I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed how awesome the Sam-and-Dean-stalk-around-the-warehouse scene was. It was visually the most memorable of the episode not only because it was Sam and Dean and their badass selves stalking around a warehouse but also because it was *dramatic* looking. But what does dramatic mean exactly? How do you define it visually? And how do you make a scene look dramatic using camera, lights, and actors with rubber knives tiptoeing around? There’s not a single answer for any of that as, I think, most of it’s contextual, but here’s an attempt to breakdown this scene to see some ways it was made to look so badass cool and *dramatic*.
But first, a word on creating visual drama in a very general sense:
Drama can be injected visually a million different ways. One of the essential keys is tricking the audience’s eyes into believing what they’re seeing is real, to convince us that the 2D surface we’re staring at is 3D. This 3D illusion is called deep space, and to achieve this many depth clues or perspective effects must be used consistently and repeatedly. Let’s briefly talk about some clues/effects Singer used to give the illusion of depth and then look at the warehouse scene to see where they come into play.
1. Create longitudinal planes where one side of the plane appears smaller than the other, generating a vanishing point or vanishing points either on or off-screen.
2. Overlap objects and/or characters to show which are closer or farther from the camera.
3. Move the camera such that it reveals or hides other characters.
4. Shoot through or past foreground objects as the camera moves as it follows the characters (tracking shots). This works because it creates motion parallax whereby stationary objects closer to the camera appear to move across the screen faster than stationary objects farther away (this gets slightly tricky when objects within the scene at different depths are moving at different speeds but the effect still works).
5. Move characters away and toward the camera or move the camera away and toward characters (but only if there are objects and/or characters occupying varying distances away from the camera), creating size differences as they move: objects/characters are larger closer to the camera and smaller farther away.
6. Use side lighting and low-key lighting to “round out” objects and/or characters by casting shadows that show depth and texture and general 3D-ness.
7. Light the scene such that there are areas of light and dark so that the differential lighting “layers” the scene.
8. Light the background “hotter” in order to direct the audience’s eye to the back of the setting.
9. Use rack focus to direct the audience’s eye through the depth of the scene.
The scenes are at 2:44-end in first and from 0:40-1:24 in the second embedded videos. A lot of the points touched on above are operating simultaneously throughout the scenes, but I’m only going to talk about the most notable examples.
2:44-3:07, Rule 7: You can see the background is lit, the mid-ground is dark and the foreground is lit. This creates nice layers of dark and light and highlights the boys’ silhouettes as they walk toward the camera and into the foreground light where the important part of the scene takes place.
3:08, Rules 1, 6, 7, 8: discussed in screencap 1 caption below.
Screencap 1. The floors, both walls, and the ceiling creates longitudinal lines with their vanishing points converging in the middle of the red-lit wall at the back of the setting, making the hallway look 3-dimensional (rule 1). The foreground lighting originates from the right-hand side of the screen, throwing deep shadows across Dean’s face (and then Sam’s) and making it appear more rounded and textured (rule 6). See the alternating stripes of pooled light and shadow down the hall, which give the sense of dimension (rule 7). Note the wall at the back of the setting is glaringly red in order to draw your eye through the depth of the scene (rule 8).
3:08-3:19, Rules 9, 5, and 2: The focus starts off on Dean in the foreground and is pulled to the red-lit wall as he turns his head and stares at it, motioning to Sam to continue before turning and walking down the hall and coming back into focus (rule 9). At 3:16 the focus is pulled back to the foreground and Sam, making Dean—who is walking away from the camera (rule 5)—go out of focus. Sam walks forward (across the screen), overlapping Dean (rule 2).
1:00-1:15 All the rules except 4: Sam walks across the screen, his silhouette seen through a doorway of panels of plastic sheeting backlit in red light (rule 8). The camera follows him, revealing a demon standing in the foreground, who turns as the camera tracks past (rules 2, 3). Note the low-key lighting highlighting the demon from above rather than from the side as was done for Sam and Dean at 3:08 (rule 6). Direct overhead lighting like this casts deep shadows that obscure parts of the face (most noticeably the eyes), making it appear menacing and sinister (screencap 2 vs. screencap 1). The camera continues to track, catching Sam emerging from a back hallway where the beams on the right-hand side wall forms longitudinal lines directing your eye down the length of the scene to Sam (rule 1). Hidden in this transition is a rack focus from the foreground demon to Sam (rule 9). Sam pauses and walks toward the camera (rule 5) through pools of light and shadow (rule 7).
1:16-1:24 Rules 2, 4: The camera tracks from left to right across a doorway, showing Dean walking in the opposite direction, then Sam enters in the foreground from the left side and the camera moves with him (rule 2). Motion parallax can best be seen at 1:16-1:17 between the foreground doorway—appearing to move quickly from right to left across the screen—and doorways and walls in the mid- and background, which appear to move more slowly. In order to see this, try not to let Sam and Dean, who are moving independently from the camera, distract you from watching the stationary objects.
Finally a side-note on all of the long, hard horizontal (beams on the walls), vertical (panels of plastic sheeting, door frames), and diagonal lines (wire mesh and the shadows it casts as seen in the background lighting) in these scenes (screencaps 3-5). Besides being interesting to look at, they create a sense of urgency and tension and convey strength and hardness. The red lighting also adds an element of danger and a sense of warning. All of these elements play in nicely with the idea of covertly sneaking around one of Crowley’s demon-infested, secret torture centers. \o/
If you're interested in more nerdy camera talk for this episode go here.