I love the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. He’s one of those modern heroes of cinema who immediately draws attention to every project he’s involved with. Just having his name attached to a movie is enough to know that the movie is going to be special. I loved his work on The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), and wrote a One Shot about it last year. That movie stills stands as one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in the past decade. And even a popcorn franchise like James Bond transformed from something functional into a visual work of art in the hands of Deakins when he lensed Skyfall (2012). Maybe I will cover that movie in the future, but for now I want to celebrate Roger Deakins by focusing on one of his first major succeses; The Shawshank Redemption (1994).
“probably the most consistent film I’ve done in terms of its look. It had a unity and style and feeling which pleased me more than anything else I’ve done to date”. (Ettedgui, Peter: Cinematography Screencraft, p. 158)
This is what Roger Deakins said about his work on The Shawshank Redemption. So lets start from that quote and work our way towards my personal favorite shot in the film.
Consistency in visuals is a strong tool to tell stories through film. Much like a painting or a piece of music, a movie -at best- succeeds in transporting its viewers to a certain place or emotion that he/she can dwell in. The movie uses a set of visual motifs to communicate its identity to the viewer and instruct them which emotions to feel or to which places they must travel in their imagination. Keeping these motifs consistent throughout the film makes its storytelling clearer, and makes sure it doesn’t pull the viewer out of the experience.
Think of basic motifs like using black & white cinematography to push viewers in a historical direction, or using color filters and light manipulation to express certain atmospheres. The close-up focus of mouths in La Vie d’Adele, for example, pushes forward the theme of consumption, of lust and eagerness. That visual motif of the constant close-ups of mouths and faces runs throughout the film. It makes it visually consistent and pushes the narrative.
As for The Shawshank Redemption, it indeed is beautifully consistent in it’s look. Partly this is a benefit of its secluded, focused location. Almost the entire film takes place inside the walls of the Shawshank prison. Its drab prison set, complemented by the unified blue colors of the prison-uniforms, numbs the viewer visually. It almost looks too consistent. But it is in this ever-present consistency that the beauty of the cinematography starts to arise. Because when the overall image is so unified and consistent throughout the film, details in the mise-en-scene start to become noticeable.
We recognize, for example, important story-beats like Morgan Freeman’s repeated prison-hearings (where he’s tested to see if he’s fit to be released), which appears three times throughout the story. And because the scene plays out similarly each time, both in narrative and in visuals, we are keen to notice the small changes. At first you’ll simply notice the growing apathy in Freeman’s performance, but when you lay down the scenes side by side, smaller nuances are seen. So cool did I find these nuanced changes, that I decided to focus my post on this single shot, repeated three times throughout the film. The actual shot is a tracking shot that moves from a medium wide to a close up of Morgan Freeman’s face, so I’ll show both the start and end of the tracking shot to illustrate it’s form.
First of all, pay attention to the outfit Freeman is wearing. How it gradually changes. First it’s a full-on prison garment, with shirt and jacket, then it’s just the shirt, and eventually it becomes something resembling an everyday outfit including suspenders. As if he’s regaining a form of societal functionality, as if he’s becoming easier to fit in society again, forecasting his eventual release.
Now look how in the second repeat of the scene the camera draws closer, the focal length seems longer, making the background more unfocused. Freeman repeats the words almost exactly the same, but he visibly doubts them. Separating Freeman from his surroundings through the use of depth of field makes it easier for the viewer to enter his state of mind, his private world. We know him better as a character by now, so it’s logical we are more empathetic to him.
Then in repeat no.3 Freeman is turned away from the committee much more than in the previous repeats, and he is framed differently. Because the reverse-shots of the committee are identical, his relative position and viewing-angle are significantly changed. Thus, it feels as though Freeman’s character is showing more disdain and apathy for the proceedings.
Finally, notice the lighting. Notice how in the first repeat the scene is lit very evenly, with soft and light shadows. No clear suggestion of Then in the second repeat we see a clear window-frame and the lightning is both harder and warmer. Suddenly we are more aware of a world outside the prison walls. Sunlight suggest a looming freedom, maybe even hope. Als notice how Morgan Freeman is positioned to sit just on the edge of the shadow, with his face in the dark and his body in the light. All in all, it’s a much more contrasty look that echoes the growing doubt and crisis in Freeman’s mind.
And then in repeat no.3 the lightning is even more harsh and we see bars of shadow cast over Freeman. We, again, are aware of the outside (sun)light, but this time the lightning also accentuates the barrier between the outside and the inside. A visual imprisonment is cast over Freeman. At this point he is, of course, actively thinking of- and imagining the world beyond the prison, because his good friend is there, but he feels he does not have the strength to leave his prison and so this image suggests him at his most desperate and depressed.
Everything is deliberate
You might think I over-analyze the subtleties of a shot, but keep in mind that none of these details just appear. The lightning had to be placed somewhere deliberately, Morgan Freeman had to be dressed deliberately, his position is directed deliberately. Knowing that all of these details are the result of a creative choice underscores the idea that all of these details have a purpose in communicating the story.
Sure, sometimes accidents lie at the foundation of a certain shot or detail, but even then; it is a deliberate choice to use that accident and keep it in the film. Accidents happen during the production all of the time, but not a single frame in the final product is kept there by accident.
I chose this shot, not because of its unique beauty, but because it so clearly demonstrates the beauty of those visual details in conveying story-elements and emotions. It also shows how visual consistency is a great tool to use if you want your audience to notice your deliberate choices and details more easily.