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Terror in Space

My last post discussed the absence of drama in the survival story of the year’s worst film, After Earth. By contrast, one of the year’s best, Gravity, is a superb survival story. Survival is the only concern in Alfonso Cuarón’s film, as Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) must cope with diminishing oxygen, weightlessness and a debris field that will tear them to pieces. As the opening supertext informs the viewer, in space life is impossible, and anyone with ambitions of being an astronaut might find that Gravity gives them pause for thought.

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Gravity’s screenplay is textbook simple, a brutally basic survival story. Screenwriters Cuarón and his son Jonás use this simple story to structure terrifying set pieces through extraordinary use of cinematic techniques. The opening shot lasts for over ten minutes, as Stone and Kowalsky move gracefully albeit carefully in the void, before the debris collides with the space shuttle and Stone goes into a terrifying spin. I wrote earlier in the year that films like Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips hit me in a visceral way. Much the same is true of Gravity, surely the closest I am ever likely to come to being in space. Rather than following Stone with intense close-ups that focus on her face, Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki frequently opt for either direct POV or subjectively-inflected shots, including a long take that begins outside Stone’s helmet, moves inside it and into her POV, and then out again, allowing the viewer to share her position on a visual, aural and experiential level.

As well as these subjectively inflected shots, we sometimes see Stone spinning in long shots, with no apparent attachment, lifeline or hope. The vastness of space and the smallness of humanity is emphasised in these shots through great depth of field that presents the endless void of space. The 3D (which I have written about disparagingly in the past) enhances this sense of being in the void where one could literally spin and fall for ever. 3D is like any cinematic tool, such as CGI, practical effects, music, sound, etc., and like these other tools, when used judiciously it can enhance the experience. That said, I will be interested to watch Gravity again in 2D, and I expect it will still be effective, not least because of the realistic feature of silence. In space, no one can hear you scream, or indeed anything, and the silent vacuum adds another threatening element. The most dominant sounds are voices, breathing and electronic beeps, which emphasise the isolation of the characters in this utterly alien environment. When collisions take place between the debris and the space craft, rather than the familiar (therefore, comforting) sounds of crashing, there is silence. The most striking use of this silence occurs when a space capsule door is opened and the atmosphere rushes out in a silence that is almost deafening. When viewing grave danger, we are accustomed to hearing it at great volume, whether the sounds are screams, shots, explosions or simply the clatter of things against each other. By eschewing sound, Cuarón further enhances the sense of an alien environment where humans are out of place and out of their depth, entirely at the mercy of gravity. The fantastic technical features, combined with Bullock’s performance, ensured that I felt Stone’s anguish and terror on a physical level with each camera lurch, dip and pan. 

Gravity 4The technical intricacy involved in Gravity is remarkable: in an interview Cuarón explained that camera set-ups and movements were programmed using equipment similar to those used in car assembly, while production stills show Bullock swimming underwater in greenscreen environments in order to simulate zero-gravity motion.

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The attention to detail in the space stations is exquisite, these digital sets appearing both functional and personalised, homes in the most inhospitable environments. Nor is danger ever far away, as not only are oxygen supplies dwindling but the field of debris orbiting Earth repeatedly returns to inflict further damage. The knowledge that the debris is coming, knowledge shared by Stone and the viewer, increases the almost unrelenting tension. There is one, quiet moment of reflection when it appears all hope is lost, which is intensely moving as Stone starts to sink into eternal unconsciousness, her tears seeming to float out of the screen towards the viewer which, again, allows us to share her experience. This moment is brief, however, and the desperate struggle for survival rapidly resumes.

Gravity is cinema at its most beautiful and terrible, taking us to a strange new world in the most visceral and exciting way possible. James Cameron has said that Gravity is the best space movie ever made, and I agree, because it is a film that creates an approximation of being in space, which is relatively rare as most space movies largely take place aboard spaceships. In Gravity, the environment of space itself, along with all its terrible beauty, is created, emphasised and expressed. Cinema at its best is experiential, and the experience of Gravity was one of the most powerful I had this year.

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HD Isolation

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My last post discussed the treatment of violence in Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011). Another theme in Drive is urban alienation, a theme explored in greater depth in another film which came out the same year: Shame, written and directed by Steve McQueen (no, not that one). Like Ryan Gosling’s Driver, Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is a man isolated in the urban wilderness, both men deriving meaning from specific activities, driving for Driver and sex for Brandon. Amusingly, both encounter Carey Mulligan, who plays Driver’s neighbour and potential romance Irene, and Brandon’s emotionally damaged sister, Sissy. Both films are made by non-Americans who turn a penetrating eye on American urban environments, Los Angeles in Drive and New York in Shame. A key element which emerges from these environments is isolation, and a key tool is high-definition digital film.

When discussing Shame with fellow movie buffs, the film has been described as “beautiful”, “haunting”, “hypnotic” and “mesmerising”. The underlying commonality among these responses is that Shame draws you in and maintains your attention, compelling the viewer to keep watching. McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt achieve this effect by staging much of the action in long takes. Many shots last several minutes and capture a lot of action, sometimes lasting for entire scenes. Furthermore, these long takes make use of deep focus, capturing detail in the distance as well as that close to the camera. In high definition, this detail is clearly visible, resulting in a rich and textured image, but not a cluttered one – everything within the frame is neat and ordered.

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This style is used from very early in the film, as a naked Brandon rises and goes through his morning routine, a single take capturing him in his disciplined but sterile apartment as he walks, urinates and ignores the phone ringing. Through the expansive windows appear the first indications of his isolation – various anonymous buildings whose detail can be seen in high definition deep focus. This visual arrangement continues through the film, Brandon situated in expansive environments in which he is isolated. This isolation is achieved both by long shots which make him diminutive, and the high definition deep focus which does not emphasise him. The viewer identifies Brandon as different from the metal, concrete and glass around him, but with everything in equal focus and definition, the person is no more or less emphasised than what surrounds him. People are not only anonymous in Shame’s vision of New York, they are practically part of the scenery.

This scenery features many flat panels, including the plate glass windows of New York buildings, glass walls and doors in the office where Brandon works, sleek, shiny tables and computer screens. These smooth panels are visually echoed in the sleek planes of Brandon’s body, the naked breadths of his chest, back and legs are similarly smooth and almost featureless. These planes again integrate Brandon with his environment, which further expresses the disengagement he has with others. The protagonist glances off people as though he were made of glass or stainless steel himself. A subsequent role played by Fassbender was David in Prometheus, and his role in Shame serves as a fascinating precursor to the android. Although Brandon does have emotions, he as unable to operate as a human being as the artificial person.

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McQueen’s long takes serve to emphasise Brandon’s isolation and immersion in his environment, in some scenes reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. This is especially striking when Brandon goes jogging, the camera capturing his progress in continuous tracking shots. As he jogs, he passes people, shops, restaurants, cars, never stopping or pausing, his progress uninterrupted either by obstacles or camera cuts. Again, his disassociation and alienation is emphasised by the film’s style, as the HD footage places the fibre of Brandon’s clothes and the texture of his skin and hair within an equally detailed environment – the reflections on water and oil patches, the sheen on car bodies and the detail of other people, not to mention the mottled walls of buildings. Everything is equally detailed, and so nothing is emphasised, our protagonist one feature among many, equally apparent and only discernible by the camera following his movement. This creates an intimacy between Brandon and the viewer, taking us (literally) along for his journey, sharing his isolation and disconnection which may be a reflection of many viewers’ experience of 21st century urban life.

Another version of this alienation appears during two scenes between Brandon and his co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). They have a dinner date in which Brandon explains his aversion to relationships, his longest being four months. The scene occurs in a single take, the camera focus slowly narrowing either through a zoom or tracking shot, drawing the viewer closer to this intimate conversation. Outside the windows of the restaurant, the New York street is once again exquisitely detailed in the high definition deep focus, the couple, such as they are, merely the details that we can hear. Later, the deep focus creates an even more isolating effect, as Brandon and Marianne go to a hotel room and begin kissing and undressing, but Brandon stops before they proceed to intercourse. It seems that if he has an emotional connection to a sexual partner, he cannot become fully aroused. His isolation is again emphasised by the high definition deep focus which allows the viewer to see what takes place outside: rain spattering on the floor-to-ceiling windows, cars passing on the roads outside, cranes at a nearby construction site. Urban life progresses, this failed attempt at intimacy occuring in the midst of indifference. Brandon is emotionally distraught but, cruelly, the camera remains on him even once Marianne has left, a tearful Brandon gazing out at the uncaring city which continues uninterrupted. The viewer’s focus cannot focus on Brandon and Marianne, because the background action is a constant distraction. This distraction expresses the alienating effect of urban life, perpetual motion and empty expanses, in which Brandon, at least, cannot connect.

The long takes express Brandon’s discipline and continuity, his sexual addiction compartmentalised alongside his work and home life. Even when Sissy arrives unexpectedly, Brandon surprising her in his shower, the discipline continues as their first heated conversation occurs in a single take, Sissy’s naked form seen as a reflection, expressing her separation from Brandon. In a later conversation, when they talk on Brandon’s sofa, the focus becomes shallower, reducing the TV in the background to a blur of indistinct movement which is situated between them. Even while Sissy tries to find some way into her brother’s compassion, he coldly rebuffs her, the indistinct image of the TV expressing the barrier between them. The scene occurs in another long take, but the shallower focus helps to use the mise-en-scene to express the characters’ strained relationship.

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Amongst these scenes of long takes, there are also moments of discontinuity, especially during Brandon’s virtual breakdowns. When he is overcome by shame and throws out all his pornography, the scene is presented in short takes, punctuated by jump cuts as he sweeps magazines, videos and a laptop into bin bags and dumps the bags on the street. A more intense and indeed upsetting scene occurs later, when Brandon goes to the apartment of two prostitutes and engages in a furious but agonising threesome. The scene is a montage, cutting between the expressions of Brandon and the women, their pumping bodies and the room’s furniture. It may rank as one of the most uncomfortable presentations of sexual intercourse ever committed to film, bereft of intimacy or even simple pleasure, Brandon screaming as though under torture.

Not that the prolonged takes are far away, as in probably the film’s most distressing scene, Brandon returns home in a panic to find Sissy in the bathroom with her wrists slashed. His discovery is captured in a long take, but without sound, Brandon’s anguish expressed through his face, contorted into a howl of agony. Here the film expresses the ineffable – the unspeakable and incomprehensible pain at finding a loved one dead or dying. Such scenes are common in films – Heat features a very similar one – but Shame offers one of the most effective encounters with an attempted suicide. Once again, the long take prolongs the agony, lingering on Brandon to an uncomfortable degree.

Shame demonstrates remarkable cinematography and editing choices, as one is largely merciless and the other restrained. New York is used to great effect, the HD footage capturing the city in exquisite detail, which serves to demonstrate the isolation of the protagonist. In another heartbreaking scene, Brandon sinks into an almost foetal crouch in a wasteland part of the city, crying out for something beyond his addicted and hollow existence.

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Once again, we see everything, the pores of his face as richly textured as the tarmac around him. This is one the great effects of HD, creating a visual palette in which people and environments are presented in equal detail (I have published elsewhere on the use of this in Collateral). It need not be used in this way – particular shots as well as depth of focus can still emphasise actors’ faces. But in the case of Shame, urban alienation is effectively conveyed through long takes, deep focus and high definition digital film.