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How you are intuitively drawn to art, and how filmmakers exploit this.

Note: The example I use here is fictional film, but its patterning applies to non-fiction too.

It is as hauntingly immersive in its compositional scenes, as it is perversely excoriating in the more difficult acts, such as the beating of Patsy the slave.

Multiple Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave, will likely make you lose yourself in its thickened oil work, unfolding a simple-to-follow plot, which is equalled by a visual poetry. Even in the darkest moments; the near hanging to death of Solomon, the director finds a special way to play out the scene.

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The story is a brutal and sickening one. On paper as a pitch, there’s a slim it would be passed over, let alone shared. Research about sharing video often entails emotions that lean towards pathos and humour, not ones with a high quotient of dark emotional intensity.

But we shared and marvelled at the film nonetheless. So how did that happen? Notwithstanding its script, a significant and major parameter is its visual references.

What is evident about 12 Years a Slave, is it is an artist’s film. It inhabits a world of theatrical framings; how movies were once made before direction became hyperkinectic. It envelopes hues and colours that manifest as a European painting circa 1800s.

It’s not surprising its director is an artist, whom in previous films, such as Hunger showed his Director of Photography (DoP) a Rembrandt painting for its visual style.

If video could truly hail itself as the successor of the non-plastic arts (drawing, painting) then this is it — a moving canvas predicated on the oil works of Caravaggio, Monet or Velázquez.

I recently re-watched 12 Years a Slave. This time not for its pleasure of letting the scenes wash over me, but with a more critical eye to its nuances.

12 Years a Slave is reportage; it is one of many styles I would urge news makers and storytellers to look at. It is one several films that has a lot to teach video journalism and what I define as cinema journalism (my PhD ) — a proxy to what Oscar winner Steve McQueen sets out to achieve in his films.

No, I am not and would not dare compare myself to McQueen. What I am saying is 12 Years a Slave features a plenitude of styles that ironically, cyclically, frame modern factual filmmaking e.g. news.

Classical news producers find this very problematic. Not to worry. No one has a monopoly on news. Pre-digital we were guided, sometimes bullied, by those who believed they knew, based on the conventional codes of television: don’t cross the line, match eye levels and so on.

But what many professionals fail to understand is that television news is a construct. It was never as so; it developed slowly to create frameworks —incidentally from easily accessible and basic cinematic and artistic codes.

It then taught the audience and generations how television should be made. The audience helped filmmakers as well, as Edwin S. Porter would find out with Life of an American Fireman. When he showed a scene twice from different angles consecutively, the audience soon grew weary of this presentation. But these systems hold only until something else comes along and exposes short comings. That’s where we are now.

Inside 12 Years a Slave
Journalism critiquing can often be discursive explaining why a writer likes a film. The writer offers opinions, sometimes from a professional craft point of view to evaluate a movie by pulling on themes like plot, the director’s last film, personal artefacts.

Academic critique, as undertaken by the film scholar David Bordwell (a theme he himself addresses) builds substantially on journalistic narrative, while minimising personal opinion. The film’s themes tend to be more explicatory and evidence-laden. The writer looks for cues and themes that add a pedagogical knowledge to film discourse. It can often be dry too.

It’s Bordwell’s approach, with the readability employed in journalism which I’ll try and use to delineate this extraordinary film, coupled with my own sensibilities as an artist; an artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre, with my primary focus situated in news and factual programme making.

What we see, what we are taken by in forms and shape is ‘style’ — an underestimated quality. Everything has a style and the its impact upon us goes beyond the surface presentation. In film, camera movement and framing affect the style of the film.

  1. Camera
    McQueen’s style is to shoot square on as if directing for the theatre. It is reminiscent of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman highly successful films such as The Seventh Seal.
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Scene from the seventh seal

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Like Bergman the camera is still, and there are few privileged positional cuts. For instance in this scene the points of view (pov)might be screaming for a number of reverse-shot-reverse cuts, that is cutting from one person to another, but McQueen resists this.

In the 1930s when the average shot length was longer than the present, this was nothing to write home about. Today, in our hyper-kinetic world, slowing you down and forcing you to watch a long cut becomes phenomenological. This is the stuff of Andrei Tarkovsky and if you’ve not seen it yet how his film influenced the latest Oscar winner, The Revanant by Alejandro G. Iñárritu.

Phenomenology in its simplest form is the experience of the self. Watching goldfish in water becomes mesmeric and soothing. Scuba divers say the same when diving, and as a diver myself there’s a transcendental place you go. This is what looking at art does, you imagine yourself in the piece.

McQueen’s trope in the scene above and more below is his compositional weighting. It plays on something called the ‘golden ratio’ or ‘divine proportion’. In the Guardian piece a US academic explains ‘Why golden ratio pleases the eye: and how he knows art’s secret’ ,

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Professor Adrian Bejan from Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina, is an award winning mechanical engineering behind a new law of physics.

He says in the Guardian piece that:

The human eye is capable of interpreting an image featuring the golden ratio faster than any other’ and that When we see the proportions in the golden ratio, we are helped. We feel pleasure and we call it beauty.

Below, McQueen is indulging in more symmetry. A character dominant in the foreground is balanced by an event in the background usually in the 3rd of the frame (see below).

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Many will refer to this as ‘the rule of thirds’. It’s a fair point, but the name ‘rule of thirds’ is a not a rule per se and McQueen the artist is hardly going to be constrained by rules. No, I prefer the Japanese interpretation of looking for harmony and balance in paintings as seen in Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa,

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Back to 12 Years a Slave and another revelation which is the antithesis of the present: the deep focus shots. McQueen bypasses the penchant for shallow-depth-of field and using deep focus invites the viewer to decode the screen — just like a painting. It’s the closest to ‘objective filmmaking’ . Your eye meanders across the visual image which holds on the screen for more than the general 6 second shot(read Cesare Zavattini).

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Everything is in focus. There’s a slight defocus on the woman, but the shot is designed for you to see what she’s doing.

Art Movie for News
There are a number of reasons why the film could be labelled unconventional in its visual framing. In fact it’s an Art movie, or to classify it correctly based on its cues, this is an artist’s film.

Take this framing below. Very few directors would have the courage to frame this and leave it in the edit. The image is truncated leaving ‘extraneous’ film frame data on as well as off-screen.

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Perhaps, this is one of the most extraordinary shots in the film, below. This whole sequence where Solomon faces near death by hanging lasts two minutes, but this one scene lasts almost one minute with no cut, no camera movement. The movement occurs in the scene. The camera’s stillness is countered by McQueen’s play in the empty third sector of the frame.

It’s excruciating and perversely draws us into the scene.

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If you’re familiar with Bela Tarr’s Werkmeister Harmonies, then you’ll see similarities in durational cuts and how they induce reflective thinking.

These are not new concepts; French film scholar Andre Bazin stressed the importance of long takes towards film realism in the 1950s. What’s remarkable is because the average film cut today is 3–6 seconds that McQueen can work against the grain, could be conceived as bold.

Further evidence of Arts influence is strewn across the film. The lighting and composition e.g. Chiaroscuro which Wiki states is

in art is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modelling three-dimensional objects and figures.[1] Similar effects in cinema and photography also are called chiaroscuro.

This scene from Bergman’s Winter light captures the art of Chiaroscuro.

Winter light

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12 Years a Slave
This shot here from Kubrik Barry Lyndon is influenced by Caravaggio.

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This is Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (1601)

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And below is 12 Years a Slave. Composition, golden triangle, the hues. McQueen is making use of a deep seated cognitive understanding of visual art. By cognitivism I mean an ingrained behaviour.

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One last reference to art, which was evident was this…

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and it points to this Georges Seurat’s pre-pointilism Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884).

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2. Plot
If you’re familiar with Bergman’s films, The Silence (1963), Winter light (1962) then some of the themes collide with McQueen’s.

In Winter light, a film that drew on Bergman’s upbringing, the priest is torn between infidelity and God. Just as Bergman pushes the envelope on sexuality, McQueen raises the bar in onscreen violence, but not for the sake of it.

If you substitute sex in this description of Bergman’s The Silence in 1963 for slavery, you could be referring to McQueen.

from trailer The Silence

Plot in film refers to the structure of the edit, as opposed to story which is the unalloyed narrative of the film. Here, McQueen plays with some modern tropes of Neo-Noir filmmaking. What is often called elliptical filming. It allows the filmmaker to play with different scenes out of order, and by so doing present a plot that acts to refresh the screen and make the audience work.

The scene where Solomon is drugged and ends up in chains, leads to mini flashbacks. McQueen could have let the whole scene play through from drinking wine, to throwing up, then Soloman finding himself in chains.

3. Sound
Sound presents the ability to elicit emotions from the viewer. Far from being subjective, the music is often used to compliment the scene, unless like Eisenstein who uses counterpoint. Music is subliminal when it works well. Interestingly Hans Zimmer is the hand here and he revives those famous chords heard in Inception, at the time this character starts to speak about her loss. Music too has a cognitive quality. For instance minor notes ellicit the feeling of horror

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If you listen attentively you’ll also hear references from There will be blood (2007).

4. Gaze
The character gaze is another trope from art movies that you find in 12 Years a Slave. Often described as breaking the forth wall, Solomon’s long gaze into the camera draws attention to the artefact of filmmaking. It’s no longer this subconscious act of realism. Here’s the a shot of the ‘gaze’ from a film calledSummer with Monika, which shocked the film world when it was shown. It’s Bergman again!

Bergman again!

5. The artist’s work
Artists tend to have an ambivalent relationship with their audience. I love this analogy by Bergman, but I believe he misses out an important component.

The artist can only create the work, they want, but unless they live a hermit’s life they are undoubtedly affected by the critique of others — the audience.

They need the audience to thrive — to earn a living, but the more comfortable they become with their personal style (which by the way, has partly been shaped by the audience) the more they become individualists in starting to shun what their old audiences wants, because the artists wants to move on.

Similarly what new audiences yearn for can also be shunned because the audience don’t understand the artist’s heritage.

This is most evident in music concerts, where sometimes the artists refuses to play the one classic that has defined her work with the audience, because it no longer defines her, as she has moved on.

All filmmaking is a negotiation between several parameters. As I mentioned before it’s a dynamic relationship between different techniques and styles.

The easiest step is to learn how to shoot. More difficult is understanding different styles, some of which are 100 years old that may be deemed redundant.

Factual story e.g. news making’s achilles is it invented a limited form for the screen, which a televisual literate generation are finding less than challenging today.

McQueen up ends Hollywood’s form by reviving art filmmaking with his own developed style, pointing to an understanding of the future. That the rules that defined filmmaking are less stable and that film is no longer framed by defined rules.

Finally, McQueen’s style is not definitive. I can count numerous other styles that play with audiences and we’ve come to love.

As part of my thesis, I subjected my work to the critical eye of an award winning filmmaker and scholar Mark Cousins. He hadn’t seen my work and I don’t try to pretend that what he says solely defines what I do. But I found it interesting none-the-less.

Let me know if you’re planning a talk, conference. I have spoken as SXSW, International Journalism Festival, International Business Summit, Sheffield Documentary Festival and BBC exec boards, amongst things


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Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah’s is the creator of and His research involves exploring what makes compelling journalism by researching cinema, documentary and news. He is a Knight Batten winner in innovative journalism and International award winning videojournalist. He’s worked for the likes of Newsnight, Channel 4 New and ABC News over 28 years and is now a senior lecturer.

If you like Future of Video, click for From wars to music videos, a 21st Century style of newsmaking in videojournalism-as-cinema.

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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