Friday, May 31, 2013

Composition: Good Tangents (and other stuff) Part 2; The Shining

This the second of two parts with regards to good tangents, see part 1.

In 1980, my dad took on the task of painting the entire exterior of our house and to do so, he covered up all of the windows with newspaper from the outside.  The only problem from my eyes (I think the color was wrong or something so it took longer than my dad expected) was an add for The Shining was on the page that my dad chose to cover up my window.  So, for a little while, whenever I walked into my room I was greeted with this newspaper add and it give me the chills whenever I saw it.  Finally I had to keep the curtains closed every hour of the day lest I get too creeped out to play with my Star Wars stuff and have to retreat to some other part of the house.  I never told anyone about that because , well you know.  Just keep that little part between you and me.  Anyway, because of that experience and because of TV adds like this (except not in Britian) I was too scared to see The Shining.  For a really long time.  Not being one to watch scary movies, I just steered clear of this genre especially this movie.  Finally when I was in college, Bonnie, the girl I was dating at the time, was astonished to discover this and convinced me to watch this film.  Yes, it did scare the hell out of me (another thing we can keep between us, hmm?) but it also captured my attention.  This movie creeps me out with each viewing but I still love it, even if I am left looking over my shoulder when I walk down long hallways
I love what Stanley Kubrick and cinematographer, John Alcott, and editor,  Ray Lovejoy and the crew did to make this such a powerful film.
Even the opening title sequence is long and slow with droning, creepy score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind.  Why did they do this?  To show just how far away the Overlook Hotel was from the rest of  the civilized world.  If anybody was all the way up there in that hotel when it was closed for the dead of winter, buried in snow, and somebody did get a dose of cabin fever, it would be curtains (or elevators full of blood) for everybody with no hope of being saved even if you could 'shine'.  (Spoiler #1)
BTW, hardcore Stephen King fans, I know this is step away from the book and you all are still feel angry so you can skip this post and go back to your TV mini series of the same title (which uh, did not meet expectations excepting the topiary scene).
Finally after the interview with the Overlook manager, Jack takes his family on the long drive to the Overlook.  Because the original intended aspect ratio is 1:1.33 even the car ride feels cramped (not quite trapped yet-spoiler #2).  Note that even in this happy family sequence Jack is generally shown in the shadows of the car's roof, Danny faces Mom (Wendy) who is in the light and Wendy is looking back at Danny away from the light. ...Dark...(Spoiler #3).

At the Overlook, Danny meets Dick Hallorann, the head chef.  The two have a "private" chat about Shining and eat ice cream, innocuous right?  Wrong!  The way this shot is composed, with the camera low on the table angled up at the Danny and Hallorann, but still distant from the two makes them appear small in the shot and gives an ominousness to the kitchen. It almost feels like someone or something is listening to their conversation through the gaping hole that is the chef office's windows. 
Take a closer look at this composition.  Those knives behind Danny.  The knives behind Danny!  They are all turned so the dangerous edges are facing Danny, looming over his head, like the teeth of a T-rex ready to chomp down.  Take this into account also, (Spoiler #4) the staging of the two characters places Hallorann's back to the ice box, THE ICE BOX, and Danny's back toward the exit...coincidence?  I think not!
 When you think of two little girls holding hands, you think of a sunny park setting where two happy children enjoy each other's company, right?
Wrong!  As Danny sits in the staff lounge shortly before the ice cream segment, he turns to see two girls holding hands, who slowly, wordlessly turn and walk through the doorway. But why does it seem so startling?  It's just little two girls...who turn slowly, wordlessly, staring straight ahead and quietly walk out through the doorway.  So beyond acting, why?
 Here it is, tangents!  That's right, I know it took me a while to get to the subject (true to form, right students?)  but look at the trim that goes around the walls.  The girls eyes are exactly tangent to it, and the way the longer lens (telephoto) camera is angled on the two walls in the shot, the whole room feels compressed which is exactly how it is intended to feel.  As mentioned before, tangents flatten space and Kubrick/Alcott use this to their advantage.  They force the girls to be part of the walls, part of the hotel itself.
 To further this, the girls are vertically tangent to their surroundings; shoulders buttressed against the door frame and the cushions, their heads are visually connected at the corners of the poster behind them (thus the reason for the slow turn), dress hems tangent to bottom of the door and the cart where the cushions lay.  The furniture is not tangent or parallel to the walls which one would expect, but are turned uncomfortably to act as points or feel like teeth.  If Danny is not careful  he will bump his elbow or poke out his eye when he leaves this room.
 The only real round thing in this shot is the red alarm bell...and later when you see one of those, danger is around the next corner (Spoiler #5).  The girls do talk later...see me starting to look over my shoulder?  Let's move on.

Aw, isn't that nice?  The idea of a little boy walking in to visit his dad who's not feeling well.  Nothing at all wrong with this scene, right?
Wrong! What if the little boy is surrounded by his dad?  Surrounded by his dad?  You heard me!  You'll see in a moment why little Danny is surrounded.
And in surrounding Danny, the two off kilter dads form a weird triangular staging pattern that forces Danny low and give power to Jack(s).  This is a pretty uncomfortable scene.  Danny wanders in the bedroom to get his fire truck and look in on his father mean while, all the audience can do is say, "get outa there, Danny, get outa thereeeee.  Don't go in there..." Spoiler #6.
Here is the shot.  Danny has entered through the light colored doors, "Come here." says Jack and Danny does. We know Jack is losing it, but Danny is still his son and loves him.  What about this scene makes us so uncomfortable?  Definately the two Jacks, the real one facing away from the camera and the reflection facing toward us but eyes on Danny.  How did they get this shot?  They moved the dresser out into the archway.  Out of context, one would have to ask, "Who the heck leaves a dresser in the middle of an archway?"  The curtain behind the dresser hides the placement, slightly, but we don't really notice this because we are to busy saying, "get outa there, Danny, get outa thereeeee.  Don't go in there..."  Danny is surrounded by the cagelike/netlike doors which places him in a creepy nest of tangents.

But that is just a small part of it.  Both the reflection and Jack are linked through the tangents of the archway.  Creating a disturbing frame through which Danny has to walk.
On top of this, notice Jack's reflection, the bed head board makes a tangent that passes right through Jack's eyes while the real Jack sinks into the background through the tangents of the painting and the lamp shade by his shoulders.  There in the picture is a woman (a naked woman -Spoiler #7) who almost stands on Jack's shoulder appearing to give Jack instructions.  Jack is, without a doubt, falling in to the grip of the Overlook.  And you can't help to feel that Danny is next.
The shot changes as Danny nears Jack and gives him a hug.  "I love you, Danny.  I love you more than anything else in the world"  Jack says...
Random shot of Danny on his Big Wheel, tearing through the halls of the overlook.  The placement of the camera lower than Danny's eye line, the speed of the dolly to follow, even the sound of Danny riding this toy is unnerving.  With each turn, we have no idea what will happen next.  Most of the time nothing does which puts us ill at ease, but in the above image...oh crap, is that one of those red alarm bells? Spoiler #8.
This shot is nuts.  To set up a POV of Danny, the camera operator had to lay on the floor, shoot through Dannys arm and handlebars, up on Danny and on to door 237.  Though there are tangents here, they don't yet mean the same thing as Jack's tangents.  There is a long pause here with the expectation that something terrible is going to happen, then Danny gets off the Big Wheel...Spoiler #9.
Lloyd.  Lloyd the bartender.  Lloyd the bartender who shouldn't be there...who ISN'T there.  But bartenders are okay right?  This bartender is okay, right? WRONG!  Meet Lloyd...who will be playing the turning point of evil tonight.  Lloyd the enabler.  Lloyd who gives Jack exactly what Jack wants but is last thing that Jack needs. Spoiler #10! 
Lloyd with the tangent through his head, twice!  His eyes are at the shelf level where the alcohol rests.  Lloyd, the guiding spirit of the Overlook. "Women. Can't live with them, can't live without them." quips Lloyd.  Why do I keep looking over my shoulder?

Poor Wendy and her tangents.  When Wendy is tangent to the background it suggests something, which I'll cover in a moment.
A little time has gone by, Jack has completely lost it, Wendy has knocked him unconscious and locked him in the pantry.  Take a moment to see and understand this composition.  Jack is standing by the door demanding to let out.  He is facing the floor and the camera, which means the camera operator is lying on his back shooting an up shot at Jack.  Why?  Because it weird. And it is a throw back to the shot of Wendy above.  Look at the space surrounding Wendy in this centered up shot, there is more space on the sides, but her turtle neck is tangent to the paper and the varied values behind her. This is one point perspective, centered shot consistent in style with Kubrick who really liked shots that exhibited one focus.  Here this flat, single vanishing point approach focuses the viewer on Wendy's discovery at the type writer and the timing is perfect.  She reacts to the pages but we can't see them, leaving the audience to crave to know what is on those pages.  Then, we are given a POV reveal of the pages and the audience says, "Uh, nevermind I didn't want to know." (Looks over shoulder) Spoiler #11.

Back to Jack in the pantry above.  He threatens Wendy on the other side of the door and provides another reveal.  "You've got a big surprise coming to you.  You're not going anywhere.  Go check out the Snowcat and the radio and see what I mean." And when Grady's voice arrives to let Jack out we see Jack talk down to the floor (us), to hell (we are in hell) and Jack intends to take Wendy and Danny there too. Spoiler #12.
The bathroom scene. What about the tangents here?  Crazy jack is pounding away on the bathroom door with the axe as Wendy cowers in the bathroom.  This is visually striking because, with each blow, the axe comes nearer and nearer to Wendy.  Finally the axe breaks through completely  Slicing the plane of the door, the last tangent, and through overlap visually pierces Wendy's space.  Implied death. The only thing that saves her is a knock at the front door of the hotel...Spoiler #13.
Wendy, temporarily safe, tries to escape the Overlook and find Danny.  The haunted hotel is now throwing everything in it's power to keep Wendy there.  The lighting changes, gels are on the lights, in this case, purple to yellow contrasts.  Weird, scary stuff is happening everywhere in front of Wendy and as she mounts this staircase she pauses, suggesting that she sees something.
What's going on here? Look at that phone cord running down the wall, the shadow of the banister, and Wendy's turtleneck.  Poor Wendy.  Implied death (happens more than three times to Wendy).  She is becoming part of the Overlook whether she likes it or not.
This shot is about lack of tangents.  I just love this shot.  It is so subtle but is still a beautiful composition. Amidst the chaos of the interior, this cool and empty, perfectly balanced composition offers relief.  Danny has gotten away from the Overlook, just one more "hurdle". Not really a spoiler.
Just to see how balanced this composition is, I removed the light post.  Notice how the image seems heavy, weighted to the right side?  It just falls apart because the large dark shapes overpower the rest of the space. The thing that holds it all together is that tiny speck of highlight at left.  Though this last image isn't about tangents, it, like the rest of this post, is about well thought out composition(s).  Before you leap into drawing your shot or setting up your camera, take time to plan.  Is your shot/image well composed to get across a sense of hierarchy?  Is it easy to read?  Are there tangents in the shot? Do they work to push the story or do they accidentally flatten your composition?  Plan your shots.  Go make awesome.  Thanks for stopping by and don't hang scary movie adds on your kid's window by accident.


Yinan Hui said...

Awesome! Stanley Kubrick is a real master ,and you are definitely a great teacher! We rarely have chance to learn these knowledge so well in China.Really hope you can keep posting analyses about Composition.Thank you!(and Sorry for my poor English,hope you can understand me~ )

Jeff Jackson said...

Yinan Hui, it is an honor even to be mentioned in the same sentence as Kubrick, thank you. And thanks for leaving a comment. More composition notes to come.