As an artistic medium, cinema is like a musical instrument: it allows us access to some modes of expression, but not all. A violin allows us to play with the bow, to play pizzicato without the bow, to play with vibrato, to play spiccato, col legno etc. However, a violin can never truly play like a trumpet, which is built differently and and so works in different ways. Thus it would be a mistake in most circumstances to try and use a violin for a part conceived to be played by a trumpet. So – like a composer – we need to learn about what we can do with the particular, peculiar instrument of cinema; what it can do, and what it can’t do.
Film allows us to create a sense of space. We both see space, can move through space (in camera movement), and can see people interact with space. There is also the notion of offscreen space, which can be essential in fostering believability, and a sense of inner life in films (the sense that there is more to the film, or the scene, than what we are seeing). For a two dimensional medium, film gives us ample opportunity to create a sense of three dimensionality, particularly through the use of the z-axis, and a sense of subsequent background layers (see Mark Cousins’ article on the Z-axis in Sight and Sound, May 2013)
Light is very important in creating, revealing or changing space. Look at the way that Nuri Bilge Ceylan uses car headlights to reveal both the scene and its object (the dead body in the road) at the start of 3 Monkeys. Look at the sequence where James Mason switches off the lights after his wife, as they move round the house in Bigger Than Life. Cinematography has sometimes been referred to as ‘painting with light’, and of course it is light which CREATES space in cinema. In cinema, a room is just a black frame until it is lit. It is significant that Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a director with a deep understanding of the narrative possibilities of lighting, is his own cinematographer.
Camera focus is also very important in creating space. Focus allows us to separate planes of vision, and focus the audiences attention on one particular part of the image. Focus thus also helps create a sense of three dimensionality, and layering; a sense that one could walk forward into the image, that it stretches back.
Frames within the frame such as windows and doorways, can be very useful devices in creating multi-layered sense of space. Look at the way that Orson Welles uses deep focus, and different layers of action in Citizen Kane, to create a multi-layered sense of space.
Camera Movement can open up a new aspect of space. The films of Jean Renoir often include long takes which pan to reveal new spaces, or new elements of a scene. The long take at the start of 3 Monkeys pans to reveal the new space of the car. One of the early long takes in Beyond the Hills pans to reveal the new location of the nunnery. The sequence in Citizen Kane where the young Charles is playing outside in the snow, then develops to leave him outside, (yet talked about inside). The fact that these shots do not cut to reveal a new space, but show it in one shot helps the viewer believe in the inner life and authentic ‘interconnectedness’ of the story-world.
Sound is another important element in cinematic composition. Diegetic sound (sound arising from within the scene) can provide ambience (and thus help create a sense of space) or direct story information. Look at the sequence in the Sopranos where a sound heard throughout a scene is eventually revealed to be the belt buckle of body in the tumble drier. Or In Miranda July’s Me and You And Everyone We Know where a mysterious clinking noise heard in the mornings is only revealed at the end of the film. Sound can also help create a sense of space, as in the 3 Monkeys long take, where Ceylan uses the sound of the car, to help create the new space, and a sense of claustrophobia. Sound can also help refer to other layers of space. In the Citizen Kane example we can not only still see Charles, we can hear him. Some films might not show you Charles, but just let you hear him, keeping the sense of that extra layer to the scene as counterpoint to the on screen action. In the build up to the long take ‘running’ shot in Steve McQueen’s Shame, Brandon hears his sister and his boss in the next room but does not see them, thus leaving it to his (and imagination) what they are doing.
Time is the other crucial element of cinema. The cinematic composition allows development in time, and thus narrative. This is one of the crucial things to remember when planning a sequence shot or long take: How can you develop a shot, to take it somewhere unexpected? How can you use light, focus, multi-layered staging, camera movement and sound to develop what is happening?
This sense of development, in real time, without cutting, is perhaps one of the most thrilling aspects for audiences about the long take. It helps foster a sense of believability; that in the fake movie world of sets, location-fakes, and CGI, THIS is real.
Dramatic events thus seemed to take on a heightened significance in the long take. Consider the explosion at the start of Children of Men, or the film’s nail-biting ‘car in the woods’ sequence, or the hospital exploding in The Dark Knight; these events are all the more thrilling because they seem to happen in a framework which is somehow more real, (which in movie terms, means harder to cheat!)
Andre Bazin’s philosophy that audiences engage more with the long take, and believe more in its relatively ‘authentic’ construction of time, space and life, are equally applicable in aesthetic terms, when detached from their didactic, moral roots. Even if the purpose of your movie is pure entertainment, Bazin’s ideas and the long take can help you heighten the significance of your events, and help suspend disbelief that you are watching more than actors on sets! Indeed, it is interesting to note how many science fiction movies (Children of Men, Serenity) use long takes, and how popular a greater, ‘grittier’ sense of realism has become in movies like the Dark Knight, and a faux-documentary, handheld style in films like The Hunger Games.
The films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan are perhaps one of the best examples of the dynamic frame in contemporary cinema. Because Ceylan is his own cinematographer and editor, he has – like a professional violinist – a remarkable grasp of the potential of the cinematic medium (Alfonso Cuaron also co-edits many of his films). Thus Ceylan’s ‘frames’ are thrilling because of how much they can change, how dynamic they are. He knows how to use focus, light, camera movement, staging, sound and dramatic events to create long takes and dynamic frames that develop in ways which utilise the full potential of cinema.