Francis Ford Coppola and the Shape of Cinema to Come

By Jeff MenneJuly 8, 2019

Francis Ford Coppola and the Shape of Cinema to Come

Live Cinema and Its Techniques by Francis Ford Coppola

IN A RECENT INTERVIEW at the Directors Guild, Steven Spielberg told Patty Jenkins that he still prefers shooting on film because its “grain” makes the image come “alive.” If a shot is nothing but a dinner place setting, Spielberg says, such a “still life” is nonetheless in motion thanks to the chemical emulsion of film, which gives “breath” to “inanimate objects.” Patty Jenkins agrees, admitting that she shot Wonder Woman on film for the same reasons, and from the approving sounds of their audience, we can assume that all in attendance are in easy agreement. Spielberg then applauds those filmmakers with enough industry clout — he names Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino — to keep celluloid in circulation and the machinery necessary for its projection in use. In 2014, Nolan, Tarantino, and others including J. J. Abrams and Judd Apatow had successfully lobbied Kodak to continue the manufacture of 35 mm film.

Back in 2002, George Lucas assembled a cohort of Hollywood directors in his screening room for a demonstration of cinema’s future: an early adopter at heart, Lucas had used high-definition digital cameras to shoot the second of his Star Wars prequels, Attack of the Clones. His was the first big-budget Hollywood production to be shot entirely in the digital format. In part, the auteur­ class of New Hollywood had made its name by being ahead of the technological curve. They seized on postwar developments that had miniaturized cameras and made sound equipment portable. At the end of the ’60s, Francis Ford Coppola had purchased state-of-the-art film gear at a trade show in Cologne to outfit his nouveau studio, American Zoetrope, in a bid to establish a technology-forward alternative to Hollywood in San Francisco. On the back of Star Wars, Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic as an effects house with an aggressive research-and-development wing, dedicated, in particular, to building digital editing systems prior to blending computer graphics into movies such as Young Sherlock Holmes and The Abyss.

For all that New Hollywood directors rushed to technological novelty, however, it’s not clear that they imagined that these new tools, ontologically distinct from the old ones, would imply a new aesthetics for cinema. In fact, they seemed to court the same old effects, realizing them more efficiently, thanks to technological advances. If Lucas wanted strange creatures, or James Cameron wanted the Na’vi, they both still wanted to set these beings in a plausibly volumetric space, modeling the real-world coordinates that solicit a spectator’s conviction in the action on screen; they wanted, that is, the effect that photochemical film ineluctably achieves. This is usually the focus for critics of digital images: they are ersatz film, an approximation of the photochemical image but a degraded one. The difference between film and digital, Spielberg says, is “the difference between French Impressionist painting in oils and acrylic illustration art.” The image loses its “poetry,” Oliver Stone has objected, and replaces it with the “coldness of pixels.” The “coldness” of the digital image might be better understood, though, as its exactness, its hard edges, as compared to the soft and muddled outlines of film images.

In their interview, Patty Jenkins explains it back to Spielberg in “painterly” terms: the chemical emulsion seals the image away, as if underneath “a veneer,” whereas the digital image “transcends that and comes into reality and now it looks like a set.” Hers is a common observation. For instance, an interviewer asked Sam Levy, an inventive digital stylist, if he shot Lady Bird on film, and was surprised to learn that he had not, because digital is “too lifelike, too realistic.” The fear is that such images risk their status as art; they dissolve their frame and sit next to us in our own dimension.

When filmmakers have fastened on this as the peculiar, hard look of digital cinema, they have imagined in turn that its proper aesthetic is something like universalized surveillance. Think of the final firefight in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, sidelit to give it the cold, unidirectional lighting associated with surveillance footage (Figs. 1 and 2). Or Steven Soderbergh’s periodic experiments with digital’s unvarnished reality effect culminating in his recent iPhone movies, meant to connote, as they do, that every moment of experience is being livestreamed on a social media platform. Leos Carax made this point in Holy Motors rather on-the-nose: the cameras have gotten so small, says its protagonist, Oscar, that they have disappeared into the world, and hence performance looks no different from everyday banality. Oscars mean nothing if we are all endlessly, relentlessly acting in our own screened lives.

Fig. 1. In “Miami Vice” (Universal, 2006), a bank of video monitors establishes that everything is under surveillance within the sphere of the drug cartel.

Fig. 2. Michael Mann and cinematographer Dion Beebe use this as license to design photography according to a “surveillance aesthetic.”

Francis Ford Coppola has seemingly been dwelling on these matters since the 1979 Oscars when, tasked with announcing the Best Director, he instead commandeered the podium to prophesy that a “communications revolution,” already underway, would transform our “movies and art and music” by way of “digital electronics and computers and satellites.” In his recent book, Live Cinema and Its Techniques, Coppola blames his Oscar-night ravings on a drugged-cookie (as one does) given to him by his guest, Haight-Ashbury impresario Bill Graham. The book is full of such anecdotes — and good fun for Coppola fans for that reason — but its chief function is to advise us that, like it or not, we live in the age of digital cinema, and we have insufficiently reckoned with this fact. “Film and its traditions remain beloved,” he writes, and though “many young filmmakers are [loath] to abandon film,” it “has already abandoned them.”

Coppola notes that the Eastman Kodak factory, once employing “over 3500 workers,” now employs but 350. The “photochemical-mechanical medium” has been replaced by an “electronic-digital” one. Meanwhile, our film heritage remains “so moving, so wonderful, ingenious, and convincing” that we haven’t tried “to think beyond” its possibilities, “even when the means to manufacture” cinema have changed utterly. It is as if we had built “an airplane,” Coppola writes, “but insist[ed] on driving it around on the highway because the cars of our time are so wonderful and beloved.”

In this book, Coppola tries to imagine what forms digital cinema might take and to leave behind a manual if he is not, at 80 years old, able to realize these forms himself. Curiously, though, he routes his vision for the future of cinema through the so-called Golden Age of Television, the era in which the medium exploited its liveness as a counterpoint to the “pre-recorded” status of cinema. Cinema was good at perfecting drama — given infinite takes, you’re bound to get it right — but the presence of its performers was always past tense for its audience. We key into a live performance, by contrast, because, happening in our own moment, it could always go wrong. Coppola likes these high stakes and bases his idea of “live cinema” on the same daring element.

Added to the paradox of turning to the past for vanguard forms, Coppola remarks the particular irony of returning to the spirit of old television for new cinema: a “second Golden Age of Television, with such productions as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, and Deadwood,” he notes, has turned to Hollywood filmmaking in the 1970s and early 1980s for its model. Now those striving to make the next “Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Chinatown” (or the next Apocalypse Now) have made careers in “long-form cable television” where such “personal cinema,” debarred from Hollywood these days, is permitted. In this Möbius strip relationship between film and television, Coppola recommends that cinema steal from television the “liveness” of its origins. But why take from television what the medium itself all but abandoned when first the Ampex video recorder and later telefilm allowed it the precision of planning that film had enjoyed all along? Why reintroduce the difficulty and risk?

Coppola hoped to figure this out in a series of “proof-of-concept” workshops, as he calls them. He beta tested his live cinema first at Oklahoma City Community College (OCCC) in 2015, and then a year later at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. He chose OCCC for the first workshop because his longtime producer, Gray Frederickson, is on faculty there. Coppola recruited actors from Dallas and assembled a crew of 70 students from OCCC. After six weeks of rehearsing and constructing sets and designing lighting schemes, they broadcast their live performance to screening rooms in select sites (Paris, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Napa).

The equipment that Coppola brought to bear on these productions was of epic scale: 40 digital cameras; three EVS replay servers, the kind used in sports broadcasting for “clips packages”; and a DYVI mixer to cut between the video feeds in one central booth, as was done by directors in the Golden Age of Television. What differentiates the look of live cinema from its television precedent, he explains, is the lighting design. Historically, television has been lit uniformly with a large overhead grid, blasting such wattage that shadow and nuance of any kind are chased away. Coppola, by contrast, lit from the floor with LEDs and harnessed darkness in a style industrially forbidden in much television production. He quips that were he ever asked to shoot a soap opera, he could give it “a cinematic look merely by switching off half of the lights.”

These workshops were meant to test, finally, whether the equipment developed in television might be combined with the ethos of live theater and yet be presented, as it were, cinematically. The material tested was from a longer screenplay, Distant Vision, which by his account is a family history, and Coppola concludes that the concept proved viable. The live cinema, in short, is possible, but at some cost. His technical director, Teri Rozic, told him afterward that he really needed two technical directors and two associate directors, such was the scale of difficulty.

If the cost is high, both in terms of resources and risk, so too must Coppola think the payoff. And we can tally this in the domain of theater. Coppola began as a theater student at Hofstra University, and he makes it clear here and elsewhere that this training has shaped his disposition toward cinema. He fed on the sense of group daring, grafting the spirit of the theater company onto his early film productions, especially onto his production company American Zoetrope. Coiled in the live endeavor is the prospect of failure: “One thing I tend to do,” he writes, “is bring a concept as close to the brink of failure as I can, and by doing so learn what can and cannot be done.” An upshot of this is the expressive coefficient that comes from complication on this order, hence what liveness ensures is that actors are responding, in the moment, to the relative successes and failures of their performance.

In this respect, a key legacy of Coppola’s aesthetic is his extension of the Stanislavski method into New Hollywood cinema. A middle chapter in his book reads very much, in fact, like a handbook on rehearsing actors. Coppola’s habit has been to rehearse his actors intensively — to have them not simply memorize lines, but to create a knowledge of the character such that, when faced with the uncertain moment, the actor will respond by instinct. The uncertain moment, what might seem a mishap, is what he is courting: that’s the tiger in the snare. “[B]y using deliberate and unannounced obstacles,” he says, “you can invite panic, difficulty, and even failure, periodically treating the audience to witness the actors struggle.” He doesn’t say so outright, but one gathers that Coppola thinks acting of this kind — as an existential venture, as a mode of public daring — is a dead letter in contemporary cinema.

But if the work of live cinema is to restore the value of performance, is it finally reducible to theater? Film theorist André Bazin, always alert to the limits of the “properly cinematic,” dismissed “filmed theater” as a failure to keep faith with either medium, the stage or the cinema. For Bazin, the separation between the two media lies in their relations to space. In the theater, space is imaginary, mediated for us by human performance powerful enough to recruit us into its universe, whereas in cinema we no longer depend upon the human to define space, but on the mechanical vision of the camera. The space it relays to us is simply whatever is inscribed within its frame. Such space cannot be coaxed from an imagination; it is obdurately there.

What Bazin loved about performance in the cinematic mode was that the actor and the object world entered into equal relationship. Each was substantially material, and between them, we were witness to an inescapable encounter. When a house facade fell on Buster Keaton, yet he survived because its open window landed on him, the audience believed it was a lucky matter of inches that spared Keaton the real, hard wood of a house wall. Or even when Chaplin invited us to imagine the boot strings he was eating were spaghetti noodles, we nonetheless saw that they were boot strings and pitied him the slightness of his imaginative defense against poverty. These effects were gotten because the camera lens drew a stubborn material world into its frame. The shot, and what it framed, kept an ontological kernel of the real world from being wished away by human imagination.

Coppola accordingly insists that the “basic unit” of live cinema remains the shot. It cannot be constituted by theater’s basic unit, “the scene,” nor by television’s basic unit, “coverage.” To be sure, what makes live cinema such an extravagantly resource-intensive project is that it required 40 cameras, in its trial run, to furnish Coppola enough shots to switch between at the mixing board. Another means for producing the live shot, of course, is the single-shot film, and Coppola does pay tribute to movies in this formal tradition, including Woody Harrelson’s recent Lost in London, as well as predecessors Russian Ark, Birdman, and Victoria.

Coppola seems to admire the “one-shot” technique and suggests the approach can be included in the formal rubric of live cinema, even if it does not exhaust it. He seems to hold out a different vocation for the shot, though, proposing for it another design on space. In this respect he expresses interest in Lars von Trier’s Dogville, a movie conspicuously staged in the style of theater, but ultimately harnessed by the powers of cinema. In the opening shot of Dogville, for example, the camera photographs the layout of von Trier’s small-town-of-the-mind from overhead. What we see is the space in a totalizing conception, but as the camera is deployed on the ground throughout the movie, we see through the “walls” in intrusions that strain whatever community feeling the town has tried to construct. Coppola calls this “the great see-through vision of Dogville.”

Coppola had first thought that his project might follow the style of Dogville but came to understand that through lighting he was able to produce another effect, one able to reckon with the status of the digital image. He “used lighting to allow areas without walls to go black,” as though the stage performance had been abstracted from realizable space. This might recall for us so many images of actors against green screens. Here it seems Coppola is confronting a fact of digitalized space — its very abstractness — but, in a twist, he is using a technique he pioneered on photochemical film. In his live cinema experiments, that is, he made use of black curtains and scrims to render performance space indiscernible and unstable, same as he had done years earlier in One from the Heart (1982). But this makes a kind of sense, after all, since One from the Heart was the very movie he was planning when he warned the Oscar-viewing audience that cinema would be transformed at the hand of “digital electronics and computers and satellites.”

One from the Heart did not make sense, though, in the early 1980s, and much of Coppola’s ballyhoo came off as mad-scientist ravings. Digital cinema, as we know it now, was still 15 years away. In fact, the “electronic cinema” he spoke of would most immediately reference the practical application of “video assist” technology, which let “analog” filmmakers see a video version of their shoot in real time, rather than wait for the development of rushes the next day. Similarly, Coppola spoke in conceptual terms that make more sense now than they did then. He claimed to have “made [One from the Heart] spatially rather than linearly.” Clearly some spatial experiment was being staged, given that Coppola rebuilt Las Vegas on the soundstages of Hollywood General, when he might have shot the movie more conveniently on location in the actual Las Vegas, only several hundred miles away. It seemed quixotic and backward-looking of him to reconstitute a nearby city in the age of location shooting, but from our vantage today it seems he was attuned to a reorientation of space that would be forced in the digital transformation of cinema. How actual space might be virtualized, Coppola seemed to be proposing, would be the determination of the cinema to come. An opening scene in One from the Heart allegorizes such spatial reconfiguration: Frannie (Teri Garr) is dressing the window of her travel agency to look like New York City. She pulls back a black scrim and in the process pulls back the New York City skyline (Fig. 3). The effect is then used within the mise-en-scène itself — ostensibly stable walls are revealed as translucent scrims — to thematize that dramatic space as such here functions as a display window with an endlessly mutating backdrop (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. In the opening scenes of “One from the Heart” (1982; American Zoetrope, 2004), Frannie draws back the scrim in her travel-agency display window and thus reveals the insubstantiality of the New York City backdrop.

Fig. 4. In subsequent scenes, the same effect is used to reveal that dramatic space as such is insubstantial within the movie.

In the closing pages of his book, Coppola notes that he had just been to see the Avengers movie — Age of Ultron, based on the date — remarking that he “hated” it: “[A]nd so the taste of the world and I are parting even further than before.” In the context of his aesthetic manifesto, it’s easy to understand his low regard for this Avengers installment: the movie displays a split personality, teeming with digital animation but in the service of traditional live-action effects. It feels, finally, like neither innovative animation nor compelling live action. Its characters’ screen existence seems to be characterized by an unfamiliar lightness, one in which the object world is untethered from the physical laws that had for so long situated a performance. In one slow-motion sequence, in which the relevant Avengers together vault across the screen in balletic coordination, it seems as if the movie has committed itself to a cartoon aesthetic. But it walks back that commitment in the next sequence, and the next, until it is clear the movie has no commitments of any kind.

This is where Coppola means to intervene. He is trying to reimagine performance after the ratio between actor and environment, subject and object world, has been radicalized. His gambit seems to be that since the solidity of our material world has deliquesced in contact with digital processes, the cinematic mode of performance ought to become theatrical, insofar as theatrical space is meaningfully imaginary. But here’s the rub: though space in digital cinema is subject to ceaseless transformation, the agent of this transformation is no longer the human imagination but the leveling force of the pixel. Coppola’s collaborator Walter Murch had recognized as much when he said that digital processes reduced all to its “mathematical commonality.” What this means is that the actor and the object world — both so intransigently material in the film medium — are now susceptible in equal part to mathematical control. If now they are so much commensurate information, we might wonder if Coppola is wrong to cling to performance as the hallmark of the strictly cinematic.

Filmed theater, as Bazin explained, had a radicalizing effect because actors could not dominate space by their imagination but must meet it on equal terms. In a turn of the screw, digital cinema has retained the equality between actor and space, but by making them equally immaterial rather than equally material. If its radicalizing force collapses actor into environment, foreground into background, will the expressive power of cinema be displaced from performance altogether? And if so, into what? Coppola is to be admired for asking, “What is digital cinema?” when so many around him ask only if we can preserve the effects of photochemical cinema. But in the end, his book seems to provide answers born of the New Hollywood — in Stanislavski and midcentury television — grown old as they have.


Jeff Menne is associate professor of Screen Studies at Oklahoma State University. He is the author of Post-Fordist Cinema: Hollywood Auteurs and the Corporate Counterculture (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Francis Ford Coppola (University of Illinois Press, 2015). 

LARB Contributor

Jeff Menne is associate professor of Screen Studies at Oklahoma State University. He is the author of Post-Fordist Cinema: Hollywood Auteurs and the Corporate Counterculture (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Francis Ford Coppola (University of Illinois Press, 2015).


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