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Hulu Summer Film School Week 2: Cinematography

July 25th, 2014 by Kelly Lin

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Welcome to Week 2 of Hulu Summer Film School! This week, we salute the work of the Cinematographer with a playlist of films that use the frame as a canvas for evoking emotion and meaning. For this week’s Cinematography lesson, we’ve selected a memorable scene from each of the films and commented on its visual style. 

Required Viewing: 

1) Jiro Dreams of Sushi 

Cinematographer: David Gelb
Much like the sushi that the movie’s lead dreams up, David Gelb’s cinematography in Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a work of art. Throughout the film, Gelb employs several visual tricks to set the scene. A fish-eye lens is aptly employed to add the slightest dream-like blur to the surrounding events. Macro shots transform each piece of sushi into a minimalist masterpiece and slow pans add a level of grandiose to even the simplest of actions.

In this scene, we follow Jiro’s fish dealer as he inspects and selects the superior cuts of fish to bring to Jiro’s table.The camera tracks around the dealer at a low angle, giving him a heightened level of authority, and then expands beyond the dealer to glide through and around the huddles of other fish workers. The constant movement throughout the scene—coupled
with the sights and sounds of the fish auction—build tension and anticipation, transforming the process of buying fish into a tribal-like ceremony. View examples of the different shots featured in Jiro Dreams of Sushi here. 

Kelly Lin 

2) Night of the Living Dead 

Cinematographer: George A. Romero
Casting its influence across the breadth of popular culture, George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is an icon of horror cinema and the seminal zombie film. In addition to his duties as director, producer, and co-writer, Romero also serves as cinematographer, utilizing stark black and white photography to create claustrophobic tension, while simultaneously emulating the coarse newsreel imagery of the era to engender an unnerving sense of immediacy.

Later in the film, as the disintegration of the group takes hold, the trembling camerawork captures the in-fighting, the desperation, and the outright fear of the survivors through canted angles and high contrast portraits of terror. The battle between Ben (Duane Jones) and Harry (Karl Hardman),in particular, illustrates not only an obvious life-and-death struggle, but also a critique of our worst tendencies: that in times of strife and dread, at any cost, it’s every man for himself. Meanwhile, the undead – shuffling and moaning with vacant gazes – are unified in their inexorable death march on the survivors. And against humanity at-large.

Naveen Singh 

3) Tokyo Story 

Cinematographer: Yūharu Atsuta
Per Yasujirō Ozu’s direction, Yūharu Atsuta’s cinematography in Tokyo Story is carefully rendered: low angles, hardly any camera movement, and shots that are composed at very square angles. The result is to create a sense of visual order which seems to mirror the quiet drama of the film: an aging couple who visits their grown children in Tokyo, most of whom are too busy to spend any real time with their parents.

Consider this introductory scene in which the parents arrive. The cinematography suggest an orderliness to the way the drama unfolds: perfectly square compositions and low angles in very well-maintained living quarters – quarters that house material things and human beings with equal efficacy. But that same squareness seems to box our characters in, to trap them, and this mirrors the drama of the film. The children of the elderly couple feel as if it’s in life’s inexorable drift that parents and their offspring move further and further from one another. There’s a “naturalness” and “order” to the drift that finds its visual equivalent in the balanced frames from cinematographer Atsuta. But there’s also a stifling, almost repressive quality to the drama and the cinematography. 

-Christopher Rowe 

4) L’Avventura

Cinematographer: Aldo Scavarda

The bored and affluent are delineated through unconventional composition and long still shots in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. As a mystery without clear resolution, it shifts its focus from missing woman Anna to a forbidden affair between Anna’s boyfriend Sandro and her best friend, Claudia. Its quiet pace and and visual artistry is akin to art on canvas: Each still tells a story.

Within the first 10 minutes,  we see Anna in bed with Sandro, whom she hasn’t seen in a month, in the right corner of the frame. As he hungrily blankets her neck with kisses, he is unaware that her eyes drift off in a distance, seeming as if the walls of the room are much more interesting at this very moment. The imbalanced composition combined with Anna’s detached stare makes even the viewer feel somewhat isolated and empty.

Next, the scene cuts to her best friend Claudia, who is waiting for Anna and Sandro outside of the house. Yet she curiously walks in, looks around to take everything in, then closes the door and leaves. Claudia’s curiosity contrasts with Anna’s aloofness, foreshadowing what’s to come in the dynamic between the two best friends.

Sheila Dichoso 

5) City Lights 

Cinematographer: Roland Totheroh
Sometimes the simplest set-ups can be the most effective. In this finale scene, Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp reunites with his long lost love, a blind flower seller who has recently been cured of her blindness. The scene excels in cinematographer Roland Totheroh’s insistence on holding static shots for extended periods of time in order to show the actors’ shifts in emotion.

In one shot, we see the girl’s face shift from sympathy for the Tramp, to shock at the realization that the Tramp was her hero from the past, to concern that he is not the handsome well-off man she envisioned, and finally to compassion that he is in such an unkempt state. This shot is later followed by an equally emotive shot, in which the Tramp peers over at the girl in nervousness and slowly breaks into a reluctant smile. For the first time in the film, the girl can finally see the Tramp for the person that he is, but will she still accept him? Either way, the simple shots of our cinematographer ensure that the true focus of the scene—the acting—is placed at the forefront. 

Kelly Lin 

6) Pi 

Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique

“This in insanity, Max”  “Or maybe it’s genius.”

Pi is one man’s search for order in our crazy world.  Max lives a life of near solitude, choosing to spend most of his time holed up in his tiny apartment, rarely pursuing human interaction.  The close, intimate shots give us the same sense of confinement Max feels in his world, and in his mind.  Shaky camera moves and jarring, frenetic spinning spiral us out of control, right along with Max.  Additional disorientation is achieved through the black and white film stock, which provides grain, grit, sharp angles, and shadows, reminiscent of the German Expressionist movement of the early 20th century.

In the scene above, Max plays a game of “Go” with his mentor Sol, who views the empty “Go” board as an example of the infinite possibilities of our world.  Max counters with the astute observation that as the game is played, the possibilities become more finite and eventually predictable. The overhead shots of the board give us a godly angle into this vast world. Shots of “Go” stones are repeated throughout the film, calling viewers back to this symbolic imagery.

-Jonathan Katz 

7)  The 400 Blows 

Cinematographer: Henri Decaë
The cinematography of The 400 Blows has a playful but patient quality that reflects the soul of its precocious protagonist, Antoine, who is a troubled but mischievous stand-in for director François Truffaut. What the audience sees is what Antoine perceives, so the world reveals character as much as Antoine’s actions do.

Consider a long take following a group of schoolchildren as they march single-file around Paris. The shot follows as, one-by-one, each child runs away, free from the authoritarian rule of their miserly teacher. The angle of the camera, its precarious position at a high vantage point, and the way it cranes to follow the children all suggest a rough-hewn, homemade quality – the way a child might observe the scene. However, the shot’s length implies a patience on the part of the observer – it’s a long take that, because of deep staging, lets the gag play out all at once, without cutting around. This captures the tragic and comedic paradoxes of Antoine as a character. He’s a child with a playful sensibility who’s dealing with adult situations. He just wants to be a kid, but he’s thrust into a world where there is no escape from the responsibility of adulthood. 

-Christopher Rowe 

Required Reading: 

1) A Feast for the Eyes: Dissecting the Cinematography of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

Visit the Hulu Summer Film School page to watch the full-length versions of the films and learn more about this project!

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