Negative space is a beautiful thing. If there is one thing that creates suspense within a frame it’s negative space. It’s filling up your frame with shapes and spaces that are seemingly mute, empty, devoid of significance. It’s like that silent single string that rings just before the thunder starts. The more a frame is filled with negative space (parts of the image that seem uninteresting to the main plot or focal point) the more you start expecting something is going to fill it up.
The Grey (2012) is a movie about survival in the wild. It tells the story of a group of oil-workers in Alaska who, on the way to a job, have their plane crash in the middle of nowhere and must survive the elements and, most dangerously, the appetite of the local wildlife (Grey being a reference to the Grey Wolf of course). With Liam Neeson acting as the alpha-male of the group, they set out on a hike to civilization while staying a step ahead of a hungry pack of wolves who hunt them.
The movie is fascinating and surprisingly great as a survival tale in that it’s much less of an action-movie and much more of a dialogue-driven movie. It’s filled with philosophical musings about life and death and seems to suggest that men will grow more introspective the more death seems to gnaw at their feet.
Carnahan & Takayanagi
The movie was directed by Joe Carnahan, a director with a pretty thin resume (A-Team (2010) and Smokin’ Aces (2007) being his most well-known films) that doesn’t really suggest the poetic depth he achieves in The Grey. But he succeeded in telling a moving and tense story that I would really call one of 2012’s best movies.
Carnahan teamed up with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, again not really a prominent or famous cinematographer. Takayanagi did have the wonderful Warrior (2011) on his resume as well as second-unit D.P. on Babel (2006), and so has also been a student of the more famous and acclaimed Rodrigo Pietro (who also filmed Brokeback Mountain (2005), 21 Grams (2003), Biutiful (2010) and most recently Argo (2012)).
Takayanagi could then very well be considered an upcoming talent, because his work in The Grey is really beautiful and intense. Shooting mostly on location in British Colombia, the film feels raw, gritty, endlessly cold and inhospitable, yet also shows flashes of natural beauty that offer moments of respite and quiet. But in a survival tale featuring a group of aggressive wolves those moments of quiet and respite can never be more than ‘negative space’, or as it is often called (and for this film quite appropriately) Dead Space.
My One Shot this time is a moment of quiet, a moment of beauty, filled with regret and sadness and a slowly growing feeling of fear and death. It’s the moment in the film where the third last survivor, Diaz, finally succumbs to exhaustion and loses his will to go on. In a brief talk with the other two guys he explains his realization that he’s not gonna make it, and he doesn’t believe it would be worth the effort anyway, so lost is he in his daily live. So he leans back on a fallen-down tree and says his goodbyes…
As we see him leaning back, resting and slowly preparing for an imminent death, we watch from behind him and see what he sees, a beautiful vista of Alaskan natural beauty. The water gently flows, and he seems at peace. But slowly the camera moves in on him and we start hearing noises. His breathing becomes labored and we realize the wolves are approaching. But we never see anything else but Diaz’ frame and the view he has. The wolves approach from behind the camera and are only suggested by subtle sound effects and a slow-rising soundtrack underscoring the scene. Then we hear him say ‘I’m not a afraid’ as a powerful growl is heard just as the shot is cut.
Of all the wolf-attacks in this film, and there are quite a few of them, this is by far the most memorable because of the bittersweet emotions and creeping tension, which works so well because of the static, silent structure of the shot.
First of all, when we look at the shot it’s almost a still-life. The only movement is the slow dolly-track of the camera towards Sanchez and the little river that runs beside him. Just like in the frozen-frame style cinematography of recent horror movies like Paranormal Activity (2009) your eyes start to search the frame for anything that is moving and might signify an activity or presence. Naturally the viewer starts to get tenser the more he/she can’t seem to find anything happen. Then sound effects start working and you know something is around, but the camera stubbornly remains static and ignores the movement outside the frame. More than tension, the viewer is now getting anxious. As the camera continues to move towards Diaz we literally feel as if death is visibly approaching him while he remains (relatively) calm and also doesn’t move. It’s a great tension-builder of a shot. But that slow, long-lasting dolly is just one of the techniques that makes this shot work.
Composition-wise what also struck me was de placement of Diaz’ figure within the frame. He is close to the center of the frame as the shot starts. Sure, this gives visual balance to the shot but it also makes him seem more vulnerable. As I said, negative space can suggest some sort of impending action. If a shot is focussing on something meaningless long enough the director is bound to let something interesting happen in that empty space.
In this shot, all around Diaz there is negative space. Above him is the tree-line in the distance. To the left is the river, to the right a field of snow and below him is the riverbank. There is no safe-spot around him, the wolves may come from any direction. If Diaz was placed more to the side of the frame it might suggest a relative safe-spot behind him. Such a composition may, of course, be used to shock the audience, by letting something jump at him from outside of the frame, but that would be just that, a shock. In the way Takayanagi composed this shot there is no shock, there is just this complete vulnerability of Diaz’ immovable body against the backdrop of this empty space.
And then, finally, the thing that really lifts this shot up into the One Shot category is the bittersweet emotion Carnahan and Takayanagi push into the shot. We know that Diaz is going to die, and he’s doing that freely, in a passive drawn-out way by simply lying down and surrendering. But it’s not just a defeat. Because of his stillness and calm (emphasized by the whole composition) there is also a sort of pride in this moment. It’s an actual choice for Diaz to die, it’s not an accident. It’s that quiet resolve of people who are lucky enough to greet death with an appreciation and not fear.
This is all script and performance of course, but this shot carries the emotion through by reflecting Diaz’s quiet resolve in both the pacing and composition. It becomes this beautiful shot filled with mixed emotions of defeat and pride, tension and sadness and it does so with a gentle quietness that really pushes the movie to another level.