Art students are known to go to museums and copy famous works of art, a centuries-old tradition that resonates with Clark Terry’s advice to students of jazz: “imitate, assimilate, innovate.”
Last year I encountered an interesting twist on the reproduction-of-masterworks tradition. Misael Sanchez, a filmmaker, author, and film professor at Sarah Lawrence, teaches an introduction to cinematography class in which students reproduce scenes of their choosing from existing films.
It’s a brilliant adaptation of the practice of copying great works of art. Consider how much technical information a beginning film student must absorb about lenses, exposure, lights, camera angles, camera movement, and so forth. By copying a classic scene of their choosing, students learn see first hand how all of the technical elements integrate to produce the intended effect.
The students all work on each other's projects, rotating roles. One week you may be the camera operator; the next week a grip, the director of photography, the scene dresser, etc. Some of the scenes student directors choose to recreate are early film classics. (I saw a recreation of a scene from Dracula (1931) that was outstanding.) Others choose more recent films, where a student's excitement about making film might be more immediate.
The following, for instance is a scene from the 2009 Bollywood smash Dev D. It was selected by my former writing student Shivani Mehta, who grew up in Bombay and was thereby steeped in this genre.
The original scene . . .
Shivani's recreation of it . . .
The soundtrack is the same (as is the time-lapse footage of traffic at the very end). This removes a lot of complication and allows the students to focus on questions of composition, lens selection and framing, lighting, and so forth. As I look at Shivani's version of the scene, I am struck by how exactly she and her collaborators (under Misael's guidance) were able to reproduce the dream-sequence surrealism of the original.
Weeks before making this, Shivani was new to filmmaking. Soon after she finished it, I had the pleasure of working with her on another film of hers, a music video, and it was clear how quickly and thoroughly she had absorbed the lessons of recreating the scene from Dev D. and all the scenes chosen by her fellow students. She had started with imitation, but was already assimilating and innovating. She and her fellow students emerged from Misael's introduction to cinematography with an idea of what their own voice as filmmakers might be.
Looking back on the experience of recreating the scene from Dev D., Shivani writes:
For me, one of the biggest learnings about film making from this experience was that, at the end of the day, a lot depends on intuition and chance. When recreating this scene, the lighting was the hardest to mimic. To get the right hue of pink or three bright circles in just the right spot above her head were the most tedious and time consuming tasks. When I think about how this was initially achieved by the filmmakers of the original, I realize that there is no way they could have planned for those subtleties. As much as technical know-how facilitates the process, filming a scene isn't a science. It is constant improvisation. You make it up as you go.
Thank you for reading.