Sunday, December 2, 2007

Time of Wonder (or, I Am A Camera)

One of my favorite books that Ben and I enjoy reading together is Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder, a Caldecott winner from 1957.

Like many of McCloskey’s books, it’s set in Maine. The text is a lyrical description of spending summers on one of the many small islands off the coast. The illustrations are beautiful watercolors.

I vaguely remember it from the library shelves of my own school library, but frankly, it was the kind of “pretty” book I ignored or avoided, gravitating towards things that were funny, weird, scary, or preferably, all three.

Ben became interested in it after reading Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal, and especially after seeing the Scholastic video collection with film adaptations of all three. I thought he would be bored with the slow, dreamy pace, but he loved it.

The other night, he was watching the video, holding the book in his lap, and as always, astutely checking the fidelity of the video adaptation with the text and pictures in the book.

The story closes with a description of leaving the island for the summer and I always feel a little lump in my throat as the narrator reads, “Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea…” as if I summered in Maine and I’m experiencing real nostalgia for Spectacle Island, Blastow’s Cove and Eggemoggin Reach.

During this last passage, Ben, who was sitting on my lap, leaned back into my chest and nuzzled the back of his head against me. I felt like we were having this tender, emotional experience of the story together.

Then I realized, he was just being a camera: pulling back from the page in the book, exactly like the camera does in the film adaptation.

He now does this with almost any book that has an accompanying video adaptation – his own physical re-enactment of the “Ken Burns Effect.” (Though most of these films were made when Ken Burns was barely a kid shooting his army men with a super 8 camera in his backyard, it is an apt description for the style.)

As Ben reads the book he brings it close to his face to mimic the zooms, the close-ups. He runs his head along the page to mimic the pans. He sits back to return to a wide shot. He knows these movements the way he knows the text, and he asks to hear parts of the story over and over so he can perfect the timing of his tracking shots and cutaways.

I’ve also seen him doing this more frequently with his train set – holding his head in the right place to recreate the camera angles from the videos. This explains why he has always played with his trains lying prone on his stomach with his eyes a few inches from the engine faces. It explains why he drags his head along floor next to the track. He’s doing a dolly shot with head.

This odd and amazing skill, combined with having a dad who is a video maker creates one inevitable trajectory: eventually Ben and Chris will make videos together. The first ones will probably be faithful remakes of Thomas videos (already a You Tube genre, by the way) or maybe remakes of book adaptations from the Scholastic DVDs, like Time of Wonder. In any case, I can’t wait for the premiere.

In tight for a closeup...

Back out to check the video...

...and pan right.


Christa said...

On an irrelevant side note…

While the “I Am A Camera” reference came to mind immediately as a title, I have to admit that I had to look it up, because I had forgotten to what, exactly, I was making reference.

Turns out that it’s – anyone? anyone? – the Christopher Isherwood play on which the movie Cabaret is based.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's pretty amazing...he's going to be an amazing filmmaker if he is responding to camera angles at such a young age.


Anonymous said...

Christa - I was hoping you'd post on this topic. we want more. we want more. Give us another post about the 'dolly shot' & etc for the trains & link to matchbox films to show how Ben's head is the camera next to the train track.

I loves me some Hyperlexicon ! ! ! ! !