The Cinematography of “Sunshine” – Part 2

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Part 2: Photographing the sun as divinity

(Part 1 can be found here)

The two largest and most powerful visual motifs in “Sunshine” aren’t difficult to identify: warm hues and circles. They come across so poignant in the film that most people could probably name them having just seen the DVD cover art (in that sense, the film is extremely high-concept). However, these simple surface motifs are really just a framework for a much larger system of visual meaning constructed in the film. The best place to start looking is the opening shot:

(video is protected for copyright and advertisement protection reasons… password is ‘cinevenger’):

Divine Witness I from Cinevenger on Vimeo. (password = ‘cinevenger’)

 

  

The opening shot is really a visual summary of the entire film:

The camera dollies in so close that even the texture of the sun can be seen, which at the last moment is revealed to be only a reflection on the surface of the ship, conceding that the filmmakers have deceived the audience. This is a visual metaphor for the central dramatic idea of straining to behold the true image of god. The photography of the film deliberately draws the audiences attention to the fact that they were tricked into seeing a false image of the sun, which sets a precedent for judging the validity or purity of all of the sunlight experiences in the film (including the following scene, where Searle in overwhelmed by viewing the sun at a mere 3% of its total power). This also informs the final sequence of the film, where Capa escapes the corrupted Pinbacker and has a true, unfiltered and unlimited experience (the next and final “Sunshine” entry will be completely devoted to this).

Secondly, once the camera has dollied around the Icarus II, the final composition of the opening shot sets up the entire visual architecture of the film: a feeble circle of darkness (humanity) daring to approach a gigantic glowing orb of the sun (god). As the silhouetted orb of the ship pulls away from the camera and becomes enveloped in the larger orb of the sun, we get the sense that humanity could be swallowed or destroyed by its divine power.

This sets the visual context for the entire film by establishing key motifs: the contrast of warm light and total darkness as representative of god and humanity. This established context informs the following scene immensely:

(again, password is ‘cinevenger’):

Divine Witness II from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

Shown previously in tighter shots, the crew is now seen in a wide shot that encapsulates all of them. Arranging them as compositional equals in a wide shot creates visual affinity, and lets the audience now view them as a unified group, not a quarreling crew. This sets the stage for the following shots:

    

A push in past a wide shot of the crew and onto the sun gives a sense of being drawn in to something larger and more important than their group.

In a close-up of Mercury engulfed in the mass of the Sun, the camera shakes as it holds Mercury in composition, almost as if seen through a microscope, enlarged so much that micro-vibrations seem like earthquakes. This makes it seem as if we are viewing a minuscule dot floating through a colossal mass. The extreme wide further emasculates Mercury by being so expansive that it seems like a small pebble in a vast sea. The juxtaposition of the diminutive size of Mercury to the enormous sun is a callback to the opening image of the film: a small silhouette engulfed in the overwhelming power of divinity. Moreover, these images of Mercury are really a metaphor for the entire crews relationship with the sun: a sense of community fostered through mutual humility in the presence of something astoundingly powerful.

 

A rack focus shot between Harvey and Capa (who had previously been quarreling) connects them in the same frame and shows how their differences have been transcended by a shared awe in the presence of divinity. A subsequent dolly shot that roves over every member of the crew similarly connects them as a group. Again, the net effect of these communal frames is to show the characters in fellowship and mutual awe at something larger and more powerful than themselves.

  

Finally, a slow dissolve from the sun to a close up of Harvey encased in a synthetic green light seems to pollute the image of the sun, and undercuts the purity of the previous scene. This introduces the idea of the disparity between a true divine experience, and one distorted or corrupted. This pays off later with the visual introduction of Pinbacker (again, covered in the final ‘Sunshine’ entry).

 

Color Palette

In order to draw maximum contrast between divinity and humanity, warm hues are associated exclusively with the sun, and a cooler palette with the crew and their technology, i.e. the sun is the only warm (and always the most powerful) light source in the film. The entire color palette is introduced right in the first scene of the film, as Searle’s divine experience is framed within the context of the technology that allows him to have the experience:

Unlike many films, the filmmakers were extremely aware on both an emotional and intellectual level of exactly what they were trying to accomplish with the color palette. Besides the warm/cool metaphor for divinity/humanity, there was also an entire format contrast of spherical and anamorphic lenses for exterior, sunlit shots versus interior shots. In a rare occurrence in an American Cinematographer article, the filmmakers give thoughtful discourse to how their technical choices mapped on to their creative intentions (typically interviews in American Cinematographer have an almost complete emphasis on the physical and technical challenges of the production, while mentioning creative intent and challenges in a summarized and superficial manner, most likely because the filmmakers ‘felt’ their way to many of their creative choices, and can’t verbally articulate many of those decisions). In this case, Kuchler and Boyle explain their intentions with the color palette and format selection to a depth that makes further elaboration here almost irrelevant.

One of the things the slitscan reveals is the extent of the extreme value contrast across the film: the darkest scenes are almost pitch black, and the brightest scenes are almost completely white. In the American Cinematographer article, Boyle talks about using the darker scenes as a primer for the audience to experience the maximum potency of the brighter ones, and enable them experience the sun as the characters do. The slitscan reveals exactly how extreme those contrasts were.

More about “Sunshine” coming soon. If you enjoyed this article or want to add to the commentary, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it!

 

The Cinematography of “Sunshine” – Part 1

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Before digging into some of the really powerful and central photographic ideas in “Sunshine,” I decided to first investigate a scene that occurs in the first act, as the crew considers a rendezvous with the previously lost Icarus I in order to increase the chances of their missions success.

In this scene, Mace confronts the rest of the crew and makes an argument for ignoring Icarus I and sticking to their original plan. After a logical and reductionist argument from Searle, the Captain (Kaneda) decides to let Capa alone make the choice:

(video is protected for copyright and advertisement protection reasons… password is ‘cinevenger’):

Heavy Decisions from Cinevenger on Vimeo. (password = ‘cinevenger’)

 

The visual storytelling in this scene is handled partly with conventional decisions, and partly with an interesting use of reflections and foreground elements. This medium close-up of Mace (which is intercut several times in the scene) is framed center-punched, at a slightly low angle, with a great deal of compositional symmetry in the background. The symmetrical balance of the image gives a sense of stability to Mace, supporting the idea that he is self-assured and steadfast in his convictions about not intercepting Icarus. Also, keeping his frame as a clean single (every other frame in the scene is dirty), shows his singular opposition to the rest of the crew.

Another interesting compositional decision in this frame is the accommodation for the practical lights in Mace’s headroom. Instead of composing for the top of his head (or simply choosing a different composition that didn’t have the lights riding the top of frame), the filmmakers have allowed these glaring lights to hang over the top of his head and push him down in the frame. This is a visualization of the pressure he feels under the weight of the immense decision that they are contemplating. The potential ramifications hang over his head and exert an incredible amount of anxiety on what would be a relatively trivial decision if this wasn’t the last possible mission to save humanity. This motif carries throughout the scene, for multiple characters:

  

In these shots, in addition to the graphical weight at the top of the frame, the heads are also harshly subdivided by the lines of the display (or, in the case of the wide shot, the display itself). This linear division of the image into many pieces gives a sense of their indecision and fracture in how to proceed in the face of a complex problem. In the two-shot above, this is further compounded by the reflection of Mace in the glass, giving a sense of how his opposition to their tentative plan has added yet another layer of complexity to an already overwhelming dilemma. The combination of this layering and fracturing of the image with the pressure exerted by the visual weight in their headroom drives home the sense of anxiety at the intricacy of their problem and the weight of their decision.

Searle then steps in and offers a simple reductionist analysis of the problem, encapsulating all of the complexity into a simple cost and benefit equation. At this point, the visual juxtaposition of Searle with his reflection is introduced:

  

The division of the image into these two graphical elements: the reflection of Searle encumbered by the weight of the sphere which bisects his head, and the unobstructed, clear shot of Searle himself, gives the sense that he is able to contain the emotional weight of the problem and examine it from a clearheaded, external viewpoint. A nice touch is the lateral dolly moves back and forth as Searle moves to different sides of the screen, giving the sense that he has had the clairvoyance to see the dilemma from a multitude of angles. Another nice touch is his background: everyone else’s mediums and close-ups are sandwiched against vague defocused shapes, adding to the sense of confusion and anxiety. By contrast, Searle’s medium shot looks down a clearly defined hallway, creating a sense of depth, and giving a sense that he has an unobstructed grasp on the problem.

Several angles are also depict the power of the captain in the decision making process:

  

A rack focus shot from Mace to Kaneda holds on Kaneda as Mace continues to speak, and finally racks back very slowly and deliberately. Kaneda has almost seemed to grab the focus to himself as an exertion of power, and then slowly and silently relinquished it back to Mace, as an approval for the discussion to continue. Keeping Kaneda in profile shows his impartiality (or guise of impartiality) to a preferred course of action. Later, when Searle begins his analysis, Kaneda looms in the foreground, as the largest compositional element in the frame: a reminder of his power over the entire process.

  

As Kaneda comes to his decision, the camera pans quickly off of Corazon and Trey, through a dark out of focus mass, and onto Capa. Visually separating Capa from the other characters with this obstruction visually reinforces the idea that he has both physically and emotionally tried to distance himself from the process. In the final image of the scene, with the entire crew out of focus in the background of a close-up profile of Capa, we understand visually his dispassion and alienation in having their fate rest in his hands.

 

More about “Sunshine” coming soon. If you enjoyed this article or want to add to the commentary, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it!

 

10 Cinematography Gems from “The Terminator” – Part 2

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(This is part two… you can check out part one here)…

5. Mechanical motif

  

  

  

This scene is a great callback to the beginning of the film. In fact, each image is mapped specifically to an image from the opening. I’ve paired them above for reference: in the top set, the penetrating drill is equated to the penetration of the dump trucks lifting mechanism. In the second set, a low angle of the flared lights of the crane cockpit is very similar to the low angle of the drone. Finally, in the third pair, the right-to-left motion of the crane is a direct reference to the similar motion of the drone prowling the battlefield in the opening scene. These similarities serve no less than three purposes:

First, as the obvious surface reason: to display Kyle’s emotional reaction to the machines and make the audience understand the horror he experienced.

Second, as a transition device: it makes the audience recall the opening sequence as a introduction to the flashback that is about to occur.

Third, it continues the “banal machinery as killer automaton” motif at a necessary junction. The audience was introduced to this idea at the beginning of the film, and it majorly pays off in the automated factory at the end. But, as the axiom goes, “once is an anomaly, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a pattern.” As an audience we need three instances of a motif for it to actually be a motif. The use of this design at the beginning and end is critical, but it’s this centrally placed use that ties the whole movie together. If this scene wasn’t here, complete with its visual continuation of the motif, then the end would have been cheapened.

 

4. Silhouette as characterization

The image above appears in Kyle’s dream/flashback sequence. The entire first act of the film leaves the nature of the Terminator somewhat ambiguous. Although the audience is given many visual clues to the nature of the Terminator (see the very first Terminator post for more about that), there isn’t any direct exposition until the car chase forty minutes into the film. Following that, the audience gets a proper introduction to the Terminator through two key scenes: the eye cutting scene (discussed below), and Kyle’s dream/flashback, which the image above appears in. This is one of the most effective instances of visual characterization in the film. The silhouette perfectly summarizes the existence of the Terminator: on the surface it shares a basic resemblance to a human, but has none of the fundamental characteristics or behaviors that define humanity. At the center, it is just a persistent, undying killing machine, depicted visually by the ever-burning red eyes at the center of its silhouetted mass.

 

3. The Eye Cutting Scene

  

This item has less to do with cinematography and is more of a tangent about how artists influence each other:

I originally planned to write about why the similarities between the eye cutting scene in “The Terminator” and the famous eye cutting scene in “Un Chien Andalou” are irrelevant. It raises the question of what constitutes a homage. Because “Un Chien Andalou” was the first film to depict an eye being cut (and a surrealist cornerstone), does that mean that all subsequent films that depict something similar must necessarily be a homage to this specific film? I initially felt that sometimes an eye is just an eye, and that any comparison between “The Terminator” and “Un Chien Andalou” is just film school-esque over-analysis and pretentiousness about the level of influence a quick moment in a film could have on another film fifty-five years later.

However, I now think it may be relevant. In the eye cutting scene in “Un Chien Andalou,” Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali are asking the audience to throw away their preconceptions about reality and are inviting them to simply accept the surrealism of the film (i.e. that literally the eye can not be trusted to reveal everything). This occurs at the beginning of the film and sets the stage for the interpretation of the remainder. When the Terminator cuts its eye open, Cameron may be telling the audience, in a more subtle way, that their eyes could not be trusted to show them the reality of the Terminator. This goes back to an important visual idea that runs through the film, and is touched on in the comments above (about the Terminator’s silhouette in #4): that what lies beneath the Terminator’s human-like visage is actually a mechanical abomination, and our eyes could not be trusted in the first act to show us this reality. Its a fitting image for the first time we see the true face of the Terminator revealed.

 

2. The color palette: red

The red “Terminator vision” is one of the most memorable visuals of the film, and it works on more than just an aesthetic level. Going back to the idea of the Terminator as a single minded methodical killer, the high contrast monochromatic vision gives us a sense of the Terminator’s single-minded objective based existence: by showing it’s experience of the world re-interpreted into solid black, red, and white, the audience understands it as a character: it doesn’t see the subtlety of emotions, morality, or anything else, simply its clear-cut objective.

In monster or thriller movies, the monster or villain is generally an externalization of a basic human fear, and the lens selection and color palette of the inevitable “monster POV” shot can go a long way to characterizing that fear (I don’t want to got too far down this path, but consider the infrared POV shots in “Predator” or the alien POV shots in “Alien 3″).

The “Terminator vision” is largely representative of the use of red in the film as a whole: it saturation cuts through the overall color palette like a knife, and used to characterize the ruthless efficiency and consistency of the machines (it’s also worth noting are the similarities between this use of red and that of  HAL9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey”).

 

1. The Color Palette: Blue and Orange hues

The most important hue in “The Terminator” is blue. It’s the color of the first image of the film, and used throughout to depict the post-apocalyptic future (or, more abstractly, the sterilization of the human spirit and the eradication of hope). This makes orange important by contrast:

  

In several fire-lit scenes, and the fire seems to take on the characteristic of hope (in this context, the human spirit to fight for a better future). These scenes use the blue/orange palette to depict the struggle between hope and hopelessness. In the case of the first image, the small fire in an overwhelmingly dark, blue frame gives the sense of clinging to one last shred of hope in an oppressive world. In the second image, the fire is associated with Sarah and Kyle’s narrow escape, re-igniting the possibility deliverance from the Terminator.

 

  

Notably, in the epilogue of the film, as a pregnant Sarah Connor confronts the future head-on, the audience experiences a scene that is much warmer than the rest of the film, implying a hopeful ending by associating it with the films previously established meaning of orange/warm tones. However, the final shot introduces the blue tones back (this shot was #5 in the previous post), making a point about the ambiguous nature of the future.

 

It’s also worth noting that many films map warm/cool onto positive/negative pairings, usually directly related to the themes of the film (such as hope/despair in “The Terminator”).  This may be because of a basic human association of warm/cool with the relative safety of day and the threat of dusk, and perhaps the safety of firelight vs. the fear of being enveloped in the moonlit darkness. However, the audience can be trained to associate any emotion with any color over the course of a film. The go-to example of this is typically “Black Hawk Down,” where the filmmakers had the audience feeling safe in the dim, coolly-lit interiors of the fortified American base camp, and very afraid of the sun-blasted chaos of the Somalian streets.

 

Finally, I’ve included a slit-scan to satisfy any curiosity. One observation: there are seven alternating bands of blue and neutral or orange colors that correspond very roughly to the seven sequences of the film. So, it seems as if there may be some alignment between the rhythm of the storytelling and the color palette as well.

 

This post concludes my analysis of “The Terminator.” If you enjoyed this article or want to add to the commentary, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it!

10 Cinematography Gems from “The Terminator”

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I decided to try a ‘top 10 list’ because there are so many gems in “The Terminator” dispersed throughout the film, and not condensed into any one particular scene. The first five of ten are below… I will follow up next week with the final installment.

If there’s one point I could make about the way James Cameron tells a visual story, it’s “just enough.” Just enough to evoke a powerful emotional response in the audience, but not enough to draw undue attention to the technique that was used to create this response. A spectrum exists between easy, conventional choices that don’t explicitly tell a story (such as is common in sitcoms), and making choices that are so strong that even the layperson viewer becomes very aware of the technique and the artifice of the presentation (such as a Tim Burton movie, which assaults the viewer, for better or for worse, with its production design). Cameron rides a line in between, crafting elegant visuals that illicit a response in the viewer without drawing undue attention to themselves.

Or, to make a food analogy: the visuals of sitcoms are fast food: cheap, easy, and devoid of any delicacy, performing the most basic functions of “being coverage,” in the case of sitcoms, and “being edible,” in the case of fast food. Then, the visuals of “art” films must be fine dining… you enjoy a Darren Aronofsky movie film like an $80 “mesquite grilled filet mignon with brown butter pommes purée,” you expect it to flaunt its refined taste, the complex play of flavors between its dressings and the dish itself. Its elaborate presentation might include a zig-zag accent of colored sauce that parades around the plate, advertising its exquisiteness with the subtlety of a bullhorn. So, to compound this analogy a step further, a James Cameron must be like eating at the Cheesecake Factory: it’s unpretentious and accessible to all, but its behind its deceptively elemental appearance, it has in fact been brilliantly designed and perfectly calibrated to be a tasteful mass-appeal indulgence. It’s the sophistication of “just enough”: just enough powerful technique to make the audience react emotionally, but not so much that it ever flaunts itself. So, the cinematography gems of “The Terminator” are ones of both power and subtlety.

Also, one small side note: I would usually give shared credit to both the cinematographer and director in the crafting of the visuals of a film, but in this case, my understanding of James Cameron is that his relationship with cinematographers on all of his films is one of total authoritarianism, and not collaboration. I do not note this as as a denunciation, but rather as a simple explanation as to why I attribute the visual decisions to Cameron, and have made scant acknowledgement to the cinematographer of “The Terminator,” Adam Greenberg, ASC.

 

10. Lighting Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor

  

Kyle Reese is volatile and tormented. He is haunted by the war he has endured, and is in a sort of purgatory between the horror of the future and the hope that he can change it in the present. A harsh, cool backlight constantly reminds us of the horrors he has experienced. It’s the same cool backlight that we saw in some of the first images of the film: the arrival of the Terminator. Except now, this constant cool backlight is not being used as a comparison between him and the machines, but rather to show how he is constantly haunted by them. Reese’s face is always filled in by a neutral or warm low-key light, which humanizes him, but leaves his fast cast mostly in shadow.

Sarah Connor, by contrast, is always lit by a soft frontal light. The blocking in several scenes is designed to make sure that Reese gets his harsh backlight, and Sarah gets her more graceful frontlight. Consider these angles from the scene in the tunnel:

  

The cool light that filters in from the end of the tunnel is supposed to be moonlight. The master is taken from inside the tunnel, looking out, so that Reese can get his cool edge light (and be framed with a background of harsh blue light hitting concrete, putting him within the context of the horror of the future). The reverse angle is Sarah’s medium close-up, and the direction of lighting is kept true (as opposed to cheated off to the side or back), and Reese’s harsh backlight becomes a high-angle frontal “beauty light” for her.

 

9. Encapsulating the terror

After Kyle Reese is arrested and Sarah is safely under police protection, the police try to convince her that Kyle is crazy and delusional, and that his story about the Terminator is completely fabricated. The photography in this scene is designed to show how Sarah is conflicted over accepting the police’s story about Kyle, and is now torn between feeling that her whole terrifying ordeal is now contained versus believing his warnings.

The high angle of the security camera portrays Kyle as trapped, helpless maniac. More important is the composition: Kyle’s huge amount of  headroom shows his awkwardness and peculiarity, reinforcing Sarah’s suspicion that he may in fact be crazy. The diagonal lines from the shadows of the blinds and the skewed desk give us a sense that Kyle is off balance and unhinged. Also, the shadow of the man standing behind him: a dark, nebulous shape that makes us feel similarly that Kyle could be an anonymous figure, and not the man Sarah thought she briefly knew. The overall effect of this security camera angle is to portray Kyle as a caged crazyman.

  

By isolating this composition within the confines of the television set, we sense that this group believes that the chaos brought on by their contact with Kyle has now been contained. In the reverse angle, a wide shot of Sarah and the police, the low angle, combined with it’s relative symmetry, gives a sense of their feeling of control and stability over the situation. The net effect is to portray them as the casual, confident observers of a chaotic man who is safely restricted and encapsulated into a box.

  

However, in two of the final shots of the scene, the camera pushes past the police and ends on a medium close-up of Sarah, portraying her as deviating emotionally from the confident group. This is cut with a shot of the TV that pushes past its borders into a closeup of Kyle’s face. This undermines the sense of safety and containment established by the previous shots in the scene, and shows how Sarah still feels that she may be in danger, despite the police’s confidence. A nice touch to the end of the scene is Sarah’s background: the chaotic spiderweb of lines from the map gives a sense of how Sarah feels fractured as to whether Kyle is a friend or a threat.

 

8. The framing and lighting of the Terminator during the car chases

  

Static compositions of the Terminator accented with pulses of red light are used as it searches for Kyle and Sarah. This is crucial in the visual portrayal of Terminator as a brutally efficient hunter and killer. The audience needs to feel that as long as it exists it will methodically pursue and ultimately destroy its target. If it was something they could simply run away and hide indefinitely from, it would undermine the entire film.  That’s what these shots accomplish: the Terminator’s static shots are contrasted with frantic shots of Kyle and Sarah, which shows, by contrast, the Terminator’s complete calm and methodology in his search. The pulsing red light comes in perfect intervals, and gives a sense of its merciless, unrelenting precision (side-note: for a character that only has sixteen lines in the entire film, we come to understand him quite well, and the way he is photographed plays a large part in this).

 

7. Long lens shots of the Terminator in the final scene

  

  

As the Terminator pursues Kyle and Sarah through the factory, it is repeatedly shown in extremely long lens medium close-ups and close-ups. Kyle and Sarah’s reverse shots, by contrast, were photographed on much wider lenses. The sense we get from these long lens close-ups is one of detachment. These shots visually isolate the Terminator and separate it from the surrounding environment. In doing this, we understand its unrelenting fixation on a singular goal: the destruction of Sarah Connor. We understand in this final scene that its existence is defined purely by its programmed objective, and the complete disengagement from its surroundings.

 

6. The final image of the film

  

At the end of the film, an old man tells Sarah that “there’s a storm coming,” and she replies, “I know.” Besides the obvious metaphor of storm-as-apocalyptic future, this final image of the film is actually a direct callback to the opening image of the film. The ominous clouds are reminiscent of the blue darkness of the opening shot, and the arms of the Joshua trees splay out in all directions like the curved organic shapes of the destroyed landscape of the future. Again, this a good example of Cameron’s “just enough”: it’s just enough of a reference to the opening image that you understand and feel it, but not so much that it’s overbearing self-aware cleverness takes you out of the film.

 

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Also, opinions as to what is superior: scene deconstruction posts, or top 10 posts? Regardless, stay tuned for the final five cinematography gems from “The Terminator.”

 


The Cinematography of “The Terminator”: Part 1

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Photographed by Adam Greenberg, ASC and directed by James Cameron, “The Terminator” is a film that employs a bare minimum of exposition and lets the visual storytelling do the heavy lifting in orienting the audience to where the movie is going. It’s a masterpiece of plant and payoff, in terms of both story points and visual design. From the first shot and moving forward, the images are constantly referencing each other by contrast and affinity, making us understand a great deal without literal exposition. The photography in the opening scenes of “The Terminator” is especially effective: the images immediately establish the theme of the film as well as several key character and story points, all without any dialogue or direct explanation. The sequence of images in these scenes show the oppressive power of the machines over anything that stands in their way. The use of visual affinity also immediately identifies Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character as one of these machines, although the audience hasn’t even been introduced to the concept of a Terminator yet.

You can watch the sequence below (password is ‘cinevenger’):

Mechanical Domination from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

 

The opening shot establishes a key visual motif that carries through the rest of the film (really, this film and the rest of the “Terminator” films that come after it): the contrast of sleek mechanical lines to softer organic shapes. The epoch of this motif comes later in the film when we see the cold metal of the Terminator’s metal skeleton underneath the tattered flesh that has been ripped off part of his face. However, here we see this motif introduced in a much more subtle way: the contrast of the sleek shapes of the swiftly moving airship with the stationary, twisted organic shapes of the ruins give us a sense of the death of anything biological, and the vitality of the machines.

Throughout the entire scene, the monochromatic blue tones and low values reinforce this idea of biological death: by creating a world that contrasts in every way with the images that we associate most strongly with nature. We associate the vibrant, saturated spectrum of greens and browns with natural growth, so this world is steely blue and monochromatic. We associate sunlight with nature, so this world is shrouded in darkness. From the first image of this film, we understand that the future is a place where nature and humanity have been oppressed.

 

 

In the second shot of the sequence, the tank treads advance towards the camera, filling the frame, and compositionally obstructing out all of the other elements. This again reinforces the idea of the domination of the mechanical over the biological.

To state the obvious: the intellectual understanding we gain from seeing skulls crushed under a giant mechanical tread is crucial in the storytelling as well. However, it’s the compositional touch involved in this shot that elevates it from being “good” to “great”: it’s not merely a shot skulls being crushed by a machine, it’s a shot of skulls being crushed by a machine that advances towards the camera and asserts itself to become the lone compositional element.

 

 

In a medium shot of a tank, the bright searchlight engulfing the image give us a sense of the machines overwhelming power. An important aspect of this shot (and this scene as a whole) is that the shots are taken strictly from ground level. The camera is always looking up in helplessness at the machines, firmly placing the storytelling from the perspective of the human resistance who are fighting the machines from the ground. It also gives the sense of the ineffectiveness of this resistance.

 

 

The visual storytelling doesn’t stop for the title sequence… we immedately associate the sleek metallic lettering with the machines we have just seen in the first scene. By being close on the letters and not being able to see their borders, we are being shown that the power of the machines is so expansive that it is unable to be constricted or bound into the frame. The cross-motion of the hard geometric shapes is reminiscent of of slicing or cutting, which gives a sense of the precision and deadliness of the machines. Finally, the smooth, regular motion of the moving words shows the consistency and persistence of the machines (an idea which pays off most fully in the final scene of the film, as the machine will not stop advancing on Sarah Connor despite its almost complete destruction).

 

 

A low angle shot on the advancing mechanical spikes of the garbage truck draws an immediate comparison to the low angle shots of the machines that we saw in the previous scene. By showing this otherwise banal, harmless machine in such an intimidating low angle, with its utility spikes aggressively advancing towards us, we get a sense that machines will not only be dangerous in the future, but also in the present. This is an important visual clue for the audience, as the depiction of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character as a dangerous killing machine is something that we understand immediately from the visuals, far before we are given the official exposition later in the film from Kyle Reese. The bight, glaring reflections off the utility spikes as they violently impale the dumpster are a nice touch, as they are reminiscent of both the searchlight penetrating the lens in the previous scene, as well as the harsh reflections off the lettering in the title sequence. This motif of bright specular reflections off metallic surfaces that penetrate the lens with their glare is something that carries through all the “Terminator” films, and is particularly effective in giving the audience a sense of the deadly pervasion of the machines.

 

 

In a medium shot of the truck driver, the machinery casts an alternating shadow pattern over his face that is reminiscent of the patterns left by the searchlights in the previous scene. It again supports the idea that the machines are a source of oppressive power in the present as well as the future.

 

 

In a wide shot of the just-arrived Terminator*, he is set in silhouette with a bright edge-light, creating a sleek edge around him that looks almost metallic, effectively drawing an affinity between him and the machines seen in the first scene (as well as the metallic lettering of the title sequence).

*I refer to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character as “the Terminator” starting here, but it’s important to again remember that from an audience perspective, we are still being drawn into this world, and haven’t yet been introduced to the concept of a Terminator… the visual storytelling is doing all the work in giving the audience the necessary clues that this guy is a murderous cyborg and a villain, but at this point, it’s still just an intriguing trail of crumbs that don’t completely play out and reveal themselves until the end of the first act.

 

 

A low angle medium shot combined with a slow, smooth push-in, gives us a sense of the power and control of the Terminator, which in turn lets us know that he knows why he is here and has a plan. The towering machinery in the background of the Terminator draws another affinity between him and the machines, and also reinforces the sense of his power. (side-note: I’m not going to get too deep into this particular aspect right now, but there is a particularly effective contrast between the photography of the arrival of the Terminator and the subsequent arrival of Kyle Reese).

 

 

Finally, a crane shot that rises to end with a wide composition depicts the Terminator in the foreground juxtaposed against the city. This reinforces the sense that he is a force working in opposition to humanity. The city is literally laid out in front of him, and camera rises in anticipation, as if he is about to dive in. This solidifies the idea that he has arrived for a very specific purpose and is about to plunge into the city to accomplish it.

 

If there’s one through-line to the opening five minutes of “The Terminator,” it’s consistency. Every frame works to draw an affinity between the oppressive machines of the future and the Terminator, undermining his superficially human appearance. There are a few shots (such as the wide of the truck engulfed in lightning and the close-up on the Terminators face) that hammer home the exact same visual contrasts and affinities already made in previous shots, so I chose to omit my commentary about them to maintain a semblance of brevity.

More on “The Terminator” to come. If you enjoyed this analysis or want to add to the commentary, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it! (There are buttons at the bottom).

The Cinematography of “The Matrix”: Part 3 of 3

The Matrix: Slitscan

The Color Palette of “The Matrix”

I’ve been mostly looking at specific scenes from this film on a shot-by-shot basis, but there also are many visual storytelling choices made in this film that carry all the way through. Most notably, the color palette: most everyone seems to recall the sickly greens used inside the Matrix, contrasted with the stark blues for the “real world.” It’s worth noting that this color palette works on a multitude of levels. First, as a basic device to make sure the audience isn’t confused. In a movie where some scenes cut back and forth dozens of times between characters inside the Matrix and characters in the “real world,” there absolutely needs to be an understood signal to clearly place the audience. Secondly, the color palette works on an emotional level. By setting up Neo’s normal existence as a sickly green, we understand the freshness that the real world offers. However, the color palette is also about the comfort of ignorance in the Matrix versus the adversity of the real world. In a scene where Cypher covertly meets with Agent Smith in restaurant with a relatively comfortable feeling orange/green duotone color scheme, we completely understand why he wants to buy his way back into the Matrix. Furthermore, when we cut to the following scene in the harsh blues of the real world, we wonder if the rest of them wouldn’t also be better off living a blissful ignorance in the Matrix as well.

 

Even within the green/orange color palette, there are a lot of variations. The strongest is the contrast between the desaturated, monochromatic greens of the office, versus the later, more saturated scenes. This seems to mirror Neo’s story of mastering his life: the affinity of tones between the environment and his skin in the office scenes shows the way in which he is an ingrained and controlled part of that system. Likewise, the contrast between his skin tones and the environment later in the film show how he has broken free of that control and now has some power over his surroundings, as well as his life.

At the end of the film, as Neo enters his new life as The One, there is a departure from the previous blue vs. orange/green color scheme, and we see a relatively neutral color palette (it still has some green in it, but it’s understated, and the highlights are a lot warmer). This seems to be the final note in the story of Neo becoming the master of his own life: he has transcended the oppression of the Matrix and the stark realities of the outside world, and created a new life:

Another technique that I have been using to look at color palette and progression is called a “slitscan.” When actually watching a film, it can be difficult to notice shifting color palettes, especially if they are subtly woven into the fabric of the movie. One can get caught up in the story and not see the “forest from the trees,” so to speak. I made a script to take a Quicktime movie file and sample it once every two seconds, and print out those frames in order. It reads right to left, top to bottom, like a book (click for larger version, may take a second to load):

I didn’t invent this technique. I ripped it off a guy named Frederic Brodbeck, who has a site called Cinemetrics where he demos this technique as well as a few others. (Also, for the record, I’m not even sure if he invented it in the first place either). I did, however, write my own custom Nuke (plus Photoshop) script that generates the slit-scan (email me if you’d like the .nk file to play around with; intermediate Nuke skills recommended). It can also be used to generate some pretty interesting artwork (which Frederic sells on his site as well).

Looking at “The Matrix” slit-scan, I’m not sure whether or not it tells us anything about the movie that wasn’t already apparent from watching it in a normal, linear fashion (I would be very interested in hearing others thoughts on this. Also, side note: the slitscans for movies like “Black Hawk Down,” which I will be looking at in the future, are much more revealing.)

A final note about color: a lot has been written lately about the orange highlight/teal shadows color scheme (filmmaker Stu Maschwitz comments frequently about about this phenomenon as well). This look, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, uses complementary color scheme to contrast the warmth of human skin tones with teal (or, sometimes more blue or green) shadows. The end result is that the skin tones “pop” right off the screen, and the overall look of the “world” seems vivid and graphic. A photochemical finish (instead of todays digital intermediate) prevented “The Matrix” from having a full blown orange/teal color scheme similar to very recent films, but it seems to be an early prototype for one, and is arguably one of the seminal films that introduced this palette for worldwide consumption. (Which is ironic because “The Matrix” actually accomplishes much of it’s color palette via production design, whereas with todays digital tools, major color palette adjustments are often an afterthought). Since then, orange/teal had a roller-coaster ride of popularity, going from a powerful, interesting storytelling tool, to an abused “go to” default look for any action, horror, or thriller picture, and finally ending up so ingrained in our visual grammar that it is now frequently used as a visual que to signal to a viewer that a action/thriller/horror movie is being parodied.

 

Another “Macro” Visual Choice

Another “macro” storytelling decision used throughout the entire film is the selective use of lens length. In general, the Matrix is photographed with wider lenses, while the “real world” is photographed with longer lenses. This is about showing the characters in the Matrix within the context of their oppressive environment, versus the selective focus of the longer lenses in the “real world” showing the characters as existing in their own right and not as as being defined by the world around them. This is done with enough subtlety that it isn’t something that can be really pinned down a shot-by-shot comparison. It’s more of a cumulative average of lens length for the different worlds over the entire film that creates this feeling.

 

Final Notes

For additional reading about “The Matrix,” I suggest checking out  several articles online from the American Cinematographer April ’99 issue. The Matrix [Blu-ray] has some awesome commentaries. Also, a behind-the-scenes documentary (I found it on Amazon on-demand) called “The Matrix Revisited,” is a legitimate feature length look at the production. Finally, I did a breakdown of the story structure of “The Matrix” for my own internal use, which may be of interest.

I will be back soon with more scene deconstruction, this time from the “Terminator” movies. As always, if you enjoyed this article or have any thoughts, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it! (There are buttons below).

The Cinematography of “The Matrix”: Part 2 of 3

Matrix-C1

In this scene from the Matrix, Neo’s normal life is disrupted by an unexpected call from Morpheus, who informs him that the authorities are there to arrest him. Morpheus helps Neo escape the office, and directs him to a ledge where he can climb some scaffolding to safety. However, Neo gives up, and is then arrested.

You can watch the scene below: (password is ‘cinevenger’):

 

Boxed In from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

The progression of beats in this scene is depicted primarily through linear motif. Neo is shown as being boxed into his environment, and then led through the “rat maze” to a potential exit, but remains trapped and gives up. The scene opens with a dolly shot from behind a wall that takes us into Neo’s cubicle (‘A‘). Starting behind a wall and peeling it back to reveal the cubicle shows how Neo is encased in his environment. Once the camera settles, the “bite” of wall on the right creates a sub-frame (a rectangle) within the full frame. Within that frame, all of the production design is exclusively cubes. So, it’s essentially cubes within cubes within the biggest cube (the frame). (Also, side note: it may be easy to dismiss the rectangular container of the frame as always existing, but as filmmakers, we regularly take steps to make it vanish, the most famous instance probably being the Star Destroyer passing overhead in “Star Wars”). All of this cube business is about showing us how Neo’s “normal” existence is constricting and limiting, i.e. “boxed in.” This is directly related to his emotional journey of the entire film, which is his need to become the master of his own life (i.e. “break out of the box,” which is first depicted as the office, then the Matrix itself, and finally, his own mind: at the end of the film, Neo’s transcendence of the physical limitations that his mind places on the Matrix becomes the ultimate box-breakout).

The first disruption to this linear motif happens when the phone rings, and we cut to a low angle rack focus shot from Neo’s face to the phone (‘C‘). The vertical and horizontal lines of the cube motif have been rotated (and thereby replaced) with aggressive diagonals in Neo’s background, which signal the phone as a disruptive force to his “normal” existence. The extreme low angle reinforces the same idea; the previous shots, all angles of relatively “normal” height, are disrupted by this new extreme low angle. Finally, this is also reinforced by the rack focus; the world was previously portrayed as being completely flat: ‘A‘ and ‘B‘ are devoid of depth cues. The rack focus, a visual depth cue, shows us how the phone could lead to a new depth that disrupts the normalcy of Neo’s life.

A jarringly fast dolly shot from the previously seen medium composition (‘B‘) to a new composition (‘D‘) introduces an element of danger into Neo’s “normal” existance. The speed of the dolly move gives us a sense of the immediacy that Morpheus’ call has brought into this normally mundane environment. Moreover, the camera comes to rest in a new composition that includes a large area of darkness on the left of frame. This cavernous black area (in contrast to the previously low contrast image) shows the surreptitious and dangerous nature of Morpheus’ call.

At this point in the scene, from a geography perspective, we have only seen the inside of Neo’s cubicle. The next composition (‘E‘) introduces the idea of the office as a rat maze, which is critical to the rest of the scene. Specifically, the way in which the environment cuts off the bodes of the agents, and only allows us to see their heads through several more layers of environment and background characters, gives us a sense of the physical obstacles separating the two. This may seem obvious and intuitive, but it’s a very specific and effective choice made by the filmmakers. If the agents had been shown full body, without any obstacles between them and the camera, we would have gotten the sense that the agents could just run over and easily grab Neo. This would have undermined the tension of the next several shots, where Morpheus guides Neo to temporary safety as the agents wind through the maze.

A low angle dolly shot of the agents approach (‘F‘) again turns the previous horizontals and verticals of the office into aggressive diagonals, giving us a new sense of danger in the previously mundane environment. In this low angle, looking up at the domineering agents, they seem to forcibly push the camera backwards, which gives us a sense of their power, danger, and momentum. This is in total contrast to a new high angle on Neo (‘G‘), which pins him into the office space, portraying him as trapped. Note that this angle too has abandoned the previous horizontals in favor of more aggressive diagonals. These two angles are working in unison–the danger and momentum of the shot of approaching agents, contrasted with the hopelessly stationary high angle of Neo pinned in the office. This not only works to illustrate the peril Neo is in, but also to make us “buy” that he feels absolutely compelled to go along with Morpheus’ instructions, despite that what Morpehus is telling him to do is “insane,” by his own admission later in the scene.

In a medium close-up of Neo (‘H‘) we see a much contrastier image than we have seen so far in this scene, which again serves to signal danger, and the tonal shift from mundane office environment to a place of danger. This angle pans over to reveal a medium shot of two agents that leave opposite sides of the frame (‘J‘). This is significant in that it builds tension in a very elementary way: when Neo gets up to continue his attempt at escape, he will inevitably have to exit screen right or left, and because we have now seen these agents leave opposite sides of the frame, we understand that no matter which way Neo goes, there will be danger. Also, the way in which the agents are shown compositionally as mirror images of each other (spaced evenly in the frame, and exiting frame simultaneously) gives a sense of their robotic, artificial nature (even though this idea hasn’t been directly or literally told to the audience yet).

When Neo makes it to the office, the prior beat of “escape through a dangerous rat maze” evaporates. The diagonal lines and kinetic camera moves are replaced with the previous cube motif, and the the previous feeling of being trapped returns. When Neo enters the office, we see a medium shot of him (‘K‘) which pans from the door, to the window, back to the door, and then follows him as he walks to the window. As part of this long panning shot, we again see Neo boxed in by cubic shapes, specifically in ‘L‘, which shows him inside a box drawn by the lines of the architecture, with even more cubes in his background.  Also, holding with him in this shot and allowing us to experience his assessment of the entire room without cutting away heightens the sense of being trapped. This is an idea that has been explored before, notably in the film “Irreversable” in which the viewer witnesses an atrocious assault for over eight minutes of uninterrupted shot. The idea is that cutting away is a form of escape, so forcing us watch a character struggle to break away from their environment without cutting can heighten the sense of being confined or restrained. We get a little bit of that in ‘K‘ and ‘L‘, but also in a subsequent shot ‘M‘, which booms up from a closeup of Neo to the street below (‘N‘). We also get a similar feeling from another closeup of Neo (‘P‘) that booms up to an overhead wide of the street (‘Q‘). By moving the camera from Neo to the street instead of cutting, we get a stronger sense of his imprisonment, and his inability to “cut away” from his cage. Also significant about this angle is the return of the aggressive diagonal linear motif in signaling elements of danger.

The linear motif of this scene, horizontals vs. diagonals and placing Neo within cubes, is actually introduced in the previous scene, and continues in the suqsequnet scene, so I would suggest viewing those as well if you haven’t seen this movie in a while.

In final entry about “The Matrix” I will be looking at the color palette which spans the entire film.

As always, if you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it! (There are buttons at the bottom).

 

Matrix angle 'A'

'A'

 

Matrix angle 'B'

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Matrix angle 'C'

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Matrix angle 'D'

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Matrix angle 'E'

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Matrix angle 'F'

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Matrix angle 'G'

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Matrix angle 'H'

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Matrix angle 'J'

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Matrix angle 'K'

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Matrix angle 'L'

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Matrix angle 'M'

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Matrix angle 'N'

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Matrix angle 'P'

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Matrix angle 'Q'

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The Cinematography of “The Matrix” – Part 1 of 3

Matrix-J

The Matrix,” (1999, photographed by Bill Pope, ASC) is probably best known for its amazing action sequences, groundbreaking photographic technique (specifically, “bullet-time“), as well as visual effects cinematography. However, some of the overlooked gems in this film are simple, well-shot, two character scenes.

One of the most effective is a scene ten minutes into the film. Neo, who has been lead to a club by a cryptic message from a hacker accessing his computer, tries to play it cool and act as if he isn’t completely clueless as to what’s going on. Trinity cuts right through his front, turns the tables, invades his personal space, and in answering some of his questions, raises even more. She then leaves him with another cryptic message about the Matrix: “it’s looking for you, and it will find you.” You can watch the scene below:

PASSWORD is ‘cinevenger’:


Space Invasion from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

There are a number of dramatic beats, and the photography is right there for every one of them; a perfect visual depiction of exactly what’s going on in the scene. Below is my shot-by-shot analysis. A still of each one of the shots I reference is also at the bottom:

The first shot, a lateral dolly move from behind pillars that intermittently reveals the club (‘A‘) is significant in that it sets the tone for the entire scene. Dollying behind the silhouetted pillars creates a pattern of images of visual excitement (exotic dancing and flashing lights), broken up by intermittent total darkness across the whole image. This is a visual metaphor for Neo’s emotional state: limited (yet exciting) information about the Matrix interspersed by aspects that he is in the dark about.  Our eye clings to the last frame of the exotic dancers as they disappear behind the pillar just as Neo is clinging to any exciting shred of information about the Matrix that he can, before it is shrouded by more cryptic messages.

We arrive with Neo in a dolly move that pushes past a foreground image of a hand caressing a leather-clad backside (‘B‘). By pushing the camera past this element and isolating Neo in the frame, we understand visually that he has separated himself from the carnival revelry of the club, and is there in seriousness about finding out more about the Matrix.  Another aspect to this shot is the background of the club seen through the archway, which is encased in its own compositional sub-frame by the architecture. Neo stands off to the side of this sub-frame, further isolating him compositionally from the revelry. In this shot we have both the foreground and background working (without words) to tell is exactly how Neo feels about being in the club, and why he is there.

When Trinity approaches, we see Neo in a medium close-up (‘C‘) followed by a medium (‘D‘), that are dismissive profile shots (which feel completely natural because of the blocking decision to have him partially keep his back to her). This is in contrast to Trinity’s medium close-up (‘E‘), which is on-axis with her eyeline. These shots are about the dramatic beat of Neo trying to “play it cool.” He doesn’t want to appear overly eager for information about the Matrix even though he has actually come here in desperation for any detail that will bring him closer to understanding what it is. This is in total contrast to Trinity’s on-axis medium close-up (‘E‘), which reveals her entire face, and gives the sense of confidence and being straightforward. This is further reinforced by the lighting on their faces: a three-quarter backlight leaves much of Neo’s face in silhouette, while a front-light wraps almost completely around Trinity’s face, again contrasting Neo’s keeping-it-cool dismissiveness with Trinity’s sincerity. Another aspect to this is the height of the camera. On Neo’s side, the medium shot (‘D‘) is angled substantially below his eyeline, in contrast to being level on Trinity on her side. This again reinforces the same idea: by being below Neo’s eyeline, he towers over and takes on a more dominant feeling; a counterfeit confidence that will be reversed by the end of the scene. A final interesting aspect to this is the pulsing light (motivated by the club environment) that flickers intermittently over Trinity’s face, alternately casting her face in darkness and brightness.  This arouses the same visual feeling as the opening shot of the scene: Neo grasping for information (in this case, from her) that is intermittently shrouded by crypticism and mystery.

Trinity calls Neo’s dismissive bluff by telling him that he is in danger, and steps into a close-up (‘F‘). In the visual struggle between Neo’s dismissive profile and her on-axis boldness, she has upped the ante by challenging his emotional bluff with her confrontational and engaging close-up.

Neo engages, momentarily, and we see him in an on-axis close-up as well (‘G‘).  However, when he then continues to resist, Trinity takes it one step further, and invades Neo’s space, both literally and compositionally. By doing this, Trinity has turned the tables of Neo’s earlier posturing and dismissiveness, and has essentially taken power in the scene and caught Neo off guard. The previously “clean” singles on both sides, giving a sense of emotional non-engagement, are now totally engaged. We see Trinity in a medium close-up (‘H‘), with overlapping faces, that seems to compositionally pin Neo against the wall, showing how she has called his bluff, and now has him in her clutches. These new compositions also cross the 180 degree line from the earlier set of shots (before Neo was left-to-right compositionally, and he is how right-to-left, vice-versa for Trinity).  This forced axis-switching by Trinity further reinforces the change of power in the scene.

In this new axis-switched medium close-up (‘H‘), we see less of Trinity’s face (both in terms of being in profile, as well as darkness) than Neo (‘J‘), who is now more on-axis with the camera and is lit brighter. In a nice touch, we get a sense of Neo’s disorientation by a series of randomly swarming blue out of focus lights in the background of his medium close up (again, ‘J‘). The randomness of this circular pattern of light is reminiscent of the floating stars that would be shown over a knocked-out cartoon characters head, and gives Neo a similar sense of disorientation.

This is a simple, short, dramatic two character scene in the midst of huge action movie that was photographed very carefully and very effectively. In part 2 of 3 , I will be looking at the interesting use of geometry in the scene immediately following this one.

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Matrix angle 'A'

'A'

 

Matrix angle 'B'

'B'

 

Matrix angle 'C'

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Matrix angle 'D'

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Matrix angle 'E'

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Matrix angle 'F'

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Matrix angle 'G'

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Matrix angle 'H'

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Matrix angle 'J'

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The Cinematography of “Thor”: Photographing Sacrifice

Thor_Sacrifice_D

In this scene, which occurs at the end of the second act, Thor decides to offer his life to his brother (Loki) in an attempt to save his friends from the Destroyer:

(Password is ‘CINEVENGER’ …all caps) 

Sacrifice from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

I included screencaps of all of the significant angles at the bottom of the post. However, there are several reaction shots (for Jane, Erik, and Sif) that I didn’t include in the list of “significant” angles. I want to note that although these angles aren’t significant in terms of specific visual meaning created through a camera angle or lighting, they are some of the most important angles dramatically in the scene.  Watching Thor’s friends reactions to Thor sacrificing himself has much more emotional impact than simply watching Thor sacrifice himself.

A great deal of the photography of this scene employs the film-school-cliché (yet still true) idea of photographing power by the height of the camera relative to the character… i.e. a higher angle on a character implies their inferiority, and a lower angle implies their dominance. However, there is another dimension in this scene, which is not photographing a static power relationship so much as photographing Thor’s relinquishment of power. Not coincidentally, this is related directly to Thor’s character arc for the entire film: learning to shed his arrogance and be humble despite his godly powers. This scene is the culmination of his dramatic arc, and the photography is about the ultimate act of humility and sacrifice.

At the beginning of the scene, as Thor makes the decision to sacrifice himself, we see him in a medium shot (‘A‘), shortsighted* against the side of the frame, showing that his efforts have been stonewalled and he has now been forced into desperate actions.

 *sidebar: shortsighting in composition, as defined by myself (I couldn’t find an official definition, even with the help of Google) is when a distance from the characters eyes to the edge of frame is minimal… i.e. their face is smashed up against the side of the frame, giving them the psychological sense of being pigeonholed or restricted. This is the opposite of giving them ‘leading room’, which is a normal/unaffected compositional choice that involves making the space between the characters eyes and edge of frame the majority of compositional space rather than the minority.

There is also an interesting element to the background in ‘A‘: the environment is at a tilted angle, but much of the production design is straight horizontals.  Throughout the entire film, the use of diagonal angles in composition has been a recurring theme. This would be a totally different analysis (which I may explore in the near future), but one could conclude that the use of diagonal (“dutched”) angles in the film are about the righteous world (horizontal, balanced compositions which give a sense of order and stable footing) versus the corrupted world (diagonal/dutched angles and imbalanced compositions which give the sense that something is wrong). So, in this film, if Asgard is the ultimate representation of righteousness, and Jotunheim is the ultimate corruption, then this composition in angle ‘A‘ (and, arguably, the entire scene) is a collision of these two black and white ideas, making the point that in the real world (Earth), there are elements of both righteousness and corruption, and that when these two forces collide, complicated, messy, grey-area things can happen, like a former demi-god sacrificing himself to appease his corrupt brother in hopes of saving his mortal friends.

We then see a slow motion shot of Thor’s shield hitting the ground (‘B‘). The value in this shot is more about the direct symbolism of his actions, but the slow motion accentuates the beat and shows us that he isn’t casually throwing down the shield to launch another attack, but rather as an admission of defeat. This may seem obvious, but it’s fundamental to the storytelling.  We understand visually from the first few shots of this scene that Thor intends to sacrifice himself, even though it isn’t made crystal clear by the dialogue until a minute later.  So, it was critical that these first few shots of the scene to visually depict the emotional beat, otherwise the scene would have been massively convoluted.

The shot of Thor walking out to the Destroyer with his friends in the background (‘D‘) nails it home. The visual separation of Thor stepping in front of his out-of-focus friends shows that he is emerging from the group in order to sacrifice himself to save them.

The transference of power in this scene is shown by the progression of several sets of angles.  The first extreme wide shot we see is a slowly rising ground-level angle of Thor approaching the Destroyer (‘C‘).  Subsequent extreme wides (‘E‘ and ‘G‘) are shown from much higher angles.  This progression from a street-level angle on the scene to “gods’eye” overhead angles frames the showdown in a grater context: Thor and the Destroyer aren’t meeting for a pedestrian encounter, but rather one that will have much farther reaching ramifications (all the way up to Asgard).

The first angle we see of Loki is a high angle which is slowly booming down (‘H‘), followed by low angles ‘L‘ and ‘P‘, portraying Loki as increasingly dominant by progressing from higher to lower angles over the course of the scene, and showing (one half of the) transference of power from Thor to Loki .

Likewise, the shots of the Destroyer, from a straight-on medium close-up (‘J‘) to a low angle medium close-up (‘M‘), also show the transference of power by becoming progressively lower in angle. These shots also depict the Destroyer as compositionally stronger than Thor by showing it in a relatively immobile center-punched composition in contrast to Thor’s shortsighted composition in his medium close-up (‘F‘).  We also get the same sense from an extreme wide low angle shot of the Destroyer towering over Thor (‘K‘). The increasingly lower angles on Loki and the Destroyer and increasingly high angles on Thor culminate with a directly overhead medium shot on Thor (‘N‘), the apex to this progression (the most severely high angle possible), and the final portrayal of his sacrifice.

At the end of the scene, we return to an extreme wide shot (‘Q‘), at a ground-level angle, with Thor’s crumpled body in the foreground. This return to a pedestrian angle (a resolution of the previous high/low angle progression of the scene) lets us know that the sacrifice is complete, which leads us (really, tricks us) into believing that Thor is dead.

Thor angle 'A'

'A'

Thor angle 'B'

'B'

Thor angle 'C'

'C'

Thor angle 'D'

'D'

Thor angle 'E'

'E'

Thor angle 'F'

'F'

Thor angle 'G'

'G'

Thor angle 'H'

'H'

Thor angle 'J'

'J'

Thor angle 'K'

'K'

Thor angle 'L'

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Thor angle 'M'

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Thor angle 'N'

'N'

Thor angle 'P'

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Thor angle 'Q'

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The Cinematography of “Thor”: Deconstructing Thor’s banishment scene

Thor_CastOut_R

In this scene, Thor directly defies his father. As punishment, he is thrown out of Asgard.  Despite being a short scene, there is an abundance of storytelling packed into a large collection of angles and lighting changes.  You can watch a video of the scene below.

Note: after doing some research, it looks like the only way to have an embedded movie clip without getting a DMCA takedown is to have it password protected on Vimeo. The password is ‘CINEVENGER‘ (all caps).

 

 

Also, I’ve screencapped the total collection of significant angles in the scene.  I’ve labelled them ‘A’ to ‘R’ for reference and posted them all at the bottom of the post for maximum RSS compatibility (the attached galleries only work on the website).

Here are my notes about the scene:

There is a lighting effect that plays throughout the entire scene: golden light pulsates on and off from all directions, sometimes casting the characters faces into darkness.  This volatility to the light contrasts with the previously stable, pristine, and bright light of Asgard, and shows us that Thor’s actions have sent the world into turmoil (more on the overall color palette and lighting of the film in the next “Thor” post).

When the scene opens, we see Odin in an on-axis medium shot (‘C‘) cut with Thor in a medium profile (‘B‘). Seeing Thor only in profile shows us Thors defiance and insubordination towards his father.

The first three angles of the scene (‘A‘, ‘B‘, and ‘C‘, of Loki, Thor, and Odin), all have similar backgrounds featuring the textured golden surface of Asgard.  When Odin decides to cast out Thor, we cut to a new shot of him (‘D‘, and later, ‘F‘), in which has an almost completely black void behind him, illustrating his feelings of desolation on being cast out.

Odin opening the Bifrost is shown from a directly overhead angle (‘G‘), a ‘gods eye” view, showing that Odin’s actions aren’t the more casual fireworks that we have seen previously, but rather all-powerful work that can’t be easily shrugged off or undone.

Odin approaches Thor and we see a pair of matching medium close-ups (‘H‘ and ‘J‘).  The contrast of these much tighter, on-axis, and intense angles with the wider and more off-axis angles earlier in the scene (‘B‘ and ‘C‘), signal a major beat change:  Thor is no longer audaciously and theatrically defying his father, but rather, a line has been crossed: it has become personal and the reprecussions have become real.

When Odin accuses Thor of being unworthy of the “loved ones that you have betrayed,” we see a medium wide shot of Loki positioned compositionally between Thor and Odin (‘K‘). This portrays Loki as essentially an innocent bystander caught in the conflict between Thor and Odin (an idea which will be undermined by the final shot of the scene… more on that below).

When the Bifrost has been opened, and Thor fully realizes what is about to happen, we see him in a medium close-up with a giant blue vortex behind him, taking up his entire background (‘N‘), and showing the storm of conflicted emotions that has completely overcome him.

After Thor has been thrown through the vortex, we see a left-to-right dolly move on a extreme closeup of Odin (‘Q‘) as he whispers the words to enchant Thor’s hammer.  The camera swings around the hammer as if in orbit of it, and gives a sense of its gravity and importance (the subsequent immobility of the hammer becomes a major story point later in the film).

Finally, at the end of the scene, the camera dollys over and shows us Loki framed next to the vortex (‘R‘).  Loki has essentially been an observer and non-participant for the entire scene. So, this move, which connects Loki psychologically to Thor’s banishment, casts suspicion on Loki, and serves as foreshadowing for his character throughout the rest of the film.

 

 

Thor angle 'A'

'A'

Thor angle 'B'

'B'

Thor angle 'C'

'C'

Thor angle 'D'

'D'

Thor angle 'E'

'E'

Thor angle 'F'

'F'

Thor angle 'G'

'G'

Thor angle 'H'

'H'

Thor angle 'J'

'J'

Thor angle 'K'

'K'

Thor angle 'L'

'L'

Thor angle 'M'

'M'

Thor angle 'N'

'N'

Thor angle 'P'

'P'

Thor angle 'Q'

'Q'

Thor angle 'R'

'R'

© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.