I am going to assume everyone reading this, even the most noob beginners, have some understanding of shots – if not, you should teach yourself the vocabulary of it because if you expect to be an effective storyteller you need to know them.
Paul Thomas Anderson – Cigarettes & Coffee – Visual Analysis
Film starts with an Extreme Close Up (ECU) of an action being performed – cigarettes being lit.
The camera then pans to the left to reveal another person’s hands, nervous.
WHY: PTA establishes the scene with an action performed without giving the audience any idea or sense of the place or time. This is intentional. He’s not flat out letting the audience know from shot one: “You are here” – instead he makes the audience ask the question: “Where are we?” The nervous hands signify right from the beginning a certain hesitation and – well, nervousness. Reasons to which are unknown yet. Mystery as a theme is already established in the first few frames.
A Close Up (CU) of one of the TWO people as they begin to talk and a…
CU of the other person responding, the nervous guy (TWO SHOT in CLOSEUPS)
WHY: What better way to establish/introduce a character than by a CU? You want the audience to give a shit about the people in the first place. Again, this doesn’t mean that it’s a “rule of thumb” – you don’t see Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now until the last 30-some minutes, yet you’ve heard his entire story by now… It all depends on your story and what you’re trying to do. Do you want people to get into your characters right away, or do you want to keep them in suspense for a long time? For instance in The Third Man, the entire chase scene through the tunnels, you don’t know who he’s chasing, well – that’s because Welles wanted to keep it a mystery. This story is smaller scale, and it’s character driven – so PTA began the film mysteriously for a few moments, indulged in mystery (yet he does it throughout the entire film) and got into his characters immediately. Showing the audience the faces in great detail, and what better way than through a CU? We can see enough detail so that later PTA can cut to other people or shot lengths and we wouldn’t be straining to identify the characters.
Still in a close up (CU), but also from a “PROFILE ANGLE” as Hall smokes and you can see his hand in the frame
WHY: So why does it change from a previous CU that kept our characters at a 2-dimensional side view ? Was PTA just bored and thought it’d be cool to change it to a different angle? Fuck no. He changed it because this shot was telling a story. What story was it telling? Look at Hall holding a cigarette and talking about it. This angle of view (profile, 3-dimensional view) is a better angle to show this action as well. You have to be making decisions not only on how it serves the story – but you have to be the EYES of the audience – Just because you’re on set and you physically see the location and your mind constructs an understanding of Hall smoking a cigarette and you half-assedly choosing how to shoot that action, also doesn’t mean the audience is going to get what you got. Two things here; 1. This shot serves the story/action of this particular scene, and 2. It is visually the correct angle of view that visually shows this action to the audience. You’re not making people strain to see what should be clear.
The subsequent “back and forth” shot decisions thereafter are also visually continuous. Meaning, whenever Hall talks, the previous shot, that was chosen (with the cigarette) is used even when you don’t see the cigarette, because it’s also a CU.
It does not go back to…
There’s no need to jump back and forth, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, keep the story moving, and keep it visually continuous and progressive (meaning, don’t go back or linger in the same shot if you’ve already established a new shot – unless you really need to go back to that shot because it serves the story
In these “back and forth” exchanges, you can see how PTA didn’t change this characters shot to the same one of Hall’s profile (3-dimensional) angle. It psychologically and subconsciously lets the view feel a certain amount of tension, because you’re now wondering “Why is Hall being shot from this angle while this guy is still in the previous?” – well, first of all, he wants to keep the audiences focus on this character through this decision. Just to go back to what I was saying how if you need to change to a different shot if it has a purpose to the story then you would do it. PTA lingers on the same first sideview CU because it serves the story, since this character recalls a story through narration later on. He is in essence, important to the story.
Camera cuts to Medium Long Shot (MLS) for the first time (Establishing Geography) as it TRACKS/Dollies to the LEFT to reveal another COUPLE in a MLS
WHY: Well sooner or later you want the audience to see where the hell everyone is at – even if you allude to it or it becomes obvious, you want the audience to feel the space – unless your entire goal is to make a film like Buried – with a sense of claustrophobia. When it cuts to this MLS – it does two things; it establishes the geography of the place, a coffee shop, big windows, and mountains in the back
but – it also drives the story forward. It achieves this by the fact that once it cuts to the MLS, the camera immediately dollies to the left side of the frame/Diner while also physically tracking the waitress that walks over to the couple sitting at the other side of the Diner. What PTA is doing here is not only establishing an entire geography of the diner by using the MLS and dollying, he’s also adding whatever visual rhythm he can to a static story. But he’s not doing it just because he thinks it’s cool. (Although, it is visually stimulating) He’s using all these techniques to serve the story. I can’t stress it enough. Every single shot has to be there to drive the story forward not stagnate it.
For the first time PTA cuts to a Medium Over The Shoulder (OTS) of the Man and…
Throughout the conversation he keeps staying in Medium OTS (I say Medium, because there are also Medium, Medium Close Up, and Close Up OTS shots)
WHY: In this case this is a Medium OTS, because when it first cuts to this shot, you can see the man performing an action with his hands. The woman is also eating. PTA’s decision for this shot length is clear – it serves the story (keep this in mind always and your decisions for what type of shots you need will always be clear). Throughout this scene PTA wants you to see not only the couple ‘having breakfast’ but since he has established the geography of the place, he keep it continuous (Remember what McTiernan spoke about in the commentary, he always wants the audience to have a sense of a geography. PTA is doing exactly that. Besides, it kills two birds with one stone; 1. It keeps the geography whole. 2. It serves the story, because you see both of the man and woman’s physical action. If there was a moment in the exchange, hypothetically, where the man said something to the woman that PTA wanted to underline, he would immediately cut from this type of shot to a Close Up OTS of a woman reacting with a puzzled or surprised look or any other emotion, depending on what the man would say. But none of this happens here, so it stays in a conversational OTS shots.
CUT to a Two Shot as the camera RISES SLIGHTLY TO REVEAL A CAR PULLING UP
WHY: Well first of all – a Two Shot is a standard shot for conversation, however PTA extends the two shot and morphs it into something continuous – he drives the story forward by revealing a new action / character. Because through this shot he progresses the story by introducing a new character visually. He now CUTS to…
the OUTSIDE: to REVEAL this person who has arrived in the car getting out of the car.
IN A LOW ANGLE which turns into FULL SHOT as the guy walks to the trunk
WHY: Because PTA visually established the fact that there was a car that pulled up outside the shop, and you saw a person getting out of it, he can now also cut to this person. By now it really should be obvious why this decision was made, but I’ll reiterate it: to drive the story forward. Clearly this character is important for PTA to make a conscious decision to cut from the couple to a two shot then slightly move a camera to reveal this car pulling up… If PTA’s choice was to keep this person suspensful, he could have not cut to this shot in order to make a much more shocking revelation if this character would show up in a pivotal scene – because PTA already gave enough visual information for the audience to catch on to “Ok…theres a car…outside…and a man got out of it, and I saw it…then it must be important” and indeed it is – because if you’re a filmmaker, every decision you make HAS to make sense for the story. You can’t just do what you want cause it looks cool. It’s not how storytelling works, you risk of becoming pretentious and unclear with your vision.
So the LOW ANGLE show establishes the psychological factor of this person being important – this is a well known technique of cinematic language, it also turns into a Long Shot (LS)
Which gives you just enough of a sense of the geography of the place.
Notice that iIt did not cut to a shot that shows what he got out of the TRUNK – you only see a business type bag/case. This lack of emphasis can be for two reasons: 1) it is simply not important to the story or 2) it is kept in mystery, on purpose
However you do see what he got out of the trunk in a brief shot (which is the same one PTA cut to from inside the Diner)
This decision to briefly show it can also be because PTA wants you to see what he got out of the trunk, he may not want to call attention to it by cutting to that shot though. In any case the decision not to call attention to it can be one of creating mystery. As we see the character leave the frame PTA cuts back inside the diner to the couple
AND DOLLIES BACK TO THE RIGHT from the previous couple…
WHY: PTA goes back to an established visual technique by repeating the dolly, it is visually continuous and it also has a purpose because it tracks the man that got out of the car, got the bag, and left the frame – our eyes follow his movement – PTA is killing two birds with one stone again. If the first time he 1) established the geography of a place and 2) move the action to the other end of the Diner to introduced new characters. Then here he is 1) Signifying the importance of the new character by following him, as well as 2) moving the action back to the characters we began the film with, because later they will drive the story forward. PTA is doing everything John McTiernan would be proud of.
The dollying stops with them – while the guy we followed in the background left the FRAME THOUGH immediately. Perfect timing, synchronous.
In a moment’s notice PTA cuts OUTSIDE to the man who got out of the car and…
stays on him in a MCU shot throughout the scene
WHY: This shot gives the audience enough room to see him when he talks on the phone, his expressions as well as it is wide enough to show you this half of the phone booth, which keeps the geography whole
Immediately after the man says “Im gonna tell you EXACTLY what happened” – it cuts back to a Medium OTS of HALL.
WHY: First of all, PTA cuts around at crucial moments when the action is just beginning to rise to keep a sense of mystery and suspense, in doing so he keeps the viewer engaged. But, it’s also because PTA took everything Sturges said in the Bad Day At Black Rock to heart, and studied the advice of one of the masters of American film. If you remember how in the commentary Sturges mentioned the Hitchock’s quote that “making movies is ‘meanwhile back at the ranch'” – this is your example here in all its glory. It’s the suspense that truly drives this story and PTA milks it like a motherfucker.
This entire scene is kepts at a Medium OTS because all dialogue is usually shot in Medium Shots (MS) but also because PTA wants you to see the physicality of the performance. For example if you look at the above shot, you see the hand of the man facing Hall, so whenever he does something with them and adds to the performance, the audience can see it and from these actions make up their own decisions on who or what the character represents.
Now here’s something an average viewer may not spot…
There is a slight zoom when Hall responds with “I think telling the story again will help you see it more clearly”
WHY: You may not be aware of it consciously, but this plays on psychology – it seems that PTA wanted to emphasize that point without cutting to a CLOSE UP. There could be more than one reason, but it’s obvious he didn’t want to emphasize it too much, just slightly, hence the slight ZOOM. Oh yeah, and you thought films were just lining up a shot and compose a nice little picture. WRONG.
For the FIRST time, we leave the Diner and enter into a montage while we still hear the dialogue from the previous scene, which is now narration (We get a sense of continuity, however more than that – to not exhaust the audience, PTA uses this montage to his advantage, to inject a sense of “Cinematic Production Value” as well as to drive the story . He is giving us these pieces and builds and builds to so we can piece it by ourselves.
MONTAGE VISUAL BREAKDOWN
“Sometimes I step OUTSIDE…”
CUT TO first IMAGE of MONTAGE
WHY: You get to see that he’s actually got a cigarette in his mouth, as well as his facial expression as well as the glittering lights in the background (which gives the VIEWER an IDEA of the GEOGRAPHY)
As you hear through narration a line about “Take a bill out of my pocket” – the camera IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWS that ACTION in a PAN. It does not CUT to this shot
it is still in a MCU shot framing, so you see enough of the “geography” as well as what’s in his hand. The emphasis is on these things he’s describing, in this case a bill.
Cut to a CU shot of the bill
WHY: PTA wants the audience to see what he’s doing, the shot serves the purpose of telling the story. It is synchronous with the narration.
Cut to a MLS
WHY: For the first time PTA gives you a larger sense of geography and the surroundings he’s in. You can see all the neon Vegas lights, and a sense of a street behind him as you see cars whizzing by. It is geography based, but also not a ‘filler shot’ by any means, nothing extraneous.
What’s interesting now is we get an Extreme Long Shot – the moment in the narration the protagonist says “I take that bill back inside” and proceeds to describe his usual routine – this shot for the FIRST time shows the audience exactly that this is a CASINO.
WHY: It’s sort of a reverse way of doing an establishing shot. It is an establishing shot, but it does not come in at the beginning of the scene. In cinematic language, you can do this usually depending on how you’re telling the story. In this case given the nature of how mysterious the entire film and its characters ARE: it fits the story – the shot pattern, the establishing shot coming in later as opposed to the beginning of the scene. It’s keeping up with the overall mystery and suspense. PTA had a clear intention to fuck with the audience, not only in terms of the mystery of the characters but shot design as well. The theme of mystery is carried on through not just the structure of the story but is supported visually.
The minute he stops, it cuts back to the diner, a MCU – OUTSIDE of the story he is recalling. When Baker says “And?”
WHY: This is done with precision. Because it has a better effect on the audience as opposed to just hearing it within the narration. It also has a purpose, because the narration itself has the narrator speaking and no-one else – so this is why PTA cuts back into the diner. He wants the narration to be pure and not confuse the audience with multiple voices.
Once Baker asks the question “And?” it cuts to MCU of the narrator whose face you can see clearly enough to see his emotions during the response “I don’t make it back into Casino…”
WHY: This shot is tight and wide enough for the audience to see the geography (mountains in the back) and the expressions on his face. Every shot length has a purpose.
The moment he finishes the sentence about running into his friend
CUT to a MS of this friend – so we have a visual immediately!
This shot hangs in there LONG ENOUGH for it to turn into a MCU shot – so that it goes from “mystery” to “identifiable”
WHY: It’s important to establish everyone and everything visually for the audience. You don’t want them guessing. Unless your entire purpose is to be vague intentionally, but you risk to walk the line of telling a very confusing story.
The next shot is composed from the GROUND UP
WHY: It gives the audience a nice look into the glittering lights of the Casino as the two characters meet in the middle of it. This goes back to what John Sturges was also talking about in the commentary for Bad Day At Black Rock. When he mentioned John Ford’s westerns, how he shot people from lower angles against mountains or any vast backgrounds to emphasize the characters’ grandeur as well as giving the audience a sense of geography. The shot itself stays in a Long Shot – because if you want the audience to have a sense of this geography you have to have a wider shot. It wouldn’t have the same “oomph” if you shot it tighter – It doesn’t mean you couldn’t shoot it that way however. Because what is important to understand about cinematic language is that your choice of lenses and shots have to serve the story ask Wally Pfister, or Roger Deakins, they’ll all tell you the same thing. It’s about what you’re trying to emphasize or tell the audience what to look at. Sturges also mentioned in the commentary what motivates his choice of “angles” – and besides the angle of view of a character, it’s also the psychological impact of the scene. Like who is the “bigger / stronger” or “weaker” person of the scene? The same shot selection is reduced to essentially what you’re trying to show, tell, emphasize to the audience, and how important it is in the given scene. The best approach to this is treating every shot as a separate story. Because essentially every image is a story. It’s only when you string the shots together into a sequence it becomes an experience, a narrative, a storyline.
Part II coming soon…