This is part 1 of 4 in a series about how directors film conversations.
After dipping my toes into political waters the last couple of posts, I want to return to safer ground: Overanalyzing minute details, making grand claims, and trying to sneak in pop-culture references that confuse 90% of my audience (or roughly 1.5 people).
Catching Fire is the second movie/book in the Hunger Games franchise and–like most things slotted in the middle–is often ignored and skipped over.
Katniss fights in the “Hunger Games” tournament again. But this time the rivals are bigger, the villains badder, the stakes higher, the insufferable romantic sub-plots… insufferabler.
There’s a fairly unmemorable scene early on in the movie that offers a great example of how a director makes small camera changes to achieve different ends. The scene below (0:00-1:35) tells an entire story in three acts.
Act I: Peeta expresses his emotions.
Act II: Peeta tries to convince Katniss to open up.
Act III: Katniss finally opens up.
It begins by introducing the conflict, segues into attempting to solve the conflict, and ends with the conflict solved. A mini-story tucked into 95 seconds.
I want to go step-by-step and analyze how the camera highlights important information in each act that helps the reader understand the dynamics between these two impossibly beautiful human beings.
Act I (0:18-0:48)
Peeta’s confession is all about emotion. It comes immediately after Katniss has had an emotional outburst and is coming to terms with her own feelings. The most important information, therefore, is found in the characters’ faces, especially Katniss.
Consequently, the entire first act is shot in a series of close-ups that reveal the entirety of each character’s face in detail.
There’s a logistical challenge where the most important information in the act is Katniss’ emotions, but Peeta begins the conversation. A close shot on Peeta is the natural way to start a dialogue, but it ignores Katniss’ emotions. Conversely, a close shot on Katniss focuses our attention on the most important information, but hearing Peeta begin without seeing him would feel awkward and disorienting.
The director solves this by having Peeta speak, blurred and in profile, while Katniss sits facing us, in focus and surrounded by light, drawing our attention to her face. We get a natural start, while also keying our attention to focus on what Katniss is feeling for the rest of the scene.
The rest of the first act continues in a series of close-ups that shows the characters’ whole faces and illuminates their feelings.
Act II (0:48-1:18)
These 30 seconds are the reason for the blog post. When watching this movie with the wife, I shouted, “That’s so cool! Look!,” rewinded, and pointed out what I noticed. She wasn’t very pleased with the interruption or the shouting in her ear, so I’m seeking affirmation elsewhere (You, dear reader. You.)
After Peeta expresses his own emotions in Act I, he asks about Katniss: “It does help if you know the person. I hardly know anything about you…” By turning the conversation away from himself and towards Katniss, he suddenly has her feeling defensive. The shot immediately after this line has suddenly changed to Katniss in profile.
Katniss will only be shot like this for the entirety of the Act. As she deflects Peeta’s questions and tries to hide herself, half of her face is likewise hidden from us, the audience. Her character’s guarded nature is reflected visually, which stands in sharp contrast to Peeta, whose openness as a character is reflected in his continually being photographed with close shots that reveal the entirety of his face.
The most important information in this act is no longer just how each character feels. It’s the dynamic between open-Peeta and closed-Katniss. The camera views Katniss differently in order to better convey this information and dynamic.
Act III (1:18-1:35)
The resolution of the mini-conflict is captured in one movement. From 1:18-1:23 Katniss turns her head, meets Peeta’s eyes, and says something true about herself.
And with that one motion, her face is shown fully and her character is emotionally open. And we feel the change because we see the change. That’s camera magic in action.