Thursday, March 15, 2012

Call Northside 777: Every Choice Comes From the Story

The Jimmy Stewart movie "Call Northside 777" is not a great movie, but there were some great choices in lighting and cinematography that I liked. I started out just writing about the values and cinematography, but that led to a few other thoughts about how to make artistic choices, and how every choice you make on a movie comes from the story, which means it's really important for every person on a movie to know what each sequence is about (as well as the overall story).

In the film, Stewart plays a newspaper reporter trying to uncover the truth behind a man who he thinks was wrongly sent to prison for killing a police officer.

This is the scene that made me start to think about some of this stuff. In it, Jimmy Stewart goes to confront a woman who lives in a run-down apartment building. It's a tense scene, full of mystery: you don't know what he's going to find, and all the choices contribute greatly to the feeling the film makers wanted to convey.

He walks up to her apartment and is shrouded in darkness as he reaches the door. He lights a match to make sure he's at the right apartment, and there's an insert shot of her apartment number: three.

The choice of a crooked and beat-up looking "3" that has nail holes randomly placed attached to a weathered and cracked door is no accident. That's a great choice of prop and setting that convey a powerful feeling about the state of the apartment and the condition of the person inside. In animation we have even more control over the art direction of these type of things - after all, we have to design and build everything from scratch - so there's no excuse not to always use your art direction to support the story point (more on this in a bit).

 While he's waiting for a response, someone in a nearby apartment opens their door to check out the noise which temporarily throws him into light and then back into darkness as the door closes. A great use of light and dark to create a mysterious, uncertain mood and to say we're surrounded by unseen people lurking in the shadows.

I love the way only one light bulb is working in the hallway and the stairs seen in the background are warped and worn, creating a great effect as the top of each step is thrown into relief by the light. It creates a visceral feeling of a dark, dingy, run-down and possibly dangerous place.

The design of everything in a movie - including cinematography choices and set design - should support the story. Everyone who works on a film should know the story as well as possible when they're doing their job. If you're a character designer, layout artist, animator or lighter, it's impossible to make choices and do your job unless you know what the function is of your piece within the story.

For example, suppose you're in layout and you're told by your director you need to design a hallway in an apartment building for your character to walk through, and then he's going to knock on a door.

Could you go off on that much information and design an apartment hallway? I couldn't....there are millions of possible apartment buildings you could create. I would need to know the function of that hallway within the story in order to make choices as I figure out my design.

Is it (like in this film) a run-down, seedy apartment building where a scene of great tension will take place? Or is is a luxurious apartment building inhabited by millionaires? Or something in between? Is this an apartment building in a big city? A small town? In the middle of nowhere? What year or era is it? What country is it?

The other part I need to know is how the characters in the scene are our hero nervous and anxious (like in the film above) or something else? Is he happy - going to see his girlfriend? Or going reluctantly and with a heavy heart to see his dying grandfather? Going to his boss's house to admit a mistake he made that will get him fired? And does the emotion change during the scene - if he was happily going to see his girlfriend, but then when his knock at the door is answered, it's his girlfriend's mom, and she tearfully tells our hero that his girlfriend has been in a terrible accident, that would mean we would have to design the set so as to give two different feelings: one as he's arriving happily and another as the shocking truth comes out and his world starts to spin.

The same thing applies to lighting a scene, of course, as well as designing characters. I have to admit I see a lot of character designs where the artist has created a great design but there's no sense of the personality or function of that character. Every aspect of a character design- from the way their face looks, to their posture and the clothes they wear - is an important choice and affects the way the audience will perceive them in the story. Your hero and heroine will look very different from the secondary characters in a movie. Usually the hero and heroine need to convey a wide range of dramatic acting so their design will be more conservative and straight to have more flexibility as each scene calls for them to be funny or sad or happy or angry or whatever. Side characters that have less range of expression and emotion should usually be designed more simply so that they convey their simpler function more quickly - they won't have as much screen time so they'll need to impart their function in the story more quickly to the audience.

Real actors are cast the same way. Great actors have a certain indelible quality that they bring to every role. Actors aren't interchangeable just like character designs aren't. It would be like saying that George Clooney and Paul Giamatti could play the same roles. They couldn't. They each bring a certain type of distinct personality and character to the parts they play. They're both good at the type of roles they play. But they're not interchangeable.

The same is true of Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre.

Anyway, the point is that, when you're working on a film or show you need to know the story in order to make choices. What's the function of each scene and character and what range of meanings will they have within the film? How do they start out and do they change over the film? How do we want the audience to feel about each character, each set, each prop?

Every choice you make on a movie has a dramatic effect on how the audience feels. And making the audience feel what we want them to feel is the greatest tool we have at our command when we tell a story. And if we screw it up by making the wrong choice, we lose our chance to make our audience have an emotional, resonant experience as they watch our films.

So here are some more screencaps from "Call Northside 777". Some are good examples of using the lighting and values to tell the story, and some are just great examples of using values for clarity and visual interest.

Some of these have as much control over the values as a painting by a great master. Great use of grey and white and black for clarity and for setting a mood.

SPOILER ALERTS from here on in by the way. If you're interested in seeing the film, it's available for instant streaming on Netflix, which is how I saw it. I'd never heard of it before.

More from the scene where Stewart confronts the woman who's false accusation may have sent an innocent man to prison. He tries to get her to recant her testimony.

I love how Jimmy Stewart's suit is so crisp and bold - he's wearing a black hat, a tie with a precise pattern and a suit with pinstripes - against the muddled grey, disordered background of the lady's disheveled apartment. Great, subtle visual storytelling that sums up the whole movie in an image that looks ordinary at first glance. He looks entirely out of his element here. He stands for truth and justice and the world he's descended into is all about lies, deception and corruption.

Love the way her face is thrown into silhouette. Always a great technique when done right.

They are surprised by her lover at one point.

In this scene Stewart has to tell the wrongly convicted man's mother that there's no hope of reversing her son's conviction.

Throwing a character's face into shadow can be a powerful device. It can make someone look sinister or create mystery because we can't see what they're thinking or feeling. In this case, it allows the Mother's grief to remain more private (we can't exactly see her expression) and allows her to retain her dignity while also making sure the film doesn't become manipulative, which is usually how it feels when you see someone crying in a movie. We get her anguish, but it's more powerful to not see her expression clearly because we project onto it with our imagination.

Here, the values aren't really that integral to the story, but I just love the control of values for clarity.
There's no place where two similar values lie next to each other and the light and dark values are evenly distributed well.

I always love this technique of having a shadow cross the top of the frame. It keeps your eye on the stage and the characters and doesn't allow the eye to wander off the top of the frame. Also it ensures there's no strong contrast at the top of the frame to pull your eye up.

The climax of the movie is a scene where a photograph is developed that might clear the name of the convicted man. The whole movie has come down to this moment. Developing a piece of film could be a small, uninteresting moment, but because it's the climax of the film and a very tense scene, the film makers lit it dramatically, with strong dramatic light from below that creates great contrasts and stark shadows. More than any of the others, this setup reminds me of a painting by an old master.

I said SPOILER ALERTS, right? Okay, well, here's the scene where the wrongly convicted man is released from prison (really, was there ever any doubt that Jimmy Stewart was on the right side?).
Again, great distribution of values for clarity.

I love how Jimmy Stewart (in the background) is framed by that shadow. Keeps him important and powerful even though he's small. Great composition too...he's the guardian angel, watching over the happy reunion he's been working towards all through the movie.

Great use of values and great arrangement of figures for an interesting composition.

The last shot...the camera pans from the happy reunion to the one man who made it all possible. Again, great framing with the building, and great use of values and contrast to make him stand out and feel strong although he's small in the frame. He's small against the big, powerful prison behind him, but because of the composition and the contrast on him he doesn't get lost in the image. That's a metaphor for the story of the film....the little guy takes on the enormous power of the state...and is victorious in the end.


galvinator said...

Great thoughts! I agree about the movie not being as good as it could have been, check out the Lux Radio re-enactment it's a lot of fun.

JK Riki said...

Man, the things I miss... I tend to try to analyze movies and such while watching them, but this is to a whole other level! I'm going to have to start paying even more attention.

Lissie - mortal kombat said...

Thank you for this beauty pictures!!!

Graham Ross said...

I love your blog. 'nuff said.

Marcos Mateu said...

So true. And great choice of shots btw, delivering the message with most clarity and at the same time, economy of information clues.

ghulam sarwar said...

thank you for sharing

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striker49 said...

Mark where do you get all your reference pictures? Do you take them from some internet site I can find or from off the actual movies? I want to know because I want to start to use some more references for my blog. I love your insight though, thanks for taking the time to spread your knowledge.

Dushyant Bhardwaj said...

All good reading....Suprb...:)

I love the way you explain every picture.