This post is brought to you by a good friend of mine from my days at Emerson College, Cameron Beyl. I've posted about his films before on this blog, but this time I invited him to take a screenshot from one of his films and write about his feelings on how photography has influenced him as a filmmaker. To learn more about him and his amazing projects, please visit his blog here. Enjoy!
Films and movies owe a considerable debt to photography. They are, in essence, a series of still photographs depicting incremental movements that, when fed through a projector, give off the impression of movement. It’s a multi-dimensional mosaic: a three-dimensional space captured and flattened to 2-D, encapsulated by the passing of time (the fourth dimension). With some of the best films ever made, the viewer can pause at any moment in the running time and find an artful composition fit for a photography book or a frame on the wall.
A filmmaker, like a photographer, has to tell a story with images. He’s lucky in that he gets all the images he can cram into two hours’ worth of running time, supplemented with dialogue, sound effects, music, and explosions. A photographer has only one shot to tell that story, which is why some of the best filmmakers (Stanley Kubrick, for instance) were avid photographers as well. It was their way of honing their craft, and disciplining themselves to tell a story through a single shot.
As a filmmaker myself, one of my operating goals is to be able to tell the story entirely using images. Ideally, the viewer should be able to watch the film with the sound turned off and be able to follow the story as it progresses. Having said that, I’ve never been asked to take a frame from a film of mine and analyze it like one would a photograph—which is exactly what Margot has asked me to do. And trust me, you don’t say no to Margot.
The frame I’ve chosen is from my 2009 feature film, SO LONG, LONESOME (which you should probably go buy on Amazon right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait). The film is an experimental drama about the loss of love and life, and explores concepts of the afterlife outside of a religious viewpoint. In this particular frame, we find the subject silhouetted against the lights of the city below as he looks down on it from his lofty perch. This particular image, to me, sums up many of the themes and imagery present in the film. The frame projects loneliness, melancholy, and malaise—juxtaposing the individual against the throngs of humanity below, represented by the endless field of lights and buildings.
If I remember correctly, I set this particular shot up myself, but I also have to give credit to my Director of Photography, Bryan Schlam. He was instrumental in establishing the visual style of the film, how light was harnessed and focused, and how the camera moved. So even though he wasn’t present when we were filming this scene, his eye was still very much informing my own choices.
Funnily enough, when I was composing the image during the shoot, I didn’t have all these thoughts swirling around and guiding me. At least not consciously. I framed the shot to convey the idea that he was lonely, which is perhaps the most obvious thing to take away from the image. But taking a closer look, the undercurrents of the film’s story and themes are present.
One of the film’s main visual motifs was “light in movement”. Because the entire film takes place within the mind of the main character (the story is structured as a series of memories firing off like dying synapses), I wanted to find a subtle way to visually illustrate the shutting down of his body systems—the solution being to project them into the dreamscape around him that poses as the real world. Headlights and rear lights from cars came to represent the circulatory system, the dissolution of geographical bearings became the brain shutting down and synapses firing, etc. In our chosen photo, one of the most distinguishing features is the glow of traffic on the 101 Freeway—a.k.a., clues to his state of health embedded into the image. Obviously, as I said before, I didn’t explicitly compose the shot like that on purpose—but the concrete visual decisions I had made prior to shooting helped to subconsciously frame the action in a particular way.
Other little things are present in the frame, such as the fact that the subject is shown in silhouette, another visual motif of the film (the absence/withholding of information). The blue-tinged color palette depicting loneliness, malaise, etc. The gradual loss of definition in distant objects (the fogginess that envelops memories as grow farther away from them). The elevation over the location (recalling dreaminess, elements of heaven, out-of-body experiences). All central themes to the film’s story—all depicted here in one shot.