Sunday, 10 October 2010

Lesson Planning: Teaching basic film theory through Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Same as I did with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (and continue to do to Mad Men) only this time about Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The standard caveat applies. The formal elements of the opening five minutes of Nausicaä conspire to disorient the audience. For example, the film opens with a medium close-up, i.e. one that captures the upper torso of a character in a manner that allows the audience to clearly read a character's face without making it seem, as close-ups often do, as if the camera (and with it, the audience) are violating that character's personal space. In short, a medium close-up is designed to create a sense of comfortable intimacy between character and audience, e.g. That's obviously a terrible example, because Miyazaki's deliberately flouting film convention in order to make Lord Yupa seem inscrutable. The audience is disoriented because its members know how medium close-ups are conventionally employed (even though they might not know they do) and the violation of those conventions creates a little anxiety. If Yupa were to remove that mask, the audience would experience a slight sense of relief because the shot now conforms to their expectations. But if a director continues to confound them, the cumulative effect will create an uncomfortable audience, which is what Miyazaki wants: First: in conventional terms, this shot sequence is backwards. Establishing shots like the one above are intended to introduce the principle elements of a location and their spatial relation to each other. They are typically framed as extreme long shots in deep focus (as it makes little sense to introduce an audience to a collection of unfocused blobs), and they typically appear before medium close-ups of the characters contained within it. Reversing the typical shot sequence, as Miyazaki does here, results in the audience being surprised by the surroundings. This formal trick works even when those surroundings are less alien than they are here. For example, imagine a medium close-up of a couple of men standing around outside: Because the naturalistic lighting flatters their faces in the customary manner and the costume is conventional, the audience is taken aback when the director cuts to an establishing shot and sees this: The Syfy show Caprica, from which these frames were taken, relies on the disconnect created by this reversal to discomfit an audience who already knows who (aliens) and where (another planet in the distant past) these folks are. That the technique remains effective despite this knowledge demonstrates just how deeply intuitive audience understanding of filmic convention becomes over time. In sum: the formal elements of the film (the off-putting shot sequence) works in tandem with its content to produce a narrative moment that is more disturbing than it would be if either of these elements were doing all of the heavy lifting. In rhetorical terms, that means an argument about Miyazaki wanting to unsettle his audience is more convincing because there are multiple bits of evidence (form and content) supporting...

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