Akira Kurosawa: Learn From the Masters (Part II)

KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai

More lessons from Akira Kurosawa– the master visual poet, story-teller, and cinematographer:

This is Part II of Akira Kurosawa: Learn From the Masters.


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1. On editing

Kurosawa Seven Samurai
KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai

Kurosawa teaches us that we must know how to ruthlessly prune away the inessential — in order to tell a better story, regardless of how much work went into making a certain shot:

When you are shooting, of course, you film only what you believe is necessary. But very often you realize only after having shot it that you didn’t need it after all. You don’t need what you don’t need. Yet human nature wants to place value on things in direct proportion to the amount of labor that went into waking them.

Kurosawa warns us against the danger of being reluctant to cut unnecessary scenes. The psychological problem: we see our pictures like our babies. ‘Killing our babies‘ is painful, yet essential:

In film editing, this natural inclination is the most dangerous of all attitudes. The art of the cinema has been called an art of time, but time used to no purpose cannot be called anything but wasted time.

More thoughts from Kurosawa on objective editing:

The most important requirement for editing is objectivity. No matter how much difficulty you had in obtaining a particular shot, the audience will never know. If it is not interesting, it simply isn’t interesting. You may have been full of enthusiasm during the filming of a particular shot, but if that enthusiasm doesn’t show on the screen, you must be objective enough to cut it.

2. What is cinema?

KUROSAWA x KIM / Seven Samurai
KUROSAWA x KIM / Seven Samurai
Note the spacing of the subjects. KUROSAWA x KIM / Seven Samurai
Kurosawa Seven Samurai
Kurosawa Seven Samurai

Kurosawa encourages us to study all fields of art to become a better film-maker, like literature, poetry, and also from real life.

But ultimately, cinema is cinema:

Cinema resembles so many other arts. If cinema has very literary characteristics, it also has theatrical qualities, a philosophical side, attributes of painting and sculpture and musical elements. But cinema is, in the final analysis, cinema.

3. Create your own artistic projects

Kurosawa, Seven Samurai
Kurosawa x Kim
Kurosawa x Kim

Kurosawa says that he never took on projects from others. Rather, he made films from his own desire to tell a certain story. It came from his inner-need to express something in his heart and soul:

I have never taken on a project offered to me by a producer or a production company. My films emerge from my own desire to say a particular thing at a par-ticular time. The root of any film project for me is this inner-need to express something. What nurtures this root and makes it grow into a tree is the script. What makes the tree bear flowers and fruit is the directing.

4. Creation is memory

Boy lying in bed of flowers in movie, Seven Samurai.
Boy lying in bed of flowers in movie, Seven Samurai by Kurosawa
KUROSAWA x KIM
KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Boy in bed of flowers
KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Boy in bed of flowers

We need to draw from our memories from the past, in order to create something new:

I’ve forgotten who it was that said creation is memory. My own experiences and the various things I have read remain in my memory and become the basis upon which I create something new. I couldn’t do it out of nothing.

To draw upon your memories, make sure to write them down:

For this reason, since the time I was a young man I have always kept a notebook handy when I read a book. I write down my reactions and what particularly moves me.

Don’t forget to go back to your old notes, to draw inspiration from your personal past:

I have stacks and stacks of these college notebooks, and when I go off to write a script, these are what I read. Somewhere they always provide me with a point of breakthrough. Even for single lines of dialogue I have taken hints from these notebooks. So what I want to say is, don’t read books while lying down in bed.

5. The camera must be invisible to the audience

KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
Kurosawa

Some practical advice from Kurosawa on directing movement in a film: to move with the actor with the camera. Ultimately, you want the viewer to NOT be conscious of the camera:

Many people choose to follow the actors’ movements with a zoom lens. Although the most natural way to approach the actor with the camera is to move it at the same speed he moves, many people wait until he stops moving and then zoom in on him. I think this is very wrong. The camera should follow the actor as he moves; it should stop when he stops. If this rule is not followed, the audience will become conscious of the camera.

6. Shoot a scene with multiple cameras

Why did Kurosawa use a telephoto, and why are some subjects standing, others sitting?
KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
How my eye travels. KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
Just the actors. KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
Actors and the foreground added. KUROSAWA x KIM / Seven Samurai

Kurosawa’s trademark technique: shooting the same scene with multiple cameras:

Much is often made of the fact that I use more than one camera to shoot a scene. This began when I was making Seven Samurai, because it was impossible to predict exactly what would happen in the scene where the bandits attack the peasants’ village in a heavy rain-storm. If I had filmed it in the traditional shot-by-shot method, there was no guarantee that any action could be repeated in exactly the same way twice. So I used three cameras rolling simultaneously. The result was extremely effective, so I decided to exploit this technique fully in less action-filled drama as well, and I next used it for Ikimono no kiroku (Record of a Living Being). By the time I made The Lower Depths I was using largely a one-shot-per-scene method.

How did he place the cameras?

As a general system, I put the A camera in the most orthodox positions, use the B camera for quick, decisive shots and the C camera as a kind of guerilla unit.

How to apply this in photography:

As a photographer, I suggest just shooting a lot of different angles and perspectives. Make normal (orthodox) images, head-on. Then unorthodox shots, shot from super-low angles, and try to tilt the camera (dutch angle). And then try to REALLY REALLY try weird shit with your camera– shoot with a flash, and shoot without even looking at what you are shooting.

7. The importance of set design

Seven Samurai death scene. Why did this image make me feel so emotional?
KUROSAWA x KIM
Adding more of the background.
Added background.
Just the man, isolated.

If you make film — you gotta make your actors believe in the ‘realness’ of a scene. To do this, create convincing sets:

The making of sets is among the most important. The quality of the set influences the quality of the actors’ performances. If the plan of a house and the design of the rooms are done properly, the actors can move about in them naturally. If I have to tell an actor, “Don’t think about where this room is in relation to the rest of the house,” that natural ease cannot be achieved. For this reason, I have the sets made exactly like the real thing. It restricts the shooting, but encourages that feeling of authenticity.

8. Juxtaposition of sound and music

Just the faces. Notice the size and the placement of the heads.
Now with the background added, in orange.
Now with their clothes added.

To intensify the emotion of your films and art, vary the music with what is happening.

For example, combine happy music with sad scenes. Or use sad music with happy scenes:

From ‘Drunken Angel’ onward, I have used light music for some key sad scenes, and my way of using music has differed from the norm—I don’t put it in where most people do. Working with Hayasaka, I began to think in terms of the counterpoint of sound and image as opposed to the union of sound and image.


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The Masters of Photography

Prague, 1968. Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos
Prague, 1968. Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

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