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What’s all the hype about: The Graduate

What’s all the hype about: The Graduate

By the late 1960s, as a result of television, the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Commitee) and the break up of vertical integration, every studio faced a financial crisis.

The only bright spots were a few low-budget films, usually aimed at the college audience, that achieved remarkable returns like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Midnight Cowboy (1969). But the winner in the low-budget sweepstakes was the independent release The Graduate (1967). It cost $3 million and returned $49 million to its small distributor, Embassy Pictures. This Mike Nichols’ low budget film depicts a university graduate (Dustin Hoffman), who has no definite aim, is seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson, (Anne Bancroft) and falls in love with her daughter Elaine. On a deeper level, Ben Braddock, a smart, disaffected twentysomething sniffs out the meaninglessness and hypocrisy of the preceding generation’s way of being (the baby boomers), and then must make his own way in life and love without any inherited wisdom to guide him. Soon, an entire cycle of youth pics tried to capitalize on campus activism and counterculture lifestyles.

Expressive Formalist Techniques

During this period, Hollywood was forced to reinvent blockbusters and a mass audience industry; so, as auteurs such as Hitchcock, Howard Hawkes and John Ford started to fade, along came a new group of influential young filmmakers who became the new creative leaders of the industry, that broke with Hollywood’s 1960s glossy studio look.

Real Locations

Location filming became more frequent, even within cramped bars and apartments. In The Graduate real Beverly Hills homes doubled as studios. Also, USC campus, EC Berkeley, the Ambassador Hotel and the United Methodist Church LaVerne were Elaine is getting married in the end are real locations, providing added production value to a budget project that would have, otherwise, been too expensive or empty in mise-en-scène context.

Long Lens

Because filming on location (many times the streets) on cheap terms means hiding the camera in order to use the natural atmosphere of the space, long-lenses became very popular. In terms of camera work, long-focal-length lenses allowed the camera man to film from a safe distance on an urban location. The long lens became so fashionable that by the late 1960s, they were used for most medium shots and close views, whether filmed on location or in studio sets. In the final sequence, Benjamin runs to the church. It’s a race against the clock. He is trying to make it there before Elaine marries Carl. The scene could have been captured from the side using wide angle lens, but a much better choice was to use a long lens so that Benjamin is running towards the camera. As long lenses compress space, it appears as if Benjamin is running in place, and therefore it helps increase the tension of the scene.

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Quick, large zooms and pans were hype at the moment. What today would be considered some sloppy camera work was raging among the youth pics of late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, probably providing a sense of generational separation that young people needed to distance themselves from the older America. For example, the huge zoom out with not-so-good reframing as Ben is sitting at the Berkeley campus, right of the American flag, is something that today would rarely be seen (only for specifically stylistic approaches) on commercially released films. Also, this zoom work usually ends on a fixed frame holding for a beat. Today, editing is more about cutting in motion and many of these just seem a little too long.

The zoom technique is applied and used for mise-en-scène reveals, shifts in power and to show critical moments in Ben’s personal development. For example, the opening shot is a close-up on Ben’s head; his face, large, takes up the entire screen. He looks worried, pensive. The zoom out then shows that he’s just one of many sitting on a plane making him seem insignificant, powerless. The fact that the zoom magnifies and recedes are a perfect parallel to Ben’s struggle. He doesn’t move and neither does the camera. It is only the mechanics of the lens only that makes him appear larger and closer or smaller and farther away.

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Montage Editing

During the same period, in contrast with the long take tendency of the immediate postwar years, directors experimented with faster editing, often montage sequences backed by pop songs. The Graduate actually opens on a very long take of Ben walking in place. A very clear metaphor of his life at the moment, still, while moving forward at the same time. As the film advances, long shots are replaced with montages (for instance, as Ben is traveling to Berkeley to see Elaine), significant of changing styles in society and how the protagonist is slowly becoming conscious of his own life and desires, participating more and more of the youth and new wave around him. A very flashy montage with quick inserts happens as Mrs. Robinson is slowly undressing for Ben and he can only think of her body parts.

The Film Score

Usually, when rock music is used in films, prerecorded songs are simply inserted at various points. However, in this film, the music behaves more like a traditional “film score”.  Simon & Garfunkel were commissioned the task of creating the music for The Graduate. Although they wrote a few songs for the film (Mrs. Robinson, Overs and Punky’s Dilemma, which didn’t make it in the film), most of them (including The Sound of Silence) had been released prior to the film on the folk duo’s previous two albums (at that point, recycling popular music for the screen was not a common practice), but S&G played the music all throughout the film, conserving a central theme that acted as a film score and repeating songs over and over again. After all, S&G were never the typical hit single oriented pop group so prevalent in the ‘60s. It is specially interesting the fact that, although they are popular songs and not composed with the movie cut in mind, they are used in a film score manner because they carry the mood of the scene and even sometimes accompany the action. An example of this can be heard towards the end as Ben’s car breaks down while the guitar beat slows down simulating a dying engine.

The integration of full-length songs into scenes became a staple of American cinema. Film studios became affiliated with music companies, saw the benefits of cross-plugging movies and recordings, and made the sound-track album a source of profit. In fact, Simon & Garfunkel’s The Bookends album was released just as the single of Mrs. Robinson was hitting number one. It and the soundtrack album dueled at 1 and 2 on the charts, spending a combined 16 weeks at number one. Would Bookends have been as big without The Graduate to boost it? Probably not. It was quiet music about aging in the midst of a very noisy year.

While I find the soundtrack isn’t particularly appropriate tonally in some places (for example, the abuse of Scarborough Fair used in both situations: when Ben is losing everything and when Ben is hopeful and moving to Berkeley), in those days folk music was Pure Art, and anybody who dared to say otherwise was (like the Simon & Garfunkel song says): “So uncultured, you say Dylan, and he thinks you’re talking ‘bout Dylan Thomas, whoever he was”. Without the soundtrack, the movie wouldn’t have been as popular. And with the soundtrack, nobody would dare to criticize it.

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A Counterculture Film?

With diminishing profits from blockbusters, the Hollywood industry tried to woo the younger generation with countercultural films. Producers learnt that half of all moviegoers were aged 16 to 24. The Graduate has since been memorialized as one of the signature films of the ‘60s, but in many ways it actually stands well apart from the youth-driven revolt that the decade has come to represent. Whilst student movements arguing for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam were taking the streets, this film’s post-college dissatisfaction rebellion seems so small in comparison. I fail to see how The Graduate qualifies as the exciting new experience it has been cracked up to be. Basically, it operates as a giant confidence trick, with flash shots of discreet nudity and a handful of irrelevant protest songs to turn it into a symbol of student revolt. But this story of a virginal young man and his initiation into the mysteries of sex by an older woman is as old as the history of Hollywood sex comedy and the days when Cary Grant accepted the invitation to come up and see Mae West sometime.

And for all its air of uninhibited insolence, it ends with the triumph of “true love” (though not a romantic love story at all). An ending that, in my opinion, is unrealistic and forced into the movie for the likeness of a broader audience. Elaine is about as one-dimensional as a Disney princess of that era, but she is an educated, young woman and I find it very difficult to understand that she would run off with a guy that slept with her own mother.

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But… is it really a nice Hollywood ending? 

That Elaine leaves her wedding to be with him only makes sense if we concede that she is running away from marriage and her family, not to Ben. Only in this case it would serve as a counterculture example of rebellion. And, in fact, they take the first bus they see, not knowing where it will take them because their future is not the point. They will probably separate months after, after all they have nothing to talk about, they just seem absorbed in the moment and the feeling of not becoming their parents.

But what is going on with Ben? Ben falls into bed with Mrs. Robinson because he has nothing better to do and can’t help himself, not because he believes in any kind of libertinism. He goes from committing acts of daring out of pure post-college boredom to improvising a happy ending with little more than his heart to guide him. It’s progress, and yet still remarkably old-fashioned.

Benjamin is finally a loser and not a rebel. He is also self-involved, and has a lack of respect for the women in his life that is borderline misogynistic. He doesn’t embrace transgression, reject society, make his own rules, or find himself as a result of it. But maybe this is exactly how youth felt back in the day. Children of a generation that had it all but love.

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To me, what is counterculture about this film is not the plot, or even the theme, it is the ‘how’. How it is treated. Comedy that lies within the character instead of the situation (his apathetic expression and youthful despair). A situation that, although not new, is now portrayed as a possibility, not only as a gag. The story of Ben and Mrs. Robinson and her daughter Elaine is taken seriously, humanely, not treated like the striptease Ben takes Elaine to in an effort to alienate her once and for all. The early ‘60s saw a new frankness about sexual behavior, accelerated by the invention of the birth-control pill and changing views of women’s roles. At the time, The Graduate seemed miles ahead of everything else in attitude and understanding. The characters are based on real life society, not only created for the audience’s amusement, hence they are complex and interesting (except for Elaine, who I already deemed previously as one-dimensional). Mrs. Robinson (who doesn’t even have a first name), for example, is the only adult character in the movie, the only person with whom one could have a conversation. She has no one to talk to, and it is killing her. She retreats into decadence with Benjamin, who is the perfect choice because he, as a representative of youth of the time, has not yet found a voice to be able to say anything – and that’s killing him. In the end, Ben and Elaine get on the bus – and stare in silence because they have nothing to say. And that is what is counterculture about it: that it portrays the reality of the time with no artifice, instead of singing about it in a musical.

“Hollywood now is run by Wall St. and Madison Ave., who demand ‘Sex and Violence’”

once wrote John Ford.

The counterculture also played a role in sustaining the New Left arguing for more domestic social change. In fact, what was radical about the film is the love (and lust) story, not what it has to say about the greater world. It’s a domestic depiction of relationships that are shifting (between parents and their offspring mainly), and it goes to great lengths to distance Ben Braddock from any of the explicit modes of ‘60s. But still, at a time when plenty of 21-year-olds were being sucked into movements and lifestyle choices that would define the era, Ben Braddock just wants to sit around and drink Olympia. In this, he is probably a lot more like his scorned parents.

The Graduate is a critique against a materialistic and hypocrite baby boom generation, but it does not offer a solution to a youth that would ultimately become their parents.

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Beat Sheet Creation in Screenwriting

Beat Sheet Creation in Screenwriting

A common road map for screenwriting is based on fulfilling the following steps in order:

  1. LOGLINE – premise / idea
  2. 3 SENTENCES – beginning / middle / end
  3. 3 PARAGRAPHS – expanded beginning / middle / end
  4. TREATMENT – short story version not in script form. > 2-4 pgs, 6-8 pgs, 10-12 pgs
    • for business / pitch – just know the story of your movie. You’ll get paid to write the whole script based on the treatment.
    • for writers – figure out story ahead of time.
  5. BEAT SHEET – intended for writers. List of every scene (their loglines).

So, having already decided upon the theme, the logline, what every act’s role is and even a short version of the story in prose, what’s the beat sheet for?

A beat in a script determines a pause in a character’s acting flow, a change of events or the moment either a character or the audience learns new information. A beat sheet, therefore, is intended to justify every moment in the movie as a step for it to advance the story forward. It is a streamlining of events and information in the form of bullet points that conform the skeleton of the story in a way that is very easy to understand if something can be spared and still the action flows, or if, on the contrary, something is missing for the story to be properly told. It is a writer’s tool because when a beat sheet is complete, writing the script becomes easier as you no longer have to invent the story as you go.

Writing a Beat Sheet

What steps should your movie have that represent beats in the story?

There is no rule for this, and it will all depend on the genre, length and style of your piece. But Hollywood films all fall into a classic narrative structure that is divided into 3 acts with clear beginning, middle and ending parts.

Mission-driven Scene Creation

Gathering together knowledge from here and there, I’d say that for a feature you could start with 60 bullet points that represent your scenes and:

  • scene #1 entitle it: «The Opening»– Prologue. Preview of forthcoming problem.
  • scene #2 entitle it: «Ordinary World»– Intro character and his life prior to facing problem.
  • scene #3 entitle it: “The Hook”– Show character’s life, what his stakes are.
  • scene #8 entitle it: «The Antagonist»– Off-stage flash of approaching antagonism.
  • scene #12 entitle it: “First Plot Point”– Hero’s first hint of darkness.
  • scene #20 #21 or #22, entitle it: “First Pinch Point”– Hero is warned to stay away.
  • scene #30 entitle it: “mid-Point”– Hero timidly enters the darkness.
  • scene #36 or #37 entitle it: “second Pinch Point”– Hero confronts the jeopardy.
  • scene#44 entitle it: “the Lull”– Hero falsely reassured.
  • scene #45 entitle it: “Second Plot Point”– Hero doesn’t buy in, goes stealth to see for himself.
  • scene #50 entitle it: “Climax”– Major darkness thrust upon him, everything changes.
  • scene #60 entitle it: “The Ending”– ending image should reflect the arc in the protagonist.

These scenes are the first that you plan. Every other scene is narrative exposition that links these scenes together. But remember that every scene has an expositional narrative mission to accomplish. You can write from one word to entire sentences, as long as you, the writer, know what it means. You don’t even know need to know what the scene will be yet.  What you are planning here is the mission for the scene, the information it delivers to the story and to the reader.

The list become a fluid and growing tool as you add and discard story ideas that deepen the stakes, heighten the pace, focus character and set up an ultimate showdown that pays off character arc along with the reader’s empathetic and emotional investment.

Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (BS2)

The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet is the most common beat sheet template (in his book «Save the Cat»). It breaks down the three-act structure into bite-size, manageable sections, each with a specific goal for your overall story.

Snyder thinks every screenplay should  follows these beats for a 110 minute feature.

OPENING IMAGE (1 min / 0.9%): A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins. It influences the mood, feel and tone. The opening image has a matching beat: the final image.

THEME STATED (5 min / 4.5%) Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life. This statement is the movie’s “thematic premise”. A good movie has to be about something, and the right moment to say it is now, straight up front.

SET UP (1-10 min / 1-9%) Here is where most of the characters in the A story are introduced. Where every habits or behavior will be displayed to be addressed later on. Everything the hero will need to change and fix to succeed will be explained here.

THE CATALYST (12 min / 11%) It can come in all sorts of forms. In the form of a telegram, a knock on the door, a cheating partner being caught,allowing a monster onboard the ship,meeting the true love of your life, or even a terrorist arriving in the building etc. This is the point where something happens. The moment where life as it is changes.

DEBATE (12-25min / 11-23%) But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.

BREAK INTO TWO – ACT 2 (25min / 23%) The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.

B STORY (30min / 27%) The A story is already set up, we have this abrupt jump into ACT 2 and we land in a whole new world. The B story is here to say: enough with this let’s take a bit of a break. Usually called the “love story”, it is also used to introduce new characters not met in the Set Up. Since ACT 2 is the antithesis of ACT 1, they too, usually tend to be upside down versions of those first characters.

FUN AND GAMES (30-55min / 27-50%) This section provides “the promise of the premise”. It’s the core and essence of the movie poster. It’s the part where most of the moments of the trailer are found. At this point the audience is not too concerned with the progress of the story.

MIDPOINT (55min / 50%) Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The midpoint has also a matching point on min 75 called “All is lost”. This is the point the hero has a false victory or defeat.

BAD GUYS CLOSE IN (55-75min / 50-68%) Even if the bad guys (people, phenomenons, things) are temporary defeated, and the hero seems to be fine, we are not done yet. Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates.

ALL IS LOST (75min / 68%) The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/“great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.

DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL (75-85min / 68-77%) The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. The Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.

BREAK INTO THREE – ACT 3 (85min – 77%) Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.

FINALE (85-110min / 77-100%) This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!

FINAL IMAGE (110min / 100%) Opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.

This is a calculating tool that will tell you when in your script should evert important beat come according to how long do you plan your movie to be: http://www.beatsheetcalculator.com.


Finally, some examples of Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet applied to some of my faves:

The meaning of color in Black Swan (2010)

The meaning of color in Black Swan (2010)

I’m sure you are aware that different colors evoke different feelings on people. Like, for instance, orange looks warm and perhaps aggressive, while blue is cold and calm. Green is the color of hope and also envy, whereas red is passion, white means purity, black can represent death… and so on.

For a more technical approach on color, I wrote about it here (Color Teories), and here (Digital Representation of Color).

In film we are constantly being bombarded with arrangements of carefully composed and colored frames. But have you stopped to think up to what extent the director and cinematographer are purposely sending a message through the use of color? Any given production has a thought behind it and most of the times nothing is casualty. Let’s go on and analyse Black Swan.

Black Swan (2010)

Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique
Nominated for the 2011 Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

What are the main colors in this film? Clearly Black and White, but also Pink and Green. Here are examples of how these colors are being used.


White is clearly meant for purity and virginity. That is why Natalie Portman’s Nina dressed in white for most of the film, right until the climatic point after her false encounter with Lily (Mila Kunis).



Nina’s past looks pink. References to her childhood and her upbringing are pink. Its girly and childlike allure points out her naivety, and how she is a child inside that has grown up but is still totally immersed in the small inner world of her and her mother, unaware of other world problems or issues outside her close surroundings.



But the story is not all about Nina and her psychological derail. It’s also about her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) as a narcissist force that abuses her daughter. The envy on the part of the mother plays a huge part in the process, especially in view of the fact that Erica, who was also a budding ballerina, never made it to soloist status. We see evidence that the mother uses Nina to meet her own needs both in her attempt to live vicariously through Nina’s dancing but also in her undermining of Nina becoming too successful.

Nina needs Erica to function and to be a ballerina; Erica needs Nina to live. It’s a symbiotic relationship. When Nina masturbates as “homework” to try to access her inner passion, she sees her mother asleep in her bedroom. This was a metaphor for her mother being connected to her sexuality, and Nina’s attempts to awaken her passion would also awaken her mother. In fact, the mother is the focal point in the audience when Nina takes her suicidal plunge as the White Swan at the end of the ballet. Fellow ballerina Lily tries to befriend Nina, which connects Lily to Nina’s mother in Nina’s head. Seduction must be followed by betrayal in Nina’s head, which causes Nina to view Lily as a rival trying to take away her role in the ballet. Nina can only become the Black Swan (again, in her own head) by killing Lily, which by extension is killing her mother.



Black is pure evil, represented by the mother’s clothing, but also in Lily’s, who is, in fact, a representation of Erica in Nina’s mind.


It’s only after the climax, where Nina finally lets her sexuality free, that we see her dress in Black. Also, during that night, when they are still at the club, light purposely changes from pink to green as Nina battles her way through her repressions and mother issues.


Check out Evan E. Richard’s shot by shot breakdown here: http://evanerichards.com/2011/1898

Technology in film

Technology in film

On perhaps far too many occasions we have been bombarded with almost all screen CGI productions. In many of them, not too subtle either. Computer Generated Imaging is becoming a standard in film because it provides a clean scenario of infinite possibilities; but most importantly, cheaper than going into deep ocean or outer space.

But it’s not only on sci-fi movies that we get to use CGI. Even low-key home movies use computer technology to simply alter the scenario around the actors and make it look like it is somewhere else, or sometime else. There are times when, one could argue, the real value of location scooping is being undermined by computer graphics. Or is it a natural evolution that technology professionals in film are getting so great that the make believe is easier, more comfortable and faster to produce than actually filming on site?

These are some examples of fantastic technology and brains put to work for the sole purpose of story telling and entertainment. And it is not only Computer Generated Graphics, there are also big mechanic structures involved, electronic devices and creative coding going on here.

The film they thought could never be made

For Alfonso Cuarón’s space thriller Gravity, Emmanuel Lubezki-Chivo (cinematographer) and Tim Webber (visual effects supervisor), created an entire light box with three main moving elements: the rig moving the camera, the lights and the tilt rig with the actor in. The groundbreaking techniques (including the Light Box, which was one of Time’s inventions of the year), for which Webber won a VFX Bafta and Oscar, was used all over the film entirely based in space and zero gravity.

[min 2:15]

Tim Webber joined Framestore in 1988 after an outstanding academic record in Maths, Physics and Art and has been guiding the company in new directions while supervising some of the most technically and artistically challenging projects. These include, the CG baby in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, Two-Face Harvey Dent in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Spike Jonze’s highly original CG characters in Where the Wild Things Are, James Cameron’s incredible Avatar, and the Medusa in Louis Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans.

Tim Webber being awarded the Progress Medal and Honorary Fellowship in 2014:

There are currently 95 open career positions at Framestore. Go on tech folks, apply! I wish we were told more about these on the early stages of engineering school.





Related: along with Framestore I have also previously talked about another VFX company, Brainstorm Digital [here]

Stanley Kubrick
A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick

A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.