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Framing can turn you from a witness to the murderer

Most of us are accomplished watchers of TV and film. We’ve been practicing all our lives, so we may intuitively understand some of the concepts lurking in dense film-theory tomes. You won’t need them for Internet Film School, The A.V. Club’s new column about film and television, but you will need to learn how to stare very intently

Each installment will explore a basic element of visual composition and analyze examples of it to understand how the formal properties of film and television manipulate viewers. There’s an unnecessarily complex, academic name for this sort of analysis—it’s an intentionalist adaptation of Bordwellian neoformalism—but the thrust is that I’ll attempt to help you understand how film works.

Who am I to teach you? I’ve taught classes on Game Of Thrones, Doctor Who, Mad Men, and Batman. I also write about politics for Lawyers, Guns & Money, and I co-host a weekly podcast on Game Of Thrones with Steven Attewell of Race For the Iron Throne

With that out of the way, let’s get this semester started by introducing the most basic of visual units: the frame. 

The frame is such a seemingly self-evident concept that most books on film theory don’t bother to define it. Even one of the best, David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson’s Film Art: An Introduction, only formally defines it on page 182, despite having employed it in nearly every paragraph up until that point. But you can’t truly understand how film works without having a working definition of a frame—and a working knowledge of the manner in which frames structure your relation to characters. To that end, I’ve chosen to analyze scenes from The Godfather Part II and Hannibal in which the difference between watching a murderer and feeling like one comes down to framing.

Francis Ford Coppola finishes The Godfather Part II with an extreme long shot of Michael Corleone staring out the window of his Tahoe lake house:

The shot itself isn’t interesting—it informs us that a man in a beautiful house is thinking about something. The emphasis seems to be on the house, not the dimly lit figure barely visible through the central panels. In isolation, this frame would seem contemplative, the depiction of a man lost in thought. But this frame doesn’t exist in isolation: Coppola’s edits let us know what Michael is thinking about, specifically…

…murdering Hyman Roth and…

…Frank Pentangeli’s suicide and…

…murdering his brother Fredo.

Between the first two deaths, Coppola cuts back to Michael so we can see just how uninterested he is. The audience doesn’t feel how Michael does; we simply learn how he feels about them. The use of the long and extreme long shots prevents the focus from being on the faces of the dead and dying, so the composition inhibits our ability to become emotionally invested in their respective fates in the way we would if they were presented in close-up. We’re not complicit in these deaths—they happened because Michael wanted them to happen, and we’re unfortunate witnesses. Even Fredo’s death, one which should bother us, consists of little more than a slow zoom that, for a moment at least, keeps the revolver that ends Fredo’s life off camera.

This can make us feel all the conflicted emotions that only someone, to quote Michael, with “a good heart, but [who’s] weak and [who’s] stupid” can, but in no sense can it make us feel complicit in Fredo’s murder. We know who the murderer is, and we know how he feels about it. The camera tells us so.

There’s Michael, staring out at the lake, but not at his brother as he’s being murdered—because Michael is a piece of shit. We don’t care about all those other bodies, but Fredo? Michael, he was your brother. How could you do that to your brother? Granted, there are any number of reasons, but my point here is that this scene ends with the audience sitting in judgment over Michael. Coppola presented Michael’s targets and they were dispatched at a distance and without our involvement. Doing so creates a cold, calculating atmosphere in film, which was clearly the point in The Godfather Part II. But most contemporary film and television requires more from the audience than passive observation of other people’s horribleness. Hannibal is no exception, but before discussing it, I should note that I haven’t really defined what a frame is yet. I used the conventional definition to draw a conventional conclusion and blithely ignored the fact that the frame is a lie. 

Again: The frameis a lie. It’s a convenient and necessary one, but a lie nonetheless. Consider the one below.

It’s not an actual frame—I didn’t slice it from a reel and scan into my computer—nor does it even represent an actual frame, because I watched this episode of Hannibal on my computer, so in all likelihood it’s a digital composite of multiple frames. It’s wrong to call an image like the one above a frame, at least not without some qualifications. When we view the Mona Lisa, for example, we don’t comment on how beautiful a “frame” it is, because we’re admiring the painting. The frame isn’t the object of admiration; it’s the structure that contains the object of admiration. Frames are distinct from the object they frame—except when it comes to film, where a frame refers both to the objects in a shot and the invisible border around them. A scene from Zot!—the book Scott McCloud wrote before Understanding Comics—succinctly captures this contradiction. Uncle Max takes Jenny on one of his “Painting Trips,” but shortly after their arrival she declares herself dissatisfied with her sketches. So Uncle Max hands her an empty picture frame and tells her to throw it:

What she sees is neither the frame itself nor the canyon floor beneath it. She sees a combination of the two as they exist in a particular frame. This frame is more random than the one discussed above, but it functions similarly: It represents the limits of the framed world, and in most cases does so because a director has deliberately selected this bit of the world to frame in this particular way for a reason.

All of which is only to say that the most compelling reason to call a frame a frame is that it’s the end result of someone’s conscious decision to frame something. Consider the deer from Hannibal: The director, David Slade, could have framed this shot in any number of ways. He chose an extreme long shot with deep space because it allows him to provide sharply focused information in the mid- and background that emphasizes the relationship between this deer and its natural environment. It’s within the environment, but it doesn’t dominate it. But the frame is unbalanced: Its subject doesn’t occupy the exact center, but it’s close enough to it that we that don’t have to search for it. The deer is significant, but the dominant visual elements are the vertical trees behind it.

Clearly we are staring at a deer. There are many avenues of escape, but the one it’s least likely to take is straight for us. Behind the unfocused foreground between us and the deer, the trees line up in a manner usually associated with orderliness and entrapment, i.e.prison. The deer has two options: Head straight for us or into prison. If the deer being slightly right-of-center is mildly discomfiting, its apparent imprisonment by the forest is even more so. Had Slade zoomed from an extreme into a simple long shot of the deer—and had he only included the two trees to its immediate right and left—the effect would’ve been far different.

The deer would still seem trapped, but now it would seem trapped by the frame itself. The deer wouldn’t be in a tight spot so much as artfully composed. There aren’t as many visual elements in the frame, but the ones that are there would create a more balanced composition. The decision to frame the deer in an extreme long shot has real consequences for us, because it leads us to believe that the world has conspired to entrap this deer (extreme long shot), or that the director has (long shot). But we’ll only believe that the deer is in peril if it fails to notice that, in Slade’s original frame, the one area that’s not being dominated by vertical elements is right behind it.

Which is why our initial desire is to yell at Bambi’s Mom to turn and run. She may be in trouble, but the composition of the frame provides her with an avenue of escape. Given how many Americans feel about killing Bambi’s Mom, it’s not surprising that Slade would frame the shot in a manner that leaves escape as a possibility. When Slade reverses from the deer to those hunting it, Garret and Abigail Hobbs, it finally dawns on us that we’re not objective observers in this hunt: We’re the hunters. The perspective on the deer is ours. It’s like we’re on the boat killing Fredo, only we assumed, because we’re better than that, that we’d never do something like that. Yet here we are. What are we doing out here anyway? Isn’t this show called Hannibal? Shouldn’t we be watching as someone who’s not us does terrible things to sympathetic characters? 

Nope. Instead of using an extreme long shot that emphasizes the deer’s place in nature, Slade uses a conventional medium shot to suggest that, like us, these two are interlopers. They’re aware of their surroundings, as evidenced by the sharpness and depth in this frame. But they’re not part of nature—they don’t have any feet. And the feet they don’t have? Those feet make noise.

Employing a shot/reverse shot sequence between the hunters and the deer creates the impression that they’re communicating. They’re not, of course; something else entirely is happening. Remember how sharp and crisp the background was in the original shots of the deer and the Hobbses? The natural world may have been a prison with only one way out for the deer, but its features were sharply defined. When the deer hears dad and daughter approach, however, look what happens to the world: It blurs away. By switching to this shallow shot of the deer reacting to the Hobbses, Slade adds to the “conversation” by suggesting that the deer is concentrating so hard on what the Hobbses are “saying” that the rest of the world has disappeared. That deer is paying attention. It knows we’re here, and it’s not pleased to see us. (This use of shallow focus is a favorite tool of Slade’s—he uses it throughout the series—but for now it should suffice to note that it’s a function of increased attention.) When Slade reverses back to the hunters, what had been a conventional medium shot has inched in from their mid-thighs to their waists.

At the very least we’re no longer personally hunting the deer. Now we’re just watching someone else extinguish its beautiful life. The sharply focused natural world behind them has begun to blur—but not to the extent that the deer’s had, because Abigail won’t be paying that close attention until she gets her medium close-up.

We’re not about to murder the deer—it’s all on Abigail. As she pours her attention into her sight, the world behind her disappears. It doesn’t matter to her now, and it can’t matter to us, either, because it’s too unfocused. Her father only remains in focus because he’s telling her how to shoot, so he’s a function of her attentiveness. At this moment, all of the attention in this diegetic world is focused on two things…

Although it may appear as if there’s only one thing in focus in this shot, you have to account for what else just came “into view.” Slade switched to a subjective point of view: We’re now inside Abigail’s head, peering out her eyeball, looking through her scope, and right at Bambi’s Mother. We’re about to shoot this fucking deer. 

There will be no comfortable, Corleone-like distance because Slade has, via a progression of shots, made us complicit in this deer’s death. In the previous shot, Slade communicated Abigail’s intensity by having the world behind her disappear; in this shot, her concentration blurs all non-deer elements in the frame until that’s all she can see. Note the progression of shots featuring Abigail: Slade begins with a medium-shot; switches to a closer, but still medium-shot; moves in for a medium close-up and then literally deposits the audience in her head at the moment of the kill. It’s almost as if he moves the audience closer and closer until it has no choice but to experience the thrill of her kill vicariously.

The purpose of this sequence is to offer the audience insight into the mind of a killer at the moment of the kill, and in doing so captures the overall appeal of Hannibal.

Notice, though, what we didn’t concern ourselves with above. Knowing how a sequence of frames works isn’t the same as knowing what a sequence of frames means. For example, we didn’t address the question of what that deer represents, and given that Garret Hobbs is a serial killer who murders women who look like his daughter Abigail—and that the FBI believes she may have aided him in the commission of his crimes—the fact that he’s teaching her to kill a young doe is narratively and symbolically significant. As is the fact that this is actually a dream, because it’s not just any dream: it’s the dream whose violence causes Abigail to awaken from the coma she’d fallen into after her father slashed her throat. But before we can understand how this dream makes Abigail feel—and what she takes it to mean—we have to come to terms with how it works, and that requires careful attention to how the scene is constructed, frame by frame by frame. 

The alternative is the kind of generic analysis of a boring high school English class: White signifies kindness and nobility, the Sun symbolizes rebirth, and anything longer than it is wide is a penis. We won’t be selling you that old bill of goods here at the Internet Film School.