The Cinematography of “Thor”: Photographing Sacrifice

Thor_Sacrifice_D

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

(Password is ‘CINEVENGER’ …all caps) 

Sacrifice from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thor angle 'A'

'A'

Thor angle 'B'

'B'

Thor angle 'C'

'C'

Thor angle 'D'

'D'

Thor angle 'E'

'E'

Thor angle 'F'

'F'

Thor angle 'G'

'G'

Thor angle 'H'

'H'

Thor angle 'J'

'J'

Thor angle 'K'

'K'

Thor angle 'L'

'L'

Thor angle 'M'

'M'

Thor angle 'N'

'N'

Thor angle 'P'

'P'

Thor angle 'Q'

'Q'

© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.