March 2012

10 Cinematography Gems from “The Terminator”


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


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).

© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.