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March 14, 2008
(Most parts are now in place and the core definitions are now available)
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Introduction: Codes and Conventions of Cinema
Codes and Conventions (General). Cinema uses a number of methods to organise meaning production. Some are general to narrative forms and others are specific to cinema. Cinematic conventions usually work to make the product appear to be seamlessly produced which means that it appears as though meaning had already existed prior to the construction of the film. This is called continuity editing. In fact the cinematic codes and conventions of production produce an axis of meaning which will interact with both the reactions of audiences and the exhibitionary context.
- Photographic conventions. Framing, long-shots, medium shots, and close-ups all generate particular forms of meaning: To the extent that close-ups are most commonly of central characters in film narratives, they may function to constitute that psychological realism of character which is a mark of the classic narrative. ( My emphasis: Kuhn Annette. 1982. Women’s Pictures: 37).
- * Mise en Scene*. See separate entry and also lighting.
- * Mobile framing*. This effect can be produced by different camera movements and can produce a narrative meaning in several ways. A zoom-in can emphasise detail which can be read as bearing a particular significance within the narrative. Camera movements can also move the plot along through panning and tracking.
Conventions. See also Codes and Conventions. Conventions are established procedures within a particular form of media ( painting, film , novel etc) which are identifiable by both the producer of the artefact and their audiences. Conventions are thus conventions can be understood as agreements between the producer and audience. These will sometimes remain fairly static and at other times there will be moments of strong challenge to these conventions. The French nouvelle vague can be understood as challenging a range of cinematic conventions.
Discussion of the shot relates to the framing / camera movement during the shot / the duration of the shot. This article is primarily concerned with the framing of the shot. Linked articles on camera movement and duration will be added soon.
Shots are the smallest unit from which scenes and sequences are constructed. Shots function to frame the camera's subject. (Framing and the construction of meaning itself will be discussed in another article). Shots themselves are linked together to form scenes by a range of cuts or transitional devices. In reality camera shots combine several factors including the angle of the camera which can be tilted up or down and / or from side to side. The size of the content of the frame for the viewer depends upon what distance the director wants the objects/ characters to be visible. There are also decisions to be made about whther only parts of the shot are in focus or whether the whole of the foreground to the background is in focus. The fact that a camera can be moved about on a special crane or a dolly for the duration of a shot also makes a difference. The lighting too is an extremely important factor. The the way the cinematographer makes these decisions is done in discussion with the director. Becuase of the range of variable involved it is easier to break these different elements of a shot down in different areas however it is important to understand shots as combining a range of features in order for them to effectively move the audience. Below the discussion of shots is focused mainly upon the framing of the content of the shot. Fuller discussions of particular aspects such as camera movement will be added in separate sections accessible via hyperlink when they become available.
Aerial Shot. This is a shot taken from a plane or a helicopter. These shots normally function as an establishing shot. These high altitude shots tend to take a detached perspective of what is happening. The opening scene of Mission Impossible is one such example. Aerial shots can also be involved in chase scenes such as the remake of the Italian Job or in Terminator 2. Blackhawk Down had some impressive shots of helicopters flying into Mogadishu.
Birdseye Shot. See Overhead Shot
Boom Shot. See Crane Shot
Camera Angle. (See also separate article). In the taking of a shot the camera can be tilted either up or down or from side to side (Canted shot). To work out what angle the camera is at in order to describe the shot one needs to think of what might constitute a 'standard' shot. This is assumed to be a straight on shot with the camera at the shoulder height of an average human. Below this height with the camera tilting upwards is a low angle shot. Above that height with the camera tilting downwards is a high angle shot.
Camera Movement. (See separate article).
Canted Shot. See Dutch Angle
Close up. Usually a shot of the head from the neck up. Could also be a wringing of hands. See performance and shot. The object or part of the body (usually face or hands / sometimes an iconic murder weapon fill most of the frame. The purpose is to isolate detail from their context to get the audience to focus on the importance of this detail. When it is a character within the diegesis it empahises the expression of that character and it helps the audience to identify with that character.
Cutaway. A cutaway shot briefly interrupts the flow of the conversation between characters for example. It can be used to reveal what characters are thinking about, to show what they are seeing as in a reaction shot. It can also provide a transition and it can comment on the action. They are also used to to avoid showing something which may well be considered as objectionable. The scene in the de Palma version of Scarface (1983) where one of Al Pacino's associates is being cut up with a chain saw to make Pacino talk has many cutaways.
Crane Shot. A shot made using a crane or a boom also known as a boom shot. A crane is a mechanical arm-like trolley used to move a camera through space above the ground or to position at a place in the air. A shot taken from a crane allows the camera to vary distance, angle and height during the shot.
Dutch Angle. This is a shot which noticeably deviates from the normal horizontal and vertical axes. Images thus appear tilted in realation to the rest of the objects in the frame. This gives the audience a sense of disbalance and signifies within a character a mental imbalance. This YouTube extract from Carol Reed's The Third Man (recently voted the most popular British film ever and strongly recommended) is full of canted / Dutch angles. Set in post World War Two Vienna which at the time was occupied by Americans, British and the Russians the film's style symbolises a Europe and a world still out of kilter as it struggles to get itself back on its feet. The film can also be seen as 'Rubble film' as it has many shots of Viennese bombed and shelled buildings.
Establishing shot. This shot uses a distant framing and enables the spectator to understand and map the spatial relationships between the characters and the set / location they are in. It usually occurs at the beginning of a scene. Its purpose is to situate the action for the audience. After the establishing shot takes place the scene becomes broken up through editing. This sequence can clearly be seen in a short YouTube extract from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. The two characters are black dots in this Extreme Long Shot (ELS), there are then some other shots around the issue of taking a drink of water and then the ELS is cut in again:
Extreme Close up. (ECU). This shows only part of an object filling the frame. In terms of the human figure an ECU isolates part of the face such as the eyes or the mouth. See this extract from a Vertigo trailer on YouTube:
Extreme Long Shot. (ELS). This is a panaoramic shot usually of landscapes in which the human figure is barely visible. These shots might empasise human vulnerability or the need for long and arduous effort in order to travel the intervening distance. There is a lot of this in Lord of the Rings for example. Please also see establishing shot above.
Eyeline Match. (See Match Cut)
Long Shot. Long shot is where the subject of the camera is seen in its entirety within the context of its surroundings. In relation to the human figure a standing person would be fully visible within the frame. Please see extract from Lawrence of Arabia above under establishing shot for ELS.
Match Cut / Eyeline Match. (See editing article)
Medium Close-Up. In terms of the human figure this frames the body from the chest upwards. In this Youtube extract from Hitchcock's Vertigo James Stewart at the wheel of the car is kept in MCU:
Medium Shot. In terms of the human figure this frames the body from the waist upwards.
Master Shot. this is usually a wide-angle shot that shows all of the action taking place in the scene. This is then edited together with either shots taken of the same scene with different cameras from different angles or else they may have been shot at different times. The use of this shot is a fundamental tool in achieving both coverage and continuity. The mastershot willbe intercut with a variety of mid-shots or CUs. The transition will occur where there is a lot of action in order to maintain the seamless editing which is fundamental to the continuity editing system.
Overhead shot. Here the camera is placed directly above the action. There are often (but not always) implications of entrapment . Fritz Lang's 'M' has a lot of overhead shots of the child murderer. Here the shots can be read as expressing vulnerability of the character to his own mental illness and also to the inexorable hunting down of the killer by all of society. He is totally isolated with police, criminals and beggars united in their efforts to hunt him down.
Pan Shot. This is when the camera moves though a panning action in the horizontal axis. (See article on camera movement).
Point of View (POV). This is the eyes though which the spectator views the developing plot. In mainstream films this is understood to be through a neutral camera. This can be changed to subjective viewpoints of individual characters. This can be very drmatic at times however the normal use of this POV is to exchange perspective of characters involved in the plot in order to involve the spectator more effectively. The director can vary the amount of POFV time allotted to each character in order to have the spectator identify more with a specific character.
Plan Américain. Common in Hollywood cinema hence its description - the American shot- the human figure is framed from around the kneees upwards. Bordwell and Thompson point out (in their 3rd edition) that when a similar framing is done with non-human content the shot is described as a medium long shot (MLS). Blandford et al (2001) have a slightly different understanding of this shot. They argue that it signifies a Two Shot (two characters occupying the frame) - from approximately the knees up. The term came about from French critics describing aspects of the 'Classical Hollywood' cinema.
Process Shot. This is the general term applied to a special effects shot in which the live action in the foreground og the image is filmed against a background projected onto a screen by a rear projection system. This was very common in the studio era of cinema but location shooting has grown in importance.Special effects such as wire work in films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Hero shoot the wirework with a greenscreen as a background the rest is added later.
Reaction Shot. This is frequently a close-up shot which shows the reaction of a character to some action or event or dialogue in the previous shot.
Tilt Shot. This is when the camera moves up or down through a vertical axis. See article on camera movement.
Two Shot. This is a shot in which two people dominate the frame usually in a close-up or medium shot. The increasingly common use of widescreen formats allows variations upon this theme. It makes it possible to have three people in medium to close up shot. Pirates of the Caribbean has a witty scene fairly early on in the film in which Captain Jack Sparrow engages in conversation and gradually distracts two guards so that he can get around them onto a ship.
Blandford Steve, Grant Barry Keith and Hillier Jim. 2001. The Film Studies Dictionary. London: Edward Arnold
Bordwell David and Thompson Kristen. 2008 8th Edition. Film Art: An Introduction. Boston: McGraw Hill
Hayward Susan. 1996. Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. London: Routledge