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Proscenium: Axis or Visceral

October 9, 2007

When I was taught the proscenium in film school I’m not sure I quite got it, and perhaps I still don’t understand it. I believe it had something to do with drawing the attention to the fact that whatever is in the camera’s picture frame was the stage where the action would happen. Well…duh! Maybe it’s helpful to people who come from the theatre and acting and this concept gives them something to sink their teeth into. I came at it from the visual artistic end of the spectrum, so my reaction is to just use the term camera frame.

However, I think it can be helpfully applied to a larger context (and maybe the true definition is what I’m about to write and I just wasn’t taught well…no big surprise there). I see the concept of proscenium much more useful in thinking about the entire camera set up on a set.

Let’s take a simple example of two people playing chess on a round patio table, and having a discussion. We plop the camera (audience) right at where a third person might sit — an observer at the table. We start with a wide shot of the situation, then we have two camera positions, one for Max and one for Henry. We don’t move the camera and we will have a perfect, basic camera set up that does not cross the axis and provides clear camera direction. Those three camera positions (wide establishing, MCU of Max and MCU of Henry) becomes in total our proscenium, our stage. Now that concept is much more helpful than thinking of just the one shot.

A problem arises in the fact that those shots can be very dull and boring. Unless you’re forced to crank out the shots that day you will probably want to add some flourish. Add some OVERS (over-the-shoulder), vary the one shots to be closer or farther, perhaps a dolly, whatever would help the context of the story and emotion. Now, this larger palette of shots becomes part of the total proscenium that the audience sees.

In that situation, the camera axis becomes king. Max is always looking SCREEN LEFT and Henry is always looking SCREEN RIGHT. This CAMERA DIRECTION helps the audience not to get lost or disoriented in the proscenium. If the axis is crossed it may take the audience a bit of time to figure out where the director just placed them in the set. They have to re-examine the details of the set, check the characters, and then they can settle until the director uproots them from their seats and transports them across the axis again. This traditional film sense is governed by CAMERA DIRECTION. All the images must be found within this proscenium.

But there is another way to handle the totality of the proscenium. It is potentially more dangerous. If done poorly you risk loosing your audience by detaching them from the picture so much that they loose interest in the story.  This method elevates the image over the camera axis.  The camera axis no longer defines the boundaries of the proscenium — the image determines the proscenium.

Cinema Verite’ you say?  No, mainstream Hollywood.  I watched Ridley Scott’s ‘A Good Year’ and tired to imagine the camera set-ups, axis, etc.  Ridley Scott had the camera all over the place, constantly crossing a momentary camera axis.  Watch the first scene of the picture with Uncle Henry and young Max playing chess.  Ridley is crossing axis to make beautiful images and to capture the simple action of pouring a glass of wine in a beautiful way.  And somehow it works.  That might have something to do with the fact that he’s been shooting and editing film almost as long as I’ve been alive.  He is visceral and has developed a camera sense that goes beyond the simple camera direction rules most of us follow.

He does return to some scenes that are more rudimentary in their adherence to camera direction.  But by in large he is visceral.  And it’s so well done that you don’t notice it unless you are looking for it.

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