The latest Mad Men (“The Other Woman”) presented me with more to think about than I can currently wrap my head around, but so too did the latest Games of Thrones (“Blackwater”), albeit it for very different reasons. So instead of delving into “The Other Woman” or drowning in the sudden narratological shift in “Blackwater,” I’ll focus on a fine point about shot construction in Game of Thrones. Before I do, however, I should note that I’m by no means endorsing the more problematic elements of the show—the racial politics foremost among them—because those strike me as endemic to sword-and-sorcery as a genre, so anything I write about them will inevitably be general and uninteresting to a fault.
If you want a re-cap of the episode itself, I recommend Alyssa’s, but for my purpose all you need to know is that 1) the great Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister and 2) he commands an army that’s on the brink of being besieged. Tyrion, in the lingo of the show, is a “halfman,” and Dinklage’s height presents difficulties for directors—if they shoot a close-up or medium close-up of him in conversation, his wit and intelligence will be diminished by the fact that his head’s surrounded by a sea of crotches. The typical solutions to this problem are two-fold: have everyone he converses with sit down while doing so (as Thomas McCarthy did extensively in The Station Agent) or shoot him in extremely shallow focus so he’s surrounded by a sea of fuzzy crotches. In “Blackwater,” director Neil Marshall eschews both techniques, employing instead an exceedingly stylized compositional mode that would look ostentatious in almost any other context. To wit:
The low angle of framing appears natural because Dinklage is the central compositional element in the shot, and because his height has been elevated by the fact that he’s on the stairs. Moreover, the position of his head relative to the top of the frame is a conventional position for heads to occupy on film. That is to say, although he’s no taller here than he ever is, Marshall frames him in a manner that diminishes the significance of his height—visually, Tyrion functions as a “man” in this shot, a fact that’s emphasized by having him look down on Sandor Clegane, a “man” who earlier boasted not only of his love of killing but his size relative to that of another soldier. The subsequent point-of-view shot cements the impression:
Afraid of the fire that Tyrion unleashed against the attacking force, Clegane returns to inform his king and his commander that he’ll no longer be taking part in the battle. Marshall emphasizes his loss of social capital by shooting him from this high angle. Tyrion may be a “halfman,” but in the eyes of all watching, Clegane is perceived as half the “man” he was. When the camera reverses, another clever element of Marshall’s blocking and framing becomes evident:
By situating Tyrion half-way down the staircase, he avoids the infantalizing effect of the sea-of-crotches shot. Tyrion doesn’t look like a child about to wrap his arms around his mother’s leg—he looks like a man who’s half-way down a staircase berating an underling. Note again the position of his head relative to the upper reaches of the frame, as Marshall appears to be doing all in his power to prevent the camera from robbing Tyrion of his.
As the scene continues, Marshall’s intent becomes ever more apparent and ever more effective. For example, Clegane and Joffrey Lannister are both afforded medium shots with natural head-placement:
The difference in the angles of framing is merely indicative of their respective social standing—although Joffrey will receive a similar treatment when he abandons his defense of the wall at the behest of his mother—but more significant for my purpose is that these are conventional medium shots. However, when Marshall reverses to Tyrion:
He switches to a close-up that can’t even contain the entirety of his head in frame. Tyrion is bigger than the shot, so to speak, such that at this moment the audience’s knowledge of his height is only theoretical. That is to say, we know that he’s a “halfman,” but his presence on screen is militating against that knowledge. Directors use these techniques to manipulate their audience on a non-intellectual level—think of the rousing effect a bit of non-diegetic music can have on an otherwise mundane scene—which means that the cumulative effect of Marshall’s shot selection here is emotional. Tyrion is enlarged by the manner in which Marshall shot Dinklage. Don’t believe me? Look at him two minutes later:
His head’s now effectively even with those of the soldiers behind him. How did that happen? I’m not entirely sure, but that’s not the point: as Tyrion prepares to lead his troops to battle to the cry of “Halfman,” Marshall manages to render the epithet inaccurate.