition cost a lot of money on the optical printer. It's a silly habit, but it's taking me a surprising amount of time to rid my head of this restriction.

    Another odd difference is the approach to composing individual scenes. Back in the caveman days, I was taught to build "tails-out," working from the end of a scene to the beginning of a scene, in order to layer edits and transitions. Nowadays, the approach is non-linear, and people work on whatever random part of a scene catches their interest first. I understand that there is no longer a physical limitation on what sections get edited first, but it still seems to me that editing from the back to the front builds a more coherent narrative, because the editor knows what the earlier elements need to convey to make the final image pay off. Curse my linear brain! :)