Pivot Reveal

In narrative filmmaking, a key concept of camera movement is that it must be motivated. The movement should not just be for the sake of moving the camera; doing so usually means that the director is suffering from a lack of storytelling skills. (1)

On the contrary, motivated camera movements (click here for a short list of possible camera movement motivations) show great storytelling and directorial skills. Pivot reveal in Moon directed by Duncan Jones is one those examples.

Moon (2009)

Moon (2009)

There is a scene, when Sam Bell phones home and talks to his daughter. He had already discovered that he is a clone. (Characters living lies is by the way reliable staple in science fiction (2). Movies like Alien, Island or newly Oblivion come to mind.) But when he sees the original Sam Bell, he breaks down. He realizes he never had a chance. The scene ends with his words: “I want to go home. I want to go home.”

Now, the camera pivots around the moon rover and reveals Earth. Both the moon rover and Earth have story function, so there is a clear motivation behind this camera movement.

Camera pivoting around certain object or character is a beautiful and high production value shot, but so much more powerful when it does more things at the same time. Here it revels the Earth in wide shot when he says “I want to go home”.

Moon (2009)

Moon (2009)

This shot purposefully ends in wide shot which makes you then ask all kinds of questions about humanity: Who are we? What is our purpose here? How…? Where…? Why…? WHY?

References:

  1. Cinematography: Theory and Practice (p. 62)
  2. “THAT’S ENOUGH… I WANT TO GO HOME”

Links

Back Parallax

In this post we’ll talk about simple, but extremely effective camera move. As you can see in the video above, the camera is pivoting around the actor. This results in heavy back parallax (background is moving really fast).

This effect is further enhanced by using telephoto lens. The longer the focal length, the faster the background will move.

This move becomes extremely effective, when the director knows why to use it. One of the great opportunities for using this camera move is when we want to symbolize character’s train of thoughts. This usually happens when the character:

  • reveals new information
  • realizes/discovers something
  • becomes confused

P.S. This camera move became one of the signatures in Michael Bay’s movies. (The other one is teal and orange look. Click here to read more about this color grading “virus” and here for a tutorial by Stu Maschwitz, where he explains how to achieve this look.)

Cinematic introduction of the main character in Rear Window

Always show, don’t tell! (Unless you are Alan Ball, remember? :) ) Today, I’ll show you a perfect example of that “always show, don’t tell” rule. The movie was written by John Michael Hayes and directed by Alfred Hitchcock – the ultimate master of cinematic storytelling.

Quite early, we are introduced to the main character played by James Stewart. What is interesting though, is that the introduction happens through one single camera movement. Nice!

On imsdb.com, there is a script to Rear Window. I don’t know whether it is the original screenplay or just a transcript. Nevertheless, the opening scene is described there very nicely. So the following words are not mine, but the words found in Rear Window script.


Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

The camera starts in the backyard, then pulls back swiftly and retreats through the open window back into Jefferies’ apartment. We now see more of the sleeping man. The camera goes in far enough to show a head and shoulders of him. He is sitting in a wheelchair.

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves along his left leg. It is encased in a plaster from his waistline to the base of his toes. Along the white cast someone has written “Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies.”

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves to a nearby table on which rests a shattered and twisted Speed Graphic Camera, the kind used by fast-action news photographers.

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

On the same table, the camera moves to an eight by ten glossy photo print. It shows a dirt track auto racing speedway,  taken from a point dangerously near the center of the track. A racing car is skidding toward the camera, out of control, spewing a cloud of dust behind it. A rear wheel has come off the car, and the wheel is bounding at top speed directly into the camera lens.

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves up to a framed photograph on the wall. It is a fourteen by ten print, an essay in violence, having caught on film the exploding semi-second when a heavy artillery shell arches into a front-line Korean battle outpost. Men and equipment erupt into the air suspended in a solution of blasted rock, dust and screeching shrapnel. That the photographer was not a casualty is evident, but surprising when the short distance between the camera and the explosion is estimated.

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves to another framed picture, this one a beautiful and awesome shot of an atomic explosion at Frenchman’s Flat, Nevada. It is the cul-de-sac of violence. The picture taken at a distant observation point, shows some spectators in the foreground watching the explosion through binoculars.

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves on to a shelf containing a number of cameras, photographic film, etc.

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

It then pan across a large viewer on which is resting a negative of a woman’s head.

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

From this, the camera moves on to a magazine cover, and although we do not see the name of the magazine, we can see the head on the cover is the positive of the negative we have just passed.

From this, the camera moves on to a magazine cover, and although we do not see the name of the magazine, we can see the head on the cover is the positive of the negative we have just passed.


So through that one single camera movement, we know:

  • where we are
  • who is the main character
  • his name
  • his profession
  • all about his work
  • what caused the accident

Now, that is a very cinematic introduction of the main character through one single camera movement, not a single frame was wasted. And here is what Alfred Hitchcock said himself about this opening scene:

That’s simply using cinematic means to tell a story. It’s a great deal more interesting than if we had someone asking Stewart: “How did you happen to break your leg?” And Stewart answering: “As taking a picture of a motorcar race, a wheel fell off from one of the speeding cars and smashed into me.” That would be the average scene. To me, one of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say: “We can cover that by a line of dialogue.” Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.

The paragraph above comes from a book called simply Hitchcock. It’s a collection of interviews between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut and I have to tell you, this is such a beautiful book!

It’s a journey into the world and history of cinema, Hitchcock’s personal life and first of all, a unique look at his films. Can’t wait to read that book again, and again, and then again!

Two worlds in Limitless

When I read articles related to movies, it happens quite often, that I’ll read something like this:

“We used camera to tell a story…  Sound played a really important role, it helped to tell the story…”

And I always get frustrated, because usually (99% of time) it is not clear what they meant by that. The sentences above leave me asking: It’s nice, but what exactly did you do?

Well, the interview by Debra Kaufman with cinematographer Jo Willems at creativecow.net is one of those rare exceptions, where you’ll learn not only what they did to help telling the story, but most importantly – why.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a wrecked writer whose life is falling apart. Well, one day he is visited by old friend Vernon (Johnny Whitworth) and he offers him a pill: “You know how they say we can only access 20% of our brain? This lets you access all of it.”  So what this pill does is that it fully unlocks the potential of human brain, in other words, you get access to super human abilities.

Limitless (2011)

Limitless (2011)

When I saw the movie for the first time, I noticed the change in color grading, when he takes the pill – everything is graded towards warm sunny tones (especially yellow and orange),

Limitless (2011)

Limitless (2011)

while when he is not on the pill, there is a lot of cool tones (especially blue), the colors are desaturated, everything seems darker and more contrasty.

Watch the trailer and try to focus only on the tones. I’m sure, that just by looking at the tones/colors you’ll be able to tell, whether he is on the drug or not. But there is more to that, so let’s take a look what else did they do, to differentiate the two worlds:

World 1 – Down and broke (off pill) World 2 – Powerful and charismatic (on pill)
Camera moves hand held dollies, cranes, steadicam
Film stock Fuji Kodak
Lighting uncontrolled (hard and fractured) controlled (softer and diffused)
Lenses longer focal length (tele) shorter focal length (wide)

Ok, the table above sums up, what they (Neil Burger, Jo Willems and others) did, to differentiate the two worlds when he is on/off the pill. But far more interesting is to read why! :)

Links:

Behind the Lens: DP Jo Willems & Limitless


Watch the trailer and notice the dolly-zoom move at 0:45. You can read more about this technique by clicking here.

Four motivations for shaky camera in the Bourne trilogy

Hong Kong cinematographers have a neat saying about shaky camera: “The handheld camera covers 3 mistakes: Bad acting, bad set design, and bad directing (1).”  However, in certain cases, the shaky (handheld) camera can be used to tell a story, instead of covering the mistakes.

Paul Greengrass (director of the Bourne trilogy) certainly didn’t invent the shaky camera, but he definitely popularized this technique. If you’ve seen the Bourne trilogy, you’ve probably noticed, that the camera almost never stops moving. But there is always a good motivation behind this movement.

Motivation for shaky camera in 4 points

1. World he lives in

Jason Bourne (the main character) is constantly on the run, chasing or being chased by somebody, escaping from somewhere, looking for or protecting somebody. The shaky camera helps to portray the world he lives in – fast paced erratic world.

2. His inner conflict

Additional motivation for the shaky camera comes from his inner conflict – he doesn’t know who he is, what he has done and why, because he suffers from amnesia. This certainly adds to the shakiness.

3. The way his mind works

At certain point there is a dialogue scene between Jason Bourne and his former collegue Nicky Parsons. The camera is constantly moving, which would be really annoying in “normal” dialogue, but in this case, it’s perfectly ok. It shows how his mind works. Even if they are just talking, he is always alert. He is checking the escape routes, looking for people who might be dangerous etc. His mind never rests, and so does the camera.

4. Shaky cam as a stylistic choice

Finally, shaky camera was a stylistic choice. In action scenes, (together with fast editing) it injects energy to the scene, creates chaos (which is sometimes desirable) and in a sense, it may add more realism and authenticity to the specific scene.

When it bothers me and why

  • Unfortunately, the shaky camera became really overused. Sometimes, I am watching a (dialogue) scene and the camera is constantly moving and that really annoys me, because I can’t figure out, what was the motivation behind it (and I don’t count covering mistakes as a good motivation).
  • Second reason why it bothers me is that it takes away from the actor’s performances, if the camera is always moving, I just can’t pay attention to them (because I’m trying to figure out, why the camera is moving).
  • Finally, making the camera steady is far more difficult than making it shaky. That being said, shaky camera will always look cheap to me, unless it is used on purpose, to tell the story.

Also, when I did my research on this topic, I’ve found, that it makes certain people physically sick and spoils the movie for them.

Anyway, I wouldn’t say that shaky camera is necessarily a bad thing, but it can be really annoying if used randomly and without any purpose. If you haven’t watched the Bourne trilogy yet, or if you are looking for good examples of shaky camera, watch the story of Jason Bourne.

Resources

  1. Unsteadicam chronicles

Links