The Cinematography of “Logan’s Run,” Part 3 of 3

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V. “Logan’s Run” cinematography gem #3:  use of extreme wide shots combined with color palette as a storytelling device

In showing Logan and Jessica discovering a full spectrum of human emotion, an effort is made visually to create an affinity between them and the natural environment.  This is done in two ways:  first, by presenting extreme wide shots that almost completely envelop the characters.  The wide open vistas shown nearly swallowing up the characters give a sense of the depth and breadth of new emotions and human experience that they are able to discover now that they are unrestricted by the constructs of the city:

 

  

 

Also, the affinity in tone between the environment and the skin tones and wardrobe of the characters is used to great effect to make them seem like they naturally belong together.  Jessica’s previously unnatural neon-green wardrobe seems to have been aged to be more complimentary to the tones of the environment:

 

 

VI. Reference Material

Logan’s Run [Blu-ray] - Unfortunately, the Blu-Ray apparently comes from the same transfer that was used to create the DVD.  This film is dying to be remastered…  there are lots of dirt and scratches on the heavy VFX shots that could be easily cleaned up today.  Special features include commentary with Michael York and director Michael Anderson, as well as a ‘Making of’ featurette.

American Cinematographer, June 1976 – This issue is sold out on asc.com, but can be found on eBay.  If you are interested in the now completely lost art of optical visual effects compositing (I personally am not), this is a must-read.  Much is said in this issue about the physical production and about how the effects were achieved, but nothing is said about creating meaning with the visuals, which is obviously what I was hunting for.

A Series of Essays on Logan’s Run by Ken Sanes from Transparency Now -  In this series of essays, Mr. Sanes looks at Logan’s Run from the perspective of 1. Story, 2. Society, 3. Psychology, 4. Myth, and 5. Human emotional development.  Although these essays are dense with meaning, most of it is equated to the story and the symbolism, as opposed to specific visuals.  However, these essays create a lush framework from which to begin to analyze the visuals of the film.

The Cinematography of “Logan’s Run,” Part 2 of 3

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IV. “Logan’s Run” cinematography gem #2:  composition, camera movement, and lighting during the “inciting incident” for Logan

The scene where Logan receives the orders from the city computer to find Sanctuary is probably the best photographed scene in the film.  When Logan enters the room, it’s business as usual… he is there to receive basic orders as he always does.  By the time he leaves,  his world is turned upside down.  Years have been taken off his life clock, and he has been forced into a mission that he doesn’t entirely understand, and certainly doesn’t want to perform.

In the opening of the scene, the room is lit high-key and feels comfortable.  The master shot is compositionally balanced, making Logan feel grounded and in control.  Compare this with the final shot of the scene, where Logan exits… the comfortable lighting has been replaced with a hard, contrasty light, and the angle is low and distorted, showing the newly twisted relationship between Logan and the mastermind computer that runs the city.  The super-saturated lights are framed above him, pushing him awkwardly low in the frame, and diminishing his power in favor of the machine.  There’s a nice touch at the end of the scene: after Logan leaves the frame, the camera pushes in on the red light above Logan’s head, seemingly pulled in and manipulated by the computer’s power the same way Logan has been.

 

    

 

Another subtle progression comes with the shots of Logan as he is given the mission by the computer.  The first closeup below accompanies the “comfortable” master prior to the new mission.  As Logan receives his orders, the camera dollys in from an ultra wide to a medium lose-up, the first of this type of dramatic push-in in the entire film, which shows how this unexpected order from the computer has forced an immediacy into his otherwise banal life. A few shots later, we see a new version of the close-up.  It’s tighter than the previous one, and it’s the closest we’ve been to him in the entire film.  The shallower depth-of-field and lower angle flattens him against the mechanical background, destroying the previous sense of comfort, and showing how he feels that he has been pushed into a corner and manipulated by the computer.  A pulsing red light (motivated by his now expiring life-clock implanted in his hand) adds an extra touch of disruption to the previously serene environment.

 

  

 

(In the final “Logan’s Run” installment, I will look at the use of extreme wide shots combined with color palette as a storytelling device)

The story structure of “Thor”

In looking at the Cinematography of ‘Thor,” I also broke down the story structure of the film to aid in understanding some of the cinematography decisions:

 

Act One

Sequence 1 (Will Thor be crowned King?)

The film opens with a teaser: Jane and Darcy (scientists), and Erik (their mentor) are out chasing storms, and hit a man who falls from the sky.   We are then shown exposition that introduces the war Asgard waged to stop the frost giants of Jotunheim, which culminated in Odin (the king of Asgard) taking the Casket, the giant’s source of power.  We also meet Loki and Thor, Odin’s sons.

We finally arrive in Asgard in present day. Thor kneels before Odin to receive the crown.  Just as the is about to be kinged, frost giant intruders attempt to steal the Casket.  Thor wants to “teach them a lesson,” and in response Odin tells Thor that he won’t yet be king.

 

Sequence 2 (Can Thor “teach the ice giants a lesson?”)

Thor decides (against his fathers explicit wishes) to march into Jotunheim with his friends Sif and the Warriors Three to confront the frost giants.  They talk their way past Heimdall (the gatekeeper) and are transported to Jotunheim (using the Bifrost, a transporter). They confront Laufey, the leader of the the ice giants, and after being taunted, start a brawl.  It culminates when Odin arrives to try to save the former truce, but Laufey says they have gone too far, and wants war. On returning to Asgard, as punishment for his arrogance, Thor is cast down to Earth by his father, made into a human, and separated from Mjolnir, his hammer, which Odin enchants to only be wielded by someone worthy.

 

Act Two (Can Thor get back to Asgard?)

Sequence 3 (Can Thor find some footing on Earth and form a plan to get back to Asgard?)

We rejoin Jane where we left off in the teaser at the beginning of the film. They hit Thor with their van and end up using a Taser on him when he acts aggressive. He is dropped off at the hospital where he attempts to escape and is again sedated. Mjolnir has landed elsewhere in the desert, and has gained notice by the local populace, as it is totally immobile.  S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson also takes notice. Loki discovers that he is in fact half frost giant, and Odin falls into a sleep after revealing this.  After picking up an escaped Thor, Jane and friends take him to a diner, and he overhears stories about his hammer in the desert.  He now knows that the first step to getting back to Asgard is to get Mjolnir back.

 

Sequence 4 (Can Thor get his hammer back?)

S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Coulson confiscate Jane’s equipment, citing a “security breach.”  Loki assumes the crown in Asgard in place of an incapacitated Odin.  Meanwhile, Jane takes Thor to the hammer crash site, which has been turned into a quarantine area by S.H.I.E.L.D.  Thor fights his way into the area but is unable to lift his hammer (he “isn’t worthy”).

 

Sequence 5 (Can Thor learn to accept his exile?)

Thor is captured by S.H.I.E.L.D. Loki visits Thor and lies to him, telling him that his father is dead, that he (Loki) is now king, and forbids Thor’s return.  Erik convinces Coulson to release Thor from the S.H.I.E.L.D. compound.  Thor understands and accepts his exile, and admits that he has no idea what to do now. He bonds with Erik over a night of drinking, and Jane over a campfire.  Meanwhile, Loki proposes to Laufey to kill Odin in exchange for the Casket.

 

Sequence 6 (Can Thor and friends defeat the Destroyer?)

Unable to defy Loki directly, Sif and the Warriors Three decide to go to Earth to help Thor return. Meanwhile, Loki freezes Heimdall and sends the Destroyer (a huge murderous golem) to Earth to kill Thor.  After a losing battle, in an act of selflessness, Thor offers his life to Loki to save Jane and his Asgardian friends.  As he lays dying, he is finally “worthy” of the hammer, which is summoned to him like a magnet, and defeats the Destroyer.  Heimdall unfreezes himself through force of will, and summons Thor back to Asgard.

 

Act Three

Sequence 7 (Can Thor stop Loki?)

Loki betrays and murders Laufey and then uses the Bifrost to begin destroying Jotunheim. We finally understand that his entire plot was meant to prove himself to his father. Thor confronts Loki, and manages to incapacitate him.  Left with no alternative, in a final act of self-sacrifice, Thor destroys the bridge, preventing the destruction of Jotunheim, but also separating himself from Jane.  Odin awakes and tries to save his sons from the destruction, but Loki allows himself to fall away.

 

Sequence 8 (Can Thor reconcile with his father?)

Thor admits to Odin that he still has a “lot to learn,” and that he is not ready to be king.  Meanwhile, back on Earth, Jane searches for a way to reopen the portal to Asgard.

 

 

The Cinematography of “Logan’s Run,” Part 1 of 3

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I. Overview

Released in 1976, and photographed by Ernest Laszlo, ASC, “Logan’s Run” isn’t a film that you might think to look at for its cinematography. In fact, after watching it several times in the course of writing this, I would argue that it isn’t a particularly strong piece of visual storytelling. Many of the moments that should have emotionally resonating visuals simply fall short of what they are meant to accomplish. However, the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1976 (as well as one other nomination for Art Direction and a win for Visual Effects). It has persisted in peoples minds since its inception, spawning a TV series, and a yet unmade sequel. It’s also available on Blu-Ray, which is something that is still only relegated to films that have at least some kind of following. So, it seems as if there is something worth digging into.  My primary reasons for researching this film were twofold: first, to figure out why it was nominated for an Academy Award in 1976 for Best Cinematography, and second, to figure out what about this film works visually despite my previous claim that it’s not strong visual storytelling.

As it turns out, answering the first question was easy. Perusing the June 1976 issue of American Cinematographer, which is almost completely dedicated to Logan’s Run, reveals that the film was in fact a technical marvel of its time. Specifically, the holograms of Logan’s head which appear at the end of the film were done as completely practical elements, although many of the impressive effects shots were done optically, such as the shots of ruined Washington D.C, as well as the ‘Carrousel’ effect.

Answering the second question is much more difficult. However, I found several cinematography gems in this film which I will share below.

 

II. Story and Plot Structure

At its core, “Logan’s Run” is the story of a man struggling to experience a full spectrum of human emotion.

I did a separate post about the plot structure of Logan’s Run, which is much more interesting from a screenwriting perspective than from a cinematography perspective.


III. “Logan’s Run” cinematography gem #1:  color palette as an effective storytelling device

This is probably the strongest aspect of visual storytelling in the film. It’s a combined effort of production design, wardrobe, and lighting that tells a very specific emotional story.

The city’s color palette is extremely limited: an array of very specific, homogenous, and unnatural (neon) looking greens and reds set against a setting of desaturated walls and architecture. This sets up a very strong contrast with the exteriors, which have a natural palette of greens, browns, and blues:

 

  

  

 

The color palette mirrors Logan’s story of emotional development and discovery. The city’s restrictive and unnatural color palette reflects the limited and shallow emotions of its inhabitants, which contrasts with the full range of natural colors in the exterior. Outside the constraints of the city, the full range of previously unseen natural colors depicts the potential for a wide array of undiscovered fundamental human emotions for Logan. By the conclusion of the second act, he is able to develop emotionally and discover love for the first time with Jessica.

There is an added level of impact to this which was probably not entirely an intentional act of the filmmakers: the contrast of heavily “lit” interiors to naturally lit exteriors. The interiors of the city were shot in a Dallas mall which was used essentially as a stage, and was lit very heavily with many sources of hard light, as was typical during this time period, as simply getting enough light to expose the slow (100 ASA) film on a large interior set was a challenge. So, by todays standards, the interiors look very theatrical and “lit”. This contrasts with the exteriors, which are lit by natural light, and adds an extra level of contrast between the synthetic interiors and organic exteriors.

This works to an extent, but fails in several key areas. Most notably, the shot of Logan and Jessica seeing the sun for the first time (which should arguably be one of the most natural feeling shots in the telling of the visual story of natural vs. unnatural) falls flat on its face… this is actually one of the most unnatural looking shots in the entire film, as it is an optical composite shot that has unrealistic color and value matching between the foreground and background elements:

 

 

Another (although less dramatic) failure of the psychological effect of unnatural stage lighting vs. natural exteriors is the interiors of the Congress building. Ideally these should contrast with the lighting of the city interiors, but the filmmakers are back shooting on a stage, and they don’t quite look natural enough to compliment their daytime exterior counterparts.

An additional level to the story told through color palette is texture: the contrast of the complexity of the natural texture of the vines and foliage of the exterior to the simplistic hard geometry of the city.  The contrast of the old man’s wrinkled skin to the sheer beauty of the twentysomethings of the city.

In the final sequence of the film, Logan returns to the city to attempt to expose the inhabitants to the textured and liberating world he has found outside. This results in a literal clash of the two worlds: as the city implodes, the masses are forced out of the city to the outside where they encounter the scruffy old man. We understand implicitly that their society has now been propelled into this new frontier, just as Logan has.

 

 

(In the next Logan’s Run post, I will look at composition, camera movement, and lighting in the scene where Logan is given the order to find Sanctuary) 

The story structure of “Logan’s Run”

I decided to break down the structure of “Logan’s Run” to help with understanding some of the cinematography decisions.  The third act is rather convoluted, and one could make the argument that it’s all actually one sequence.  However, this is what I took away from it:

 

First Act

Sequence 1:  We are introduced to the city and to “Carrousel,” where people who have reached the age of thirty burn up while trying to reach a crystal which will give them ‘renewal’.  Logan Five is a “Sandman,” who hunts down ‘runners’ fleeing from Carrousel.  He is partnered with his friend, Francis Seven.  They hunt down a runner, enjoying the whole process, and playfully taunting him before they kill him. (Dramatic question answered: “Will they kill the runner?”)

Sequence 2:  Logan relaxes at home, and brings up a sex-finder service where his partner magically appears.  After an awkward rejection of a man that pops up, Jessica Six appears.  She acts strangely, asking why it’s wrong to run, rejecting his advances, and displaying an odd ankh piece of jewelry.  Logan is intrigued with her.  Later, he goes to the Sandman HQ, and is given an unprecedented mission:  find “Sanctuary,” which is a place outside the city where runners have supposedly escaped to.  The computer also tells him to follow the ankh.   In order to pass as a runner,  Logan’s life-clock is set to terminal, despite the fact that he has several years left.  (This raises the main dramatic question of the second act:  ”Will Logan find Sanctuary?”)

 

Second Act

Sequence 3:  Logan, wanting his time back, does exactly what the computer asks of him, and asks Jessica (the “ankh”) to help him run.   Logan is alerted to a runner in an area called “the cathedral” and heads there with Jessica Six.  They encounter “cubs,” young misfits, who threaten them.  After scaring them off, they find the runner, and Logan sends her on her way in order to try to earn the trust of Jessica.  Unknown to Logan, Francis sees this.  Logan then heads with Jessica to “New You,” (a plastic surgery shop), to get a face change which will presumably aid him in running.  However, the doctor receives an order to kill Logan, and attacks him with his laser surgery device.  Logan kills the doctor, and then is confronted by Francis.  After a quick scuffle, Logan flees.  (Dramatic question answered: “Can Logan convince Jessica to help him run?”)

Sequence 4:  Francis chases Logan and Jessica through a sex club and finally down to the industrial underbelly of the city. They are stopped by a group of other runners, who consider killing Logan, but are ultimately convinced not to by the doctor’s assistant, who has followed them from the scuffle in “New You.”  (Dramatic question answered: “Can Logan and Jessica escape Francis and make it to the safety of the other runners?”).

Sequence 5:  Just as they find safety among the other runners, Francis and other Sandmen catch up with him, and a firefight breaks out.  Francis tells Logan that “we all go crazy sometimes,” and that if he gives up, all will be forgiven.  Logan rejects the offer, and flees the firefight with Jessica.  The chase resumes through the waterworks of the city.  Logan and Jessica finally ascend a lift to an ice cave, where they encounter Box, a robot who tries to kill them.  They escape and finally ascend to the outside, where they see the sun for the first time.  (Dramatic question answered: “Can Logan and Jessica get out of the city?)

Sequence 6:  Logan and Jessica struggle through the unfamiliar outdoors, and notice that their life-clocks have been deactivated and are now clear.  They arrive in a dilapidated Washington D.C. and encounter an old man inside the U.S. Capitol building.  They find out about the possibility of aging beyond thirty.  Francis catches up with them and takes Jessica hostage, forcing Logan to kill Francis.  They finally realize that there is no Sanctuary.  (Answering the dramatic question of the both the fifth sequence and the second act, “Will Logan and Jessica find Sanctuary?”)

 

Third Act

Sequence 7:  Logan and Jessica resolve to return to the city and reveal the truth (“You don’t have to die!”) to everyone else.  Logan and Jessica also decide to get pesudo-married, a totally foreign concept to their emotionally limited culture, but something that now seems natural to them.  They arrive in the city and attempt to disrupt Carrousel by preaching the truth, but are apprehended by Sandmen.  (answering the dramatic question: “Can Logan and Jessica convince the city dwellers of the truth by engaging them directly?”)

Sequence 8:  Logan is interrogated by the machine that runs the city, but destroys it when he tells it that there is no Sanctuary.  The city implodes, and the horde of fleeing residents stumbles upon the old man and finally begin to understand the truth about aging and about Carrousel.  (Dramatic question of both the third act and final sequence answered:  ”Can Logan and Jessica enlighten the city dwellers?”).

 

 

Welcome to Cinevenger

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There is an unfortunate trend today in popular discourse on the internet related to cinematography:  an undue amount of attention is placed on the technology of filmmaking, while almost none is placed on storytelling.  I can find thousands of forum and blog posts related to such banal debates as “Red vs. Alexa,” or “AF100 vs. F3,” or “CF lenses vs ZF,” yet I can’t find a single post titled “why the visuals of Hugo resonate with me emotionally.”  Look at any well-shot scene in a film, and there is a dense amount of meaning and emotion being created by the placement of the camera, the collection of angles which evolves over the course of the scene, the direction of light, the foreground, the background, the movement of lack of movement of the camera, what we see and don’t see, lightness and darkness, and all of these millions of variables which the filmmakers control… sometimes consciously, and sometimes by the unconscious photography of the story by channeling emotion from the page or from the magnitude of the performance that is happening in front of the lens.  This is what matters.  Not the frequency of line sampling in the latest CMOS chip.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t talk about technology, but it seems that the frequency of discourse is completely out of proportion.  What little is written in popular discourse about visual storytelling is often full of generalities and lacks precise language that ties meaning and emotion to very specific decisions made by the filmmakers and rendered on screen.  My goal is to look at films, specifically very recent ones or older obscure ones, to analyze the visual storytelling techniques they employ.  Many older films, specifically classics like the films of Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, etc, have had libraries written about them, but it seems like nobody is discussing the cinematography of contemporary films in a meaningful way.  This is what I set out to do here.  Welcome to Cinevenger.

© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.