The lure of cinema operates primarily on the medium’s ability to convey and evoke numerous emotions, reactions, and experiences, based on its inherent nature; the magic of producing images, both real and imagined, is the territory of film via its techniques. Through the careful orchestration of the whole film production process—including screenwriting, directing, acting, production design, and art direction, as well as editing, color-grading, visual effects, and sound design—a whole world of images and themes are communicated to audiences. Without these, the experience would not be deemed cinematic, so to speak.
Two recent films in particular have explored the many possibilities of these techniques to create stories and images that go beyond the traditional devices used by most filmmakers: Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, and Kar-Wai Wong’s 2046. Produced within three years of each other, the films subscribe to ideologies correlating with the dawning of a new millennium, a new consciousness; with the advent of a new era, both Crowe and Wong opted to refer to future possibilities yet within the realm of the current, done amidst a unique composition of editing, color, and sound that contribute to their goals.
Surrealism is the general attribute viewers may use to allude to the two films, albeit translated through different social and cultural settings. Vanilla Sky is a quintessential Hollywood movie, marked by many of its larger-than-life scenes, while 2046 retains the Asian sensibilities—through cultural and social references—of its director and original audience. Both films received mixed reactions from critics and viewers worldwide, a typical outcome for most though-provoking or philosophical works. II. The Lucid Dream: Living the Subconscious in Vanilla Sky
Directed by Cameron Crowe of the commercially-successful yet intelligent movies of this generation (Selvin, 2000) and starring one of Hollywood’s biggest names, Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise portraying the rich and happy-go-lucky publishing scion David Aames narrates what seemed to be the standard storyline involving characters of this age and stature: rich young man inherits father’s business, fawned over by many women, and eventually falls for the anti-establishment female against the plans of his glamorous ex-girlfriend.
But the expected narrative takes a turn for the unusual when David and his ex Julie drive off a bridge—thus killing the girl and disfiguring David. The coming to terms with the effects of the accident suddenly branches out into various subplots—from the ideal, with the new girl Sofia, to the uncanny, with the intermittent changes in reality as David saw it. In the end—referring to a time over a millennium ahead—a complex method identified as the Lucid Dream revealed how David had been cryogenically preserved, and his subconscious ultimately dictated the events in his mind.
The abruption technique used in the film is clear in the transposition of scenes from David’s real past, his imagined past, and his imagined present; each one represented by its own color and editing assignments. The notable segment in the scene is the editing of both his imagined past and present, involving Sofia and psychiatrist Curtis McCabe, respectively; the imagined past, or what may be called David’s dream world is characterized by the warmth of colors which coincide with the temporary happiness he was feeling.
More than that, the film’s title is appropriated in these scenes, referring to the idea and execution of a ‘vanilla’ sky, echoing David’s mother’s recollections of poetry and romanticized notions of perfection. Movement and symbols seen here are both languid and soft, and are eventually revealed as mere associations in David’s mind. On the other hand, David’s interactions with Dr. McCabe are defined by their blue coldness, often used as a cinematic technique to connote hard reality and truth.
Interspersing these two sets of scenes together are supposed to make the viewer distinguish between past and present; yet the actual logic intended for the story was far from this simple equation. On top of this, the viewer is treated to an upending of reason as usually presented in traditional films by showing the illogical occurrences in both worlds: the continuous shifting of character from Sofia to Julie, and the revelation of the Tech Support guy that McCabe is still a figment of David’s imagination.
To add to the mind-boggling essence of the scene’s editing, music and sound were used to make the imagined past seem more natural and reminiscent of typical love stories—various songs from popular artists were used as punctuations, most notably when David suffocates Sofia/Julie to death to the tune of ‘Can We Still Be Friends? ’. Toward the movie’s end, the merging of the imagined past and present are edited seamlessly to reveal the actual present—though still in David’s mind, but assisted by Tech Support.
As it already 150 years in the future, the colors gradually transform from cold and blue to blinding brightness, then back to the vanilla grading in the presence of David’s memories of Sofia. Crowe’s clever technique in using color representations and editing styles to communicate a story outside of the superficial narrative significantly contributed to the overall impact; by putting them all together, the viewer would then be able to put the seemingly disjointed pieces of the puzzle and realize which parts represent the past, present, and future in David’s chosen consciousness.
This is most evident in the last part of the film, where everything is eventually explained, and the appropriation of filmic techniques finally justified. III. Finding Lost Stories: The Journey Toward Memory in 2046 Known for his irreverent style of storytelling and editing and his membership in the New Wave movement of Hong Kong cinema (Wright, 2002), Kar-Wai Wong probably dealt the most profound work of his career in 2046. While the film undoubtedly includes different sub-stories and mini-themes, the central character and narrator Chow Mo-wan acts as the thread that ties all the seemingly distinct plots together.
Chow is a newspaper writer who has decided to write his own story, which revolves around the concept of 2046—represented in the film by the actual year, and the number of the hotel room next to Chow’s. The filmmaker apparently attached a host of deeper meanings to the number as well, one of which goes back to the film’s prequel, In the Mood For Love. Though the story involves many characters, most of them women renting the room 2046 and eventually become emotionally or physically connected to Chow, the main theme surrounding the film is the concept of memory.
Such is established in the first scene, showing a Japanese man on a futuristic train ride out of the year 2046, which was supposedly where things never change. Though this man somehow appears inconsequential to the story, as he is but a fictional character in Chow’s narrative, it may be assumed that he represents each character in the ‘past’. Ultimately, through his encounters and relationships with the women, Chow discovers that there is no such thing as a place where everything is like before, where nothing ever changes; people need to move on, to leave their former ideals and memories.
The distinctions between the time frames, whether real or imagined, are made clear by the use of color grading, production design, and cinematography: Chow’s present, Hong Kong in the 1960s, appears as films made during the era—soft yet grainy, with elements of film noir; flashbacks to Chow’s past is typically done in black and white; and the rendering of Chow’s story of 2046 is defined by the stylized use of techno and electronica properties, as were popular during the making of the film.
As all these are part of Chow’s imagination, reality, and memory, the movement and editing of the film approximate how they occur in the mind. The past, with Chow’s beloved Su Li-Zhen, is hazy and slow, as if an attempt in prolonging the moment. The present, where Chow positioned himself as a mere observer, is detailed to the allowable extent of period scenes, practically depicting the nuances of Hong Kong during the decade.
The fantasy segment that refers to the story being written by Chow uses the same vagueness as the past, but with a coldness brought upon by the presence of neon lights, monochromatic colors, and androids. It is notable how Wong managed to successfully convey the complex thoughts in the mind of a writer like Chow, which worked well with his signature style of debunking traditional film techniques. Like the unordered sequence of ideas, thoughts, and memories in the human mind, where one may begin and be taken over by another, the film’s structure and editing style lend themselves to much confusion.
But this is exactly how one thinks, specially a writer like Chow—transitioning regularly from past to present to fantasy. To further reinforce the separate ‘realities’ of each segment, particularly toward the end as Chow provides his own resolution to his story and life, music plays a subtle yet relevant role. Opera music is often equated with sadness and nostalgia, and these traits work perfectly with the film’s theme of lost memories and relationships.
The combination of all the unusual elements in 2046, as in probably all of Wong’s films, depict a unique brand of cinema ascribed only to the Hong Kong culture of binary opposites—traditional yet cosmopolitan, historical yet bustling with modernity, and universal yet casting a distinct image unavailable to most of Asia. Perhaps the country’s political history of British rule and its impending return to Chinese government is the reason for this identity—and is evidently a topic chosen by Wong, since the year 2046 signifies the year before Hong Kong is placed again under Chinese laws.
IV. Designing Vanilla Sky and 2046: Comparing Post-Production Techniques Though profoundly different in look, feel, intent, and commercial appeal, somehow the similarities between the two films discussed are significant and may be compared on an equal level. The filmmakers’ respective use of color, editing, sound design, and music all operate on the same objective of conveying what are clearly complicated stories that do not function on the logic of standard narrative.
Color grading, as mentioned earlier, is integral to both films; in fact, it is used for similar purposes, the most apparent of which is to indicate time and its reference to the emotional state of the main characters. Crowe used the actual ‘vanilla sky’ to represent the most memorable points of his film—the chosen reality of David Aames. On the other hand, the fantasy era of 2046 and its depiction via streaks of light and cold, neon color grading is the ultimate representation of Chow Mo-wan’s imagined universe, including his own conclusions regarding its possibilities.
In both films, editing is seen as a crucial factor in expanding and shaking the usual narrative; however, the irreverent attitude conveyed by Wong in his style of combining past, present, fantasy, and all things in between trumps the otherwise innovative method of Crowe. There is a clear deviation from the known logic of editing techniques appropriated by Wong, almost as if to measure if his story would still be understood. Crowe, for his part, still went beyond the conventions of the language—but the ‘confusion’ in Vanilla Sky was more seamlessly integrated in the script itself, compared to 2046.
Curiously, both movies made use of major music categories that represented both the era shown and the emotional, psychological, and mental situations of the characters. Vanilla Sky’s music was a tribute to American pop music, well-chosen for the film’s time and locale, but was also an exercise in the use of it to symbolize its anti-themes. The light and carefree mood contributed by the music tipped the decidedly suspenseful and surreal nature of many of the film’s scenes.
2046, in this case, went the regular route; by using opera music, Crowe eventually included an element that conveyed logic, for it evenly approximated the mood of each scene and the portrayed feelings of the characters. Overall, the films may arguably be matched up quite comparatively on the post-production angle; they share a few characteristics on some aspects, and exceed the other by a bit in the rest. The quality of the narratives and their credibility, however, is a different story. V. Conclusion
The post-production process and its part in the general production of a film is not to be underestimated, no matter how seemingly simple or devoid of visual effects it may have. The correct—or those that go well beyond the expected—techniques of editing, color grading, sound design, and music composition invariably brings the film to a level it would not have reached had the focus been just on the conceptual areas of writing, directing, acting, and documenting. The intended communication, whether it be via a resounding theme or a stunning storyline, can only be conveyed with careful detailing of the film’s ‘finish’.
Vanilla Sky and 2046 are two such works that had much to credit to post-production, given their individual forays into surrealism, science fiction, and demystifying logic and narrative. Without their respective intelligent post-production processes, these stories would have been dull at best, and extremely confusing at worst. Vanilla Sky, with its cause-effect-revelation style, would have turned out to be a disorienting storyline that may offer some logic but with what may be seen as production errors or flaws.
2046, however, would be a different scenario; because of its topsy-turvy puzzle-like sequence, it would be deemed as merely snapshots or arbitrary and unrelated scenes without the essential editing and color grading work. Clearly, post-production does not only aid the film and its elements, but the audience as well. The images it creates touch a part in the human mind that triggers many ideas based on experience and expectation; and with continuous innovation, post-production may certainly introduce more ideas and concepts in the process of filmmaking and appreciation.
References Crowe, C. (Director), and Cruise, T. (Actor). (2001). Vanilla Sky. USA: Paramount Pictures. Selvin, J. (2000). How Writer-Director’s Career Got Rolling. SF Gate. Retrieved 27 February 2009 from http://www. sfgate. com/cgi-bin/article. cgi? f=/c/a/2000/09/10/PK109373. DTL&hw=cameron+crowe+ben+fong+torres&sn=002&sc=623 Wong, K. (Writer/Director). (2004). 2046. Hong Kong: Arte. Wright, E. (2002). Wong Kar-Wai. Senses of Cinema. Retrieved 27 February 2009 from http://archive. sensesofcinema. com/contents/directors/02/wong. html