- The Technical Dimension: The communication devices that arise from the process of motion photography and production, including camera movement, composition, sound, lighting, editing, etc.
- The Dramatic Dimension: The factors involved in the telling of the story, be it fiction or non-fiction, including theme, plot, characterization, story structure, etc.
- The Auteur Dimension: The factors in a work that characterize the film as the unique product of a director, or of a studio, producer, or actor; that is, the person or persons who can be considered the author of the work.
- The Genre Dimension: The factors in a work that result from it being in one, or a combination of, genre(s) (that is, classes or types of stories), and how the history of and expectations engendered by the genre service the film. Genres can be based on many factors such as location (the western), type of story (action, love, mystery), content (musical, science fiction, nature), or style (experimental, avant-garde, etc.).
- The Rhetorical Dimension: The factors in a work that deal with its impact on an audience (“rhetoric” means to influence an audience), the point or points the film may be trying to make, the messages the film may be trying to convey, the call-to-action the film may be championing.
- The Socio-Historical Dimension: An understanding of where the film rests in the history of motion pictures and of the world and society in general.
“…and I learned far more by seeing films than from reading heavy tomes on film esthetics.” Stanley Kubrick
PART ONE: THE TECHNICAL DIMENSION – SPACE IN CINEMA
Chapter 4: Lenses – Through a Glass Darkly
THE TECHNICAL DIMENSION
SPACE IN CINEMA
THE FRAME – A WINDOW ONTO A WORLD
1-1: The Frame
Space in Cinema is defined by “the frame.”
Motion pictures are (at least for the time being) two-dimensional. They are flat. All sense of depth is an illusion. Even a “3-D” movie is viewed on a two dimensional surface. Therefore space in cinema is defined in two dimensions.
The frame is a film’s two-dimensional boundary, a rectangle with width and height, a window through which, at any given moment, a part of the film’s world is revealed to us.
What is inside the frame is material, physical, specific. We see what is in the frame. It is immediately real and defined.
Outside the frame is memory, assumption, imagination, suggestion. As Nicholas Romber writes in The Blue Velvet Project, “part of the frame’s meaning lies outside of the frame itself, in the implied off-screen space that surrounds it, accumulated in fragments from places the film has already taken us.” That is memory.
“Blue Velvet” (1986)
READ: The Blue Velvet Project, #143 by Nicholas Rombes.
But we also assume when we see a person in a medium shot from the waist up that they have legs; we assume when we see three walls of a room there is a fourth. We may imagine what that wall looks like, or what the inside of an abandoned cabin in the woods looks like from seeing the outside. A person with a horrified look on their face suggests something horrifying off the screen.
There is geography inside the frame and geography that exists outside the frame. Combined they become the geography of the world of the film.
(Aside – The “frame” also defines time in cinema, but that’s a different definition of frame. More on that later.)
The frame obviously comes in different sizes, depending on the viewer’s choice of medium.
WATCH: An aside from David Lynch, iconoclastic director of “Blue Velvet” and Mulholland Drive” (https://youtu.be/wKiIroiCvZ0)
1-3: SHAPES (ASPECT RATIOS)
The frame also comes in a variety of shapes.
No matter what the frame’s size, the frame’s shape is described by a ratio of its width to its height, its aspect ratio.
REFERENCE: Wikipedia – Aspect Ratio https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspect_ratio_(image)
REFERENCE: Film Dimensions and Specifications http://www.gcmstudio.com/filmspecs/filmspecs.html
The selection or imposition of a specific aspect ratio informs composition, the arrangement of elements within that frame shape.
The most common, standardized aspect ratios are the following:
1-4: Standard or Academy ratio (Full Frame) (4 X 3 or 1.33:1)
In adopting the 35mm format, in which photochemical film is 35mm wide, early filmmakers established the standard aspect ratio as a classical rectangle with a ratio of four units of width to three units of height (or 1.33:1). Thus if the projected image is twenty feet wide it will be fifteen feet high. This ratio is also referred to as ‘full frame,’ as the 4 by 3 image fills the entirety of the 35mm frame. This ratio was adopted as a standard by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and dominated cinema from its birth until the 1950’s. It also became the standard for television until the advent of high definition.
Notice in these images from “The Maltese Falcon” (1940) how the nearly square shape of the frame allows for an almost equal mix of horizontal and vertical compositional lines and focal points. In the first image two characters square off from the sides of the frame, separated by a space occupied by a character substantially lower in the frame. This allows for a face off as we might expect in a western. In the second image, the square frame allows for the foreground characters to crowd and visually intimidate the background character. These images would likely be staged and composed quite differently in a different aspect ratio.
How does the shape of the frame affect the composition of the images below?
REFERENCE: Shapeshifting Films https://tadleckman.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/shapeshifiting-films/
Moviemakers adopted wider aspect ratios in the 1950’s as one of many strategies to compete with the new medium of television and its small, square-ish, academy ratio image.
WATCH: On the Waterfront – Aspect Ratio Visual Essay (https://youtu.be/s7-aMi4Rr-4)
1-5: European and British Standard Widescreen (1.66:1) Used beginning in the 1950’s
An early attempt at widescreen involved simply masking the top and bottom of a full frame image. First invented by Paramount Studios in America, this became a standard for British and some European countries beginning in the 1950’s.
REFERENCE: Kubrick and his Ratios http://reviews.antagonyecstasy.com/2014/05/kubrick-and-his-ratios.html
REFERENCE: Hollywood Elsewhere 1.66:1 Aspect Ratio Festival http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/2016/02/hollywood-elsewhere-1-661-aspect-ratio-festival/
1-6: Standard Widescreen or Academy Flat (1.85:1) Introduced May, 1953
One of the two most standard formats for motion picture production and exhibition today is 1.85:1 It is achieved by masking the top and bottom of a full frame image, either by means of a 1.85 aperture in the projector or by means of a so-called ‘hard matte’ printed onto the frames of the print, blacking out the top and bottom of the academy ratio frame.
As well as permitting for more emphasis on horizontal compositional lines and focal points, a wider aspect ratio allows for more emphasis on horizontal space, such as empty or “dead” space within the frame, or the space between characters.
At the dawn of the age of widescreen cinema, Director Don Siegel (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Dirty Harry”) is rumored to have said that widescreen photography was only good for “snakes and trains.” Director Fritz Lang is rumored to have said it was only good for “snakes and funerals.”
Director Joss Whedon surprised and in some cases infuriated fans when he elected to shoot “The Avengers” in 1.85:1, an aspect ratio more often used for intimate dramas and comedies rather than for large-scale epic adventures, which usually employ a wider frame.
The frame was composed for the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, a concept that was spearheaded by Whedon early on. Explains (Cinematographer Seamus) McGarvey, “Shooting 1.85:1 is kind of unusual for an epic film like this, but we needed the height in the screen to be able to frame in all the characters like Hulk, Captain America and Black Widow, who is much smaller. We had to give them all precedence and width within the frame. Also, Joss knew the final battle sequence was going to be this extravaganza in Manhattan, so the height and vertical scale of the buildings was going to be really important.” Arri News: Avengers Assemble! http://www.arri.com/news/news/avengers-assemble/
The filmmakers chose to frame for 1.85:1. (Cinematographer Seamus) McGarvey recalls, “I was keen to shoot 2.40:1 because I felt it would have offered more scope, but Joss was worried about the height of the cityscape, and he wanted to be able to create both vertical and horizontal movement in the frame. Also, we had to leave space for the Hulk. He’s scraping the ceiling of our frame, and in 2.40:1 the poor guy would have been beheaded!” American Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC brings the Earth’s mightiest heroes to the big screen for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. https://www.theasc.com/ac_magazine/June2012/TheAvengers/page1.php
1-7: Anamorphic (CinemaScope) or Super 35mm Widescreen (2.35:1, 2.39:1) Used beginning in the 1950’s; Standardized in 1957
The second of the two most standard formats for motion picture production and exhibition today is 2.35:1 (sometimes 2.39:1).
An even wider aspect ratio allows for panoramic vistas, for horizontal compositional lines and objects or groups of objects, for greater emphasis on space, such as empty or “dead” space within the frame, or the space between characters. And it allows for close framing of subjects while still assigning significant compositional real estate to the environment.
One way this aspect ratio is achieved is by using an anamorphic lens. In production, such a lens squeezes the image horizontally to fit within the full 35mm frame. A lens then stretches the image back into a wider ratio in exhibition. This process is sometimes referred to generically as “scope,” based upon the common brand name “CinemaScope,” but it has gone by many brand names over the years.
REFERENCE: PetaPixel: Shooting with an Anamorphic Lens on an Ordinary DSLR http://petapixel.com/2014/05/07/shooting-anamorphic-lens-dslr/
A side effect of using an anamorphic lens is a distinctive lens flare. A lens flare occurs when light is allowed to shine straight into the lens. Due to the squeezing and stretching, anamorphic lens flares become long horizontal lines. Director J.J. Abrams is known for his use of anamorphic flares, but he is certainly not the only director or cinematographer to do so.
The 2.35:1 ratio can also be created by using parts of the 35mm film usually reserved for soundtrack information to widen the image in conjunction with masking the image shorter. This is referred to as Super 35mm.
1-8: Directors on Widescreen
Here directors discuss widescreen cinematography:
WATCH: Sydney Pollack on Widescreen (https://youtu.be/yzRuWQtMePk)
WATCH: Orson Welles on Widescreen (https://youtu.be/jDlrd9rs4jc)
WATCH: Directors on Widescreen (https://youtu.be/RXH3T0lEONw)
REFERENCE: In Praise of Widescreen http://www.filmdetail.com/2011/12/09/in-praise-of-widescreen-CinemaScope-aspect-ratio/
1-9: Ultra Panavision 70 (2.76:1) Used for a brief period beginning in the 1950s (1957 – 1966) Resurrected for “The Hateful Eight” (2015)
Combining a wider film stock (70mm wide) with anamorphic lenses can create an even wider aspect ratio.
WATCH: The Hateful Eight Featurette – Ultra Panavision (2015) – Quentin Tarantino Movie HD (https://youtu.be/SGg2N32Z-co)
1-10: IMAX (1.43:1) A standard IMAX screen is 22 × 16.1 m (72 × 52.8 ft)
In 2002, to compete with home theater and digital devices and their relatively small screens, feature films began to be shot and released in IMAX, a large format presentation previously dedicated primarily to specialty documentary and travel shorts shown at institutional venues such as museums, science centers and national parks.
Although projected on massive screens, the aspect ratio of 1.43:1 was ironically close to the original academy ratio.
Films shot in 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 ratios are also projected on the large-scale IMAX screens often preserving their original shapes. Some feature films shot with digital cameras or on regular 35mm photochemical film stock have undergone the IMAX Digital Media Remastering (DMR) process for exhibition both in 70mm photochemical IMAX theatres and in Digital IMAX theatres. More rare are films, such as “The Dark Knight,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Interstellar,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” that are shot partially in IMAX format with IMAX cameras and shift between ratios during presentation in IMAX theaters.
“Avengers: Infinity War” is the first feature film shot entirely with IMAX large format cameras.
WATCH: Interstellar in 6 Different Screening Formats! Which to See (https://youtu.be/CUKthDVG-Qc)
1-11: Standard High Definition (16:9 or 1.77:1)
Since 2009, 16:9, or 1.77:1, has become the standard for video, televisions, monitors and personal devices. Television programs and Internet content are produced almost exclusively in this format. Preserving the aspect ratios of films shot at the standard 1.33:1, 1.85:1, and 2.35:1 requires letterboxing (placing black bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame) or pillar-boxing (placing black bars on the sides of the 16:9 frame).
REFERENCE: Wikipedia 16:9 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/16:9
1-12: THE TYRANNY OF THE FRAME
Since the beginning of the medium, filmmakers have chafed against the intractability of the frame shape.
The most common technique during the silent film era to fight the rectangle was the mask, or matte, that created a new compositional shape WITHIN the existing frame.
Sometimes the mask was employed to soften the edges of the frame, so that the image gradually merges with the darkness of the theater around it.
Sometimes it was used to create an entirely new compositional shape. Most common was the circle, or iris, sometimes softly edged, sometimes sharply distinct.
Sometimes masking was employed to create other compositional shapes.
Sometimes the edges of the frame were softened or diffused through careful lighting rather than masking.
And in other instances environmental elements were employed to reframe a subject.
“The Wild Cat” (1921)
Perhaps the most extreme example of playing with masked shapes within the frame occurs in “The Wild Cat: A Grotesque in Four Acts,” a German comedy co-written and directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1921.
WATCH: The Wildcat (1921) – Rischka and Pepo MV (https://youtu.be/lqee8GcF_3Y)
REFERENCE: Transatlantic Auteur: Ernst Lubitsch’s Self-reflexive Comedies of Misunderstandings. http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/transatlantic-auteur-ernst-lubitsch%E2%80%99s-self-reflexive-comedies-of-misunderstanding/
REFERENCE: Silent Volume – The Wildcat (1921) http://silent-volume.blogspot.com/2011/12/wildcat-1921.html
REFERENCE: Observations on Film Art – Archive for Silent Film Category http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/category/silent-film/
REFERENCE: Changes in Film Style in the 1910 http://wcftr.commarts.wisc.edu/exhibits/harry-roy-aitken-papers/changes-film-style-1910s
Increasingly, filmmakers are mixing aspect ratios for creative and narrative purposes. This technique has been dubbed ‘shapeshifting.’
However, it is not a new invention.
In 1927, years before mainstream Hollywood would introduce widescreen formats to moviegoers, French director Abel Gance invented a widescreen process he called Polyvision for his epic production “Napoleon.” Polyvision employed three side-by-side cameras for production and three side-by-side projectors for exhibition. This allowed him to create a cinematic triptych. A triptych is defined as a set of three associated artistic works often presented side-by-side and intended to be appreciated together.
Examples of triptychs range from Peter Paul Ruben’s 15th century ‘The Descent From the Cross’ to Francis Bacon’s 20th century ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.’
The Polyvision technology made Gance’s cinematic triptychs, each composed of three 1.33:1 images, possible.
Polyvision also allowed Gance to align adjacent images together to create a single, panoramic image. For the film’s finale, he expanded a standard 1.33:1 image to a massive and unprecedented 4:1 aspect ratio.
WATCH: Napoleon Trailer | In cinemas 11 November 2016 | BFI release (https://youtu.be/6504eRh5h6M)
REFERENCE: KEVIN BROWNLOW ON NAPOLÉON: ‘WHAT I THOUGHT THE CINEMA OUGHT TO BE, BUT NEVER WAS’ https://silentlondon.co.uk/2016/10/26/kevin-brownlow-napoleon-abel-gance-restoration/
1-14: An aside on Cinerama
Twenty-five years after Gance’s experiment, in its search for widescreen technologies, Hollywood would adapt and attempt to perfect Gance’s three camera / three projector technique. The result was Cinerama, achieving an aspect ratio of 2.60:1.
The technology proved expensive and unwieldy and succumbed to anamorphic and larger format approaches.
REFERENCE: The Wayward Charms of Cinerama http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2012/09/26/the-wayward-charms-of-cinerama/
REFERENCE: The Entire Development of the Cinerama Process http://www.in70mm.com/cinerama/archive/story/index.htm
1-15: Shapeshifting Examples
There are many recent and not-so-recent examples of shapeshifting.
“The Road Warrior” (1981)
WATCH: The Road Warrior Aspect Ratio Change
“Galaxy Quest” (1999)
The sci-fi comedy “Galaxy Quest” used all three of the primary aspect ratios, but only in its theatrical release. The film tells the story of the washed-up cast of a once popular science fiction television show, now surviving on cheap promotional gimmicks and convention appearances. The movie starts with a clip from the original show, and as it would have been seen on television at the time, it is presented in 1.33:1.
The filmmakers then reveal that the show is being projected on a screen at a science fiction convention, and ratio expands to 1.85:1, where it remains for several scenes.
Later actor Jason Nesmith, played by Tim Allen, after a series of misunderstandings realizes for the first time he has been beamed aboard an actual spaceship by a group of aliens he has mistaken for fans. He watches the massive doors of a spaceport open to reveal a breathtaking space-scape, and the screen expanded to 2.35:1 to match the movement of the doors. With the story now shifting from a comedy of errors to a space adventure, the 2.35:1 width remains.
Unfortunately, these dramatic aspect shifts were not preserved for digital releases of the film.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” (2010)
WATCH: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Aspect Ratio Change (Some Idiotic Dream) (https://youtu.be/CG8WmiB8FkQ)
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014)
WATCH: Wes Anderson on the Colors and the Ratios of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (https://youtu.be/ouavfP6EhWQ)
REFERENCE: The Aspect Ratios of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/03/06/grand_budapest_hotel_aspect_ratios_new_wes_anderson_movie_has_three_different.html
Filmmakers not only experiment with shapeshifting, they also experiment with non-standard ratios and shapes.
WATCH: Cutting the Edge: Freedom in Framing
And in case this subject of aspect ratios is still confusing, we’ll let Director James Cameron clear it up for you.
WATCH: James Cameron on Avatar aspect ratio Hometheaterforum.com
Jaws (1975) 2.35:1
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) 1.85:1
“The General” (1926) 1.33:1
READ AND WATCH CLIPS: Film Studies 101: A Beginners Guide to Aspect Ratios
REFERENCE: The Changing Shape of Cinema: The History of Aspect Ratio (https://youtu.be/3CgrMsjGk7k)
REFERENCE: Shapeshifting Films
REFERENCE: The Elastic Frame
REFERENCE: Apertures, Aspect Ratios, Film Formats Part Two
THE TECHNICAL DIMENSION
SPACE IN CINEMA
FRAMING – I’M READY FOR MY CLOSE-UP
The frame (noun) defines and reveals a two-dimensional, rectangular “slice” of the world created by the filmmakers.
Framing (verb) refers to aligning and setting the frame in relationship to the film’s geography and subjects, deciding in the process how much or how little of that world and subject to reveal, and the size of objects within the frame. This decision informs the relative importance of objects and our emotional distance from or nearness to subjects. It also sets a specific relational balance between a subject and the environment.
The motion picture industry has somewhat standardized, defined and labeled different kinds of framing, based largely on the size of the human subject or subjects in the frame. In practice, there are some vagaries in the use of these terms, so expect some inconsistency even among industry professionals.
“The size of an object in the frame should equal its importance in the story at that moment.” Director Alfred Hitchcock
2-2: The Close-Up (Abbreviated CU)
“The greatest location in the world is the human face.” Director John Cassavetes
Close-Up – A shot framed to emphasize the human head or face, or something of the same approximate size, usually at the expense of the environment.
Types: Tight close-up, extreme close-up, shoulder shot
“We used a lot of close-ups. For me, the close-up is one of the great inventions of the 20th century; it allows an audience to sit in a dark room and stare into the eyes of a person who’s emoting without being self-conscious.” Darren Aronofsky on “Black Swan” American Cinematographer
The immediate cultural and narrative antecedent to the movies is the theater, where the sense of intimacy and subtlety engendered by a close-up is nearly impossible. So the close-up as a narrative tool is almost uniquely cinematic.
As Aronofsky suggests, the close-up is one of cinema’s most powerful tools. Unlike a portrait that captures a specific frozen moment either in painting or in photography, the close-up exists in time. The positioning, the expressions, the emotions can change and evolve.
Study the close-ups that follow. How much story does a close scrutiny of the landscape of the human face communicate? How subtly can emotion be conveyed? How close do we feel both physically and empathically to the characters? What is conveyed that in a wider view we would miss?
WATCH: Close Up Shots that POP – The Best Camera Angles in Film (https://youtu.be/O5ZCsw22JRk)
“La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc” (1928)
In 1928, director Carl Theodor Dreyer, in his film “La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc” shot the story of Joan of Arc relying extensively on close-ups.
“Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.” Carl Theodor Dreyer, Thoughts on My Craft
WATCH: Critics’ Picks – ‘Passion of Joan of Arc’ (https://youtu.be/X7ddz1S8pJ8)
“A Place in the Sun” (1951)
In 1951, director George Stevens was praised for his use of close-ups to create an almost unprecedented air of romance and passion in “A Place in the Sun.” The frame tightly embraces actors Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, enhancing their intimacy while forcing the rest of the world to vanish from view. Of the close-ups, critic Bosley Crowther wrote that they are “contrived to catch the heartbeat of agitated blood in youthful veins, the heat of flesh released from pressure, the flash of fear of desperation in troubled eyes.”
His (Stevens’) camera is effectively restrained; it peeks through doorways or stands patiently in the corner like a hidden witness; and when it moves suddenly into close-ups, the effect of intimacy is breathtaking.” Bosley Crowther. Time, September 10, 1951.
WATCH: A Place in the Sun (https://youtu.be/wEuFNnJSIw80)
“Les Miserables” (2012)
In 2012, when the film adaptation of the wildly popular stage musical “Les Miserables” was in post-production, actor Eddie Redmayne was watching a rough cut of the show’s signature number, “I Dreamed a Dream,” as performed by his fellow actor Anne Hathaway. He noticed something missing among the tracking shots and full shots and medium shots – the striking close-up that had appeared briefly in the film’s teaser trailer.
WATCH: Les Misérables – Teaser Trailer (HD) (https://youtu.be/tnS9HhYVIpU)
According to director Tom Holland, “And then Eddie Redmayne, who’s been a friend of mine since I worked with him on Elizabeth I, said to me: “Why aren’t you using that close-up that you’re using in that teaser trailer?” He was talking about the way you see all the muscles in Anne’s neck work as she sings and the raw power of that, and I thought, God, that’s interesting. So, it was actually Eddie’s suggestion to re-examine that scene, and the moment we put that close-up in, the film played in a completely different way. The level of emotion went up about a hundred percent. So the process of moving toward these close-ups was a process of discovery … The tight close-ups won out in the cutting room because, over and over again, the emotional intimacy was far more intense than when you go loose. “
WATCH: I Dreamed a Dream – Anne Hathaway (HD) (https://youtu.be/86lczf7Bou8)
I thought the great weapon in my arsenal was the close up, because the one thing on stage that you can’t enjoy is the detail of what is going on in people’s faces as they are singing. I felt (that) having to do a meditation on the human face was by far the best way to bring out the emotion of the songs. Tom Hooper, Director, “Les Miserables” “Les Miserables” movie relies on close-ups for emotional punch (http://www.reuters.com/article/entertainment-us-lesmiserables-idUSBRE8BK0UO20121221)
WATCH: Close-Up Encounters of the “Miserables” Kind (https://youtu.be/bgSPJd9O7BY)
2-3: The Overuse of the Close-up
Iconoclast Orson Welles, director of “Citizen Kane,” “Touch of Evil,” and “Chimes at Midnight,” once suggested the close-up was a crutch for weak actors. He felt that essentially anyone could give a decent performance in a close-up; wider and longer takes were the true test of acting talent. The following exchange occurred in an interview with Welles conducted by film critic and director Peter Bogdanovich.
PB: But in acting – acting in general some things do work better in closeup. Will you give me that?
OW: Dear Peter – I’ll give you all the closeups you want. Personally, I don’t much like them, as you know. I tell actors, “Look out – if you aren’t good enough, we’ll have to move in for a close shot.”
This Is Orson Welles . Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Rosenbaum. (http://www.openculture.com/2014/01/listen-to-eight-interviews-of-orson-welles-by-peter-bogdanovich-1969-1972.html )
Video essayist Luke Ramsden uses the work of renowned director Howard Hawks, director of “Scarface” (1932), “Bringing Up Baby” (1938), “His Girl Friday” (1940), “To Have and Have Not’ (1944), “The Big Sleep” (1946), “Rio Bravo” (1959) to argue against the overuse of the close-up.
WATCH: Howard Hawks: The Art of the Close-Up Film Analysis (https://youtu.be/1oHOziiywic)
OPTIONAL VIEWING: Alfred Hitchcock’s Close-Ups (https://vimeo.com/137761623)
OPTIONAL VIEWING: The Jonathan Demme Close-Up (https://vimeo.com/126757480)
OPTIONAL VIEWING: The Art of Close-ups with Edgar Wright (https://youtu.be/vedJVCvdBgI)
OPTIONAL VIEWING: The Close Up Shot: A Video Essay (https://youtu.be/GeApVBBf1as)
REFERENCE: What is ‘Hitchcock’s Rule’ & How Can It Help You Tell Better Stories http://nofilmschool.com/2015/11/hitchcock-rule-help-you-tell-better-visual-stories
REFERENCE: The Critics’ Corner: A Place In The Sun http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/357293%7C0/A-Place-in-the-Sun.html
REFERENCE: Theory of Film – The Redemption of Physical Reality by Siegfried Kracauer https://www.scribd.com/document/118801906/Theory-of-Film
REFERENCE: Marshall and the Movies – Review: Les Miserables https://marshallandthemovies.com/2012/12/19/lesmis/#more-11346
REFERENCE: Movieline – Tom Hooper Defends His ‘Les Misérables ‘ Close-Ups & Reveals Who’s The Bigger Musical Geek: Jackman or Hathaway http://movieline.com/2012/12/25/tom-hooper-interview-les-miserables-defends-close-ups/
2-4: Close-Up Type: The Tight Close-Up
Some professionals will designate a facial close-up that crops the top of the head and/or the face below the lips as a tight close-up. It serves a similar function as a standard close-up but creates a more claustrophobic feel or increased sense of proximity and therefore enhanced intimacy or menace, depending on context.
There is no clear-cut delineation between a standard close-up and a tight close-up.
Study the tight close-ups that follow. What feeling or story point is conveyed that in a standard close-up would be absent? Are we as a viewer forced further into the characters’ heads and thoughts?
2-5: Close –Up Type: The Extreme Close-Up (Abbreviated ECU)
Extreme Close-Up – A shot framed to emphasize a part of the human face or a diminutive object, usually something smaller than a human head.
Its obvious function is to elevate the importance of a detail by enlarging it within the frame.
Study the extreme close-ups below. How would the enhanced focus on a part of the face or the enlargement of a small object help create emotion and/or propel the narrative forward?
“Citizen Kane” (1941)
The opening of Orson Welles’ seminal first film uses extreme close-ups to a variety of effects. At the beginning of the first shot in this clip, the subject appears deceptively larger than it is. It appears to be a long shot of a cabin in snow. A pull back reveals the shot to be an extreme close-up of a snow globe. The globe and what it represents will be an important clue to the film’s central mystery. But more important in both the film and in film history is Kane’s final word as he dies, “Rosebud,” uttered by a giant mustachioed mouth that fills the screen. One can only imagine the impact of this shot on an audience in a theater with a 40-foot wide screen. “Rosebud” and what it may mean will drive the film’s entire narrative. The extreme close-up emphasizes its importance.
WATCH: CITIZEN KANE – Rosebud (https://youtu.be/O4mQqVqRB7I)
“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (1966)
For the climactic three-way shootout of this western, director Sergio Leone crosscuts between tight and extreme close-ups, building a visual crescendo to the scene’s violent but brief climax. In doing so, he eliminates the environment as a factor and forces the viewer to concentrate only on the faces of the antagonists and in turn what they may be thinking.
WATCH: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (11/12) Movie CLIP – Three-Way Standoff (1966) HD (https://youtu.be/5PgAKzmWmuk)
“Blue Velvet” (1986)
In the bizarre mystery “Blue Velvet,” director David Lynch suggests the dark and depraved underbelly of an apparently idyllic small town in a series of extreme close-ups that end the following clip.
WATCH: Blue Velvet – Opening Sequence (https://youtu.be/TwuzI8Y0uW0)
The inciting incident of “Blue Velvet” is a gruesome discovery, revealed in extreme close-up.
WATCH: Blue Velvet (1/11) Movie CLIP – That’s a Human Ear (1986) HD (https://youtu.be/BeYx_CBH700)
And the film concludes by bringing us back to the deceptively serene world in a surreal transition of extreme close-ups.
WATCH: Blue Velvet – The Ear (https://youtu.be/W8ap2yco-go)
“The Blair Witch Project” (1999)
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s highly influential and astonishingly successful “found footage” horror film was revolutionary in both its execution and marketing. The film itself purports to be the found footage of a trio of student filmmakers who wander into the woods of Maryland to shoot a documentary on a local folktale and are never seen again. In this scene, actress Heather Donahue turns her camera on herself and makes a final apology for instigating the disastrous outing. It is depicted as an unintentional extreme or tight close-up, but its power is derived from both the proximity suggested by the close-up and the purposefully haphazard framing.
WATCH: The Blair Witch Project – Apology scene (https://youtu.be/Z66RpatHajQ)
Optional Viewing: David Fincher’s Extreme Close-Ups (https://vimeo.com/152923976)
I loved extreme close-ups for the longest time, but for some reason I always felt like ‘No one is getting it exactly the way I want to see it – the way I want to see an extreme close-up” Paul Thomas Anderson
Optional Viewing: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Extreme Close-Ups (https://vimeo.com/134670866)
2-6: Close-Up Type: The Shoulder Shot
A shoulder shot is simply a close-up that includes the shoulders. But in this simple concept we see the beginnings of the central tension of framing – the relative importance of the human face to the human body and the human body to the environment and landscape.
Creating a shoulder shot moves us slightly further from the intimacy and proximity a standard or tight close-up creates. We now have other considerations and their narrative contributions – wardrobe, posture and environment come more into play.
There is no clear-cut delineation between a standard close-up and a shoulder shot.
Study the shoulder shots below. What additional information is being provided by this slightly wider view in relation to a standard or tight close-up? What might the narrative and emotional advantage be of this information?
2-7 The Medium Shot (Abbreviated MS)
Medium shot – A shot that frames a person’s face and a significant portion of the person’s body.
Types: Waist shot, cowboy shot.
In the tension around the relative importance of the human face to the human body and the human body to the environment and landscape, the medium shot still emphasizes the human being, but not the human face. The environment is more involved within the frame, but the human subject is still dominant.
There is no clear-cut delineation between a shoulder shot and a medium shot.
Study the medium shots below, including the waist and cowboy types. Consider the balance between head and body, and between body and environment. Look at posture and costuming. How do these images tell a story differently than a close-up?
2-8: Medium Shot Type: The Waist Shot
Waist shot – A specific medium shot in which the subject is seen from the waist up.
2-9: Medium Shot Type: The Cowboy
Cowboy – A specific medium shot in which the subject is seen from the mid to lower thigh up. It is so called as this framing was often used in westerns to frame a holstered hip gun into the shot.
WATCH: Medium Shot – Film Elementary (https://youtu.be/PsIjovLdVzg)
2-10: The Full Shot (Abbreviated FS)
Full shot – A shot that frames one or more human figures from head to foot. In a full shot, posture and costuming take precedence. A full shot is about the human form, but the environment is also a key player in the image.
Study the full shots below. How is character visually defined in a full shot? What contributions do posture and wardrobe make? How much does the environment impact character? In each shot which seems to communicate more info – the character or the environment?
2-11: Fred Astaire and Cinematic Dance Performances
Fred Astaire was one of the great stars of the golden age of Hollywood. An accomplished dancer, he felt that dance is about the body as a whole, the full figure, not about bits and pieces, like feet and hands and faces, fragmented into long and full and medium shots and close-ups, then edited together. This more frenetic and fragmented was the style of early movie musicals, such as those of choreographer and director Busby Berkeley.
WATCH: Lullaby of Broadway – Excerpt – Busby Berkeley (https://youtu.be/Yx6s-YReOJY)
For Astaire, dance existed as a complete performance, uninterrupted and un-fragmented. He insisted that the dance numbers in his films maintain their spatial and temporal integrity. So his contract required the filmmakers to shoot his dances in full shots and long takes.
ASIDE: Astaire’s frequent dancing partner in ten films was the talented Ginger Rogers, who did not always get the credit she deserved, as this 1982 cartoon commemorated.
WATCH: Swing Time – Rogers and Astaire (1936) (https://youtu.be/mxPgplMujzQ)
WATCH: Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. ‘Begin the Beguine’ Tap dance duet from “Broadway Melody of 1940” (https://youtu.be/0-b4M8jssX8)
Many other studios, filmmakers and performers adopted this technique for capturing performance. In the following clip we see Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers perform the hit song “Chattanooga Choo Choo” from the film “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941).
WATCH: The Nicholas Brothers and Dorothy Dandridge – “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (1941) (https://youtu.be/JTwy8ruyY40)
2-12 Dorothy Dandridge, the Nicholas Brothers and Racial Politics
Dorothy Dandridge is one of the most accomplished actresses, singers and dancers who ever lived. She was the first African-American nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. The Nicholas Brothers were considered to be the greatest tap dancers of their day, and they perfected if not invented an acrobatic dance style known as “flash dancing.”
Unfortunately, their cinematic careers were stunted due to their race.
There is a troubling side note regarding the previous clip. You may notice that the African-American performers are visually segregated from the white performers. This was done whenever black performers presented musical numbers in Hollywood studio pictures aimed at general audiences. (Unlike the more rare films designed solely for African-American audiences). Designed to cater to theater owners in the south and elsewhere who feared angering or scandalizing their segregated and potentially racist white audiences, it was a strategy that facilitated the easy removal of the sections featuring African-American actors from the pictures.
OPTIONAL VIEWING: Fred Astaire & Eleanor Powell – Jukebox Dance (https://youtu.be/5LOPZNhsBXY)
OPTIONAL VIEWING: Fred Astaire Firecracker Dance – Holiday Inn (1942 (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x4suc1)
REFERENCE: Reel Classics – Ginger Rogers http://www.reelclassics.com/Actresses/Ginger/ginger-article2.htm
REFERENCE: Wikiquote – Ginger Rogers https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ginger_Rogers
2-13: The Long Shot (Abbreviated LS)
Long shot – A shot framed so that more of the environment is included. The human characters, while identifiable in context, are only a small element in the larger environment. This allows for more detail of the surrounding mise en scene.
A PERSONAL ASIDE – Mise en Scene
In using the phrase “mise en scene,” I have taken an ill defined and hotly contested concept and applied it specifically to the long shot. Some consider mise en scene an umbrella phrase to describe the combination of every element within a frame. Some consider mise en scene to apply to longer takes and be a kind of antonym to editing or montage.
The French term originates in theater criticism and translates somewhat loosely to “placed in a scene.” Its first usage referred to the overall elements placed on a stage for a theatrical production – the environment, setting, lighting, placement of actors, etc. We can assume the importance of focusing on these elements in criticism is to consider their contribution to narrative, character, and their emotional impact on an audience.
Theater exists in a long shot. We see an entire stage setting and the characters within it. So for me, mise en scene in cinema refers to the overall emotional and evocative impact of the presentation of location or setting or set – the environment. And this comes most directly into play in the long shot.
In the tension around the relative importance of the human body to the environment and landscape within a frame, the long shot emphasizes the environment; the human subject is an element of the setting.
There is no definitive line between a full shot and a long shot. There are images that exist on the edge between the two. The key decisive factor in a long shot is the balance between setting and character.
Be aware that there is a difference between a long shot, which relates to framing, and a long take, which refers to the duration of a shot.
Study the long shots and the images in the videos below. Consider the balance between body and environment. How does making the environment so prominent an element add information important to storytelling or mood or character?
WATCH: Paul Thomas Anderson: From a Distance (https://vimeo.com/120423327)
WATCH: David Fincher: From a Distance (https://vimeo.com/170541389)
2-14: Long Shot Type: The Extreme Long Shot (Abbreviated ELS)
Extreme Long Shot – A shot framed so that a human being is visually overwhelmed by an environment. The human subject, if there even is one, is unidentifiable out of narrative context.
In the narrative tension arising from the conflict of man vs. nature, man is outmatched.
Extreme Long Shots often function as Establishing Shots, which establish the locale of the scene or film to follow, often without including any character.
Yet again, there is no definitive line between a long shot and an extreme long shot. There are images that exist on the edge between the two. The key decisive factor in an extreme long shot is that the environment or setting dominates any characters present.
Study the extreme long shots below. Consider the place of the human being within the majestic or harsh or threatening landscape. What do these shots tell us about the situation and emotion of the character?
“Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)
Our use and perception of different types of framing are often designed to manipulate our sense of distance from subjects and objects in the frame. In this clip from “Lawrence of Arabia” directed by David Lean, an approaching threat is all the more intimidating as it inexorably approaches from a distance. The filmmakers do not cut to a closer shot of the oncoming danger. We the viewers share the perception and point of view of the foreground characters. Thus the menace increases as the peril moves from an extreme long shot to a long shot.
WATCH: Lawrence of Arabia (2/8) Movie CLIP – Ali’s Well (1962) HD (https://youtu.be/ud1zpHW3ito)
- Extreme Close-up – the detail is everything.
- Close-up – the face or the object is everything.
- Shoulder Shot – the face is paramount, but wardrobe and posture and environment have something to add.
- Medium Shot –the face is important, but no more so than the posture and the wardrobe, and the environment has value.
- Full Shot – the whole person is most important; it dominates and comments upon the environment
- Long Shot – the person’s place in the environment is of greatest importance
- Extreme Long Shot – the environment and its dominance of the person is of paramount importance
WATCH: Best Shots of All Time, Part 1 (https://youtu.be/hWiIEiyWFTY)
OPTIONAL VIEWING: Michael Cimino / Wide Shot (https://vimeo.com/177463099)
OPTIONAL VIEWING: Best Shots of All Time, Part 2 (https://youtu.be/vHY1HeaLSL4)
“Jaws” Medium Shots
“Jaws” Full Shots
“Jaws” Long Shots
THE TECHNICAL DIMENSION
SPACE IN CINEMA
THE HIGH ROAD AND THE LOW ROAD
3-1. Moment by moment, filmmakers define the visual perspective, or “angle” of the viewer to the subject in space.
Camera angle is defined as the position of the camera and its viewpoint in relation to the subject. Since at every moment the camera is the viewer’s surrogate, this angle creates or defines a relationship between the viewer and the subject, both spatially and emotionally.
In other words, the camera is you the viewer. Your relationship in space and therefore in emotion to a subject is partially dependent on the camera’s view of the subject. If the camera is above a subject, you look down on them; if it is below the subject, you look up at them. And we feel differently about those we look up to than we do about those we look down upon.
Camera angles are divided into three broad categories.
3-2. Category 1 – Eye Level
The camera is placed level with the eyes of the subject. You as the viewer are therefore of equal standing with the subject, whether they be sitting or standing, short tall.
3-3. Category 2 – LOW ANGLE
The camera is placed below the subject looking up at it. Since at every given moment, the viewpoint of the camera is your viewpoint as a viewer, this places the subject above you.
A low angle is thought to strengthen the subject. Anyone above you, that you are looking up at, is superior, or threatening, or dominant, or powerful, or heroic.
Of course this all depends on context. After an hour and a half of following a character who is weaselly, weak and selfish, a low angle will not automatically erase our previous conceptions and somehow redeem or empower the character.
There are other motivations for low angle images. They sometimes allow important compositional elements to occupy the foreground or the background. They may reveal or conceal elements within the environment. By emphasizing a ceiling they may create a sense of enclosure or claustrophobia; by emphasizing an open sky they may suggest freedom and a liberty from the earth and its worldly concerns. Low angles also may act as point of view (POV) shots, images meant to reveal the world as a particular character sees it at a particular moment.
Study the low angle shots that follow. What characterization or story element is implied by the angle? When do the angles seem motivated by character, by action, by story, by point of view, or by composition, in particular the addition of foreground or background elements?
Citizen Kane (1941)
Mid-way through “Citizen Kane” (1941), directed by Orson Welles and photographed by Gregg Toland, Charles Foster Kane, played by Welles, has a confrontation with his oldest friend, Jed Leland, played by Joseph Cotton. Newspaper tycoon and powerful opinion maker Kane, running for governor of New York on a reform ticket, has lost the election due to a sex scandal. Leland, who has campaigned vigorously for Kane’s election, feels betrayed, both personally and politically.
The confrontation involves constant movement, Leland attacking and Kane sometimes retreating, sometimes standing his ground. There are moments, with Leland in attack mode, in which the two friends face off and are framed almost like western gunfighters in the street at high noon.
There are other moments, with Kane making attempts at reconciliation, by charm or by force, when they are framed tightly together, boxed in with one another, forced to confront their differences.
Their confrontation is about more than their personal feelings. It is about broader ideas, the changing face of politics at the beginning of the 20th century, progressivism, political corruption, the rise of organized labor, class struggle, and “the sacred cause of reform.”
Perhaps these larger implications of the confrontation is why it was so vitally important to Welles that the scene be shot in a series of ultra low angles. He had the set built on a platform above the studio floor, and ceilings added where light grids usually hung. And when this wasn’t enough, legend has it that the angle was so imperative to Welles that he had his crew use pile drivers and pick axes to break open the studio’s concrete floor and dig a hole for the camera. The impulsiveness may be apocryphal, but a hole was definitely dug for the camera, as production stills prove.
The low angles exaggerate the characters and the drama; everything is larger than life, and certainly larger than we. They elevate the argument. The scene is about more than just the problems of these two men; it is about the problems of an entire society, viewed in microcosm.
WATCH: CITIZEN KANE (Clip) (https://youtu.be/kzwwr1Rgt2Y)
Later in that same film, an older Kane is confronted by his second wife, Susan. Kane retaliates and looms dominant over Susan, literally engulfing her in his shadow. The use of high and low angles emphasize the dynamics of their relationship.
Throughout “Citizen Kane,” relationships are defined or enhanced through the use of angles, as here with Kane’s domineering guardian, Walter Parks Thatcher.
“Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)” (1964)
In “Dr. Strangelove,” directed by Stanley Kubrick, Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, played by Sterling Hayden, has preemptively and unilaterally launched a nuclear attack on Soviet Russia. His stated motivation – that communist infiltration, in particular water fluoridation, is robbing American males of their virility. As he explains his plan and rationale to his executive officer, played by Peter Sellers, Kubrick films Ripper from a striking low angle, emphasizing not only his oversized ego and rampant madness, but his overtly phallic cigar as well.
WATCH 1-Low Angle Shot (Dr. Strangelove or how i learned to stop worrying and love the bomb) (https://youtu.be/PRpwPnMExdk)
Following is a compilation, or “supercut” of low angle shots employed by Quentin Tarantino in his films. Try to discern the motivations behind the use of the low angle in each of these shots.
WATCH: Tarantino // From Below (https://vimeo.com/37540504)
3-4. Category 3 – High Angle
The camera is placed above the subject looking down at it. Since at every given moment, the viewpoint of the camera is your viewpoint as a viewer, this places you above the subject.
A high angle is thought to weaken the subject. Anyone below you, that you are looking down on, is inferior, or harmless, or submissive, or weak, or timid.
This all of course depends on context. After an hour and a half of following a character who is strong, resourceful and self-sacrificing, a high angle will not automatically erase our previous conceptions and somehow degrade the character.
Just as with low angles, there are other motivations for high angle images. They sometimes allow important compositional elements to occupy the foreground or the background. They may reveal or conceal elements within the environment. By emphasizing the floor or the ground they may create a sense of a character being tethered to the earth and its worldly concerns. They may help preserve the relationships in space of multiple subjects to each other. High angles also may act as point of view (POV) shots, images meant to reveal the world as a particular character sees it at a particular moment.
Study the high angle shots that follow. What characterization or story element is implied by the angle? When do the angles seem motivated by character, by action, by story, by point of view, or by composition, in particular the addition of foreground or background elements?
“42nd Street” and “Footlight Parade” (1933)
Choreographer Busby Berkeley was known for his lavish and extravagantly filmed musical numbers. For “42nd Street” he and director Lloyd Bacon used carefully choreographed dancers as geometric elements in elaborate designs, patterns often only discernible from a high overhead angle.
WATCH: 42nd Street (https://youtu.be/iM_Xjw4m0ro)
For “Footlight Parade,” they moved their geometric patterns into a watery setting.
WATCH: Footlight Parade (1933) – Human Waterfall (https://youtu.be/FRqcZcrgPaU)
“Foreign Correspondent” (1940)
Director Alfred Hitchcock was often inspired to create an entire film based on a visual idea or two he had conceived. The idea for “Foreign Correspondent,” grew from two of these visual inspirations, and from the location of the story – wartime Holland. Hitchcock later told fellow director Francois Truffaut, “We started out with the idea of the windmill sequence and also the scene of the murderer escaping through the bobbing umbrellas. We were in Holland and so we used windmills and rain.” Hitchcock’s staging of a post assassination chase included high angles from which the chase could only be discerned by the bobbing of a sea of umbrellas.
REFERENCE: TCM – “Foreign Correspondent” http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/75400/Foreign-Correspondent/articles.html
WATCH: FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Assassination (https://youtu.be/Qq4Ha8j37WA)
In “Psycho,” director Alfred Hitchcock stages a key scene on the staircase of a sinister house. We the audience know that the murderer occupies a room on the second floor landing. The private detective prowling through the house does not. The staircase allows for a threatening high angle shot of the detective slowly climbing the stairs, unaware of the fate that awaits him. Hitchcock then cuts abruptly to an extreme and striking overhead shot as the murder commences.
For the high angle above the stairs in the Arbogast murder scene and the shot of Norman carrying “Mother” to the fruit cellar, the camera was placed in a cage hung from rails on the ceiling. http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/191164%7C0/Behind-the-Camera-Psycho.html
Psycho (10/12) Movie CLIP – Arbogast Meets Mother (1960) HD (https://youtu.be/5bieIiX5KLQ)
READ: High Angle Shots in Hitchcock’s Movies http://www.alfred-hitchcock-films.net/Themes/High-Shots.htm
God’s Eye View (of Bird’s Eye View)
Extreme high angle overhead shots, ones looking straight down, such as the ones seen in the choreography of Busby Berkley and the staircase scenes in “Psycho,” are often referred to as ‘God’s Eye View’ shots. Although some overhead shots represent a character’s POV, the angle often represents an omniscient view and sometimes suggests a higher power, whether that is God or the filmmaker/storyteller.
In the films of Wes Anderson, these angles tend to be character point of views (POVs).
WATCH: From Above: Wes Anderson (https://youtu.be/OeKfUcoUg0g)
3-5. HIGH AND LOW ANGLES
The network sit-com “Scrubs” parodied the standard use of high and low angles to suggest superiority and inferiority in the scene when Nurse Carla Espinoza, played by Judy Reyes, takes out her frustrations on a delivery driver.
WATCH: Use of high and low angle shots in “Scrubs” (https://youtu.be/8V1uE1-wTPs)
As one of our premiere visual stylists, director Alfred Hitchcock takes full advantage of all the visual tools afforded him.
READ: Shot for Shot” Building Tension and Detailing Power Struggles through Shots and Angles in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO https://reelclub.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/shot-for-shot-building-tension-and-detailing-power-struggles-through-shots-and-angles-in-hitchcocks-psycho/
“The Birds” (1963)
In this intense scene from “The Birds,” director Alfred Hitchcock uses a variety of angles to build and sustain the tension of the scene. A family and their visitor are trapped in their home while savage birds attack, trying to get inside.
Low angles emphasize the entrapment of the ceiling, where the birds can be heard attacking.
High angles suggest the threat coming from above and make the characters seem weak and defenseless.
WATCH: The Birds (1963) (https://youtu.be/AzOMTUxJ3lY)
3-6. An Addition – Canted, Oblique, Dutch, Chinese Angles
Canted is defined as “angular deviation from a vertical or horizontal place or surface; an inclination or slope. A slanted or oblique surface. To lean to one side; slant.” Oblique is defined as “having a slanting or sloping direction, course, or position, inclined.” http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Canted; http://www.thefreedictionary.com/oblique
Canted, oblique, Dutch or Chinese angles are all the same – the camera leans to one side in order to throw the image and the world off balance. It creates an immediate compositional tension of equilibrium. There is a subtle example in the scene from “The Birds” above. Notice how the window is tilted as if the wall is falling over toward the subject, appropriate as the threat is from the window.
Although the primary motivation for a canted angle is disorientation, there are other compositional motivations for these images., such as the ability to include elements in the frame that might otherwise not be visible, or to visually emphasize a relationship between characters.
Study the canted angles that follow. What do these angles communicate about the world of the film? What characterization or story element is implied by the angle?
WATCH: The Dutch Angle (https://youtu.be/gRaAguidavY)
“The Third Man” (1949)
“The Third Man” is a mystery/thriller, directed by Carol Reed and set in post World War II Vienna. Over images of bombed out buildings and squalor, the film’s opening narration describes Vienna in this way:
I never knew the old Vienna before the war with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better. I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We’d run anything if people wanted it enough and had the money to pay. Of course a situation like that does tempt amateurs but, well, you know, they can’t stay the course like a professional. Now the city is divided into four zones, you know, each occupied by a power: the American, the British, the Russian and the French. But the centre of the city that’s international policed by an international patrol. One member of each of the four powers. Wonderful! What a hope they had! All strangers to the place and none of them could speak the same language. Except a sort of smattering of German. Good fellows on the whole, did their best you know. Vienna doesn’t really look any worse than a lot of other European cities. Bombed about a bit. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041959/quotes
WATCH: The Third Man – Clip (https://youtu.be/Fja9kwTl_jU)
Director Reed decided to represent the discord and chaos of the city by sprinkling liberal doses of canted angles throughout the film.
WATCH: The Third Man – Clip (https://youtu.be/HP1VPuXEMbg)
Director Martin Scorsese had this to say about “The Third Man.”
Then there’s the city of Vienna itself, split up into four sections, with people living in beautiful baroque apartments, the camera pans and we see half of it in ruins. There’s this extraordinary sense of a world that’s come apart, accentuated by the off-centered cameras, the canted angles. It depicts the emergence from mass psychosis, 60 million people killed in the war, a civilization destroying itself: the camera style expresses that. The images never feel grounded. There’s a story about when William Wyler, the great director, saw the picture and, as a joke, sent Carol Reed a level to keep his camera straight. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/martin-scorsese-on-the-third-man-the-best-revelation-in-all-cinema-10340553.html
“Batman” (The TV Series, 1966-1968); “Batman (The Movie, 1966)
For the highly popular TV series and its subsequent movie adaptation, the filmmakers decided to uses canted angles whenever a scene was set in the lair or hideout or headquarters of one of the outsized, outlandish villains. This set those locales apart from the rest of the series and movie, and suggested the unbalanced minds of Batman’s rouge gallery.
WATCH: Batman – Miss Iceland on Ice (Better Quality) (https://youtu.be/ueyaFlo9xPg)
WATCH: Batgirl’s Onscreen Debut from Batman ‘66 (https://youtu.be/vw7EyhINnFw)
WATCH: Batman Kicking Ass (https://youtu.be/IZdmQalBsTA)
“Do The Right Thing” (1989)
In “Do The Right Thing,” as racial conflicts escalate over the course of the hottest day of an already sweltering summer, director Spike Lee and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson use a variety of cinematic techniques to help build tension. In this crucially combative scene, they introduce canted angles to add visual stress as the conflicts erupt in violence.
WATCH: Do the Right Thing (9/10) Movie CLIP – Fight the Power (1989) HD (https://youtu.be/TQ4y7GPeFBY)
When director Kenneth Branagh and Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos collaborated on the 2011 adaptation of Marvel Comics “Thor,” they liberally used canted angles to create a comic book aesthetic.
For me tilted Dutched angles is the way I remember comic book frames … that’s how I received the dynamism of the composition in the frames, wide angle lenses with lots of depth. That’s why I chose that type of style for this. Director Kenneth Branagh. “Thor” DVD Audio Commentary. The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre. By Liam Burke https://weminoredinfilm.com/2013/11/16/14-lessons-learned-from-director-kenneth-branaghs-dvdblu-ray-commentary-for-thor/
One unifying thing, which I had to do some persuading to get away with, was canted angles. I moved the camera a little lopsidedly, both up in Asgard and down here, to evoke what I would call a comic book style, where the panels are coming at you, the characters are busting out. Director Kenneth Branagh http://whatculture.com/film/marvel-cinematic-universe-11-little-known-facts-thor-movies?page=11
We also made very liberal use of Dutch angles throughout Thor. The wider camera would be Dutched one way, the close would be Dutched the opposite, and we’d flip that for the reverse shots. It was a kind of interpretation of the comic-book style. Director of Photography Haris Zambarloukos https://www.theasc.com/ac_magazine/June2011/Thor/page1.php
WATCH: Loki Visits Earth || Thor (https://youtu.be/dDBGR6rzn3Q)
An Aside – Orientation
As consumers of visual media and as human beings, we bring certain assumptions to the images we view. Among the most basic is that in viewing an image in a frame we assume the bottom is down and the top is up. It is so strongly ingrained in our perception that it is difficult to force our minds to think otherwise …
… until we see the images correctly oriented.
If we turn the camera upside down, then the world is upside down.
For the credit sequence of the supernatural thriller “Devil” (2010), director John Erick Dowdle turned a helicopter cityscape upside down for a disquieting and disorienting effect, foreshadowing the harrowing events to come.
WATCH: Devil Credits (https://youtu.be/AQTOjTam3Ww)
If the world is created upside down, and we turn the camera upside down, we get a different, apparently gravity-defying effect.
This is the basis for a striking effect from “Inception” (2010). Director Christopher Nolan built a set of a hotel hallway that could rotate vertically.
When the camera rotates in synchronization with the rotating set, it appears that gravity has been negated and that characters can walk on the walls and the ceiling.
WATCH: How were gravity fight scenes in Inception filmed by Christopher Nolan (https://youtu.be/8PhiSSnaUKk)
This was not a new effect when Nolan and his crew employed it. It was an optical illusion as old as cinema itself.
WATCH: Inceptions V6 (https://youtu.be/uz8MejCMjt4)