I used to teach film production at a film school in Los Angeles. We were teaching how to make a film by actually having each student to write their own script, direct, produce, and edit their own film. Many of the young students had no experience in making movies. Their first question on film sets was usually where to place a camera. A camera can be anywhere. As long as it works properly, it can film anything in front of us. However, if we want to make a FILM, the camera should not merely record the event in front of you, but the shots should be carefully designed. At this point, what we need to consider is the purpose of each scene and each frame. What is the emotion that we want the audience to feel? If we know the answer to this, the camera placement has been already decided.
One scene of “Vertigo”
Scottie was an ex-detective, who recently quit his job because of an accident while chasing down a criminal. One day, he had a call from his old friend and was asked to follow his wife, Madeleine, whom the friend suspected to have developed psychiatric problems. To get a first glance of her, Scottie went to a restaurant, where she was dining with her husband. While sitting at the bar near the entrance, Scottie secretly studied Madeleine, who wore a stunning green dress. The couple finished their dinner and got up to leave. Scottie turned around to hide from Madeleine but her striking beauty overwhelmed him. He was sensing the inevitable.
This is a scene from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” The film was not successful at the box office, when it originally released. However, the praise and the admiration from filmmakers worldwide increased year after year, and after the re-release in 1980’s, everyone came to believe that this was Hitchcock’s best work to date. “Vertigo” has been constantly chosen as one of the top five films of all the time on many movie related websites’ lists. This film was shot with Vista Vision, with which the images were photographed using the maximum space on 35mm negative surface. In a recent restoration effort, this system allowed the technicians to revive its astounding use of color.
In the previous article I wrote about how Hitchcock had said that the goal of each scene in a film was to evoke the audience’s emotion. He said the same thing with each frame of a film. A frame is constituted from compositional elements, such as the camera angle, size of the image, color, lighting, and Mise-en-scène. These elements all contribute to this goal of invoking audience’s emotion.
In the introductory scene from ‘Vertigo,” when Scottie at the bar looks towards to Madeleine, the camera pulls back and turns to left, revealing a room filled with dining customers. In this wide-shot, the audience can not help but looks for a sight of Madeline, wondering “where is Madeline,” and “what she looks like.” This shot is supposed to be in Scottie’s POV, yet the camera captures the image from audience’s point of view. Hitchcock’s intentions are clear: to connect audience’s mind to Scottie’s mind. The audience then finds a woman in a bright green dress among the customers and the camera slowly moves to her.
It is a popular method that attracts the audience’s attention to a character by costume design. In this scene, the audience’s eyes are drawn to Madeline’s green dress, which is the only bright color among dark monotone clothes of other customers. The color of green and red are used frequently with costumes, set decorations, and lighting in this film. These colors are used to express and evoke certain emotions. Hitchcock effectively captured these color schemes by using Vista Vision.
It seems that the green color was used to express the mysterious and uncertain existence of Madeline, while the red was used for Scottie’s fantasy and passion. Later into the film, the green was used for Madeline’s hesitation, and the red for Scottie’s illusion and obsession. We don’t see this way of using thematic colors in any other Hitchcock’s films, and this is why many of the film critics consider “Vertigo” as the most poetic works by Hitchcock.
Rule of proximity
After finishing the dinner, Madeline and her husband move near to the entrance, where Scottie sits. The camera captures Madeline standing behind Scottie in close-up, and Scottie also in close-up. The size of the shot shows the intensity of Scottie’s emotion, while the red walls, surrounding in the restaurant, expresses Scottie’s suppressed passion. Hitchcock further emphasizes this emotion by slightly brightening up Madeline’s background. Scottie is clearly attracted to Madeline’s beauty and the film suggest that he eventually falls in love with her. With this skillfully designed scene, Hitchcock successfully makes the audience identify with Scottie, and ready to travel through the the rest of Scottie’s experience.
Hitchcock said that he chose the camera placement on a film set according to the emotional level of each shot. Close-ups clearly emphasize an emotion, and long-shots and wide-shots dissipate it. A sudden cut to a close-up expresses a surprise, and extreme angle shots show dramatic emotion. These rules are called the proximity and Hitchcock used this rule of proximity to design each shot.
We can see the effective use of the proximity in the introductory scene of “Vertigo,” but I would like to introduce another effective scene from “Psycho.” This scene takes place when Marion comes across a motel where she decided to stay a night. She sits and has a conversation with Norman, the hotel manager, in a living room decorated with stuffed birds. This could be a boring scene, with a minimum movement of each character. However, Hitchcock made this scene interesting by using different camera angles and compositions effectively.
At first, Hitchcock uses a medium-shot with the camera, in a normal position, as high as character’s eyeline. When the conversation becomes about Norman’s mother, he uses extreme low-angle of Norman’s left side. This dramatic shift of shots not only catches the audience’s attention but also evoke ominous feeling. Now in the background, we can see stuffed birds, placed on near the ceiling, looking down on Norman. The shot is showing Norman’s mind with oppression, fear and despair.
Furthermore, when the conversation turns into Norman’s mother’s mental wellbeing, Hitchcock suddenly cuts to a close-up, filmed straight on Norman’s face. The audience’s attention is immediately drawn to Norman’s eyes, which shows a dramatic change. Now he has a crazed look in his eyes. The timing of this cut is perfectly in sync with amazing acting performance by Anthony Parkins, and it heightens fear effectively in the audience’s mind. After the conversation ends, Hitchcock cut to the low-angle shot of Marion with a black bird looking down on her in the background, foreshadowing what will happen to her right after this scene…