The Art of Using Profile Shots in Filmmaking: Capturing Uncomfortable Situations
In the vast realm of the internet, there are countless resources explaining the basics of camera shots in filmmaking. As such, I won't delve into those essentials in this post. Most of us have grown up watching films and, as a result, have developed a subconscious understanding of what to expect when watching them. We simply know when something feels off or when a film works, but articulating the reasons behind it remains puzzling. Nevertheless, we're all, in a way, "film experts" due to a lifetime of exposure to TV, movies, and series.
Over the past century, filmmaking has evolved in camera technology, directing styles, editing techniques, and overall production. Consequently, the audience's expectations and perceptions of films have evolved alongside these changes. While most viewers can sense something amiss or "wrong" in a scene, articulating the exact reasons for such feelings might prove challenging. This deep understanding of film has been subconsciously ingrained in our minds through years of exposure to television, movies, and series.
That’s one of the fascinating aspects about film analysis, almost every professional film serves as a textbook on filmmaking and story structure, though not always in the best direction. Obviously not all camera shots mean the same thing in every film. Same camera angles and shots may be interpreted as completely different things depending on what movie you’re watching. It’s all up to the vision the director wants to present.
A prime example that illustrates the significance of specific camera shots in scenes is how filmmakers can creatively use profile shots, more specifically, in uncomfortable situations:
Normally when filming an actor, the camera captures their face head-on, allowing the audience to empathize with the character and perceive their emotions. However, a profile shot (capturing the actor from the side) creates a sense of something different or even peculiar in the scene. It's in these instances where we can observe the power of this technique.
I’m a big fan of David Fincher, his movices are like advanced courses in filmmaking, and analyzing his work is incredibly educational. Take "Se7en," for example, which showcases numerous creative uses of the profile shot to convey characters' various moods and tones.
One subtle yet effective illustration can be found in a scene between Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman). The two characters are engaged in a cold and distant relationship at this point in the film. Mills' wife, Tracy (Gweneth Paltrow), calls him at work to invite Somerset for dinner, hoping to break the ice between the two.
Initially, we see a head-on shot of Mills answering the phone:
Once he realizes who's on the phone, he leans forward and whispers so Somerset can't hear the conversation. At this moment, Fincher switches to a profile shot of Mills, conveying his discomfort with the situation.
We can’t exactly hear what they’re saying, however Tracy asks to speak to Somerset. Mills embarrassingly hands the phone over to him. Both men are confused at this point.
As the conversation progresses, we witness Somerset from a profile shot, highlighting his uncertainty and confusion. The camera shot selection emphasizes the uncomfortable nature of the scenario.
As represented in this cut away shot of Mills, he appears trapped, embarrassed, and insecure about the situation. The negative space, the confined surroundings, and his expression speak volumes.
At first he tries to refuse the offer and we stay on the profile shot, however, as Tracy insists and encourages Somerset to accept the invitation, we see a shift in his demeanor. He turns toward the camera, and we now see a head-on shot of him. He appears more confident, no longer unsure or confused.
Another masterful example of using profile shots is found in Quentin Tarantino's cult classic, "Pulp Fiction." In the famous diner scene, Vincent (John Travolta) and Mia (Uma Thurman) initially chat and get along, captured in head-on camera shots that emphasize their connection.
However, the conversation takes an awkward turn once they seem to have nothing else to chit-chat about, leading to a long, uncomfortable silence. To emphasize this shift in mood, Tarantino opts for individual profile shots of the two characters.
She even spoon-feeds us this sudden change in mood when she breaks the silence, further reinforcing the change to a profile shot:
Mia: “Don’t you hate that?”
Vincent: “Hate what?”
Mia: “Uncomfortable silences”
In conclusion, the use of profile shots in filmmaking can be a powerful tool to convey emotions, discomfort, and changes in character dynamics. Understanding the nuances of camera shot selections provides a deeper appreciation for the art of filmmaking and enhances our ability to analyze and appreciate the storytelling craft that unfolds on the silver screen.
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