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 “Punch Drunk Love”

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I have been busy working on “Husbands,” but finally finished the analysis of a film that has been on my list for a long time:

“Punch Drunk Love” (2002, directed by P.T. Anderson and photographed by Robert Elswit, ASC) is a case where every aspect of the filmmaking is calibrated to tell the same story. A substantial amount has been written about the visual design of this film, especially since many of the techniques are unsubtle and very easy to isolate and identify (principally the extremely limited color palette of the costume and production design).

Most of the analysis I read didn’t go very deep into the camera and lighting decisions, which is what I will attempt to do here. However, these decisions don’t exist in a vacuum (i.e. many of the compositional choices are firmly interlinked with production design ones), so the analysis can’t be totally exclusive.

Here’s the opening sequence of the film, which runs up to the opening credits:

(password is ‘cinevenger’):

Hiding in a Cave from Cinevenger on Vimeo. (password = ‘cinevenger’)

 

  

The first shot of the film goes to great lengths to characterize Barry Egan. Showing him in an extreme wide shot in wardrobe that matches the color of the background gives the sense that he is comfortable receding into the environment, camouflaging himself in order to not stand out. This is an immediate hint at his anti-social personality.

Shortsighting Barry in the corner of the room gives the sense that he lives a confined and restrained life. The deep shadows on the top and right of frame contribute to this by constricting the frame even more, which also equates the idea of Barry’s comfort zone as a cave-like prison that he has constructed for himself.

As Barry crosses frame, the camera pans with him and enters a completely black void, which is finally perforated by the door opening. It’s as if Barry has left one world, travelled through infinite space, and entered another. It’s this first shot that introduces the idea of Barry’s safety cave and the exterior as two different domains.

The camera follows Barry out the door and pans left, an important camera move that will be used again several times to construct a fundamental web of meaning that sets the rest of the film in motion.

  

In the second shot of the sequence, the camera slowly dollies in through the gate and then pans left and witnesses a violent car crash. The similarity to the previous shot (a dolly through a portal) is not a coincidence… it presents the visual idea that Barry taking small subsequent steps out of his comfort zone (from the safety of his office cave, to the alley, and finally to the street) can have violent and anxiety ridden consequences.

After the harmonium is dropped off, the camera slowly dollies in to a close-up. This is a continuation of a visual motif: the previous dolly move ended with a violent crash, and this one ends with the harmonium, drawing a comparison between the two. In drawing the camera out to the street, far out of Barry’s comfort zone, the harmonium almost seems to taunt him with the prospect of more violence, causing him to retreat.

  

The subsequent medium wide shot of Barry is significant in its differentiation from the opening shot. By contrast, this shot expresses how the previous incident has resulted in a new vulnerability: Barry is now centerpunched, unable to hide off to the side of the frame as he did in the first shot. The image is brighter, without the sculpted shadows of the opening, diminishing the previously established cavernous sense of the space. The distortion of the image also contributes to a sense of exposure: the background seems to bend away from him, pushing him forward into the uncomfortable spotlight. Finally, the harsh lines of the background visually penetrate his head, adding a sense of looming violence to an otherwise banal moment.

As the shot continues, it follows a similar dolly move to the two previous shots in the film, exploring outwards from the cave, only to be presented with a new kind of anxiety or violence. In this case, the matching move serves to equate Barry’s meeting with Lena to the previous car crash:

  

A giant flare penetrates the lens, giving a sense of the overbearing anxiety and fear that comes with leaving the safety of the cave, and contextualizing Barry’s conversation with Lena as something that is panicked. The end result (as before with the harmonium) is a retreat back to his refuge, in this case shown as a deeply shaded corner that masks Barry’s identity in silhouette, camouflaging himself again into the background in an attempt to return to the safe environment depicted in the opening shot.

  

  

Once Barry musters up the courage to go retrieve the harmonium from the street, he is shown confronting it in a series of extreme wide shots from three different angles. This is the visual antithesis of Barry’s safe cavern: He is literally shown being exposed from all directions, supremely vulnerable to violence from all sides.

As Barry scrambles back to the safety cave with the harmonium, Lena’s car is placed compositionally in the foreground, equating Barry’s rescue of the harmonium with her, and working to further the thematic ties between the two.

We see a series of shots of Barry retreating back to his cave with the harmonium. Significant about these shots is the lighting: hot hits of bright light break up the dark frame, and reflections flare the lens. This gives a sense of the violence and anxiety of the exterior penetrating the safety of Barry’s cave, and shows the great risk he has taken bringing the harmonium inside. In this way, it’s really the visuals that begin to define the metaphor of the harmonium: it simultaneously represents both Barry’s need to confront his social anxiety, and also the amount of fear and discomfort that comes with taking even the smallest steps.

Finally, as Barry opens the harmonium, a golden light washes over his face, combined with a slow push-in. We see the payoff to his great discomfort: the possibility that bringing this foreign object (the harmonium, and later, Lena) into the safety of his cave could introduce something beautiful and wonderful into his life.

The harmonium has already been equated visually to both Lena and the violent car crash by creating an association between them with similar camera moves.  Lena, the car crash, and the harmonium are now intertwined parts of the succinctly stated visual equation of this opening sequence: that Barry will cautiously step out of the comfort of his cavern and risk violent consequences for the chance of discovering love.

A side note about this shot, from a larger picture perspective of the film as a whole: in an already incredibly subjective sequence, this is perhaps the most subjective shot, as the light is used to personify emotion in a way completely unmotivated by anything realistic. A gamble is being made by the filmmakers that by this point, the audience will be invested enough into Barry’s personal struggle (and entrenched enough in the visual architecture used to portray it) that they will simply accept this moment as a natural and realistic part of the previously established visual grammar.

  

In a series of quick cuts, Barry’s intimate moment with the harmonium is violently disrupted. Blown-out sunlight invades the previously established safety of the dark cave.  This is a continuation of the previously constructed metaphor for the harmonium: the fear that letting something new and potentially wonderful (the harmonium/Lena) from the anxiety-ridden world (wide/vulnerable spaces, penetrating flares, and blown out light) into his safety zone (the dark, cavernous office) will have violent and destructive consequences (the opening car crash, and later in the film, the car crash with Lena).

 

 

 

 

The Cinematography of “Sunshine” – Part 3

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Part 3: Photographing Corruption

In the previous entry on “Sunshine,” the visual equation of the sun to divinity and perfection was examined. In visually characterizing Pinbacker, the insane and disfigured captain of Icarus I, efforts are made to contrast him with images of the sun:

(video is protected for copyright an advertisement liberation purposes… password is ‘cinevenger):

Imperfection I from Cinevenger on Vimeo. Password = ‘cinevenger’

 

One of the most striking images in this scene is the vertically stretched face of Pinbacker. Visual distortion is a motif that begins here and carries through to the end of the film. The single most important image in the film is that of the sun: a perfect, symmetrical sphere. The deformed face, by contrast, gives a sense of the imperfection and corruption of the character. Even in this early scene, not knowing yet what happened to the Icarus I, the audience gets the sense that there is something tainted about his character.  The contortion of a human face would carry weight in any film, but it has added meaning in this one because of the established motif of circular perfection.

  

  

An added layer to this is the pixelated distortion of Pinbacker’s eyes. Again, disfigured eyes could give a sense of imperfection or corruption independent of context, but in this film, there is a greater context constructed because of a previously established eye motif. Earlier scenes (see above) featured shots of eyes reflecting sharp sunlight. Pinbacker’s eyes, by contrast, are dull and dark, giving the sense that despite his claims throughout the film to have born witness to divine power, he in fact experiences nothing. At the end of the scene, a pan and rack focus from Pinbackers eyes to the Captains own darkened gaze draws a connection between them, and gives the sense that the Captain fears that he may end up corrupted like Pinbacker.

 

In subsequent scenes in the film, images of Pinbacker are distorted in different ways. The conclusion of the motif comes with one of the final scenes in the film:

(again, video is protected for copyright an advertisement liberation purposes… password is ‘cinevenger):

Imperfection II from Cinevenger on Vimeo.  Password = ‘cinevenger’

  

  

The face of Pinbacker is always made hard to view, either by a double-image distortion technique, by putting him in silhouette, or by compositional choices that cut off most or all of his head. This defines Pinbacker by contrasting him to the films core visuals. Whereas the sun provides an overabundance of information and power (so much that the crew can’t even experience its full power without killing themselves), the photography of Pinbacker expresses the antithesis of this idea: through the various techniques outlined above, he is sparse on information, and something that the crew (and audience) can’t clearly behold. Like the previous scene, the net result of these contrasts is to portray Pinbacker as something corrupt and unable to truly connect with divinity.

  

  

In this scene, we see Capa distorted and defocused in a variety of ways that draw an affinity between him and Pinbacker, and seem to imply that he may become similarly corrupted. A wide upside-down shot features an optical distortion that seems to compress the dark void and the ground together, giving the sense of a descent into the darkness that has become associated with Pinbacker. This culminates when Capa is able to fall away from him:

  

An extreme wide shot of Pinbacker in a stable, symmetric composition (in contrast to all of the previous, violent and unstable compositions of him), removes him as a menace. Similarly, a massively distorted upside-down shot of Capa revolves around 180 degrees to land on a completely undistorted close-up of his face, reinforcing the sense that the threat of becoming like Pinbacker is resolved.

All of this can really be extrapolated to a bigger idea: because Pinbacker has been visually represented as the antithesis of the sun, or divinity, the central visual struggle of the film is actually asking the larger question of whether or not these characters will be able to truly experience this divinity (or if they will go down a corrupt path and end up like Pinbacker). This question is asked about Kaneda in his bedroom scene with the pan from Pinbackers eyes to his. It’s asked about Searle when he exposes himself to the sun and burns himself in way that resembles Pinbacker. Finally, it’s asked about Capa in the final scenes with the massive distortion of the image. In Capas case, the question is answered at the end of the film, when the distortion resolves itself, and he is able to complete the mission and is enveloped in light:

(again, video is protected for copyright an advertisement liberation purposes… password is ‘cinevenger’):

Divine Witness III from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

In portraying Capa touching divinity, the film employs almost every single visual motif that it’s been hammering in since frame one. It’s unnecessary to re-hash an analysis of each of the elements, but one thing easy to overlook is the significance of the composition above: it’s the only truly centerpunched and symmetrical composition in the film that’s not a shot of the sun. In that way, the film conserves the visual power established by the images of the sun and saves it until the end for maximum impact.

 

More about “Sunshine”

There hasn’t been massive amounts written about the cinematography of this film, but I would suggest this American Cinematographer article.

Also, this article, while not specifically about cinematography, places the film within its historical science fiction context.

 

This concludes my cinematography analysis of “Sunshine” (check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed it). As always, 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 “Sunshine” – Part 2

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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!

 

The Cinematography of “Sunshine” – Part 1

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Before digging into some of the really powerful and central photographic ideas in “Sunshine,” I decided to first investigate a scene that occurs in the first act, as the crew considers a rendezvous with the previously lost Icarus I in order to increase the chances of their missions success.

In this scene, Mace confronts the rest of the crew and makes an argument for ignoring Icarus I and sticking to their original plan. After a logical and reductionist argument from Searle, the Captain (Kaneda) decides to let Capa alone make the choice:

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

Heavy Decisions from Cinevenger on Vimeo. (password = ‘cinevenger’)

 

The visual storytelling in this scene is handled partly with conventional decisions, and partly with an interesting use of reflections and foreground elements. This medium close-up of Mace (which is intercut several times in the scene) is framed center-punched, at a slightly low angle, with a great deal of compositional symmetry in the background. The symmetrical balance of the image gives a sense of stability to Mace, supporting the idea that he is self-assured and steadfast in his convictions about not intercepting Icarus. Also, keeping his frame as a clean single (every other frame in the scene is dirty), shows his singular opposition to the rest of the crew.

Another interesting compositional decision in this frame is the accommodation for the practical lights in Mace’s headroom. Instead of composing for the top of his head (or simply choosing a different composition that didn’t have the lights riding the top of frame), the filmmakers have allowed these glaring lights to hang over the top of his head and push him down in the frame. This is a visualization of the pressure he feels under the weight of the immense decision that they are contemplating. The potential ramifications hang over his head and exert an incredible amount of anxiety on what would be a relatively trivial decision if this wasn’t the last possible mission to save humanity. This motif carries throughout the scene, for multiple characters:

  

In these shots, in addition to the graphical weight at the top of the frame, the heads are also harshly subdivided by the lines of the display (or, in the case of the wide shot, the display itself). This linear division of the image into many pieces gives a sense of their indecision and fracture in how to proceed in the face of a complex problem. In the two-shot above, this is further compounded by the reflection of Mace in the glass, giving a sense of how his opposition to their tentative plan has added yet another layer of complexity to an already overwhelming dilemma. The combination of this layering and fracturing of the image with the pressure exerted by the visual weight in their headroom drives home the sense of anxiety at the intricacy of their problem and the weight of their decision.

Searle then steps in and offers a simple reductionist analysis of the problem, encapsulating all of the complexity into a simple cost and benefit equation. At this point, the visual juxtaposition of Searle with his reflection is introduced:

  

The division of the image into these two graphical elements: the reflection of Searle encumbered by the weight of the sphere which bisects his head, and the unobstructed, clear shot of Searle himself, gives the sense that he is able to contain the emotional weight of the problem and examine it from a clearheaded, external viewpoint. A nice touch is the lateral dolly moves back and forth as Searle moves to different sides of the screen, giving the sense that he has had the clairvoyance to see the dilemma from a multitude of angles. Another nice touch is his background: everyone else’s mediums and close-ups are sandwiched against vague defocused shapes, adding to the sense of confusion and anxiety. By contrast, Searle’s medium shot looks down a clearly defined hallway, creating a sense of depth, and giving a sense that he has an unobstructed grasp on the problem.

Several angles are also depict the power of the captain in the decision making process:

  

A rack focus shot from Mace to Kaneda holds on Kaneda as Mace continues to speak, and finally racks back very slowly and deliberately. Kaneda has almost seemed to grab the focus to himself as an exertion of power, and then slowly and silently relinquished it back to Mace, as an approval for the discussion to continue. Keeping Kaneda in profile shows his impartiality (or guise of impartiality) to a preferred course of action. Later, when Searle begins his analysis, Kaneda looms in the foreground, as the largest compositional element in the frame: a reminder of his power over the entire process.

  

As Kaneda comes to his decision, the camera pans quickly off of Corazon and Trey, through a dark out of focus mass, and onto Capa. Visually separating Capa from the other characters with this obstruction visually reinforces the idea that he has both physically and emotionally tried to distance himself from the process. In the final image of the scene, with the entire crew out of focus in the background of a close-up profile of Capa, we understand visually his dispassion and alienation in having their fate rest in his hands.

 

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!

 

The Cinematography of “The Terminator”: Part 1

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Photographed by Adam Greenberg, ASC and directed by James Cameron, “The Terminator” is a film that employs a bare minimum of exposition and lets the visual storytelling do the heavy lifting in orienting the audience to where the movie is going. It’s a masterpiece of plant and payoff, in terms of both story points and visual design. From the first shot and moving forward, the images are constantly referencing each other by contrast and affinity, making us understand a great deal without literal exposition. The photography in the opening scenes of “The Terminator” is especially effective: the images immediately establish the theme of the film as well as several key character and story points, all without any dialogue or direct explanation. The sequence of images in these scenes show the oppressive power of the machines over anything that stands in their way. The use of visual affinity also immediately identifies Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character as one of these machines, although the audience hasn’t even been introduced to the concept of a Terminator yet.

You can watch the sequence below (password is ‘cinevenger’):

Mechanical Domination from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

 

The opening shot establishes a key visual motif that carries through the rest of the film (really, this film and the rest of the “Terminator” films that come after it): the contrast of sleek mechanical lines to softer organic shapes. The epoch of this motif comes later in the film when we see the cold metal of the Terminator’s metal skeleton underneath the tattered flesh that has been ripped off part of his face. However, here we see this motif introduced in a much more subtle way: the contrast of the sleek shapes of the swiftly moving airship with the stationary, twisted organic shapes of the ruins give us a sense of the death of anything biological, and the vitality of the machines.

Throughout the entire scene, the monochromatic blue tones and low values reinforce this idea of biological death: by creating a world that contrasts in every way with the images that we associate most strongly with nature. We associate the vibrant, saturated spectrum of greens and browns with natural growth, so this world is steely blue and monochromatic. We associate sunlight with nature, so this world is shrouded in darkness. From the first image of this film, we understand that the future is a place where nature and humanity have been oppressed.

 

 

In the second shot of the sequence, the tank treads advance towards the camera, filling the frame, and compositionally obstructing out all of the other elements. This again reinforces the idea of the domination of the mechanical over the biological.

To state the obvious: the intellectual understanding we gain from seeing skulls crushed under a giant mechanical tread is crucial in the storytelling as well. However, it’s the compositional touch involved in this shot that elevates it from being “good” to “great”: it’s not merely a shot skulls being crushed by a machine, it’s a shot of skulls being crushed by a machine that advances towards the camera and asserts itself to become the lone compositional element.

 

 

In a medium shot of a tank, the bright searchlight engulfing the image give us a sense of the machines overwhelming power. An important aspect of this shot (and this scene as a whole) is that the shots are taken strictly from ground level. The camera is always looking up in helplessness at the machines, firmly placing the storytelling from the perspective of the human resistance who are fighting the machines from the ground. It also gives the sense of the ineffectiveness of this resistance.

 

 

The visual storytelling doesn’t stop for the title sequence… we immedately associate the sleek metallic lettering with the machines we have just seen in the first scene. By being close on the letters and not being able to see their borders, we are being shown that the power of the machines is so expansive that it is unable to be constricted or bound into the frame. The cross-motion of the hard geometric shapes is reminiscent of of slicing or cutting, which gives a sense of the precision and deadliness of the machines. Finally, the smooth, regular motion of the moving words shows the consistency and persistence of the machines (an idea which pays off most fully in the final scene of the film, as the machine will not stop advancing on Sarah Connor despite its almost complete destruction).

 

 

A low angle shot on the advancing mechanical spikes of the garbage truck draws an immediate comparison to the low angle shots of the machines that we saw in the previous scene. By showing this otherwise banal, harmless machine in such an intimidating low angle, with its utility spikes aggressively advancing towards us, we get a sense that machines will not only be dangerous in the future, but also in the present. This is an important visual clue for the audience, as the depiction of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character as a dangerous killing machine is something that we understand immediately from the visuals, far before we are given the official exposition later in the film from Kyle Reese. The bight, glaring reflections off the utility spikes as they violently impale the dumpster are a nice touch, as they are reminiscent of both the searchlight penetrating the lens in the previous scene, as well as the harsh reflections off the lettering in the title sequence. This motif of bright specular reflections off metallic surfaces that penetrate the lens with their glare is something that carries through all the “Terminator” films, and is particularly effective in giving the audience a sense of the deadly pervasion of the machines.

 

 

In a medium shot of the truck driver, the machinery casts an alternating shadow pattern over his face that is reminiscent of the patterns left by the searchlights in the previous scene. It again supports the idea that the machines are a source of oppressive power in the present as well as the future.

 

 

In a wide shot of the just-arrived Terminator*, he is set in silhouette with a bright edge-light, creating a sleek edge around him that looks almost metallic, effectively drawing an affinity between him and the machines seen in the first scene (as well as the metallic lettering of the title sequence).

*I refer to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character as “the Terminator” starting here, but it’s important to again remember that from an audience perspective, we are still being drawn into this world, and haven’t yet been introduced to the concept of a Terminator… the visual storytelling is doing all the work in giving the audience the necessary clues that this guy is a murderous cyborg and a villain, but at this point, it’s still just an intriguing trail of crumbs that don’t completely play out and reveal themselves until the end of the first act.

 

 

A low angle medium shot combined with a slow, smooth push-in, gives us a sense of the power and control of the Terminator, which in turn lets us know that he knows why he is here and has a plan. The towering machinery in the background of the Terminator draws another affinity between him and the machines, and also reinforces the sense of his power. (side-note: I’m not going to get too deep into this particular aspect right now, but there is a particularly effective contrast between the photography of the arrival of the Terminator and the subsequent arrival of Kyle Reese).

 

 

Finally, a crane shot that rises to end with a wide composition depicts the Terminator in the foreground juxtaposed against the city. This reinforces the sense that he is a force working in opposition to humanity. The city is literally laid out in front of him, and camera rises in anticipation, as if he is about to dive in. This solidifies the idea that he has arrived for a very specific purpose and is about to plunge into the city to accomplish it.

 

If there’s one through-line to the opening five minutes of “The Terminator,” it’s consistency. Every frame works to draw an affinity between the oppressive machines of the future and the Terminator, undermining his superficially human appearance. There are a few shots (such as the wide of the truck engulfed in lightning and the close-up on the Terminators face) that hammer home the exact same visual contrasts and affinities already made in previous shots, so I chose to omit my commentary about them to maintain a semblance of brevity.

More on “The Terminator” to come. If you enjoyed this analysis or want to add to the commentary, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it! (There are buttons at the bottom).

The Cinematography of “The Matrix”: Part 2 of 3

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In this scene from the Matrix, Neo’s normal life is disrupted by an unexpected call from Morpheus, who informs him that the authorities are there to arrest him. Morpheus helps Neo escape the office, and directs him to a ledge where he can climb some scaffolding to safety. However, Neo gives up, and is then arrested.

You can watch the scene below: (password is ‘cinevenger’):

 

Boxed In from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

The progression of beats in this scene is depicted primarily through linear motif. Neo is shown as being boxed into his environment, and then led through the “rat maze” to a potential exit, but remains trapped and gives up. The scene opens with a dolly shot from behind a wall that takes us into Neo’s cubicle (‘A‘). Starting behind a wall and peeling it back to reveal the cubicle shows how Neo is encased in his environment. Once the camera settles, the “bite” of wall on the right creates a sub-frame (a rectangle) within the full frame. Within that frame, all of the production design is exclusively cubes. So, it’s essentially cubes within cubes within the biggest cube (the frame). (Also, side note: it may be easy to dismiss the rectangular container of the frame as always existing, but as filmmakers, we regularly take steps to make it vanish, the most famous instance probably being the Star Destroyer passing overhead in “Star Wars”). All of this cube business is about showing us how Neo’s “normal” existence is constricting and limiting, i.e. “boxed in.” This is directly related to his emotional journey of the entire film, which is his need to become the master of his own life (i.e. “break out of the box,” which is first depicted as the office, then the Matrix itself, and finally, his own mind: at the end of the film, Neo’s transcendence of the physical limitations that his mind places on the Matrix becomes the ultimate box-breakout).

The first disruption to this linear motif happens when the phone rings, and we cut to a low angle rack focus shot from Neo’s face to the phone (‘C‘). The vertical and horizontal lines of the cube motif have been rotated (and thereby replaced) with aggressive diagonals in Neo’s background, which signal the phone as a disruptive force to his “normal” existence. The extreme low angle reinforces the same idea; the previous shots, all angles of relatively “normal” height, are disrupted by this new extreme low angle. Finally, this is also reinforced by the rack focus; the world was previously portrayed as being completely flat: ‘A‘ and ‘B‘ are devoid of depth cues. The rack focus, a visual depth cue, shows us how the phone could lead to a new depth that disrupts the normalcy of Neo’s life.

A jarringly fast dolly shot from the previously seen medium composition (‘B‘) to a new composition (‘D‘) introduces an element of danger into Neo’s “normal” existance. The speed of the dolly move gives us a sense of the immediacy that Morpheus’ call has brought into this normally mundane environment. Moreover, the camera comes to rest in a new composition that includes a large area of darkness on the left of frame. This cavernous black area (in contrast to the previously low contrast image) shows the surreptitious and dangerous nature of Morpheus’ call.

At this point in the scene, from a geography perspective, we have only seen the inside of Neo’s cubicle. The next composition (‘E‘) introduces the idea of the office as a rat maze, which is critical to the rest of the scene. Specifically, the way in which the environment cuts off the bodes of the agents, and only allows us to see their heads through several more layers of environment and background characters, gives us a sense of the physical obstacles separating the two. This may seem obvious and intuitive, but it’s a very specific and effective choice made by the filmmakers. If the agents had been shown full body, without any obstacles between them and the camera, we would have gotten the sense that the agents could just run over and easily grab Neo. This would have undermined the tension of the next several shots, where Morpheus guides Neo to temporary safety as the agents wind through the maze.

A low angle dolly shot of the agents approach (‘F‘) again turns the previous horizontals and verticals of the office into aggressive diagonals, giving us a new sense of danger in the previously mundane environment. In this low angle, looking up at the domineering agents, they seem to forcibly push the camera backwards, which gives us a sense of their power, danger, and momentum. This is in total contrast to a new high angle on Neo (‘G‘), which pins him into the office space, portraying him as trapped. Note that this angle too has abandoned the previous horizontals in favor of more aggressive diagonals. These two angles are working in unison–the danger and momentum of the shot of approaching agents, contrasted with the hopelessly stationary high angle of Neo pinned in the office. This not only works to illustrate the peril Neo is in, but also to make us “buy” that he feels absolutely compelled to go along with Morpheus’ instructions, despite that what Morpehus is telling him to do is “insane,” by his own admission later in the scene.

In a medium close-up of Neo (‘H‘) we see a much contrastier image than we have seen so far in this scene, which again serves to signal danger, and the tonal shift from mundane office environment to a place of danger. This angle pans over to reveal a medium shot of two agents that leave opposite sides of the frame (‘J‘). This is significant in that it builds tension in a very elementary way: when Neo gets up to continue his attempt at escape, he will inevitably have to exit screen right or left, and because we have now seen these agents leave opposite sides of the frame, we understand that no matter which way Neo goes, there will be danger. Also, the way in which the agents are shown compositionally as mirror images of each other (spaced evenly in the frame, and exiting frame simultaneously) gives a sense of their robotic, artificial nature (even though this idea hasn’t been directly or literally told to the audience yet).

When Neo makes it to the office, the prior beat of “escape through a dangerous rat maze” evaporates. The diagonal lines and kinetic camera moves are replaced with the previous cube motif, and the the previous feeling of being trapped returns. When Neo enters the office, we see a medium shot of him (‘K‘) which pans from the door, to the window, back to the door, and then follows him as he walks to the window. As part of this long panning shot, we again see Neo boxed in by cubic shapes, specifically in ‘L‘, which shows him inside a box drawn by the lines of the architecture, with even more cubes in his background.  Also, holding with him in this shot and allowing us to experience his assessment of the entire room without cutting away heightens the sense of being trapped. This is an idea that has been explored before, notably in the film “Irreversable” in which the viewer witnesses an atrocious assault for over eight minutes of uninterrupted shot. The idea is that cutting away is a form of escape, so forcing us watch a character struggle to break away from their environment without cutting can heighten the sense of being confined or restrained. We get a little bit of that in ‘K‘ and ‘L‘, but also in a subsequent shot ‘M‘, which booms up from a closeup of Neo to the street below (‘N‘). We also get a similar feeling from another closeup of Neo (‘P‘) that booms up to an overhead wide of the street (‘Q‘). By moving the camera from Neo to the street instead of cutting, we get a stronger sense of his imprisonment, and his inability to “cut away” from his cage. Also significant about this angle is the return of the aggressive diagonal linear motif in signaling elements of danger.

The linear motif of this scene, horizontals vs. diagonals and placing Neo within cubes, is actually introduced in the previous scene, and continues in the suqsequnet scene, so I would suggest viewing those as well if you haven’t seen this movie in a while.

In final entry about “The Matrix” I will be looking at the color palette which spans the entire film.

As always, if you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it! (There are buttons at the bottom).

 

Matrix angle 'A'

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Matrix angle 'B'

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Matrix angle 'C'

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The Cinematography of “The Matrix” – Part 1 of 3

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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’:


Space Invasion from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

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.

If you enjoyed this article, please Tweet / FB / Digg it! (There are buttons at the bottom).

 

Matrix angle 'A'

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Matrix angle 'B'

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Matrix angle 'C'

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Matrix angle 'D'

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The Cinematography of “Thor”: Photographing Sacrifice

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In this scene, which occurs at the end of the second act, Thor decides to offer his life to his brother (Loki) in an attempt to save his friends from the Destroyer:

(Password is ‘CINEVENGER’ …all caps) 

Sacrifice from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

I included screencaps of all of the significant angles at the bottom of the post. However, there are several reaction shots (for Jane, Erik, and Sif) that I didn’t include in the list of “significant” angles. I want to note that although these angles aren’t significant in terms of specific visual meaning created through a camera angle or lighting, they are some of the most important angles dramatically in the scene.  Watching Thor’s friends reactions to Thor sacrificing himself has much more emotional impact than simply watching Thor sacrifice himself.

A great deal of the photography of this scene employs the film-school-cliché (yet still true) idea of photographing power by the height of the camera relative to the character… i.e. a higher angle on a character implies their inferiority, and a lower angle implies their dominance. However, there is another dimension in this scene, which is not photographing a static power relationship so much as photographing Thor’s relinquishment of power. Not coincidentally, this is related directly to Thor’s character arc for the entire film: learning to shed his arrogance and be humble despite his godly powers. This scene is the culmination of his dramatic arc, and the photography is about the ultimate act of humility and sacrifice.

At the beginning of the scene, as Thor makes the decision to sacrifice himself, we see him in a medium shot (‘A‘), shortsighted* against the side of the frame, showing that his efforts have been stonewalled and he has now been forced into desperate actions.

 *sidebar: shortsighting in composition, as defined by myself (I couldn’t find an official definition, even with the help of Google) is when a distance from the characters eyes to the edge of frame is minimal… i.e. their face is smashed up against the side of the frame, giving them the psychological sense of being pigeonholed or restricted. This is the opposite of giving them ‘leading room’, which is a normal/unaffected compositional choice that involves making the space between the characters eyes and edge of frame the majority of compositional space rather than the minority.

There is also an interesting element to the background in ‘A‘: the environment is at a tilted angle, but much of the production design is straight horizontals.  Throughout the entire film, the use of diagonal angles in composition has been a recurring theme. This would be a totally different analysis (which I may explore in the near future), but one could conclude that the use of diagonal (“dutched”) angles in the film are about the righteous world (horizontal, balanced compositions which give a sense of order and stable footing) versus the corrupted world (diagonal/dutched angles and imbalanced compositions which give the sense that something is wrong). So, in this film, if Asgard is the ultimate representation of righteousness, and Jotunheim is the ultimate corruption, then this composition in angle ‘A‘ (and, arguably, the entire scene) is a collision of these two black and white ideas, making the point that in the real world (Earth), there are elements of both righteousness and corruption, and that when these two forces collide, complicated, messy, grey-area things can happen, like a former demi-god sacrificing himself to appease his corrupt brother in hopes of saving his mortal friends.

We then see a slow motion shot of Thor’s shield hitting the ground (‘B‘). The value in this shot is more about the direct symbolism of his actions, but the slow motion accentuates the beat and shows us that he isn’t casually throwing down the shield to launch another attack, but rather as an admission of defeat. This may seem obvious, but it’s fundamental to the storytelling.  We understand visually from the first few shots of this scene that Thor intends to sacrifice himself, even though it isn’t made crystal clear by the dialogue until a minute later.  So, it was critical that these first few shots of the scene to visually depict the emotional beat, otherwise the scene would have been massively convoluted.

The shot of Thor walking out to the Destroyer with his friends in the background (‘D‘) nails it home. The visual separation of Thor stepping in front of his out-of-focus friends shows that he is emerging from the group in order to sacrifice himself to save them.

The transference of power in this scene is shown by the progression of several sets of angles.  The first extreme wide shot we see is a slowly rising ground-level angle of Thor approaching the Destroyer (‘C‘).  Subsequent extreme wides (‘E‘ and ‘G‘) are shown from much higher angles.  This progression from a street-level angle on the scene to “gods’eye” overhead angles frames the showdown in a grater context: Thor and the Destroyer aren’t meeting for a pedestrian encounter, but rather one that will have much farther reaching ramifications (all the way up to Asgard).

The first angle we see of Loki is a high angle which is slowly booming down (‘H‘), followed by low angles ‘L‘ and ‘P‘, portraying Loki as increasingly dominant by progressing from higher to lower angles over the course of the scene, and showing (one half of the) transference of power from Thor to Loki .

Likewise, the shots of the Destroyer, from a straight-on medium close-up (‘J‘) to a low angle medium close-up (‘M‘), also show the transference of power by becoming progressively lower in angle. These shots also depict the Destroyer as compositionally stronger than Thor by showing it in a relatively immobile center-punched composition in contrast to Thor’s shortsighted composition in his medium close-up (‘F‘).  We also get the same sense from an extreme wide low angle shot of the Destroyer towering over Thor (‘K‘). The increasingly lower angles on Loki and the Destroyer and increasingly high angles on Thor culminate with a directly overhead medium shot on Thor (‘N‘), the apex to this progression (the most severely high angle possible), and the final portrayal of his sacrifice.

At the end of the scene, we return to an extreme wide shot (‘Q‘), at a ground-level angle, with Thor’s crumpled body in the foreground. This return to a pedestrian angle (a resolution of the previous high/low angle progression of the scene) lets us know that the sacrifice is complete, which leads us (really, tricks us) into believing that Thor is dead.

Thor angle 'A'

'A'

Thor angle 'B'

'B'

Thor angle 'C'

'C'

Thor angle 'D'

'D'

Thor angle 'E'

'E'

Thor angle 'F'

'F'

Thor angle 'G'

'G'

Thor angle 'H'

'H'

Thor angle 'J'

'J'

Thor angle 'K'

'K'

Thor angle 'L'

'L'

Thor angle 'M'

'M'

Thor angle 'N'

'N'

Thor angle 'P'

'P'

Thor angle 'Q'

'Q'

© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.