Game Of Thrones cordially invites you to take a damn seat at the kiddie table

Game Of Thrones cordially invites you to take a damn seat at the kiddie table

How restricting the level of framing can create sympathy for a certain class of characters.

Most of us are accomplished watchers of TV and film, so we intuitively understand some of the concepts lurking in dense film-theory tomes. You won’t need them for Internet Film SchoolThe A.V. Club’s column about film and television. In each installment, we explore a basic element of visual composition and analyze examples to understand how the formal properties of film and television manipulate viewers. 

The season premiere of Game Of Thrones, “Two Swords,” is ferocious in its insistence on our smallness. Director D.B. Weiss consistently uses a level of framing—the height at which a camera films objects in a scene—that gives the impression he is, quite literally, shooting from the hip… 

In order for the camera to be relatively eye-level with Tywin Lannister, it must be placed approximately three and a half feet off the ground, meaning that the implicit perspective communicated by the level of framing here is that of a child. This impression is reinforced by the focus, or lack thereof, of the items on the table. The camera is trying, but failing, to see past the blurry sword and scabbard so it can concentrate on Tywin, who is actually in focus. But the level of framing isn’t high enough to get a clear shot of the Lannister patriarch, so the audience has to settle for the obstructed view.

This perspective makes members of the audience feel that Tywin, even seated, is significantly larger than they are. The camera positioning is infantilizing, making the audience feel small by restricting its eye-level access to characters. In this case, Weiss doubles-down on the effect by placing Tywin’s eyes slightly higher in the frame…

His eyes are about 6 inches up my makeshift online ruler, whereas the eye-level of the audience is about 4.5 inches. The audience already feels like its on its tip-toes trying to see over the sword and scabbard, but even tip-toes aren’t tall enough to bring their eye-level with Tywin’s. When the camera reverses to Jaime—who is, himself, being infantilized by the elder Lannister—the level of framing is still so low that it must look up not just as the standing son, but from behind and below the head of the seated father…

Twyin’s eyes remain about 6.5 inches high, the audience’s around 4.5 inches. Because level of framing conventionally signifies who the audience should sympathize with in a given scene—the one whose eye-line occupies the same level—Weiss seems to be communicating that neither of these figures is all that sympathetic.

Also of note is that the angle of framing in this shot is flat. If Weiss had wanted Jaime to strike a powerful figure, he could have tilted the camera up and used a low angle shot. Instead, he sets the camera behind Tywin’s head and positions Jaime far enough away that his entire body occupies the frame without having to tilt the camera. The relative positioning of camera and bodies also means that the traditional impact of having one character look down on another is undermined.

A low angle shot of Jaime staring down his father would make him appear to be the more powerful party in the conversation. By positioning the camera as he has, Weiss undermines this dynamic, because their eye-lasers occupy the same level in the frame..

The usefulness of eye-lasers when discussing Game Of Thrones is a well-established tradition. They allow the viewers to track the eyelines of characters in a given scene at a glance and easily measure their position relative to them. (Also, they are eye-lasers.) In this case, both of those eye-lasers are above the implicit perspective provided by the level of framing. The conversation is literally going right over the audience’s head.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the audience has the perspective of a child, though, as the next scene makes clear…

The audience’s eyeline remains about 4.5 inches high, except Tyrion’s is only about about 5 inches. Unlike Tywin, whose eyeline towered above the audience’s, Tyrion’s is almost level with the implicit perspective provided by the camera. If level of framing is intended to create sympathy with the characters who occupy it, clearly Weiss intends for the audience to sympathize with Tyrion. Perhaps, then, instead of this level of framing being intended to represent the perspective of a child, Weiss meant to signal that this episode would largely be seen—or should be focalized through a perspective similar to—that of Tyrion.

This argument about who the audience is meant to sympathize with is supported by this scene, in which Tyrion is meant to greet the Dornish Prince Doran Martell, but is instead met by the household servants of his brother, Prince Oberyn, who is not even among them. And yet…

Not only is the level of framing higher—essentially that of a man mounted on horseback—but the shot is unbalanced, such that Tyrion doesn’t occupy the center of the frame. Every element of this shot militates against Tyrion in a way that that diminishes him. In addition to the lack of balance, the angle of framing is high, making him look smaller; Tyrion seems to be looking at the wrong person, almost like he missed his blocking; Bronn and Pod, both of whom are in his employ, are also both looking down on him. In point of fact, everyone in this scene is looking down on him, such that even though the audience does not share his eye-level, he strikes a very tiny, very sympathetic figure.

The level of framing when Tyrion later engages with Oberyn returns to its previous height as they discuss the terrible history their families share. Tyrion is attempting to tell Oberyn that he is not like the rest of the Lannisters, but the level of framing couples with the Prince’s words and mannerism to communicate that the only interest he has is in dominating Tyrion…

It is almost as if he’s treating Tyrion as he would a child…

Because he clearly is. In this shot, however, the level of framing—and the sympathy that comes with it—is functioning as it normally does. Weiss is concerned with creating a network of sympathy focalized through a perspective that closely resembles, height-wise, Tyrion’s. But it doesn't belong to Tyrion alone, as the final scene in “Two Swords” makes clear…

If Weiss had wanted to make the outcome of this fight more apparent, he could have used a level of framing in keeping with the Hound’s perspective; instead, he chose a perspective concomitant with Arya’s. The episode ends much as it began, with the audience asked to occupy the perspective of a child. Only this time the audience is not being asked to stand on tip-toes to peer over the sword on the table, because there is no sword on the table.

There is, however, another sword stowed in the belt of the man sitting across from Arya and the Hound, the second of the episode’s titular “Two Swords,” but unlike the first, this one is not obstructing our view so much as obstructed from view.

From the moment Arya recognized the Lannister soldier outside the tavern, she had her mind set on retrieving the sword that belonged to her. This sword is not linked to a father’s attempt to bribe his son into being the useless figurehead he believes him to be. That sword, the one Tywin gifted Jaime, lacked focus because it wasn’t a proper sword, but the same cannot be said of Needle.

Needle is a sword that’s meant to do a sword’s work, and as Arya sets about to do so, the angle and level of framing shifts to reflect her intent…

As she stands over the audience in judgment, she cuts a powerful figure—despite the fact that she, unlike Tyrion, is actually just a child. Or was, the camera seems to say when it reverses to the man who stole her Needle…

That is not how a grown man is supposed to look at a child, a sign that bodes well for the entire network of characters who share her sympathetic height.

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