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Camera narration in The Birds opening sequence

by Michelle Langford

This sequence is useful for examining several aspects of the use of camera narration in narrative films. Additionally, I use it to support the hypothesis that in this film, birds continually cause disruptions on both the level of narrative (what is being told) and on the level of cinematic narration (how it is being told). Birds frequently act as catalysts for making characters do something.

SHOT 1 after the title: The film opens with an establishing shot [framing] of bustling San Francisco — this establishes the setting. Out of the busy cityscape, a woman emerges, and the camera begins to track her movement. Convention tells us that she will either be a central character, or she will lead us to the film’s central character or characters. Then, a whistle (human but like a bird call) interrupts her movement, and also that of the camera, which also pauses. Melanie glances briefly off screen presumably toward the source of the whistle. At this point we might expect a reverse shot of the source of the whistle, but instead, Melanie’s eyes turn to the sky, distracted perhaps by the loud bird noises that now become audible along with the traffic noise.

SHOT 2: Melanie’s look skyward then motivates a cut away to a shot of the sky where birds are amassng. This is a point of view (POV) shot from Melanie’s perspective. This POV shot serves to momentarily align the camera’s look with both Melanie’s and the viewer’s vision. BUT, what it also does is interrupt Melanie’s and the camera’s smooth trajectory towards the pet shop (the goal of this part of the story). This is a good example of foreshadowing the role the birds will play later in the plot.

SHOT 3: Cut back to Melanie as she enters the shop, the camera continuing with Melanie on the same trajectory before the interruption by the birds (note: Alfred Hitchcock exits with 2 white dogs!)

SHOT 4: Cut to an interior shot of Melanie, who has just entered the shop. Between shots 3 and 4 we can see a good example of continuity editing, as Melanie’s movement through the door is continued and the camera is now placed inside the shop to capture her arrival from the inside. As with all previous shots (except the cut away to the birds) the camera continues to track Melanie's movement and keep her center-frame. The shot ends as Melanie approaches the counter and begins a conversation with the shopkeeper.

SHOT 5: Cut to a closer shot of Melanie and the shop assistant (a two-shot). They discuss the strange behavior of the birds Melanie has just noticed outside.

SHOT 6: Cut to another two-shot, this time the shopkeeper is viewed over Melanie's shoulder as the conversation continues. You will also notice that the camera movement throughout this sequence is closely calibrated to Melanie’s movement, as the frame moves to ensure she remains in shot. We could say that at this point that she dominates the camera movement. She is framed primarily in a wide shot, so there is lots of space around her for movement to take place in. Her centrality to the narrative is signaled to us by her centrality in the frame.

Sound and dialogue work to emphasize the important role that birds will play in the plot: from the whistle to the cut away to the birds in the sky and the sound they make on the audio track, to the conversation about the strange behaviour of the birds and the loud bird noises that can be heard in the shop. In terms of cinematic techniques, what is important here is the dynamic relationship between Melanie and the camera, interrupted through editing and directed momentarily toward the birds in the sky.

See here the sequence where the film's male protagonist is introduced.

Camera narration in The Birds part two

by Michelle Langford

Following on from the opening sequence, notice how camera movement once again underscores Melanie’s movement: she leads both the camera and Mitch. She thinks she is in control, and perhaps so do we, since we don’t yet know that Mitch knows who Melanie is and is simply playing along with her practical joke. Notice, however, that her movement is increasingly restricted by the mise en scene. She leads the way behind the cages, suggesting that she is about to be ‘caught’ or ‘caged’ in her own practical joke. Then notice the framing as the mobile tracking shot comes to a standstill. The shot now frames the two characters in a tighter two-shot — the couple are separated by the cage. Cut to a Close-up of Melanie who half obscured by the cage. Here Hitchcock is tightening his grip on Melanie, controlling her through the tighter framing — tighter framing provides less space for movement. Melanie is being ‘contained’ by the image, just as Mitch is ‘trapping’ her and about to beat her at her own game. Then, the bird escapes!! Editing becomes more frenzied, evidenced by the shorter shot durations. From the time the bird escapes until it is captured, there are 12 shots of approximately 2 seconds each. Notice the way the bird dictates the movement of the camera (there are 4 shots of the bird, Melanie’s arms reaching into the shot). In the shots of the characters chasing the bird, their movements suggest the trajectory of the bird. Women are frantic; Mitch is calm. Here, as with the shot of the birds in the sky in the opening the sequence, we can see that the escaped bird affects the rhythm of editing, camera movement and character movement. Melanie is no longer in command of the image. Mitch ‘takes’ control of the situation, both in terms of the chaos caused by the escaped bird, and the chaos that ensues on the level of cinematic narration! Camera movement now underscores Mitch’s rather than Melanie’s movement. The camera cuts to him calmly turning toward his left shoulder, and follows him smoothly as he gently places his hat over the bird and takes it in his hand. Clearly, Mitch now has the upper hand in the situation. This is underscored by the cinematic narration, which is telling us more than character actions and dialogue. The dialogue then echoes what has just played out in the previous shot. Mitch reveals the information he has been withholding from Melanie and Hitchcock from us! Mitch new all along who Melanie was. Now, the joke’s on Melanie, and us!

The Birds Opening Sequence — Camera Narration

Opening sequence of The Birds used to demonstrate Hitchcock's use of camera narration, mise en scene, character movement, off-screen sound and cut on character look.

from The Birds (1963)
Creator: Alfred Hitchcock
Posted by Michelle Langford
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