Saturday, February 1, 2014

Assignment 2: Creating atmosphere

My understanding of this assignment is to create atmosphere using mise-en-scène, camera angles, lighting, colour etc without relying on the subject matter to carry this.  The instructions are to combine a day-to-day activity with a ‘mood’ for example: making a cup of tea in a very paranoid way.

I wanted to produce a sequence that fulfilled the brief but which was not frivolous. And, as with the first assignment, I looked very close to home for my inspiration and acting talent.

My husband Matt broke his back in 1986 by jumping off a 120 foot high waterfall for kicks.  Suffering a T12 spinal cord injury, he has had to use a wheelchair ever since.  Matt told me once that a favourite part of his day is the few seconds when he first wakes up before he remembers he is paralysed. He also insists that paraplegics have to channel a certain level of anger to even get out of bed in the morning and this is what I wanted to capture.  

For the purpose of staying close to the brief, the activity is ‘getting up’ in the morning and the atmosphere/mood is ‘dogged determination’.

It was important to me that Matt would look strong and competent throughout – the aim of the sequence is definitely not for people to feel sorry for him.  

I wanted the lighting to be flat (or harsh) if possible. With the absence of suitable strip lighting, natural gloomy daylight had to suffice. The sun snuck out a couple of times but I used the Venetian blinds to cast shadows on Matt, almost like prison bars to accentuate his confinement though his disability.  

My directorial brief was to keep this as real as possible in terms of reactions – I did not want a comedic level of anger and frustration – and I can vouch for the realism in all the scenes. 

Analysis by shot

Shot 1: View from behind his back, Matt is soundly asleep and does not move for the first few moments of the alarm going off. It gets louder until he slams the off button.  There are a few more moments of stillness and silence and then he suddenly turns over onto his back.  We get a sense from his face that he is mentally preparing to do battle with the day. 

I wanted this shot to look cluttered to set the scene of a claustrophobic, frustrating process. We see wires and stuff hanging down, annoying dots embroidered onto the pillow case and a pulsating red light in the background. The Buddha statue was placed there partly for ironic purposes (as our protagonist is not tranquil, in the slightest) but also to show this anger is necessary for the person to keep going - it is not just part of his character.

Shot 2:  Matt is now in his chair and on the way to the shower. He manoeuvres himself around the tight corner of the bed, getting himself caught up in a towel hanging up. He struggles to free himself of the towel and throws it on the bed angrily. The towel is red to symbolise his anger. [I would have liked everything else in the room to be quite colourless but unfortunately, we have a very brightly painted flat.]  We catch sight of his grimacing face in the mirror. 

Shot 3: View of the skirting board as the wheels of his chair bang into the wall and then go past with the camera still focused on the scuffs on the paintwork (to emphasise the repetitiveness).  We hear him rolling down the hallway.

Shot 4: We have a soft-focus view of the shower curtain. This is to build some anticipation and highlight our sense of voyeurism.

Shot 5: Matt then yanks back the curtain to reach for a razor.  The sound of the water helps to add crackly tension here.

Shot 6: CU of Matt shaving. His jaw is set and we hear the scratching of the razor on his face. This brief respite of normality and intimacy will hopefully allow the viewer to develop empathy with our protagonist.

Shot 7: View from almost ground level behind his chair as he transfers into the chair. We then endure the frustration as he struggles to get the chair into the right position to roll out of the bathroom. I wanted this shot to be dark and clunky and slightly confusing so that we really feel every annoying jolt of the process.

Shot 8: View from the end of the bed as Matt transfers back onto the bed. I wanted some awkward framing here (partly to compensate for the warm yellow glow in the room!) and for Matt to be pushed over to the left with the oppressive angle of the shelving over to the right.

Shot 9: Filmed from the side of the bed, we see the various laborious stages of Matt getting dressed.  This was one long shot, which I edited down – I thought the choppy cuts would emphasise the tiresome exertion required for something as simple as getting dressed.  Those are actually the facial expressions he pulls in real life.

Shot 10: This is the point where we start to feel that Matt is winning. His expression is more placid as he makes the bed, covering up the red towel with the now smooth, white duvet.

Shot 11: The POV is behind Matt (as the viewer has hopefully developed empathy by now) and the closeness adds an edginess.  He sets up his MP3 player and we hear some shouty French rap as he puts in his headphones on.  The song is called La Rage by Keny Arkana – an anthem for Matt.  He turns off the light and rolls to the door.  We can sense his confidence and control.

Shot 12: The camera has followed Matt to the door and we now watch him struggle to get over the threshold and to reach back to close the door. This is a reminder that his day will continue to be fraught with all kinds of physical challenges.  He slams the door and we hear the jangle of the wind chimes, leaving us a few seconds of contemplation.

Critical analysis

Overall I am quite pleased with the finished result, although I am keen to get some critical feedback from other students and friends. I think it succeeds in showing how hard it is for a disabled person to do some of the simple things we take for granted and I believe I achieved that, to a significant degree, through the mise-en-scène.

It is reasonably well-paced, with some slower moments to convey the arduous tediousness of the process.

The whole sequence feels edgy and uncomfortable due to framing, camera angles, lighting and choppy editing. The version I was actually just about to submit was 4 minutes 26 seconds but luckily I re-read the assignment briefing before posting this. “It should be no more than three minutes long”.  And the re-edit has actually tightened it up considerably though and, I think, increased the sense of dogged determination of the activity portrayed!

So I have just learnt two very important lessons:
  1. Always re-read the brief several times BEFORE starting work. If I had been more aware of the very specific time restriction, I would have approached the shots and filming differently.
  2. It is amazing how much you can edit out when you absolutely have to without losing the sense of the sequence.  This means I must go through more self-interrogation of which frames/seconds are absolutely essential.  Less is more, as they say.

Matt mentioned that he thinks my directing skills have improved considerably since the last assignment. This was helped by having planned every shot carefully in advance so there were no moments of me dithering. 

The assignment brief specifies no music so I am hoping I can get away with the sounds from the MP3 player counting as diegetic.  I successfully altered the level of the music (which was actually coming from a small speaker on Matt’s lap) to correspond with when his first earbud goes in which I think works OK.

A couple of things I was not happy with:

Matt is out of focus in some of the shots (very noticeably in shot 2) which is distracting. I need to be much more careful where I am using a very shallow depth of field (50mm f1,4 lens).

The painted walls of our flat did not fit with the atmosphere I was trying to create. Some of the scenes just look too warm and cosy. 

There is one small continuity issue that I will not draw attention to, in the hope that nobody notices it.

All in all, I have learned a lot from the assignment and feel there is much to build on. I need to practise making these kind of sequences much more. The last few months have been very focused on theory and watching lots of movies and now I need to spend more timing actually doing!


  1. Hi Helen, I really enjoyed your work. It really conveys the sense of physical challenge. The low shots are particularly effective to show that the difficulties Matt experiences is at a different level (literally but also figuratively). My two favourite shots: the damaged skirting board, and the final shot with the charm ringing. I'm not entirely sure about the shaving shot as I don't think we need to feel more empathy.
    I like the way you create a sound ambiance as well, punctuated by Matt's huffing and puffing and the charm brings a great end to the movie. I personally don't think the colours of your flat are an issue: on the contrary, it made me think that whatever the environment (cosy, bright, happy), Matt still has to struggle as much to get going with his day.
    I look forward to seeing more from you and I'm adding your blog to my reader.

  2. I really enjoyed this Helen. I regret not giving the attention to detail in my work that you have obviously given to yours. The whole thing moves along steadily. Your re-edit worked well. This is something I also found, you can lose an awful lot in the edit and still get the message across. I wasn't distracted by the colours. It made it real. The confined space and Matt's frustration evoked the atmosphere you were looking for. I found it very believable. I especially liked your technique with the diegetic music and the lingering shot on the closed door. I watched it three times and didn't spot your continuity error. Well done and good luck with the next section which is the narrative section if I remember correctly.

  3. There is something distracting in your “atmosphere” for me. We see that he has no problem to get out of a bed, to get in and out of a tub. Those physical obstacles such as clothes rack, a corner and a door look for me somehow artificial. I would like to see a stronger element to support why he should be angry such as a problem to get out of the bad of tub, to see him how painful that action is for him e.g. but it is only my opinion.

    Anyway, I like you visual style Helen. Those shots where Matt is not focused are brilliant and I thought it was your intention :-).

    Good luck with next assignment.