Max Siegel

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Perfect Shots

A few of my friends on Twitter have been retweeting posts from an account called OnePerfectShot (aka Perfect Shots). As the name implies, Perfect Shots posts stills from movies that its author considers to be aesthetically perfect. To be clear, I enjoy the outpouring of appreciation for aesthetics, and for cinematographers in general. Plus, the author of Perfect Shots, Geoff Todd, hates The Boondock Saints, so kudos to him.

But it's wrong to think of movies as a series of beautiful shots. Photography and cinematography are very different art forms, and conflating the two can be a career-ending mistake for a young cinematographer. The former attempts to tell stories in single frames, while the latter consists of many shots in many sequences that must work together in the context of the entire movie.

Here's a recent still that Perfect Shots posted from a scene in Zodiac:

It's a nice shot of a letter, but this single image is only significant to people who have already seen the movie and understand the full context. Everyone else misses out on the fact that it's taken from the midst of an initial build-up, in which the filmmakers cross-cut between the respective journeys of the Zodiac Killer's letter and Jake Gyllenhaal's character. It's a great scene from a great movie, but it isn't a great shot. And it wouldn't be fair to the filmmakers to sum up their feature length-long efforts in a single frame.

Before going to Chapman’s graduate cinematography program, I primarily dabbled in photography, not videography. To be honest, I wish it had been the other way around. The biggest challenge, my first year in school, was to break out of a photographer’s mindset. What may look and feel right, or “perfect,” in one shot may be completely wrong for the movie as a whole.

Consider Atonement, which most people tend to remember for its epic tracking shot of British soldiers on the beaches at Dunkirk. In his review for the New York Times, A. O. Scott succinctly summarizes the hazards filmmakers face if they treat a movie as a collection of great shots:

And even the most impressive sequences have an empty, arty virtuosity. The impression left by a long, complicated battlefield tracking shot is pretty much, ‘Wow, that’s quite a tracking shot,’ when it should be, ‘My God, what a horrible experience that must have been.’

Now consider John Toll and Terrence Mallick’s work in The Thin Red Line. (It just so happens to also be a movie that takes place during World War II.) That movie's “perfect shot,” as far as I’m concerned, begins 10 minutes prior to the opening artillery barrage of the Battle of Mount Austen. It starts with extended Steadicam shots, which allow us to relate to the soldiers cautiously treading through the island’s overgrown grass. That buildup concludes with a graceful, hardly noticeable crane shot that arcs through the grass, rising above the soldiers to reveal the island’s hilly terrain.

That's when we finally realize, Holy shit, these guys are fucked. And then a barrage of artillery shells rains down on them from the ridge of a seemingly peaceful hill.

Most people wouldn't consider any of those shots, taken individually, to be "perfect." And they wouldn't be able to easily explain why they're so cumulatively effective in an image or a Twitter post. By design, they are greater than the sum of their parts.

I didn't intend for this article to be a full-blown appraisal of John Toll’s career. But if you look at the rest of his filmography, from Braveheart to Almost Famous to Tropic Thunder and beyond, you can tell that the guy has a natural gift for telling a story visually over the course of an entire movie. There aren't any stills that stand out to me from his films, but the movies themselves are memorable, thanks to his intelligent, overarching approach. I hope that followers of @OnePerfectShot learn more about that approach, as they transition from being casual cinephiles to filmmakers or students of film themselves.