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Internal Rhythm: Telephoto lens slows motion towards the camera

by Michael Frierson

An exceptional example of the spatial compression of the long lens is found in an airport scene in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011). A retired British intelligence officer George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is trying to get Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) to reveal the location of a safe house where Soviet spies are meeting with British agent. Smiley threatens to send Esterhase back to Hungary, where he would be handled as a traitor.

At the airport, Esterhase and Smiley are talking on the tarmac, when suddenly in the distance a plane drops into the frame and lands on the runway behind them. The plane represents an immediate threat to Esterhase, and as the plane taxies forward, he tries to explain his way out of being sent back. The approach of the plane is acutely slowed and the space of the runway “flattened” so much so that it appears almost as if they are standing in front of a screen projection of a plane. Esterhase is unnerved by the plane’s approach, whose arrested movement seems ominous and dream like. This visual “spell” is broken at the end of the shot as the plane finally pulls close enough to come into focus, turns slightly and brakes while killing its engines. Smile punctuates the moment by finishing Esterhaser’s thought: “Operation Witchcraft. Yes, I know.”

Esterhase pleads for his freedom, but ultimately gives up the address of the safe house. The scene was reportedly shot with an extremely long, 2000mm lens.

Seven Samurai: Slow motion death sequence

by Michael Frierson

The influential Japanese filmmaker Akra Kurosawa brought aestheticized violence using slow motion to the attention of the world beginning in 1954 with The Seven Samurai (Kurosowa, 1954) which won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and was nominated for two Academy Awards. The scene that caught audiences’ attention, and evolved in to a cinematic trope in action films, was Kurosawa’s use of slow motion to suggest the death of a thief. Apparently unarmed, Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an oldlerl rōnin, approaches the barn where a child is being held hostage by a theif, and lifts the door open. The camera remains in a continuous shot from outside the barn as Kambei tries to reassure them he is only a priest with food for the boy. The thief tells him to throw the food in, which Kambei does. Waiting for a beat, he then rushes in. Kurosawa now begins to cut back and forth between the the barn and the horrified crowd. We see the crowd surge with alarm, and the next shot of the empty barn door extends time, holding it for what seems like an interminable moment—in actuality :03 seconds--before we see the thief stagger to the through the threshold in slow motion. As the child continues to cry off camera, time slows almost to a halt, as five shots come in quick succession, alternating between crowd looking on in shock, and the thief staggering forward in slow motion, unbalanced on his feet and rising to his tip toes to try to stop his forward motion. A closer shot of the thief stunned, trance like, holds him in slow motion, before we cut to the child’s mother who rushes forward to the barn. Kambei emerges, hands her the baby, and drops a bloody sword to the ground. The thief collapses in a heap, and Kambei becomes the focus of admiration. The pacing of this scene, the feeling of tension and release created by the thief’s slow motion stagger, alternating with the regular speed shots of the onlookers, and ultimately his collapse, is remarkable.

The Wild Bunch: Final Shootout

by Michael Frierson

Peckinpah’s style of cutting – mixing slow motion shot at different frame rates with normal footage, fast cuts, crash zooms, and incomplete actions – evolved from the creative input of his editor Lou Lombardo, a young editor who had experimented with this techniques on a television series called Felony Squad. From the lineage of Seven Samurai and Bonnie and Clyde, the extended bloodbath of Wild Bunch creates a fluid, elastic sense of time from very fast cutting, varied lens length and camera distances, and slow motion.

Internal Rhythm: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Telephoto lens slows motion towards the camera

The extreme, 2000mm telephoto lens in this scene retards the motion of the plane towards the camera.

from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Creator: Tomas Alfredson
Distributor: Focus Features
Posted by Michael Frierson