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“There Will Be Blood” and How A Single Shot Can Define A Movie

One of the first things a young filmmaker learns is that by taking the time and understanding one’s story, you can enrich the final product through staging, lighting, and shot composition; in other words, through visual storytelling. Sometimes a single shot or two can define an entire film. Though this takes a lot of imagination and is difficult to do, the best films often include single shots of great significance.

A great example comes from the 2007 epic “There Will Be Blood”. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and beautifully shot by Cinematographer Robert Elswit, who won an Oscar for his work, the film is ostensibly about the California oil boom at the turn of the last century.

The film opens in the middle of the New Mexico desert where we find Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, mining silver. The first 15 minutes are spent without discourse, as we track Daniel’s literal ascent from the depths. When Plainview emerges we find that he’s acquired a small oil company and a small boy, HW, the son of a worker who died in an accident.

This opening is significant. Because of its lack of dialogue, Anderson and Elswit have set up the visual aspect of the film in a dynamic way: the audience’s eye has become invested in the visual clues forthcoming, because that is precisely how we’ve made it to this point in the film.

That attention to detail is rewarded quickly, as Daniel and HW stand before a group of would-be investors, and Plainview delivers his first monologue. The critical part of the speech is when Plainview announces himself to be a “family man”, referring to HW as his son. Right at that moment, the scene cuts to this shot:

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 1.05.47 PM

What does the shot composition here remind you of? In my opinion it is referencing the classical trope of the Shoulder Angel, whereby a person is visited on his right shoulder by an angel and on his left by a devil. Now, I understand that the absence of the ‘devil’ may lead to some confusion, but I think I can demonstrate the likeliness of my hunch through the examination of three more stills.

In the next sequence, coming almost directly after the scene above, we witness a conversation between Daniel, with HW at his side, and a couple. First, look at the staging and shot composition of the couple:

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 11.31.35 AM

It’s a classic two shot: the frame doesn’t emphasize either character over the other. Nor does it place significance on the staging of where the characters are in relation to one another. Lastly, make note of the lighting.

Now, here’s the shot of Daniel and HW:

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.15.51 PM

It’s pretty close to the two shot framing concept of the couple. The difference is in the staging: Daniel is clearly leaning forward ahead of HW. This is significant because as he concludes his monologue to them about the technicalities of oil drilling and his intentions to purchase their plot of land, he slumps back into his chair. A long pause follows, and then the woman asks Daniel about the whereabouts of HW’s mother:

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 4.17.20 PM

Notice the similarities between this still and the first: Daniel is clearly in the center of the frame, with HW to his right shoulder, and an empty space to his left. Despite the fact that this is nominally a two shot, because there are only two characters in it, the staging and shot composition are more indicative of a three shot: someone seems to be missing.

If we return to the idea of the Shoulder Angel, traditionally the angel is seen on the right shoulder and represents the conscience, while the devil is on the left shoulder and represents temptation, dishonesty, and impurity. So just through the staging of the shot we can theorize that HW represents the angel: he is clearly on the right shoulder of the character at the middle of the screen.

The lighting of the first and last shots are especially significant: HW is particularly well lit, especially in relation to his “father”, who is shrouded in shadow. Compare this to the third shot where Daniel, leaning forward, talks about the technicality of the oil business: we can’t see his whole face, but both of his eyes are lit, implying a relative truthfullness. Similarly, in the third still his posture is more direct, more straightforward, than the slouched and guarded positions he takes in the first and fourth stills. These combine to highlight that the differences in lighting, staging and shot composition refer directly to what Daniel is talking about. Only when he begins discussing his relation to HW, someone else’s son, as his own, does the shot take on a darker undertone.

This comparison provides the final insight into the relation of these shots to the broader context of the movie: being an oil man isn’t Daniel’s sin, it’s the profiteering from another’s innocence. In this sense, there is no one to Daniel’s left because he has assumed the role of the devil. This theme would play out throughout the movie in a variety of ways, and not just in Daniel’s arc, but the stage was set early on visually.

1 Comment

  1. Martin Scorsese on Visual Literacy | [ Nate Midgley ]
    January 21, 2016

    […] a previous post we discussed how visual storytelling, through the use of staging, lighting, and shot composition […]