After partying al night long with some local friends Bob (Bill Murray) & Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) chill out in a quirky hallway just outside a karaoke room. The dissonant tunes of the singing crowd can still be heard as the two quietly share a cigarette. Slowly Charlotte lowers her head to Bob’s shoulder and smiles to herself as Bob stares away, enjoying the moment without actively participating in it.
Some single shots are incredibly simple and it takes next to nothing to explain why they work so well. They just work, and they tell their story transparently and effectively. Which is a quality a lot of the cinematography of Lost in Translation (2003) possesses. It’s a gorgeously filmed movie with cinematography full of atmosphere, style and beauty. Like the movie itself, it’s never complicated nor convoluted, but it is honest and very, very poetic.
Lost in Translation was the second film Sofia Coppola directed, after the wonderfully dreamlike Virgin Suicides (1999), and to this day remains her best regarded, most well-known film. The film follows the simple story of a famous actor, Bob Harris, struggling with a midlife crisis, who is staying in Tokyo for an assignment. He meets Charlotte, a younger woman who is traveling with her photographer-boyfriend, and kind of tagging along, struggling with her own ‘quarter life crisis’. They befriend each other and eventually drift into the most subtle of romances.
It’s an incredibly quiet film, with little narrative or story-related dialogue. We follow Bob and Charlotte as they gently explore their environment and grow towards each other, and it feels like we’re watching seaturtles swim together. It’s all very graceful and beautiful, and quiet, and meandering, and slow. And I mean that in a good way (didn’t I proclaim my affection for deliberate pacing already in my blog? Twice?). For a film that explores disconnection and loneliness, to me there is no better way to frame that story.
Coppola and Acord
Sofia Coppola teamed up with cinematographer Lance Acord for this movie. Lance was also the cinematographer on the Spike Jonze film Adaptation (2002) and his classic Fatboy Slim music video ‘Weapon of Choice’ (as Jonze was married to Coppola during that period, I guess ‘it’s a small world’ applies here). Together they created a serene and dreamlike quality for the film by using a gentle handheld style with use of primarily available light. I say ‘gentle’ as the film rarely suffers from the chaotic shaky images we often associate with handheld work these days. Here, it’s spontaneous more than chaotic. Shots feel improvised, but well thought out. It’s a style I really love, and maybe inspires me more than any other style of filming.
Using natural light is also something that does wonders for the mood of a film, in my opinion. The colors of the real world are seldom primary, except maybe in jungles and densely grown forests and flower fields. Most of the time our world is filled with more subdued colors, pastels and less saturated shades.
When films rely more on available light instead of staged lighting, they tend to achieve this less saturated, pastel shade much easier, to my eyes. No doubt color correction is a big part of this too, but I can’t help but notice that films like Lost in Translation, or many of Michael Mann’s films like The Insider (1999), Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004), which are known for their reliance on natural lighting, share that beautiful aesthetic of just feeling more real.
And I don’t mean real as in ‘harsh reality’, but real as in connected to reality or based in reality. They still can be incredibly dreamlike in their mood, as Lost in Translation absolutely is, but you don’t feel that staged atmosphere.
Michael Mann, of course, drifted towards digital filmmaking which gave his more recent films like Miami Vice (2006) and Public Enemies (2009) a harsh reality in their look that felt far from dreamlike. In an interview Sofia Coppola actually said her father had advised her to use film, before it would be gone. And Sofia added, ‘ [Lost in Translation] is the memory of an enchanted few days. Video feels more immediate, in the present’.
I have never shot on film in my life (and might never do it as the tech is slowly dying now), but I can understand her reasoning. Especially during the shooting of the film I don’t think the technology of video was good enough to approach the beautiful dreamlike quality of film.
But I digress. Ten years later we have raw-shooting digital cinema camera’s costing about as much as a Macbook Pro and who approach the quality and dynamic range of film cameras, so who knows what Sofia might have done, had she decided to make Lost in Translation in 2013…
The One Shot
But enough about its cinematography in general, Lost in Translation contains dozens of beautiful single shots, most of them focused on the interplay between Bob and Charlotte. There is of course the wonderful top-down view of the two of them lying on a bed, slowly falling asleep as Bob caresses Charlotte’s feet. As a scene, that one is one of my favorites of all time. But there is another shot, focusing on the two of them, that I find more beautiful and poignant as a single shot, and that’s this one:
There is this moment I described at the start of this post, and we see the two of them leaning together. The shot has great symmetry, using the tacky wallpaper and diagonal lines to push towards the center, where Bob and Charlotte are bonding together. Color wise its beautifully subdued with just the right touch of accent in Charlotte’s pink hair and Bob’s yellow shirt, giving them each a colorful characteristic that sets them apart from their background.
But my favorite thing about this shot is the subtle performance by the two leads that is captured on film. Many times on my blog I will focus on the camera-side of the art, as the framing, color, composition and movement all belong to the cinematographer’s work. But actors can make a shot work.
In this case its the brilliant combination of Charlotte’s coy smile, that seems directed inwardly instead of outwardly, with Bob’s stare. They shift position and change expression quite a lot in the frame of a few seconds, but its this combination that I love most.
I love it because it expresses the connection, and simultaneously, the quiet distance that still exists between them (mostly in their minds). It’s romantic without really consuming the romance. And it suggests there’s something brewing beneath the surface that we now only glimpse from the outside. It’s as if Charlotte is just letting out a small hint of her emotions.
To me its a great demonstration of how an actor’s performance can be visible even in a single frame. How a performance can be crucial for visually making the frame look as good as it does.
To finish up, I discovered a pretty cool Behind the Scenes video about Lost in Translation on Youtube during my research. It’s 30 minutes long and shows a lot of nice candid moments both off the filmmaking process and the humor you’re guaranteed to receive when you can cast Bill Murray into your movie.