The man of the moment: Ridley Scott, coming back with ALIEN: COVENANT *screams in approval* is the main topic of today’s post, which is one of my latest works for uni and I thought some of you might like it 😀 I’ll keep working some more on Scott’s films, more focused on Alien (as I’m a big fan of the movies), so… you know, if interested, you can follow my blog for future enlightenment! :DD without further do…
The depths of the use of cinematic techniques, including visual language, genre and style in Ridley Scott’s films address to a major influential aesthetic choice in filmography. This film director does not take any chance of misplacing any element outside or within the frame, completely focused on the display of items and people in every scene, Scott’s storyboarding can be compared to that of Hitchcock
Scott is also one of the few movie-makers who meticulously story-board their films. He was trained at art school and suckled on comic strips. Alien owes its slackless narrative to an action blue-print as purposive and pre-planned as Hitchcock’s. similarly, Scott’s movies can’t be re-cut by volatile producers or wildcat editors, using the usual spare parts of master-shots and close-ups. (Knapp and Kulas, 2005)
Taking into consideration his artistic background, this film director portrays a wide range of knowledge in all his films. This post is going to be focused on how these cinematic choices fall into place and make two of his most famous films be considered pieces of art in the movie industry, starting with Blade Runner (1972) and wrapping it up with Black Hawk Down (2001), the use of color palettes and imagery is going to be analyzed, as well as some terminology briefly explained to give a sense of unity to the whole picture.
Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down are the perfect examples in Scott’s filmography to depict the malleability of the imagery and colors in the film industry. The way in which a director arranges the setting, and the tones chosen to unify an atmosphere alongside with the framing are key elements in filmmaking to achieve a certain feeling and to involve the audience’s emotions into a world that lasts a mere two hours and a half. Ridley Scott breaks the social conventions of color palettes in war films with Black Hawk Down (Botkin, 2009). However, he also created a sense of unity within what looks like massive entropy at first, and it ends up deeply engaging the viewer.
On the other hand, Blade Runner does not break the social convention of color palettes, it follows certain cinematic features that are related to the genre in which this film is classified: Neo Noir. Nonetheless, this film also brings into the industry original features and an interesting display of colors and environments. The viewer also gets submerged into the mood, not only through the authenticity of the movie itself, but through its music. Ridley Scott brings out moving pictures that engage all the senses, people dive into them in a state of “suspension of disbelief” and they are completely dragged into a whole new world.
These two films are fixed within different genres, but they share an aesthetically important feature: the colors and tones. These elements, previously mentioned as key to the filmmaking process, have contrasting purposes in each of these films. Even though, the color palettes are almost the same. Scott puts emphasis in the aesthetic of his movies and tends to leave aside the narrative and the acting. His works “rest on a linear script built on the same scheme: an individual, or a group of individuals, who are under attack”. (Knapp and Kulas, 2005) they lack complexity, which is replaced by the whole scenery and the script is drawn to a background feature of the final production. He, as a director, is more interested in creating an environment than in complex storytelling techniques. Scott addresses this as “[…] the most pleasant aspect about making a film.” (Knapp and Kulas, 2005)
This “environment” in theatre and cinema is known as mise en scène and according to Giannetti it can be described in this industry as follows:
“In movies, it is more complicated as it blends the visual conventions of the live theatre with those of painting. The filmmaker arranges objects and people within a given three-dimensional space. But once this arrangement is photographed, it is converted into a two-dimensional image of the real thing. Only the image exists in the same physical area, like a picture in an art gallery.” (Giannetti, 2005)
The definition given by Giannetti is the most accurate for my purposes, and alongside this concept, there is another one that is as important to understand Scott’s approach to filmmaking and how he manages to psychologically influence the viewer through the lenses of a camera: framing, which “[…] as an aesthetic device, the frame performs in several ways. […] The sensitive director is just as concerned with what is left out of the frame as with what is included.
The materials included within a shot are unified by the frame, which in effect imposes an order on them. The frame is thus essentially an isolating device, a technique that permits the director to confer special attention on what might be overlooked in a wider context.” (Giannetti, 2005)
In the case of Blade Runner, the film takes place in a futuristic dystopian L.A. and during the movie one of the most influential features is a non-stop rain, this shows a sense of despair and pollution. This feature is characteristic of noir films, which is a genre within the movie industry. Film noir is based on German Expressionism and one of its major influences is M (1931) by Fritz Lang, other examples of the genre are Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Though film noir is often identified with a visual style, that emphasizes low-key lighting and unbalanced compositions, films commonly identified as noir evidence a variety of visual approaches. Film noir similarly embraces a variety of genres, from the gangster film to the police procedural to the gothic romance to the social problem picture—any example of which from the 1940s and 1950s, now seen as noir’s classical era, was likely to be described as a “melodrama” at the time. (ScreenSense, n.d. and wikipedia :D)
The neo-noir film genre developed mid-way into the Cold War. This new genre introduced innovations that were not available with the earlier noir films. The violence was also more potent than in earlier productions. (ScreenSense, n.d. and wiki)
After the neo noir was coined as a genre separated from film noir, a new sub-genre appeared, this new genre was coined by film director James Cameron two years after the premier of Blade Runner, and encompassed a mixture of two different types of films: sci-fi and noir films, which ended up being known as Tech noir. (Miller, 2014) Ridley Scott used the characteristics of the noir films to create the atmosphere that wraps up the futuristic L.A. in Blade Runner, instead of using black and white to create a sense of mystery, he used different tones of yellow and blue. The use of shadows, accomplished through these complimentary colors, was also a key element to convey the enigmatic feeling surrounding the city and characters.
Scott kept the characteristic shot – of the noir films- with the bars formed from the blinds being struck with light from the outside, this reaffirms the concept of a doubtful morale in the film. He also accomplishes this idea through the appearance of characters in the shadows (their faces are never completely in the light), the viewer gets the impression of never being completely sure about the moral codes followed by the protagonists. The presence of obscure scenes is a constant in Blade Runner – most of the film takes place at night- and the presence of the femme fatale, which was also part of the noir style, with the cigarettes and the smoke (Miller, 2014) (this contrives more shadowy environments) create a sense of a living background – that is part of the story.
In terms of architecture, again, the British director turned his eye towards the architect that inspired a famous noir film’s mise en scène, Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang: Antonio Sant’Elia, who was involved in the futurist movement in architecture. (Landes, 2016) All these features buttoned down the dark ambience of the film that lures the audience into it. The strong scenery in this film is not the only captivating element: the beginning of the film is introduced by background music that drops at the end of the prologue and lets the audience fall into a bird’s-eye view that completes this feeling of being abducted by this world.
The music in Blade Runner and the music in Black Hawk Down have different psychological purposes, as in the second one, the viewer finds that the compositions are very emotional and only when the U.S. soldiers die we hear nostalgic and sad music, but when the audience face the death of Somalians there is no music. This gives a sense of defamiliarization with certain characters throughout the film, which is the same process that military men and women go through before going to war, they detach themselves from the enemy, and embrace the sense of not having to feel anything for them – in this particular film, Scott plays with the music and the emotions of the spectators, as well as with the color palettes.
As previously mentioned, Black Hawk Down breaks with the social conventions of color palettes in war films, the only feature that is still present in this film is the use of the bleach bypass, which is accomplished through color grading and post-production. (Botkin, 2009) The movie starts off with the landscape of Somalia’s dessert in brown tones, which implies a feeling of distraught and danger. Black tire smoke is a common theme, which contaminates the sky and implies that there is trouble.
From the start, the viewer is aware that the colors do not accurately match the situations, as the warm tones are typically associated with safe, calm and relaxing environments and cool tones with danger, but in this case is completely the opposite. The only safe place in this fictional Somalia is the military base (Botkin, 2009), which happens to be blue (it has various tones of blue, including halogen lights and computer screens). These tones are associated with coldness and unfamiliarity in their conventional use and Ridley Scott implemented these color changes to unsettle the spectator.
Unaware of the flow of colors in the film, the audience still has not settled into a determined pattern and another color-shocking scene appears: The scene in which a soldier calls his wife before going out on the mission. It was calibrated in post-production for a very saturated look. The film does not have any other scenes with saturated looks, as it has been mentioned before, the whole movie was edited in post-production with the bleach bypass, which happens to present a low saturation. This gives a sense of being in a dream, something too far away for the soldiers. Scott decided to go with this particular style in this scene to portray through colors the emotional distance between the soldiers and their daily lives that were being left behind.
When the soldiers enter the brightly late Mogadishu the mission begins and that is when all the trouble starts, the nice, warm orange tones that are supposed to be comforting are now dangerous, the conventions to this color palette are flipped around. The viewer now is getting a grasp on the meaning of the tones in which they are being subdued. This scene is key to the understanding of the use of the color palettes in the movie: the soldiers are out on the mission, and their captains are in the base. The light on the faces of the captains is warm, even though they are in a blue environment (halogen lights and screens at the back). The superiors are sharing the same emotional burden as the soldiers in the field.
After some fighting scenes, the soldiers hide in a basement, which happens to have blue lighting, the audience know that they are safe. This scene is worth mentioning as the framing here plays an important role. Ridley Scott decided to charge the movie with different tones, addressing the viewer psychologically, and one can notice that he achieved his goal when the soldiers are hiding and one of them is looking through some cracks into the light of day. The soldier is inside the building (blue tones), and is facing the outside, which is warm yellow – the audience know that he is facing danger, but we are never able to see what he is looking at – and we know it is dangerous, because Scott told us so.
Once again, the director of this film played with the color of the night, which normally would be represented by dark blue tones and a silver moon. In Black Hawk Down the spectator faces a spooky green night – again dangerous. And it is not until dawn that the blue tones return alongside with the reinforcements. (Botkin, 2009) The ending of the film is crucial to determine the whole meaning behind this unsettling color palette changes: the soldiers return to the base under a bluish daylight, but when they reach this safe place, the color palettes return to normal conventions. This situation places the audience and the soldiers in a state of trance – a nightmare that would not end until that senseless mission was over.
Ridley Scott approached in two different ways the same color palettes in these films. In the case of Blade Runner, the main dangerous color is dark-blue, but the yellow is also present in the explosions and in some scenes (such as the one with people walking with yellow umbrellas under the rain), but the main scene in which the warm-yellow tones were present was soon cut out by the characters as they addressed it as “too bright” – the whole picture was under the conventional use of colors. These same colors, in Black Hawk Down, were inverted but they kept a logical meaning attached to them, which gave to the whole picture a sense of unity (the colors were carefully thought out and they were not randomly chosen, making it easy for the viewer to identify a pattern and follow the flow, which is easy to determine only by looking at the color chart of the movie).
The visual techniques and the colors chosen in both of these films account to aesthetic choices carefully crafted to psychologically affect the audience and create an absorbing mise en scène that works perfectly with the linear scripts that can be considered complimentary to the narrative of Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down. Undoubtfully innovative and original, Ridley Scott achieves outstanding productions with uncommon cinematic choices that wrap up the mind of the viewer around these unknown worlds.
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Blade Runner. (1982). [DVD] Ridley Scott.
Black Hawk Down. (2001). [DVD] Ridley Scott.