Friday, April 23, 2010

Shoot the moon . . . somehow

In her book Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film, Kathryn Kalinak relays an anecdote from composer David Raksin about working with Alfred Hitchcock on Lifeboat. Raksin was told that Hitchcock had decided to forgo a musical score, apparently because he did not think music should be present in the middle of the ocean. "Where would the music come from?" the director was quoted as saying. Raksin sent his reply: "Go back and ask him where the camera comes from and I'll tell him where the music comes from!"1

I think of that story every time such mechanisms of film construction — the ones we usually take for granted — are brought to the fore. Such was the case when I watched one of the special features on the DVD release of Moon (2009). The director, Duncan Jones, talks through the construction of a shot of a rover vehicle traversing the surface of the moon. Jones explains the different elements that were composited into the finished shot, finally mentioning, almost as an aside, the addition of artificial lens flare. There is nothing at first surprising about this revelation, as lens flare is something most film watchers recognize in shots where the camera is pointed toward a strong light source. Only in this case, there was no camera pointed at a strong light source — the flare was added only to make it appear there was.

What is unusual about this is that the convention for mainstream narrative film is to conceal the evidence of the film's construction, to hide the fact that what is being presented is artifical, an illusion, and to convince the audience that what is on screen — however fantastic — is, in a sense, real, or at the very least unmediated by a camera. Modern special effects are able to assist in this greatly due to their ability to create the "perfect shot," one which could not be captured by a real camera. Still, shots like this one are made to look like they were captured by a real camera.

Perhaps the rationale for this is that, in an ironic way, film has to look real, but not "too real." Artificial lens flare in the shot from Moon may unexpectedly make the shot look more realistic than without it. On one hand, we want the images on screen to look entirely real and to envelop us in a different reality. On the other, we are aware that fantastic scenes such as the ones depicted in Moon and other science fiction films are not real. By making even computer-generated shots appear as if they were captured by an actual camera, the shots might seem more realistic, as they appear to conform to what we understand as the reality of traditional and physical filmmaking — it may suggest, perhaps subconsciously, that what is being shown actually happened in front of a camera.

Similar examples of this are camera shake and when a camera lens is splattered with liquid from something in the shot. Another one that I always notice is when the camera breaks through the surface of water, especially when the lens is half submerged. These effects reveal to varying degrees the presence of the movie camera. (A similar example from television is the sitcom laugh track, intended to give the impression that the program is being acted in front of a live audience.)

An opposite phenomenon occurs when we are shown something that was supposedly captured by a camera within the film. Characters watching security camera footage is a prime example, and the problem occurs when the footage they are watching, which should appear to be shot by a single and stationary camera, consists instead of multiple edited shots from multiple angles. Another "moon" movie, First Men in the Moon (1964), ends with another example: as a lunar landing party evacuates a collapsing underground city, people on Earth watch the entire event on television — an event shot by cameras and camera operators that we know are not present in the story. How would Hitchcock have explained that?

See also: The Impossible POV

1Kalinak, Kathryn, Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), xiii.


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