Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Shapes and Lines of Outer Space

A key aspect in creating a unique aesthetic in film is to use lines and shapes to engage with the audience.  A prop or character can move in a specific direction within the frame to create a virtual track.  A cinematographer can compose their shots to have a motif; the frame can be linear and square or diagonal to provide an unusual motif.  A filmmaker can even add certain shapes like spheres or cubes to add dimension to the frame.  These are simple yet malleable techniques to use that allow for filmmakers to make films of with a potentially limited aesthetic like realistic science fiction look unique.  Even though films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gravity are of the same genre; they look and feel drastically different because their directors use these techniques in unique ways.
When one must explain how these techniques work it important understand the idea or motive behind each film.  2001: A Space Odyssey is a psychedelic art film about the seemingly infinite possibilities of space travel.  Gravity is a thrilling drama about the horrifyingly real risks of simply orbiting around Earth. Both films rely on special effects but their creators had to use techniques involving lines, angles, and shapes in order to make a unique perspective on the frightening yet wondrous unknown of outer space.

Figure 1

             A virtual track is an imaginary line that a person or prop creates when it moves on screen.  Both films use virtual tracks in order to visually portray space travel in different ways in order to express a unique opinion on this subject.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, during the manned mission to Jupiter, there is this shot of the Discovery One, a massively long white spaceship, slowly but surely moving left to right of the screen in a straight line (See Figure 1). This shows a linear path of an epic journey but it also feels stable.  In Gravity, the characters and objects move in a much freeform and chaotic fashion.  This is most notable in the very beginning when orbiting debris hits the space shuttle and Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, violently spins with the shuttle as she is still attached to it by a crane-like contraption. The virtual track of Ryan Stone is completely unpredictable and it happens so quickly that it looks like she is in a tornado.  This encapsulates the seemingly implausible nature of controlling oneself in space let alone conquer it like in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Figure 2

Another aspect of shaping the screen that is vital to the aesthetics of both films is their linear motifs.  The image onscreen often creates a visual trend of lines and shapes, when these images repeat it reveals a specific motif.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey is shaped with a flat and grounded motif with very few Dutch angles to completely skew the perspective.  Even when a shot is composed in a different angle the shot tends to feel perpendicular. A flat linear motif gives the film its rigid realism but it makes certain moments, like when an astronaut touches the alien monolith, feel jarringly surreal (See Figure 2).  It allows the audience to comfortable at first until something unexplainable happens, which feels frightening and curious, like a scientist discovering a new problem to solve.

Figure 3

In contrast the linear motif of Gravity is diagonal yet there so are long takes and everything spin so frequently in this film that the idea of a floor seems nonexistent.  However when the screen settles, like when Ryan Stone enters the Chinese satellite when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, it reveals a diagonal motif (See Figure 3). This is a rather poignant example because as Colin Macilwain states “metaphor for the passing of the space-travel torch from US” (313) to China.  Even when one country seems to lose interest in space travel and research another country will eventually take its place. It is an optimistic moment in a film that is weary on the subject of space travel.
Figure 4

One visual motif that both films share is the use of circles and spheres as a way of portraying the pristine qualities of space.  The most obvious example of a circle being used as symbol in both films share is how planet Earth is portrayed as this distant utopia, the true home (see Figure 4). The planet is rarely, if not ever, seen as a whole in either film but whenever it is seen onscreen its presence looms over the picture like a mother watching over the spaceships.  Gravity the film is very intimate with the helmets on the astronauts.  There is a moment where the camera gets so close to Ryan Stone’s helmet that it transfer inside and becomes her point of view and one gazes the vast yet chaotic void she is trapped in. These helmets are essentially bubbles that keep these characters alive through their journeys and show how fragile they are.  
In Gravity it is perfectly clear that Ryan Stone’s adventure is to return to Earth yet 2001: A Space Odyssey is more about moving beyond there.  The film infamously ends with Dave Bowman, the astronaut assigned to find the monolith on Jupiter, being transported through a Star gate and becoming the Star Child (See Figure 5).  Norman Kagan wrote about the film claiming that the ending was Kubrick’s take on a “‘Greek Miracle’ showing what man is and what can be” (164). This is what really makes 2001: A Space Odyssey so beautiful; it takes the ambiguous fears that result from curiosity into account and ultimately finds that moving forward is still worth the risk.
Figure 5

Shapes and lines are useful because they are so simple to implement that they are essentially universal techniques.  Space travel in film is fun subject to examine because it shows how special effects have gradually improved but they only shine if the filmmakers can compose shots around effects with technique.  2001: A Space Odyssey would not have its ambiguous yet self-assured tone if not for its linear and forward driven style. Gravity would feel lifeless if the filmmakers filmed it rigid and even like 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Ultimately, these techniques work best if the filmmakers understand what type of story they want tell otherwise these tricks will feel pointless.  A filmmaker must give their shots a sense of purpose and creating shapes and lines in the frame can help with expressing that purpose.

Works Cited

Gravity. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Perf. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Warner Brothers,
           2013. DVD. 
Cuarón, Alfonso. “Figure 3- Ryan Stone's Face” Warner Brothers, 2013. DVD. 18 Feb.
Cuarón, Alfonso. “Figure 4- Chinese satellite” Warner Brothers, 2013. DVD. 18 Feb. 2015.
Kagan, Norman. The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick. Third ed. New York: Holt,
          Rinehart and Winston, 1972. Print. 18 Feb. 2015.
Kubrick, Stanley. “Figure 1- Discovery One”Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968. DVD. 18 Feb.
Kubrick, Stanley. “Figure 2- Touching the Monolith” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968. DVD. 18
         Feb. 2015.
Kubrick, Stanley. “Figure 5- Star Child” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968. 18 Feb. 2015.
Macilwain, Colin. "Thrill Of Space Exploration Is A Universal Constant." Nature 503.7476
         (2013): 313. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and
         William Sylvester. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968. DVD.