September 20, 2013

Film review. An analysis of the cinematography of The Thin Red Line, By Terrence Malick

The Thin Red Line is the third feature by Terrence Malick (The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder); it received 7 nominees to the Oscar and won none, though it won The 1999 Golden Bear in Berlin Film Festival and it is considered one of the best war film ever shot.

The plot. Life, fears and emotions of a group of soldiers who fought in the conflict of Guadalcanal (Solomon Island) during the second World War.

Cinematography: John Toll
Camera: Arriflex 35 II, Panavision Panaflex Gold and Platinum, Panavision Panastar
Lenses: Panavision Primo and C-Series
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Format: 35mm
Film Stock: Kodak Vision 5279 500T, Eastman EXR 5248 100T

Terrence Malick chose John Toll (Braveheart, Iron Man 3, Tropic Thunder, The Last Samurai) as cinematographer to shoot The Thin Red Line. Good choice it was, because Toll's job is nothing but superb. Since most of what the characters go through by an emotional point of view is unspoken it was necessary to take the viewer into the action, be with the soldiers and feel what they feel, fear and suffer with them. Toll achieved that by making the camera move and by the choice of the focal length of the lenses. 

Camera barely stands still on a tripod: most of the time steadycam is used moving along the characters and following them in their journey. Sometimes it moves softly and in an unnatural way, especially when no actor is framed: typical Malick's signature we can find in all of his features. Dolly is used too, but it is used with the same logic, not just for effectiveness: like during the long scene of the hill, for example:
camera moves towards the top of the hill running with the soldiers and attacking the Japanese bunker along with them.

But camera movements are not enough if you want it to tell the story and yet be part of the story. Tolls borrows a concept from the documentary photography of early 20th century:  the wider the angle of the lens, the closer you have to get to the subject and the more you are into the action. So he used normal to wide angle lenses, generally from 50mm to 35mm and practically avoiding telephoto lenses. Also the size of the shot helps a lot to achieve the effect Toll was after: he mostly used close ups and medium close ups, while wide shots are never very wide.

But Toll's outstanding job can be seen in the way he lit and exposed the negative. He used the light in a natural way both for exterior and interior shots. He used a lot available daylight to light the scene, bouncing and reflecting the light with reflectors, keeping the subtleties of the colours and the nuances of the light of the locations. I like the way faces are kept slightly underexposed, giving a sense of darkness and doom to the story and characters themselves.

The Thin Red Line has very rich and strong colours and a quite low contrast, and Toll managed to keep everything natural. Which wouldn't be a big deal if lots of the scenes had not been shot at full sunlight. The chosen locations are in the Tropic of Capricorn area which means that the sun gets minimal attenuation from the atmosphere, resulting in a harsh light with consequent very high contrast. But every scene of The Thin Red Line has details both in shadows and in highlights
Of course the wide exposure latitude offered by the now discontinued Vision 5279 helped a lot but definitely it wasn't enough for those light conditions. Toll's skills and knowledge made the difference.
He probably rated the negative at 100 ISO (while Kodak recommended to rate it at 500) gaining an overexposure of 2 1/2 stops, then in the lab, he made under-develop it, placing the contrast in a normal range.

The Thin Red Line is a very well made film, probably one of the best by Malick; John Toll not only offers a great lesson of cinematography but also shows that it is possible to achieve a stunning photography using the tools you have (good lenses, adequate film stock...) in a competent way without turning to the help of digital tricks.

1 comment:

  1. This is excellent review in terms of cinematography