‘A new Mosjukhin experiment’
Brief: To create an abstract or emotionally expressive sequence of images that affect our interpretation of the main scene or shot.
- Think of an emotion or situation that your character is going through.
- Think of shots, movements, sounds and actions that express something of that emotion or situation.
- Write a short script.
- Shoot the actor. Keep it subtle. Run the camera a long time until you get an authentic take.
- Shoot any of the ideas for shots which are the ‘counterpart’ of that emotion or situation.
- Cut them together consecutively or place the images side by side in a diptych.
I began by thinking of an emotion or situation a character could be going through and the shots, movements, sounds and actions that express something of that emotion or situation.
It took several attempts before finding an idea I felt happy with. I settled on a character in a state of ‘turmoil’ after reading a letter.
I was unable to find anyone willing to act in the film, so I decided to point the camera on myself. This is something I don’t feel confident doing.
Logbook 4, pages 47-48. Initial ideas.
Logbook 4, page 49
Logbook 4, pages 51-52
I drafted a scenario in which a character receives a letter containing bad news. As the sequence needed a cutaway of a letter or document, I needed to be sure the contents were powerful enough the stimulate the appropriate emotion I had chosen for this film. However, I wanted to raise the stakes and create something more interesting than simply a letter arriving in the post. I tried several different documents, none of which felt right. Eventually I found and used an actual document that came to light while researching my family history several years ago.
In preparation for this project, I looked for examples of landscape and weather taking on an emotionally expressive role within films. One example that came to mind was the garden sequence in A Beautiful Mind (2001) in which an approaching storm prompts Nash’s wife to gather washing in from the line.
One thing I liked about Ron Howard’s approach in this sequence is the way in which the use of sound plays an integral part in building a sense of the character’s emotional content, in particular the garage door banging in the background.
So I decided to use a similar strategy in this film and introduce the sound of a banging door outside in the garden. I thought I’d use it as non-diegetic sound over the trees and then reveal the source of the banging as coming from the tool shed. I also thought the ‘banging’ would provide a good way of transitioning from the present to the past. So I added a shot in which the Man steps up to the tool shed and bangs the door closed, before cutting to the fist banging on the apartment door.
Logbook 4, page 50
Logbook 4, pages 53-54. Rough storyboard.
I filmed the main shots in Medium Close Up, framing the character from the shoulders/chest up to the top of the head. In The Filmmaker’s Eye (2010), Gustavo Mercado says the Medium Close Up showcases the face and because it includes a character’s shoulders, it lets the audience see small nuances of behaviour and meaning in their body language. He also explains that the short camera to subject distance results in a shallow depth of field which helps to isolate the character in the composition.
Mercado also points out that cinematographers generally use normal lenses with the Medium Close Up, which produce no optical distortion in the face. The closeness of the shot when used with a normal lens lets the audience see the emotions in the character’s face (Mercado, p.41). I wasn’t aware of this before reading The Filmmaker’s Eye.
I used a 35mm lens for the shots of the character indoors. Its focal length of 35mm (which equates approximately to 50mm on a full frame 35mm camera) enabled me to get the short camera to subject distance required for this shot size, and produced a pleasing image with no optical distortion.
Logbook 4, pages 61-62. Camera set-up.
The main scene was lit for the scene. Originally, I had planned to use an Arri 300 as the key light, with some CTB gel over the front to convert it from tungsten to daylight, to balance it with the natural light coming into the room through the floor to ceiling window behind the camera. However, once I had set up the shot, I realised there was enough daylight coming in through the floor-to-ceiling window behind the camera to act as the key light. So I moved the Arri away from the actor and used it to give a little extra light to the wall and bookshelf in the background, which helped to isolate the character in the frame.
I wanted to create a sense of foreboding in the image, so instead of using a fill light, I decided to use a black reflector to reduce the amount of light falling on the right side of the character’s face. I also wanted to be sure there was enough light falling on both sides of the face; in particular, I wanted to create a small triangle of light under the right eye. This required me to make small adjustments to my sitting position on the sofa in relation to the lens. Too far to the right, and the right eye would have been in shadow. Too far to the left and the black reflector would have had little effect on the right side of the face.
Shot 1 – Medium Close Up. 35mm lens, aperture T1.5. A static shot, with the camera positioned on the same level as the actor’s eye line.
Shot 2 – Close Up. 35mm lens, aperture T1.5. POV shot of the documents, clearly showing the hand-typed text with the author’s name.
Shot 3 – Medium Close Up. 35mm lens, aperture T1.5. A slow push in, with the camera positioned below the actor’s eye line, tilted up so we are looking up at the character from behind the document. The slow push in suggests there is something going on in the character’s head. The camera’s movement contrasts with the previous static shot.
For the ‘counterpart’ images, I wanted to use the natural elements as a way of expressing the inner emotional state of the character. The wind buffeted trees in the wood beyond the house seemed like the most dramatic way of conveying this. The wind blown trees became a metaphor for the character’s inner turmoil.
Shots 4, 5 & 6
Shots 4, 5 & 6 – static shots, with camera titled up at the trees. For each of these three shots, the movement generated by the wind is contained within the static frame. In selecting these shots, I wanted to give the impression that the character was at the mercy of external forces beyond his control. Placing the images of the wind blown trees after the shots of the character reading the documents helped suggest this.
Outwardly, nothing much seems to be happening; a character is sitting looking intently as some documents. But inwardly, there is turmoil. The image that immediately came to mind when I was planning this film was that of trees bending severely in a storm, swaying backwards and forwards, side to side; strong organic structures rooted to the ground, being buffeted by the wind. This image of wind blown trees acts like a visual metaphor in the way it represents the emotional content of the character, who is also being buffeted, hanging on, rooted to the ground.
Juxtaposing the wind blown trees after the close up of the character, helps create an emotionally expressive sequence of images that affects what the viewer thinks and feels, helps build tension and helps connect them with the character.
This had been a fascinating exercise to work on. Trying to create an emotionally expressive sequence of images for this project was difficult. The main thing I’ve learnt from this is that creating a scene that affects the viewer’s interpretation of a shot is all in the juxtaposition of the images used within the sequence. By connecting image of the character reading the manuscript and the image of wind blown trees together in this way, it was possible to stimulate thoughts and meanings within the viewer’s mind that are not contained in the original images alone. This is a very powerful storytelling tool.
One of the most useful technical things I have discovered while working on this project is that there is a relationship between shot size and lens choice. In this case, using a normal lens when shooting a medium close up will give a pleasing image with a shallow depth of field and no optical distortion. Which is particularly useful when you want the audience to see the emotions in a character’s face.
A Beautiful Mind (2001) Directed by Howard, R. [DVD] USA: Imagine Entertainment
Mercado, G. (2010) The Filmmaker’s Eye. London: Focal Press.