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February 2012

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

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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.

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Matrix angle 'A'

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Matrix angle 'B'

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Matrix angle 'C'

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Matrix angle 'D'

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

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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'

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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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The Cinematography of “Thor”: Photographing Sacrifice

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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'

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Thor angle 'B'

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Thor angle 'C'

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Thor angle 'D'

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Thor angle 'E'

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Thor angle 'F'

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Thor angle 'G'

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Thor angle 'H'

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Thor angle 'J'

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Thor angle 'K'

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Thor angle 'L'

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

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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'

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Thor angle 'B'

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Thor angle 'C'

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Thor angle 'D'

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Thor angle 'E'

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Thor angle 'F'

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Thor angle 'G'

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Thor angle 'H'

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Thor angle 'J'

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Thor angle 'K'

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Thor angle 'L'

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Thor angle 'M'

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Thor angle 'N'

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Thor angle 'P'

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Thor angle 'Q'

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Thor angle 'R'

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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) 

© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.