Black Bars and the Big Question
I’ve been playing a lot of Red Dead Redemption II lately, a game that has something it refers to as “cinematic mode.” What happens is you hit a button and two black bars come down from the edges, while the action begins to be displayed “like a movie.” Now, to be clear, there’s a functional aim to this mode, and that is to make for less monotonous conversations as you travel long distances on your horse with a non-player character. (Though in a lot of cases, the navigation doesn’t actually work, and your horse slams into a wagon or something.) I genuinely realize what the creators were trying to achieve, but there’s unintended significance in calling this “cinematic mode.”
The game, whether it means to or not, is saying you can just put black bars on something, allow a user to randomly change angles, and the visuals inherently become cinematic. To be clear, they don’t. But this stands as a perfect example of how most people look at cinematic hallmarks, considering form instead of function. It’s like saying “Oooh it has black bars, it looks a movie!” without understanding the real point of choosing a certain aspect ratio.
But I’m not here to take the game to task for trying to offer a simple visual solution. Rather, I want to look at how this game’s casual proclamation actually taps into the ongoing crisis of cinematography being greatly misunderstood.
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It seems like every couple of years I write about this subject, but it bears repeating. While many Hollywood productions are damn competent and made by incredible professionals, I also see countless films that imitate surface-level signifiers without much real understanding of why they’re appropriating those shots and styles in the first place. Nor does there appear to be an understanding of how those shots subtly affect the audience, which, when done correctly, can be quietly devastating. So the entire goal of this column is to first give you the understanding of cinematic language itself, then allow you to see the seams of that functionality in actual practice.
There are a few popular examples of these problems that I’ll analyze later, but it’s first important to realize that a lot of the films that are most guilty of the issues I’ll discuss don’t end up making it very far. They might make a festival splash, but they usually fail to connect with audiences. Most of the big examples come out of film schools, which is completely OK and understandable. I have no intention of singling this kind of work out, because there’s no sense in kicking things while they’re down—or while they’re in the growth phase. But there is use in talking about the process and how these misunderstandings have come to exist. And the main issue arises when people separate aesthetics from their core story intent.
In the deleted scenes for City of Gold, the food critic Jonathan Gold (a.k.a. the best critic of any medium, ever) said there’s only one question in all of criticism: “Why?” As in, why choose this ingredient? Why this combination of flavors? Why serve it at this temperature? The same is true of film. Why this shot? Why this movement? Why this color? Why this emphasis? You then examine how all this adds up to create meaning in a story.
But it’s often hard to convince people that a lot of aesthetic choices aren’t really about like or dislike, or that it’s all completely up to interpretation. Because as much as we like to go off intuition or occasionally break the rules, the truth is that a given shot means something. More importantly, it means something to a lot of the audience. And that’s because cinema is a language.
And like all languages, there might be some flexibility and wordplay, but it inherently relies on specificity and certain base definitions. So even though I may not favor a certain style, I can still tell instantly if the creator actually speaks “the language” or not. But to be clear immediately, a lot of people use this point to sprout some gatekeeping nonsense about talent or skill, which is an absurd notion I’ll tear apart later. Because everyone should get to the chance to learn the ABCs.
The following section is something I keep rewriting and updating over time. It’s a kind of cheat sheet for “Cinematic Affectation 101.” And the point isn’t to go in into deep detail about the shots and how to execute them, but to simply discuss the point of the shot and how it affects you as a viewer. In other words, it’s about how shots create meaning and emphasize a feeling.
Within these ABCs, there are five larger groupings: shot types, shot movements and angles; shot lenses and focus; subject direction and eyelines; and color tones and lighting. It’s been completely updated, but if you’ve read this before, feel free to skim or skip over to the section “Construction vs. Cognitive Dissonance” (though a refresher couldn’t hurt). Otherwise, enjoy this fun little breakdown that grounds our understanding of cinematic language.
1. Shot Types
One actually judges what constitutes a “shot” by the size of the subject, how much we can see of it and how close we are to it. For instance…
A) A wide shot encompasses a lot of the space where a scene is set, whether it be a landscape or a room. It is most often used to establish the scope of the place the subjects are located in, the geography between the subjects and the emotional context of the space at large.
B) On the other end of the spectrum, there is the close-up, which is one of the most powerful tools filmmakers have at their disposal. It brings us near an actor to see every bit of emotion on their face. But there’s a delicate art to it. Letting us close to an actor’s face makes for such a uniquely intimate moment. If you do it too much? It can lose its powerful effect. Too little? You will take away the audience’s crucial need to connect and emote with a moment. But while finding the balance is difficult, most filmmakers and cinematographers still understand the remarkable power of the close-up and how much it can feed the emotional understanding of a moment.
C) A medium shot is of course the halfway point between a wide and a close-up. It generally shows an actor from the waist up. The the intent of this shot is to get some of the benefits of each. You’re close enough to get some of the intimacy from their facial expression, but you can also see the actor’s relationship with the space, the objects in the scene, or most importantly of all, other people. Which brings us to…
D) The two shot. This is really just made up of any two actors on screen. There are a host of variations within this that mostly have to do with where a subject is facing in relation to the camera. For instance, in an American two shot, the two subjects will face directly toward each other and we’ll see them both in profile (Wes Anderson has a lot of shots like this, often to highlight the distance between the people). Or there’s another variation called a dirty two shot, in which we’re really emphasizing one subject in a medium or close-up, but we can also see bits of the other character in frame, usually just over their shoulder, which gives us more context for understanding the space. Often, it is to gently remind us how much the other person is present and has a bearing on the scene (note: it can also make cutting a nightmare).
E) An insert shot is any close-up, usually of an object or gesture, that gives us a piece of information about something that doesn’t directly have to do with what is being seen by the characters in the scene. For an overt example, imagine two people talking over dinner, but then we see a quick shot of one of them pulling a gun out of their pocket below the table.
Please note that I’m not just trying to describe the shots in and of themselves, I’m trying to show the ways that those shots can have a direct effect on us as a viewer and the information that we will take away from them.
2. Shot Movements and Angles
F) A static shot is simply when the camera doesn’t move at all (usually while resting on a tripod). It is the base language of all filmmaking, because it lets the shot speak for itself. I feel like a lot of young filmmakers are afraid to use too many static shots because they feel “plain,” but if you’re properly editing between them and bringing shots closer and closer to your subjects and the tension, then it can not only be kinetic, but have perfect control of what information and emotion you want to emphasize and when. Which is only the most important thing in all of mise en scène.
G) A camera tilt is when the camera stays at a fixed point on a tripod and looks up or down or to the left or right. Now, there’s something interesting in this motion because it draws attention to the idea that the audience is in a fixed position, and thus can sometimes take the viewer out of being in the story, oddly enough. The term is also sometimes interchanged with a panning shot, but that’s actually when the camera is moving on the horizontal plane, usually following the subject. In fact, panning actually encompasses a number of different types of shots…
H) A hand-held shot is when the camera comes off the tripod and an operator uses it mounted on their shoulder. The usual intent of this kind of shot is to give the scene a “documentary-like” affectation and make the scene feel more grounded in reality, but that’s one of the first big misconceptions of cinema, and it’s built on a false assumption.
Not only can too much hand-held make the viewer feel a bit sick, but it also often removes a lot of the emotion being communicated. That’s because what hand-held really does to an audience, emotionally-speaking, is make them feel off-kilter. It can make them feel out of control and uneasy. On top of that, you frequently lose the inherent, subtle communication that comes with a lot of other kinds of controlled shots. Remember, just because it’s easier, production-wise, doesn’t make it inherently effective. And there is never a one-size-fits-all stylistic approach when it comes to shot selection.
I) A dolly shot is when the camera is put on a little rig with wheels that are on tracks. It’s not only a very careful and precise path, it allows for perfect repetition throughout takes. For the audience, it puts the camera and therefore their own “eye” in motion—but only on the horizontal plane. This motion actually gives the viewer a sense of control, believe it or not. We feel less like we are absorbing and more like we are investigating a given location, peering into the world and exploring it. And because you are on the x-axis, but not higher or lower, you feel you are a mere human voyeur traveling through the scene.
J) A Steadicam or crane shot functions a lot like a dolly shot, but with even more fluidity because you can now use the y-axis and glide up and down as well. Unlike a human, the camera now has true “god’s eye” view. It makes the audience feel all-seeing and all-powerful, capable of floating around and taking in every ornate detail. It can almost feel like a feverish dream.
But like the close-up, there should be warnings in wielding this kind of power. Because of its time-saving ease, you’ll see so many big movies shooting on so much Steadicam these days, to the point that the shot loses its power and purpose. It just makes the whole film feel “effortless” and “easy,” and you lose a lot of the great communication that can be achieved by cutting between simple shots.
Think of the famous shot from Goodfellas where Lorraine Bracco’s character is being guided through the restaurant, which appears as a kind of wonderland where she’s taken in the back way and given special treatment. Scorsese’s not just doing it because it’s “cool,” he’s doing it because it’s the perfect way to emphasize her emotional experience (and he changes up his language throughout to do the same).
K) Now, a tracking shot is a term that people use all the time, but the phrase gets us into some complications. Because people often take a tracking shot to mean a shot that tracks the subject, but that’s not actually where the term comes from. Once upon a time, all moving shots had to be done on dollies because there was no other equipment capable of doing it. And for dollies, you needed to lay down an actual “track,” hence the term “tracking shot.”
The problem is, once we started making rudimentary cranes and eventually Steadicams, a lot of people kept calling them “tracking shots” to stick with the terminology. People think this is me being pedantic, but I mention it because there is STILL miscommunication on set because of this usage issue. To this day you will find cinematographers who only use the term to mean dolly shots, not cranes, while others only employ the phrase to mean a shot that tracks the subject from behind. As a result, I never actually use the term and go with either dolly, Steadicam or crane to clarify what equipment and style will actually be used.
Now let’s talk about the “angle of a shot,” which implies where the camera is in relation to the subject, not just the content of the shot itself.
L) A low angle shot is when the camera is lower and looking up at the subject. This is most commonly used in horror movies when you want to make a terrifying monster feel all the more imposing.
M) Meanwhile, a high angle shot is when the camera is above the subject looking down on it, which can make the subject feel meek and scared. Keep in mind these don’t need to be used exclusively for horror. They can be used subtly to emphasize power dynamics and relationships between your characters, especially within the space. For example, I think about how often they are used in Remains of the Day, where characters are constantly looking up and down stairways to emphasize their status and class differences.
N) A Dutch angle is a shot where the frame of the shot itself is not parallel to the x-axis of the scene. In other words, the camera is “leaning” in a direction to the left or right. An excellent example of this can be seen in 1995’s 12 Monkeys. This is another technique that makes the audience feel off-kilter and like something is amiss. But again, it’s all about purpose. It works better in that paranoia-laden movie, but I genuinely don’t understand the near wall-to-wall use of them in films like Battlefield Earth. I think the choice comes from a misconception. A director may want the movie to feel “alien,” but over-employing these shots is another case of layering an entire aesthetic over a film and not making choices for the emotion of the moment. Just because the world itself is bizarre does not mean you want to be pummeling your audience with the same paranoid feeling of something like 12 Monkeys.
O) A POV shot is when the camera is looking from the point of view of the character. Beyond seeing things from the perspective of the voyeur or god, this literally puts the audience in the shoes of the character. There are a lot of examples of this in Silence of the Lambs where we witness terrifying things from Clarice’s exact perspective. But remember, when you do this, you have to signify in the edit (from the other shots) that this is indeed what’s happening so that the audience understands.
3. Shot Lenses and Focus
There is a reason most cinematographers don’t really give a rat’s ass about what camera is used to shoot. Not only are most debates about modern camera resolution pointless (this demo from Steve Yedlin is incredible), but also all the important information a viewer needs is communicated through the main choices a director makes in how they establish their subjects within the frame. So from the point of view of discussing equipment, the visuals of a film are so much more dependent on the lens selection and what you get from their depth and focus than the camera. I won’t bore you by getting into the specifics of every single lens, but I will talk about some extreme ones to get at the core ideas behind them.
P) A lens with a deep focus means you can capture a lot of detail close to the camera as well as far away. This allows a director to show lots of information in both the foreground and deep in the background as well. It’s great when you want to show your subject within landscapes or whenever you want to put them in a detailed context with the surrounding area. Think of a scene in something like 1981’s Blow Out where you see John Travolta working busily with his sound equipment scattered all over the room. The viewer is meant to notice that mess.
Q) A lens with a shallow focus will make anything that is not at the same distance with the main subject blurred. This has the benefit of making the audience concentrate on what really matters in the scene, leaving everything in the background or immediate foreground hazy and unimportant.
Imagine if a character was in a public space receiving heartbreaking news. You’d want the camera to emphasize all the pain on their face and fully register that, right? But let’s say you want to emphasize the public nature of this moment, too. Instead of doing it in the one shot and muddling the effect of the news itself, you can communicate that sensation better by suddenly cutting to a wider shot that shows everyone around the subject in more detail. You don’t want to jumble the effect of one. You want to put two big effects together to highlight the new feeling.
R) A rack focus shot is when you change your shallow focus shot from one distance to another. There’s a simple, famous example in the opening of The Lion King. First, we see worker ants crawling along the edge of a tree. Then, the shot racks focus to the legions of zebras galloping behind them on the ground. This is great when you want to emphasize people’s reactions or actions at different times within the shot.
Now, within lens selection there is also the question of “angle,” which is sort of a misnomer, or at least confusing, because it also applies to other aspects of cinematography. What we’re really talking about is focal length. Those are measured by the “millimeter” ranges that go from about 8 to 170 millimeters, which you’ll see when selecting a lens. Aside from how these measurements capture the aforementioned range of depth, they also affect the distortion of the image.
S) For example, a wide-angle lens will take in a lot of information, but it will also make everything that’s too close to the camera seem huge and bulbous and everything far away seem small and tiny. It’s like looking through a peep hole, essentially curving the image in a rather dramatic, surreal way.
T) On the other hand, a long telephoto lens will not only be able to zoom in on objects far away, but it will flatten the image to a certain degree so that all objects seem like they’re at the same depth. There’s the famous shot in The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman is running down a road at great speed, but because he is in the distance and the image is flattened, it seems like he’s almost running in place, which adds to the feeling of futility.
But these are just extremes. Within the entire scope of lenses you have an endless amount of flexibility. The famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said he loved shooting with a 50 mm lens because it was closest to “simulating the human eye” (this is only true at certain distances, because the eye has an amazing ability to adjust). But finding the right one will take constant tinkering, especially in terms of how you’re trying to capture the faces of your actors—one lens will make them look gaunt, while another might give them the fullness you’re looking for, depending on the distortion.
4. Subject Direction and Eyeline
Eyelines, which simply refer to the direction the characters are looking, are actually one of the most important things about cinematography. They not only direct the viewer’s gaze and and attention from person to person, but they tell us so much about what characters are concentrating on and how they are feeling about it. When we discuss eyelines, we speak in terms of degrees. Imagine if a character is looking right at the camera. That is zero degrees. And if they’re looking completely away from you, that’s 180 degrees. If they are turned in perfect profile, that’s 90 degrees. Got it? Cool, because this will establish how we talk about the effects of different shots.
U) Most of the time, a character’s eyeline will be within 45 degrees, meaning they will be facing the camera and looking toward the edge of the frame, but usually not past it. This centers a character’s eyeline directly at the other subject they are talking to. It gives us just enough visibility to see the what their eyes are doing and communicates their emotions beautifully, while still having the added benefit of not breaking the emotion by having the character look directly at us (because that’s unnerving).
V) When a character looks past 90 degrees and away from a camera, they instantly become a mystery to us. It almost feels like they are trying to hide something. But while this communicates that action itself, it is important to remember that you are still denying the audience the emotional connection to what the subject is feeling. For instance, there’s this beautiful monologue that Richard Jenkins gives in Eat, Pray, Love where he’s talking about something he’s ashamed of. So they make the choice to have him turn away from the camera for a lot of it. And it’s like, yeah, I get it. But in trying to communicate that overtly, you’ve actually denied us the opportunity to connect with the deep emotion the character is feeling, and we can’t emote alongside them, which is only the entire damn point.
W) When a character looks zero degrees and directly into a camera, please understand that this is off-putting. Creepy. Even scary. And that’s because it effectively breaks the fourth wall and the social contract with the audience that makes us feel invisible. So usually if someone’s looking directly into the camera, the camera should represent the POV perspective of the main character so that we understand it. This way there will be a purpose to the unnerving effect of having someone on-screen look directly at us. Remember our example of Silence of the Lambs? Well it was using that language precisely because it wanted to creep us out, not to “bring us closer.” This distinction is really important.
5. Color Tones and Lighting
Of course color tones and hues and lighting gradients prompt feelings within the viewer; we have so many beautiful associations with color and mood and the meaning of both. And there are endless permutations to this, so again, I’m going to focus on what the extreme ends communicate to us so we can learn from them.
X) A cool blue sheen will make things feel distant, cold and unemotional. Blue’s complimentary color, yellow, will make things feel warm, sunlit or even swelteringly hot (notice how both of these colors were famously used to emotional effect in Traffic).
A green hue evokes nature and can make things feel lush, but when applied to urban and man-made environments, it makes things feel sickly and unwell (think of The Matrix).
A red hue is of course the color of passion and sumptuousness (think of Raise the Red Lantern). Darken it, and a brown hue will make things feel antiquated and old (largely informed from the old discoloration of photographs).
A purple hue is often tricky because it’s either regality or it can be spring blooms and romance, but it’s so often ruled by context and different cultures.
A black hue of course evokes darkness, mystery, fear and the unknown of that which we cannot see.
And a white hue signifies a blinding intensity or being overwhelmed by that which we should be seeing, but don’t (think of the white room in The Matrix).
Y) Now, the previous examples were of course all very overt examples. But a lot of times, the approach will not only be more subtle and organic, but often a mixture of certain colors coming together to make overall palettes. For instance, a warm summer palette (red, yellow, white) makes things feel romantic and sumptuous and so you see it in a lot of romantic comedies. A winter palate (white, blue and purple) delivers a cooling effect, communicating isolation or detachment. Rather than relying on one color, palettes deliver emotion in a more naturalistic way.
Z) Our very last subject is that of “key light,” meaning the main light or lights that are shone on a subject and how that will affect their form. For instance, a shot with high-key lighting (meaning everything is really brightly lit and detailed and there’s no harsh contrast) will make the actors look good, and has the added benefit of making the audience feel comfortable. As a result, you’ll see a lot of comedies use this type of lighting to make their subjects feel likable and the audience feel safe.
Meanwhile, a lot of dramas use low-key lighting, which is a bit of a contradiction because sometimes the key light itself can be very intense. Here, it’s all about creating high contrast and shadows, often with interesting shades of gray and gradients. It is essentially more designed and signifies to us a serious, dangerous, tragic and sad world (gestures to the entire history of film noir).
So there we have it: The ABCs. I know it seems like a lot of information, but I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. We could keep talking about the function of fill lights and kickers, or other color tones, but that gets into the territory of construction. That is, the way we take all these ABCs and combine them into a cinematic language that communicates consistently.
Construction vs. Cognitive Dissonance
When you go about “constructing” a shot, you’re essentially combining all the meanings created by the elements of the ABCs. And you have to understand that viewers are literate in this language. For instance, I can be looking at two perfectly beautiful shots, but when I put those two shots together and the eyelines don’t match? That’s technically “bad cinematography,” even though the issue is only created through the edit. But without this kind of forethought, unity of vision, and understanding of how everything ultimately goes hand in hand in hand, it will be difficult to combine the ABCs in a way that creates meaning for the audience.
To wit, Sergei Eisenstein is considered one of the forefathers of cinema due largely to his use of juxtaposition—jumping from one shot to another shot to change the meaning of both. For an overt example, you can show a shot of a courthouse, then cut to a picture of rotting meat. They mean two separate things, but juxtaposed they infer that this public institution is rotten.
But there are subtler applications to everything we are talking about, especially when playing on emotions. For instance, say you’re watching a scene that is completely static and still for a period of time, and then the camera slowly starts morphing into a shakier, hand-held movement. This would give the audience a worried feeling that something bad is about to happen. With the opposite technique, where you might have a character in motion turning into stillness, we can be filled with either a new sense of calm or the sense of dread that it’s not over. To really understand this watch Jaws for the way Spielberg uses these kinds of rhythms and movements to catch us off guard.
What this really tells us is that the ABCs of cinematography are like any language; once you understand the cues that viscerally affect the audience, you can use them to push the language, to stretch the limits of combinations, to juxtapose story and meaning and themes and symbols in order to guide our experience. All this in the name of shaping something better.
But just like someone trying speak a new language, you really do have to be able to use the “words” correctly at first to create meaning. I mean, I can’t go up to a French person and say things that “sound French,” to communicate. Not only would that be ineffective, it would be downright insulting. The same is true of cinematography, just in a much more subtle and complex way.
The great thing about cinema is that it is accessible to everyone. You can simply watch and experience on an instinctual level. So while people who have studied the language can spot someone who fully understands it vs. someone who doesn’t in a second, a general audience member probably won’t. Nor should they need to. They should just be able to watch and absorb it all subliminally. But precisely because it is subliminal, errant construction choices will have an impact on the viewer. Sometimes these errors don’t matter too much, sometimes they result in a film people consider “boring” or “confusing.” But the effect of bad cinematography ultimately results in “cognitive dissonance,” and that means that the subject is behaving inconsistently with the effect the cinema is using. And to best explain this, let’s take one of my regular examples…
That’s right: Tom Hooper.
Now, I want to say that I think he’s really good with actors and I genuinely don’t like singling people out. But if we’re going to cite examples, I figure I might as well do so with powerful, award-winning filmmakers who still tend to constantly misapply core cinematic concepts.
Take Les Misérables. Hooper said he wanted to bring you right in close with the actors to feel their emotion. But by constantly putting things in wonky hand-held, and by having those actors constantly look directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall, he literally ruins Hugh Jackman’s incredible performance by essentially making it feel like he’s screaming at me. (Not screaming about his own agony.) Again, we can’t emote with it because it’s having the wrong cognitive, visceral effect. But he makes these wrong kinds of assumptions all the time.
For instance, we’ll be following two characters down a hallway, getting an intimate moment with them, but it’s filmed using Kubrickian single point perspective framing, which is about the most purposefully off-putting angle you can ever choose. I mean, there’s a reason Kubrick used it to emphasize one of the worst criminal deviants—Alex from A Clockwork Orange. So Hooper wants you to feel that way about his likable, stuttering king? It’s pure cognitive dissonance (and the fact that the academy awarded best director to a bad Kubrick imitator as opposed to actually giving Stanley Kubrick that honor tells you everything you need to know about the academy).
Meanwhile, the best scene from the film, about which everyone seems to be in agreement? Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” which is the most traditionally-shot scene in the whole movie. Surprise!—it’s also the most emotionally effective.
All these choices subtly add up. It’s hard to argue that a big movie that made $400 million underperformed, and I understand that all I have is an argument. But Les Misérables is one of our great stories, and yet a lot of people walked out of this version somehow feeling less connected than they should have. Countless other scenes could have felt like “I Dreamed a Dream,” but Hooper was too busy getting in his own way. So I can only swear to you that with a few simple changes the movie could have worked even better. But maybe a direct comparison will be more effective in making this clear.
While I find Michael Bay’s inclinations for storylines deplorable (sometimes in a fascinating way, sometimes in a noxious, ugly way) there’s no doubt that his best skill as a filmmaker is how he builds energy and momentum. Watch the final green smoke sequence of The Rock for some of that good old traditional cinematic suspense. It builds and communicates tension beautifully, making you fear for the character while grounding you in the emotion of everyone on screen.
But where Bay frequently gets into trouble is when he gets lazy, monotone and overlong with these techniques. He’ll want to sustain the “intensity,” but then the energy has no rhythm. He’ll stop trying to connect eyelines between characters and cease to care about establishing the geography of the setting. This random collection of cool Bay shots tells you everything about his repeat tactics and use of aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake. It’s just all attitude, no function. As a result, the audience grows tired of not knowing where they are, tired of the same kind of shots, and tired of the repetitive, unchanging nature of the conflicts.
Meanwhile, everyone talks about the amazing action in Mad Max: Fury Road, and it is amazing—even more so when you consider how hard it is to coordinate all these details in the chaos of action production. Take this motorcycle chase scene, which not only establishes the geography and shows off the amazing stunt work, but uses shots that constantly create a sense of kinetic movement, clearly guiding you through that geography. Watch the eyelines and you can see that where the characters look, and where they point their guns, is almost always the subject of the next shot. Rarely does something come out of nowhere, and when it does, it’s meant to shock and surprise in a clear rhythm with a logical fallout. Everything comes together to constantly keep you clear about what’s happening, while you’re also always fearing what’s about to happen next.
This is the power of clarity. You are bringing the audience right into the sequencing of the story. You are matching purpose of intent with its cumulative effect so there is no dissonance experienced. As a cinematic storyteller, you are simply allowing the viewer to “fall into” the action without even really thinking about it. And when you couple such precision with a purposeful, powerful story? There’s a reason this action film got nominated for best picture.
The last point to make is that sometimes cognitive dissonance itself can be purposeful. Take a film like David Lynch’s classic Blue Velvet. There will be a shot of something that’s bright and sunny and happy, but he’ll use an eerie sound pitch to make it feel terrifying. And it’s on purpose. He’s trying to set up the main thrust of the film and how there are worlds of darkness under the shiny happy exteriors of light.
There are a lot of examples like this. A brilliant filmmaker like Catherine Breillat can shoot some of the most explicit sexual material ever, but ground it a kind of domestic normalcy, that makes for a completely different kind of effect. But just because it’s possible, I want you to understand that wielding cognitive dissonance is a really difficult thing to do. You can’t just be different for the sake of it. The dissonance has to have a really clear purpose and even then, you have to understand how it can leave some general audience members unnerved and confused. That’s why this subject is extremely complex.
Which brings us to the fascinating film that made me want to write this essay.
Don’t Be So Negative
One of the big movies of the year was To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. I talked about it briefly before in a previous column, but I really liked this movie. It’s actually one of Netflix’s biggest ever. The writing is so damn functional and it gives us a real understanding of the character’s interior feelings, honoring their validity. It guides us through her psyche, and the choices she makes tie into deeply-felt dramatic stakes that just make those big moments feel so earned. It’s great stuff. And it’s the reason the movie deserves to be damn successful.
I also had a really, really hard time with the cinematography.
Going back to the ABCs, I constantly had problems with the film’s eyelines and the simple coordination of how scenes progress from shot to shot. Dinner scenes (which are notoriously hard to shoot for this very reason) are particularly hard to gain traction with and fall into. Many of these problems, however, relate to some overall choices in the way the cinematography constantly emphasizes what I’ll call “perpendicular stylization.” Meaning, characters will frequently be facing directly toward camera, often side by side. Moreover, the characters are constantly looking into the camera. Which sometimes works! Especially when they’re looking right at each other, emphasizing that unsettling teenage nervousness.
But then it keeps doing it, right through all the parts that don’t require this tension. And when they’re not staring at the camera their eyelines are still way too close to zero degrees. They’re making no space for the audience to fall into the movie. Sometimes that works, but most of the time it runs contrary to the purpose of an on-screen moment. As such, this becomes yet another example of a film that layers on one singular style instead of thinking about the function of a moment.
Now wait a minute, doesn’t Wes Anderson do that perpendicular stylization thing all the time? Yup! It’s his signature move, but he’s also using it to create unrealistic, story-book-feeling universes. Wes Anderson’s worlds are not the real world. And the style he employs is often used as a Brechtian device to put characters at a playful, comedic distance before bringing their emotional moments into focus. And every time he does? That’s when he opts for traditional cinematic language to bring us close.
For example, there’s this beautiful shot in The Royal Tenenbaums where we see that staged perpendicularity after the car accident. But for the tender moment afterwards between Chas and his father, Royal? The camera suddenly moves into a medium two shot. We’re close and we can see his eyes as he looks up at Royal, who has his hand on his son’s shoulder. And then in that vulnerable space, for the first time, Chas looks at his father and admits, “I’ve had a rough year, Dad.”
All the Brechtian artifice has been stripped away from the shot in order to clearly emphasize an emotional moment between these two characters. So it’s never just about what “kinds” of shots you usually use. It’s about when you use them and why—and how close they bring you to the power of your purpose.
But while watching To All The Boys, I felt like the purpose and effect were constantly at odds. For instance, characters are repeatedly placed in the center of the frame with eyelines all over the map, and that really matters. Here’s why: Say you’re doing a scene of two people talking and just cutting back and forth between each framed in medium shot. To make the viewer implicitly understand that, you put the person on the left in the left of their frame and have them look right, with their eyeline directed at the other subject. The other person is set up in the reverse. But when you are constantly putting each character in the center and having them look just barely off zero? It not only taps too much into that unnerving feeling, but it makes your eye constantly wander to see what’s happening off on the sides. And this totally rings true in the many frames of this movie that have such intense and purposeless negative space.
Even the film’s green and blue color palette goes from feeling natural to odd and slightly off-putting, depending on the shot. I’m constantly trying to get close to characters while the movie continuously puts them in profile and pushes me away. Basically, I never, ever know what’s being emphasized when and why and for what reason. Which makes me feel like the film doesn’t understand the ABCs. And the cumulative effect? When you’ve been trained to do this stuff as your life’s work and take it so seriously, it’s really hard to ignore. I talked to a lot of friends who just plainly replied, “the cinematography drove me nuts and I just couldn’t get through it.” But the second I say that, a lot of you are probably thinking a couple of things.
The first might be, Hey, I liked this movie! And that’s OK. Remember, I did too! Ultimately, I’m just talking about one aspect of the construction and I really liked everything else. Even the editing rhythm is nice. But some of you are probably even taking issue with my characterization of the camerawork and thinking Hey, I liked the cinematography! And that’s totally OK too, because the film’s approach to cinematography actually lands us a complex double-edged sword territory.
On a surface level, the perpendicular, center framing does give a little bit of that cute and fun storybook feeling (which helps in a movie aimed at teens). But the framing is so damn noticeable and pronounced. And because you notice the oddness of the shot, it feels distinct. And even the most untrained eye will notice this is composed! And because the movie itself is really, really good, suddenly this seems simpatico. Look no further than the movie’s bevy of gif-able moments that splash across tumblr. Again, I am not knocking this. I actually think some of these moments are cool and work very well (even when I instinctively want to nudge the camera in an inch or select the next lens up, etc). But the framing keeps bringing us back to the same problem. In constantly aiming for this kind of perpendicular composition it becomes so much harder to fall into the movie. A single style with one effect is being layered over the entire process. It’s like the shaky cam thing I mentioned earlier. Even when it works, you’re losing the power of the effect. And this is particularly true when it comes to the film’s rampant use of negative space.
If I were to identify the biggest problem in the work I see from directors or DPs coming out of film school it would be the overemphasis on negative space. This refers to any part of the image not made up by the subject or subjects. It can have tremendous power. The first example that sprang to mind is Furiosa screaming in the desert in 2015’s Mad Max. But this shot has story purpose. After her journey and all her sacrifice, she’s met with the horrible realization of defeat. And after all this kinetic, tight framing, the camera is suddenly further back and she collapses to her knees, screaming up toward the heavens as the wind blows past. The shots make her feel like a mere grain of sand at the whims of a giant universe, futile and insignificant. It’s powerful stuff.
But in film school and a lot of the indie scene? People are constantly framing shots with the emphasis on the negative space. They particularly like to do this within the cold, sterile lines of rigidly designed spaces. It’s likely because these directors want the organized nature of the composition to be as clear as day to even the most untrained eye. But decisions like this mostly come out of fear, and the real thing this work is screaming is “NOTICE ME!!” Notice this kewl framing!! Notice how composed this is!!” And most of the time, it’s completely inappropriate for the tone and cinematic language of the moment. (Even in To All The Boys, there are so many times when the negative space has nothing to do with the story.) But the worst thing for all these students and up-and-comers? This effect is not what a lot of professionals are looking for.
Not just because they’re looking for people who know the ABCs, but because they’re looking for people who do the subtle and more difficult things. Like properly executing eyelines at a dinner table. Or filling a frame’s negative space with soft texture that makes it feel full and tonally appropriate, but doesn’t distract from the subject at hand.
For great examples, I love the way DPs like Maryse Alberti, Matthew Libatique and Rachel Morrison can subtly fill in negative space. And of course there’s the great Robert Richardson, who can create striking, distinct images that always feel full, lived-in and deep. And if you do want to go the plain, sparse route and find a functional way to use negative space? Check out this new Carly Rae Jepsen video where characters get to be in their own space while the framing prevents overt sexualization or allowing viewers to get too close to the subjects. To many it would seem simple, but it’s so damn purposeful and poignant because this video communicates to the audience exactly how to feel about what they’re seeing.
That’s the whole thing, I don’t want to hamper people’s desire to make choices, I want them to understand the subtleties of how to make those choices work. Ultimately, I just wanted To All The Boys to execute on its overall intent.
But the ongoing difficulty of these decisions is that you have to be comfortable with the work not being overtly noticed. Because the best work is often invisible, especially to those who aren’t trained to notice. And that’s the entire point. The best editing makes the audience forget the film is being edited at all, meanwhile the audience is perfectly shifted about without even noticing.
For instance, I could decide to film a movie entirely in super long-distance as two people talk. And sure that would be different and interesting. There would even be a perceived artistic value to it. But it wouldn’t be effective in terms of bringing me into the emotions of the characters. You would lose so much of what’s being communicated by the actors. And this is why it’s so important to not make big sweeping choices for an entire film’s total style, rather to choose the right style for the right moment.
What we’re talking about in the end is fear-based decision making. It’s so hard to convince students to put forth their understanding of the ABCs when they’re in such a big rush to show that they can craft highly-designed images. But it’s important, because otherwise what you get is sterile, off-putting movies that can’t connect to the audience. Working professionals usually have a lot of these fearful instincts beaten out of them with time. The terror strips away and they finally focus on story and function, all while saving for those gangbuster moments to unleash a truly majestic, noticeable shot that has something to say. And along the way, the cinematography is subtly working its magic to get you there.
A Short Note About Noticing
One of the important parts of criticism is having awareness of what you know and what you don’t know. For instance, I’m sitting here spouting a lot of stuff about function, but that’s just because I’ve endlessly studied the effect of cinematography on audiences, and that’s pretty much the only part of the subject I’m talking about. Would I take this proficiency and then start dictating to a working professional how to properly use a kicker or how to get the best effect with a certain camera? Never. Because that’s not what I know. And there’s a host of complicated matters of technical execution I would never even dream of discussing. First I’d need to sit back, listen and learn. But sometimes I think back to when I was a student and I was in such a damn rush to talk about “good and bad” and what “works,” but I wasn’t really listening to others. I was being myopic. What I didn’t realize was that learning a little bit about cinematography can be a dangerous thing, because it comes from a very complicated place.
Namely, many critics secretly hate the feeling of what they’re experiencing.
They intrinsically hate the feeling of suddenly analyzing everything they’re seeing. They hate the fact that they can’t just fall into a movie the way they did when they were younger. And so they usually start gravitating toward movies that use more naturalism. Anything where the cinematic language is too overt, even when it’s purposeful, is considered “manipulative.” Plus, a lot of younger people are also afraid to be vulnerable. And this is often why a lot of film school kids go through their “I hate Spielberg!” phase, feeling he’s too simple or saccharine. I’ve also seen people for whom this phase has never stopped (and a lot of them end up at Cannes?). They’re sort of endlessly going down the rabbit hole of deeper and deeper naturalism, always looking for more organic work where they don’t notice the film and can just be in it. Or sometimes it goes the other way where they see so many damn movies that they become bored by functionalism and crave the weirdest and most bizarre anti-movies.
And it’s like, look, if these things are your taste? Cool! Go for it and support the hell out of those kinds of films (some of which I adore, too). We all have our own proclivities. But I really have a problem when critics get prescriptive about them and use this philosophy to criticize how mainstream films function. Mostly because I feel it puts them at direct odds with how the general public watches movies. When someone complains about “seeing the strings,” my go-to response is that “every film has strings at every moment and you can always see them at all times.” Everything is part of a construction. I see the strings of a Spielberg movie just as much as the most naturalistic, detached movie in the world. The only questions is whether or not those strings are moving toward story purpose.
Because in the end, a laugh is impossible if you don’t understand the mechanics of comedic timing. Just as a horror movie is completely worthless without understanding the mechanics of a scare. And yup, you better believe a filmmaker like Spielberg is going to use manipulative language to craft his films. And when the story’s on point along with it? We get incredible, transcendent work like E.T. and Jurassic Park. I never care about the “degree” of manipulation. I only care about whether or not that manipulation is aligned to a greater story purpose.
But with that said, let’s get to the final, surprising point.
Cinema Is Dead, Long Live Cinema
As someone who just spent a long time passionately arguing for coherent cinematography, I also want to say something really, really important.
It also doesn’t matter that much.
Not just because I understand that disruptive art has its place in thumbing its nose at rules (though I will say this, there are a lot of people who think they’re being disruptive when really they’re just communicating poorly), but because there’s a much bigger issue at play. If “correct” craft is only possessed by all older white guys, then that craft is effectively worthless. I mean that completely. Because it all becomes part and parcel of the same gatekeeping bullshit I have no interest in supporting. Even worse, when this attitude is coupled with the general lack of education in viewers, it means people like Tom Hooper still rise to the top in those power systems while “skill” is used as a bullshit excuse keep down the female and POC cinematographers at the fringes. Ultimately, I only want this essay on cinematography to be about one thing: empowerment.
I want it to empower you as a young storyteller to work on the ABCs and hone your craft. I don’t care if you’re filming on a damn iPhone. Show that you can cut from eyeline to eyeline in two richly-composed back and forth medium shots and you’re already way ahead of the game.
And I want it to empower you as viewers, so that we’re all able to distinguish the little things that make great artists (while occasionally telling some brazen emperors of Hollywood that they have no clothes).
And when it comes to distinguishing talent when we’re not just talking about some three-decade-career master, this is important. It helps differentiate among the up-and-coming, so some of the amazing, talented people hiding in plain sight get the credit and chances they deserve. Charlotte Bruus Christensen has been working for a bit now, but she just shot A Quiet Place and damn if that movie doesn’t put her on everyone’s radar.
For all the doom and gloom about Hollywood changing, we now live in an age where more people are working in scripted storytelling than ever before. There’s more chance to show our ability, focus and understanding. And in our choices, we reveal what we understand about cinema. As does a major game company when they call something “cinematic mode” and create hundreds of hours of extra work to have their team redo the animations in a different aspect ratio. Not only is this needless, it’s ultimately purposeless. An empty signifier. And I don’t want to live in a world where we think putting black bars on things makes it cinematic, just as I don’t want people to make fear-based decisions.
In the end, I want everyone to have different ideas, but be able to communicate their ideas the best they possibly can. Because I don’t want us to be in the tower of babel.
I just want us to speak the same language.
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