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 OutlawVern.com 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.
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.
POINT OF VIEW
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.
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!
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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).
IN SUMMATION: FRAMING
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.