Taiwan #1: Taipei

This is the first post in my Taiwan series. I took a ton of a photographs on my trip and I'm excited to finally be sharing them. I've organized the photos by location. We started and ended our journey in the capital, Taipei.

Taipei is an amazing city. Its technology is cutting edge, the public transportation is abundant and efficient, and the food is fantastic. The streets are lined with vendors, selling everything from fruit to braised pork, and many areas turn into special night markets after the sun sets. I went on to learn that this love of food is pervasive throughout the country. While Taipei is so advanced in many ways, remnants of the past can be seen throughout the city, both in the culture and the architecture. Taiwan was occupied by the Netherlands, Japan, Spain and China, so it's not hard to find influences from those nations throughout the city.

Another thing that struck me was the subtropical climate. There were a surprising amount of trees and plants throughout the city. The vegetation appearing to reclaim the narrow alleyways between heavily Japanese influenced structures gives the feeling of the brighter side of an apocalypse.

We stayed at a fantastic hostel called Star Hostel. If you are ever staying in Taipei, I would strongly recommend staying at this world renowned (and affordable) hostel. They have a beautiful common area with lots of trees growing inside and a projector that's usually hooked up to a Nintendo Switch or screening Miyazaki films. Many people in Taiwan are big fans of both of these things, which works out great for me because I am too.

The first thing we did when we got there was eat some authentic and delicious beef noodle soup, along with some fantastic braised boar with sweet potato in rice. I also got one of my favorite drinks, Apple Sidra.

After that, we wandered down some of the narrow streets, eventually making our way to Taipei 101, which is considered one of the original "Evil Buildings." Whenever I'm traveling in a new city, I like to get up as high as I possibly can and look around at the city from a bird's eye perspective. Sometimes the best I can get is a hill top, or the roof of my hotel. But here we were able to get to the top of one of the world's tallest buildings. It was beautiful to be able to see the city from so high up, and see it slowly transition from day to night, and watch the city light up in a new way.

Inside of Taipei 101 is a special structural marvel that's known as a tuned mass damper. It's a giant ball filled with steel that is suspended near the top of the building. The ball, weighing in at 660 tons, acts as pendulum to help stabilize the building during extreme typhoon winds and earthquakes.

While at the top of Taipei 101, we spotted an interesting-looking park that was shaped like a flower. We went to check out the park up close for a bit, discovering a unique labyrinth of paths and canals. It seems unlikely that anyone would be able to tell that it was a flower from down below, which shows the beauty of taking opportunities to get multiple perspectives.

We finally made our way to a movie theater near Taipei 101 and watched A Quiet Place. If you are planning on watching a movie in Taiwan, it's worth noting that people don't show up early for movies (at least in our experience). In fact they don't let you in until the ticket time, and without any trailers, the movie starts. Despite how intense the film was, we had a hard time keeping our eyes open after such a long first day.

5 Camera Movements Used by Master Filmmakers

Since the birth of cinema, filmmakers have been making innovations in the ways to move cameras. There are countless methods of moving the camera: handheld, dollies, steadicams, sliders, drones, and programmable telescopic technocranes—to name a few. As technology advances, we will continue to break barriers until the only limits in camera movements will be our imaginations. All of this technology is undeniably awesome, but that doesn’t always mean it’s always the best choice for a given story. In order for a camera move to be truly effective, it must be motivated in some way. The motivation can be because of the scene’s action, a way of getting into the state of mind of the characters, or simply to add a particular kind of energy. I like the comparison of movement to music. Camera movement can have a huge influence in how you perceive a scene, much in the same way that a soundtrack can—you can have a similar impact with a soaring crane shot or a soaring orchestra. Here is some work from five filmmakers who have found particularly creative and innovative ways of moving the camera, despite the technological (and budgetary) limitations they were faced with. (SPOILER WARNING for the following films)

25TH HOUR

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The “double-dolly” or “ride-along” is one of Spike Lee’s signature moves, and can be seen throughout his work to varying degrees of success. In my opinion, 25th Hour showcases the most effective use of this technique. The move involves having an actor stand in front of the camera, usually on a dolly (but sometimes on a crane or other rig), and moving the camera so that they move with it. This creates a very surreal effect and feels like the character is floating through the scene. I wonder if one of the reasons it’s so unsettling (and this is just a loose theory) is because it feels both objective and subjective. It feels a bit subjective because when we are walking, our brain does a decent job of nullifying the movements to give us the illusion of floating, and at the same time, we are seeing that character floating as well, so it feels almost like an out of body experience. The reason it works so well in 25th Hour is because when it is used, it is motivated by the state of mind of the characters. The character above is feeling euphoric on ecstasy. When another character does something unspeakable later in the film, we see the same type of movement. So an out of body experience for both of the situations makes sense.

REQUIEM FOR A DREAM

Darren Arronosfky has experimented with the use of Snorricam since his first film, Pi. A Snorricam is a fascinating device that attaches the camera to the actor, pointed at their upper body. It is a similar concept to the double-dolly, as the camera is attached to the actor and moves with them, but because of the nature of how humans move it has almost the opposite effect. While the actor is fixed in the frame, because the camera is tied to their movements, the background and horizon are dependent on their movements as well. So every micro-shake is amplified in the background. This can be incredibly sickening, but it can also be a brilliant effect when used at the right times. During Requiem for a Dream, it’s often used during intense moments of anxiety and panic. You can almost feel the adrenaline running through your veins as you watch these shots, proving just how effective the choice is.

The evil Dead

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While in production of 1981’s The Evil Dead, director Sam Raimi and the crew came up with countless innovations not only in special effects, but in creative ways of moving the camera. The extremely limited budget of $350,000 forced them to come up with inventive ways of moving the camera. Raimi loves an active camera, which is in full force during the Evil Dead series. One of the most iconic movements is the POV of the demon speeding through the forest. Raimi’s team came up with what’s called a Shaky-Cam to bring this vision to life. It is essentially a 2x4 piece of wood with the camera bolted onto it. To operate the Shaky-Cam, two people run on either side of the piece of wood, “flying” the camera between them. This cheap rig gave the camera a special shaky, aggressive energy that perfectly embodied the demonic spirit.

ENTER THE VOID

Similar to The Evil Dead, Enter the Void also seeks to recreate the POV of a spirit. But rather than a demonic presence, its goal is to show a human spirit both inside of a living body and after it has parted ways. It’s a wonderful challenge for a film, and despite its flaws, Enter the Void handles this task magnificently. The beginning part of the film is inside a person’s physical perspective. So we see everything he sees, including blinking, and even hallucinations as the character does drugs. But the real fascinating part of the film comes later on when the character dies and the spirit departs from the body and begins flying around going into objects and experiencing memories. Gaspar Noe makes wonderful use of physical crane movements, blended and stitched together with CGI, to create the hypnotic and fluid movements of the spirit.

CHILDREN OF MEN

One challenge that many filmmakers often face is how to keep the camera interesting and dynamic within the confines of a car. There have been a multitude of solutions for this problem and there are even films like 2013’s Locke, which takes place entirely in a car. But the film that has the most outstanding car sequence I’ve ever seen is Alfonso Cauron’s Children of Men (which contains some of the best scenes in recent cinema--not just in cars). Cauron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki had a special car built that allowed them to move the camera freely around the interior of the car. In keeping this all one fluid shot, it places you in the car with the characters and lets you experience the action with them, as it develops in real time.

CONCLUSION

All of these filmmakers are masters at moving the camera and have found truly unique ways in which to implement their envisioned movements into their films. It’s an important takeaway that all of these movements were strongly motivated by the action, the character’s emotional state, and the intended energy. The reason that these filmmakers are master visual-storytellers is not because of the movements or the tactics they use, but because they know exactly which movements to use for the right parts of their story. It’s also interesting to see that each of these filmmakers have been almost obsessively experimenting with similar movements throughout their careers. As their craft improves, they are able to refine the exact movements they want, and as technology improves, it’s easier for them to achieve it precisely. These movements are just one aspect of what has become their visual language and voices as filmmakers. I will be exploring other techniques that filmmakers use in the future so please keep an eye out for them!

My Top Ten Films of 2017

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1. GET OUT

When someone asks me what my favorite film genre is, I undoubtedly say “horror”—but I quickly follow that up by letting them know that I only like the “good” horror films (which of course are rare). Get Out is part of that small group of films that makes me truly love the genre. Its enormous tension is well-balanced with comedic relief, which is unsurprising, given first-time director Jordan Peele's career. But this is not a low level horror-comedy. It has the feel of a master filmmaker who is in complete control of how he is affecting the audience, like a conductor who is directing our emotions. This is a truly impressive achievement for Peele. Although this is his first time directing a film, it’s clear that his experience in front of and behind the camera has made him an expert in the language of film. As a fellow lover of the horror genre, it’s also evident that he's studied many of the best films of the genre and understands not only the tropes and themes in them, but more importantly: what makes them great. The reason Get Out is so strong is because, like the very best of the genre, Peele understands that sometimes using exaggerated genre conventions is the best way to shine light on serious issues in our society. To hear more on Peele’s inspiration for the film, I’d recommend checking out his interview on Fresh Air

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2. GOOD TIME

You have to experience this film to fully understand it. The pacing of it is absolutely insane. I had just seen Dunkirk a few days before watching this, and I thought that film was non-stop… but this film makes it pale in comparison. Good Time MOVES. Robert Pattinson is a revelation in the film starring as Connie, a man on a mission to get his younger, mentally disabled brother out of prison. I think this is one of the greatest New York films in years. It’s a modern counterpart of films like Taxi Driver and The French Connection. The Safdie brothers do a great job capturing a sense of the grittiness and hustle of the city, flexing the skills they learned making documentaries and films like Heaven Knows What (another great New York film). They focus on things that many filmmakers would gloss over, like Connie as he slowly and methodically solves the numerous problems that he encounters (with each solution of course creating more problems). Pattinson does an excellent job showing us this process. His character finds creative solutions by using what and who he has around him—often manipulating by charming them or lying. Like many great con men, it actually feels like Connie often believes the lies that he’s telling.

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3. THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that so far I’ve only seen one other film by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster, which was a cinematic breath of fresh air and clearly the creation of a unique and confident mind. Here, Lanthimos once again teams up with Colin Farrell, in a loose adaptation of Iphigenia at Aulis, a Greek tale in which Agamemnon is forced to sacrifice his daughter after accidentally killing a sacred deer that belonged to the goddess Artemis. Lanthimos is a complete visual master, with some of the most beautiful shots of the year in this film. He has a truly interesting sense of perspective, knowing exactly how to get you into the minds of the characters (and intentionally detach you at times as well). He brilliantly uses camera movement, and the lack of it, to build the feeling of claustrophobia and dread throughout the film. Lanthimos once again creates a tragic and darkly comic world in this film. Nicole Kidman and Farrell both do an amazing job bringing this unique world to life, but it's newcomer Barry Keoghan who is the real heartbeat.

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4. THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Out of all the great films of 2017, The Florida Project had the biggest emotional impact on me. The film follows a young girl and her mother who are living in a rundown hotel just a few blocks away from Disney World. Although the proximity is close, they might as well be in a different world. Because the type of family who can afford to visit the amusement park is just as much of a fairy tale as the cartoon characters within it. We see helicopters above and the colorful glows from the fireworks, but it’s always understood that this alluring kingdom is not for them. This is a perfect film to summarize 2017, where our president spent his first year in office largely due to promising a better life to working class and impoverished voters. Director Sean Baker does a beautiful job portraying the duality of capitalism by peering into a part of America that many of us would prefer to see with a blind-eye. The actors utilize the freedom Baker creates for them exceptionally, especially Brooklyn Prince (seven years old) who delivers a stunning and truthful performance. Willem DaFoe is also fantastic as a benevolent and troubled manager of the motel. The cinematography is also stellar, with great compositions and vibrant pastel colors.

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5. Phantom Thread

I was beyond excited when I first heard that Paul Thomas Anderson was once again teaming up with Daniel Day-Lewis. There Will Be Blood remains one of my favorite films of all time. I credit it to opening my teenage eyes up to a whole new way of looking at cinema. It was very obvious that every shot was carefully designed to aid in the telling of the story. And the performance by Day-Lewis still echoes in the back of my mind. So it was hard to not go into Phantom Thread without impossibly high expectations. But Phantom Thread is another masterpiece in its own way. The story follows the illustrious dress-maker Reynolds and his new muse Alma in post World War II Britain. Reynolds has a habit of disposing of his old muses after they prove too difficult for his obsessive work, but it’s evident from the beginning that Alma is different. Phantom Thread doesn't have a conventional storyline; instead, we follow the two lovers as they struggle to make sense of the dynamics in their relationship. The film is stunningly shot, as the camera often circles around beautiful dresses, or follows Reynolds as he speeds around in his Bristol sports car. Every frame is once again, carefully considered. Interestingly, PTA didn't work with a designated cinematographer on the film. He instead took on some of the responsibilities himself and collaborated with others on the set. In other instances, you could see this as diluting a director’s vision, but here it feels like it actually aided him in fully realizing his. Daniel Day-Lewis claims that this will be his last film ever. He is absolutely brilliant in the role, so while it would be a shame never to see him on the silver screen again, he'd be ending it on something special.

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6. COLUMBUS

Can art heal the soul? That's essentially the big question that Columbus poses as the two main characters discuss life and explore the architectural mecca of Columbus, Indiana. Jin (John Cho) is visiting from Korea to see his estranged architect father, who has recently fallen into a coma. He meets, Casey, a young woman who dreams of becoming an architect but has always had to take care of her recovering addict mother. It’s lovely to see John Cho showing his rarely seen dramatic side as the haunted Jin. I've been a big fan of Kogonada's video essays for a long time because they get to the essence of what makes certain filmmakers so great. His videos do an excellent job of distilling the root of their visual language. So it's really awesome to see him taking the leap into creating his own films. As someone who’s spent so much time studying films, Kogonada’s reflective nature shines through in his debut film. There are tons of traces from the filmmakers he's studied so meticulously, particularly legendary Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. Every frame is brilliantly composed and mirrors the thoughtful architecture of the city it takes place in. The soundtrack by Hammock is another highlight. It's an incredible first entry into filmmaking for Kogonada, and I can't wait to see what he has in store in the future as he continues to develop his own voice to be as strong as the directors he's spent so much time studying.

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7. LADY BIRD

Greta Gerwig is another first time director who absolutely kills it in her first film. This is a unique coming of age story that takes place in Sacramento. The subject matter isn't new territory, but it's executed excellently by Gerwig who is able to capture the struggles of growing up and the complexities of parent-child relationships in an authentic way. It's funny, poignant, and the core of it feels truthful. It's easy to feel that a lot of this was taken from Gerwig's personal experience. As always, cinematographer Sam Levy's work is excellent, serving the story with graceful compositions and lighting. I've had the privilege of learning from Levy and I consider him a big influence in my own work. He has a refreshing minimalistic approach to cinematography and knows how to elevate the story without distracting the audience. In addition to honest characters, Lady Bird has a great sense of place (Sacremento) and time (early 2000's), and it's told in a clear vision that makes me excited to see what Gerwig does next.

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8. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Another beautifully told coming of age story, Call Me By Your name, tells the story of a teenager, Elio, as he falls for the handsome and charismatic Oliver in northern Italy. This film is breathtakingly gorgeous and told with a remarkable elegance and efficiency. The whole film was shot on a single 35mm lens, and every filmmaking decision feels motivated by the story. There are many long takes in the film, and when there are cuts, it feels mostly invisible. The blocking is particularly strong as well. Director Luca Guadagnino has a strong understanding of the relationship between the camera and his actors. Instead of being distracted by flashy shots, you are eased into the beauty of the world and the emotions that the characters are experiencing. Amazing work by Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet. Chalamet in particular shows incredible vulnerability and does a wonderful job portraying what it’s like to be young and figuring out who you are. Sufjan Stevens delivers a great soundtrack as well.

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9. Dunkirk

The only reason I can’t rate this film any higher is because I know it’ll never be as good as the way I saw it in theaters. I was fortunate enough to be able to see it in 70mm IMAX at AMC Loews Lincoln Square theater. After seeing it on this screen, seeing it on anything else seems offensive. And watching it on a phone would be downright criminal. Nolan is back as a master of tension and sensory terror as this film puts you in the shoes of three different sets of characters as they struggle to survive the battle of Dunkirk, on land, in the sea, and in the air. The high point of the film is the stunning aerial IMAX photography that is probably the closest any of us will get to flying a WWII fighter plane. Nolan is in complete control of the suspense as it continues to build throughout the film. The sound design is excellent as well as the Soundtrack developed by frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer. The frantic nature of the story is intensified by a fascinating auditory illusion in the score called the Shepard tone.Interestingly, Nolan chooses not to show any of the German enemies in the film. This decision works not only because it puts us into the perspective of the soldiers who often couldn’t see their enemies face-to-face, but because it makes the true enemy something we can all relate to: time. Time is always running out.

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10. The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro's intense passion for slimy creatures is evident in all his work. The Shape of Water hits the mark for me, although not to the same level as his best films (Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone). The Shape of Water is a love story about a mute janitor and an Amazonian river monster in the top secret government facility she works at. It’s both a love letter to and an important criticism of the American monster films of the 1950’s, which it’s inspired by. Many of those films were a reflection of their time and depict blatant racism and sexism. The Shape of Water tries to comment on those themes and show that the silenced do have power when they come together. The production design brilliantly depicts mid-century America through a murky, almost noir veil. Del Toro beautifully glides his wide angle lensed camera throughout these sets. The design of the monster was also fantastic, as del Toro perfectly blends practical effects with CGI. Although the film attempts to comment on fairy tales through a new lens, it unfortunately suffers from some of the same limitations as many fairy tales. Some of the characters end up feeling a bit one-dimensional at times. However, despite the thinness of their characters, the actors do their best at fully committing to their roles. Michael Shannon gives a powerful performance as the villain of the film. Although the characters were at times one-dimensional and certain sequences didn’t work for me, the beauty and passion with which del Toro tells this story are palpable.