The Filmmaker's Guide: Ron Howard's 'Angels and Demons' (2009)
Creating Grandeur Through Cinematography
(Note: In order to get the most out of the article it is recommended that you watch the film in question at least once in its entirety. Notes are not required but are encouraged).
As one of my personal favourite films of all time, Angels and Demons (2009) is one of those films that makes you think 'that's very grand...' But why does it make you think that? It's not just because of all the Baroque and High Renaissance art, not just Tom Hanks doing his clever acting and it's not just Obi Wan Kenobi. It's actually because of the cinematography to begin with. Let's have a look what we'll be concentrating on:
We'll be look at creating grandeur. This means how we make something look or seem more 'grand' than it actually is. This heightens the importance of the thing that is in the scene and makes it the focal point of not just the scene it is in, but also of the scenes to come. Why? It is presented as important. It may not be very important itself, but it matters to present it as important.
Here's the aspects we'll view in the shots:
- Light, Dark and Shadowing
- Size, Length and Depth
- Representation of Time and Place
Let's begin then:
Section 1: Light, Dark and Shadowing
Notice the shot. The top left of the shot has the item we're looking at: The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, a Baroque Sculpture. The question is, how is light and dark being used to create shadow in the correct places so that the sculpture is lit up even more so?
Let's first take a look at why the scene is dark. Normally in these galleries, the artwork is lit up and seeing as there seems to be a lack of windows, there is no daylight produced and thus, the rest of the scene apart from the backlit artwork, is thrown into darkness.
Now, let's have a look at how light is used. We have clear lighting on the artwork, but then we have slight lighting on the table directly in front of the artwork. This is to put the artwork into perspective. It makes the artwork not only look bigger but shows us how big it is in comparison to our character who stands on the floor. But, notice one more thing. There is a small lighter point within the darkness on the right of the scene. The reason for this is to not plunge the room into pitch blackness. It gives the room some depth by offering another side to the room, again—perspective is so very important here.
If you were going to use this in your own work, you would need to make sure that whatever the 'thing' is, it is well lit in comparison to the rest of the scene. The darker scenes with a flint of golden lighting on the grand item seems to be a pattern that works for Ron Howard in both Angels and Demons and Da Vinci Code. It is highly effective and never really is overused because of the themes of these films being centred around these grand artworks.
Section 2: Size, Length and Depth
This is an odd scene. I haven't chosen a scene with artwork in it because I want to show you that it can actually work with any objects, no matter how normal they look. Notice how the focal point of the scene is the battery-looking item on the cloth. Why is that and how does perspective involving size, length and depth help with that?
Well, the size definitely helps in the sense that it is the smallest item in the scene. Almost everything else we can see is bigger than it and so, as an audience, we are drawn to the thing that is slightly more difficult to see even though we could look anywhere else. This is because of how close it is to the centre of the centre third of the frame.
The depth of the frame helps because it would mean that the item in question is directly in front of the room because of the way the frame is angled and shot. There's a fair amount of depth and yet the item is the one closest to the camera in terms of 'things' in the scene. This would make it easier to make the item look 'grand' because it is the only item that is there with the characters. The fact that the characters, taking up the depth and width of the scene, are all looking at the item also helps for creating an importance.
If you were to use this in your own work, you need to make sure you don't use this technique too much or else you'll become predictable. The reason for that is because normally the small object of importance is the same object each time and if you're putting it into the same style of shot each time, you're not varying your technique very much. You'll need to create a pattern and so, I'll keep it to maybe a maximum of 10 repeated shots with variations in between to keep the audience involved.
Check out where else in the film it is used:
Section 3: Representation of Time and Place
The representation of time in order to make something appear more grand or important is somewhat a symbol, theme and a technique used in this film. It is something that would be an obvious technique though because of the fact the film deals with the church, history and religion. Using time and place to represent and make something appear more grand would be appropriate to use even if no other technique were to be applied. Let's have a look at how this would work in practice.
Check out this shot. Quite possibly one of the best shots from the whole movie, it shows the entirety of St. Peter's and all its people. The way in which this presents place to us is so very important for making St. Peter's look important, grand and iconic. First of all, the sheer size of the basilica on the far right of the frame. Although it is in the background, the size of the place compared to everything else is huge. This only first shows that it is not just a place of worship, but it is a very important place of worship. The next thing that shows place is the amount of people in the shot. The fact everyone is crammed into the shot and we can hardly make out that they are people makes the cathedral look very important because everyone is flocking there for some reason. The final thing that shows us place is downward crane of the camera. It is slight, but it's still there. The slight downward crane in this case, makes the frame look intensely larger than it actually is and playing with this perspective, makes the cathedral look larger than it actually is and therefore, it is the most important and encompassing (quite literally!) part of the frame.
Check out these shots which also do similar things in the film:
I hope you've enjoyed our analysis on Angels and Demons and remember, overusing any techniques is a bad idea, but make sure you get enough in to make it a pattern. The amount of symbolism, work and atmosphere that has to go into one of these scenes is more extreme than what we've covered here. If you want to do some analysis into grandeur on your own then you can check out these headings:
- Colour Scheme
- Art and Architecture
- Object Placement
- The Impact of Nighttime and Using Outdoor Darkness