Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Long Take Part II: The Static Shot with Movement

The second form of the long take which I believe is worth discussing is the static shot with movement.  This is the shot that stands still while characters and objects move through and about in it, thus being a sort of reverse of most tracking shots.  It gives a prominence to setting, almost making setting a character, and reduces the prominence of each of the individual characters.  It also brings an increased prominence to changing compositions.  This can be both a purely aesthetic or narrative function.  With characters moving in and out of the shot, it can give us a real sense of offscreen space.  It also can contribute to the idea of a static point of view shot.  The one downside is that it can feel stagey, but this might also be an upside depending on the situation.  The static shot with movement is an interesting tool for the filmmaker.

One of the neat elements of the static shot with movement is that the setting becomes the focal point of the camera and not the characters.  Instead of a camera following a moving character, keeping the character relatively in the same place as the settings move and change about them, the setting is held in place as characters move through it.  Instead of a character moving through settings, it is a setting with characters moving through it.  It is the inverse relationship of a tracking shot.

This changed relationship is very important.  It brings the setting to prominence.  The setting becomes a sort of main character that the characters react upon.  As an audience, we are psychologically prone to diminish this effect and bring human characters to the fore, but the aesthetic has pushed us in this direction to some extent, nevertheless.  We are drawn more to focus on the nature of the setting and what it contributes to the characters.  It is not an arbitrary place for unrelated, it-could-happen-anywhere, action to take place.  This also diminishes characters and creates a sense of ensemble based on the lack of any one character's perspective. 

Another neat element of the static shot with movement is changing composition.  This creates a visual interest in what might have otherwise been a trying static shot.  Changing compositions can deal with visual aesthetic and play with all sorts of visually pleasing set-ups.  It's like a beautiful painting that moves.  Changing compositions can also be used in a narrative way, making all sorts of metaphors and relational ideas.  Citizen Kane works with changing compositions in nearly every scene.  In the video here, you can note the triangular relationship, Kane moving away from Bernstein and Thatcher, and the optical trick with the size of the back wall and window.

Another effect of the static shot with movement is that it gives a sense of offscreen space.  As already noted, it gives an enhanced sense of setting.  This also applies to offscreen.  With characters coming in and out and noises being heard from offscreen, we get the sense that we are looking through a window on a much larger world.  With normal continuity editing, things happen so fast, we are mainly focused only on the subjects and action on screen.

The static shot with movement can also be used to give an impression of a static point of view.  It works in much the same way towards this end as a tracking shot does, using the continuity of the image to emulate the continuity of human perception.  In the work of Japanes filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, one of his signatures is the "tatami shot," a static shot facing forward and not up at characters and at about the level of a person kneeling on a Japanese tatami mat.  

One problem of the static shot with movement is that it can feel stagey.  The frame acts like a stage and the sides of the frame are the stage exits.  One way to solve this problem is to have impeccable mise-en-scene and set design.  As already noted, the set becomes more prominent in a static shot.  This means it will receive more scrutiny, so it must be up to the task.  The stagey element need not always be a mistake, though.  For example, if a stage play is taking place in the midst of a story, it would seem perfectly correct to shoot it in this way and it would be a form of static, sitting audience member, point of view. 

The static shot with movement is another one of the many useful tools of the film artist, dealing with the movement of bodies and its meaning, rather than the movement of camera.

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