Monday, July 18, 2011

Mechanics of Filmmaking: Chills and the Gravity of a Reaction Shot

Let me begin by saying, this is idea is mainly based off of my own observations, but hey, this is my blog and I get to write about what I want in it.

I've never cried during a movie. Ever. That doesn't mean I haven't felt emotionally moved by the craft, but I'm just not one to get weepy. I am, however, prone to chills.

You know... you're sitting there watching a movie you're really into and something HUGE happens in the story, and chills begin to go up and down your spine, the hair on your arms stands up... and maybe you even start to get choked up. Maybe a son just returned from war and walked into his parents' house after believing he was dead, or maybe the father showed up to the son's baseball game after saying he couldn't, or maybe a group of friends are sliding to their doom into a big incinerator and a giant claw comes and rescues them from certain doom... you know... the usual.

You're suddenly moved. Not just internally, but your body starts releasing chemicals, adrenaline starts pumping, and you have a physical reaction to the images projected on that forty foot glowing screen. It's not just you, it's a whole room full of people that experience it. I recently got to thinking... if you can achieve the same response at the same time from a whole room full of people, there's got to be some sort of science and method to the whole thing. Some sort of intentional precision of mechanics comprised of timing, performance and the culmination of events surrounding the event. But how is it cultivated and what is it that moves us? I was surprised by what I began to notice.

I really started to pay attention to when specifically the chills would come during a movie. More often than not, it's not from the big wide shot that displays the event that changes the tide of the whole story, but moreso the intimate close up reaction to the event. I believe there are a few things going on here that attribute to the chill occurring consistently.

Firstly, I've always heard people say that the best films are the ones that move you and evoke some kind of emotion from the viewer. The story needs to be captivating enough so that the audience can care about the character's journey so they are able to have an emotional reaction to it. There needs to be a grounds for emotional investment.

Secondly, I'd like to thank Rising From Ashes director TC Johnstone for articulating it this way: motion creates emotion. It's the whole reason we have cinematographers aside from lighting. I'm talking about using the motion of the camera, or blocking in some way to amplify the performance to really let that particular emotional moment sing. While I would argue that this isn't necessary for that key moment, it can enhance it tenfold.

Think of every Spielberg movie you've ever seen. A character sees/realizes the for the first time and that their world has just changed, the camera dolly does a low push in on their face reacting to it. Maybe we haven't even seen what it is yet, but DAMN it's moving. It's an emotional pinnacle for the character that is conveyed to the viewer, who responds with their own emotional pinnacle.

I would love to do a SuperCut (as they're being called these days) of as many reaction push-ins as possible in mainstream movies just to see how often it's used and how differently each one makes you feel. A slow push-in for a tender moment, a fast one for when the character sees the dinosaur or monster for the first time. It's a revealing moment that is just compounded by the motion of the camera.

Again, I apologize for relating a lot of my articles to J.J. Abrams these last few posts, but my thesis and study sort of revolves around Spielbergian techniques, and J.J. seems to be the most current filmmaker employing these techniques in that way.

In a recent interview promoting Super 8 that was conducted by Buzzine, JJ said something that sort of brought all of this together for me.

He talks about his "Little Man." Now before you all go busting up laughing, hear this idea out.

In the interview, J.J. is asked about how he approached the trainwreck sequence in Super 8 and made it such a fresh and engaging experience.

His response was this:
"There's this stupid thing I do sometimes when I'm doodling, which I'm always doing. I draw a circle and then I shade it, and then draw like a little horizon line so it goes from being this circle to being a three-dimensional circle. But then the thing is, whenever I draw little figure next to it of a certain size, maybe very small, suddenly that circle is this sphere that becomes a thing of scale. It's weird how it suddenly has this meaning and importance, only because of the person, the figure that's standing there. There's a weird thing that happens when you connect a person to an event. Suddenly the event has different meaning. It's not just the event which is maybe cool and interesting itself, but suddenly it's relatable and it's a relative experience."
(Read the full article here.)

The sequence begins with a fantastic reaction shot with a push in on Joel, and goes into a death-defying chase as these kids try to dodge an onslaught of traincars flying through the air and plowing into the earth all around them. I think J.J. is talking about here is really showing the gravity of the situation. The reactional push-in sucks you into the event. Their lives are about to change. He then keeps you engaged by keeping the camera on the ground and with the kids. From their perspective. This works out beneficially three-fold for the sequence.

Not only are you getting the benefit of seeing the emotion on their face as this event happens, but your peripheral is also chopped off as traincars are coming from both the side and top of the frame unexpectedly, and you're experiencing it with them right there, rather than as a spectator from afar. As an added bonus, you're receiving exactly what J.J. describes with the Little Man. A sense of scale and gravity of the situation. I would love to scrub through that sequence and analyze it a bit more once it comes out on blu-ray, but I can tell you there was more than one time in that three or four minute period that I got chills. It's just a really effective sequence that displays this entire idea beautifully.

Although he isn't exactly addressing the importance of the reaction shot, he is discussing how he handled revealing the gravity of the situation. And I would argue that the reaction shot also does this in its own way, but relies on the adjacent shot(s) of whatever it is they are looking at to show the contrast of that scale. One archaeologist versus a dinosaur. One boat captain versus a vicious man-eating shark. One child versus a barrage of traincars raining down around him... you get the point. Revealing scale and reaction is crucial to those iconic emotional moments of film.

This is a pretty bold statement, as I'm still in my infancy in learning this wonderful craft, but I believe this technique is one of the most moving and powerful tools in the filmmaker's toolbox. There are one or two major moments in my upcoming short film that use this technique, and each time it's used for a different affect. I'll be interested to see how it plays out on its own and how it plays in sequence next to the cause and reaction of each incident.

I'd like to finish out my thoughts on this with a couple trailers. All of which employ the reaction shot and get you excited about the film. Now as I said earlier, you really need to be invested in the character to get a total emotional response from it, but by not having an investment and just showing a series of reaction shots, you start asking yourself questions and mystery is instantly generated.

I want to start first with Spielberg's War Horse, because the efficacy of this trailer is up for questioning, but I think it shows the ideas listed above quite well. By my count, there are about six or seven major reactional push-ins throughout the trailer, intermixed with shots of scale and gravity. It creates mystery and wonderment (which as you know is what I believe to be one of Spielberg's major MO's). Very little talking in this trailer, just action and reaction. Watch it once all the way through if you haven't seen it yet, and watch it again to start paying attention to what I'm talking about. Action and reactions GALORE. Scale. Wonder. Mystery. It says a lot by saying a little. Now whether or not that makes you want to see another movie about a horse is questionable, but it's certainly interesting enough to keep you watching.

Now next up is the Super 8 trailer. I promise I'll shut up about all of it, but this is another prime and recent example of everything listed above. While this one has a lot more dialogue to string the story together, it's almost all voice over and placed under reaction shots. It's about a half and half mix of people reacting to something off screen, and the other half are events showing scale. When I saw the trailer initially, before I even had this idea to tie it into the chills, I said to myself "Wow, there is a LOT of shots that are just people looking at something off screen." But after reading the Buzzine interview with Abrams, and spinning my wheels on all of this, I think it's a perfect example of the core of this idea.

I like to watch a movie, but part of the fascination for me is also keeping a finger on the pulse of both myself and the audience as they react to the movie. When a chill comes. When the laugh comes after a joke. When people jump. Learning how people watch films is one of the most interesting and useful things when it comes to making films. It helps smooth over the learning curve on the craft when it comes to learning by making mistakes. Sure you can learn by experimenting on a dozen different films how to get a chill out of people, or you can see how the masters do it and reverse engineer it to make it your own.

1 comment:

  1. This is a terrific writing! I love seeing blogs where people really get into their love of films and filmmaking. Keep 'em coming!

    Chris Magdalenski