Unfreeing the Camera

"Danish cinema is starting to face the problems posed by the free camera style. With Boe, Staho, and von Trier, some new solutions are emerging. These directors recognize that too much freedom inhibits creativity," says David Bordwell in this essay on Danish Cinema.

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Framegrab fra filmen "Offscreen", instr. Christoffer Boe

Recalling the shooting of "Prague", director Ole Christian Madsen remarked: "We were very dynamic about the expression, with a free camera - as has been the practice for the last ten years in Denmark." (FILM #50, p. 17) We recognize immediately what Madsen is referring to: the handheld, grab-and-go look that is now a major tradition in world film style. There are many precedents for the approach, from Cassavetes' work to the television series Homicide, but Dogma directors helped make it famous. Thomas Vinterberg recognized from the start that although the Dogma manifesto tried to forestall a visual aesthetic, "in following the rules we were generating something that resembled an aesthetic in its own right."

1) What was this aesthetic? Most obviously, it involved spontaneous realism: the handheld camera and the absence of supplementary lighting could give a film a documentary aura. The Dogma aesthetic also invoked a sense of willed roughness, breaking with the fluency of studio productions. Above all, it was an aesthetic of performance. The framing and cutting refused to make the actor part of a larger visual design. Instead, the camera dodged around the actor, trying to capture moments of emotional truth. The performers, not the décor or frame composition, became the center of attention. No wonder that the Dogma films have brought several new stars to the world´s attention.

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"Offscreen" / Photo: David Bordwell´s framegrab

Granted, different directors treated the free-camera mandate differently. In Mifune, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen used the technique in a fairly traditional way, with careful match-cutting that smoothed the visual flow. The Idiots was far more ragged, with von Trier emphasizing harsh jumps in image and sound. In The Celebration, Vinterberg delighted in multiplying angles, using small DV cameras to produce wild framings and disorienting cuts. But directors outside Denmark haven´t paid much attention to these nuances. Today the style has gone mainstream. It was already happening when Soderbergh announced Traffic as "my Dogma film," ignoring nearly all of the Manifesto's precepts and identifying the movement solely with the freecamera approach. Now it informs genre fictions like "The Bourne Supremacy" and prestige items like "Bobby" and "Babel". Far from enhancing realism or breaking with Hollywood conventions, the technique can be used for any sort of film. Most Danish directors have adopted the free camera, but some have recognized that the technique has become conventional. They have sought to renew their cinematic idiom. In doing so, I think, they have confronted some of the most intriguing dimensions of film art. The victory of the free camera, I suggest, has forced directors to think about a very basic question. Why put the camera here rather than there?

The camera is fixed, but the director has surrendered control over final framing. Now the camera is both controlled and uncontrolled, free and in chains. The camera is fixed, but the director has surrendered control over final framing. Now the camera is both controlled and uncontrolled, free and in chains.

Framing ad Pointing

History's first filmmakers didn't use the free camera. To register steady and sharp images, the camera had to be anchored to a tripod. If you were shooting workers leaving a factory or a train arriving at a station, you had to select the best angle for the action.

If you were shooting actors performing a story, you had to stage the action around that single eye, moving the performers within the frame as the scene developed. Above all, editing within the scene was not a major option. For about the first twenty years of cinema, the fixity of the camera forced directors to choose one commanding spot for it. Not until the mid-1910s did directors consistently break their scenes into several shots, taken from different vantage points. Editing opened the possibility of what we might call camera ubiquity. It allowed the camera to capture a scene in any number of shots, from any number of angles. Why not cut from a straight-on view to a low angle, or from a close-up to an extreme long-shot?

The dizzying possibilities of editing made it all the more important that directors find the best possible place for the camera. Centering the actor, highlighting a glance or gesture, picking out a significant object: at every moment, each shot served to make the story maximally intelligible. The spectator, as aestheticians of the time put it, becomes an "ideally placed observer" of every bit of action. One result was the classic tradition of American cinematic storytelling, that "continuity style" seen in the 1920s masterpieces of Lubitsch, Chaplin, Ford, Keaton, Lloyd, and many others. The same view has informed directors who have turned away from extensive editing. Béla Tarr, Theo, Angelopoulos, and several other current directors have staged whole scenes in lengthy shots. While these directors rely on camera movements, others, such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, and Jia Zhang-ke, have taken the old-timers' challenge very seriously. They may shoot an entire scene from a fixed camera position. That stakes everything on a single choice: Did the director pick the right spot?

Most American directors have contented themselves with a new variant of classical practice, one I've called "intensified continuity". The scenes are built out of many close shots of the actors, with cuts timed to the dialogue exchange. But this tactic erodes the power of the well-chosen camera setup. The sheer number of shots (sometimes as many as 3000 per film) lessens the weight of each one.

Moreover, since the director need not stage complicated full shots, visual design becomes less precisely calibrated. After an stablishing shot that simply informs us about the scene's geography, you merely need to capture close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots. Today directors commonly employ two or more cameras to get what they need, in the manner of broadcast television. There's no longer only one right place for the camera. There are many more or less, sort-of right positions.

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"The Boss of It All" Photo: David Bordwell's framegrab/Automavisionâ„¢

The free camera of Dogma and its successors took this approximate-framing aesthetic to another level. Peter Schepelern reports that von Trier considers that the camera can be used either for framing or for pointing. In framing, the actor adjusts to the camera placement. In pointing, the camera adjusts to the actor, seeking out the best bit as the performance evolves. Instead of the ideally placed setup we have something far more contingent. If an actor turns away abruptly, we'll need to cut to another angle or pivot the camera in order to catch up with him. As with intensified continuity, there are so many cuts and reframings that the individual shot loses expressive weight. Hence the nervous, probing quality of the early Dogma films. The camera gives the impression of trying to snatch the best moments from a mercurially changing situation. Maintaining a high-strung anxiety in the course of a scene has been a concern of von Trier´s from quite early, and it´s still visible in his comment that "The Boss of It All" allowed him to omit stages of psychological development within the scene and "have peaks all the time". The downside is that the free camera relieves the director of responsibility for where the camera is put; capturing the peaks justifies an irregular style.

Offscreen and Onscreen

If the free-camera style has supported a new Cinema of Quality—solid scripts, nuanced performances, socially significant drama—then we should expect some filmmakers to rebel, or at least revise and refine the premises. Perhaps because the new Danish cinema was closely identified with this stylistic trend, several directors have recognized the need to question it, and to some extent to go beyond it.

It seems to me that three directors have reacted creatively to what has become the dominant look and feel of Danish films. Christoffer Boe's first features already indicate a need to extend the tradition. With timelines looping around city topographies, "Reconstruction" and "Allegro" might be said to rework Resnais for the Google Earth generation. Here Boe employs the
handheld style in an unusually impressionistic way. Point-and-grab camerawork suits Boe´s neoromantic story lines, which create an urban lyricism recalling Leos Carax's "Les amants de Pont-Neuf" and Wong Kar-Wai's "Fallen Angels". With "Offscreen", however, he has tried something quite different.

Here at every moment we know exactly why the camera is where it is. It's in the hands of, on the table of, or in the armchair of the Danish actor Nicolas Bro; and Bro's life is crumbling. Vowing to record himself over one year, Bro borrows a camera from Boe and obsessively films his wife Lene. Bro starts to initiate encounters for the sake of recording them. His incessant, sometimes covert, filming alienates Lene and she walks out on him. "Now I have a love movie without love." A play of mirrors starts. With the aid of an actress, Bro re-stages Lene´s departure, but with variations. Like a director needing maximum coverage of every action, he buys more cameras. Eventually he turns his apartment into a prison, packed with cameras surveying his every move. The bloody climax of his amour fou is fully documented on video, and at the end, covered in gore, he is still filming. Bro/Boe's pseudo-diary recalls "Georg" (1964), "David Holzman's Diary" (1967), "Coming Apart" (1969), and Oshima´s "Story of a Man who Left His Will on Film" (1970), as well as Alain Cavalier´s nonfictional DV memoir "Le filmeur". Still, the pretense that a celebrity is sincerely recording his life takes the diary conceit into new areas. "Offscreen" begins with headlines announcing that Bro has gone missing and that Christoffer Boe will use the tapes to reconstruct what happened, so we expect a little polishing. But a lot of artifice creeps in. Smooth sound bridges conceal what would have been jump cuts on a documentary soundtrack. We see shot/reverseshot conversations that couldn't have been captured by Bro so fully. In the frenzied climax, the expressionistic framings can be attributed to mis-aligned cameras, but the tilted shots also function traditionally, reflecting the protagonist's deepening mania. Subjecting the free camera to a severe premise, Boe/Bro's "first-person" imagery dramatizes the problem facing every Danish director who wants to avoid both sleek moviemaking and the canonized Dogme roughness. By creating an unfree camera, "Offscreen" asks the filmmaker to declare responsibility for every shot, even if that responsibility creates another level of the fiction.

Bending the Rules

The unfree camera appears in another guise in the most recent work of another young director, Simon Staho. Staho's first feature, "Wildside", showed that he had already mastered the free-camera technique in presenting a neo-noir drama about the past catching up with two friends. His short, Nu was altogether different, a portentous fable shot in static, lengthy takes. "Day and Night" goes much further toward stylistic rigor, combining it with harsh psychodrama. A narrator tells us immediately that Thomas, the man approaching his car, will kill himself at the end of the day. Over the film's eighty-six minutes, he insults his son, discards his mistress, divorces his wife, upbraids his business partner, bullies his sister, says farewell to his senile mother, and hires a prostitute to kill him. These scenes play out as a series of two-party conversations. We will see everything from only two camera positions, both anchored to the hood of the car: one setup angled to show Thomas at the wheel, the other angled to show his passenger. Most scenes are played out as Thomas drives through traffic or stops to talk, and sometimes the characters leave the car to be seen through the windows.

It all might seem a stunt derived from Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry" or "Ten", but it turns out to be stricter in style and more transparent in story than those masterful exercises in drive-through filmmaking. "A Taste of Cherry" offers a greater variety of camera position than Staho's film does, and "Ten's" chapters play a suite of variations on who speaks, who is seen, and how the scenes are cut together. Staho is at once more single-minded and more traditional than Kiarostami. "Day and Night's" scenes are played out in the car because Thomas is wrapping things up on his final day, and he has little time for visiting apartments or bars. By confining the action to the car, Staho gives us one fraught, irreconcilable confrontation after another—nothing but peaks, von Trier might say.

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"Day and Night" / Photo: David Bordwell´s framegrab

The unchanging camera positions allow the performances as much emphasis as the free-camera approach would, but they also encourage us to notice little details, such as the way the car windows steam up during some quarrels. In addition, the wide anamorphic frame, putting the humans off center, gives the landscape equal presence with the characters inside. The shots present no overlapping areas between the two players, allowing Staho some unusual frame-edge compositions and some eloquently empty shots. "Day and Night" doesn´t motivate the placement of the camera in story terms, as Boe´s "Offscreen" does; the framing operates purely as a spatial premise. All we know of the story action is determined by the binary camera setup. Many films assume that you know the story of an earlier film (think Pirates of the Caribbean 2), but Staho's next feature, "Bang Bang Orangutang", assumes that the audience will recall the previous film's style. With Bang Bang we must weigh the possibility that the action may be confined to a vehicle, or that it may not. The camera, rigidly imprisoned in "Day and Night", is given a little more freedom—let out, we might say, on a leash. But that still demands that we register each shot´s precise reason for being. Staho loosens his premises from the start, when we follow the preening businessman Ake strutting through a parking lot and demeaning an employee. But as soon as Ake gets behind the wheel of his SUV, we´re back in locked-down mode, and he's shot from only two angles. When tragedy strikes, the camera strays further away, but soon enough we return to the premises of "Day and Night", as when Ake's efforts to attend his son's funeral are seen through the driver's window. As Ake begins his long exile from his comfortable life, he's driving a taxi and we're atached to him and his passengers. From then on, most scenes take place in the taxicab and are shot from familiar positions. But the rules have loosened. Staho provides a new angle, straight on to the windscreen, so we can see action taking place directly behind the car. Now the camera can leave the car's front seat, but action will still take place near the car. Or during Ake's phone conversation with his estranged wife, there will be only one shot showing her side of the dialogue. Or we may share another character's point of view very briefly, as when Linda leaves her apartment house and finds Ake asleep in his cab.

"Bang Bang Orangutang" gives us small doses of conventional cinema—interspersed landscapes, establishing shots, cutaways to other characters—but embeds them within the pictorial premises established in the earlier film. A rigid stylistic rule has become a flexible guideline. As a result, the final scene gathers a great deal of force. Alone in his cab with his daughter and then with his wife, Ake faces all his failures. As police gather offscreen, we know that the camera could, without really breaking the film's rule, show us the entire scene. As a result, Stahos refusal to leave his protagonists, his insistence on his privileged camera setup, becomes formally satisfying, like a wandering melody´s return to the home key.

What Rules?

Talk of rules and exceptions inevitably calls to mind the Master Lawgiver of Danish film, Lars von Trier. As is well-known, von Trier grew tired of "designed" films like Element of Crime and Zentropa, with their careful pictorialism and classical mise en scene. "The Kingdom", shot quickly for television, convinced him of the virtues of the free camera, and he didn't look back. The rough-edged "Idiots" helped establish the "official" Dogma style. Still, von Trier seems to have sensed the problem of the camera acutely. He liked the free style's ability to create dysfunctional framings and unpredictable cuts. Yet utter contingency was alien to him (a confessed control freak) and artistically unworkable. He always, as Schepelern reminds us, creates rules to shape his films. Both within and without the Dogma group, von Trier sought controlled arbitrariness, willed contingency. Chance blooms most luxuriantly within rules.

So, if there isn't any absolute reason to put the camera here rather than there, you might as well have lots and lots of angles. In a virtual parody of Hollywood's smothering coverage, "Dancer in the Dark" used up to a hundred cameras. For this musical von Trier wanted the effect of live performance transmitted by TV, so shifting among many camera positions evoked a fresh sense of documentary realism. Yet he told Stig Bjorkman that the system didn't work as well as it should have: he needed a thousand cameras to cover everything—camera ubiquity with a vengeance. The bare settings of "Dogville" and "Manderlay" yielded Dogma´s standard emphasis on the performers, but here von Trier let his cameras interact more with the drama. Sliding into a scene, weaving among the people in this spatial vacuum, the cameras come to feel like part of the performing ensemble. "The Five Obstructions" marks a reversion to purely mechanical rule-following, offering another arena of willed contingency. When von Trier gives Jorgen Leth a program for each remake of the "The Perfect Human", he not only obliges Leth to break away from his habits but he also supervises a work at once determined (by the obstructions) and unpredictable (thanks to Leth's workarounds). In effect, von Trier treats Leth as a computer forced to interpret software instructions.

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"The Boss of It All" Photo: David Bordwell's framegrab/Automavisionâ„¢

Von Trier's latest work, "The Boss of It All", employs a more bloodless intermediary. Thanks to Automavisionâ„¢, the action can be captured by the computer-controlled camera, which picks a position from an infinite number of possibilities. The camera is fixed, but the director has surrendered control over final framing. Now the camera is both controlled and uncontrolled, free and in chains.

The Boss of It All rejects the Dogma signature style; the cameras are steady and fixed in place. But von Trier still rejects the possibility that there´s a best camera position. Instead of abandoning the contingency of the free camera, as "Offscreen" and "Day and Night" do, "The Boss ..." pushes it to a new limit. Approximate framing becomes the norm, guaranteed by the mechanical go-between. Crucially, however, once the human camera operator is eliminated, the framings no longer depend on the actor. The chief rationale for the free camera has disappeared. A human camera operator won't be fully arbitrary in his framing; he or she will nose out an emotional drama. The Boss camera does only what von Trier expects: simply points.

Now the filmmaker faces a new responsibility. Once the machine has chosen the shots, you have to cut. What shots do you leave in? How does your cut affect the viewer? Boe and Staho don´t push their luck with editing. They follow the free style in making their shots short and linking them by traditional precepts of continuity. But now that "The Boss's ..." cameras are arbitrarily reframing the action, the cuts may not match screen position or movement. Computers can reveal framing options that a human might not imagine, but sooner or later a human—the director—must select among them. Von Trier opts, as always, for irritation. He has long hoped to make the viewer search for the main point of each composition, and so he´s happy that in "The Boss ..." the viewer can't count on "spotting the protagonist in the golden section" (FILM #55, p.11).

Even a programmed work must look chancy. Danish cinema is starting to face the problems posed by the free camera style. With Boe, Staho, and von Trier, some new solutions are emerging. These directors recognize that too much freedom inhibits creativity. The game of cinematic storytelling demands some rules, even those you make up yourself. The winners are likely to be filmmakers who show us something new while taking responsibility for how we see it.

1) Mette Hjort & Ib Bondebjerg: The Danish Directors: Dialogues on a Contemporary National Cinema (London: Intellect, 2001),
p. 280.

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