Brief Thoughts on How We Talk About Shots

Here’s something very brief about how we talk about the interplay of art and craft in the cinematic shot.

I suppose this can be considered a less interesting follow-up to something I wrote, two years ago, regarding the function of the camera in animation. This is a reaction to these two tweets:

What br1anwuzhere says isn’t wrong, but it’s misleading due to a lack of specificity (though I know he meant well). It’s a formulation you see often in shorter blurbs about a shot’s meaning: “Dutch shots convey fear/irregularity” or “Long shots communicate emotional distance/estrangement.” Yes, but not exactly.

When talking about the cinematographic shot, the shot’s type itself has nothing to do with what it means or does—unless you mean to draw from an auteur’s idiosyncratic shot grammar. As anyone who has worked in film will tell you, most decisions over how to shoot a scene have to do with function, not art; one of these functions may be the artistry of said shot. In the end, however, the shot always revolves around The Prime Question: How do I convey the information I want to convey?

arete

Pulling this shot from br1an’s first tweet: the high angle definitely communicates Arete’s sense of being trapped. However, it’s not the high angle that accomplishes this. The camera is simply a tool used to communicate information; in this case, what wants to be communicated is the resounding visual logic: I am trapped, I am trapped. How does it convey this feeling? By using the room.

Rooms—and the spaces we inhabit—are symbolic of circumstances that shape who we (think) we are and who others expect us to be.[1] That’s why one of the most common creative writing prompts is “give a list of things you would find in your characters’ rooms/houses”; that’s why most expectant parents will (unfortunately) paint a room blue for a boy and pink for a girl.

The Prime Question: How can I make this room seem oppressive?

In this case, the high angle shows us the room Arete inhabits. Nothing more, nothing less. The camera is used as a tool, and the room, in combination with that cinematographic angle, gives us all the information we need to read I am trapped. The room’s strict and suffocating geometry. The blocking off on all angles through a clever manipulation of stage props and shadows. The only hope a false hope, a painting of a window. The massive, rigid floor, none of the lines of which, from Arete’s position, lead to a way out.

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And a simple change in the elevation of the “camera” leads to this beauty, which plays off of the previous shot. The ray of hope wasn’t where Arete thought it was, at the window—it’s a different window, which in contrast to the floor of the previous shot, has a direct line (the rope) leading up to it. The previously closed off octagon of a room doesn’t seem so stifling, now; only half of the octagon remains, from this angle. There’s hope; and all it took for Arete to recognize that was a change in perspective.

But this is probably too much to include in a tweet, and I digress. I just mean to say that how we talk about shots is important.

Notes:
[1]—And some functional elements, but those are hardly relevant in anime—anime could do Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities with ease if it wanted to. I also recommend Emily’s post on Yurikuma (and Lulu’s room) over here.

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8 thoughts on “Brief Thoughts on How We Talk About Shots

  1. DDK March 11, 2015 / 2:47 am

    Good read and I found your perspective on how we interpret shots in film/Chinese cartoons interesting. I actually have a pretty similar view on the matter, although I don’t necessarily feel that the function of a shot is a catch-all for how we should be analyzing and interpreting a work’s cinematography. I agree with you that the “ultimate” purpose of the camera in film/animation is to communicate a narrative with (motion) pictures, but this is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to visual storytelling. You briefly mentioned that artistry can also serve a function, and while I agree with this statement on a fundamental level, I believe that pure artistry does not always need to contribute to a specific goal.

    While it’s fine and dandy when form and content go hand-in-hand, you occasionally get shots that don’t convey any information and exist simply because the director /liked/ the way something looked (WINDOWS). Pure artistic form is something that I believe needs to be recognized, as the relationship between the artist and the viewer stems from the artist putting him or herself out on their metaphorical canvas. However, a lot of this boils down to viewer prerogative – some may feel there’s greater meaning in a flash of seemingly-random images while others may think “it’s just pretty”. Neither interpretation is necessarily wrong in my book, as I think that’s part of the beauty of having discussions about mediums like film and anime.

    I guess for me, I’m more interested in an individual’s reasoning behind their specific interpretation of a shot rather than their views on how the medium should be analyzed. Going back to br1anwuzhere’s tweets, I think they’re perfectly fine as quick journal entries of shots he liked or felt conveyed meaning in Princess Arete. Like you said, his comments aren’t wrong but their brevity can make it difficult to discern the link between form and content (to be fair, it’s tricky to convey a lot of information clearly and concisely when you’re limited to less than 140 characters on Twitter).

    In short, Twitter is literally Satan for discussing cartoons and everyone should just stick to posting screencaps of cute girls stepping on people.

    • SeHNNG March 11, 2015 / 3:16 am

      Thanks for the reply! You’re the first one to do so since this blog was restarted just a couple of days ago.

      “I believe that pure artistry does not always need to contribute to a specific goal.” — I agree! I think I may’ve sounded dismissive of artistic elements in the body of my mini-essay, and that probably has to do with a lack of writerly skill. There’s no discounting purely artistic maneuvers, especially in a visual medium; that the interpretations of any maneuver’s effectiveness varies between people allows for better discussion.

      I meant for this post to be concentrated on a very specific language we tend to use when talking about shots, so it’s definitely myopic in scope. Like you mentioned, those bite-sized bits of information are perfectly fine—most of us don’t have the space or inclination to write out detailed beat-by-beat analyses of scenes on twitter. It’s just something I’d like for any viewer to keep in mind: that we probably all understand what’s /really/ going on with regards to the “camera”, but for the sake of brevity we often lose the juicy/specific details, which can lead to confusion. It’s a personal craft-side hobby of mine to try and pay attention to why the camera goes where it goes and stays where it stays, but that activity’s in no way the only thing we should watch for.

    • brianwuzhere March 11, 2015 / 3:27 am

      Ah, the original intent of the phrasing came back to me today. While not every top view shot has to be condescending or oppressive, I wanted to emphasize that, because it was reflective of the dialogue (which I conveniently left out lol). The line in question was about how people shouldn’t be objects to be ruled over and you’re essentially seeing those shots from the POV of an authoritative figure. Then, you notice the scene repeated as she moves from castle to castle. The final shot is slightly more optimistic with blues and stars of her own design, in contrast with the dim lighting and even tighter framing of the initial room, but it’s becoming a vicious cycle that she may not be able to nor want to escape from. And…this is all way too much for Twitter. I learned my lesson with my early Penguindrum tweets, so I try to be as concise as possible now to just get the broad message across about why this is or isn’t the sexy way.

      • SeHNNG March 11, 2015 / 5:11 am

        I think you did the right thing, being concise. Twitter’s almost never the place to make multi-tweet analyses of shots. Most of the people who see those two tweets have the entire interplay between function and art play out in the back of their head, naturally. I think that process, and the language we naturally tend towards to describe the connexions we’ve made, interesting!

  2. iblessall March 11, 2015 / 3:59 am

    Eh, so what I think I’m hearing you say is that it’s not enough merely to point out a single technique (high angle long shot) and say, “Yes, this technique means this,” but rather that context encapsulated (or, perhaps, excluded) by the technique is also necessary in divining meaning out of a shot.

    Said more simply—it’s really hard to elaborate on something as complex as cinematic language in 140 characters.

    • SeHNNG March 11, 2015 / 5:08 am

      More or less! This post isn’t meant to point out anything of import, really. Just wanted to point out that it’s important to think of the shot as complex and /functional/; the language we use, even outside of character limits—you see it often enough in reviews—tends to betray that fact, despite our best intentions.

  3. animecommentary April 3, 2015 / 2:21 am

    I haven’t flexed my film-buff muscles in some time, so forgive me for any mistakes on my part. ^.^;; With the high shots, looking down on Arete, the camera places us in the view of a “god” observing the seeming futility of Arete’s position – she’s dwarfed by the room, with no obvious means of escape. The tweet of the high-angle shots presents a maze of masonry and tapestry, where the architecture (not to mention the furniture) confine the people present to a small portion of the scene – the castle itself literally looms over Arete as she sits alone, seemingly contemplating her position. After all, she is quite small compared to the environment; we’re drawn more to what surrounds her, and thus view Arete as a part of some dimly-lit castle tower, the sole inhabitant.

    With the low-angle shots, we see her opportunity to escape; a single rope, reminiscent of Rapunzel’s hair, offers a chance to see the outside world. The outside world – the more open, free counterpoint to the confining tower that once dominated the scene.

    Of course, I’m interpreting things here – hopefully, I provided a good one.

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