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!

 

© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.