Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How'd you do that shot?

There's a nice thing that can happen when you're making a film, and to some extent you can plan for it, but to a large extent you can't. You can make a great shot, but you can't necessarily imbue that shot with meaning. That has to happen from the rest of the film that surrounds the shot. I've quoted Walter Murch before, and I'll probably do it again, but he said that music in movies should channel the emotions that are already in the scene, not try to install emotion into the scene. It's the same way with a certain shot: it works best if it can channel the emotion (or meaning) that's already present in the film.

Our film is pretty straight-forward in terms of its cinematography. We did have one or two "special effects" shots, one of which I outlined here and here, and the other of which we get asked about fairly often: the rollerblading shot from up above. I wrote about that here.

I teach cinematography (among some other things) at Northwestern University. It's true, we all have day jobs, despite the huge amounts of money that are pouring into our coffers from The Atom Smashers. Ahem. Sorry, I was daydreaming there. In my classes we often look at films and analyze things like color, lighting, camera movement, etc. A lot of times it's fun for us to speculate how a certain shot was achieved. Or a cinematographer will share how something was done in an interview that I assign as a reading.

It's interesting to me that while the cinematographer usually talks about the equipment used, the technical challenges, the film stock and developing procedures, he or she rarely talks about what the shot means, or emotionally how it affects the story (this is not always the case; some cinematographers are very sensitive to this). This kind of reflection usually falls to the director, although for the most part directors in interviews don't like to talk too much about the cinematography, preferring instead to talk about the actors and the story (which is how it ought to be).

So, this does leave a bit of a gap, and I've found that usually only viewers and reviewers are the ones willing and eager to talk about what certain shots actually mean and how they impact us emotionally and metaphorically, and how they fit into the process of telling the story. Only in the genre of documentary (and, specifically, very low-budget documentary) do you find the somewhat unique and clunky combination of "director/cinematographer."

Sometimes, though not as much as I would hope, there are moments when those two pursuits intersect in a way that allows for one person to be thinking of the story and about getting a nice shot at the same time, and an interesting moment will get caught on camera; a moment of reflection that can serve to gather much of the rest of the film up and shine some thought into it, perhaps a new or extended meaning.

We've gotten enough comments about Ben's rollerblading sequence to make me think perhaps this may have happened in our film. Hi Kooky, a regular commenter on this blog with her own great blog, wrote a nice email to me and called that rollerblading sequence a "transforming moment." Our film was barely underway when we shot that sequence, so there was really no way to know if it would even make it into the final product or not. But a strange combination of the complexity of the search as reflected in Kate Simko's music, Ben's optimism, his musing about how funny it is to need something so big to see something so small, and then that nice shot that Stefani Foster nailed on the first take where Ben keeps getting smaller and smaller and the ring gets bigger and bigger --- a perspective shift happens. Maybe it is a transforming moment in that way.

Or maybe it's just a neat shot. It's hard to tell. I do remember thinking, I'll have to admit, when Stef finished the tilt up and zoom out from Ben on the rollerblades, "wow, it's fun to make documentaries."


Hi Kooky said...

My ears are red.

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