Scaling down – Have subjects move to the background (Part 2)

In part 1, we saw how watching subjects moving away from the camera could impact the audience emotionally — mainly because we feel unable to protect remote characters. But that is only one side of the coin. We also feel abandoned by characters backing away from the camera, and the distress we feel has a number of uses in movie storytelling.


Stepping back

Simply put, characters stepping back show vulnerability. In Romancing the Stone (R. Zemeckis, 1984), when Joan Wilder is threatened by Zolo armed with a stiletto, the few steps she takes backwards betray her vulnerability. The camera angle is chosen so that she appears to recede on screen, giving ground to her opponent who is also part of the frame and acts as a hurdle between her and us (read more in Dynamic occlusion). Now the assailant doesn’t always need to be part of the frame for the effect to work, as in Aliens (J. Cameron, 1986), when Ripley and Newt try to exit the egg chamber where the Alien Queen is laying. Although the Queen is indeed the characters’ opponent, her eggs represent her well enough that she doesn’t have to be part of the frame. Only the characters need to be seen as they recede, the eggs flesh out the missing adversity on screen. To make it short, indirect threatening lets the audience focus on victims’ vulnerability while maintaining a feeling of confrontation on the screen.

By extension, characters backing away from the camera convey their distress and confusion even though no tangible danger threatens them. In Poltergeist (T. Hooper & S. Spielberg, 1982), Teague takes a few steps back in fear as the Freelings’ house crushes itself before his eyes — a slight truck-out accentuates the effect. The character is shown to recede in the frame simply to convey his confusion, as no danger threatens him directly. In the second excerpt from the same movie, we can see Diane backing off a few steps with culpability after she complies with Tangina’s injunctions. This withdrawal movement puts the character “on the back burner” — so much that she eventually gets evicted from the screen when the camera starts to truck in on Tangina.



Stepping back is a first step towards what distraught characters really want: fleeing. No wonder why fleeing characters are commonly represented as moving to the background, as if they were visually going away from us. It makes us feel as though they were abandoning us. And since we unconsciously cast our feelings onto the characters, their distress becomes more apparent as they flee. For instance, in The Blue Lagoon (R. Kleiser, 1980), when Paddy discovers an altar used for human sacrifices, he pulls back a couple of steps staggering, then continues that backwards movement by running away from the camera and eventually disappearing into the woods. In Birdy (A. Parker, 1984), the same receding-before-fleeing approach is used when Al grabs Major Weiss and pushes him against a grill fitted in a window, making him recede in the frame. When Weiss runs out of the room, the character is displayed again as moving away from us towards the background — although the camera has turned around 90 degrees — to convey the feeling of a flight.



In a way, falls also deal with vulnerability and look pretty much like flights when shot from a high angle. In 2001: A Space Odyssey (S. Kubrick, 1968), Frank has just been hit by an EVA pod and spins off into space fumbling for his air hose. His death is concealed by a shot of Dave taking action, but the following shot speaks for itself. Showing the character drifting away from us objectifies his figure (i.e. he doesn’t look like a mental or physical entity anymore) unsurprisingly translates into the character’s death. A side effect is that menacing characters lose their hold on us as they recede in the frame, as in Die Hard (J. McTiernan, 1988), when Gruber lets go of McClane’s watch and falls to his death. Despite his evil mind, the character looks more and more helpless as he moves away from us towards the solid background awaiting him.


Cornering oneself

In real life, freedom is related to one’s ability to move away. Thus preventing characters from moving away is a sure way to deprive them of their liberty. In The Thing (J. Carpenter, 1982), MacReady — who has been ambushed by his fellow-colleagues — corners himself and threatens to blow everybody up if they don’t back away. The background acts as a barrier, preventing the character from moving away, which emphasizes his deprivation of liberty. This effect is often more subtle, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (S. Spielberg, 1977), when Roy tries to convince his wife Ronnie that he has witnessed UFOs on his way to work. Ronnie flees away screaming and locks herself in the bathroom, but this freedom of movement is denied to Roy who remains at the door.


Keeping up

As said before, we feel abandoned by characters moving away from us. By tracking those characters with the camera, we keep up with them. We prevent them from scaling themselves down on screen, so we don’t feel abandoned anymore. They don’t get objectified, they don’t lose their mental or physical appearance. For example, in Midnight Express (A. Parker, 1978), when Billy realizes he has killed a dangerous character, the camera tracks him as he backs away because the character is to appear ‘victorious’ despite his cornering himself against a wall. A still camera would have let the character scale himself down and look defeated, which is not what we are supposed to feel. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind (S. Spielberg, 1977), Laughlin is scared by the cryptic revelations of a local. He backs away in fear and disbelief, but the character is not allowed to scale his figure down on screen and lose his physical presence. He may be bewildered, but he’s still in control.


What’s up?

In part 2, we saw another emotional effect of characters backing away from the camera, whether they step back, flee or fall. Because we feel abandoned by those characters, they look as though they were feeling the same. When they get cornered, they loose they freedom of movement which emphasizes their distress. When we keep up with them, we don’t let them scale down their figures anymore, which translates into a less distraught appearance.


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