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’):
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’):
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).
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!