Three Films, One Shot: Shot Scale, Style, and Meaning – Part 1

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My sister and I have a running joke.

While there is no typical camera set-up in Hollywood cinema, directors tend to side-step certain stylistic options save for on very specific occasions in which something out of the ordinary is called for. The camera is usually kept level to the horizon so that vertical and horizontal lines remain even in the image. Every so often, however, a director will tip the camera laterally to create a canted or Deutsch angle, so that the whole world seems askew, listing to one side. The technique quickly became associated with the suggestion of unease due either to an imbalance in a character (madness, drunkenness, etc.) or to some sort of impending doom. There’s a certain logical stylistic determinism to that association – the image is off-kilter so the world the image captures is also off-kilter – even if it has become a clichéd association to the point that every time a canted angle is used my sister and I put on our best ominous voices and declare, “Oh no! The angle is…CANTED. Something terrible is about to happen!” Also acceptable is “something’s rotten in the state of Kodak,” but a little on the nose for everyday use.

While the association between style and meaning in the case of canted angles seems logical due to the verbal analogy, it is not an intrinsic one; other directors have employed oblique tilts to create other effects. The association had to be established and then disseminated among filmmakers and only became clichéd once their audiences became familiar enough with the association for it to be rendered too obvious not to go unnoticed.

Filmmakers rely on certain common stylistic schemas because we have all learned what they mean through repeated exposure to different films using the same techniques, but not every stylistic option has a concrete association. It is tempting to assign fixed meanings to different kinds of shots since it would make the job of film analysis immeasurably simpler, more like translation than interpretation. Everything would be easier to understand, but, as David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson argue, “individual films would thereby lose much of their uniqueness and richness,” having been reduced to a strictly codified list of stylistic clichés.

Thankfully, stylistic techniques don’t have hard-and-fast meanings, and what one type of shot signifies in one film may not hold for the next. The functions shots perform are always contextual, part of larger systems of style, and the same type of shot can create different affects depending on its role in that system. Yet, while style affects our experience of film from moment to moment, we tend to remember only the affect and not the style that contributed to its creation, and reviews rarely touch on this aspect of filmmaking except at high levels of generality, and often by relying on canted angle-like clichés. The tendency to leave style to one side in order to jump straight into interpretation is largely due to our penchant for treating film analysis as an attempt to unlock meaning, and for many, meaning seems to reside in a film’s content (story, themes, representation of gender, race, or class) rather than in how that content is delivered. We can only access that content, however, through the stylistic systems that deliver it and those systems are neither neutral nor as obvious as the canted angle analogy suggests. The same shot does not always mean the same function.

I could offer any number of examples, including a list of non-doom-suggesting canted angles, but in keeping with the underlying narcissism that goes with starting a blog I have chosen a shot type I find particularly compelling – a sudden shift to an extreme long shot, reducing what once filled the frame to a tiny portion of it – in three separate films. In each film the basic action being depicted is the same, but the role the shot plays differs greatly, creating different affects despite similarities in composition. Because my typical long-windedness got the better of me, I’ve split this discussion into two parts with the second part soon to follow.

Spoilers ahead for each film and I assume familiarity with each for economy’s sake, but I hope that looking closely at these moments will help suggest how style works and how it works on us beyond triggering inside jokes and bad wordplay.

Shot Scale

In the analyses that follow I focus predominantly on shot scale as an element of film style, the relative sense of proximity created by where the camera is placed in relation to what is being filmed. While there are no absolute definitions for the terms used, due to the generally anthropocentric nature of narrative cinema shot scale terminology tends to rely on the size of the human body in the frame. In an extreme long shot the body is tiny, barely visible in the space surrounding it. In long shots, the body is larger, filling up more of the frame. While in long shots the entirety of the body is visible, medium long shots cut figures off at the knees, medium shots frame figures from the waste up, and medium close-ups restrict our view to the chest and up. Close-ups show just one part of the body, typically the face or hands, and extreme close-ups isolate smaller portions (lips, eyes, etc.) to highlight detail.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

As Kristen Thompson argues, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is inexorably associated with scale, whether in the press surrounding the films when they were initially released, which tended to offer sheer numbers as proof of the monumental effort that went into producing them – the unusually long shooting schedule, the massive budget, the masses of extras, the number of weapons produced to arm them – or in the “juxtaposition of different sizes” woven into the narrative itself – between the small-statured hobbits and the tall elves, between the ranks upon ranks of evil forces arrayed against the small number of heroes. The scale of the productions largely stems from the scale of their source material; Tolkien’s novel is often cited as the most thoroughly developed example of world-creation in fantasy. The author fills Middle-earth with everything from a fully-drawn geography to an expansive history peopled with multiple cultures speaking multiple invented languages, imbuing the created world a remarkable depth of detail.

Argonath
The reveal of the Argonath – Three close-ups then an extreme long shot revealing the relative size of the three faces.

As if to answer accusations that this level of depth made the books unfilmable, monumental displays of scale become a stylistic leitmotif of the film series. In addition to the scale of its fields, rivers, and mountains, the natural landscape is punctuated by colossal manmade structures like the giant statues of the Argonath that appear in The Fellowship of the Ring, and several of the trilogy’s set-pieces focus on the revelation and exploration of their sheer size. Through a combination of CGI, aerial photography, and unusually large miniatures – dubbed “bigatures” by the production team due to their size – Jackson repeatedly insists on the scale of the landscape the characters are traversing, often by shifting from relatively close views of those characters reacting in awe to what is around them to shots in which they are reduced to tiny elements of that landscape.

The opening sequence of The Two Towers offers a condensation of Jackson’s “stylistic trademarks,” his development of an aesthetic of scale and how it’s pressed into the service of creating certain narrative affects.

The film opens with an extreme long shot of the mountains. mountainsInitially the peaks are kept at a distance, the shot mimicking the composition of a painted landscape, with the frame divided almost exactly in half by the horizon so that sky and mountains take up balanced portions of the image. In a lengthy helicopter shot (approximately 27 seconds), however, Jackson increasingly lets those mountains break into the foreground. As the camera pans to the left, a peak suddenly looms up on the left side of the frame, and as the camera continues to travel down the spine of the mountain outcrops of rock burst into the foreground and then dwindle as the camera moves away so that they recede into the background. A dissolve takes us to another view of the mountains which again stresses their scale by contrasting foreground and background space, with the left side of the frame dominated by a cliff close to the camera’s view while the mountains recede into the distance at the right. This time the camera moves toward the cliffs, rather than away from them, and, after a second dissolve to a similar view, Jackson eliminates the background space entirely as the camera dives directly toward the cliff-face and through the rock.

During the opening shots of the mountains, the soundtrack provides a recapitulation of Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog from the previous film, and after the camera passes through the cliff we find ourselves at the conclusion of that battle. Once again we see Gandalf fall from the bridge, but rather than letting him disappear into the abyss and cutting to the other characters’ reactions as in The Fellowship of the Ring, the camera plunges down with the wizard. Initially it lags somewhat behind his descent so that the image is dominated by the dark rocky sides of the abyss, arrayed diagonally across the frame with Gandalf at its center. As Gandalf catches up with the creature the camera catches up with the wizard,Balrog who gets progressively larger in the frame, and during their ensuing battle, Gandalf and the Balrog almost entirely fill up the frame in each successive shot. Jackson shifts between relatively long shots in which we can see the predominance of the creature’s body as it tries to ward off the wizard, and closer shots, either of Gandalf striking it with his sword or close-ups of his strained face. The soundtrack also gives us a feeling of relatively close proximity to the action, with the screams of the Balrog, the impact of Gandalf’s sword strikes, and his grunts of effort booming above the score.

Throughout the sequence the two are kept in the center of the frame, falling down and to the left with the camera either seeming to fall along-side them, or capturing vlcsnap-2015-03-19-11h12m31s214the fight from just below or just above the combatants so that the image is constantly in motion. Only twice does Jackson cut to a slightly wider view in which we can see the environment surrounding the fighters, but on both occasions the longer shot is necessitated by the action as the Balrog strikes outcrops of rock during the descent.

After a final shot of Gandalf plunging his sword into the Balrog’s neck as the creature falls toward and past the camera, bringing the wizard into a medium-long shot with the rest of the frame dominated by the Balrog’s flaming body, the sequence suddenly reverses its aesthetic strategies. Jackson cuts to an extreme long shot of an underground lake roofed by jagged rocks which steadily brighten, lit by the Balrog’s fire as it falls into the frame. vlcsnap-2015-03-19-11h13m40s154While the creature remains at the center of the frame, it no longer dominates the image, reduced instead to a horizontal streak of bright red against the dark rock of the cave. The shift in scale is accompanied by other stylistic reversals. The camera, which was tied to the downward trajectory of the fight, is now entirely static. This sudden halt in the precipitous fall of the image is reinforced by a similar pause on the soundtrack, which, after a loud grunt from Gandalf in the previous shot, is given over entirely to the score, stripped down to just choral voices after pulsating with a full orchestra throughout the sequence.

The scale of the battle is huge: Gandalf is forced to fight a creature many times greater than him in size, a creature so large that it dominates the frame; the wizard is also is allowed to fill the image but only so that we can see the strain of the battle with that creature on his face; the pair falls down a seemingly endless abyss of rock as they fight, the speed of the fall matched by the vertiginous fall of the camera. Everything is large, loud, and in motion. But the sudden shift to the static shot of the cave reveals the battle and its combatants to be tiny in comparison to the scale of the landscape. In a narrative largely concerned with traversing vast spaces in limited amounts of time, it’s an important reminder, but it’s also stunningly beautiful and still after the bombast of the fight, so that when the combatants finally hit the water in the next shot, which once again brings us closer to the action, the moment gains greater impact from the stillness that came before it. The play with scale therefore serves multiple purposes both within and beyond the narrative: it reminds us of one of the main obstacles facing all the characters, it serves to heighten the impact of the end of the fight, offers us a moment to give ourselves over to the compositional qualities of the image, since we can no longer see what’s happening in the fight, and it presses home the production’s dedication to scale by dwarfing something we thought was immense in something even larger.

In part two, I look at two other sequences from two very different films that use a similar play with shot scale to equally divergent effects.

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