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SPN Director Meta: Serge Ladouceur (8x12)

“As Time Goes By” (8x12) was Serge Ladouceur’s, SPN’s Director of Photography, first solo directing gig.  I thought it was well done.  Not only was it filled with pleasantly surprising choices but also showed an understanding of how to exploit the camera to tell a complimentary visual story to the scripted story, making it feel like he really understood the dramatic purpose behind the scenes and manipulated the visual elements effectively and accordingly.  There are four notable examples that stood out to me that I’m going to geek out talk about below.

Cool Scene 1
The scene where Abaddon kills the members of the Men of Letters and Henry escapes has an interesting combination of shots, camera techniques, and editing choices that lend a sense of confusion, mayhem, and panic and imparts a sort of frenetic frenzy that works with the scene.  2:40-4:09 in embedded video below:

While watching this scene who else was clutching their couch cushions (or stuffed animal, dog, cat, spouse, or hedgehog) and screaming, “OMG, what’s happening?!?!”  OK, I’m being dramatic, but I’m sure nobody decided to get up and spontaneously clean the bathroom.  That’s because what was happening was exciting and the editing and camera work worked together to create a scene that was as riveting as it was suspenseful and purposefully confusing.

There’s a reason why at the beginning of most scenes we usually get either a wide establishing shot or else the camera pans through the scene before zeroing in on the characters.  It’s to root the audience and give a visual anchor so that the rest of the scene can unfold without the audience being distracted by potential confusion about who is standing where, looking at what, talking to whom, and/or where people are entering and exiting.  But we don’t have any of this in this scene, which is why it’s so suspenseful because we’re like Henry, entering the room for the first time, confused, disoriented, trying to assess what’s going on in panicked snapshots as his (our) eyes dart between friends lying in bloody heaps, crawling on the floor with bloody eyes (OMG!1!!), and getting their necks broken.  It’s disorienting and confusing and awesomely suspenseful in the wet-your-pants kind of a way (I’m being figurative *wink*).

We get choppy editing where the camera toggles between characters without showing the layout of the room. The first 20 seconds of the scene breaks down to medium close-up to close up shots of Henry’s face toggling between medium close-up to close-up shots of Abaddon and Henry’s dead, soon-to-be-dead, and bloody colleagues (screencaps 1-14).  The first medium shot that allows us to see the room beyond a bunch of faces, gives a glimpse of the layout, and even approaches the idea of establishing the characters in the context of the room doesn’t happen until the scene is practically over (screencap 15).  In fact, we don’t get a true organizing wide shot (screencap 16) showing where everyone is in relation to everybody else until 30 seconds into the scene after everyone is dead (or blinded) and Henry’s already left the room!  Talk about breaking conventional film making rules to best service the scene, whoo!

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Screencaps 1-14.  A breakdown of the shots that make-up the first frenetic 20 seconds of the scene.  I realize there's a lot to look at here, but you can scan through the screencaps like a storyboard. The point is that all of the shots are relatively close to the subjects and don't convey much or any information that orients the viewer.  A medium close-up (MCU) of Henry as he enters the room, dead guy lying in a pool of blood on the floor, MCU of Henry, another dead guy in a pool of blood on the floor, close-up (CU) of Henry, MCU of a guy yelling Latin at Abaddon, CU of Henry (blurry and partially falling out of frame, screencaps 7a and 7b), whip pan of Henry’s POV to a guy with bloody eyes crawling on the floor (OMG!1!!), CU of Henry, shot of a box being passed between bloody-eye guy and Henry, CU of bloody-eye guy, CU of Henry, CU of Abaddon and then the Latin-yelling guy getting chocked.

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Screencap 15.  The first shot that relays any details of the room.

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Screencap 16.  Finally a glimpse of where the characters were in relation to each other.  Too bad everyone is leaving this room and the scene is over.

Then we have a series of shots as Abaddon bangs open doors, looking for Henry while Henry frantically throws together ingredients for his time-traveling spell and escapes.  Appropriately, this sequence features lots of shaky hand-held camera work, jump cuts, whip pans, and fast cutting to lend to the sense of urgency and barely contained panic.

I like how a lot of the set elements created a vertical motif that weren’t unlike the bars of a jail, giving the visual sense that perhaps there’s not an escape or that Henry is being boxed in and cornered.  We see it in the MoL ceremony room with the candles, the architecture, detailing on the walls, and the draping of the curtains (screencaps 16-19).  We see it again in Henry’s escape room with the shot of glass beakers and vials in the foreground boxing Henry in as well as the architectural details around the door, the vertically lined-up books, and the wainscoting on the shelves (screencaps 20-22).

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Screencap 17.  I like the choice to film through the candles, perhaps to create a strong sense of entrapment or maybe just because it looks cool.

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Screencap 18.  See the vertical details on the wall behind Henry.

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Screencap 19.  Notice the side-lighting of the curtains to create visual interest by highlighting the their vertical lines.

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Screencap 20.

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Screencap 21.

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Screencap 22.

And finally, to cap this cake of awesome with awesome sauce, we get all these varied, gorgeously lit dramatic shots of Abaddon on her manhunt, all of which are well-balanced and cinematic-looking (screencaps 23-28).  *flails*  BTW, how many different camera set ups did they do?  *boggles*

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Screencaps 23-28.

Cool Scene 2
I thought the camera work during the reveal that Henry is John’s father nicely exploited the emotional chords being struck in the script.  3:30-end in the embedded clip below:

I like the way the camera is situated in front of Sam and Dean such that when they look at each other, they’re almost looking at the camera, which makes it feel like they’re almost looking at the audience, giving a sense of immediacy (screencaps 29 and 30).  I think the choice to use a shaky camera and move closer to Sam and Dean’s faces during the close-up shots lends to the emotional turbulence and gives a sense of intimacy and intensity.  Also, the chords of the Winchester Theme playing over everything is so appropriate.  Operating together, all of these things give that moment an extra punch to the heart that makes the scene stand out.

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Screencaps 29 and 30.

Cool Scene 3
The scene where Abaddon calls Dean to broker a deal, Sam for Henry and the box, showed some interesting and apt camera choices that I thought were somewhat reminiscent of Kim Manners’ visual style in terms of movement and framing.

It starts with a shot of Abaddon at the center of the frame, sitting at the dining room table with her feet up, eating grapes.  The camera sweeps closer, stopping with Abaddon in the foreground, occupying half of the frame with Sam and two other bodies sprawled behind her (screencaps 31-33).

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Screencaps 31-33.

Then we get a scene of Abaddon talking to Dean on the phone (screencaps 34 and 35).  Usually close-ups in a conversation are framed so there’s room in front of the characters’ faces between them and the edge of the frame and the back of their heads are closer to the other edge of the frame.  You can see the opposite is done for Abaddon’s shots in order to keep Sam and the bodies behind her included in the frame.  In back-and-forth close-ups during a conversation, it’s convention that the characters appear to be facing each other even if they may not be in reality (or in this case not even in the same room).  This is to visually underscore that the characters are talking to each and to help eliminate confusion when the viewer is only privy to seeing a very limited amount of the overall layout of the scene like just a close-up.  Therefore, in order to make it visually clear that Dean is talking to Abaddon, his close-ups are the mirror opposites, and he’s also framed such that there’s a lot of space behind his head instead of in front of his face (picture how weird it would feel if Dean was facing the same direction as Abaddon).  Even Dean’s framing is a technical result, I like how it makes the scene feel a little off balance because it is (OMG, the bad guy has Sammy!) and adds some visual variety to a scene that could’ve used run-of-the mill camera work.  If you’re interested in more blab about this kind of framing, see the last screencap in the first comment here.

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Screencap 34.

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Screencap 35.

I also like how economic and visually interesting these last two shots are and how it’s easy to see the entire situation in two screencaps.  Out of focus and behind Abaddon—who’s sort of smirking and talking on the phone—lies an unconscious Sam, two bodies, and a pool of blood.  The shot of Dean shows him tense with his brow furrowed.  You can see the power dynamic, what’s at stake, and likely figure out who the “good” and “bad” guys are all without any dialogue or watching the entire scene, the true test that the director is doing their job efficiently and effectively.

Cool Scene 4
The end of the episode leaves us with Sam saying, “I mean, we are legacies, right?” and then the camera pulls out slowly, leaving us with a crane shot of Sam and Dean standing over Henry’s grave along side a host of others, including those of the last Men of Letters as notes of “As Time Goes By” plays (screencap 36).  *flails*

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Screencap 36.

I thought the choices in this final sequence were thoughtfully chosen and beautifully highlight Sam and Dean’s journey and emotional headspace at the end of the episode, and, to be even more *dramatic*, even their lives up to this point.

Crane shots are dramatic and noticeable and are reserved for significant moments, so it was a good choice to cap off the episode considering the implications and emotional weight of the Men of Letters Legacy reveal.  It makes Sam and Dean look small, and the choice to show their backs instead of their faces also helps convey the feeling overwhelming responsibility and visually underscores just how alone they are, the seemingly last bearers of an almost lost legacy.  Starting close and then pulling out to such a high angle, moving from intimate to seeing the characters in the context of the rest of the scene, gives a sense that there are forces larger than Sam and Dean at work (could the destiny theme be resurfacing yet again?).  Marginalizing them to the bottom corner of the screen and making the rows of headstones and graves (some newly dug) dominate the screen shows just how high the stakes are and visually compliments Dean’s line “All I see in our family tree is a whole lot of dead,” and Sam’s line “I mean, we are legacies, right?”

To sum up, it’s amazing just how much can be shown with so very little.  And how effective camera choices, used appropriately and sparingly and interpreted in accordance with the script, can be.  :)  It feels like Serge Ladouceur has a real depth of understanding not only of the Winchester’s emotional story but cinematic technique and the creativity and restraint to piece together visually interesting and emotionally affecting scenes, something I feel like we haven’t seen to such a degree since the unfortunate and untimely departure of Kim Manners (RIP, Kim).  I’d love it if he directed another 20 episodes again.


Feb. 23rd, 2013 10:20 pm (UTC)
something I feel like we haven’t seen to such a degree since the unfortunately and untimely departure of Kim Manners (RIP, Kim)

I remember that when, was it Adam Glass? directed ASS I felt something similar -- it had some very distinctive shots. Neat look at the choices here. I wonder though, even if we hadn't lost Manners if he'd still be working on the show going on 9 years. It's a tougher schedule for those behind the scenes than those in front of the camera.
Feb. 23rd, 2013 10:30 pm (UTC)
It was Adam Kane, and, yes, that was a great episode with lots of striking shots and heavily used deep space cues (in fact, that was the one that really started me on the cinematography stuff in the first place). He interestingly enough was also a cinematographer before he started directing.

I wonder though, even if we hadn't lost Manners if he'd still be working on the show going on 9 years.

I don't know. Maybe retirement would've become a factor? I think it's a testament that the crew is still paying tribute to him, just recently Russ Hamilton took a picture of the PCAs at Manners' favorite tree for him.


Billie Bowtrunckle

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