I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." -- Douglas Adams
Sorry I missed a week, everyone. Last week was an extremely busy one between work and trying to stay on top of the DVD and Blu-ray release, which began shipping this Tuesday. So, hey, Let's talk cinematography again!
In most writing, the who, what, when, where, and why questions are paramount, and the same is true when it comes to visuals. What and/or who are we looking at? Where are they? Why are they there? When is this happening? Taking it further, what should the audience be feeling? Thinking? Do we want them to expect or be surprised by something? What should they see... or not see? Where should they be looking in the frame? Should we give them a choice? This last one sometimes gets overlooked. I wrote in Part I about deliberately placing characters or points of interest on opposite ends of my widescreen frame in order to give Chimera a broader visual scope, but at times I also used this to give the viewer a choice of what to look at.
I tried to save close-ups for important plot and character moments, and to not punch in too close on my actor's faces. I feel like a lot of movies rely too much on close-ups, to the point that the environment gets lost. Most of my close-ups for Chimera, such as the one above, are almost entirely focused on the subject, but for wider angles of single characters, I tried to add other points of interest, such as a painting on DeVol's wall, or the video screen in the Wardroom.
BREAKING THE RULES
The classic rule of cinematography is the "180-degree rule," which states that when covering opposing angles of a scene, you should generally get angles that "mirror" each other. For example: imagine two characters facing each other, conversing. Visually, you probably want to have one facing screen left, and another facing screen right, as below.
The opposing angles visually convey that the two are looking at one another, even though in the scene itself, there is no wide shot of the two characters to tie them together in the scene. The idea is that if you imagine your scene as a circle, the camera is on the perimeter shooting into it; after getting the angles of your first subject, you move your camera around that parameter to get matching angles of your other subject. Moving more than 180 degrees around the circle usually results in two opposing characters facing the same direction on screen, which can be confusing to the audience. This basic technique is used throughout the film, though in many cases we did use a wide shot to establish the scene. Some sequences push the rule a bit, such as the image below, where the second angle comes very close to the 180-degree line, but the two characters are still looking in opposing directions on screen when addressing one another, so it seems to work.
The staging of your scene has a huge effect on this as well. For the bridge scene shown above, several other angles were also used, allowing the captain to address other characters in the room without leaving his spot at the chart table. These character pairings all more or less follow the 180-degree rule.
But there us at least one scene where I flagrantly violated the rule. After Chimera's marine unit has taken a blacklisted freighter, we cut to Merchov, the marine captain, onboard the ship. He turns screen right to look at Hess, who is vomiting in the corner behind him, and the camera pans down so the audience can see Hess themselves. We then cut to a closeup of Merchov that was shot almost exactly 180 degrees off from the angle we last saw him, and he's now facing screen left. His position on screen hasn't changed, but the new camera angle has changed his onscreen orientation.
After a brief line of sarcasm, we cut back to the XO, who looks up at him, also facing screen left.
This goes against the audience's assumptions, but I felt like it played well when I storyboarded the scene. Did I get away with it? You be the judge...
Of course, I've only been talking about horizontal movement so far, so let's go vertical (I wouldn't want Spock to say my pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking). My favorite use of more vertical angles comes late in the film when Hess rashly convinces DeVol to rush in on Voltairine without fully taking the time to consider the situation.
For Hess' angle, I deliberately placed the camera lower, shooting up at him, giving the impression that he's looming over DeVol, pressuring him. Hess was facing screen right, and I asked Andrew Vandegrift to incline his head slightly in that direction, creating the visual impression that Hess is almost physically leaning on his friend. I also asked Kyle Cruz-Cordova, as the captain, to hunch a bit to diminish his height.
For DeVol's angle, I raised the camera above shoulder level, so that it looks down on him and diminishes him. These opposing choices combine (one hopes) to visually give a sense that DeVol is being pushed into ta place he doesn't want to go. I instructed Kyle to spend the entire scene looking down instead of at Hess -- only at the very end does DeVol look Hess in the eye, using a sidelong glance that conveys his mistrust and gives the viewer an uneasy feeling that things may not go well.
This is probably one of my favorite scenes in the film, both from a visual standpoint and for the performances of the film's two leads. It's notable that this is the only scene in the film that was fully shot twice; I felt our first pass at the scene (shot the very first night) was lacking the oppressive feeling it truly needed in the performances. Reshooting it late in the schedule made all the difference and showed me how much I need to make a point of holding proper rehearsals for Part II.
But that's a subject for another blog.
I wanted to be fairly traditional in my angles for this first film, but there are moments when I got a bit more extreme. On rare occasions, I used "dutching" or rolling of the camera to one side or another to create a sense of unease, by not providing the image with an "even keel," so to speak. I tried to be very subtle about this most of the time, as in the shots above, and in the one below, so that it didn't look like a comic book: (you can see by looking at the support column behind Hess that the angle is dutched slightly to the right)
Probably the most extreme angle in the film is of Saverin ordering a gunner to fire on Voltairine during the battle near the end of the story. The camera is dutched to the left nearly 45 degrees, in addition to looking up from only a foot or two off the floor. The impact of the low angle is blunted somewhat by the fact that Saverin is leaning over so far as he concentrates on the targeting screen.
Shooting Chimera was an experience like no other. Frankly, going into it, I was terrified. I believed I could do it, but it was definitely a case of proving it to myself. Ultimately, it will be up to you, the viewer, to decide whether I succeeded or failed at the things I attempted as an amateur cinematographer.
There is much more to say about the shooting of the film, but I'm going to wrap it up here because I don't want to miss another Friday blog post. I may write a Part III of this series, focusing on the virtual aspect, or perhaps on the lighting techniques. I'm kind of making up this blog as I go, but trying to keep some semblance of order. It's been almost 20 years since my days as a small-town newspaper reporter, and thus almost 20 years since I last wrote with regular deadlines, so I'm having to get used to this all over again.