Category Archives: Screen Studies

Screen techniques used to progress the narrative.

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen began a cinema career together in the mid-eightees. Their partnership shares the writing, directing and producing credits and the result are films instantly recognizable due to their their own brand of narrative structure, character development and dialogue. The visual aesthetic may change to suit the story but it is the types of stories they choose to tell that make them so idiosyncratic. One of the team’s most renowned qualities is work ethic and organization. Much of their success can be attributed to the crystal clear vision that begins with the idea for a screenplay and encompasses every minute detail through to final edit. The duo operate with control, bordering on obsession, over the tiniest of details. Where other directors encourage actors to ad-lib and welcome new vision, the Coens expect actors to read every word exactly as it is written. The same goes for anyone performing a task on set- they can explain exactly what they desire from every member of the cast and crew and will not consider suggestions. Author Paul Coughlin describes their approach as ‘a total control they maintain over their vision from script to screen'(Coughlin 2003). When using screen techniques to progress the narrative of their films, it is an holistic and systematic approach that contributes to the believability of the worlds they create, especially when visiting a particular genre as they did with their homage to film-noir, 2001’s ‘The Man Who Wasn’t there’.

‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ is the story of Ed Crane, a calm, measured barber of few words who attempts to blackmail his wife’s boss, Big Dave, in an effort to obtain the funds for investment in a dry cleaning business. When Dave discovers Ed is the blackmailer, the plan begins to unravel.

When looking at the screen techniques that progress the narrative of the film, it is important to look at the film’s placement in time and space – small town America , 1949. For authenticity, the choice was made to shoot the film in black and white, or more correctly, have the film ‘appear’ in black and white since it was actually shot on colour stock, then converted (Film 4 2001). The choice of removing colour from the style equation helps to define the period and lend it more of the film-noir look that was intended. The dark story of murder and betrayal can be compared to film-noir of the 1950’s, indeed Deakin points to 1955’s ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ as an influence and contributed to the decision to go for a ‘slightly B-movie’ sensibility. He describes the film as being ‘very much about darkness’ (Deakins Part 1, 2001). Other than the high contrast black and white look, there are other tools used to transport the audience to post WWII USA. Examples like the brilliant set design of the period barber shop complete with candy-cane sign, the wardrobe of smartly dressed men in hats and ladies in elegant dresses are obvious, but it is the subtle brush strokes of the Coens that are more telling. For instance, the very direct dialogue of the characters suggests a different time, where people had prejudices and were not afraid to voice them. While the camp, dry-cleaning enthusiast Tolliver is often referred to as ‘the pansy’, Ed and his wife Doris also have their racial prejudices, Doris referring to their Italian side of the family as ‘the Wops’ and Ed making mention of ‘the nips of Nagasaki’.

As with all Coen films, character development is the main objective. Knowing exactly who the characters are, what motivates them and how they change over the journey is the main narrative priority. In this film, Ed Crane is the central protagonist. As Joel Coen admits, one of the challenges of telling Ed’s story is the fact that he is so restrained, unemotional and a reactor. Eds life is about reacting to others, he would never initiate a conversation and loathes small talk. In the characters own words- ‘I just cut the hair’. The film-makers paint a picture of a man who always looks uncomfortable in his own skin, he even looks uncomfortable sitting on the sofa.

To re-enforce this solemn nature, he is surrounded by opposite characters. His boss at the barbershop, Frank, is always talking. In an early shot where Ed, also the narrator, is explaining how Frank’s incessant talking gets on his nerves, the camera pans closer and closer to Frank’s mouth for comedic effect:

The camera gets so close to Frank’s mouth we almost feel like we are going inside.

Ed’s wife Dorris also talks a lot and has a ridiculously fake laugh, especially when her boss is telling jokes. This juxtaposition with Ed’s quiet contemplative nature is used to re-enforce the feeling that Ed would like the world to be a quieter place. He ‘has a stillness about him’ as Joel Coen explains when discussing the decision to cast Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane. Of the actor, he says ‘he had the confidence not to embellish that stillness when it wasn’t necessary'(Film 4, 2001).

With the decision to blackmail Big Dave, Ed’s character begins to change, he is darker and affected by his thoughts. From the scene where Ed is typing the blackmail letter, we cross straight to the barbers shop where he is clearly having an existential crisis. He rambles to Frank about the way the hair keeps growing; ‘it’s part of us, then we cut it off and throw it away’. He is reflective and pessimistic and the hair is a metaphor for his relationship with his wife- his marriage is the hair and he is chopping it off like it has no value. Of course, the dialogue is then pushed further with black comedy; ‘I’m gonna take this hair and throw it out in the dirt, I’m gonna mingle it with common house-dirt’.

So it is the decisions made along Ed’s journey that shape him. The next character to have a lasting effect is Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson). When he discovers her playing a piano in the attic of Nirdlingers department store, he instantly feels an affection for her which grows throughout the film. She seems to be everything that his wife is not; innocent, playful, quiet, polite, deep thinking and despite the fact that she is a child, it could be argued that he falls in love with her. Ed begins to dream of a more honest and pure life as Birdy’s manager and mentor.

After killing Big Dave, for which his wife is arrested, Ed hires Freddy Riedenschneider, a fast talking attorney from the city. Riedenschneider also has a great impact on Ed, and when he tells him ‘I’m an attorney, you’re a barber, you don’t know anything’ Ed seems to believe it. He puts all his faith and life savings into this man who he admires and in a later scene in the film, even borrows one of his often used lines ‘I’ve made enquiries’.

Another signature of classic film-noir is the use of ironic plot twists. The Coens have used many examples in this screenplay. Ed spends his entire married life with Dorris trying to avoid talking to her but once she is dead, he seeks out a medium to speak to her from the grave. Another is that the crime he ends up being punished for is the killing of Tolliver – the only one he did not actually commit. Irony is also used in subtle visual ways throughout the film in a comic, fatalistic way. There is a scene where Ed is skimming a magazine and the camera pans in on an ad for dry cleaning, the thing that started his whole mess. Maybe the most poignant ironic moment is in the final scene where Ed is being prepped for execution. Having spent his whole career shaving others, it is he who is being shaved down for the electric chair.

Cinematic tools are also used to progress the narrative, and there are several memorable visual techniques throughout the film. Low key moonlight, indoor rim light, classic film-noir long shadows and figure silhouettes are favoured to create an atmosphere of dark desperation.

When Dave’s wife arrives on Ed’s doorstep late at night, the camera angle is over her shoulder and the back-lighting casts long shadows on the door frame, creating a threatening feel.

This is re-enforced when the angle changes to over Ed’s shoulder and we see her face. The rim light, coupled with the veil and the facial expression combine to create a menacing look.

In the shot that leads into the fight scene in which he is killed, Dave is lamp-lit but his face is in darkness.

The fight begins and we see Ed from Dave’s POV.

The camera crosses the line of action to show Dave from Ed’s POV.

In an homage to film-noir, the next angle is a long shot with the fighting figures in silhouette.

A very ‘coen-esque’ shot from Ed’s POV lying in a hospital bed.

The most talked about cinematic moment of the film, when star lawyer ‘Freddy Riedenschneider’ explains his defense strategy to the accused.

Riedenschneider’s face moves in and out of shadow as he reaches various points in his epic speech about ‘the uncertainty principle’. Cinematographer Roger Deakins reveals the logistics of this shot were as simple as cutting a window shape into a piece of cardboard and back-lighting it with one lamp, however there were complexities like the decision of how close to place the lamp and the size of the cutout (Deakins Part 2, 2001).

Deakins, who has collaborated with the Coen brothers on numerous projects, uses adjectives like ‘profound’, ‘absurd’, ‘surreal’ and ‘like a mixture of a circus and an opera’, when reflecting on their work. Perhaps Deakins sums it up best with his description of the brothers as ‘true poets of the cinema’.  The duo’s consistent artistic success inspires cast and crew to return for future projects. When recounting the experience of playing the lead role of Ed Crane, Billy Bob Thornton emphasizes the confidence the brothers inspire on-set. Their talent, clarity of vision, and professionalism allowed him to ‘just be an actor’. On playing Ed Crane, Thornton maintains ‘All I had to do was go to work and do my job, they’ve done the rest’ (The Inside Reel TV, 2001). It is this obsessive nature of the Coen brothers’ film-making that always contributes to engaging and unforgettable narrative.

Reference List

Coughlin, Paul 2003, The great directors, Senses of Cinema, viewed 12 June 2012, <;.

Deakins Interview Part 1 2001, Cinematographer Roger Deakins interview. 46min, part 1, 2012, viewed 10 June 2012, <;.

Deakins Interview Part 2 2001, Cinematographer Roger Deakins interview. 46min, part 2, 2012, viewed 10 June 2012, <;.

Deakins Interview Part 3 2001, Cinematographer Roger Deakins interview. 46min, part 3, 2012, viewed 10 June 2012, <;.

Film 4 2001, The Coen Brothers interview about The Man Who Wasn’t There, 17 July, viewed 10 June 2012, <;.

Jaynes, Roderick 2001, The title that wasn’t there, The Guardian, viewed 15 June 2012, <;.

The Inside Reel TV 2001, Billy Bob Thornton Interview, Apr 2007, viewed 08 June 2012, <;.


Hollywood Sentiment Vs German Expressionism

Over back-to-back classes, we watched ‘Metropolis’ directed by Fritz Lang and ‘It’s a wonderful Life’ directed by Frank Capra.

It is an interesting comparison as a way of exploring time and space i.e where a nation ‘is’ in a given era. Metropolis, is set in a futuristic dystopia where oppressed laborers work in the depths of the city to keep up the wealthy lifestyle of those who live in the luxury above. Released in 1927 and made in Germany, it is interesting to note that Germany was a tough place at the the time the film was made. Just entering a depression, the industrial era upon them and the Nazi party taking root, it is easy to see these influences in Langs film. I found this a difficult film to watch. It is not entertaining in the way that we as modern audiences are used to. Being silent, black and white, having very German themes and running for 127 minutes (even without the newly recovered extra footage) makes it challenging, but still it is hard not to be impressed by the technical aspects and lavish sets.

Lang makes brilliant use of the contrast between the two worlds in the film. On one hand, the gloomy, mechanized world below evokes themes of slavery and torture, on the other, a luxurious garden of Eden where the wealthy play games and frolic in the sun. The creativity of the film-makers to give life to these worlds on film was unprecedented in 1927 and the film is lauded for its technical achievement. In some scenes, its almost like Lang could foresee the future, with giant suspended roads floating like monorail tracks.

To juxtapose these themes, It’s a wonderful life is like a celebration of the optimism of America. It explores the life of George Bailey, a happy-go-lucky man who never fulfills his dreams of adventure mostly due to his kind nature. After seeing a vision of what the world would be like if he didn’t exist, Bailey decides he is happy and has a lot to be grateful for. That seems to be the sentiment of the film, the importance of being noble and individual, knowing your place in the world and the value of life.

Released in 1946, it was Capra’s first film after returning from WWII, quite an optimistic and fruitful time for the USA and a time when American movies were full of sentiment. There are also American capitalist undertones in the film, with George Bailey being a banker and spreading his joy to the town by lending them money so they can buy things to make them happy.

These are two very different films made by two countries on opposing sides of 2 wars that would dominate their time. An interesting look into the mindset of each one through film.

Film style – musical

As part of a broader look at ‘film style’, we watched the film ‘Across the Universe’- a Romance/ Drama/ Musical directed by Julie Taymor. The film follows the stories of Lucy, an upper class young American and Jude, a working class artist from Liverpool, England. It is set against a backdrop of the Vietnam war to a soundtrack of Beatles songs.

The musical format of this film gave the director an enormous sense of freedom to experiment with style. Almost every scene has a musical backdrop and it’s own look and feel. To say that each scene is like a separate music video would not do justice to the unity and flow of the overall narrative -the film actually feels quite cohesive. In some ways it’s stays true to that ‘high school musical’ format where people break into song in the middle of classrooms, sports fields and workplaces but there is a level of sophistication present where the songs really do progress the narrative and convey the complex emotions of the characters.

Mixed in with the typical whimsical, joyous scenes and the montages of love and heartbreak are more serious moments where the backdrops are of war, rioting and protest. One of the lasting memories is the solemn solo of ‘Let it be’ by a young kid leaning on a burnt out car in the slums. This leads into a moving aerial shot showing a sea of black umbrellas in a funeral procession.

The free-form style of this film also allows for some surreal sequences that serve no real purpose other than to entertain. One such moment is when Jude’s friend max is called upon by the military to serve his country. The giant animated uncle Sam and the beautifully choreographed sequence where the young potential soldiers are put through their paces by chiseled sergeants evoked memories of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’.

Shortly after, the film enters it’s psychedelic phase when all the young hippies go on a road trip in the magic bus. All sorts of weird colour inversion and posterization techniques are used to convey that late sixties drug culture.

In a lot of ways, the chronological progression of the music in the film mimics the progression of the artistic career of the Beatles (I’m not sure if this was intended)- starting with the more romantic and conventional and ending with the more layered, complex and psycodelic.
To summarize, I would say that this film is a feast for the eyes and ears, using music, dance, 2D and 3D animation, film effects and animatronics to tell a simple but moving story. The musical genre is perhaps the only style that could tie all these elements together so successfully.

Film Form

Films – The Kite Runner directed by Marc Forster

When discussing film form we are talking mostly about structure and theme. Who’s perspective are we getting? What ideas will be put forward? How will the narrative play out? In what order will we be shown the events? How will the occurrences be shaped by a line of action and connected by theme?

In The Kite Runner, we are first introduced to the main character (Amir) in the USA in 2000. After watching kids play with kites in the park with his wife, he is at home and receives a phone call that is quite obviously going to change his life. We then travel back in time to 1978 in Afghanistan. We see kids playing kites and quickly establish that this is him as a child.

In the scenes following, the relationship between Amir and his best friend Hassan is explored deeply. Themes of rich/poor are the class division are explored and although the boys are close, the fact that the boys are from different backgrounds causes problems between them. Hassan is a simple uneducated boy but fiercely loyal and Amir tests that loyalty in often cruel ways. Firstly he turns his back as Hassan is brutally beaten and raped, then later, because of his own shame he manipulates a situation whereby Hassan is sent away.

Later in the film we cross back to Amir living a new life as an adult in America, but he is soon off back to his homeland on a new journey. He learns that his old friend has been killed and he intends to adopt his son.

Rather than take a linear narrative style, the film jumps regularly between different times and locations to best tell the story. For this reason the film has a good balance as we move from the relative calm of the opening scenes, to the playfulness of childhood  in Afghanistan, to the sadness and loss of his own actions, the relative safeness and love in his new life, then his willingness to risk it all to do the right thing.

The overwhelming theme of the film is that of redemption. Amir has spent his whole life feeling guilt over his past and he has a chance to do something good, something right, something that would have made his old friend proud so he grabs the opportunity with both hands even at his own risk.


Films – Leon: The professional

As a study of film editing, we have been encouraged to look at the films of Luc Besson. As this is a short essay, I have chosen to discuss Leon: The professional, in particular the opening scene and the final climactic scene.

Opening scene – we open with a long tracking shot over parkland and then down a street, (as a side-note I noticed that this is a very similar tracking shot to the opening of The big Blue where the camera pans across an ocean vista) we continue past a huge sign that says ‘Welcome to Little Italy’ which sets the location. The camera then enters ‘Guido’s’ restaurant. Very quickly we have been given the information – which city we are in, which part of the city, and even the exact location i.e Guido’s restaurant.

Once inside, we are introduced to two characters via a series of extreme close-ups that serve to underscore the importance of the scene. In the first shot, we only see the hero Leon’s sunglasses, reflected in them is his boss Tony who is giving him a job- Leon is a hit-man. At the end of the scene, we still have not been given a full or even a mid-shot of these two men. The last thing we see is Leon’s hand sliding a picture of the target from the table.

We then cut to the next scene and immediately we see the target going about his business. We know that there will now be a confrontation.

This succinct, efficient style is partly what Besson is known for- we have all the information we need in a very short period of time and are ready for the action.

I will move on to a pivotal scene at the end of the film when the protagonist and antagonist meet for the first time. To keep this short I will summarize under each key frame:

Leon staggers down a corridor on his last legs. He is injured badly. He almost literally sees ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’.

Back to Leon’s face, we know that if he can make it to ‘the light’ he will be OK.

The villain enters the frame

We see from the villain’s POV, with a gun pointed at the hero.

Camera turns back to villain -focused on his face.

to emphasis the gun.

The light

The light again, only this time the view is lop-sided. As we are looking from Leon’s POV, this signifies that he is falling, his body has finally given up.

I think this sequence is the perfect example of story telling through editing, and the reason Besson is renowned for his flashy and effective Hollywood style.

Sound in film

Films –Apocalypse Now – directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Restrepo – directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastion Junger

As an exercise in comparing documentary war film with narrative war film, we took a look at Restrepo a documentary filmed on location in Afghanistan, and the classic fictional war film Apocalypse Now set in the Vietnam during the war.

With regard to sound, the approaches are obviously very different. There are limitations in recording sound for documentary film- the filmmaker is often producer, director, sound recordist, editor etc. and has to rely on the gear he/she can carry. It becomes especially difficult on a film like Restrepo -the filmmaker is embedded with a group of soldiers who are traversing through very rough terrain in extreme circumstances and need to remain mobile. Sound effects and narration can of course be added later but the most important thing is to capture the voices of the characters in action. Sometimes lapel mikes can be used but often the only recording device is the on-board microphone on the camera. For the one-on-one interviews in Restrepo, the filmmaker conducts the interviews in a quiet tent where the soldiers can devote their time and attention to telling their stories.
Sound dynamics are used to good effect, where the quiet contemplative silences are contrasted against the sudden violence of explosions and shelling. A good example of this is early in the film when the military vehicle comes in contact with an IUD. Other handy tools available for the purposes of storytelling are simple sound effects to set the scene and quickly make the viewer aware of things like time of day- crickets for dusk and night-time, roosters to signify dawn. Simply hearing a characters breath can heighten the sense of silence and anticipation.

On a major production such as Apocalypse Now on the other hand, the options for sound are almost unlimited and sometimes months are spent getting the sound right- in this case it was over 9 months. In most modern narrative films, the actors are called back into the studio to re-record all the dialog and make sure everything is as audible. This film was one of the early examples of this as large amounts of dialog were inaudible due to the sound of the helicopters.

In both Restrepo and Apocalypse Now a powerful technique to set the scene and location is to use local music. Afghan music is used in Restrepo, especially in the early stages of the film to introduce the viewer to the environment. But more powerful, is Copalla’s use of 60’s rock music in Apocalypse Now. Bands such as the Doors, Rolling stones and Jimi Hendrix are synonymously linked with the Vietnam war and the director exploits this link throughout the soundtrack, most famously with his use of This is the end by the Doors in the intro scene. Coupled with the upside-down vision of Willard, it reinforces the themes of chaos, confusion and surrealism and creates anticipation for what is to come.

While both films have used sound very effectively for the purpose of storytelling, in Restrepo, sound takes a backseat and is mostly anonymous. In Apocalypse now, on the other hand, the soundtrack is used dramatically to heighten the senses and is as important as any character in the film.

Lighting in film/TV

Downtown abbey
This is a tv show set in England in the years leading up to World War I. It centers on the Aristocratic Crawley family and their servants.
One of the most noticeable lighting effects used is the contrast in styles between the upstairs areas that the Crawley family inhabit and the lower level where the servants reside.

In the downstairs scenes centering on the servants, the lighting is always dreary and cold. It’s not that the downstairs rooms lack natural light, there is in fact an abundance of it and the scenes are not under-lit at all, just very desaturated. By contrast the upstairs areas and the Crawley family are almost always bathed in beautiful golden warm light and surrounded by saturated colours, especially reds and golds – colours associated with wealth. It is a deliberate device used to reinforce the nobility and grace of the Crawleys and the lowly status of the servants.

Here are some examples from the downstairs servants quarters:

and here are 3 examples from the upstairs Crawley areas:

Pretty easy to spot the difference!


The Tv show Dexter is the story of a police forensics expert who is also a serial killer. Dexter is haunted by flashbacks to a tragic event – the killing of his mother when he was a child. One of the devices to let the audience know that we are in ‘flashback mode’ is that the lighting becomes very high-key and we get a very shallow depth of field. Most of the highlights are blown out and we are left with a dreamlike and glowing image. Note the example here:

Dexter’s father often appears in these flashbacks and there is often an angelic halo around his head, as in this example:

Dexter owes to this man the code by which he lives his entire life, hence he is given an almost godlike lighting treatment.

Breaking Bad
Another of my favorite TV shows that has some unique use of lighting is Breaking Bad.

In episode 13 from series 2 the opening sequence focuses on the aftermath of a mid-air plane collision in which some debris has fallen into a pool. The scene opens with the camera underwater in the pool. We still don’t know what has happened, but the camera is filming upwards into the intense sunlight and a disorienting effect is being made by the refraction through the water. The colour has also been stripped back to black and white:

the light is then blocked by a figure that moves into frame:

The camera then moves out of the pool and we realize that the figure had stepped toward the water to fish out a kids teddy bear. The bear then appears to us in colour (bright pink) while the rest of the scene is still in black and white. This makes the viewer aware of the teddy bears importance to the story and the black and white somehow gives the scene a documentary like, yet surreal emotion.

Another of my favorite lighting examples from this show are some scenes involving some drug addicts and the house they live in. The windows of the house seem to have yellow coloured glass, so when the sun streams through, it leaves an intense yellow cast on the characters. It is not the nice sunlit kind of warm yellow that we would find inviting but a horrible greenish yellow that reinforces the sadness and desperate state of the people who live there. It also allows the room to have a very dark feel, but to still be able to see the characters faces.