April 2012

The Cinematography of “Sunshine” – Part 1


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


10 Cinematography Gems from “The Terminator” – Part 2


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

5. Mechanical motif




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

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

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

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


4. Silhouette as characterization

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


3. The Eye Cutting Scene


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

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

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


2. The color palette: red

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

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

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


1. The Color Palette: Blue and Orange hues

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


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



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


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


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


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

© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.