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Saturday, 24 January 2009

Lesson Planning 101: How to teach film responsibly in a composition class (The Dark Knight)
Lest you think I'm publishing a long introduction-to-film-studies-type scene analysis for no reason, I had a few English people ask me how I taught film after I posted my syllabus last quarter. So I thought as long as I'm doing it anyway, I might could help a few folk out. I'm not an expert in film theory, so if you're looking for something along those lines, I suggest you head over to yonder blog and consult its illustrious roll. But if you want a workmanlike approach to teaching basic film vocabulary in a composition class, you could do worse. (Albeit not much.) Because I'm one of those cultural studies loons who believe that popular means culturally significant, the film I'm teaching is The Dark Knight. The scene I've tasked my students to analyze begins 1 hour and 24 minutes into the film. My lesson plan begins after the break: Before I begin, one point to keep in mind: Nolan's camera is always moving in this scene. He employs the conversational shot/reverse shot pattern and edits for continuity, but instead of a static over-the-shoulder shot, Nolan's restless camera slowly circles to the left or right (depending on whose back is to the audience), such that it seems as if Batman and the Joker's heads are on a collision course. More on that in a moment. Let me set the scene:

We begin with low-key lighting from two visible sources: the lamp on the desk and the lone lit florescent behind Gordon. To the extent that it even is illuminated, the Joker's face is lit from below:

The darkness behind him creates an off-screen space that's foreboding, but ultimately shallow. In the shot above, the Joker asks whether he's about to be treated to "[t]he good cop, bad cop routine?"

All the compositional elements contribute to the sense of entrapment. Nolan then deepens the shot without refocusing by having someone turn on the rest of the florescent lights: .To which Gordon responds: "Not exactly. the walls by the four corner shadows reminiscent of the initial masking of an iris-out. the door within the walls. Cut back to the Joker: Nolan places him on the left side of the screen in a medium close-up. Nolan reframes while zooming in for a close-up: As the camera creeps closer the Joker seems to pick up more of the ambient light from the table lamp. But they do so ironically: Gordon is about to open that door. As the Joker leans back." Note how Nolan frames the scene: Gordon within the door.

that is. (Emphasizing the blurriness likely accounts for why Nolan chose not to use racking focus here. but fast things are blurry and the Batman is very fast. The restricted depth of field renders the Batman as a blur. but as of yet no actual dialogue. the camera does the work required to allow the film to remain realistic. the flamboyantly pained Joker bounces back into the shot.Nolan deepens the dark shallow space to reveal what we didn't know the diagesis contained: the Batman.) The camera remains steady as both characters momentarily exit the frame: Not only does the shallowness make the fast blurry thing look even faster. the blurriness is what makes the speed with which Batman circled the table seem plausible. One beat later. Lots of staring. . And by then Batman has already assumed an intimidatingly interrogative position.

only this time.The angle of framing shifts from eye-level to a mildly aggrandizing low. the vanishing point would be where the fist is. The victim gets fuzzy. with his fist at its apex. Nolan returns to conversational framing so that the audience can see that the Joker must look up to speak to Batman. The twoway mirror on the left encloses Batman. The framing is oppressively triangular: Batman's body. but it is longer than the average long shot in order to keep Batman's fist in the frame. Batman's cape. He chooses not to ruin the effect of all these visuals converging by cutting quickly to a close-up: . draped from his neck. The one on the right captures the Joker gesturing a histrionic "What?" For the second time in less than a minute. Nolan frames the shot so the compositional elements suggest entrapment. the room itself. two vanishing lines aborted by the wall Nolan earlier framed. thereby transforming his complaint into a subtle supplication: "Never start with the head. Can't feel the next—" Nolan shows the consequences of his complaining by cutting to a framed long shot: This shot does a lot of work. The shot is too short to be an extreme long shot. Nolan also moves to a medium close-up in order to redouble the intimidating quality of the shot: the audience cowers below Batman and is given a massive chest's worth of evidence for why it should. Note how Nolan concentrates all your attention on the fist: if the walls continued into infinity. the effect seems justified.

Batman's fist occupied the apex of a triangle. the compositional niceties of the previous frame would collapse. Nolan now employs the moving over-the-shoulder shot I mentioned earlier: . Counter-factuals are fun. Had he shown Batman in the act of slamming his fist down with a long shot. the camera no longer looks at him dead on: it's moved about two feet to the left. (Maybe that would've been effective: Nolan draws the audience's eyes up to catch Batman's fist. he cuts outside the interrogation box to register the detectives' reactions: They watch impassively. However. then the fist itself ruins the frame's compositional elements by crashing them down onto the Joker's hand. One beat later and it's planted atop the Joker's outstretched hand. But before he does so. but Batman's interrogation techniques apparently fall within the acceptable range of violence.Last the audience saw. Nolan is preparing us for the conversational shots to follow. Back into the box and Batman has already taken a seat opposite the Joker. but the Joker's unimpressed: Nolan returns to the previously established close-up to register the Joker's reaction. removing the intervening frames does enhance the audience's impression of Batman's speed and power.) Needless to say. They are somewhat concerned.

The camera may move—and Batman's new suit may allow his head to move—but in this scene it is utterly static. Because the audience knows he can swivel his head. that is.Batman's blurry head acts like a waxing moon. From the stills. I'll need to jump out of a sequential analysis and show the next few shots of Batman's head: . What he did was move the camera slowly to the left as the Joker leaned forward. To prove this point. That Wayne specified to Lucius Fox that the new suit should have a swivelling cowl becomes something more than a plot point here. gradually occupying more and more of the frame. it appears as if Nolan subtly zoomed in on the Joker. his statuesque performance can be fully appreciated. Perhaps more importantly. The result is that Batman's head and the Joker's face seem to vie for central dominance of the frame. the constant lateral motion allows Nolan demonstrate a key difference between the two players visually. He didn't. the narrative struggle is reduplicated in the kinetic framing of the shot.

The same cannot be said of the Joker: .That's three separate reverses back to Batman and his head has tilted all of an inch.

(I lie.) Posted at 07:50 PM | Permalink Reblog (0) | Digg This | Save to del. but it seems incidental to the question of the end . his blocking—but purposely says and hits them one beat too early or too late. At this point.typepad.pdf]. even if the resulting combination of John Woo and Sidney Lumet didn't always work for me. as part of our service obligations here at FSU. it seems to register displeasure at the Joker's inability to stop moving and dance the part as the choreographer blocked it out. If you're not in my class this may seem a stretch. given range of visual effects available these days. I may be asked to go to local high schools to talk about film studies.us | Tweet This! TrackBack TrackBack URL for this entry: http://www. what Nolan and his cenmatographer (looking. and what began as a tension between its restlessness and Batman's steadiness becomes something different.. Nolan's continues to circle the room. nor.The frame cannot contain him. The camera-work reminds us of one of the film's central theses: the Joker only acts irrationally if the audience fails to notice the irrationality is an act. but mightn't there be some copyright issues with putting the entire Killing Joke online? But then I guess DC is probably pretty relaxed about that kind of thing. 25 January 2009 at 01:04 AM I read it in a comic book shop. most of my comic book reading was standing up in comic book shops until I started collecting Sandman. as to why you're treating the technical aspects of cinematography as part of the visual composition. not irrational.icio.. Not to be a downer. Posted by: Chuck | Sunday. interestingly. hyper-rational Joker who is less interested in chaos than in declaring his interest in chaos to great effect. Frankly. The camera becomes complicit with Batman: its restlessness seems choreographed. depth of field. The performance is unsettling.Wally Pfister) were able to achieve was impressive. It's interesting and could be a good way to hook students with the how'd-they-do-that factor. 25 January 2009 at 07:40 AM I'm curious. of course. but when you compare Nolan's Joker to Alan Moore's in The Killing Joke [. This is a really helpful post. and got lucky on some used Batmans. etc). so I can't show you the rest of the script because I don't have one. 25 January 2009 at 06:56 AM Funny. the lecture ends and class discussion begins in earnest. Posted by: tomemos | Sunday. and I had a similar idea of using TDK to teach some basic film vocabulary (low-key lighting. Certainly. the connection should be plain: we have a hyper-literal. but benevolent dictators must keep up appearances. He plays his part here—he remembers his lines. Posted by: Ahistoricality | Sunday. his cues.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c2df453ef010536e89fd9970b Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Lesson Planning 101: How to teach film responsibly in a composition class (The Dark Knight): Comments You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post. does it try to.

and last quarter I did do my students a disservice the way I taught Batman Begins.. Post Edit Your comment could not be posted. I always used to look forward to the day the new books came in. Posted by: JPool | Sunday.F | Saturday. but I'm old. "brilliant work". the class I'm teaching aims to teach rhetoric. and so I'd park it in the baseball card/comic book shop and read just about everything as it came in. Plus the daily comics. "Damn. Posted by: Cyrus | Tuesday. Not so much since) and knockoffs of three or four more contemporary strips. 25 January 2009 at 08:57 AM I've put stuff up before. Posted by: Scott Eric Kaufman | Sunday. Posted by: tomemos | Sunday. Our local rag just went to a "cost effective" comics page including Broom Hilda.) (Which I liked. I did a lot of procrastination in grad school. I didn't even have to stand. but I'm old. myself. Ahistoricality. I did a lot of baseball card trading when I was young. As I've taught myself the past few weeks. Thing is. I suppose that counts as a tacit approval of the content of the post. and the worst that's happened is they've asked me to take it down. despite its saccharin folksiness. the biggest comic pirate out there is Warren Ellis. at the end of the day. 25 January 2009 at 01:54 PM "I've put stuff up before. just plain punted some of it and was doing my students a disservice. well." I figured." I obviously mean. (By "funny.") Chuck. I think new comic day was Wednesday too. before something or other in the evening). Funny. I was worried I'd." I obviously mean. Tom.) Posted by: Scott Eric Kaufman | Sunday. I always used to look forward to the day the new books came in. the folksiness of my comment is a direct result of my having just watched Waitress. Your comment has not yet been posted. As a kid. but I too am getting old and can't say for sure. Little Orphan Annie. The place wasn't welcoming enough that I could just sit down and read without demonstrating an intention to buy. Back before college. 20 June 2009 at 10:54 AM Verify your Comment Previewing your Comment Posted by: | This is only a preview. I mostly read Doonesbury and Peanuts collections. Alley Oop. "Damn. but if I hook someone one Alan Moore. Doesn't make it right. 26 January 2009 at 06:05 AM Funny. 25 January 2009 at 08:52 PM I did a lot of baseball card trading when I was young. Tom. and the odd Pogo. but I can't remember what day it was anymore. I'd love it if you called me by by nom de plume when I use it.") It was Wednesday when I was in college. Posted by: Ahistoricality | Monday. Post another comment . and the worst that's happened is they've asked me to take it down. This is intended to give them a basic vocabulary. a foundation on which they can build specific. closely "read" arguments about how a director achieves a certain effect on the audience. 27 January 2009 at 02:37 PM thanks so much this has really helped with my media essay on the dark knight. Dick Tracy (the first day I saw that lineup I really did laugh out loud. DC and all the other companies he despises makes money. but I can't remember what day it was anymore.. HI CLASS XP HAHAHAHAHHAHAH Posted by: Alexandra. JPool. Error type: Your comment has been posted. So I'm considering that subscription to ucomics now.result of the framed visuals themselves. (By "funny. 25 January 2009 at 01:53 PM (Also. but most Thursday afternoons I walked over there after my last class (or. not how that content was communicated. though. learning how difficult (and expensive) some effects are to achieve provides a new appreciation for the status of directorial intent. In all honesty. Their arguments tended to address the content of the film. Just yanking your chain. at least one semester.

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