A Filmmaker's Guide: Tom McCarthy's 'Spotlight' (2015)

by Annie Kapur 7 months ago in movie

Creating a Sense of Urgency

A Filmmaker's Guide: Tom McCarthy's 'Spotlight' (2015)
Spotlight (2015) Movie Poster

Spotlight (2015) may have won Best Picture at the Oscars and it may have been praised by critics as one of the best films of the 2010s, but it is also one of my personal favourite films ever. One thing about Spotlight (2015) that I love is its creation of a sense of urgency without the need to play too much around with music and atmosphere. Instead, the film uses cinematography and placement to depict this feeling and, even though it is unconventional, it still works.

What we're going to have a look at is this:

  • How is the scene filmed?
  • How is the scene set up?
  • How effective is it at portraying urgency?

Answering these questions, we'll create an analysis three major sections of the film, capturing the idea of how exactly this urgency impacts the way in which the film's meaning is understood by its audience. Some of it is simplistic whilst at other times, it can be harder to decipher.

Shot 1:

What we have here is a scene with so much analysis to be done. The very first thing we have that creates a sense of urgency is the fact that its filmed as a wide shot; we're seeing everything on purpose. The second thing we have is the table, we're purposefully seeing that there's not only a table but it is very, very messy. It's packed with papers, folders and files. There's pens everywhere and it doesn't look very organised. This creates a sense of urgency because the characters may be feeling so pushed for time that they can't concentrate on tidying up. If the characters feel it then so does the audience. This is effective by showing us the amount of work that the characters are doing in order to solve this problem. Thus, creating the sense of urgency by the fact the characters are constantly working throughout the film.

Try applying the same logic to this scene:

Shot 2:

In this scene, we're looking at a similar concept where in which we see things on purpose given the way the scene is filmed. Notice how the camera is angled slightly to the left so that we can see the amount of folders in the cabinet. If the camera was straight then we wouldn't see those folders at all. We also are made to see the coffee cup sitting on the table, which also shows that these characters aren't taking breaks but are working during. This gives the characters not only a sense of urgency but presents them as doing quite a bit of work. Both of these together is something that the audience will subconsciously notice and therefore, pick up as a sense of urgency in the characters reflected on to themselves. The wide shot shows us all the characters in the scene, this presents the amount of people involved in the problem and thus, tells the audience that the problem must be pretty big in order to accommodate all these people to solve it.

Apply the same logic to this scene:

Shot 3:

The crowding of this shot is very important. Notice how the scene is filmed in medium to wide frame and so, when we have characters placed in the frame, they look more squished together than they actual are. Not only that but the camera is angled and tilted up ever so slightly so that we get the shot of the "property of The Boston Globe" box into the scene as well. Creating a sense of urgency through the compactness of the scene is essential to making this look as if it is very, very important and that the problem is very, very big. There may be other, more articulate ways to present this, but in this case this is the best way for the scene. We see this box in front on purpose and we also see the characters squished into the frame on purpose. Even though the scene is actually very relaxed, the filming makes it look more compact.

Apply the same logic to this scene:


There are a ton of these different shots in Spotlight (2015) and we've only covered three of them. Understand that the entire purpose of these scenes is to create urgency without using too many musical scores or too many jump cuts etc. It is done by how it is filmed and what is in the scene. The whole sense of urgency comes from the audience's understanding of the scene they are watching.

Good luck on your next project.

Annie Kapur
Annie Kapur
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Annie Kapur

Film and Writing (M.A)

Writer: "Filmmaker's Guide"

Focus: Adaptation from Literature, Horror Filmmaking Styles and Auter Cinema

Instagram: @anniethebritindian

See all posts by Annie Kapur