Hovering Lights Specials

Diegetic Cinematography.

February 1, 2015

The second part of the previous post, and this is where things should start to get at least a little more interesting.

Working on my demo reel for Vancouver Film School, I decided to, besides all the VFX stuff and technical aspects of it, try some new stuff with cinematography, experimenting with a style that always gets my attention for it brings together a series of elements I believe work amazingly in terms of immersion and getting the audience into the story head on. That is diegetic cinematography, is making the camera a part of the characters’ world. It’s an object that they see, use and interact, which is also used to tell the story. This has some immediate consequences that aren’t standard through film history like “there is no fourth wall”, the characters know they’re being filmed, they interact with the camera but just because they have a relationship with the one holding it.

We’ve seen it before several times among sci-fi – Chronicle (2012), Cloverfield (2008), Project X (2012), Project Almanac (2014) – and the whole genre of “Found Footage” horror – Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007), V/H/S (2012) or [REC] (2007) among many others. I won’t focus on the horror movies at this point. There are huge articles about the Found Footage genre, and I’m no expert, but I’d like to discuss what this kind of camera work brings to the story: first of all, the audience knows exactly as much as the characters. Hitchcock says the key to tension is giving key information to the audience, that the characters don’t know about. Like whenever we know the killer is at the victim’s house way before the crime takes place in the screen. We – as audience – worry because we foresee what’s going to happen and it’s the wait that causes the thrill.

When the camera is a character, if the audience knows something, so do the characters, and here the thrill comes from the fact that we have the suspicion that something bad might happen or WILL happen, but we don’t know exactly what, when, or to whom. Whenever it hits, we’ll be as surprised as they are, thinking of ways out the same way they’re doing. For me, this is a boost in terms of imersion and also a challenge. Since we’re so close to the characters, whenever they act in really stupid ways we’re thrown out of the movie, they’re not convincing anymore. Like any horror movie, when people go to “check their basement when the lights go off”, or think it’s “a good idea to face the bad guys breaking into their homes”. Regular people like you and me would never do these things, I don’t have a hero complex, if I think it might be dangerous, I’ll flee or hide!

While reading on this subject to see what other people think, I came across a very small number or articles, none of them really deep, and with very different opinions, so it’s time to make clear that I’m not defending that the viewer is a character in the movie, since we see through a character’s camera. A movie is much different from a game, all the choices have been made from the start. There’s no interactivity, I’m not saying we’re seeing through the eyes of a character. I think first person videos are awesome, but I wouldn’t say that is diegetic cinematography because there is no camera. We act different when we’re just talking to someone versus when we’re on tape.

Using the argument of “we remember things” as a comparison to recording is not valid. We haven’t got to a point where people have cameras embedded into their eyes yet. The proof that people act weirdly on camera, even if the camera is someone else’s eye is all the hard times Dr. Steve Mann goes through. There’s also a great Black Mirror episode (The Entire History of You, 2011) about implants that turn our eyes into cameras, but that’s still sci-fi, and it takes place somewhere in the future.

Following this line of cinematography, Christopher Campbell wrote an article discussing why that is weird, bad in a standard way, but interesting if done properly since it’s different from anything we’ve seen so far. He specifically talks about Hardcore, currently in post, made by the same guys who did the Biting Elbows – Bad Motherfucker music video, which is shot entirely from the protagonist’s point of view (POV). Campbell makes a comparison between literature, games and movies, establishing a clear difference between books written in first person and movies in first person.

So, my definition of diegetic cinematography requires a physical camera being held by one of the characters. When that happens, the camera usually has a specific purpose inside the film itself. In Project Almanac they’re documenting their progress through an experiment, in Cloverfield, the guy is in charge of filming the farewell party for one of the main characters. Project X and Chronicle, though, have very different approaches that make sense in today’s culture. The title says it all, Chronicle, “a historical account of events arranged in order of time usually without analysis or interpretation”. There’s no manipulation of time, the editing just goes forward. We don’t see the same moment twice, we don’t have flashbacks or forwards. Phones can shoot video, we have a plethora of social networks based around video, or that support to video uploads (YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Vine, Instagram and so forth). We take way more pictures in our everyday life just by having a half-decent camera in our phones. We don’t worry that much about framing, image stabilization and such for our videos. These are just small chunks of memories, shot in chronological order. They’re usually more important to ourselves than to others. Sure we share them, our current culture revolves around showing where we’ve been and who we met, all very much time stamped.

Nikon just released a whole campaign based around that, calling the current generation “Generation Image“. Not so long ago we had (we still have some) very long discussions regarding what “qualifies” a photographer. Are amateur photographs taken with a phone camera as valid as the ones taken by someone who studied the craft for years and use expensive gear with the single purpose of taking photographs? If we’re talking about interviews and scheduled events, sure, that is debatable, but what about natural disasters, conflict areas and other situations where stuff just happened, and when the Professional gets there, the event is already past? What tells better the story of a gas explosion inside a shopping mall: a high-megapixel count photograph of some ruins with sharp focus hours after the event or one taken in the food court with a phone, at the time of the explosion, all blurry, but good enough to understand what’s happening? Nightcrawler (2014) is a great movie kind of related to this subject, with lots of camera on the screen, but no main diegetic cinematography.

John Powers, when writing about Chronicle, has an interesting point when he says this shift between traditional media/cinematography and amateur recordings began back in 2001, with the attack at the World Trade Center. While most media networks were running towards the area to shoot their own footage, thousands of people around the buildings were already doing this on their own, simply because they could. I’ll come back to John’s review later on.

It’s not hard to tell the difference between a professionally shot video and one done by someone who had the sole purpose of recording the events. Actually, it’s quite easy to spot which is the Pro and which is the amateur. Then Hollywood comes in and turns the “amateur look” into a style. What are the benefits?

First off, it has a much more “real” look, as if that isn’t a movie, carefully written, planned and executed. We relate to the characters because that’s the way we’d film if we were in that situation. The handheld, shaky camera, also called “documentary camera” has this name because documentaries usually have small budgets and it’s focused on reality. Real people, real lives, real intentions, no actors. When the first portable camera came out, documentaries blossomed. After some time, what was considered a flaw – the shakiness and curiosity of documentaries cinematography – was brought into fiction with mockumentaries, behind the scenes that seem as amazing as the real scenes and much more.

Steve Bryant, in his article about the camera becoming a character, says this is a negative thing. What should work as a bridge between audience and show actually sets them further apart because there’s now two layers of fiction (behind the scenes AND the show) instead of just one (the show) and we don’t notice that. We feel closer to the actors, we think we know the ones behind the characters, when what’s really happening is the actors are acting about themselves as well. It’s confusing, but makes a lot of sense in the end. How does this relate to the diegetic cinematography thing? Well, the show wouldn’t count as diegetic cinematography, but the behind the scenes would, since many times the camera operators are just as real as their subjects.

Ok, so we got a reality and empathy bonus because that’s how the audience would film. I also believe this is much easier for the actors, because it’s much more natural. The hard part is making it feel right. Once you know how to handle a camera, professionally, it’s easy to make a mess and say it’s amateur. The key is to know how much messier it should look, which are the main points and reactions the audience has to see and which ones are best when just outside the frame. How close to danger are our characters willing to go? What’s their relationship with the person handling the camera? Do they care, are they pissed about it? Are they filming just to keep a record of events, or for sharing? And the ever present question “what’s more important now, the camera or whatever’s happening at the same time?”, this will mostly dictate framing and might have influence on editing as well.

There’s one issue, though. One downside that’s very hard to avoid: sequences of shitty, blurry, shaky images while our characters run. For many people, these are huge turn-offs. They feel sick, dizzy or worse. I myself have a high threshold for shakiness, but every once in a while I see something so confusing that makes me question the process.

This is what I’ve been experimenting recently to tell my story loaded with visual effects. I’m wondering which side will win: the reality from the cinematography, or the out-of-this-world aspect of the visual effects involved. I’m also gonna question the editing process, but this post is already too long and confusing to include that!

  • TFerradans. · Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension November 4, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    […] into a story that’s told by the camera – I wrote about this a while ago, calling it Diegetic Cinematography – plus, it was a horror movie. The problem is, doesn’t matter how much I want to like […]