Being the fourth in a series. Earlier installments can be found here:
- Batman Begins (first glimpse of Batman-as-classic-horror-monster at the docks: depth of field, continuity editing, eyeline match)
- The Dark Knight (interrogation scene: focus, lighting, framing, shot selection)
- The Dark Knight (fundraiser scene: camera movement, blocking, mise-en-scene)
If it seems like there's a lot of narrative sans analysis in there, that's because there is. One assignment for Tuesday is that the students need to select one of the frames I didn't analyze and describe its formal properties (framing, lighting, &c.). (The moments when I narrate the plot are likely the most compelling for those not interested in Film Theory 101 because I wrote them plenty funny.) Unlike my earlier posts I skipped a lot of frames. Why? Because director Bryan Singer is a loon whose camera only stops panning once in this entire sequence and there are only so many hours in the day/seconds in your attention span.
We begin with a computer simulation of what's supposed to happen:
Singer provides a template his audience can refer to. (Note that in the simulation the camera is above the plane. This will be important.) He pulls the camera back into a close-up on the nice stewardess lady who's explaining in her nice-stewardess-lady voice what's happening in the simulation:
This would be a good time to mention that Singer films this scene like the obsessive former film student he is. The camera never stops moving. Never. The only reason this close-up doesn't become a medium close-up is because he cuts to Lois Lane asking a question. At this point the camera glides slowly and fluidly—not unlike the plane on the simulation—creating a sense of constant motion without any excitement. Then he cuts to Lois with a workmanlike reverse shot:
But it's an odd reverse shot. Lois meets the stewardess's eye but there's no eyeline match because the stewardess responds to everyone on the plane:
Because viewers expect eyeline matches in shot/reverse shot sequences, the stewardess's response feels like a snub. Singer violates convention in order to evoke an emotional response from the audience and does so with great efficiency: he doesn't need for Lois to look snubbed or say she feels snubbed because the editing took care of that for him. He then reverse cuts back to Lois:
Who never appears to break eye contact with the stewardess. Keeping the one-sided match makes Lois seem determined. With his next cut he reveals something we had no reason to suspect: that this shot sequence has a source in the scene itself.
This has a mildly unsettling effect. Singer tells the audience that he's willing to withhold critical information. What we see may be focalizing through the needs of a particular character (the network cameraman) or those of the director (Singer himself) or both. I say "both" because Singer immediately cuts to a point of view shot from the cameraman's perspective as he whip pans from Lois to the stewardess:
The camera stops and settles on a medium long shot of the stewardess as she continues explaining what will happen when the space shuttle piggybacked to the plane separates. Singer then cuts away from the cameraman's perspective and shows a close up of the plane and shuttle coupling devices in the simulation:
Unless that's a close up of a close up. If this is from the cameraman's perspective the only way to get this picture would be for him to have zoomed in on the monitor showing the simulation. That would make what follows a close up of a long shot:
I'm not sure this status of these shots matters all that much, but I am invested in you paying close attention. Moving on. Singer reverse cuts from the monitor to a medium close-up of Lois:
Then from that shot to this one:
How do we know that's not the simulation? Because the camera tilts up to the plane and shuttle instead of down on them. Plus the shuttle in the simulation already decoupled. But Singer wants to avoid all possible confusion because he's about to start in on a rather impressive bit of prolonged parallel editing:
KUTNER! Not really. But that is Kal Penn cutting something delicately for Lex Luthor. Hard to tell what it is. Wouldn't it be nice if we could somehow—
Much obliged. So we have Lois in a plane with a space shuttle parked on it and Kal Penn cutting a millimeter off the tip of a crystal somewhere. The trick to parallel editing is rhythm: you need to give each of the multiple narrative lines enough screen time relative to the others to remind the audience that they're happening simultaneously. Spend too long on any one of them and the others will seem to have stalled. Singer knows this and cuts back to the plane and shuttle:
But fooling us into thinking we were back with the plane has the same effect as cutting back to the plane: it reminds the audience that of the other narrative and prevents it from stalling. But why is there a model plane? Because (in a sequence I'm not going to show you for reasons of space) the crystal Kal Penn cut is going to be dropped into a lake in the middle of a model town:
Note how Singer's still futzing with conventional perspective. This is a medium long shot that looks like an extreme long or establishing shot. Or at least that what it looks like until it doesn't look like anything at all:
The grain-of-sand-sized bit of crystal Kumar dropped in the fake lake caused a power outage. Given how tiny that crystal bit was I'm sure the outage is localized—
Nope. The lights also went out in some random bar somewhere. Probably close to the—
So all the lights and cars in the city also went dead. Happens all the time when someone launches an EMP. Nothing to worry about. The cars will start working again momentarily. It's not like they're going to drop out of the sky or something with power. Wait a minute isn't Lois Lane in a—
Nothing to worry about. The NASA place never blacked out. Lois is safe as houses up there. Nifty bit of parallel editing. After cutting to random places blacking out he moved into another scene where another narrative will be playing out. He cuts to a close up of one of the NASA technicians doing his job:
Everything is normal. No need to panic—
Shit. Singer lulled us into thinking the blackout hit everywhere simultaneously by showing the random bar and the city. Then he went back in narrative time and only now do we see the effects of the blackout. But at least the plane still has power:
"We here in the space shuttle lost Houston. Can you reach them airplane pilots?"
"Us airplane pilots lost Houston too. Good thing we won't be needing them. We should start decoupling. But first I need to make sure the engine's still turning."
"The engine's fine. Time to decouple!"
"This is Houston. We had a power outage but now we're back. You two crazy kids decouple yet?"
Meanwhile, in the random bar from earlier that turns out not to be random:
The power comes back on and Jimmy Olsen is watching a random baseball game by himself.
I meant "Jimmy Olsen is watching a baseball game with Clark Kent." I was gonna say that but it seemed unimportant. I wonder what's going on with Kumar and the fake city?
Disaster? That can't be good. Perspective-wise Singer films this disaster as if it's happening to a real city. When trains fly off the rails you don't see Lex Luthor in the background. He spends a good minute depicting the devestation of the fake metropolis. Then he cuts back to the NASA place:
"This is the NASA place to the astronauts and airplane pilots. Have you decoupled yet?"
"I was just about to do that. Literally. Had my finger on the button and everything. See?"
"What 'uh oh'?"
"Their button didn't work."
"Doesn't sound like the button worked."
"Their button definitely didn't work."
"Houston, this is the airplane. Do you know their button didn't work?"
"We know and are hard at work trying not to panic."
"Space shuttle, this is Houston. Have you tried the other button?"
"Houston I am trying the other button."
"Did it work?"
"Have you tried banging on something."
"Do you guys hear someone banging on something? Because I swear I can hear someone banging on something."
"If the space shuttles takes off into space and we're not decoupled that would be bad wouldn't it?"
"Houston, this is the airplane. You don't want us in space, right? Confirm because the shuttle's about to fire its—"
"SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT!"
"SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT!"
"We're sorry to interrupt that random baseball game for breaking news. The space shuttle is headed into space with the airplane still attached. The people aboard the airplane will surely die."
"That's too bad about those people about to die."
"Hey Clark isn't Lois on that plane?"
"Clark? Wonder where he went?"
He went outside to be the subject of a tracking shot:
Because this post is made of pictures, you can't hear the waxing of the dunt dunna, dunna nunna, dun dun dunt, dunna nunna but I promise it's there. Also of note is Singer's slavish fidelity to the original. Not only does he recycle the John Williams score to Superman (1978), his first appearance of Superman shot directly references the original. To wit:
Why would he reference the earlier film so explicitly? What rhetorical purpose does that serve, that is, who is the intended audience for that tracking shot? Moving along: Singer then cuts to an out of focus shot of something fuzzy:
Nothing in this shot is in focus, but contrary to what I said in class today, this is not because everything in the frame is not because the depth of field is so absurdly shallow it captures nothing. The depth of field describes how the aperture of the lens relative to the location of the objects and the level of lighting and look a pretty butterfly!
When the butterfly is too close to the lens, it appears unfocused. Same thing when it's too far away. If you imagine the butterfly is fluttering towards you, you have what I thought was happening in this shot: Kent is too far away at first and runs into the depth of field. But I was wrong. Singer slowly racks the focus here such that everything comes into focus:
Had Kent been entering the depth of field the cars behind him would have stayed blurry. Note that this is not how racking focus normally works, but sometimes violating conventions can be rhetorically effective (as it was with the lack of eyeline match earlier). All that said, right before cutting away Singer does monkey with the depth of field:
At this point Singer has stopped fiddling with the focus and Kent is simply too close to the camera. Note that by letting him run out of the depth of field right when he rips his shirt has the effect of turning Kent the jogger into Superman the blur. Meanwhile, miles above the Earth the secondary boosters are about to fire and Lois is struggling to get back to her seat:
Note the angle of the camera: it is tilted to the left in order to make Lois appear to be climbing uphill—which she is because of the angle the plane is pitched at. Were you in the plane, however, she would not appear to be tilted because your head would be too. This is another example of Singer violating the natural perspective for rhetorical effect. (Natural perspective being our shorthand for how cameras as eye-surrogates typically view the world.) Singer then cuts back to NASA:
"Shuttle, this is Houston. Were you able to stop the secondary boosters from igniting?"
At which point Singer whip-pans the struggling Lois to the back wall of the plane:
Skipping ahead a bit—Singer's editing is so busy I can't possibly cover it all—we have Lois fighting the g-forces to grab the oxygen mask:
Singer opts for a close-up of her face to emphasize the struggle, then cuts to her hand, then to an extreme close-up of her face:
First item of note: Singer violates the 180° rule three times in the span of ten seconds. Why would he purposely disorient the reader in this respect? Second item of note: after failing to grab the oxygen mask, but while still trying to lay her paws on it, Lois looks out the window for absolutely no reason. Singer pans to follow her glance and what does she see?
Of course. Only there's no compelling reason within the scene for her to look out the window right there. Singer gives common sense and narrative logic the finger in order to score emotional points. Is he successful? It depends. Are you the sort of person who hates puppies and kittens and flowers and loves the anal retentiveness of this post? If you are, your answer to that question might be different from that of the average moviegoer. But how about we just finish this scene now? Sound good? Good. Superman lands on the roof of the plane and shows those astronauts the meaning of the phrase "manual decoupling":
While the plane spins wildly back to earth:
Superman admires his handiwork:
(humming own theme song)
"Wasn't there something else I was supposed to be doing?"
"SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT!"
At this point Singer executes the niftiest mid-air whip pan in the history of cinema. Think about where the camera would have to be; namely, 30,000 ft. and plunging but at a slightly slower speed than the plane. I've slowed it down so you can see the effect:
If anyone asks why this scene feels exciting, think about what Singer did with natural perspective there. I could keep going with this until the plane crashes into The House That Ruth Built and 40,000 Yankee fans are incinerated in a flash, but since that doesn't happen I figure I'll just end the post.