The Cinematography of “Thor”: Photographing Sacrifice

Thor_Sacrifice_D

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'

The Cinematography of “Thor”: Deconstructing Thor’s banishment scene

Thor_CastOut_R

In this scene, Thor directly defies his father. As punishment, he is thrown out of Asgard.  Despite being a short scene, there is an abundance of storytelling packed into a large collection of angles and lighting changes.  You can watch a video of the scene below.

Note: after doing some research, it looks like the only way to have an embedded movie clip without getting a DMCA takedown is to have it password protected on Vimeo. The password is ‘CINEVENGER‘ (all caps).

 

 

Also, I’ve screencapped the total collection of significant angles in the scene.  I’ve labelled them ‘A’ to ‘R’ for reference and posted them all at the bottom of the post for maximum RSS compatibility (the attached galleries only work on the website).

Here are my notes about the scene:

There is a lighting effect that plays throughout the entire scene: golden light pulsates on and off from all directions, sometimes casting the characters faces into darkness.  This volatility to the light contrasts with the previously stable, pristine, and bright light of Asgard, and shows us that Thor’s actions have sent the world into turmoil (more on the overall color palette and lighting of the film in the next “Thor” post).

When the scene opens, we see Odin in an on-axis medium shot (‘C‘) cut with Thor in a medium profile (‘B‘). Seeing Thor only in profile shows us Thors defiance and insubordination towards his father.

The first three angles of the scene (‘A‘, ‘B‘, and ‘C‘, of Loki, Thor, and Odin), all have similar backgrounds featuring the textured golden surface of Asgard.  When Odin decides to cast out Thor, we cut to a new shot of him (‘D‘, and later, ‘F‘), in which has an almost completely black void behind him, illustrating his feelings of desolation on being cast out.

Odin opening the Bifrost is shown from a directly overhead angle (‘G‘), a ‘gods eye” view, showing that Odin’s actions aren’t the more casual fireworks that we have seen previously, but rather all-powerful work that can’t be easily shrugged off or undone.

Odin approaches Thor and we see a pair of matching medium close-ups (‘H‘ and ‘J‘).  The contrast of these much tighter, on-axis, and intense angles with the wider and more off-axis angles earlier in the scene (‘B‘ and ‘C‘), signal a major beat change:  Thor is no longer audaciously and theatrically defying his father, but rather, a line has been crossed: it has become personal and the reprecussions have become real.

When Odin accuses Thor of being unworthy of the “loved ones that you have betrayed,” we see a medium wide shot of Loki positioned compositionally between Thor and Odin (‘K‘). This portrays Loki as essentially an innocent bystander caught in the conflict between Thor and Odin (an idea which will be undermined by the final shot of the scene… more on that below).

When the Bifrost has been opened, and Thor fully realizes what is about to happen, we see him in a medium close-up with a giant blue vortex behind him, taking up his entire background (‘N‘), and showing the storm of conflicted emotions that has completely overcome him.

After Thor has been thrown through the vortex, we see a left-to-right dolly move on a extreme closeup of Odin (‘Q‘) as he whispers the words to enchant Thor’s hammer.  The camera swings around the hammer as if in orbit of it, and gives a sense of its gravity and importance (the subsequent immobility of the hammer becomes a major story point later in the film).

Finally, at the end of the scene, the camera dollys over and shows us Loki framed next to the vortex (‘R‘).  Loki has essentially been an observer and non-participant for the entire scene. So, this move, which connects Loki psychologically to Thor’s banishment, casts suspicion on Loki, and serves as foreshadowing for his character throughout the rest of the film.

 

 

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'

Thor angle 'R'

'R'

The story structure of “Thor”

In looking at the Cinematography of ‘Thor,” I also broke down the story structure of the film to aid in understanding some of the cinematography decisions:

 

Act One

Sequence 1 (Will Thor be crowned King?)

The film opens with a teaser: Jane and Darcy (scientists), and Erik (their mentor) are out chasing storms, and hit a man who falls from the sky.   We are then shown exposition that introduces the war Asgard waged to stop the frost giants of Jotunheim, which culminated in Odin (the king of Asgard) taking the Casket, the giant’s source of power.  We also meet Loki and Thor, Odin’s sons.

We finally arrive in Asgard in present day. Thor kneels before Odin to receive the crown.  Just as the is about to be kinged, frost giant intruders attempt to steal the Casket.  Thor wants to “teach them a lesson,” and in response Odin tells Thor that he won’t yet be king.

 

Sequence 2 (Can Thor “teach the ice giants a lesson?”)

Thor decides (against his fathers explicit wishes) to march into Jotunheim with his friends Sif and the Warriors Three to confront the frost giants.  They talk their way past Heimdall (the gatekeeper) and are transported to Jotunheim (using the Bifrost, a transporter). They confront Laufey, the leader of the the ice giants, and after being taunted, start a brawl.  It culminates when Odin arrives to try to save the former truce, but Laufey says they have gone too far, and wants war. On returning to Asgard, as punishment for his arrogance, Thor is cast down to Earth by his father, made into a human, and separated from Mjolnir, his hammer, which Odin enchants to only be wielded by someone worthy.

 

Act Two (Can Thor get back to Asgard?)

Sequence 3 (Can Thor find some footing on Earth and form a plan to get back to Asgard?)

We rejoin Jane where we left off in the teaser at the beginning of the film. They hit Thor with their van and end up using a Taser on him when he acts aggressive. He is dropped off at the hospital where he attempts to escape and is again sedated. Mjolnir has landed elsewhere in the desert, and has gained notice by the local populace, as it is totally immobile.  S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson also takes notice. Loki discovers that he is in fact half frost giant, and Odin falls into a sleep after revealing this.  After picking up an escaped Thor, Jane and friends take him to a diner, and he overhears stories about his hammer in the desert.  He now knows that the first step to getting back to Asgard is to get Mjolnir back.

 

Sequence 4 (Can Thor get his hammer back?)

S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Coulson confiscate Jane’s equipment, citing a “security breach.”  Loki assumes the crown in Asgard in place of an incapacitated Odin.  Meanwhile, Jane takes Thor to the hammer crash site, which has been turned into a quarantine area by S.H.I.E.L.D.  Thor fights his way into the area but is unable to lift his hammer (he “isn’t worthy”).

 

Sequence 5 (Can Thor learn to accept his exile?)

Thor is captured by S.H.I.E.L.D. Loki visits Thor and lies to him, telling him that his father is dead, that he (Loki) is now king, and forbids Thor’s return.  Erik convinces Coulson to release Thor from the S.H.I.E.L.D. compound.  Thor understands and accepts his exile, and admits that he has no idea what to do now. He bonds with Erik over a night of drinking, and Jane over a campfire.  Meanwhile, Loki proposes to Laufey to kill Odin in exchange for the Casket.

 

Sequence 6 (Can Thor and friends defeat the Destroyer?)

Unable to defy Loki directly, Sif and the Warriors Three decide to go to Earth to help Thor return. Meanwhile, Loki freezes Heimdall and sends the Destroyer (a huge murderous golem) to Earth to kill Thor.  After a losing battle, in an act of selflessness, Thor offers his life to Loki to save Jane and his Asgardian friends.  As he lays dying, he is finally “worthy” of the hammer, which is summoned to him like a magnet, and defeats the Destroyer.  Heimdall unfreezes himself through force of will, and summons Thor back to Asgard.

 

Act Three

Sequence 7 (Can Thor stop Loki?)

Loki betrays and murders Laufey and then uses the Bifrost to begin destroying Jotunheim. We finally understand that his entire plot was meant to prove himself to his father. Thor confronts Loki, and manages to incapacitate him.  Left with no alternative, in a final act of self-sacrifice, Thor destroys the bridge, preventing the destruction of Jotunheim, but also separating himself from Jane.  Odin awakes and tries to save his sons from the destruction, but Loki allows himself to fall away.

 

Sequence 8 (Can Thor reconcile with his father?)

Thor admits to Odin that he still has a “lot to learn,” and that he is not ready to be king.  Meanwhile, back on Earth, Jane searches for a way to reopen the portal to Asgard.

 

 

© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.