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.”