Spectacular Cinematography

Michael Clayton

With the Blu-ray and DVD release of You Were Never Really Here just around the corner on 2nd July, we have compiled a list of films that – just like You Were Never Really Here – incorporate stunningly original and impactful camera shots.

Michael Clayton (2007) – Ending credits. Directed by Tony Gilroy, Cinematography by Robert Elswit.

Directed by Tony Gilroy and starring George Clooney, whose portrayal of debt-ridden fixer Michael Clayton struggling with the moral realities of his job, and his desire to do the right thing, earnt him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Yet that isn’t why this movie is on our list! Rather it is the unusual credits at the end of Michael Clayton. Most movies end on a finishing fadeout or cut to black, followed by the rolling film credits. But not with Michael Clayton. Instead when the credits roll in this film, we stick with Clooney as he sits in the back of a New York taxi, the camera fixed on his face, revealing every emotion. This adds an authentic quality to the film; where most films end when the plot is over, in Michael Clayton we stay with the main character and see him beyond the end of the story. Unorthodox perhaps, but we love it!

Inception (2010) – Shifting gravity scene. Directed By Christopher Nolan, Cinematography by Wally Pfister.

This $160 million mind-bending masterpiece is worth a watch… or maybe two, just to make sure you get it. The reason it makes our list is for the infamous shifting gravity dream fight sequence, which was accomplished without using any CGI. Having made their 100ft hotel hallway, the production team placed it inside a centrifuge, capable of spinning around, thereby accounting for the shifting centre of gravity required for the scene. To capture the movement of the hall, the camera had to be placed on a crane, and suspended in the middle of the hall using a telescoping arm.

However, to track the motion of the actors in a way that made it seem as if gravity was shifting constantly, cameras had to be secured to the set. This allowed a frame of reference to be maintained that was consistent with the dimensions of the hallway. That’s a lot of work for a scene which lasts thirty seconds, but it was worth it!

Limitless (2011) – Limitless zoom shot. Directed by Neil Burger, Cinematography by Jo Willems.

Starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, Limitless focuses on a man who takes a pill unleashing the full power of the brain. A ‘limitless zoom’ makes for a visually stimulating opening. This is effectively an endless zoom, in which we are transported through the streets of New York, forever getting closer to the centre of the image.

The limitless zoom is created through the combination of many individual pictures. The editing is seamless, and it really does looks amazing!

Black Swan (2010)- Mirror Shot. Darren Aronofsky, Cinematography by Matthew Libatique.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman, who received the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance, Black Swan tells the story of Nina Sayers, a ballerina employed as the lead in ‘Swan Lake’, but finds herself struggling to keep her sanity in preparation for the role. It’s on our list due to the presumably impossible-to-film ‘Attack it’ scene, in which Natalie Portman’s character rehearses in front of director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel).

As Leroy coaches Nina the camera shot pans the room but remains fixed on the director’s face as he tracks her movement. However, behind Leroy is a floor to ceiling mirror, and in this we can see Portman perform. By all accounts we should be able to see the camera crew in the mirror, but impressive cinematography, SFX and editing make for a remarkably smooth and reality-defying scene. This clever use of the mirror, technically a feat in itself, gives Leroy’s reactions context, whilst allowing the audience to see how much pressure and scrutiny Portman’s character is under. Cuts could have been used to film this sequence, but the use of a single shot retains the bubbling intensity of the scene.

Drive (2011) – Elevator scene. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel.

Oscar nominated for Best Picture, Drive follows a nameless LA movie stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver (Ryan Gosling). After falling for his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), and becoming a father figure to her son, things get complicated when the absent father returns from prison. A robbery gone wrong later, and the driver finds himself attempting to whisk Irene away to safety, fearing her life is in danger. As They enter the elevator they are met by a seemingly harmless man, who turns out to be the hitman the driver had feared.

Trapped in the elevator with their would-be assassin, the driver decides to move Irene to the side; as he does so, slow-motion kicks in and the lights dim until only the driver and Irene are illuminated. The two share a long kiss, the assassin seemingly waiting for the intimate moment to finish. As soon as the kiss ends, the driver and assassin begin fighting. The change in lighting and the assassin not attacking during the prolonged kiss create a dream-like state. It’s clear the driver is savouring his last moment with Irene, knowing that what he is about to do to the hitman in front of her, will change the way she looks at him forever. This is captured in the aftermath of the brutal fight, with Irene staring at the driver in confusion and shock, while the driver stares back helplessly, unable to obscure his violent capabilities any longer. All this comes together to make a truly beautiful yet chilling scene.

Children of men (2006) – Single shot car scene. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki.

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón and nominated for 3 Oscars, Children of Men is set in 2027, in a world where women have somehow become infertile. However, when a lone pregnant woman is found, protagonist Theo Faron (Clive Owen) attempts to escort her to safety through the dystopian world in which the film is set.

The scene that earns its place on this list is a whopping 4 minute 8 second long take, in which we see the car our protagonist is driving attacked by a mob, from inside the car. The full ambush and escape is portrayed from the passenger seat making the scene visceral and immersive. As an audience member you feel like you too are being ambushed by a swarm of hostiles, helpless to do anything other than watch the chaos unfolding around you.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) – In and out of water shot. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski.

This film needs no introduction, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, it is one of the all-time greatest war films. The reason it’s on this list is due to the extremely effective use of water during filming. During the Normandy landings on Omaha beach, Hanks and another solider climb out of their landing vessel and fall into the sea. As they attempt to get to shore, the scene unfurls from their point of view, with bullets whizzing past them as the chaos ensues.

The camera goes from being submerged to being above the water multiple times as the waves crash up and down. As the camera becomes submerged the sound muffles, and our vision of the carnage going on above the surface is obscured as we are placed in the calmness of the sea. This only increases the shock when confronted with the horror above the water. Though simple, this technique really immerses the audience in the scene, and what a scene it is!

Brooklyn’s Finest (2009) – Hallway scene. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, Cinematography by Patrick Murguia.

This is a 2009 thriller from Antoine Fuqua starring Ethan Hawke, Richard Gere and Don Cheadle. Focusing on the seedy criminal underworld of New York, the film compares and contrasts the lives of three New York Cops; Ethan Hawke, a dirty cop, but also a desperate father looking for a way to buy a new home for his sick wife and family; Richard Gere, an older man nearing retirement, doing his last shifts to receive his retirement fund and Don Cheadle, an undercover cop deeply embedded within Harlem’s criminal underworld.

In a thrilling scene, Ethan Hawke’s character robs the apartment of known drug dealers, forcing his way in and shooting the inhabitants on-sight. Having shot the three men inside, Hawke begins to search the apartment for money. Instead of following Hawke and being shown the normal match-on-action shots of him opening draws and cupboards, the camera remains fixed looking through the door of the apartment, where one of the recently shot men lays slumped against a blood-splattered wall. In the foreground we see the actions of Hawke, but are forced to observe the blood-soaked body bleeding out. Hawke passes in and out of the view of the camera, stepping over the dead man’s body as if he were not there. The fact we the audience are forced to look at the aftermath of Hawke’s actions, while he seems unshaken, even disinterested in what he has done communicates to us how little empathy Hawke has for the men he has killed; an observation that might have been lost had the aftermath of Hawke’s attack not been given the amount of attention this shot allows.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – Merge Scene. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Cinematography by Roger Deakins.

Sequel to the critically acclaimed Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 takes place in 2049, in a world inhabited by both humans and artificial humans known as replicants. Existing only to serve their human overlords, replicants find themselves at the bottom of the social hierarchy, with many subjected to horrible lives of servitude and torture. We follow the story of replicant officer K (Ryan Gosling), a Blade Runner whose job it is to track down and arrest or eliminate rogue replicants. K finds himself at the very bottom of society, loathed by humans for being a replicant, and shunned by fellow replicants for hunting down his own kind. As a result, K’s only relationship is with holographic girlfriend ‘Joi’ (Ana de Armas).

As a hologram, K and Joi are unable to touch, a fact Joi is incredibly aware and insecure about, understanding it limits their relationship. To ‘complete’ their relationship, Joi enlists the help of pleasure replicant Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), using her body as a surrogate, by wrapping her image around Mariette, becoming as close to real as she ever can be. This scene, referred to as the ‘merge’ by the film’s creators, while slightly unnerving to watch, is also extremely beautiful, with Joi and K finally feeling like a real couple.

Director Denis Villeneuve has said it was probably the most complicated sex scene ever filmed, taking a year to fully realise. Villeneuve stated it was important that the audience saw how K feels while experiencing the surreal moment, how Joi feels having finally fulfilled the role of being a lover, and how Mariette feels being used in such a way. In capturing those emotions, the only CGI work used was the layering of both Ana de Armas’ and Mackenzie Davis’ images over each other, creating the merge effect. Other than this, the effect is completely practical, utilising 4 cameras that enabled the room and characters to be realised as a 3D model. Ana de Armas and Mackenzie Davis had to choreograph their movements to follow each other exactly, while also keeping the emotions of their characters separate due to the entirely different experience they are having, despite occupying the same space. Once all the footage had been filmed, both images were superimposed onto one another, creating the amazing effect seen in the film and the picture below.

You Were Never Really Here (2018) – CCTV and Mirror fight scene. Directed by Lynne Ramsay, Cinematography by Thomas Townend.

Directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here follows Joe (Phoenix) a traumatised veteran who is no stranger to violence, and now employed as a hitman. When a job to save a young girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a sex trafficking operation goes sideways, Joe’s nightmares overtake his reality. A wider conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening. Lynne Ramsay incorporates some truly original shots in this excellent thriller, often likened to Taxi Driver.

When Joe breaks into the premises of an illegal prostitution ring to rescue the girl that he has been hired to find, we witness the action through the CCTV cameras installed in the building. As Joe navigates the hallways of the building, we see him viscously attack guards with a hammer through the CCTV cameras, shielding our eyes from detailed injury, but leaving our imagination to fill in the gaps.

In a later scene, Joe is attacked by a police officer in a hotel room. The hotel has a ceiling mirror, and as Joe and the officer tumble to the floor, the camera cuts from the fight to the mirror, where we see the struggle indirectly unfold. This technique has a similar distancing effect to that of the CCTV sequence; the static shots give us an unflinching view as Joe brutally kills his enemies, whilst the removed, indirect nature of the filming mirrors Joe’s need to distance himself from empathy when on the job.


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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.