Comet Tale Productions is a Boston-based video production house. We hope that through this blog you will learn more about the behind-the-scenes of corporate video.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Film Breakdown Friday: Werckmeister Harmonies


Yesterday, I wrote about how turning your video project into a film project is a mindset. In order for your video to move into the category of film, you have to invest the majority of your effort in pre-production and story. The film is made long before the first day of shooting.

Today is the first post in what will be a weekly series of film breakdowns. I’ll pick a clip from a movie, or corporate video and break it down into a couple bite sized chunks that you can consume and incorporate into your next project.

If you haven’t had a chance to see many foreign films, brace yourselves for this coming clip. Most commercial American movies have an incredibly fast paced editing rhythm. The following scene from Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies occurs over the course of one long take. In order to pull up the English subtitles, you have to manually activate them by selecting the CC button in the lower right hand corner of the player and then selecting English subs.

Take a look at the scene:

The Breakdown

Béla Tarr is an extremely intentional director. His famously long shots are planned well in advance and he is able to see the movie in his head before it ever hits the silver emulsion of 35mm black and white film (and yes, despite films decline in popularity, Tarr continues to shoot on it). And that is what separates the directors of great films from the masses—the ability to take a strong personal vision and bring it to life on film.

The reason I picked this scene as the first film breakdown Friday is to show an incredibly intricate scene so that I can talk about storyboarding. Sure, anyone could set up a camera and have it run for eight and a half minutes but what makes Tarr’s scene from Werckmeister so powerful is the interaction between the camera and the scene itself. The camera is not a passive observer. It is an active participant in this scene subtly attuning the audience to the emotional tone of the moment.

I want to break down the scene into smaller chunks to show how the camera works to tell the story. There is a short bit of the beginning that this Youtube link is missing that gives a sense of the space before Valuska’s entrance. But as Valuska enters the bar, his movement opens up the frame from a tight shot of him and one of the drunks to a very wide shot of the entire empty bar. He now has a stage on which to perform his opening philosophical and astronomical monologue.

The next shift occurs as he corrals the barflies into position as the sun, earth and moon. The camera like our attention moves in to focus on Valuska and his model solar system. The proximity of the camera to our speaker gives us a sense of connection and safety as he twirls these drunken men around in circles. But the revelation of an eclipse results in yet another shift.

To the ancients, an eclipse was a terrifying event—day turning to night. With no scientific explanation for them, they determined that it was a bad portent. At first the camera moves in to a close up to reveal Valuska’s thoughts as he expounds upon the darkness of the eclipse, but as he proclaims the complete silence that arrives, the musical score enters and the camera begins to pull back. This move is the most powerful of the scene as the meditative silence of Valuska, the haunting beauty of the solo piano and the wide, high-angle shot all work in harmony to convey a sense of loneliness that the darkness brings.

But the eclipse cannot last forever. As the moon moves away and once again reveals the bright warmth of the sun, the camera too returns to its position of safe proximity. As it settles, all the men of the bar take up the waltz and for the first time in the scene, Valuska leaves the frame granting full autonomy to his drunken solar system.

In the closing moments, the bartender urges everyone to go home and the floor clears resulting in an almost cavernous emptiness. Valuska walks through the void and as he leaves, tells the bartender that “it’s still not over.”


Two of the key takeaways from this scene are (a) in order to execute a complicated choreographed scene, you have to plan everything in advance and (b) use the camera’s positioning and framing to enhance the meaning of your shot.

(a) The amount of planning that must have gone into filming this scene was immense. I’m willing to bet that the actors all rehearsed their movements many times. The cinematographer and gaffer watched those rehearsals like hawks and developed their lighting plot accordingly. But before anyone even set foot in that bar, Béla Tarr mapped that scene out in his head and put the major moments down on paper in storyboard form.

When planning to shoot your corporate film, make sure to take the time to think out every shot and how it will all interact together in the final product.

(b) The camera can be a powerful ally. The framing and composition of your shots will have a large impact of how the audience reacts to the image. Close up shots bring the audience close to your subject and allow them to see minute emotions. Wider shots give more of a sense of the setting. The size of the subject compared to the setting can convey a number of different things. The small figure of Valuska in the bar during the eclipse gives a profound sense of loneliness whereas the more crowded and closer view of the spinning barflies is safer and more comforting. Pay attention as well to the angle of the camera. A straight on eye-level shot is most common but if you move the camera along the vertical axis, you can elicit different responses. A low-angle shot where the camera looks up on an individual typically connotes power and the opposite high-angle shot connotes weakness.

As with any “rule” in film, everything is dependent upon specific circumstances at hand. But the way to ensure you are striking a chord with the audience is to know why you are implementing any technique. So long as you have a well-thought out reason for your actions, the audience will realize there is meaning even if they can’t specifically pinpoint what it is.

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