CINEMATOGRAPHY, Part III: KINESIS: What Motion Means
|In this still from Annie Hall, the camera is mounted on the side of the car so the background behind Annie and Alvy falls past, accentuating the speed of the car.||The set up in this shot from The French Connection places the camera on the ground in front of the speeding car, a perspective not unlike that of the woman with the baby carriage whom Popeye has just swerved to avoid.|
If movies are stories told primarily through moving pictures, the kinesis could be considered the essence of cinema. In fact, "cinematography" means "writing with motion." The camera records more than synchronous sound. It captures intimate facial gestures and car chases. With the refinement of computer generated imaging (CGI), the camera can even record things that don't exist, such as the Moray eel in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas or the Helms Deep under siege in Two Towers.
As in dance, the motion in movies makes meaning. The following concepts look at motion in two simple ways: characters movement and camera movement. Finally, we will consider--as is most often the case--the complexities created when both the actors and the camera are moving together.
I. Characters Move
A) Depending on context of the story, left-to-right movement usually suggests power for character, and right-to-left movement usually represents weakness. Lateral movements generally depict a character of action.
B) Depending on context of story, a character moving toward the camera has strength.
C) Usually characters moving away from the camera appear weak or distant. Lenses affect movement away or toward:
1) wide-angle lets movement happen quickly
2) telephoto can drag movement out
D) Camera's angle (combined w/camera placement) comments on movement.
1) the higher (and longer) the shot, the slower the movement
2) the lower (and closer) the shot, the more intense the movement
II. Camera Moves
A) Moving shots
1) pans: camera pivots horizontally on an axis, usually on a tripod.
a) Panning for a reaction shot establishes a cause-effect relationship.
b) swish (also known as flash pan [pun?] or zip pan) substitute for a cut (e.g. Emily Norton marriage sequence in Citizen Kane)
2) tilts pivots vertically on an axis, often to emphasize a spatial or psychological relationship (e.g. jealousy scene in Black Narcissus)
3) crane (includes aerial): airborne dolly shots, usually extreme long shots
4) dolly (includes tracking): some of the effects of the dolly shot are the following:
a) the psychological effect of a dolly-in shot is to move the viewer emotionally as well as physically into the scene.
b) traveling shot to destination
c) pull-back dolly to reveal something previously unseen
5) hand held: jumpy, more realistic, often used in cinema verte.
6) Steadicam—a stabilized hand-held camera—added to equipment for reframing.
B) Difference between dolly and zoom: Sometimes a zoom shot can be mistaken for a dolly shot because both bring the viewer a closer or more distant focal point. Although a zoom shot can give sense of being plunged into or plucked out of a scene, it is technically NOT a kinetic shot. Because in a dolly shot the camera moves closer or farther away from the scene, objects at the edge of the frame will grow larger or smaller, respectively. While dollying-in, objects at the edge of the frame will eventually disappear, a movement, which more closely approximates human perception. The zoom-in, on the other hand, magnifies, so that the viewer is only drawn toward a portion of the overall image.
Therefore, the psychological effect of the tracking shot is more personal, and the zoom can feel more detached, objective and clinical, almost as the zoom is used in documentaries.
In this clip from Walkabout, the camera zooms out from the children, then in the next shot zooms in to the boy. Notice how the objects at the edge of the frame do not seem to change in size; the constant size of the object distinguishes the shot as a zoom.
This clip from JAWS combines the zoom and dolly shot so that the dominant of the shot (Chief Brody watching the shark kill Alex) remains constant while his world changes. Also listen to the music, how some instruments slide up to higher pitches while others slide down to lower pitches; the music complements aurally the visual effect of the dolly-in/zoom out shot. This scene from Goodfellas also contains a shot that combines the dolly and zoom, but because the camera and lens change more slowly, the effect is less noticiable. At this point in the story the two "friends" at the table are about to betray one another, like Chief Brody, their world has changed.
C) Editing together shots from changing set-ups can changes perspective as in the parlor scene in Psycho. Also, if editing together different shots of the same angle form a closer or more distant perspective, a sense of motion is accomplished, usually for a jarring or unsettling effect as in JAWS when Chief Brody worries that the shark will return.
D) The camera's movement can be choreographed so it represents the audience's perspective. In the title number in Singin' in the Rain, the camera on the crane becomes Don Lockwood's partner as he dances down the rainy street.
III. Mechanical Distortions
A) Animation: drawings or three-dimensional objects are filmed frame-by-frame, then projected at 24 f.p.s. to simulate continuous movement.
B) Slow motion (over-cranked): can make violence appear beautiful (e.g. Wild Bunch, El Mariachi, Face Off, etc.)
C) Fast Motion (under-cranked): usually for humorous effect (Hard Day's Night).
D) Reverse Motion: usually to create a visual illusion
E) Freeze Frame: ideal for metaphors involving time because the frozen image permits no change (opening of Trainspotting and ending of Thelma and Louise).
F) Computer Generated Imaging (CGI):
IV. Psychological Implications of Movement: no such thing as intrinsically "cinematic" material (Bazin: "There is a hundred times more cinema, and of a better kind, in a shot of Little Foxes [adapted from theater], than in all the outdoor dolly shots, natural locations, exotic geography, and flipsides of sets with which the screen so far has tried to make up for stagy origins.")
A) Epic Movement: Vistas in John Ford's westerns can speak to a character's frame of mind (huge sky over vast plain with a small vulnerable stagecoach) or in Horse Whisperer, the mother's breakdown at dusk at Little Big Horn speaks to her emotional loss of control, like Custer's).
B) Psychological Movement: Facial expression in close-up (landscape of the face, e.g. Cries and Whispers or Persona)
C) Authorial Comments: Dolly shots away from characters used by Lubitsch and Hitchcock (Frenzy) showed autuer's distance from characters.
V. Link Between Movement and Genre
A) musical: emotions expressed through dance and song: In The Blues Brothers Movie Jake and Elwood are told to get to church to find wisdom. While there, Jake has a spiritual experience when the Reverend Cleofus James begins to sing. Notice how the ecstatic dancing is an outward expression of the spirit moving within. Although camera movement is minimal, the characters' movement is considerable. The scene is also notable as a rare example of non-diegetic light, which only Jake and Rev. James appear to see.
B) action: esp. martial arts require choreography. Lateral movements often emphasize speed and efficiency.
VI. Complex Motion: When the camera begins to move, usually the guidelines above remain in effect; however, as the framing changes so does the meaning of the shot. For example, in the shot above, the camera begins on Mrs. Murphy and her back-up singers and then tracks back to reveal Elwood and Jake are in step. The whole restaurant, including the diners, are caught up in the music. Part of the humor in the scene comes from the conflict between Mrs. Murphy and the Blues Brothers who Matt "Guitar" Murphy to leave the diner and rejoin the band. Regardless of their conflict, the music appears to be bigger than all of them. Mrs. Murphy sings; the Blues Brothers sing with her. As Elwood tells her, the call of music is stronger and more "important than any domestic problems" of the Murphys.
More complex motion can be seen in the climactic scene of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. In that film, the camera follows the bat downward as it smashes Radio Raheem's radio, reinforcing the motion. Later, when Mookie makes his decision to distract the mob from beating Sal, his sons and D'Mayor by starting a riot, the camera tracks back from him as he approaches it with the trash can, pans with him as he passes it and then follows him as he throws the trash can through the window. If the shot works, the audience changes--similar to Mookie's change--from redirecting our anger from people to property.