Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Camera/Eye: "Realism" in Cinematography

A few weeks back, I was having a discussion with the frequently brilliant, witty posters on the forums over at about the overuse of blue filters, color desaturation and other cheap cinematographic and post-production tricks in modern American films. This prompted commenter Mr. Majestyk, something of a genre film guru, to express his feelings as "Just make the fucking movie look like my eyes see." After further discussion, he offered several caveats and clarifications to that sentiment, but the initial statement made me think. Do films ever actually look like the way we see? Realism in film, and whether it's desirable or achievable, is an interesting topic to me, and this seemed like an intriguing variation on that. Setting aside narrative realism (a worthy debate for a different day) and taking Majestyk's comment at face value, can and do movies ever look like real life as we normally see it?

When a movie is highly stylized, we tend to notice right away. Bold colors, exaggerated shadows, rapid editing and acrobatic camerawork all typically draw attention to themselves.

Something weird is happening in Alejandro Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain

Something blurry is happening in Paul Greengrass's Bourne Ultimatum

But what about films with subdued, subtle colors, lighting, editing and camera movement? Are these films an accurate representation of how we see the real world? I submit that they are not. Filmmaking is a complex process, so much so that even a visually unadorned movie represents a series of intricate choices involving lighting, color, focus, framing, and so on. Or, more simply put, the camera doesn't do a good job of approximating the human eye.


We could start by talking about films that literally try to approximate vision. I'm talking about delightful gimmick movies like Robert Montgomery's The Lady in the Lake, in which the camera assumes the POV of classic noir detective Phillip Marlowe for no real reason whatsoever. If you've never seen it, it's definitely worth your time just to see the gimmick attempted. Any 30 seconds of the film make it clear that the gimmick doesn't work. The result is strange and stilted, and doesn't allow for natural head movement, despite all sorts of fun moments, as when Marlowe smokes a cigarette and the smoke wafts in front of the camera.

Nope, not distracting at all

Let me ask this: What is it you always see, out of focus and differently in each eye, all the time even though you rarely think about it? Your nose. Technically, a film attempting an overly literal POV shot should include a blurry nose in the frame, but I don't believe I've ever seen this attempted. Yet. Now that I've typed it out, I'm hoping some young filmmaker takes inspiration and goes for the gold.

Although he doesn't quite go that far, Dario Argento has some fun taking the POV shot to silly, literal extremes in Opera, one of his best films. In it, the heroine is repeatedly subdued, tied up and forced to watch the mysterious killer murder her friends. The killer forces her to keep her eyes up by taping pins underneath them, so that if she shuts her eyes, the lids will be pierced. Argento not only has the balls to stage POV shots that include the pins in the foreground, but actually simulates her eyelids dangerously drooping towards the protrusions!

POV shot from Opera...
... and one with the drooping eyelids

The best attempt at this style I've ever seen might be Enter the Void (I've been name dropping it a lot here lately), which tries to approximate more natural head movements into the camerawork, and also includes blinking (amusingly so). It stages some impressive, and entertaining, long-take POV shots that effectively give the illusion that they last 30 minutes or more.
Note the tips of his fingers partially obscuring his view. Nifty and completely unnecessary

Yet, even at this level of cleverness and sophistication, with over 60 years to learn from the mistakes of The Lady in the Lake, nobody has figured out how to do one important thing: eye movement. Ever notice that when you look around, you don't just move your head, but your eyes, too. In fact, your eyes are almost constantly in motion, endlessly scanning your surroundings. Cameras just aren't able to imitate this, and if they were it would likely result in something very disorienting to the viewer. Camera movement, even a whip pan, is just too slow. Ironically, a simple cut to a new shot might be the most accurate way to represent eye movement... which, of course, would completely defeat the point of staging a POV shot in the first place.


Okay, so you're thinking "Big deal, Dan. So overly literal POV shots are phony looking? So what? That doesn't mean that other movies can't look real." Fair enough. So now I'd like to try to argue that even your most natural, unadorned looking movie is the result of some serious stylization. Let's talk about the problem of focus.

Deep focus photography (which uses a large depth of field) allows for a kind of god's eye view. Background, middle-ground, and foreground can all be in focus at once. Does this style, which affords the viewer a wide, open playing field of a frame to explore, lend itself towards realism? Let's look at a few classic deep focus compositions to admire how much they remind you of what you see every day:

Citizen Kane

Ashes and Diamonds

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Children of Men

Okay, you got me. I cherry picked stills from some very stylized, visually unrealistic movies. I still think I have a point, though: as much as the world around us feels like its in focus, you will never see in extreme deep focus in your life. What does visual focus even mean when we aren't talking about the human eye or cameras? Focus doesn't really exist from an "objective" view point. Going by the criteria of making a movie that "looks like my eyes see," deep focus is not at all similar to how we actually perceive the real world.

Acknowledging that degrees of focus would need to exist in order to make a film look a little more like how we see the world, we could look to cinematography that goes for a more shallow depth of field, in which one visual plane is in focus, at the expense of the rest of the image. It's not uncommon for this to be quite severe in films, even though we often don't think about it. Take these examples from two movies pitched as gritty, working-class dramas:

Hustle And Flow

The Fighter

Unless you are Mr. Magoo (or, you know, nearsighted), you've never actually seen anything look like that in real life. Especially the Hustle and Flow still, where the focus turns the background into an abstract painting. Still, even using a much less severe example, I think it's still apparent that this doesn't imitate the way our eyes focus. Here are two typical images from The Time to Live and the Time to Die, an early film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien:

I bring up Hou, a filmmaker I have recently been catching up with, because his early films are photographed in as unobtrusive and naturalistic a manner as any fiction film I can think of. The films themselves are often focused on the mundane details of everyday life, de-dramatized to a degree that's a little bracing to those of us accustomed to plot-heavy mainstream films. The visual style is designed to match, with its muted colors, lack of ornate sets or costumes, and subtly complex framing/blocking of the actors to capture their unselfconscious, apparently semi-improvised actions.

Yet even Hou's tasteful, quiet, telephoto framings show major signs of stylization. Look at the way they can flatten out the image (esp. in the 2nd Time still above. The still from Robert Altman's Nashville below also provides an example), so that objects on different visual planes appear stacked right on top of each other. The focus may be closer to what we see, but the effect of distance is greatly altered.

A sea of faces in Altman's Nashville

We could probably go on about the ways different lenses change the image, distorting and altering space and depth, etc. And by "we" I mean a smarter person than me who has a greater knowledge of photography. Just sticking with the focus, even the look of the focus itself isn't quite right:

Hou's Dust in the Wind

For one, most of us have two eyes, and things that come too close to our face tend to not only blur, but double as well, a visual effect only duplicated by bad 3D. Even discounting that, cinema allows us to do something that we can't do with our own eyes: explore the out-of-focus areas. Try that in real life, and your eyes uncontrollably go into focus.


It always struck me as an amusing irony that some filmmakers, when attempting to give their film a "gritty" or "realistic" look, opted to shoot in grainy black and white. I suppose because of its associations with low budget documentary filmmaking, it's become something of a code for a lack of artifice. Of course, we see the world in color, making black and white the more artificial option (my apologies to any color blind readers). And let's not even get into sepia tone or anything like that. Of course, I've heard other, more persuasive arguments for monochrome's realism, but let me state here that the very reason I love black and white is precisely because I find it less real than color.

Could you imagine Out of the Past in color? Ick

As for color photography, well... if it's not clear already, I'm not a person with a great knowledge of the technical nuts and bolts aspects of filmmaking, so I'm not able to go into depth here. That said, color photography is a complex chemical process, and different types of filmstock process the colors in different ways. Even a highly sensitive stock used to film dull, every day colors isn't going to perfectly duplicate every nuance of even those colors that our eyes can pick up on. (And of course, this applies to film and video quality in general, which even in its most highest definition still isn't as detailed as what we see in real life).

Hou's Dust in the Wind again, because I had another still left to use


Our visual perspective is incredibly limited, but have you ever tried to see those limits? Obviously our vision stops at some point, but there's not a perceivable end point; you can't find the exact "line" where it stops. Part of the beauty of film is that it exists in a clearly delineated frame. It's not like vision, it's better than vision. It gives us a specific, artful way of looking at things, and opportunity to see things from a new perspective that is, I must say, inherently full of artifice.

My final point being: awesome. As much as film is a record of "real" things that "really" happened in the physical world, it alters those things in the process. Every shot is a specific choice. Images pass through a interpretive lens and burn themselves onto film, creating something new and special. Film isn't just about reproducing the real world, but about reinterpreting and reinventing it.

Still disagree? Great. There are limitless counterarguments to what I've said, as well as plenty of things I could've said but didn't. Tell me I'm wrong, or tell me this: what do you think is a great example of visual realism in film, and why.


Shenan said...

I think your point is applicable to any art form, be it cinema, photography, writing, painting, what have you- the point isn't to replicate real life, it's to "phrase" (visually or verbally) life in a way that makes us take notice of certain select qualities, or view it in a way that enhances or imbues certain emotional connotations.

It's why not everything visible in the photographic frame is equally in focus or centered, and it's why a narrative doesn't give equal weight to every single action or experience that would have passed during the time covered. And it makes what may seem ordinary in the context of the chaotic jumble of things around it normally, seem extraordinary in the way we've whittled away and this and that and chosen to intensify this or that.

And it's why I hate Thomas Kinkade paintings. Too much of everything!

Anyhow, I'd be interested to read your take on how documentaries fit into this. Maybe about how even they make stylistic choices, even though the assumption of a documentary is that the camera is just a fly on the wall, capturing everything neutrally.

Dan said...

I left out documentaries on purpose because it seemed like a can of worms best opened another time. I was mainly trying to stick to the "look" of movies and ways in which they do and not not mimic vision. But my points about camera techniques still apply to documentaries, which are a "document" of reality but not the genuine article. The "flaws" and benefits of film still interpret the image rather than perfectly reproduce it.

And let's not get into all the other concerns about the realism of documentaries, and how through fixed perspective, editing and influence they shape reality into a narrative that doesn't exist in real life.

The idea of realism in film (and art) is an interesting argument and one I might return to in a future post. Again, here I was just talking about the "look," but more broadly you can look at story/script/plot, genre, performance, etc. Personally, I bristle at the idea of realism being a worthy (or even attainable) goal, which is why I think I have an attraction towards the strange and extreme.

Shenan said...

Right-o...if I wanted real life, I'd just take 2 seconds to look around me and not pay for a DVD :)

Mr. Majestyk said...

To clarify, I made my initial comment strictly concerning the modern practice of color-correcting movies until they look nothing at all like the way the world appears. I was expressing my distaste over this technique because when a movie is all blue or green or amber, it tends to call attention to itself and distance me from the movie. I become too conscious of the photography, which is distracting. I'm glad you used my off-hand (and, in the face of the thought you've put into the matter, frankly half-assed) comment as a jumping-off point, but is there any reason you didn't address the issue of color correction in the article?

Dan said...

Mr Majestyk,

Yeah, I hope I didn't sound like I was criticizing YOU in the opening; I tried to make it clear that you weren't really arguing what it sounded like you were arguing. I just find the whole realism debate fascinating and your comment had brought to a few new thoughts on the subject.

I skipped color correction because 1) I'm lazy 2) The damn post is too long already and 3) I was mainly trying to argue about how different techniques meant to imply "realism" or meant to mimic vision are actually highly unrealistic and stylized. Color correction is, as you rightly point out, mostly used as an obvious stylistic choice and not as an attempt at realism.

Except, of course, all the desaturated looking movies we get these days, where color is drained to an unnatural degree to give the effect of grittiness or authenticity. That's actually a good topic for another post. Hmm...

Joseph said...

First of all, brilliant post. Really a fantastic, thoughtful read.

I agree that so far no one has really been able to effectively recreate a subjective POV, which would, I believe, potentially revolutionize storytelling through the visual arts. With 3D becoming standard, there may actually be methods of more effectively presenting the subjective experience of viewing, but (sort of as an extention of what we were talking about last post) I really believe the lack of control over that vision makes it impossible to really recreate. Like in LADY IN THE LAKE, it's distracting that you;re watching through someone else's eyes; it's like actually being in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (in fact, those POV shots deliberately milk to bizzare reaction the brain has to being subjected to a POV which is clearly not its own).

As video games become more complex and immersive, I think it likely that true replication of the subjective experience will have more application there. True POV requires more than just visual imput, but participation in creation of that imput.

Films, though, have their own langauge which we have learned through exposure. It does not seek to recreate subjective experience but rather to play on the brain to communicate meaning. Films which violate that language have less meaning (ie, shakey-cam, heavy filters. In literary terms, they might be similar to deliberately cutting out some words for long periods or using only alliteration for pages. Perhaps such tools have some purpose, but they work in violation of the usual rules of that language and hence inevitably draw attention to themselves).

The language works best when it works so efficiently we forget we're 'reading' and simply immerse ourselves in what's being said. Reading subtitles is an almost comically unrealistic way to deal with reality, and is often quite distracting at the beginning of a film. By the end, you (or me, anyway) often forget you're even reading subtitles and your brain is seamlessly translating those words into meaning and directly associating them with the action depicted. It feels "real" because its effectively communicating, not because it's effectively depicting reality.

Of course, that's also the way our real brain works; reality is constructed subjectively, not simply as a function of our perceived imput (another reason simply accurately representing POV doesn't begin to replicate actual experience). Case in point: sex scenes with a static camera watching people do it are more 'realistic' in the way they present the action, but sex scenes which use the language of cinema to convey the feeling and subjective content of the encounter are more likely to make us feel involved emotionally (and, uh, sexually). Clincical observation is actually less 'real' in terms of portraying a subjective experience.

Again, great post!

Dan said...

You're making a good argument for what I think is termed "invisible style." It's something I've thought a lot about but for some reason never translated into those simple and elegant terms: that it is arguably a superior style because the less aware the viewer is of the vessel or mode of communication, the more effective the communication is. It's hard to read a letter if it's written on neon pink paper.

On the other hand, I have to admit to being something of a formalist, in that I think sometimes the style IS the message, where drawing attention to itself is the point.

I totally should have mentioned BEING JOHN MALKOVICH in this post, it's a perfect example of what I was talking about in the POV section. And I think you're right about that film wielding the style to a more purposeful end.

I also just realized that this post gave me a perfect opportunity to use the word "verisimilitude" and I totally blew it.

I also

Shenan said...

It feels "real" because its effectively communicating, not because it's effectively depicting reality.

I like that. I think that pretty much sums up what we've spent thousands of words dancing around.

Dan said...

I think there's a fair point that sometimes when people say they want a movie to be "realistic," what they really mean is that they want it to be immersive. In fact, the more "realistic" a movie becomes, the more alienating it would likely be to mass audiences: who wants to watch an 16 hour movie about a guy who wakes up, showers, shits, eats breakfast, goes to work, has an uneventful day, comes home, pays some bills, and then flops out in front of the TV? Heck, I got bored just typing that sentence.

On the other hand, and maybe I'm just different, I find truly immersive film-going experiences to be not only rare (I'd say it's only a handful of times a year that I sort of forget I'm even watching a movie and just experience it), but only really desirable in mainstream, escapist entertainment.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm all about escapism. I don't see a difference between great escapist entertainment as being mutually exclusive with great art, in fact it can represent one of art's great achievements: to bypass the intellect and go straight to the emotions. But I also look to certain movies for other things. Sometimes I want to be intellectually stimulated. Sometimes I enjoy being aware of the technique and how the artist/director is using it. Sometimes I'm looking for a sorta half-baked academic experience, i.e. watching a movie through a theoretical framework of some sorts (particularly auteur theory).

Movies, and our relationship to them, are complex. Immersive experiences are great, but only one piece of the puzzle.

Joseph said...

I'm trying to think if I've ever seen a film which AVOIDED trying to emulate a subjective experience of perception and basically just points the camera and plot indiscriminately. Seems like there's a Goddard film which contains long static shots of a group of people talking all at once without focusing on any specific conversation or character.

This approach is interesting because rather than trying to replicate the way we percieve reality, it presents a reality which is more objective and removed from the subjectivity of experience. Its similar to your point about deep focus -- that's the way the world actually objectively looks (we'll let the metaphysicists work out the details) but not the way humans perceive it.

Dan said...

Great points. In terms of an objective (or less subjective) film, that's an interesting concept. The camera is by nature subjective, it views everything through a delineated frame.

Maybe something like split screen/multiple simultaneous images would give us something less subjective? Each individual image would be subjective, but the combination of the images would create something less subjective. Some of Stan Brakhage's experimental films might touch on this too. Though was sometimes interested in capturing elements of subjective perceptual experience, some of his more dense overlays of multiple images and whatnot could be arguably an attempt at objectivity, or at least greater context. Sorta like cubism.

The deep focus thing is funny because I didn't want to drag my post out to long, but I could also argue that deep focus IS more like our actual perceptions. We do not see everything in focus at once, but our eyes are constantly scanning and we're capable of taking in a lot of visual information, translating what we see in front of us into a more complete mental image. In that way, deep focus may be more like our MENTAL perceptions, if not our physical ones.

Ben Emmans said...

You're saying that film has failed to achieve realism. Go and watch plays in a theater so that you can use your eyes to do the work.
Film has done it's part to achieve what many people love to watch and can identify with in real life. It is an art. Movies are shot with cameras, not human eyes!

Dan said...

I think you miss my point. Film hasn't failed to do anything; I consider it a good thing that it's not inherently realistic. I don't want realism (I get plenty of that in real life), and I don't like when people focus to much on how realistic a film is.