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Bucking the frame


(This isn’t only one of them posts, it’s the bastard child of this and this one.)

I feel this post nips too obviously at the heels of previous ones, as I’m not going to be discussing anything I haven’t discussed before. Creating a claustrophobic environment is a technical accomplishment that can be done irrespective of the environs in which one shoots a scene. Cramped quarters help, obviously, but they’re not necessary. That said, the quarters in the second half of the Doctor Who episode “Time of Angels” are quite cramped, so the fact that director Adam Smith chose the default shots of his principles to be medium- and medium close-ups exacerbates what would’ve been a feature of every frame anyway. To wit:

Doctor who time of angels2012-02-01-09h35m38s29

That’s the Doctor discussing the impending arrival of the Angels with the soldier-clerics assigned to assist him. Important here isn’t merely the framing—though compositionally, the soldier-clerics bookending the Doctor can’t be considered insignificant—but the tightness of it. The shallow focus leaves only those three in focus—although Amy’s still visible by virtue of her ginger dress, not unlike a certain someone else—but the shot’s overstuffed with folks in a way that completely obscures the background. Given that that the imminent threat isn’t any of these three shot-stuffers, obscuring the background denies the audience access to whatever it is that might be lurking in the dark.

Point being, it’s not just that this shot is claustrophobic, but that the claustrophobia it elicits is deliberately obfuscatory: by focusing, shallowly, on these three, the dangerous statues currently spooky-fishing* their way towards them are perforce crushed from the frame. They’ll be revealed in shot/reverse shot sequences shortly thereafter, but the tight framing here makes the situation in which the Doctor et al. find themselves seem all the more hopeless. Consider:

Doctor who time of angels2012-02-01-09h38m03s201

This is the Doctor coming up with one of his patented plans, but the framing still indicates that whatever trap he’s in still possesses the upper hand. It’s entrapping him, not the other way around. Of course, this entrapment is but a preface to a spectacular escape, and the way in which Smith films this desperation is but a means to increase the glory that said escape entails, but the heightening of this effect is a significant moment in this season.

Rarely do the Doctor’s plans include genocide, no matter how malevolent the species he’s dealing with. Daleks and Cybermen he traps in other universes or the empty space between them, but this Doctor? He disappears his enemies like a Chilean dictator—erasing them from history—or outright murders the last of them if they pose a threat to Earth.** There’s much more to say, but for now I’m focusing on the abreaction of Doctor and audience to the claustrophobia he and it encounter. It’s cathartic, most certainly, but there’s purging and then there’s purging, and only one of them is just and healthy.

*I can’t directly link because Comedy Central is a … but the relevant material’s at 3:58.

**As in “The Vampires of Venice,” which I’m also teaching today. Stupid three hour classes.


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