Previously on 24frameworkspersecond…
In the first part of this post I looked at how shot scale functions in a single sequence in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In part two, I take a look at the same strategy in two other sequences and how the affects that strategy produces shifts when placed in the context of two entirely different films.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
As in The Two Towers, the scale of the world the characters inhabit plays in an important role in Dean DeBlois’s How to Train Your Dragon 2. The story’s primary concern is not with traversing that space, as in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but with the consequences that arise from Berk taking a place in the larger world opened up to the Vikings after Hiccup taught them that the dragons they had been fighting for generations could be befriended. The film opens with Hiccup happily describing the benefits of the new life on Berk he helped create, benefits the young Viking is thankful for, since “with Vikings on the backs of dragons the world just got a whole lot bigger” for everyone living on the island.
The following sequence, in which Hiccup and Toothless soar together over an open ocean and dart through the clouds above it, is composed using a virtuosic play with shot scale and a mobile frame. The pair fills the frame with the camera tightly following their movements, are reduced to a tiny blur of black against a blue sky, soar across the frame, or right up to the camera, hanging for a moment in the air before falling away from us again. The camera follows right behind them, lags as they zip past, or cuts in close to capture Hiccup’s foot as he adjusts Toothless’s artificial tail. In a single shot Toothless soars onto the screen through a large cloud at the back of the bottom left of the frame, rolls over in the air and glides toward and then past the camera, moving from an extremely wide framing to a relatively close shot. The camera whips around to capture the pair, Hiccup’s arms outstretched, mirroring his dragon’s wings, as they glide slowly toward the right of the frame, and then lags behind, letting them recede into a sky now clear of clouds but full of other, much larger dragons. Allowing the pair to drift away from the camera so the shot widens as the clouds are left behind intensifies the sudden openness of the sky and the sense of freedom that comes with being able to soar through it like the wild dragons flying with them.
Like The Lord of the Rings trilogy the film thematizes scale: the small number of heroes is juxtaposed against the size of Drago’s forces, arrayed in extreme long shots of ranks of soldiers; the fight between Drago and Stoick is mirrored by the battle of the gigantic Bewilderbeasts sparring behind them; natural structures stand in for The Lord of the Rings trilogy’s manmade ones as sea stacks and the ice from the Alpha loom up in otherwise vastly empty spaces; the reveal of Eret’s ruined fort emphasizes the scale of the destruction, reinforced by Hiccup and Astrid’s inability to understand what could have caused it; Hiccup’s attempt to map the world beyond Berk not only participates in fantasy film’s tendency to tie world creation into cartography, but also represents the young man’s struggle to find his place within that world.
When Drago and his Bewilderbeast attack Berk, the size of the dragon is emphasized using similar strategies to those that revelled in the sheer size of the Argonath in The Fellowship of the Ring. In relatively close framings, we see three Vikings looking up in awe before DeBlois cuts to an extreme long shot of the dragon’s head coming up into, and dominating the frame, with Drago on Toothless visible on the right, but relatively small compared to the Alpha. The shot’s juxtaposition of the sizes of the two dragons is repeated throughout the climax of the film. The Bewilderbeast is often allowed to fill up the majority of the frame, with Hiccup and his friends reduced to much smaller figures when captured with the same shot scale.
The sequence in which Hiccup attempts to free Toothless from the Alpha’s influence begins with a brief recapitulation of the scale of the challenge facing the Viking as the camera pans up and to the right in an extreme long shot of the Alpha, whose head alone fills the left side of the frame, to capture Hiccup flying in to confront Drago, just visible riding an enslaved Toothless in a tiny portion of the upper right corner.
The rest of the sequence is shot and edited in a manner typical of most conversations in Hollywood popular cinema save that the participants happen to be hovering in the air and two of them are dragons who can’t speak. In addition to pressing home the scale of the Bewilderbeast, the initial extreme long shot serves as a “master shot,” orienting all the characters within the space before the film cuts into closer views of each, maintaining the spatial relations established in the master. The sequence falls into a basic shot/reverse shot pattern with Hiccup on the right side of the frame looking toward Drago and Toothless at the left who look back at him to the right and with over the shoulder shots which frame Toothless from behind Hiccup’s back. Like the sequence in The Two Towers, there is a strong sense of directionality, but here it is created not by a mobile camera keeping pace with equally mobile figures, but by the gazes of the characters. Shot/reverse shot editing relies on eyeline matches – shots of a character looking, followed by shots of what they ostensibly see – to make sure the spatial relations between characters remain clear when they are not in the same shot, but the gazes of the characters are given extra weight in this sequence beyond helping to keep clear who is where since the Alpha needs to focus on Toothless to maintain control, and Hiccup’s efforts to break that control center on getting his dragon to focus on him instead.
Hiccup’s attempts to reduce Toothless’s world to just his voice similarly give extra meaning to a typical strategy of shot/reverse-shot editing. As the scene develops, the shots get closer to the characters, “carrying us,” as Bordwell would argue, “to the heart of the drama” which is ultimately reduced just to Toothless’s and Hiccup’s eyes framed in extreme close-ups. The film only cuts to wider shots to capture the Alpha’s change in position as he moves out from behind Drago to loom beneath Toothless. Again the dragon appears immense, its head filling up the background of the image, but for most of the sequence Hiccup and Toothless progressively dominate more and more of the frame, culminating in the twin shots of their eyes. When the Alpha does appear again, he is shot in the same tight framing, an extreme close-up of his eyes, which reduces the creature to the same stature in the frame as Hiccup and Toothless despite the incredible discrepancy in their respective physical sizes.
When Hiccup finally frees Toothless the dragon shakes Drago off his back and the film cuts to a wider shot to capture the struggle before cutting in closer to a delighted Toothless and then back to a similar shot of an elated Hiccup. But throughout, the shot scale remains relatively close, with Toothless taking up the majority of the frame slightly to the left, and Hiccup the majority of the right. Without a rider, however, Toothless begins to fall out of the frame at the bottom left, and there is a quick long shot of Hiccup diving after him down through the bottom left corner of the frame. But instead of staying close to either character as they fall, so that they would still make up most of the image, DeBlois cuts to an extreme long shot in which the characters are reduced to barely discernable dark specks against the brightening sky behind them.
Like the shot in The Two Towers, the image relies on contrasts between light and dark to pick the figures out from the landscape, although the poles are reversed, with dark figures against a bright sky instead of the brightness of the Balrog’s fire against the darkness of the cavern. Like The Two Towers, the film uses a change in the score to emphasize the sudden shift in scale, with the theme associated with Hiccup’s mother – and therefore with Hiccup’s innate connection with dragons – breaking into full power after struggling to be heard throughout the rest of the sequence. Like the similar shot in The Two Towers, the shot in Dragon offers a still moment given over almost entirely to the beauty of the composition, but it is not therefore without narrative purpose. Whereas that moment comes close toward the end of a sequence of intense action in Jackson’s film, here it serves as a transition from the largely interior struggle for control over Toothless back to the physical struggle for Berk, punctuating Hiccup’s victory while also situating it against the larger fight. While not taking up the majority of the frame as it had in previous shots, the Alpha looms large on the left side of the image, with its huge tusks hanging in the center of the frame directly in the path of the falling figures. The return to a shot which emphasizes the tremendous difference in size between the Bewilderbeast and Hiccup and Toothless helps remind us of the difficulties inherent in the battle to come, and the huge spikes of ice embedded in a ruined Berk at the right of the frame helps remind us of the stakes involved.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
Mockingjay – Part 1 puts itself in something of a difficult position. Unlike The Two Towers and How to Train Your Dragon 2, in which the action is always immediate, as Entertainment Weekly critic Darren Franich argues, in Mockingjay the “action is abstract, distant,” with a great deal of the struggle between the Capital and the Districts happening at one degree of remove or another from the main characters. Aside from the assault on the hospital in District 8, in which Katniss takes an active combat role shooting down two Capital bombers, her participation in the fight centers on District 13’s propaganda efforts, on influencing others to take up arms rather than fighting herself. For Franich, the immediacy of the film’s climax, in which District 13 launches a covert mission into the Capital to rescue Peeta and the other imprisoned victors, therefore seems incongruous, it “comes out of nowhere.”
Suzanne Collins’s novels presented the filmmakers with the opposite pole of the problem that faced Jackson and his team in adapting The Lord of the Rings. In being restricted to Katniss’s point of view, the novels lack the scale typically associated with blockbuster franchise productions. In order to widen the narrative’s scope, rather than simply relating the effect of Katniss’s unintentional acts of revolt on the Districts, the films break from her perspective to show us the growing unrest she inspires. Cutting from Katniss’s individual actions in or out of the games to collective acts of rebellion becomes a minor motif of the series, most notably in the first film when the Districts riot in response to Rue’s death.
Throughout Mockingjay there is a constant insistence on this dual nature of the fight against the Capital, involving both outright physical rebellion in the Districts, and a propagandistic fight on the airways to inspire that rebellion. In a key sequence near the midpoint of the film, Katniss’s film crew captures her singing a song banned by the Capital. The song continues to play on the soundtrack as the film shows the process of the footage being transformed to meet the demands of 13’s attempt to sell the rebellion to the Districts, before it is picked up by a mass of rebels who sing as they assault a dam that powers the Capital. In the brief glimpses of the propaganda video we see from within the District 13 control room, Katniss always appears alone in the frame in medium or medium long shots. The assault on the dam, on the other hand, is shot using predominately long and extreme long shots in which the frame is crowded with rebels, with no single individual picked out from the crowd.
The sequence in which the team from 13 attempts to rescue Peeta and the others collapses both sides of this struggle onto the same action. The rescue plays out much like any number of action sequences which cross-cut between a combat unit and its command center monitoring the mission on screens or digital readouts, but Mockingjay places these technologies at the center of the fight. In order to enter the Capital its defences must first be disabled, so Beetee fills the airways with anti-Capital propaganda, Finnick revealing President Snow’s darkest secrets, including his penchant for poising rivals, in order to jam Capital transmissions. The sequence is edited to the rhythm of Finnick’s broadcast, with the film cutting from the command center to the rescuers’ plane en route to the Capital at the end of his lines.
The sequence continuously cross-cuts back and forth between the team approaching the Capital by air and the command center in District 13, with the two spaces clearly demarcated by the presence or absence of Finnick’s voice and by different colour schemes – the soft blue created by the screens in 13 and the red light cast by the team’s night vision equipment on the plane. In the command center, the camera shifts between close-ups of the tense faces of Katniss and the others watching the action on their screens and the screens themselves, which offer multiple views within the same image, almost exclusively a similar series of medium-close shots of the soldiers and of Finnick delivering his speech. The shots of the mission similarly shift between close-ups of Gale and the other soldiers, while longer shots are restricted to showing the progress of the plane from outside as it moves toward, and then through, the Capital.
Throughout the sequence, the plane remains at the center of the frame, usually either flying toward the camera or away from it into the distance, but the predominance of the shots are taken up with the soldier’s preparations as they put on their equipment and then prepare to jump from the plane. When the soldiers make the drop, Gale and Boggs are framed straight on in a medium-long shot from a low angle before a reverse shot cuts to them descending through the hatch in center frame. The camera remains in the plane’s hold, allowing the soldiers to dwindle in size as they descend, but rather than cutting to another shot of the team that would keep us close to the characters as they make the drop, as we had been in the rest of the sequence, the film cuts to an extreme long shot of the Capital skyline with the dark mass of the Tribute Center dividing the image in half, and the plane just visible above the building in a small patch of slightly brighter sky, discernable by the familiar glow of its equipment panels reduced to a tiny red square at the top of the frame from which the equally miniscule figures of the soldiers can be seen descending.
Much like the shot in Dragon, the switch to the extreme long shot acts as a moment of transition from one part of a struggle to another, but in this case it acts to shift us from the first part of the sequence, which was predominantly concerned with a forward trajectory, to the descent down into the building. The approach to the Tribute Center is shot to stress its basic nature as incursion into and across hostile space. The film constantly returns to digital representations of the city, either on the screens in the command center in 13, which show the plane progressing along a vertical line that intersects with a horizontal barrier representing the border to Capital airspace, or on the digital readout on the plane’s windscreen, which, with its nested series of increasingly smaller target areas, transforms the space into a pyramid with its point in the distance so that the plane seems to be progressing down a narrow path. The highest moment of tension occurs when the plane is about to cross over the boundary into Capital airspace normally protected by the array of weapons disabled via Finnick’s Trojan Horse broadcast. After a series of close-ups registering the nervousness of everyone involved, the film shifts to an extreme long shot of the plane as it crosses the boundary, flying directly across the frame from left to right.
The shot of the descent into the Center reverses this forward directionality. Many of the compositional elements that appear in the other two films are also used here, including keeping the center of focus in center frame and a marked contrast between figures and their background. The red glow of the plane’s open hatch in a predominantly dark image recalls the red glow of the Balrog against the dark rock of the cave. While the shot in The Two Towers allows the environment to suddenly dwarf what previously filled the frame, Gandalf and the Balrog are nonetheless alone in the center of the image and therefore the center of focus. In Mockingjay, however, the Tribute Center dominates the middle of the image, dwarfing the soldiers who had previously appeared in relatively close framings, which gave them compositional dominance in the rest of the sequence. Much like in Dragon, the shot reminds us of the scale of the fight, reducing the tremendous mismatch between rebel and Capital forces to the contrast between tiny figures hanging in the air and a huge, solid building while also reinforcing the suggestion of descent by striking a dark vertical line down through the frame.
Like both of the other films, the change in scale is accompanied by a change on the soundtrack, but rather than shifting the tenor of the score, here it is simply pulled out, leaving us in complete silence after a final sting from the steady beat of the background music. The sudden silence and the relative stillness of the composition coming in the middle of an otherwise tense action sequence seems ominously calm, the abrupt shift in framing creating an equally abrupt shift in tone. Infusing the entire rescue mission with the high pitch of tension that characterizes its first half would be exhausting considering the length of the sequence. In a similar strategy to the sequences in The Two Towers and Dragon, however, the calm of the extreme long shot offers something of a reset button, allowing the film to take us to a point of high tension, pause without fully relieving that tension, and then amp it up again once the soldiers have entered the building and begun their assault.
Scale and Meaning
I chose to look at this particular play with contrasts in shot scale because I find it incredibly compelling aside from its function in the narratives in which it appears. While the basic compositional elements of the extreme long shot and the actions portrayed are similar in each film, that aesthetic appreciation is accompanied by a range of different affects triggered according to the needs of each film’s narrative, from reminding us of the scale of the worlds in which those narratives are set or what’s at stake in the struggles at their hearts, to controlling the tension involved in watching those struggles unfold. I tend to look for this type of shot when I see a film, to notice its appearance when I see something for the first time, and once I notice it I tend to try and figure out why it’s there, what it achieves. I notice the clichéd use of a canted angle precisely because it’s a cliché, it performs a well-worn function. I notice these shots, however, because of the diverse range of things they can do. Film would be a much duller study if every type of shot had an easy association to a hard-and-fast meaning, but at least there would be no call for lengthy blog posts attempting to prove the opposite.
David Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 7th ed. (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 2004).
Darren Franich, “Is ‘Mockingjay – Part 1’ really a movie,” Entertainment Weekly, November 21, 2014, http://www.ew.com/article/2014/11/21/hunger-games-mockingjay-movie