Mystery shots

Mystery shots

This is an interesting type of shot that I firstly noticed in Pulp Fiction. The camera focuses on characters’ back while making the rest out of focus. That means we don’t see the facial expressions (of our character in focus), we can’t read any emotional cues from his face. Now, it’s important to mention, that there is no counter-shot, we stay in this type of shot for the whole time – this builds a tension and bit of a drama.

Subconsciously you are asking yourself: Is he a good guy, bad guy? Is he harmless or threatening? You can guess by color and intonation in his voice, but still you are missing the visual cues.

The first example comes from introduction of Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction. Since this is the first time we see his character, it’s quite difficult to guess what type of character he is and thus for several minutes he remains covered in mystery for us.. And by the way, I think this is one of the keys to a good storytelling – lay out questions and hold viewer’s curiosity as long as possible, reveal the answer (hopefully a surprising one and in a way that will be unexpected by the viewer), than lay out new questions and repeat the process…

Let the Right One In (2008)
Let the Right One In (2008)

The second example comes from Swedish movie Let the Right One In. We are in a classroom, where a policeman gives a short lecture. The only kid interacting with him is our main character Oskar. Again, his back are in focus, while everything else is out of focus. You would expect a rack focus on the policeman, or counter shot revealing the face of Oskar, but none of that happens.

Here this technique serves a different purpose, we saw his face already, so it’s not a mystery any more. I think that in this case this simply helps to build a tension in the classroom. (Later on, you’ll learn that Oskar gets often bullied.)

Do you know about any other examples? If yes, let me know, I’ll be more than happy to add them here…

Scene coverage in Road to Perdition

The main action is happening between Paul Newman and Daniel Craig’s characters, so it kinda makes sense to draw an “action line” between them and cover the scene from one side of the line. This way you’ll avoid problems later in the editing.

Scene coverage in Road to Perdition 01

From the picture above you can see, that most camera setups are located on the right side of the line. This side was probably chosen due to technical considerations (limitations of the location etc.)

The scene starts with a high angle master shot of all characters, this clearly shows where each character is seated. Now, we can freely cut to individual characters without confusing the viewer… unless we cut to the camera placed on the other side of the action line.

Scene coverage in Road to Perdition 02

In the third shot the camera physically jumps to the other side of the line. However, it doesn’t feel wrong. The reason is that you could get a similar shot while staying on the same side if you’d use a telephoto lens (instead of wide angle).

Scene coverage in Road to Perdition 03

The next jump is between shots 4 and 5. In this case, the trick with longer focal length won’t work anymore. You could eventually avoid this jump by making a new action line (right part of the picture above), but in this case I believe there is no reason to do that: There is almost no interaction between the two characters in the shot (this is basically a reaction shot), therefore the original action line remains the same (that is the one between Paul Newman and Daniel Craig’s characters).

Cutting to the other side of action line feels usually very disruptive, but in this case it works fine. The previous shot is more than 13 seconds long, that’s long enough to memorize where everybody is seated, so when we cut to the other side, we won’t feel confused. This applies to reaction shots 6, 8, 16, 17 and 22 as well:

This scene is a beautiful example of jumping from one side of the action line to the other (and thus breaking the 180 degree rule), without making the viewer confused (which might be the intention in some cases).

I’d love to hear Sam Mendes talking this scene through in some audio commentary, particularly the last shot, where camera follows and keeps in focus Tom Hanks with Paul Newman, while making Daniel Craig’s character increasingly out of focus…

P.S. Have you noticed the continuity error between shots 6 and 7?

Cinematic blend between subjective and objective POV

In February I read a great analysis of camera movements in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows posted by digifruitella from filmschoolthrucommentaries. Particularly interesting was camera movement no. 6. It’s a nice and surprising blend between character’s subjective POV and our objective POV.

…is a nice blend of geography, and subjective shot. When Antoine walks into the room and it cuts to this, you have the camera slightly dollying and panning as if to show you the eyes and the physical movement of Antoine, before the shot goes from subjective (Antoine’s eyes, and ours as an audience) to an objective one with him walking into a frame. Two birds with one stone…

Now, I noticed the same camera technique at the beginning of Skyfall directed by Sam Mendes. Traditionally, you would cut on the character, then to his POV and then back to the character (to make it clear that the shot in between is his POV). However this blend is much better, it’s more effective. If you can say more than one thing in one camera movement (what the character sees, how he moves and where we are), than why not to do it?

Clearly, there were also other directors to use this technique – watch the video below:

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that these directors used the same camera technique as Truffaut did, but maybe not. Maybe they know their stuff really well…:-)