Most of us are accomplished watchers of TV and film, so we intuitively understand some of the concepts lurking in dense film-theory tomes. You won’t need them for Internet Film School, The A.V. Club’s column about film and television. In each installment, we explore a basic element of visual composition and analyze examples to understand how the formal properties of film and television manipulate viewers.
All film is illusion. They were originally called “moving pictures” for a reason: Films lie to their audiences, convincing them that the series of still-frames flipping before their eyes capture a slice of reality. Film provided unmitigated access to the world, especially when the camera appeared to be operated by a hyperactive toddler with the DTs.
The cinema verité, or observational mode of filming reminds audiences that there are eyes and minds behind the camera, which, ironically, makes the film itself seem less mitigated and “more real.” It sees the inherent illusion of film and doubles down: “You can tell this is authentically captured,” such works assure audiences, “because even we don’t know what’s going to happen.” The camera is typically a beat behind the action, and when it figures out where it wants to go, it slightly overshoots the subject and then re-frames.
Single-camera comedies like Arrested Development, Louie, and Parks And Recreation use belated reaction shots in a way that captures the characters thinking about how they reacted as opposed to the reaction itself. Traditional sitcoms, then, seem more scripted and “less real” by comparison. Of course, both single-camera comedies and traditional sitcoms are scripted, and the idea that one is more realistic than the other is just a function of the illusion created by deliberately imperfect camerawork.
At this point, though, the techniques of cinema verité are so ubiquitous that they pass below the threshold of what viewers notice. No one watches an episode of Law & Order: SVU and mistakes Big Boi being eaten by a pack of hyenas while detectives shoot a man smuggling a monkey in a basketball for the evening news. Such shows only—or better yet, merely—look realistic, but they lack the punch of immediacy that those early cinema verité films provided. At this point, the only way to recreate the illusion that film isn’t an illusion is to create contrast within a given work.
Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium accomplishes this by embracing distinct styles for its two central settings: the poor-inherited Earth and the Space Hamptons. For example, when Matt Damon’s character Max walks to work early in the film, here is how the camera initially frames his head…
His head is centrally framed and, for that matter, whole. Blomkamp used a Steadicam to follow Damon as he walked, so he could easily have his entire head in-frame as he passed that unfocused car; instead, Blomkamp loses and momentarily decapitates him…
Damon’s head jerks frame-right—to use a non-traditional measurement that gets the point across, about 64 pixels—which creates the impression that the camera operator isn’t entirely sure where the character is headed. In a sense, Damon’s skull breaks the frame, violating conventional wisdom about framing, which makes his character appear to be controlling the scene. Characters whose heads violate frame boundaries acquire the appearance of greater agency, almost as if they are silently directing the scene from within.
There’s nothing inherently realistic about Damon’s head-bobbing, but it does create a disorderly impression: Damon is an uncooperative subject or the terrain is too chaotic for the camera to follow him smoothly or a combination of the two, but it doesn’t matter, because the overall effect communicates an unruliness.
When Blomkamp tracks Jodi Foster’s Delacourt walking toward the camera on Deep Space 1 Percent, however…
…the framing remains consistent. All three lines are within six pixels of their original length, despite the fact that Foster is walking toward the camera at a brisk pace. This consistency creates the impression of steadiness and composure, much like the disturbing way in which trained ballerinas appear to glide across floors without jostling their heads. There is an exactitude to the framing here, as if the shot—and the world contained within it—is as organized as Damon’s is chaotic.
Its orderliness seems unreal, which is exactly the impression Blomkamp hoped to create: Foster’s character controls a wealthy society whose power is maintained by an inhuman and inhumane disciplinary apparatus. Shots of the Elysium satellite seem too perfect, as if they are the product of a previous generation of computer-generated effects. Consider the first shot of the station itself…
Blomkamp deliberately echoes the most iconic shot of a space station on this side of the Alderaan system…
The camera steadily pans to an image of the future that already feels old, which is only fitting, given that this is a CGI homage to an effect that’s merely “special.” The ostensible perfection of the Elysium station seems both obsolete and fundamentally wrong, which is also fitting, given that it’s essentially an orbital uncanny valley…
Everything appears too orderly, because everything is too orderly. The chaotic shots of Damon on Earth aren’t realistic, because cinema verité has a monopoly on realism as a visual mode—they only appear more realistic in comparison to the inhuman tidiness of the images of Foster’s life on Elysium.
By pitting these modes of living against each other visually, Blomkamp breathes life into the now-tired notion that the real world is “dark and gritty.” Neither vision of the world is more accurate than the other—the “truth,” whatever it may be, must be somewhere in between.