“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’:
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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