Wednesday, 02 February 2011

Establishing the tone of AMC's The Walking Dead The first few minutes of the first episode of AMC's The Walking Dead need to establish the tone of the entire series, but they need to do so without boring the audience. Given that the comic on which it's based alternates between menacingly quiet moments and long stretches of extreme chattiness, it may be a mistake to think about the tone in a singular fashion; however, the fact that these two tonal elements could be characterized as "opposites" means that the opening scene of the series will have to choose one or the other. Director Frank Darabont not only decided on quiet menace, he emphasized the future significance of silence by turning down the diagetic sound and eschewing non-diagetic sound entirely. The result? The series introduces itself to the world with a unusually quiet establishing shot of a car approaching the camera on a deserted road: As the car nears, the camera tracks it and Darabont uses the resulting tracking shot to create the impression that the person behind the camera is hiding behind the car. The camera pulls back until the burnt wreck in the foreground nearly obscures the patrol car, only to pan right at the conclusion of the long take and reveal that its "hiding place" has been compromised. In short, the camera seems to be hiding from the patrol car, which strongly suggests to the audience that there's something to hide from and that it may be in that patrol car. As if to emphasize that potential danger in the car, Darabont moves the camera-spy-without-a-hiding-place further away from the patrol car before cutting away: Even after the cut away, the camera still behaves as if the mind behind it wants to remain hidden while scoping out a better hiding place. It begins behind and to the right of the burnt wreck and tracks to the back and to the left as Rick Grimes moves toward it. The resulting shot keeps Rick occupying the center of a long shot until the camera knows he can be trusted: Or until it knows Rick either can't see him or can but doesn't care. Rick's eyes scan the area occupied by the camera but never directly addresses it. Initially, this means he's not a threat; eventually, and as anyone who's had a long conversation with someone who refuses to make eye contact with you well-knows, when sustained over time it will create the impression that Rick may not be worthy of the audience's trust. And it is sustained over time via another long take: Note how the camera seems to be following from the front in what almost seems to be a point-of-view shot from the perspective of someone walking backwards down a steep hill, adding to the generally suspicious tenor of the previous shot another possible means of inflicting bodily harm: falling. The steadiness of the camera only adds to the tension: because audiences have come to expect shakiness from their realism, the calmness of Darabont's camerawork creates the...
How, exactly, do you film someone being stalked by a statue? (Being lecture notes on the Doctor Who episode "Time of Angels," obviously.) Something lumbering as quickly as a zombie wouldn't seem to pose much of a threat, so it goes without saying that turning them into something threatening would entail speeding them up or increasing their numbers unto ubiquity. In the former case, their uniqueness is reduced and they become just another movie monster; in the latter, they're horrifying because our inability to grasp the greatness of their numbers approaches the sublime. But how would they pose a threat if they were unable to move at all? I'm teaching the episode of Doctor Who entitled "Time of Angels" because the answer to that question is that they move via film cliché. More on that in a moment. First, let me introduce you to the Doctor: He is a funny old man with a magic blue box whose Wikipedia entry is longer than New Hampshire's, so I'm not sure I'll be able to briefly sum up who and what he is. Suffice it to say he's the English equivalent of Superman, only intellectualized instead of strong. You don't really need to understand the Doctor to understand this episode or my post, though; more important for the present are the Weeping Angels, a malevolent race of statues created by the current show-runner, Steven Moffatt. Let me say it again: they are a malevolent race of statues. How do they demonstrate their malevolence? When you're not looking. There's a purity to the concept of creating a monster whose movements perfectly (and can only, because they must) match the cinematographic vocabulary of horror. Every time the camera is on them, they must be statues, meaning the audience must actively infer their off-screen movement. The audience must be attentive because they won't be able to sit back and observe the proceedings (and because if they do there won't be any proceedings to sit back and observe). The challenge for Moffat and director Adam Smith is to take this ingenious metaphor for horror films and turn it into something genuinely horrifying. What follows is how they do it in the beginning of the episode. First, they place the Doctor's companion, Amy Pond, in an enclosed space: This is a fairly long shot, the purpose of which is to provide the audience with a sense of both a character and that character's status relative to his or her environment. It also uses deep focus ironically, keeping everything in focus so that the audience can see just how much of it there isn't. Additionally, the tight framing of the shot is similar to this scene from Mad Men, except here those lines are both imagined and actual because she's in a metal tube. The result is a claustrophic atmosphere, but a bit menacing, too, because the audience knows the cheat cut is effected from the position on the wall occupied by the recorded image of an Angel: Note that Smith eschews a point-of-view shot and instead places the camera equidistant between the recording and Pond. The previous shot established that...

Become a Fan

Recent Comments