METHOD: Working From Tableaux

Tableau

– A picturesque grouping of persons or objects; a striking scene.

– A representation of a picture, statue, scene, etc., by one or more persons suitably costumed and posed.

What originally sparked me to share my views on this method was a recent meeting I had. I met with a director who sketched out dozens of story boards that, while I applaud the effort, they were in many ways completely useless to me as a cinematographer. He had essentially handed me a number of variations of medium close ups. Having read the dialogue heavy script, I assumed there might be a medium shot somewhere in the film. What I was looking for were the most important images of each scene. Boards should read like a comic book illustrating the dramatic purpose of the scene with just the image alone. Or as my editor says, “Where are the movie trailer shots?”

My high school years and a few of my college years we’re dedicated to theatre, not film. Now deeply rooted in filmmaking I often find myself applying theatrical practices to the world of cinema. In theatre we block a character’s movement to mimic their strength or position in the scene. For example a strong character might often appear  up-Stage center, as it is usually the most powerful position. Think of a big concert venue, the headliner will often appear on top of scenery somewhere upstage (away from the audience) and then move downstage, a powerful movement. Conversely down stage left or right (close to the audience) is usually reserved for characters sharing their emotions or inner monologues.

You’ll see this reflected in almost every thing you watch. Here are some quick examples I pulled from Netflix’s “House of Cards,” a show firmly rooted in theatrical utility.

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A shot from “House of Cards” shows Kevin Spacey’s character positioned higher in the frame than the President of the United States.

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However, when it’s time to reveal his true feelings we’re treated to a frame of Spacey filling the foreground and breaking the forth wall. Very Shakespearian!

 

I brought these theories a recent project. This project was what I call a “strike while the iron is hot” job. There was a small amount of time when a handful of my production friends had time to crank out a project. We only had a few days to prep and shoot. After our initial story was cemented with a we skipped writing a script entirely and focused on a shot list heavy on dramatic tableaus.

 

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The villains have taken the upstage center part of the frame. The power position.

I’m new to music video directing, but it’s something that’s become more and more attractive to me.  The further I come along in my camera and lighting, the less I want to shoot coverage or talking heads.  For this project we concentrated our efforts on making every frame push the narrative.

I wanted the early shots of the film to hammer away each character’s position in this surreal landscape.

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If being on a leash wasn’t enough, the fact that the leash leads up in the frame furthers suggests this character’s lowly position.

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This throne shot suggests a character in charge. The embellished hat a crown and the rubble behind him gives evidence of his violent nature.

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Here we have the female character positioned lower. The villain overpowers her both physically and compositionally.

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You can quickly figure out who has the power here.

 

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This is a frame we knew we wanted. Every character in play, each with different emotions on display.

 

 

What are your thoughts on shot listing via tableaus?

 

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