How Do You Convey Meaning Without Words?
Every year Boston University’s Field Production Services (FPS) leases the Chapman-Leonard Super PeeWee IV camera dolly for use in advanced production courses. It’s everyone’s favorite toy. This heavy metal slab on wheels allows the cinematographer to capture graceful tracking shots, to push in on a subject to amp up the intensity, or to mindlessly glide the camera about the set for no reason. Too often student filmmakers opt for that third one, and its much less effective than expected.
One of the first lessons I learned in Charlie Anderson’s Production I (FT353) course was to compose my shots and to choreograph my camera movements with some deeper-than-visual meaning in mind. There are an infinite number of ways to film a given subject, and it’s our job as filmmakers to determine which way most effectively serves the story we’re trying to tell.
For example, imagine we’re making a movie about Larry. Larry has just been dumped by his girlfriend, and he’s feeling isolated and alone. He takes the subway home from her house after she breaks the news to him. There’s any number of ways we could frame Larry within the camera, but we’re trying to communicate his sudden loneliness. A wide shot of Larry centered in the middle of the frame with no one to either side tells the audience not only that Larry is alone on the subway car, but on a deeper level that he is alone in his life. Maybe Larry heads to the bar to drown his sorrows. The bar is crowded and lively, so it might be difficult to communicate Larry’s loneliness in a wide shot. Instead, a close-up could convey that, despite all of the people surrounding him, Larry feels isolated. However, not all is hopeless in Larry’s world: an over the shoulder spot from his point of view reveals, unbeknownst to him, an attractive young lady looking his way. A wide shot of the two shows the distance – both physical and personal – between them. But when she brings him a drink and introduces herself as Lucy, a closer two-shot of the couple closes that distance and a new relationship begins.
Framing, however, is not the only way to communicate story visually with the camera. Camera movements, such as the dolly moves mentioned earlier, are also at the cinematographer’s disposal. Early cinema was bound by a stationary camera, often confined to a light-controlled studio, such as with Edison’s films. However, primitive pans and tilts began to show up as early as 1903 with Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. Pans, horizontal camera rotations, and tilts, vertical camera movements, are generally used to reveal new information to the audience in a visually interesting way. My biggest mistake on my first project in Production I was an unnecessary pan in the middle of the 3-minute short. Not only did it slow the entire film down, but it didn’t reveal any new information. When the pan started, a young man was walking through a room. When it ended, he was doing the same. I ended up cutting the shot out entirely, and the film immediately felt leaner. On the other hand, my favorite shot in my final project in Production I, Chicken Movie is a slow tilt. In the film, a young man hears clucking sounds coming from the egg he’s cooking. The tilt in the middle of the film reveals an important piece of new information: the source of the clucking is a mutant chicken that has broken into his kitchen. It’s a surprising bit of information, the impact of which is heightened by the method of delivery.
Framing and camera movements hardly tell the whole story of cinematic composition, but those two most basic methods hint at the greater potential of the camera to create meaning. French Impressionist filmmakers of the 1920s, for instance, discovered a host of ways to use the devices of the camera to externalize characters’ inner states, setting the stage for future innovations.
This all brings me back to the Chapman-Leonard Super PeeWee IV dolly. I would never dream of questioning its awesomeness: that thing rules. However, there is nothing intrinsically good about using the dolly. Like the choice between digital video and film discussed in my last post, it is not the technology itself, but the effective use of it that makes a film great. Luckily for BU students, our film professors teach us this from day one. But we still forget sometimes. That dolly is a lot of fun…