An Analysis of Mark Romanek’s “99 Problems”

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It has been ages since I wrote an analysis of something, but here is something I broke down that’s important to understand in the language of cinema. I used Mark Romanek’s music video for Jay-Z, 99 Problems as an example as I find it to be a good, complex example. I know right? out of everything I could’ve used… well, it has to appeal to a large group of people right? You be the judge. My analysis is based on a lot of information I gleaned from reading various sources on cinema, and I’d like to think that I’m not just coming up with complete and utter BS, as you will see that these concepts and ideas are not necessarily new, and have been used for many decades. Which is why this video is a perfect example, because it’s modern, and uses ideas and concepts developed so long ago.

Video begins with an establishing shot which is intercut with the first shot of the stairs.

The first two shots of the video: Match visually – almost like a visual system

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Mark Romanek will match symmetries / shots that are alike, throughout.
Here are some of these moments in chronological order.


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Shots 6 > 7

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Shots 22 > 23 – both are tilted, therefore when he cuts, he affects us psychologically. Not only because of the tilt, but consciously we don’t see that at first, only when you analyse do you begin to see these things. He affects the subconscious – regardless whether there’s a point to the juxtaposition, or not.

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Shots 30 > 31 – are composed in one point perspective (Romanek is a huge Kubrick fan)

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Shots 54 > 55 – Albeit, these shots are NOT exact in terms of visual fidelity – they both have lines within them, and depth, perspective. The juxtaposition therefore is not as jarring – when two shots would not match. Notice the fact that the man on the left is in a somewhat medium long shot and Jay is in a medium shot. (shot sizes can vary throughout the industry)

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Shots 58 > 59 – while also not exact, notice the reciprocal of the shot size.

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Shots 74 – 76 – watch how the top half of the each image forms almost like one connected diagonal line going up and down – again, Romanek maps out the video through using various rules of graphic rules; lines, perspective, depth. The point here is for the visual experience to be smooth. Whether Romanek is planting hidden meanings or simply editing the video according to how shot-to-shot relationships work (aka, cut together) is beyond this analyst’s guess. It could very well be both.

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Shots 92 – 94 – watch how perspective fuses/ties all these shots together. It’s important to understand rules of perspective. Also, notice how the frame is “open” in all three shots – the depth can be felt throughout all shots. There are no moments when there’s a shot composed in depth, juxtaposed with a shot against a wall. Again, that doesn’t mean that you CAN’T do it…but it all depends on what perceptions you want to affect, what emotions you want the viewer to feel.

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Shots 141 – 143 – watch how this scene is constructed in three shots while having two first shots be opposing (you can even look at it as literally opposing, Jay vs Cop) and also continous in the third shot, continuous in the fact that it drives the story of this scene further, like a real scene should. Essentially this is a microscene from a film within a music video. To expand on how that third shot drives the story forward – after the shot of the cop, the third shot, Jay looks into rearview mirror which adds suspense. The first two shots are “opposing” in the sense that McTiernan spoke about in Die Hard commentary that when he shot people talking on the radio, he composed the shots so that they’re both facing each other. I do not doubt one bit, the intention was also similar here.

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Shots 155 – 157 – I wanted to specifically include this batch of shots even if all three are not exactly the same. In principles of cinematography, there is such a concept as a neutral shot – this shot is usually used as an excuse to switch the axis or to cut to a different angle of the same scene. The neutral shot is usually a closeup – but as we can see HERE. This is not one, but it works… because first of all – in the actual music video, it is part of a word-image association – where a specific lyrics is in sync with the image it represents. So for instance, in this case “bitch”. But to get to my initial point… this neutral shot binds two completely different shots however these shots are matched – both are one point perspective. It’s a good technique to cut smoothly.

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Shots 162 > 163 – once again, we have matched shots. Both are in one point perspective, yet they also retain a level of visual variety. One is an extreme long shot – another is in a medium long shot.

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Shots 174 > 175 – more diagonal shot matching, but not limited to; watch the perspective, watch the lines. The right side of 174 is a wall tying to the left side of 175 – in turn forming in depth compositions. With simple perspective and proper shot juxtapositions some very interesting perceptual / psychological / subconscious imagery is created. Eisenstein would be so, so proud.

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Shots 176 – 178. Watch how the previous two shots are continued. The body forms a neutral shot, so Romanek can cut back to Jay in the same exact take as the shot (175), he now cuts to a shot of Gallo (who was established to be walking with Rubin (the guy in shot 174) but not included in this visual breakdown for reasons of brevity and focus of the analysis of the editing patterns and shot matching). So then – if you look at the sequence of shots 174 – 178 as a wholeRomanek is 1.) telling a story and 2.) he is matching shots carefully while obeying editorial rules (such as the imagery acting as neutral shots)

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Shots 200 – 202 – if you refer back to shots 155 – 157 – you will see that this is a repetition of the same technique. Using the shot of the cross as 1.) word-image association and 2.) neutral shot which fuses two completely different scenes. In turn creating visual variety, moving the story forward, and obeying editorial rules (neutral image propelling the story forward by way of fusion of shots that come after)

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Shots 210 > 211 – for purposes of illustrating more examples of pure cinematic ‘microscenes’ in this music video (like the previous 141-143) I’ve included this scene, although if you watch the video, the entire narrative has them.

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Shots 224 > 225 – more perspective matching. Watch how the converging lines are present in these juxtaposed shots.

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Shots 226 – 228 – Dude throwing up acts as a neutral shot that binds 225 with 227, with a direct cut to a shot matching perspective, the same way there’s a match between all the previous shots I’ve pointed out. 174-178 has the same editing pattern albeit the imagery is different in what takes are juxtaposed. But that doesn’t matter – pay attention to editing pattern. Also don’t forget that some of these shots that are neutral (body, cross, dude throwing up) are also word-image associations. Usually you’ll find them in every video that tells some kind of a narrative. You’ll hear the lyrics, and the image referring back to the lyrics. I call them word-image associations – but that’s just my term, you can come up with any terminology that makes sense to you. It’s tough to remember a lot of the devices and concepts, so come up with your own terminology.

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Shots 252 > 253 – this is another example of opposing juxtapositions. Where in 252 lines mostly converge to the left. In 253, lines converge in one point perspective – yet, to be simple, just know that the left side of this shot converges to the right. This is somewhat similar to 174 > 175 juxtaposition. But for example, you can also see it in 226 – 228, but not limited to.

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Shots 318 > 319 – One point perspective is matched between two different (yet similar) juxtaposing shots.

So what exactly is the point of this analysis? You might be asking, “Well aren’t you just looking into a lot of this?” – in some cases, that could be the case, but when it comes down to mapping out a coherently viewable visual animation, film, scene – all of this is paid immense attention to. These concepts have been established, believe it or not, in the 1920’s during the days of Soviet montage – where Sergei Eisenstein (do yourself a favor and read David Bordwell’s book Cinema of Eisenstein) along with many other theorists, such as Lev Kuleshov, and Dziga Vertov came up with these concepts. You will often find that many of their first films, such as Eisenstein’s early films or most importantly Alexander Nevsky and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera are some of the most important cinematic works of art, precisely because of the many concepts we now see in cinema that came after them. While concepts of perspective, or line isn’t necessarily even theirs – the way in which they were proponents of designing the moving image is attributed to them. The mapping out of a film – its visual design – is an important tool of a filmmaker in affecting his audience’s perceptions. As you can see, some 80 odd years after, these very same concepts and ideas are applied to a rap music video directed by one of the most stylish filmmakers of our time – Mark Romanek. If that doesn’t prove a thing or two about how solid these concepts – established during the forming of cinema – truly are, then I’m as perplexed as you are.

With that in mind, I recommend that any student of film pays more attention to solidifying their grasping of concepts and ideas before trying to make a film, or anything visual – because the filmmaking medium requires thorough understanding of ideas first and foremost and not being aware of them can take its toll on a beginner, leading them to give up easily. Mark Romanek along with his crew thoroughly understood concepts and ideas. Strive for the same.

Derek Cianfrance analyzes scenes from The Place Beyond The Pines

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Here is a very interesting video conducted by Steve from Collider – and seems to be one of the first episodes of an ongoing series of filmmakers analyzing their own films; the choices they’ve made visually, or editorially and so on.


[ WATCH ]


Movements 002: The 400 Blows + analysis

I have compiled virtually every camera movement in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Camera pans, and the like I did not include (I’m lying, there’s a few there, lol) because the main concern of the Movements series is exactly that – camera movements – which include any kind of physical movement of the camera from point A to point B, such as a tracking shot or a dolly – mostly the dolly. The point is to get as many examples of camera movements in various films to get a better understanding of how a camera can be used and why.

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If you missed the first episode – you can check it out here. For the first one, I did not provide any kind of analysis, but I feel – because of my own growth as a filmmaker – I wanted to do one for The 400 Blows. Just remember, the analysis is all based on my own understanding of cinema from watching films, and reading a lot of books on cinema.

I will simply list the numbers of shots in chronological order and you can watch the video and read this analysis if you’d like to hear my breakdown on them all – right now I cannot upload reference screen captures, but I will do so most likely by the end of the week.


THE 400 BLOWS – ANALYSIS OF CAMERA MOVEMENTS


1. – The movement of the camera is motivated simply by an action – the passing of the calendar, however it is also in part an introduction of the main character. There is a slight push in on the main character to a MCU. Also when the teacher calls – the camera acts as a quick pan to the teacher in a sense acting as the sudden movement of the eyes. If the previous MCU was us observing the drawing, objectively – then the pan signifies also a subjective shot, as if to yank our attention and place it at the teacher. The camera pans as it follows our main character, and it even pans back at the teacher after Antoine shakes his fist at the guys who got him caught. Think for a moment why that pan happened? If you remember your school days and you were doing something like passing notes – you never wanted to get caught and you’d always look at the teacher, to see if he’s looking. The camera pan is doing essentially that – acting as your eyes. So after the shaken fist, you’d look at the teacher to see if he noticed it because you wouldn’t want to get caught.


2. – Camera movement is motivated on physical movement of the teacher, however not limited to. It is also showing you a classroom of kids – in that sense it is geography based. Little details like the three kids who are looking up and to the left (our left). Truffaut obviously wanted you to see those details because he wants the audience to relate to being that kid who’s thinking during the assignment.


3. – Movement is pulled back as the kid approaches another to get the assignment from him – it goes from a tight shot to a slightly wider one to include in the frame more details. If it remained close as the kid approached you wouldn’t see those details, but you’d also be concentrating attention on the small space within the frame and in a sense underlining something here. Such as the intensity of the other kid writing – but we pull back to reveal he’s not the only one. For instance the two kids at the front (right of the frame) are done with the assignment and the kid who approached to get the assignment later turns around, facing us. We wouldn’t get him in that MS if it remained tight. So the movement is therefore just a link between two various shot sizes. There’s no deeper meaning there. It’s also geography based.


4. – Movement is simply based on physical movement of the characters. Why? Well, the two characters are walking as well as talking. If they were standing still and talking, like a slight moment when Antoine and his friend are talking to the goggles kid – the camera would stay static (it slightly moves in this shot as it aligns itself to a two-point perspective, as well as for the motion to come). But the movement is simply a physical one.


5. – Minimal movement but there is a slight dolly in on when Antoine grabs the money out off the table. These are the little things you do when you want to underline something. It’s a very slight movement, but it’s there nonetheless. It goes in a bit tighter because we need to see what he’s grabbing. If that shot stayed in its original, slightly wider position – the impact wouldn’t be the same. Afterall, those money are a detail and you always want to underline a detail. Hence, without cutting – you’re linking once again, shot lengths.


6. –  Is a nice blend of geography, and subjective shot. When Antoine walks into the room and it cuts to this, you have the camera slightly dollying and panning as if to show you the eyes and the physical movement of Antoine, before the shot goes from subjective (Antoine’s eyes, and ours as an audience) to an objective one with him walking into a frame. Two birds with one stone. Go you, Truffaut and Decae! Filmmaking at its finest.


7.  The camera acts to show geography. When Antoine goes to pickup his folder – the camera moves based on the idea that it wants to actually show us what he picked up. You always want to be clear with your shots. Just imagine how lazy it would have been if – after the pan from the table on to the hallway, you didn’t slightly dolly to the left like in the film. You’d immediately have the folder obscured. You want to always be clear with the audience, no matter how small it is. Unless you’re leaving out some piece of information you don’t want the audience to know at a given point in time – that’s when you can allow yourself to be ambiguous. Here we have something casual and not necessarily a big plot detail – but it’s just the courtesy to the audience that is shown by this simple movement.


8. – A pan, don’t know why I included it in movements. Oops. Though in the film it’s used to show you how the mother doesn’t even have time for her kid… the pan goes from a mother getting ready to leave to an underline of Antoine doing reading…


9. – This is a classic example of an unmotivated camera movement – a movement that is simply based on an emotion or a filmmaker’s commentary on a character or an event. The term unmotivated, however, isn’t entirely correct. There is a motive always, it’s just that there’s a distinction between two types of movements. One that is motivated is when a character moves and another when a character is feeling something such as in this case, Antoine feels nauseous because of the story of the two women he overhears.

For more on unmotivated camera movement watch John McTiernan’s commentary video below where he discusses it, starting @ 2 minutes 12 seconds

https://vimeo.com/58272963


10. – Perfect example of a motivated camera movement – as a contrast to the previous one, so you can see the difference right away of what the camera is doing and the reasons. Characters are slowly moving through their own apartment up to the table, and so is the camera.


11. – This movement is not as distinct, to me it’s a mixture of two things. 1. The unmotivated and a simple linkage of a wide shot to the MS of Antoine getting his plate filled with soup. Unmotivated because, there’s a real emotion that can be felt by it. The linkage however is probably the more correct version of the meaning behind the movement. Andre Bazin, a French film theorist largely responsible for the French New wave film movement stressed the importance of capturing reality without cutting. Essentially he said that you don’t need to do a lot of cinematic engineering – such as montage – to show what’s already there. So instead of cutting from that wide shot to the medium shot – they are linked in real space and real time by a camera movement.

The next shot, as it transitions, pretty much follows the same idea – it now shifts attention from Antoine to his mother.


13. – Movement is of Antoine looking in the mirror. Its only purpose is to compose the image in such a way so that when the father comes into the frame, we can see him in the mirror along with the environment of the scene – a bathroom.


14. – You don’t need to understand what the father is yelling about to see that he’s not happy with Antoine. You’ve got an unmotivated camera movement going on here as it slowly pushed in tighter on Antoine, isolating him from the world. The sudden pull back is when Truffaut decides to “cut” the moment of that emotion he wants us to experience as an audience and focus again on the father filling in the frame. Effective, simple, clear.


15. – This movement is another example of linking a wider frame with a tighter – which is a MCU – wide enough in the beginning to show us the environment, the geography, and immediately linking us with a shot that is standard for conversations.


16. – Unmotivated camera movement as the attention is all on Antoine, something serious – and Antoine knows this and feels it too. Hence Truffaut uses the movement wisely. I’ve included what comes after the movement to contextualize it.


17. – Movement based on geography, slight dolly in, to show us the environment in which Antoine will spend the night in. What’s interesting here is that because the characters have left the frame and the camera continued to dolly in – you can easily call this movement an unmotivated one, because they’re not always used just on people. This movement is a perfect example of one that can be used on an event, environment that still carries emotional weight here. That weight is the fact that we know this kid is gonna be sleeping in some factory, and that in itself is sad. Hence this particular movement is based on emotion.


18. – Is a tracking movement which is motivated on physical movement of the characters.


19. – Unmotivated movement here signifies a thought. Should be a no-brainer by now! 😉


20. – Another movement based on linking two shots – in this case, two locations of this building, a hallway and a staircase. I hope you’re seeing by now how camera movement can be a powerful tool in many ways, and a substitute to editing. Whenever possible, Truffaut gives you that uninterrupted look at the environment. This philosophy is driven by Bazinian theories on film.


21. – This movement is pretty much the same as that of the very first movement. Motivated on the physical passing of the goggles around a classroom, instead of cutting – a substitute is called on to do the job – camera movement. Real space, real time. Film is really the changing of a composition in space and time, you can afford to use movement of a camera to do something you can’t do in any other art (except for animation, but that’s part of film anyway)


22. – This movement comes straight after the previous shot. It can be read as a linkage of two shots, the kind that are based on geography since there’s no distinct sense of it being motivated on emotion (unmotivated). The teacher accuses Antoine of cheating as the camera slowly pulls back to a wider shot of the teacher to reveal his surroundings a bit better – the pan to the left of the screen gives us a view of the attentiveness of the students in a classroom that’s ruled by a strict teacher, finally it ends on Antoine and his answer of “I didn’t cheat”. You have essentially, three shots connected by movement. This movement also gives us an uninterrupted look at the spatial relationship between Antoine and the teacher because right after his answer, the nature of the conversation is edited in a back-n-forth fashion. So, it really is a geographical link.


23. – It begins with a motivated movement of Antoine as he walks into the room, however the next cut – what he sees – is also seen as an unmotivated movement. It’s Antoine’s sense of wonder as he sees the horse, something so completely new to him that it strikes an emotion in him. One can also argue that the push in on the horse is a subjective POV of Antoine as he approaches it – that’s true, it is in a way a subjective shot, but it truly is a movement based on emotion moreso than anything else. Also notice how the horse is shot from a lower angle, which gives the horse statue importance and power. All of this combined is an effective use of camera technique in general to illustrate to the viewer – subconsciously – a variety of emotions Truffaut wants the audience to feel.


24. – This push in on the door lock is motivated by an action. Had the camera stayed at its original, wider position it wouldn’t have the same impact as the dolly up to the lock – which underlines, as well as shows what is being done in a clearer way. This underline is important because it shows how ingenious the young boys are to escape rules and situations they’re in. Afterall, the film is about youth, and its experiences.


25. – As the father of Antoine’s friend walks in, we are tight on him – a MS – however the camera pulls back to reveal Antoine’s friend in the frame. In this sense, it’s a link – much in the same way as the movement previously on with the boy finishing an assignment as another walks into a frame to collect it. There begins a conversation between the father and his boy.


26. – A lengthy shot motivated by the physical movement of Antoine, however – it’s important to notice how this motivated movement shifts into becoming an unmotivated one when Antoine notices the typewriter. The camera suddenly dollies up as Antoine picks up the pace to approach to it – and then, cut to a close up of Antoine by the typewriter. This is a very interesting shot mainly because of this shift – it’s sudden, and quick, but it’s undoubtedly there.


27. – The next shot is a perfect blend of an introduction of a character through a closeup and a motivated camera movement. As you can see it simply tracks alongside Antoine as he – incognito – tries to return the typewriter, but gets caught.


28th, 29, 30, and 31 – Are movements motivated by physical movement, nothing more. The movement  shows us the surrounding environment as well.


30 and 31 are movements that simply show us the environment. 31 and 32 are also linked shots that show the passage of time when the transition happens in between. Eventually 32 turns into a somewhat unmotivated shot as it pushes in on Antoine to show him surrounded by a cell.


32. –  Is a linkage movement – the previous two shots are pretty much the same. It’s movement that simply connects shots without cutting while showing you – constantly the environment in real space and time.


33. – Doesn’t need much of a description or analysis – it’s a subjective POV shot through the eyes of Antoine – where his reality becomes apparent. Truffaut used this shot as to give the audience an emotional jolt by letting us see where Antoine is truly at now – a cell. The faces of other people in the cell across – the pan to the police… and finally we have a pull back from Antoine emphasizing how isolated, alone, and helpless he is in that cell.


34. – Camera movement through linkage, and geography – however, there is true emotion when the car itself drives away from the camera. What the main purpose of this movement is that it goes from wide to a tighter shot to get us closer to Antoine – to show him to us closely, intimately – a boy in a cell – then as the car drives off the audience subconsciously feels how alone he is inside that car, behind bars. It doesn’t try to follow – it does so in subsequent shots, but this time it just emphasizes the fact that he’s really being taken somewhere. The car goes further into the distance, away from us…as if we are the people standing there and seeing him being driven away.


35. – A nice transition from a closeup to a movement that reveals a jail – emphasized by the concrete wall that passes through our eyes as the camera tracks along it to then reveal the true authority – waiting behind bars. Just think about Shawshank Redemption for a second…the opening sequence when Andy is entering the prison – you have shots that track alongside the fences – this is the new reality for our character.


36. – this is a movement that is slowly creeping in on Antoine as he takes out all that he has  out of his pockets. There really is no movement that is motivated by a physical movement of someone – in a sense it’s a movement based on linkage of a wide shot (geography based) and a much tighter shot of Antoine – to get us real close to him so that we can observe him and get out of it whatever emotions we may feel ourselves when seeing this kid in such a harsh environment at young age – jail. So what we have here is not only linkage, but in a way a movement based on emotion – it’s not exactly, distinctly a movement that screams “I want you to feel this way RIGHT NOW” – it’s not as obvious, but it’s there… these kind of movements can be linked, linking shots as well as in the process evoking an emotion out of you. Because think about it this way. You could have had this exact shot go from WIDE and CUT to that Medium Shot, and you’d have in a way the same emotion out of a Medium Shot if you cut to it – but you’re losing an enormous amount of information in the process. Remember, that French film theorists emphasized the importance of not cutting, but just showing you the reality in real space and time – so the movement shows you a scene that takes place in real time – the unloading of material from his pockets as we get a sense of where he is. There’s a staircase, a policeman sitting down behind a table, then we get to see another policeman standing behind Antoine… yet all of it is seen through a camera movement without CUTTING from that WIDE shot, to a MEDIUM SHOT. Pay attention to movements like that, it’s about showing to the viewer the information you want them to see with doing the minimum amount of cinematic engineering – although camera movement is cinematic engineering in itself – but it’s not “constructed” through cutting from one shot to another – what John McTiernan would call “print logic” that occupied a lot of Hollywood films during the Golden Age.


37. – Now we get a movement motivated by emotion – Antoine is laying there in this cold room – staring at the ceiling, thinking, pondering. This is a clear, distinct example of an unmotivated camera movement – movement based on emotion.


38. – This is a subjective POV shot, through movement. The camera are the eyes of the boys marching through, seeing those girls behind bars. It’s tight on the girls, a Medium Close Up – because Truffaut is emphasizing the simple fact these little girls are behind bars and how fucking sad it is.


39. – This is one of the movements that link two shots without interrupting – the focus is on the boy behind the cell. Without cutting from a wide, to a tighter shot – Truffaut achieves it through movement. Remember; real space and time.


40. – Another movement that gives you a sense of geography, it’s not so much a movement based on emotion because as you can see it simply moves from one side to the other, ending at a point where the man walks in to take away the boy talking to Antoine and in the process – showing you some of the geography of the place.


41. – This movement is in a sense motivated by physical movement – Truffaut doesn’t show the people walking outside the window the boys are staring at, but it’s implied in a shot before when we see the parents of the children enter the ground of this facility. He’s also showing you a bit of a geography, by moving the camera in such a way that you can see the trees reflecting in the windows. You could do this shot by using a static camera – but it wouldn’t have the same “oomph” to it, nor emotion.


42. – I wanted to include this pan, it’s not a dolly or a physical movement of the camera from point A to B – but the pan is a perfect example of how you can use it as the eyes of the character. Giving you information, and emotion – the character, in this case Antoine – sees and feels. Notice how the camera pans up to the fancy hat – you know, that Antoine knows his mother is no longer with his dad… and with just a simple camera movement and a cut back to Antoine – you have more information and emotion than you could get in a full page of written description. Again, we only know this based on everything we’ve seen throughout the film. This simple shot, out of context – doesn’t say much, I mean it says that he’s looking at a hat, but we wouldn’t know anything beyond it – like what is the reason for him looking up? Is he bored? Does he like the hat? It’s only because we know up to the point of this shot, what we know, that we can take away so much information just by seeing this on screen.


Phew… I hope you found this informative. I did, through writing it. 😉