William James, an explosive-disposal veteran working in Iraq is walking around a hazardous area in Baghdad where he is looking for a potential explosive device. He finds a wire and carefully traces its source to a hidden bomb. Painstakingly he dismantles the bomb and is about ready to wrap up, when he suddenly comes up on another wire and suspects secondary explosive devices to be wired. He follows the wire until it extends into a knot and in one quick move he pulls the wires up and sees half a dozen bombs surfacing around him, ready to go off at any moment…
Context is crucial in analyzing a single shot, which seems obvious, and it’s something I’ve been doing non-stop on One Shot of course. By analyzing the context, you can get a clearer view of the shot in question. Shots gain meaning through their context, they gain beauty even. Take that One Shot from In the Mood for Love (2000), where Su and Chow are breaking up their arrangement. The beauty of that shot lay, partly, in the dissonance between Su’s dress and her environment. That dissonance becomes much more apparent and meaningful when you discover the context of that shot, where Su’s dresses are blending in their environment instead of standing out.
Classically, it’s basically what editing is about in film; you create meaning by placing shots next to each other and then watch as they influence each other. A classic example is the Kuleshov Effect where Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov (in the 1920s) showed a single shot of a face with a semi-neutral emotion to a bunch of people. Each time he added some context-shots in the editing like images of a child in a coffin, a bowl of soup and a woman lying on a couch.Turned out that, depending on the context-shots showed with it, everyone saw a different emotion reflected on the face of the man. Here is his experimental edit:
And maybe more telling and enjoyable is this short interview with Alfred Hitchcock
So yeah, context. This time, my One Shot also depends on context. Yet, there is more in the shot than simply deriving meaning from its context, just as the One Shot from In the Mood for Love was more meaningful than the simple dress-change of Su.
The Hurt Locker
But let’s zoom out again for a second and talk about the film and its makers. The Hurt Locker (2008) is an American action drama focussed on a small unit of explosive-disposal soldiers who must survive their tour of duty in Iraq. The film has a bare-necessities style plot and mainly consists of a collection of nail-bitingly tense set-pieces about bomb-disposal.Through its spartan approach to storytelling the film gains a realism in both its setting and its characters that works tremendously well. The film received six oscars, including best film (but not best cinematography).
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd was hired by director Kathryn Bigelow, no doubt based on his similarly tense and militaristic-themed work on The Wind that Shakes the Barley & United 93 (both 2006). Barry Ackroyd, an englishman, is known for a sort of anti-hollywood, raw and realistic approach to filmmaking.
That style is reflected in the slight use of lightning, the use of handheld-camerawork, and also, in the case of The Hurt Locker, the use of multiple cameras to get lots of different perspectives and focus points on single actions. In a way, his style might be described as a mainstream technique in modern action-oriented movies. Raw, realistic, documentary style cinematography is popular, and in its most negative light is described as ‘shaky cam’, we all know it.
Criticism over this style lies in the apparent amateur-level of composition and camera-movement that is been known to show up where it sometimes feels as if the cinematography was enacted by a monkey with a camera strapped to its head. It can create unnecessary chaotic scenes and cheaply hide bad production values since hardly anything is in focus long enough to notice. All of those criticisms I can relate to, but there are distinctions to be made between amateur and professional work. Don’t forget that Ackroyd’s style is closely related to the work Janusz Kamiński pioneered in Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Kamiński received oscars for best cinematography for both of those films…
In The Hurt Locker, for me, it’s immediately clear that we’re dealing with a more sophisticated style of cinematography than simple ‘shaky cam’. In the opening scene its impressive to see how clear Ackroyd paints out the location and quickly presents the action in a coherent and suspenseful way. It’s immediately tense and gripping. But the real reveal of artistry comes when at the end of the scene the bomb explodes and we are shown several extreme slow-motion shots that freeze up the action and take your breath away. To me it sets the tone that this film is not just shot in a raw, documentary-styled way but permits room for aesthetics and cinematographic beauty.
Closing in on our One Shot there is another moment where this beauty in cinematography is displayed. Just before James discovers the multiple bombs, as described in the opening of this post, he is working on the first bomb and is being watched by local residents. At one point we see a point-of-view shot of someone looking at James and BAM! this shot comes into view:
Great, great, great composition and a nice subtle way of suggesting a scope or binoculars through the framing of the fence, heightening the sense James is being targeted. So yeah, at this point I was sold already. But then a minute later comes the real deal, the single iconic shot that is probably the most famous one of the film:
Sure, its not the most surprising pick of the film, but it is my favorite shot, and it is my favorite shot for several reasons.
First of all, just the basic look of the shot is gorgeous. By shooting from a birds-eye perspective we isolate James from its surroundings and really play up the lines that extend out of James in the form of all the wires. With no visible clutter it’s just James and the surrounding circle of bombs and wires.
But secondly, it is a matter of context. The shot really works in a gasp-inducing way. You immediately know this is bad, and I mean ‘bad’ in a worst-way. Why do we know that immediately? Because of the context!
Sure, everyone understands that a bomb is bad news, but let’s say 99% of the audience is not aware of the technicalities of bombs and might not recognize the size of a threat unless they’re guided by the filmmaker. Music, of course, is a part of that, but in this case the real power is in the build-up towards the shot.
Because in the minutes before the big reveal we’ve been focussed on dismantling one single bomb, and that bomb was treated with the utmost of tension and importance (by following the entire dismantling procedure in macro-level detail with extreme close-ups) we’ve become aware that that one bomb is a serious enough threat to be taken serious. Knowing what the danger of one bomb is helps us to realize the sizably larger threat posed to James when we see six of those bombs.
Had we not focussed on painstakingly dismantling one single bomb, we would not have had that gasp-inducing reaction to the revelation of the six connected bombs later on. There are dozens of great examples throughout film history of context defining the magic of a single shot, but to me, this is one of the more recent great examples that combines its contextual meaning with gorgeously designed composition and filters it through a naturalistic style of filming that really ties it all together. Great Stuff!!