Shaky camera in American Beauty

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

I find shaky camera to be extremely annoying. Most of the time the camera shakes for no reason and covers basically 3 mistakes (1) (bad acting, bad set design and bad directing). There are only few movies where shaky camera actually serves the story being told (like in Bourne trilogy).

There are movies though, where shaky camera is used in a way that you won’t be even aware of it.

I re-watched recently American Beauty and noticed that the camera was always mounted either on tripod, dolly track, steadicam or crane. There is only one scene, where the camera was handheld (just a note, I don’t count the DV camera that Ricky uses, even though it is handheld).

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

It’s a fight scene between Col. Frank Fitts and his son Ricky. He (Frank) is mad and angry at his son and beats him (Ricky) brutally.
The camera in this particular scene is handheld. It helps to portray his (Frank) anger and it injects more energy to the scene. Just try to imagine the opposite: Camera would be mounted on tripod or would move very smoothly. That wouldn’t work, because conflicts (especially family conflicts) are far from being smooth.

The handheld camera was such a great choice, that I noticed this only recently. It feels so natural; it feels like this was the only possible way how to shoot this scene. Handheld camera is a key to “secret” why this scene works emotionally.

As always, shoot me any comments you might have! 😉

Resources

  1. Unsteadicam chronicles

Links

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Camera angles in American Beauty

American Beauty is one those rare movies you can watch again and again and still find something new every time you watch it. Not a single word, sound, body movement, edit or camera setup is wasted opportunity to tell a story of a man going through a life change. There is intent, purpose and deeper meaning behind everything.

In this article, we’ll look at camera angles that help to portray the change of Lester Burnham, who, from a gigantic loser, becomes a man in control over his life.

Camera Angles

Camera angles do basically two things – they show someone’s:

  • power (and/or)
  • status

Now, let’s look what these angles generally do on the emotional and psychological level (the following three picture are print screens from Clash of the Titans 2 trailer):

High angle

 Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)
Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)

High angle shot reduces the height of a character; this makes the character seem smaller and inferior. It seems like the character is belittled, looked down upon, helpless and insignificant.

Low angle

 Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)
Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)

Characters viewed from low angle seem to be superior, dominant, bigger, powerful or ominous. Low camera angle gives them a symbol of authority and respect.

High and low angles work also on the emotional level – the audience tends to (most of the time) identify with the inferior character, that is, the one viewed from high angle.

 Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)
Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)

However, it is important to mention, that this works only when the camera is placed around the eye level. You could place the camera on the ceiling to get high angle (or on the floor to get a low angle), but this would be perceived as a creative camera placement, rather than portrayal of someone’s status or power.

American Beauty – examples

So let’s start from the beginning, I’ll show you pairs of opposite pictures and hopefully, you’ll be able to tell, who dominates the story at that point:



Lester starts to be in control over his life…

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

…and guess what happened… 🙂

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

This change is also nicely portrayed and documented in body language of Lester Burnham – thanks to amazing performance by Kevin Spacey!

Voice over in American Beauty

American Beauty. Movie that I truly love, for a great screenplay, acting performances, cinematography, directing, music or maybe because I used to fantasize about a girl the same way Lester does about Angela. Anyway, there are many reasons and something tells me, that this movie will be covered the most often on this blog.

This article was inspired by the absolutely brilliant Film Crit Hulk, specifically by his article Screenwriting 101 Vol. 2 of 2  (point 43. Voice Over). Just read it, it’s amazing!

Always show, don’t tell

Screenwriters have a rule which says: “Always show, don’t tell.” And there is a very good reason for that (“to show” is always more engaging and cinematic than “to tell”).

Well, the problem with V.O. (voice over) is that it always tells and never shows. So you (screenwriter) have to be very careful where to use it and if at all. If it is used wrongly, it feels like a cheap shortcut to explain something to the audience. And most of the time, the audience doesn’t buy it, because it feels wrong, like something that doesn’t belong to the movie at all.

On the other hand, there are movies, where the V.O. is used in a very cinematic way. By that I mean: The V.O. is well thought-out and incorporated already in the screenplay, rather than added later in the editing process to fix some problem.

Also, it is important to realize, that with V.O., you are telling the story from this person’s perspective. And that’s exactly the case in American Beauty.

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

The movie opens with Lester’s V.O. and it also ends this way (with his voice over). Therefore, the story is told through his perspective.

Lester’s V.O.

My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I am 42 years old and in less than a year, I’ll be dead. 

[…]

And I can’t feel anything but gratitude, for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry, you will someday.

The V.O. starts, when the camera is flying high above the suburb, where Lester lives and next time (last time), when we’ll hear Lester’s V.O. is when he dies (and when camera is flying again high above the suburb, but this time, the camera is flying out – backwards).

The point here is that we can hear the V.O. only when he is dead. In other words, the use of Lester’s V.O. is consistent and well thought-out, and it makes perfect sense.

Actually, there is a lot of things in American Beauty that make perfect sense and I’m really looking forward to write and comment (Hi Andrew! 🙂 ) about them in the future!

P.S. In the original screenplay written by Alan Ball, the V.O. begins after Lester wakes up, goes to a window and peers through it. The words are also slightly different. The same is true for the V.O. at the end, it also differs slightly (it starts when Lester is shot, but then we were supposed to see Lester flying above clouds like Superman).

(The original screenplay differs actually A LOT from the final movie.)


Links

Screenwriting 101 Vol. 2 of 2 (point 43. Voice Over)

Mendes’ influence on American Beauty

Analysis of “American Beauty” – Part 1 of Several