Exactly a year ago, Scorsese’s restored masterpiece, Taxi Driver, was re-released. Young Robert De Niro travels the streets of New York, watching the inhabitants of the city: from the social bottom and bad neighborhoods to future presidential candidates. The film was shot almost half a century ago, but it is a masterpiece that will give odds to modern films. What is so special about Taxi Driver? Understanding!
This is another text of a permanent column in which I analyze the work with color, light and framing in cinema. The previous one can be read here.
For those who care: there may be spoilers in the text
Two important remarks: “Taxi Driver” was filmed in 1976, it is a work with a film camera, which complicates any post-production and color work. It seems that it is worth making allowances for this and judging from the heights of those years. However, the film is so striking in its sincere and organic work with color that, apparently, a discount should be given to all modern films where the work of the film crew is not so high.
Secondly, it’s no secret what kind of film Scorsese’s film was shot on. This is Kodak Eastman Color Negative 100T. The letter T in the name correlates the purpose of the film (and in film there is such an option) for working with incandescent lamps and artificial light. The film was discontinued in 1977, a year after the film’s release. Perhaps this is only an ephemeral ground of subjective hypotheses, but if we turn to the only Kodak film series currently being produced (Vision 3), we can trace similar moments in behavior under certain lighting and dominant colors.
See for yourself, if we take a similar setting of the dark time of the day and artificial lighting, then the green halftones, which we will talk about later, manifest themselves noticeably.
So, if the picture of this film inspires you to a certain visualization of future shooting, then you know what tool to resort to: many laboratories (at least in St. Petersburg and Moscow) buy reels of this film and make their own winding into standard 35mm reels.
Despite the complexity of working with film in terms of color, Scorsese masterfully solves this issue. The film is full of bright elements and thoughtful work with color. The tape opens with close-ups of De Niro’s eyes with contrasting shadows and red light in the face.
The talking beginning — red is considered fatal, bloody and, perhaps, one of the most “loud” colors. Perhaps, with such a first frame, the director hints: the film about a taxi driver is not what it seems at first glance. In the course of the story, red will meet more than once in the frame.
In a film about a taxi driver, of course, there will be a lot of characteristic yellow cars. In the frame, this bright yellow balances through the use of a classic scheme on a combination of cold and warm shades — yellow and blue. In this case, azure.
However, the color scheme is tied not only to the color of the taxi. Scorsese filigree works with her by working out the details in the frame. Take a closer look, here the yellow objects — a taxi, a flower and a bag of snacks — form a triangle in which the action and the attention of the viewer are concentrated.
In other shots, we see a yellow dress and a yellow T‑shirt, and in the foreground, a bright yellow stripe on the cover of a magazine. These seem to be small things, but they add the necessary accents and make the picture less flat and monotonous.
However, despite the characteristic color of the taxi, one of the main colors of the Martin Scorsese film is still green! The same green that was noted above as a frequent shade on the current Kodak Vision, and, therefore, the Kodak Color Negative 100T. From light olive to bright emerald, depending on the time of day in the frame.
Green pops up here and there, almost permanently coloring the picture throughout the entire timeline.
Green as one of the main colors has already been noted in the text about the Black Swan. This is the color of anxiety, danger, poison, perhaps some kind of swampiness, drowsiness. The protagonist practically stays in a dream: by nature, De Niro’s character is slightly inhibited, laconic, maybe a little stupid. As if he is immersed in a poisonous state of half-asleep. In addition, the hero in the story admits more than once that he takes passengers in all areas of New York, even not the most prosperous ones. De Niro sees “all the dirt that’s going to be washed off the streets by the pouring rain.” It seems that the green color should emphasize this.
Of course, we are talking not only about the work of a strong director who thinks while working with a film, but also about color. So what is green without an accompanying red, a complimentary color to it.
Red in “Taxi Driver”, as we have already seen from the very first frame, is the second primary color. It is red in all this poisonous dope of social trouble that is inherent in the hero De Niro. Red not only balances with green, but also adds a distinctive emotional component to both the film itself and Travis, the protagonist.
Red is the color of blood, danger, anxiety and violence. The violence that the hero sees while driving a taxi through the green streets, the surrounding dangers, his personal anxiety “for the city”, and, in the end, the blood that Travis sheds. And all this is accompanied by numerous neon, red traffic lights, facade colors and elements in the frame.
Scorsese is working on the details here too. Pay attention to the clothes of most important characters in the story: red dominates. Even in the scene with Palantine’s election campaign, he himself is wearing a red tie, and the woman in the second row is dressed in a red suit.
Moreover, throughout the film, the hero of De Niro is almost permanently in red images: his checkered shirts, suit, even trump Cossacks — and those burgundy red. This is how the author prescribes an associative link between just a color in the frame, which is designed to cause a background perception of anxiety and danger to convey the character of the main character, to whom the red color is confidently assigned.
If you look closely, even the color of indirect details in such shots is well thought out: green glasses on Betsy, the campaign slogan We are the people in red, and small items on Travis’ table are also red.
The scene, curious from the point of view of color, comes almost to the very end of the film. This is the culmination of De Niro’s hero’s hazy dream. As if he finally wakes up, believing in the idea that has been forming throughout the film, or vice versa, falls into a state of passion, which was inspired by permanent anxiety. Travis is armed with pistols and goes to administer justice, he is the very rain that should wash away all the dirt from the streets.
Only this single scene from the entire film is painted in sand-yellow shades, although it was also filmed at night. Yellow color is ambiguous, painful. We cannot know for sure, but an allusion suggests itself — Rodion Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. That hero was also in a drowsy state of permanent observation, thoughts and anxiety. Do you still remember the school curriculum? “He felt stuffy and cramped in this yellow closet, which looked like a closet or a chest. Eyes and thoughts asked for space. All roads to the same color are clearly not random.
The film doesn’t end there. We see Travis walking through the corridor of the yellow scene with the massacre, and then the director shows the events a few weeks later. The main character is alive, in perfect order and again turns the steering wheel in a taxi. Again the usual green background and red traffic lights. De Niro’s hero smiles sincerely and steps on the gas. Does this mean that these events did not break his character? Did he find inner peace, like the hero of Dostoevsky? Did he come out dry from an anxious state?
Scorsese skillfully works out not only the color in the frame, but also the detail of these shots, different shots. The elaboration of the scene in depth is one of the characteristic tricks of Taxi Driver.
The second main technique is interaction with the environment. The frames are very photographic: the diagonal of the phones, the hero of the poster as one of the characters in the frame, the game with the hands of the statue and a beautiful blur with a focus on only a piece of the frame. With Scorsese, you can learn to search and think while shooting straights.
There is a lot of neon in Taxi Driver, which is not surprising, because a significant part of the events takes place at night. Here you can take note of several approaches at once: and use the places painted with lights as strong locations, and the light from the signs, which will help tint the hero for your color shooting, and neon on a rainy day with beautiful reflections and highlights on the pavement.
Here are four more tricks from Taxi Driver to keep in mind for photography:
1. Work with silhouettes. It is believed that a person in the frame must be read and be in bright areas. Scorsese crosses it out, showing that it is possible in a different way. Particularly noteworthy in this issue are scenes with dark geometry of taxi details or a shot with De Niro driving. The actual recommendation for this technique is: don’t raise the exposure, but rather lower it! Leave the rest of the frame in the shadows, aligning only the highlights.
2. Cropping. Shooting in a car seems to involve at least a few shots through the rearview mirror: the cameraman takes Travis in close-ups, showing only his eyes. You don’t have to shoot in a car to use such a strong crop: edit after shooting, leaving only the accent piece. The contrast of emotions will be many times stronger!
3. Shooting from the hip. In fact, the main rule of Lomography. The use of such angles in a crowded place when shooting street will only increase the feeling of inclusion in the frame, perhaps even its accident if used as an intentional device.
4. Space. Notice how differently De Niro’s character is perceived when he walks down a deserted street, in a place that is customary to see with numerous passers-by. Today, this game of contrast can also be used, although it will not be easy. We need those locations that involve a large number of people. And you will have to shoot in the early morning, when you can catch a shot without people.