For those who care: there may be spoilers in the text
A dream within a dream, which is also in a dream, in which now someone is also sleeping, and all this is a dream. And in one of these dreams you need to introduce only the smallest thing — an idea! An idea that can completely change the thinking of a particular person. This is what Leonardo DiCaprio’s character does for almost the entire film.
Nolan’s films have always been distinguished by incredible twists and non-trivial plot, and besides, given the budgets of such films, the camera work there is also on top. Inception is no exception. Let’s analyze the high-profile picture of Christopher Nolan from the point of view of working with the frame, coloring and tricks with light.
This is another text of a permanent column in which I analyze films from the point of view of color and frames. The previous one can be read here.
Nolan often resorts to cold color palettes in his films. Inception is no exception: from pastel blue to neon turquoise. The picture periodically goes into blue shades, regardless of whether the characters in the film are in a dream, in reality, or in deeper layers of sleep.
Perhaps the blue palette was just a blue palette. However, no one has canceled the fact that the blue color always accompanies melancholy scenes, lonely heroes and the corresponding palette of emotions.
And DiCaprio’s character in Inception is really alone! All the color warmth of the hero is connected with the lost wife and children with whom he cannot see. He is in constant torment, doubt and his own dreams. And the fate of this hero is one of the main emotional plot lines, the constant companions of which are blue shades.
Following the color wheel, blue should be framed with red. What the director does. At the same time, the red color in most cases is present in the frame due to the details, and not color correction.
Elliot Page is a bright red marker in the middle of a blue canvas. Perhaps, with such work with the costume of the character, Nolan wanted to emphasize the “fatal girl”. The one that changed everything by influencing the demons of DiCaprio’s past.
The Itten circle is an important part of working with color, but there is another well-established color scheme with a blue tint — azure + beige. In those moments when the picture emerges from the blue palette, the film is immersed in these tones. What is important, already by the second stable scheme one can judge the director’s approach to working with color. Please note: confident colors in many scenes are obtained due to the natural color of objects in the frame. Wooden furniture, a yellow shirt on one of the characters, yellow curtains, even windows that are covered with old yellowed newspapers for the sake of a particular shade in the frame.
Subtle coloring is less noticeable to the eye, it does not look flashy against the background of the overall picture and, most likely, it is easy to miss it while watching a movie. Such color schemes become visible to the eye only in freeze frames. This approach makes the work with color organic, not stand out. In the end, the color balance is aimed at making it comfortable for the viewer to see this or that picture, where everything is in balance.
So, pausing, you can look closely and see that in the scene where Cobb and Ariadne meet, the costume designer dressed DiCaprio in blue and Paige in red. Practically the story of a man and a woman in a classical interpretation, classic gender colors.
In another scene, several people can be seen dressed in shades of red and pink that complement the blooming greens in the background. But here, unlike the main character, red not only complements the green, but also emphasizes aggression, because the crowd at the end began to attack Ariadne.
And in the final scene of the deepest sleep, the hue of the wooden cabinet is almost close to red, and the light on the tiles in the room is more green than cold blue. Green and red, again complementary colors.
And finally, Cobb’s father, not otherwise a university professor. Sitting in front of a classic green chalkboard and wearing a purple shirt. Another neat combination.
When analyzing shots, it’s always worth keeping in mind that there are unwritten tricks that many directors bring to their films. These are not finds worth emphasizing with a thick line, but characteristic chips, almost according to the manual of cinematographic shots. In the case of Inception, one of these techniques is the presence effect, which the director achieves by shooting a character “from behind another character’s shoulder.” So, the latter gets out of focus to the fore, framing the picture. In addition to Nolan, a characteristic move can be seen, for example, in Wes Anderson or in Catch Me If You Can.
The same applies to the perspective, which in itself is already a cinematic setting for any shots. For a beautiful picture, it remains only to place the characters there.
But contrasting light, if present in the “manuals”, is clearly much deeper. In the case of Inception, this technique is used not so much for the sake of the beauty of the frame, but for the sake of revealing the characters. A film about our subconscious, which is worked with in a dream, and even such emotional characters, requires appropriate coverage. The contrast that can be achieved through side lighting emphasizes faces, and therefore the emotions on these faces.
What is curious: in most cases, contrast lighting is used in a close-up of DiCaprio’s character. The one who can’t meet his kids and worries about the whole movie because of his wife. Despite the quantitative cast, the light accent accompanies this particular character.
From the general to the particular: behind the big tricks that go through the entire film, smaller ones are hidden, but no less important. The chips that the director uses in them can be safely taken to the moodboard and used as stylistic finds on the set.
1. Pictures with reflection. Photos through reflections in puddles and ponds are no longer new and not at all a tricky feature. However, it is worth remembering that other surfaces can also reflect, and the technique itself can be applied to portrait photography.
2. Two chips for Love story. The power of perspective has already been mentioned above, but now about a more specific exposure: a street (perhaps a pedestrian one), beautiful architecture around, shooting at a wide angle and a couple in love in the foreground walking in this perspective. The reception is clear, not complicated, and the output picture is cinematic.
After such a walk, you can take a couple in the exposition of a coffee shop or bar. Only not with large portraits at the counter, but choosing a general shot so that the interior and other visitors get into the frame. Let the lovers be in focus, the semantic center of the photo. Elaboration of plans always makes a photograph more powerful.
3. Dutch corner. Any picture will be more dynamic if you tilt the horizon line in it. Diagonal lines already have dynamics. Imagine a scene in a hotel corridor, in an elevator shaft, or on the stairs if they were filmed according to all the formal rules. Visual perception would obviously change, and the picture would look static and boring.
The reception of the Dutch angle is not a Nolan find. We even wrote a separate material, where the Dutch corner is one of the cases when the formal rules of composition can and should be violated. The Dutch angle will make the picture more lively, and emphasize the movements of the characters in such a picture. Larger angle of inclination — more dynamics! A clear must-have for street shooting.
4. Smallness. Notice the truck and the two characters in the footage. In the first of them, the exposition has a huge bridge, in the second — skyscrapers of even more impressive size, behind which the figures of the characters are generally lost. If both of these shots were taken closer to the subject, then all the contrast would be lost. By choosing a wide angle and far point of view to capture the widest possible shot, the director enhances the contradiction and contrast in the frame. Almost Chekhov’s little man against the backdrop of a huge city. Now imagine how emotional such a reception can be if it is an urban shooting in which the person being filmed is surrounded by houses hanging over him!
5. Silhouettes, blinds and hard light. Take a closer look at the selected frames, what are the similarities? In each of the three characters are opposite the window — the only source, the light is hard. The rest of the frame is immersed in semi-darkness. Or, conversely, the character from the back loses features, remaining only a silhouette against the background of the window.
A lighted window, beams of light through blinds, and lowered shadows in post-processing can be powerful tricks when shooting indoors. And if you turn the model to face the light, leaving the exposure in twilight, then this will certainly be a strong shot!