The Cinematography of “Sunshine” – Part 2


Part 2: Photographing the sun as divinity

(Part 1 can be found here)

The two largest and most powerful visual motifs in “Sunshine” aren’t difficult to identify: warm hues and circles. They come across so poignant in the film that most people could probably name them having just seen the DVD cover art (in that sense, the film is extremely high-concept). However, these simple surface motifs are really just a framework for a much larger system of visual meaning constructed in the film. The best place to start looking is the opening shot:

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

Divine Witness I from Cinevenger on Vimeo. (password = ‘cinevenger’)



The opening shot is really a visual summary of the entire film:

The camera dollies in so close that even the texture of the sun can be seen, which at the last moment is revealed to be only a reflection on the surface of the ship, conceding that the filmmakers have deceived the audience. This is a visual metaphor for the central dramatic idea of straining to behold the true image of god. The photography of the film deliberately draws the audiences attention to the fact that they were tricked into seeing a false image of the sun, which sets a precedent for judging the validity or purity of all of the sunlight experiences in the film (including the following scene, where Searle in overwhelmed by viewing the sun at a mere 3% of its total power). This also informs the final sequence of the film, where Capa escapes the corrupted Pinbacker and has a true, unfiltered and unlimited experience (the next and final “Sunshine” entry will be completely devoted to this).

Secondly, once the camera has dollied around the Icarus II, the final composition of the opening shot sets up the entire visual architecture of the film: a feeble circle of darkness (humanity) daring to approach a gigantic glowing orb of the sun (god). As the silhouetted orb of the ship pulls away from the camera and becomes enveloped in the larger orb of the sun, we get the sense that humanity could be swallowed or destroyed by its divine power.

This sets the visual context for the entire film by establishing key motifs: the contrast of warm light and total darkness as representative of god and humanity. This established context informs the following scene immensely:

(again, password is ‘cinevenger’):

Divine Witness II from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

Shown previously in tighter shots, the crew is now seen in a wide shot that encapsulates all of them. Arranging them as compositional equals in a wide shot creates visual affinity, and lets the audience now view them as a unified group, not a quarreling crew. This sets the stage for the following shots:


A push in past a wide shot of the crew and onto the sun gives a sense of being drawn in to something larger and more important than their group.

In a close-up of Mercury engulfed in the mass of the Sun, the camera shakes as it holds Mercury in composition, almost as if seen through a microscope, enlarged so much that micro-vibrations seem like earthquakes. This makes it seem as if we are viewing a minuscule dot floating through a colossal mass. The extreme wide further emasculates Mercury by being so expansive that it seems like a small pebble in a vast sea. The juxtaposition of the diminutive size of Mercury to the enormous sun is a callback to the opening image of the film: a small silhouette engulfed in the overwhelming power of divinity. Moreover, these images of Mercury are really a metaphor for the entire crews relationship with the sun: a sense of community fostered through mutual humility in the presence of something astoundingly powerful.


A rack focus shot between Harvey and Capa (who had previously been quarreling) connects them in the same frame and shows how their differences have been transcended by a shared awe in the presence of divinity. A subsequent dolly shot that roves over every member of the crew similarly connects them as a group. Again, the net effect of these communal frames is to show the characters in fellowship and mutual awe at something larger and more powerful than themselves.


Finally, a slow dissolve from the sun to a close up of Harvey encased in a synthetic green light seems to pollute the image of the sun, and undercuts the purity of the previous scene. This introduces the idea of the disparity between a true divine experience, and one distorted or corrupted. This pays off later with the visual introduction of Pinbacker (again, covered in the final ‘Sunshine’ entry).


Color Palette

In order to draw maximum contrast between divinity and humanity, warm hues are associated exclusively with the sun, and a cooler palette with the crew and their technology, i.e. the sun is the only warm (and always the most powerful) light source in the film. The entire color palette is introduced right in the first scene of the film, as Searle’s divine experience is framed within the context of the technology that allows him to have the experience:

Unlike many films, the filmmakers were extremely aware on both an emotional and intellectual level of exactly what they were trying to accomplish with the color palette. Besides the warm/cool metaphor for divinity/humanity, there was also an entire format contrast of spherical and anamorphic lenses for exterior, sunlit shots versus interior shots. In a rare occurrence in an American Cinematographer article, the filmmakers give thoughtful discourse to how their technical choices mapped on to their creative intentions (typically interviews in American Cinematographer have an almost complete emphasis on the physical and technical challenges of the production, while mentioning creative intent and challenges in a summarized and superficial manner, most likely because the filmmakers ‘felt’ their way to many of their creative choices, and can’t verbally articulate many of those decisions). In this case, Kuchler and Boyle explain their intentions with the color palette and format selection to a depth that makes further elaboration here almost irrelevant.

One of the things the slitscan reveals is the extent of the extreme value contrast across the film: the darkest scenes are almost pitch black, and the brightest scenes are almost completely white. In the American Cinematographer article, Boyle talks about using the darker scenes as a primer for the audience to experience the maximum potency of the brighter ones, and enable them experience the sun as the characters do. The slitscan reveals exactly how extreme those contrasts were.

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!

10 Cinematography Gems from “The Terminator”


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.”


The Cinematography of “The Matrix”: Part 3 of 3

The Matrix: Slitscan

The Color Palette of “The Matrix”

I’ve been mostly looking at specific scenes from this film on a shot-by-shot basis, but there also are many visual storytelling choices made in this film that carry all the way through. Most notably, the color palette: most everyone seems to recall the sickly greens used inside the Matrix, contrasted with the stark blues for the “real world.” It’s worth noting that this color palette works on a multitude of levels. First, as a basic device to make sure the audience isn’t confused. In a movie where some scenes cut back and forth dozens of times between characters inside the Matrix and characters in the “real world,” there absolutely needs to be an understood signal to clearly place the audience. Secondly, the color palette works on an emotional level. By setting up Neo’s normal existence as a sickly green, we understand the freshness that the real world offers. However, the color palette is also about the comfort of ignorance in the Matrix versus the adversity of the real world. In a scene where Cypher covertly meets with Agent Smith in restaurant with a relatively comfortable feeling orange/green duotone color scheme, we completely understand why he wants to buy his way back into the Matrix. Furthermore, when we cut to the following scene in the harsh blues of the real world, we wonder if the rest of them wouldn’t also be better off living a blissful ignorance in the Matrix as well.


Even within the green/orange color palette, there are a lot of variations. The strongest is the contrast between the desaturated, monochromatic greens of the office, versus the later, more saturated scenes. This seems to mirror Neo’s story of mastering his life: the affinity of tones between the environment and his skin in the office scenes shows the way in which he is an ingrained and controlled part of that system. Likewise, the contrast between his skin tones and the environment later in the film show how he has broken free of that control and now has some power over his surroundings, as well as his life.

At the end of the film, as Neo enters his new life as The One, there is a departure from the previous blue vs. orange/green color scheme, and we see a relatively neutral color palette (it still has some green in it, but it’s understated, and the highlights are a lot warmer). This seems to be the final note in the story of Neo becoming the master of his own life: he has transcended the oppression of the Matrix and the stark realities of the outside world, and created a new life:

Another technique that I have been using to look at color palette and progression is called a “slitscan.” When actually watching a film, it can be difficult to notice shifting color palettes, especially if they are subtly woven into the fabric of the movie. One can get caught up in the story and not see the “forest from the trees,” so to speak. I made a script to take a Quicktime movie file and sample it once every two seconds, and print out those frames in order. It reads right to left, top to bottom, like a book (click for larger version, may take a second to load):

I didn’t invent this technique. I ripped it off a guy named Frederic Brodbeck, who has a site called Cinemetrics where he demos this technique as well as a few others. (Also, for the record, I’m not even sure if he invented it in the first place either). I did, however, write my own custom Nuke (plus Photoshop) script that generates the slit-scan (email me if you’d like the .nk file to play around with; intermediate Nuke skills recommended). It can also be used to generate some pretty interesting artwork (which Frederic sells on his site as well).

Looking at “The Matrix” slit-scan, I’m not sure whether or not it tells us anything about the movie that wasn’t already apparent from watching it in a normal, linear fashion (I would be very interested in hearing others thoughts on this. Also, side note: the slitscans for movies like “Black Hawk Down,” which I will be looking at in the future, are much more revealing.)

A final note about color: a lot has been written lately about the orange highlight/teal shadows color scheme (filmmaker Stu Maschwitz comments frequently about about this phenomenon as well). This look, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, uses complementary color scheme to contrast the warmth of human skin tones with teal (or, sometimes more blue or green) shadows. The end result is that the skin tones “pop” right off the screen, and the overall look of the “world” seems vivid and graphic. A photochemical finish (instead of todays digital intermediate) prevented “The Matrix” from having a full blown orange/teal color scheme similar to very recent films, but it seems to be an early prototype for one, and is arguably one of the seminal films that introduced this palette for worldwide consumption. (Which is ironic because “The Matrix” actually accomplishes much of it’s color palette via production design, whereas with todays digital tools, major color palette adjustments are often an afterthought). Since then, orange/teal had a roller-coaster ride of popularity, going from a powerful, interesting storytelling tool, to an abused “go to” default look for any action, horror, or thriller picture, and finally ending up so ingrained in our visual grammar that it is now frequently used as a visual que to signal to a viewer that a action/thriller/horror movie is being parodied.


Another “Macro” Visual Choice

Another “macro” storytelling decision used throughout the entire film is the selective use of lens length. In general, the Matrix is photographed with wider lenses, while the “real world” is photographed with longer lenses. This is about showing the characters in the Matrix within the context of their oppressive environment, versus the selective focus of the longer lenses in the “real world” showing the characters as existing in their own right and not as as being defined by the world around them. This is done with enough subtlety that it isn’t something that can be really pinned down a shot-by-shot comparison. It’s more of a cumulative average of lens length for the different worlds over the entire film that creates this feeling.


Final Notes

For additional reading about “The Matrix,” I suggest checking out  several articles online from the American Cinematographer April ’99 issue. The Matrix [Blu-ray] has some awesome commentaries. Also, a behind-the-scenes documentary (I found it on Amazon on-demand) called “The Matrix Revisited,” is a legitimate feature length look at the production. Finally, I did a breakdown of the story structure of “The Matrix” for my own internal use, which may be of interest.

I will be back soon with more scene deconstruction, this time from the “Terminator” movies. As always, if you enjoyed this article or have any thoughts, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it! (There are buttons below).

The Cinematography of “Logan’s Run,” Part 3 of 3


V. “Logan’s Run” cinematography gem #3:  use of extreme wide shots combined with color palette as a storytelling device

In showing Logan and Jessica discovering a full spectrum of human emotion, an effort is made visually to create an affinity between them and the natural environment.  This is done in two ways:  first, by presenting extreme wide shots that almost completely envelop the characters.  The wide open vistas shown nearly swallowing up the characters give a sense of the depth and breadth of new emotions and human experience that they are able to discover now that they are unrestricted by the constructs of the city:




Also, the affinity in tone between the environment and the skin tones and wardrobe of the characters is used to great effect to make them seem like they naturally belong together.  Jessica’s previously unnatural neon-green wardrobe seems to have been aged to be more complimentary to the tones of the environment:



VI. Reference Material

Logan’s Run [Blu-ray] - Unfortunately, the Blu-Ray apparently comes from the same transfer that was used to create the DVD.  This film is dying to be remastered…  there are lots of dirt and scratches on the heavy VFX shots that could be easily cleaned up today.  Special features include commentary with Michael York and director Michael Anderson, as well as a ‘Making of’ featurette.

American Cinematographer, June 1976 – This issue is sold out on, but can be found on eBay.  If you are interested in the now completely lost art of optical visual effects compositing (I personally am not), this is a must-read.  Much is said in this issue about the physical production and about how the effects were achieved, but nothing is said about creating meaning with the visuals, which is obviously what I was hunting for.

A Series of Essays on Logan’s Run by Ken Sanes from Transparency Now -  In this series of essays, Mr. Sanes looks at Logan’s Run from the perspective of 1. Story, 2. Society, 3. Psychology, 4. Myth, and 5. Human emotional development.  Although these essays are dense with meaning, most of it is equated to the story and the symbolism, as opposed to specific visuals.  However, these essays create a lush framework from which to begin to analyze the visuals of the film.

The Cinematography of “Logan’s Run,” Part 1 of 3


I. Overview

Released in 1976, and photographed by Ernest Laszlo, ASC, “Logan’s Run” isn’t a film that you might think to look at for its cinematography. In fact, after watching it several times in the course of writing this, I would argue that it isn’t a particularly strong piece of visual storytelling. Many of the moments that should have emotionally resonating visuals simply fall short of what they are meant to accomplish. However, the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 1976 (as well as one other nomination for Art Direction and a win for Visual Effects). It has persisted in peoples minds since its inception, spawning a TV series, and a yet unmade sequel. It’s also available on Blu-Ray, which is something that is still only relegated to films that have at least some kind of following. So, it seems as if there is something worth digging into.  My primary reasons for researching this film were twofold: first, to figure out why it was nominated for an Academy Award in 1976 for Best Cinematography, and second, to figure out what about this film works visually despite my previous claim that it’s not strong visual storytelling.

As it turns out, answering the first question was easy. Perusing the June 1976 issue of American Cinematographer, which is almost completely dedicated to Logan’s Run, reveals that the film was in fact a technical marvel of its time. Specifically, the holograms of Logan’s head which appear at the end of the film were done as completely practical elements, although many of the impressive effects shots were done optically, such as the shots of ruined Washington D.C, as well as the ‘Carrousel’ effect.

Answering the second question is much more difficult. However, I found several cinematography gems in this film which I will share below.


II. Story and Plot Structure

At its core, “Logan’s Run” is the story of a man struggling to experience a full spectrum of human emotion.

I did a separate post about the plot structure of Logan’s Run, which is much more interesting from a screenwriting perspective than from a cinematography perspective.

III. “Logan’s Run” cinematography gem #1:  color palette as an effective storytelling device

This is probably the strongest aspect of visual storytelling in the film. It’s a combined effort of production design, wardrobe, and lighting that tells a very specific emotional story.

The city’s color palette is extremely limited: an array of very specific, homogenous, and unnatural (neon) looking greens and reds set against a setting of desaturated walls and architecture. This sets up a very strong contrast with the exteriors, which have a natural palette of greens, browns, and blues:





The color palette mirrors Logan’s story of emotional development and discovery. The city’s restrictive and unnatural color palette reflects the limited and shallow emotions of its inhabitants, which contrasts with the full range of natural colors in the exterior. Outside the constraints of the city, the full range of previously unseen natural colors depicts the potential for a wide array of undiscovered fundamental human emotions for Logan. By the conclusion of the second act, he is able to develop emotionally and discover love for the first time with Jessica.

There is an added level of impact to this which was probably not entirely an intentional act of the filmmakers: the contrast of heavily “lit” interiors to naturally lit exteriors. The interiors of the city were shot in a Dallas mall which was used essentially as a stage, and was lit very heavily with many sources of hard light, as was typical during this time period, as simply getting enough light to expose the slow (100 ASA) film on a large interior set was a challenge. So, by todays standards, the interiors look very theatrical and “lit”. This contrasts with the exteriors, which are lit by natural light, and adds an extra level of contrast between the synthetic interiors and organic exteriors.

This works to an extent, but fails in several key areas. Most notably, the shot of Logan and Jessica seeing the sun for the first time (which should arguably be one of the most natural feeling shots in the telling of the visual story of natural vs. unnatural) falls flat on its face… this is actually one of the most unnatural looking shots in the entire film, as it is an optical composite shot that has unrealistic color and value matching between the foreground and background elements:



Another (although less dramatic) failure of the psychological effect of unnatural stage lighting vs. natural exteriors is the interiors of the Congress building. Ideally these should contrast with the lighting of the city interiors, but the filmmakers are back shooting on a stage, and they don’t quite look natural enough to compliment their daytime exterior counterparts.

An additional level to the story told through color palette is texture: the contrast of the complexity of the natural texture of the vines and foliage of the exterior to the simplistic hard geometry of the city.  The contrast of the old man’s wrinkled skin to the sheer beauty of the twentysomethings of the city.

In the final sequence of the film, Logan returns to the city to attempt to expose the inhabitants to the textured and liberating world he has found outside. This results in a literal clash of the two worlds: as the city implodes, the masses are forced out of the city to the outside where they encounter the scruffy old man. We understand implicitly that their society has now been propelled into this new frontier, just as Logan has.



(In the next Logan’s Run post, I will look at composition, camera movement, and lighting in the scene where Logan is given the order to find Sanctuary) 

© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.