🎬 #56 The Most Cinematic Shot.
The above paintings are by Casper David Friedrich, I love all his work, but particularly these types of images. A lone figure or a group of figures in the world and us behind them, seeing what they see - as if we are there too. We’re both present and removed from the action. It’s a great ‘shot.’
Cinematic is a term that always confused me, lots of things can be cinematic - but this particular framing sums it up best for me. This is the most cinematic shot - it puts us in the ‘frame of mind’ of the protagonist, witnessing the world as they see it. Weirdly, for me, it’s more engaging that a dramatic close-up on an emoting actor’s face.
This week we have two film’s from the 2000’s that really maximise what this shot can do - grandeur, the sense of seeing the world through a character’s eyes, and of being present in the scene. Much more than any 3D shot could achieve.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD.
2007 Dir Andrew Dominik
Andrew Dominik’s portrait of the iconic Jesse James returns to this kind of shot time and time again. Placing us in Brad Pitt’s character’s shoes. He’s both a part of the world and witness to it - just as we are. His silhouette and his back act as a proxy for us to experience things through him. It achieves two important things - makes the character feel mythic, anonymous in a way and unknowable. We’re at a distance and yet, weirdly, this frame helps us empathise with them more because we don’t see their face. We could be them.
This effect is heightened when we track with the character as in the shot below. Now we have a new dimension to contend with - we’re ‘moving’ with them. Either gliding or gently bouncing along with them. If the shot has a balanced handheld feel it can add a bit more tactility, there is a bit more ‘physics’ to the feeling that we’re there. Because we too are feeling the effects of walking, even if, in reality, our visual system doesn’t really have this bounce effect.
I guess there’s a reason that third person video games default to this angle - in many ways it feels more like our experience of the world than a first person view. Or, like I keep banging on about, puts us more into the scene and the action. Even if it that idea feels contradictory.
The director of photography, Roger Deakins, emphasises the effect here by blurring the frame at the edges of view, helping us focus more on a 22-50 mm slice of the world [23mm is apparently the focal length of a lens that most closely approximates the image generated by our eyes and visual cortex]. The blurred effect also reminds us of the artefacts of the photography of the era, again it helps us ‘be in’ the world created by the filmmakers.
If we saw these two shots above without the character in them, we might think, yes, they are visually stunning, but we would lose the storytelling anchor - the sense of identification. With the character there in the frame, we’re anchored in their experience, we’re in the story.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hrs 40 mins of my precious life watching this? Andrew Dominik’s romantic ode to the outlaw, brought to life by Roger Deakins’ inimitable taste is a Western unlike any other, a languid, gorgeous epic that unravels at its own pace and to one of the loveliest scores ever composed.
*Available for a small rental fee on Apple, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play and Sky Store.
Fact: Brad Pitt [also a producer on the film] had it written into his contract that the title cannot be changed and would always be used in full.
FILM TWO: ROAD TO PERDITION
2002 Dir Sam Mendes
This is one of my favourite Sam Mendes’ films and I feel like it’s also one of his most forgotten. It’s lensed by Conrad L. Hall [American Beauty] and like the film above it, it’s a ‘period’ film but also not really. Neither film feels like a film in the past, they’re modern takes on stories that just happen to be set at a different time. What unites them is the repeated use of the ‘most cinematic shot,’ as in the frame above. This is Hiroshi Sigumoto meets Casper David Friedrich.
What I especially love about Mendes’ and Hall’s use of this frame is the sense of mystery. That’s another element that defines this shot as the most cinematic. It begs the viewer to ask questions; who is this person? what are they feeling? what would I do if I was in their shoes? All the wonderings that propel you into the drama of character and so into the story they find themselves in.
The placement of the character in this frame can also make us feel different things. Slightly off centre and we feel a little off balance, maybe there is a sense of tension in the coming scene, maybe the character feels out of whack. Whereas in the frame above the character is directly in the centre, perfectly balanced, there is a sense of order and calm, of resolution. It’s amazing how much can be communicated with so few elements. Makes sense that the source material for the film was a graphic novel. The starkness and ‘graphic’ nature of the frame feels totally of that world.
For me cinematic is simple, powerful, minimal - does exactly what’s needed and no more and this shot is it for me.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hrs 57 mins of my precious life watching this? Put yourself in gangster era Chicago with Mendes’ atmospheric father son picture where every frame could literally be a painting.
*Available for free to Disney + and Amazon Prime subscribers and for a small rental fee on Apple, YouTube, Google Play and Sky Store.
Fact: Conrad L. Hall was posthumously awarded the Oscar for Best Cinematography for the film, which was his last.
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There's a shot right at the end of Under the Skin that echoes the second Casper David Friedrich painting very closely. Fantastic movie too!