The Cinematography of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ – Part 2

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This article follows Part 1 of The Cinematography of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, which explored the first in three scenes that tell the story of the relationship between Lisbeth Salander and Nils Bjurman. Here, I skip ahead to the final of the three scenes, as it’s possibly the most visually interesting of the trio:

 

(password is ‘cinevenger’):

Space Invasion III from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

  

After she enters the apartment, Lisbeth is shown in close-up with Bjurman out of focus in the background. Depicting Bjurman defocused and small in Lisbeth’s background gives the sense that she is no longer intimidated by him, and that he isn’t even her main concern (on a second viewing of the scene, it becomes clear that she is in fact more concerned with checking the house for other occupants than by Bjurman himself).

When Lisbeth turns and the lens racks to Bjurman, the juxtaposition of sizes is maintained. The inclusion of the entirety of the large black nebulous void created by the back of Lisbeth’s hooded head in such close graphical proximity to Bjurman makes her seem ambiguously threatening.

Opening the scene this way is also particularly meaningful when contrasted to the first scene between these two characters, which used a similar juxtaposition of size and focus to portray Lisbeth’s disconnect and relative helplessness.

 

An overhead wide shot looking straight down on a collapsed Bjurman is piece of classic film grammar: the camera looms over him from dominating heights and shows his subjugation. But, it’s more than that: center-punching Bjurman and showing the entire room in symmetrical, straight-on geometry gives a sense of order and meticulousness to the entire incident: it wasn’t a frantic or frenzied attack, but rather something precise and structured.

 

In a medium close-up of Blomkvist, a bright flare stretches across the frame like a beacon, giving the sense of exploration and discovery. In a film characterized by its dark and controlled images, this flare momentarily breaks through the subdued palette and heralds a turning point in the film.

 

  

A set of shots of Blomkvist operating the computer are more than just inserts: as Blomkvist begins to realize the importance of a set of photos that he is viewing, the series of shots get progressively tighter and the depth of field decreases dramatically. Unimportant visual elements are progressively discarded to a sea of defocus, leaving only the most critical details in razor-thin depth-of-field, giving the sense that Blomkvist is honing in on something substantial.

 

  

The camera dollies in towards the bedroom door, following the mess of clothes and debris in the dark hallway towards the warm lamplight within. The camera move pulls the viewer out of the darkness and towards the entrance, as if inviting them to creep into a space now seen as secure and safe.

Also notable is the contrast between this shot and a shot in the second Lisbeth/Bjurman scene (which was not covered here). In this shot (second image above), the camera looks up at the intimidating doorway and dollies away, as if trying to escape the horrors inside. The two shots, examined as a pair, show the transformation of the space from something abhorrent to pacified.

 

  

In two medium shots, a blown-out lamp dominates the entire image, reaching across the frame with a scalding flare and creating a razor-sharp specular reflection off Bjurman’s exposed flesh. The light seems to envelop Bjurman like a glowing fireball, showing  his raw vulnerability to this vicious situation.

Also notable is the connection between the previous scene of Blomkvist’s discovery and this scene, via the use of flare as motif. The conjoining idea seems to be one of catharsis and progress: in both scenes, the flare punches through the image, both leading Blomkvist to a critical break in the case, and ushering in Lisbeth’s vengeance and the resolution to her entanglements with Bjurman.

 

  

In the reverse angle, Lisbeth is shown in a low angle: a classic film grammar expression for their newly re-calibrated power dynamic. Also notable is the unbalanced and aggressive diagonal angles of the background, centered on Lisbeth, giving the sense of both her antagonism and potential lack of mental stability.

 

  

As Bjurman is forced to watch a video of his crimes, a new set of angles is introduced: Bjurman’s body stretches symmetrically over the entire frame of these center-punched shots, showing his imminent compulsion to view this new and devastating evidence.

 

In a wide shot, a bright doorway draws graphic attention away from Lisbeth, who sits partially obscured by foreground elements and in relative darkness on the opposite side of the frame. This shift of graphic focus away from Lisbeth gives a sense of her emotional retreat from the pain caused by the video.

 

Lisbeth’s arms float across the foreground and effortlessly obscure a graphically minuscule Bjurman, giving a sense of her new-found ability to forcibly manipulate him.

 

  

With a beat change in the scene, a new set of high angles is introduced. These shots extend visual ideas previously introduced in the scene to new extremes: Lisbeth’s large ominous silhouette obscures a relatively inconsequential Bjurman, portraying her as a powerful sinister force able to monopolize and manipulate.

 

A medium shot of Bjurman in takes previous ideas to new extremes as a way of displaying the extent of Lisbeth’s new power to dominate Bjurman. In this shot, Lisbeth’s silhouette does more than obscure Bjurman… it cuts him in half graphically, cementing the idea of Lisbeth’s power to shatter him.

 

Lisbeth is then shown in a medium close-up, her physical proximity to the wide-angle lens distorting and enlarging her face. This warped intimacy gives a sense of how Lisbeth has maliciously insinuated herself into the circumstances of Bjurman’s daily life. She will always be there, hovering over him, watching.

 

A dolly-out from the doorway bookends the scene. It deliberately mirrors the previous dolly-in, this time leaving the room behind, and giving a sense of finalization and closure to the Lisbeth / Bjurman relationship.

 

Next time, I will start examining some of the Academy Award nominated films from last year.  For now, did anyone anything else of visual interest in these scenes? What’s your interpretation of the hallway dolly shots that bookend the scene?

The Cinematography of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ – Part 1

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Directed by David Fincher and photographed by Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ marked the duo’s third collaboration, following ‘Fight Club’ and ‘The Social Network.’ The film offers a wealth of cinematography gems to inspect, but one of the most interesting occurs at the beginning of the film. Below is the first of three scenes that if examined independently, play out within the film as their own three act arc dramatizing the relationship between Lisbeth Salander and Nils Bjurman:

 

(password is ‘cinevenger’):

Space Invasion II from Cinevenger on Vimeo. (password is ‘cinevenger’).

 

The scene opens with a dolly shot emerging from inside a tunnel. The camera slowly creeps out of the darkness, giving the sense of a predator emerging from its lair, and setting the tone for the following scene.

 

A dolly shot moves backwards down the hall, tracking Lisbeth. The center-punched and symmetrical composition, combined with the camera retreating backwards with her movement, show Lisbeth’s confidence and control.

 

As Lisbeth peers into Bjurman’s office, the darkness on either side of the frame (specifically the large silhouette directly on axis with Lisbeth’s eyeline),  give the sense of peering into an ominous cave. We are given a hint that despite her initial confidence, Lisbeth may be the prey in the predatory relationship hinted at in the establishing shot.

 

  

  

The beginning of the scene falls into relatively normalized “coverage.” Falling into expected coverage in this case is itself a storytelling device: it’s giving the sense that Lisbeth and Bjurman’s relationship, though tenuous, is still within the expected parameters. The geometric symmetry of the background of Bjurman’s medium wide shot also lends itself to this sense of structure. Another nice touch is the inclusion of the family photo in the foreground of Lisbeth’s medium close shot, advancing the sense of normalization by visually correlating Lisbeth with Bjurman’s own presumably affable relationships, suggesting that the same kinship could be extended to her.

 

The first indicator of a change in the relationship is subtle: in a cut returning back to Lisbeth’s medium wide shot, Bjurman, who previously only had a very small defocused “bite” of his shoulder in Lisbeth’s composition, now takes up a full half of the frame. The increase in Bjurman’s graphic weight and encroachment into Lisbeth’s compositional space gives the sense of him breaking past the boundaries of their previously ‘normalized’ relationship. Also now obscured is the family photo, smothering the previous feelings of potential kinship.

 

  

When Bjurman stands to cross the desk to Lisbeth, the camera pans with his midsection, refusing to tilt up to his face, visually depicting his purely corporeal ambitions.

 

In the reverse angle, as Bjurman approaches Lisbeth, his silhouetted form engulfs her, introducing a new sense of voraciousness and hinting that their relationship has morphed into something menacing.

 

  

  

A new set of angles is introduced, redefining the relationship with classic film grammar: lofty and domineering low angles of Bjurman peering down at a helpless Lisbeth, shown in an oppressive high angle. We see a medium close-up of Bjurman on this axis, but we don’t get a close angle on Lisbeth, showing Bjurman’s presence and involvement in the scene contrasted against Lisbeth’s relative disconnect. This disconnect is further reinforced by the fourth angle shown above, showing Lisbeth composed in profile.  By not seeing straight into her eyes, as with Bjurman, we don’t get a sense that she is in any way engaged in his domination of her. This is further reinforced by the other angles of her throughout this portion of the scene:

 

A close-up focused on the back of Lisbeth’s head with Bjurman out of focus in the background gives the sense that her attention is not on him, but rather herself. She has completely disconnected from the situation.

Lisbeth’s earring (a shape reminiscent of her dragon tattoo), is featured prominently in the frame, and gives a clue that her focus is already on vengeance (an equation to be taken at face value for now… the film’s symbolic equation of the dragon to vengeance is something which perhaps requires its own analysis) . This is an idea that comes full circle by the end of the scene (and is explored below).

 

In this wide, low-angle shot, Bjurman is shown center-punched, with the perspective lines from the cabinets and photos all converging on him.  This supreme focus of compositional and graphic attention on Bjurman shows that this act is one of pure egomaniacal self-aggrandization for him. The added obstruction of Lisbeth by the chair in the foreground minimizes her graphic presence in the frame, and furthers the idea that for Bjurman, Lisbeth is just an unimportant object in the theater of his own self-centered pleasure.

Also interesting to note is that the final shots of the scene are exclusively subjective to Bjurman. His objectification of Lisbeth has gone to the extent that he has actually robbed her of her subjective point-of-view within the narrative. This is the complete reversal of the confident and authoritative Lisbeth seen in her own center-punched composition at the beginning of the scene.

 

In the final shot of the scene, Bjurman is shown in an overhead close-up, with Lisbeth and the rest of the room barely visible on the edges of the frame, giving the sense that he has ascended past the realm of the physical into a lofty, omnipotent place of his own. However, the upside-down composition twists this sense of loftiness into perversion.

 

  

In a subsequent scene, a high-angle dolly shot swoops in over Lisbeth and cranes over her head, settling into an inverted composition similar to the previous composition of Bjurman.  The camera movement seems magnetized to Lisbeth, giving the sense of a forced repossession of control. The final composition, mirroring Bjurman’s previous omnipotent composition, hints at Lisbeth’s own plans to force a reversal of her relationship with Bjurman.

 

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

 

The Cinematography of ‘Breaking Bad’ – Part 2 – Composition

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This follows ‘Part 1′ of my ‘Breaking Bad’ analysis, which focused on the lighting. 

MASTER SHOTS

“Breaking Bad” is rich in master shots that carry the burden of storytelling weight. This seems typical of television in that the master shots are often relied on to portray the character relationships, while the “coverage” is frequently more standardized and does less in the way of storytelling. I’ve selected some of the master shots that were particularly powerful:
 
 

 
 
In the scene immediately preceding this one, The Cousins waited for Walt in his bedroom while he showered, intent on killing him when he emerged. Mike contacts Gus to call off the Cousins, leading Walt to unknowingly avoid death, left only with a small clue of their presence by the mysterious displacement of the toy eyeball.

The main compositional feature in this image is the perspective lines created by the hallway which all converge on Walt standing in the doorway. These lines pointed at Walt from all sides give the sense that he has been targeted and is vulnerable.

Simultaneously, the contrast of value, from the bright room at the end of the hall, versus the dark shapes of the hallway, give the sense that Walt is surrounded by unknown dangers. This is accentuated by the contrast of size (created by the wideness of the lens, which disproportionately accentuates the size of close objects versus far objects). Walt is dwarfed by the dark shapes that surround him, making him seem trivial compared to the danger he faces.
 
 

 
 
In this scene, Walt and Gale are bonding at the end of their first day. Walt is simultaneously concerned about Gale’s origins, concerned that he may be training Gale as his own eventual replacement.

The symmetry of the composition, accentuated by the pair of matching blue tray stacks, draws a comparison between Walt and Gale, giving a sense of similarity between them. However, the other compositional elements seek to portray comparison negatively by visualizing Walt’s fears: the geometric silhouette that surrounds them constricts them to the center of the frame, tightly boxing them in, giving a sense of claustrophobia, and introducing the idea that the lab may not be big enough for the two of them. This is reinforced by the silhouette between them, which divides their similar backgrounds, seemingly putting them at odds with each other.
 
 
  


 
 
In this scene, Skyler, who has been cheating on Walt with Ted Beneke, is beginning to feel that her affair with Ted feels cold and artificial in contrast to her relationship with her family, despite her hostility towards Walt.

The shot starts with Skyler and Walt Jr. on one side, and then dollies over to the symmetric composition seen in the second image above. Walt then stands and removes Holly from a cradle, partially obscured by the pillar. The use of large column of negative space to divide Walt and Skyler compositionally in the frame is an easily evident way to show them at odds with each other. However, the shot goes deeper: in the initial composition, the negative space pushes Walt off to the side of the frame to accommodate the the larger piece occupied by Skyler and Walt Jr, giving a sense of Walt’s growing exclusion from his family.

Once Walt Jr. has exited, the camera dollies over and settles into a symmetric composition, brutally divided by negative space from the pillar, portraying Walt and Skyler now as even forces in the callous battle over their family. Skyler then asks Walt if he would like to take Holly. He then leans into the negative space and pulls the previously obscured Holly from the cradle. As Holly emerges from the negative space into Walt’s side of the frame gives the sense of movement from Skylers side to Walt’s: an olive branch extended from Skyler to Walt.
 
 

 
 
This is a shot I looked at last time from a purely lighting perspective, but it’s also working on a compositional level. In this scene, Walt is attempting to convince Skyler that they should take the money he’s made, put his criminal past behind them, and move forward with their lives together. In this composition, a bright hallway dominates the background of the shot, the distant converging perspective lines holding the potential of a withdrawal from the conflict of the foreground. The bag of money, the literal representation of Walt’s criminal acts, sits immobile, centered between both them and the hallway. The sum of these compositional elements gives the sense that Walt’s actions are an insurmountable obstacle to the two of them escaping the present and moving forward together.

ULTRA WIDE EXTERIOR SHOTS

  
 
 
In the previous article, I mentioned my belief that the wide exterior shots in ‘Breaking Bad’ were some of the most memorable images in the series. They work to portray the characters as minuscule relative to their environments, and to reveal the desolate expanse around them. This sense of isolation is used for very basic and straightforward storytelling purposes: In the first image above, the massive barren expanse dwarfs the RV, and informs the audience as to the extremes Walt and Jesse have gone to get away from civilization in order to safely perform their cook.

In the second image, part of a scene in which the Cousins execute an entire truck full of immigrants, the empty expanse fills the entire frame, revealing their extreme isolation, which in turn gives the audience a sense of helplessness as they realize that there’s no chance of outside observation or interference with the brutal and mechanical execution.

UNREALISTIC ANGLES

   

  
 
 
Another recurring feature are unrealistic angles that place the camera inside non-existent surfaces. Materials (such as the blood and other liquids seen above) interacting with this ‘impossible camera’ draw attention to the cameras presence, accomplishing a sense of surrealism. This seems to serve the tone of the show rather than a specific story goal. The shots draw attention to themselves and give an outlandish and fantastic feel to the series, adding a sprinkle of graphic imagery reminiscent of a comic book. This helps paint a world that could be plausibly inhabited by such super-villains as Gus and the Cousins. Another great contributor to this feel is the color palette, which I will examine on the next installment.

 
 

‘Breaking Bad’ is filled with great master shots, and with five seasons, it’s impossible to find all of them… maybe not even all of the best ones. If you know of an excellent master shot that deserves attention, please post post a link! One of the disadvantages of examining an entire television series is the ability to miss great gems.
 
 

© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.