Francis Ford Coppola On Art, Copying And File Sharing: We Want You To Take From Us

from the first-step dept

Paul Tamm points us to a really wonderful interview with filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, which touches on a whole variety of different topics, but a couple of quotes are likely to be interesting to folks around here. For example, he's asked about copying works of other filmmakers and whether or not he tries to "veer away" from the masters of the craft to create his own style, and he responds brilliantly:
I once found a little excerpt from Balzac. He speaks about a young writer who stole some of his prose. The thing that almost made me weep, he said, "I was so happy when this young person took from me." Because that's what we want. We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can't steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that's how you will find your voice.

And that's how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you. And Balzac said that in his book: It makes me so happy because it makes me immortal because I know that 200 years from now there will be people doing things that somehow I am part of. So the answer to your question is: Don't worry about whether it's appropriate to borrow or to take or do something like someone you admire because that's only the first step and you have to take the first step.
While (of course), I always dislike the incorrect use of the term "stealing," I found this to be quite an insightful answer from someone who is certainly in a position to pretend otherwise. However, throughout history we've heard similar (if much less eloquent) claims from others. Ray Charles famously made similar points about copying his music (shamelessly) from others to create his own unique sound (and invent soul music in the process).

Immediately after this, he's asked about business models, and he notes:
This idea of Metallica or some rock n' roll singer being rich, that's not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I'm going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?

In the old days, 200 years ago, if you were a composer, the only way you could make money was to travel with the orchestra and be the conductor, because then you'd be paid as a musician. There was no recording. There were no record royalties. So I would say, "Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money." Because there are ways around it.
While some will misinterpret this to mean that artists shouldn't make money, that's not what he's saying at all. He's saying it shouldn't be presumed that they automatically must make money -- or that if they are to make money, that it needs to come from the film directly.

Filed Under: art, copying, francis ford coppola, free, sharing


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  1. identicon
    Andrew D. Todd, 25 Jan 2011 @ 7:14am

    Movies as Nineteenth-Century Paintings.

    It may be that Hollywood is technologically obsolete at a certain level, at the level of _Apocalypse Now_, that the idea of expensively re-enacting the past in maximum possible detail, in order to film it is obsolete. I should like to construct an analogy of the visual image.

    In 1815, the year of Waterloo, there were no cameras. The collective sense of what the battle looked like was formed by paintings, done many years after the fact. Producing such a painting involved getting people to pose for each figure, etc. In its essentials, it was rather like movie-making. One of the more successful painters was the wife of a colonel, who was in a position to borrow her husband's troops for a re-enactment. Still, it has been pointed out that the "factual" content of the images is often impossibly wrong. Things simply couldn't have happened that way. However, people related to the picture as if it were the truth.

    The painting of recent battles was a special case of history painting. In the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, each country asserted its national identity by commissioning large and elaborate paintings of significant episodes in its historical past. The artists went to great deal of trouble to research all the different elements, making sure that the characters wore the right kind of clothes, etc. When the painting was finished, another artist would engrave an adaptation on a copper printing plate, taking account of the differences between the two media, and the plate would be used to produce paper prints which would be sold in quantity.

    However, these pictures were inauthentic in one big sense. They were images of things which, at the time they happened, were not considered worth recording, because the collective mindset was different. Sometimes, the incidents were themselves fictional, invented a couple of hundred years after the fact-- or five hundred, or a thousand, or two thousand. The Victorians were effectively imposing their own values on the past. For a time, they were able to fool themselves by collecting period detail.

    In 1863, the year of Gettysburg, photography existed, but the paraphernalia necessary to take pictures filled a whole wagon. Photographers like Mathew Brady drove over the battlefields when it was all over, setting up their big tripod cameras, and taking pictures of the aftermath, and taking the wet glass photographic plates directly into the darkrooms built into their wagons to process them on the spot. At this time, half-tone printing had not yet been invented, so there were limits to the circulation of these pictures. Print media, such as newspapers, made engravings, drawing from various sources, some photographs, some sketch-drawings, and some pure imagination. A large selection of a couple of thousand photographs was eventually published in the _The Photographic History of the Civil War_, in ten volumes, edited by Francis Trelyvan Miller, in 1911. However, the public visual memory of the Civil War was still defined by the big painting commissioned for a public building. This painting drew on the same kinds of sources as newspaper engravings.

    History painting, in general, collapsed at the end of the nineteenth century. Halftone printing had come along, making it possible to photograph works of art, and economically reproduce them on paper. Equally to the point, travel had become cheaper and easier with the advent of railroads and steamships. Instead of making new pictures out of the imagination, it was possible to travel all over Europe and see works of art produced in historic times, and photograph them, and accurately reproduce the photographs for sale. In particular, the Spanish pictures were influential, those of El Greco and Velasquez. Madrid had been a remote city, difficult to get to, and the capital of a country which had once been a great power, but was now lost in its own past. In a sense, the Prado Museum and the Escoril Palace were a kind of lost world. History painting was demoralized. In the old pictures, people encountered a vivid way of life, which was not merely a translocated copy of their own time.

    The big new wave of painting in the 1870's and 1880's was Impressionism. In terms of its subjects, Impressionism did not stray very far from home. Impressionist pictures shocked a lot of people because of their unfinished style, but at one level, they were fairly conventional. The pictures were usually of things which fell within the daily experience of the upper-middle-class customers. They painted a quite large number of pictures of little girls, engaged in their normal activities, playing with toys or whatever, and these pictures were commissioned by the parents. Very few impressionist pictures had any kind of public or political import. The people who painted public pictures were becoming artistic second-raters. Poster artists, working for the print media, were often very political, when they were not engaged in their main business of advertising. A very elaborate illustration, showing more than a hundred people, was likely to be an advertisement for a department store-- or a labor union poster. Of course, eventually, advertising switched to photography when photography got good enough, with rich enough production values.

    By the time of the World Wars, cameras had become compact enough and automatic enough that a news photographer, someone of the type of Robert Capa, could carry a camera instead of a rifle, and could keep up with the troops to such an extent that he was likely to be killed in battle eventually. Being that far forward, the photographer was able to produce compelling photographs, which could be sent home in the mail as unprocessed rolls of film, and which appeared in newspapers and magazines while the fighting was still going on. These photographs effectively deprived the artist of his ability to craft a collective memory. They were not technically so good as what an artist could produce, but they were comparatively real, and they wound up in every household, in the form of stacks of back issues of Life magazine in the closet or attic. Of course, during wartime, the pictures still had to pass censorship, so they did not show moral decadence or the like.

    By the time of Vietnam, ordinary soldiers were often carrying cameras, although they naturally didn't have as much time to use them as a combat journalist would have. Whether the pictures were taken by amateurs or professionals, Vietnam was the great age of the uncensored war photograph, depicting war in all its physical brutality. Only one veil was left: that of inner mentality. Lieutenant Calley still knew enough to lie about what he had done at My Lai. If he was giggling hysterically while he personally killed the small children, there is no record of it.

    Iraq took the process one step further. Reasonably efficient press censorship was in place, but cameras had penetrated down to the "moron" level, at places like Abu Ghraib. According to recent press interviews, Lynndie England still cannot understand why what she did was wrong. She simply hasn't the education or intelligence to grasp why abusing prisoners-of-war is shameful. It was someone like _that_, who did not understand the necessity of destroying potential evidence, who could casually create souvenir-pictures, the way a hunter does with a dead deer. And that is what the collective visual memory of Iraq will be.

    Now, of course, other things equal, film/video cameras are heavier and bulkier than still cameras, but they are following the same basic trajectory. Photographic images, one might add, tended to "frame" movies, to define the visual look which movie-makers were striving for. At a certain point it will become impossible to make Hollywood movies which compete with the home movies made by the participants. Something similar applies to things like gun-camera films, video which is automatically recorded by equipment. Large sections of a movie will be built up out of commonly available archival footage, so abundant that it has no scarcity value, and is not controlled by a few organizations.

    Alternately, film-makers might decide that they simply don't need to pretend to portray certain events realistically. They can provide animation at the cartoon level for "framing content," which can be done inexpensively with tools like Second Life, and concentrate their actual filming on much smaller scenes. A novelist varys his exactness of description according to circumstances. He doesn't tell you exactly what a building looks like, unless it matters. In that case, he may very well draw a picture, or a map, or a diagram. A traditional Hollywood film-maker has to go all-out in achieving exact period detail, because he is trying to convince you that what he is showing you is reality. Once he simply gives up that goal, because it has become unattainable in the light of home movies and surveillance footage, the rules change. He has to give you enough visual cues so that you know what is going on, and where to locate the action. However, that can be done with inexpensive animation and image-processing technique.

    Just as painting in the "Grand Manner" went through a fatal loss of confidence, I suspect that film-making in the Grand Manner will also go through a fatal loss of confidence. It will come to be understood that if a movie cannot be made inexpensively, that is a sign that this particular project is not well-suited for film.



    Roy Strong, _Recreating the Past: British History and the Victorian Painter_, 1978

    Gus McDonald, _Camera, Victorian Eyewitness: A History of Photography, 1826-1913_, 1979[1980]

    Max Gallo, _The Poster in History_, 1974, 1975 [abridged translation of _I Manifesti_, 1972]

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