Wednesday 2 February 2011

Directors' Artistic Work Outside of Film

In the world of animation, particularly but not exclusively live-action animation, the Directors not only film but craft what they film. They make what they show. Many animations, from conception to finished product, are in fact the work of one person, not delegated to teams of illustrators : Caroline Leaf's sand animation or the Quay Brother's stop-motion puppetry for example.

There is an artistry in the round not often exhibited or required by Directors not working in animation (for various reasons). However, there are Directors who have turned their hand to art beyond the moving image of Cinema, Commercials (Ridley Scott and innumerable others), TV Series (David Lynch, Martin Scorsese) or Computer Games.

*    *    *

Indian Director Satyajit Ray was initially a Graphic Designer and used those skills to design the posters for his films.

From Top: Enemy of the People, Devi
The Home and the World

He had collaborated on the creation of their soundtracks early on with famed musicians such as Ravi Shankar but, frustrated by their differing viewpoints, would go it alone from Teen Kanya (1961) onwards. John Carpenter is another whose musical input matched the quality of his visual.

Ray was also a writer of short stories (for which he designed the covers) and left as a legacy two beloved characters in particular : Professor Shonku, a scientist and Feluda, a detective. His interest in Science led him to write the (unfilmed) script The Alien, which many, including Ray himself, claimed was wrongfully taken as inspiration for Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

*   *   *

M Night Shyamalan is another to have pursued an interest in literature, with a children's picture book entitled Lady in the Water: A Bedtime Story. Originating in the stories he would tell his daughters, it was released (illustrated by Crash McReery) almost concurrently with his much less well-received film Lady in the Water, which transported the lady of the title from the pool in a young child's back garden to the swimming pool in a motel complex.

*   *   *

Russian Director Andrei Tarkovsky was given the opportunity to Direct Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov with the Kirov Opera Orchestra in Covent Garden in 1983. Contemporary reviews, whilst not overwhelming in praise, remarked on the creative, "filmic", orchestration of actors and sets. A performance was recorded and is available on DVD.

Robert Lloyd (Boris), 
Andrei Tarkovsky (Director) and Claudio Abbado (Conductor)

*   *   *

Another Director who took the helm of film's nearest cousin, theatre or live performance, is Zhang Yimou, whose recent films House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower have been notable for their studied and flamboyant theatricality. In 2008 he devised and coordinated the extraordinary Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, a task that will now fall, in London, to another film director: Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 127 Hours).

There are plentiful examples of Film Directors directing theatre and vice versa, though not, generally, during the same period in their careers.

*   *   *

Dipping your toes in the waters of another art can widen your influences, and deepen appreciation and aptitude for your chosen field. It is a sign of a curiosity and erudition (Animator Harry Smith compiled the acclaimed Anthology of American Folk Music from his own collection) that appears to be generally lacking in the cinematic world.

How many other striking examples are there of this exploration?


  1. There are many directors who have crossed the line, like David Lynch doing the Play Station commercials, or Danny Boyle who is now directing a play based on Frankenstein.
    I just love when directors cross the boundaries at all times when they direct movies at the same time, it makes them cosmopolitan, and I wish that I end up being the same. Hahahah.

  2. Jerzy Skolimowski retired for 20+ years to paint, Andrzej Zulawski directed a bit of opera and has written many books, RW Fassbinder wrote and directed many plays while doing the same with films, there are a number of filmmakers who operate the camera themselves, which many are entirely incapable of. I think the bigger question is this: Where do you have to go to find directors who do nothing related to the arts other than direct? The answer, of course: Hollywood.

  3. Jaime,

    I didn't know about Danny Boyle's upcoming play.

    " makes them cosmopolitan, and I wish that I end up being the same. Hahahah."

    Indeed. It makes for richer work, I should think. Good luck!

  4. Jean,

    Thanks for the information on those directors. I find it odd that film criticism is generally insular and doesn't follow these film-makers down the other paths they take.

    "I think the bigger question is this: Where do you have to go to find directors who do nothing related to the arts other than direct? The answer, of course: Hollywood."

    Haha! You might well be right.

  5. A damn interesting piece!!!

    Well, I'm a huge admirer of Ray. He was that rare filmmaker who contributed to nearly every aspect of filmmaking. Such versatility is truly rare. Perhaps the other filmmaker with such versatility was Chaplin, who incidentally was one of Ray's biggest idols.

    He didn't just write numerous short stories, but quite a few immensely popular novels too (mostly featuring the 2 characters you've mentioned - Feluda & Professor Shonku), and adorned every single story with multiple pen sketches which were, needless to say, absolutely brilliant. There was even a cinematic effect to his sketches. And he used his drawing skills to great use while storyboarding his films.

    As you mentioned, for a majority of his films, he composed the background score. But what was really incredible about his genius was that, he wrote the lyrics & gave music to all the songs for the two musicals that he directed. And know what, the songs that he wrote & composed are very popular even to this day. And, as can be expected, he wrote the screenplays for all his films - ain't that fascinating even coming from an auteur!

    And to add to all these, he was a brilliant film critic (he had an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema) & an excellent photographer too.

    He was a Renaissance Man if ever there was one.

  6. I'm surprised you didn't mention Lynch's forays into the visual arts of painting and sculpture. Those were his first creative passions, I believe, and he's always maintained an interest in them. I remember when his "Eat My Fear" sculpture was turned down for NYC's insipid "Cow Parade" of public artwork.

    George Lucas has been active in television ever since the "Ewok Adventure" movies and the "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" (and the "Star Wars Holiday Special", if you wanna go all the way back). His "Clone Wars" series has really been getting interesting, especially as his involvement in it increases. Beyond that, he also collaborated with famous comics-scribe Chris Claremont on a series of fantasy novels continuing the story of his "Willow" mythology.

    The Wachowskis have been passionate in their "Matrix" games, comics and anime, encouraging plenty of heavy-hitters in those realms to help them spread their vision.

    Darren Aronofsky has seen a few of his screenplays released as graphic novels, including an early draft of "The Fountain".

  7. Oh! And Albert Lamourise, director of "The Red Balloon", created the board game "Risk"! Phew!

  8. Shubhajit,

    Thanks very much. I'd be interested to read his criticism - if it's been translated. Renaissance man is the phrase. Ray's music is, for me, a large part of the beauty and charm of his films.

    I'd forgotten about Chaplin's versatility.

  9. Bob,

    re Lynch: that was an oversight and I too am guilty of the same seeming disinterest in the other exploits of film-makers (I haven't seen his sculptures or paintings).

    You're right about Lucas, Aronofsky and the Wachowski Brothers, though I was/am most interested in finding out about work outside of film and television.

    I didn't dig too deep - this piece is an initial impression, a question and a starting off point - and it seems I really underestimated the amount of people who have/had fingers in various pies.

    That is a cool tidbit about "Risk" and Lamorisse. Thanks.

    Maybe another post can be compiled in the future with all these examples, a sort of map of the pollination of other arts by film-makers.

  10. Michael Crichton. He had one foot planted firmly in academia and the other in writing (novels and screenplays), film directing/producing and overall technology-oriented art and creativity, including gaming and programing design. Obviously, his books and films were driven by all things science, corporate savvy or bits of history rooted in documentation.

  11. Quite right, Space Cadet. I'd forgotten about Crichton and I didn't know about his work in programming/gaming. I'll investigate...


  12. A few examples of filmmakers that do other things (though for each example the "other thing" is very much a continuation of their work in films and motivated by the same themes and influences) If anyone wishes to extrapolate further on these examples, have at it.

    Agnes Varda: photographer, artist
    Wim Wenders: photographer
    Vincent Gallo: artist, actor, musician
    Alejandro Jodorowsky: mime artist, tarot reader, comic-book writer
    Woody Allen: jazz musician, stand-up comedian
    Neil Jordan: novelist
    David Lynch: artist, musician, carpenter

  13. Thanks very much for these examples. I'll look into them,

  14. Kubrick was a magazine photographer, especially for "Look". That's how he got his start, with a photo of a newspaper vendor on the day that FDR died, crying at his stand while surrounded by headlines of the beloved President's demise.

    Teshigahara abandoned filmmaking for a long while to take up the Japanese art of flower-arrangement, something his father was literally a master in.

    Terry Gilliam started out as a cartoonist before gravitating to animation with the Pythons and then film. Fellini was also a cartoonist, I think-- it's a frequent pitstop on the way to becoming a director.

    Bergman directed theater, Zeferelli directed opera. In fact, I think there's still a few Zeferelli productions on repertoire over at Lincoln Center. I wonder if the version of "Carmen" I saw in high school was one of them...

    Plenty of anime directors like Otomo, Miyazaki and Tezuka started in manga, and in some cases were best defined in comics.

    What I find more interesting are the directors who are only known for filmmaking, but don't appear to do very much of it. Like Terrence Malick, for instance. What the hell was he up to between "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line"?

  15. Bob,

    Now that you mention Teshigahara and flower arranging I remember it. I've just looked his father up (Sofu Teshigahara).

    I didn't know about Federico Fellini's cartoons but, if it's true, I suppose it makes sense. Bergman directed theatre? I'll investigate.

    "Like Terrence Malick, for instance. What the hell was he up to between "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line"?"

    Growing a beard.

    Thanks for the comment and the information, Bob.


  17. Another wonderful topic, Stephen. There must be hundreds of directors working across arts since most artists seem to find the transition easy.

    Kitano and Kurosawa sunk their teeth in just about everything. Fassbinder did a whole lot of things as well. Chris Marker too.

    Will keep adding when I think of others.

  18. Cheers JAFB.

    "There must be hundreds of directors working across arts since most artists seem to find the transition easy."

    One could draw parallels to Sportsmen who were gifted at various sports but have to make a choice to concentrate on one to the detriment of the others.

    I didn't know about Fassbinder's extra-curricular work. I've only just started to watch his films.


  19. Correction:

    "HAD to make a choice..."

  20. Stephen, well, Ray wrote a lot in English too - in fact, he was as proficient in English as he was in Bengali. There's a collection of his critiques & observations on cinema, called Our Films Their Films. Do try and get your hands on it, as I'm sure you'll like it. Its one of my favourite books on cinema.

  21. Thanks very much, Shubhajit. It sounds fantastic.

  22. I just remembered so many examples, but I just finished watching JSA: Joint Security Area, and it's interesting to see how Chan-wook Park started as a film critic/scholar before being a film director.

  23. Ah,

    That's another new one on me. I haven't seen "JSA" yet, but I did like THIRST quite a lot. I think it's his best film.

    Thanks Jaime.

  24. Werner Herzog also dabbles in opera from time to time. Makes perfect sense considering his aesthetic sensibilities. Here's a clip from one of his productions:

  25. Thanks John. I will have a look.

    "Makes perfect sense considering his aesthetic sensibilities."

    Yes, you're right.

  26. Maybe it's as interesting to look at people who dabble in filmmaking but aren't primarily that, the other side of the coin. Like Harold Pinter, John Patrick Shanley, Frank Miller...
    Many of the Eastern European animators were very interested in puppetry, if I'm not wrong, but I have no idea what they were more interested in.

  27. Indeed. Like Banksy's film EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP recently.

    "Many of the Eastern European animators were very interested in puppetry, if I'm not wrong, but I have no idea what they were more interested in."

    Yes, but I think, in the main, that puppetry was part of their film-making.