Sunday, June 03, 2007

"Ratatouille" and Moving the Camera

updated: article now includes a YouTube clip, clearly marking "Shot A" and "Shot B." -tv
I'm a real stickler for camera movement. I want the movement of the camera to feel logical, and be motivated by the context of the shot. I strongly believe that executing ridiculous, over-the-top, flashy camera moves without motivation is one way to quickly turn off an audience.

This is why I call Brad Bird a genius with the camera.

I had the distinct honor of seeing "Ratatouille" last weekend, and the delightful film is another example of Brad Bird's genius with action choreography. Just as he did for the animated films "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles," Bird once again treats us to a beautiful animated world whose camera movement is wholly organic and never flashy.

This is just a preview of a much larger article, soon to appear on FXRant; I wanted to write that larger article first, but after seeing "Ratatouille," I became so excited about this topic that I had to just get some ideas out on digital paper, so bear with me.

I despise unmotivated, out-of-context camera moves; camera moves that are, in and of themselves, all flash and no substance. The camera moves of "Spider-Man" and its two sequels, Stephen Sommers' "Van Helsing," and just about any Dreamworks animated film all fail a basic rule of camera movement: never let your camera move be more flamboyant than your content. If you're using the camera for flash, then you're using the immense power of the camera move as a creative crutch, and not as a way of truly illustrating the action. (That was much harder to summarize than you can possibly imagine. Like I said, a larger article is forthcoming... sit tight.)

Bird's "Ratatouille" follows the adventures of Remy, a Parisian rat who wants to be a gourmet chef. The very nature of Remy gives the camera an opportunity to follow him through places that only a mouse could go.
There are some elaborate sequences in "Ratatouille" which are exhilarating and exciting, partially due to the exquisite and precise use of camera movement and editing. Watch this nine minute nine minute sequence from the film and come back.
Notice how the camera moves seem effortless. They're not specifically flashy-- but, logically, they're defying the laws of physics. The action moves seamlessly from one area to the next, and the edits are absolutely precise and, most importantly, invisible. One of the most important tenants of classic Hollywood narrative filmmaking is the necessity for editing and camera movement to be as invisible as possible; they need to be seamless and wholly appropriate for the type of film you're making. These action-filled scenes from "Ratatouille" (with a wonderful score by Michael Giacchino) illustrate this concept perfectly.

Watch the scene again, starting at 2:20, where Remy climbs out of the kitchen sink. Notice how the aggregate of all of those shots gives us a very clear indication of the geography of the scene, the relative scale of our hero with his world, and the danger involved. The audience is completely rooting for our hero; although it is a chaotic scene, the action is very clear and the audience is right along with Remy, instead of fighting to keep up. When necessary to set up important spatial relationships, Bird makes sure to not break the 180 degree line of action. When chaos and action are not dependent on spatial relationships, he ignores it with abandon.

Then, watch this clever little bit of filmmaking, starting at 3:02 of the Quicktime movie. Or just view this YouTube video below:

We'll call this Shot A. Remy enters the right side of the frame, revealing Linguini (the human) on the left side of frame. Wishing not to get caught, Remy hides behind a jar...
...the camera dollies to the right, and as Remy darts forward, the camera actually follows him forward.
After only a few steps, we cut to Shot B (below), with Remy appearing from behind the jars, moving right to left, entering frame. The camera is dollying right to left as we cut into the shot.
What just happened there? Why, in Shot A, did we actually follow Remy for a beat before cutting to Shot B? If this is an animated feature, why would that action be initiated, only to cut out of it? Doesn't that seem like a wasted effort? Here's why that little extra camera move exists: it perceptually helps bridge the gap between the shots, because our eyes and minds are led forward beyond the cut. Shot A initiates the action (the movement forward) and Shot B continues that action (Remy entering frame, while dollying right to left).

Bird, editor Darren Holmes, and director of photography (layout) Robert Anderson 'covered' the scene like a live-action film, expertly creating blends between shots that soften the transition from one shot to the next, even when it means creating a seemingly needless camera move (at the tail of Shot A). This is obviously a complicated process, and one that needs to be carefully constructed in the layout and previsualization process.

The more complicated and frenetic your camera moves are, the more you need to pay attention to the movement of the camera and the hookups between shots. Otherwise, you risk losing your audience and alienating them at a time you should be exhilarating them. That's why audiences are mesmerized and entranced by complicated action films like "The Incredibles," "Terminator 2," and are regularly turned off by action films by Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers.

Look forward to a much larger article on camera movement, especially within the context of films like the "Spider-Man" series, Michael Bay, "Children of Men," "The Incredibles," "Van Helsing," and "Terminator 2."


FleaCircusDirector said...

An excellent examination of the camera work in Ratatouille, it's one of the few things that I missed out in my Ratatouille analysis.

Estoye said...

Love this blog and the thoughtful discussions of camera work.

Unknown said...

Did this larger article ever get written?

Todd Vaziri said...

@mmoser - Unfortunately, it's one of many 3/4 written articles that are not yet finished. My apologies. -todd