Talking Movies returns for another week, and with this instalment I will be examining the hugely praised Brazilian movie ‘City of God’. The Talking Movies series shows you how you can get more out of your street photography by studying movies and learning from the composition and lighting effects movie-makers use to make visually arresting art. As usual, I’ll choose three scenes from the movie to look at, and then I’ll show three of my own street photographs to highlight the similarities with the movie and illustrate how cinema has influenced my photography. I’ll also point out differences between my shots and the movie stils, to emphasise how I’m yet to be able to put all the ideas from the movie into practice! Previous instalments of this series can be found on the Talking Movies section of the website.
Introducing City of God
Directed by Fernando Meirelles, City of God was released in 2002 in Brazil, and quickly received worldwide critical acclaim with 4 Oscar nominations, and a BAFTA award. The movie was awarded 6 Cinema Brazil Grand Prizes, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. Based on Paulo Lins’ semi-autobiographical novel, City of God tells the stories of young people growing up in the dangerous Cidade de Deus favela in Rio de Janeiro amongst gangs, violence, drug dealing and poverty. Everything about the movie is designed to throw the viewer into the scene, and particularly the lives of the children and young people whose world the whole story centres on. Cinematographer César Charlone fills City of God with fast moving dynamic and creative camerawork to really immerse the viewer in the crazy world of the favela, a sensation that is further enhanced by the frenetic and sharp editing which characterizes the movie.
The first scene I’d like to look at is this amazing evocative shot. It’s only a fleeting frame – blink and you’d miss it, but it’s one that has a gloriously evocative and Latin American feel to it. This kind of shot is also one of my personal favourite ‘people’ shots, as I love scenes that show ‘layers’ of faces in profile. In this scene, the focal point is the old man’s face, which is placed right on the edge of the frame, occupying around one third of the right side of the shot. This is in keeping with the oft-quoted ‘rule-of-thirds’ compositional rule, that advises splitting a frame into areas of thirds in order to create a visually distinctive arrangement. The hat atop the man’s head helps to make for a more interesting profile, but the cleverest part of the scene is the way the man looks across to the left, and the boy in the background is moving and looking across to the right – the two characters are mirrored in the scene. Note too how the boy also has something atop his head (a suitcase) which further adds to the sense of the characters being a reflection of one another – it’s like there is a mirror running along the centre of the frame! The background of this shot (including the boy) is very busy indeed, so the use of a narrow depth of field is crucial in ensuring the foreground (the man) is well separated from the background to avoid an overly complex and confusing scene.
The muted colours used throughout this shot are all complementary to one another, making for a very harmonious scene and again preventing the frame from appearing too busy. There’s a powerful, strong, and relatively low sun to camera left which creates a fantastic amount of contrast. The strength and positioning of the sunlight makes for some lovely intense shadows, the most noticeable of which is the one formed from the man’s hat, which dissects his face in a very surreal way, leaving only his nose and mouth clearly visible. Using light to ‘crop’ a face in this way leaves a distinct impression on the viewer as the face appears much more abstract and interesting and actually results in the viewer examining the face in more detail. The eye is instantly drawn to the parts of the face that can be seen in the light, in this case that amazingly distinctive hooked nose!
I actually find a shot in this style one of the easier ones to make in street photography, as compositions like this that use the profile of a subject don’t require you to force your lens into making direct eye contact with them. In fact, for many shots like this I’ve found that I can have my camera very close to the side of a subject’s head and they’re often unawares they’re even in my frame! This approach can mean your subject is more likely to remain still and not react to your camera, which is of great help when making a measured composition. Look for a nice light source, ideally one that shines into the face of your subject in the foreground, and wait for something or someone in the background that is arranged in such a way that they appear to be ‘interacting’ with the subject in the foreground.
My shot varies quite a lot from the movie still, though I used the core elements of the movie frame in my composition. As with the movie, my subject in the foreground dominates the corner of my frame, in this case in fact even more so than the movie shot. Unlike the movie, my background subject isn’t facing towards and mirroring my foreground subject, instead I’ve made my subject ‘interact’ with the background by using his body position. The man’s back ‘curves’ into the centre of the frame, leading the viewer’s eye on a line that then joins the sweep of the glass barrier atop the serving station. Extra emphasis is placed on the subject in the background of my shot by the artificial heater downlight that casts a warm glow on her face, greatly contrasting with the cool lighting illuminating the rest of the scene. An extra element of interest in my shot is the fact it is shot through glass. My photo doesn’t have the stark simplicity of the movie scene, but the dirt and artifacts on the glass window do add an extra piece of substance to the shot. Lit from the lights within the restaurant the specks on the glass appear almost like snowflakes or raindrops. What this photo really needed though was an extra light from camera right, throwing a strong light on the man’s face to really make him more of a focal point!
This shot absolutely astonished me when I first noticed it in the movie. It’s a great example of some expert location scouting, as the strong geometry of the urban architecture is what totally dominates the scene and makes it interesting and memorable. Look at those incredible leading lines, made all the more obvious by the use of a wide lens to really show off this impressive architecture. The lines of the rows of garages disappear to a single vanishing point just off centre to the right of the frame in a classic example of one point perspective that fills the shot with depth – the viewer is truly drawn into the scene by this effect. Of course, the rear wall of the background vanishing point is positioned where it is in the frame because it follows the rule that a visually unbalanced image makes for one which is more distinctive to the viewer. I particularly like the trapezium like shape of negative space at the top of the frame that is created by the two vanishing point lines and the line in the foreground that runs along the horizontal. This shape really focuses the eye on the scene, and it is further strengthened by the arrangement of artificial light in the shot, with the areas of light and shadow clearly defining the edges of the lines and the jet-black inkiness of the night sky. The small red spot lights running along the bottom of the trapezium shape are a great extra point of visual interest in the scene, and again serve to draw the viewer deep into the shot and make it appear truly three dimensional.
The scene is dominated by shadows, making the use of artificial light throughout masterful. Small pools of light throughout offer just enough lighting to illustrate the lines and architecture in the scene, whilst still allowing it to remain dark, brooding and moody. Notice how the wall in the background at the vanishing point is nicely lit as the focal point of the shot, mirrored with a lovely ‘pool’ of light in the foreground of the shot, again serving to emphasise the depth and perspective of the scene. The characters run in and out of the pools of light in the scene whilst the camera remains stationary – in this particular freeze frame they are captured mid motion as a pool of light spills out from an open garage door which draws attention to them brilliantly and focuses the viewer on their dramatic fleeing of the crime scene.
As with the first shot I analysed, this scene is also one that is relatively easy for a street photographer to emulate, provided they have access to some brutalist style urban architecture of course! So look for a tunnel, underpass, or rows of garages like this – anything with clear leading lines and strong geometry, ideally with a well defined ‘vanishing point’ square in the background in order to illustrate the three dimensional depth of the scene. If the area is lit in an interesting way by artificial lights then all the better! Then just wait for some interesting subjects to enter the frame!
My shot is fundamentally similar to the one in the movie, with the most obvious difference being the use of light and the fact it was shot during daylight rather than at night. As with the scene from City of God, my photo is dominated by leading lines that vanish into one point perspective in the background. Like the movie shot, I placed the small square of light in the background which the lines converge into just off the centre of the frame in order to slightly unbalance the shot and make it more interesting. My photo also features a horizontal ‘frame’ across the top of the image, which helps to contain the subject matter of the photo and focus the viewer’s eye. Unlike the movie, I also have a vertical frame line on the right of the shot, again to ‘contain’ the main portion of the image. While my shot uses light less dramatically than the still from City of God, it does feature more leading lines that help to emphasise the depth of the scene. For instance the lines of the pavement are a nice mix of converging lines dissected by horizontals that really emphasise perspective. The ‘heavy lifting’ of the perspective effect is generated by the artificial lighting in the shot, with the repeating and disappearing lines of fluorescent lights stealing attention in the frame and leading the viewer on a journey into the light in the background. This shot required lots of patience – I had to wait and wait at the entrance to the underpass for some people to arrive, and then I had to ensure they were walking in just the right position, and stepping into the light portal in the background so that they stood out as powerful silhouettes against the brightly lit outside world. While my shot is of course a daylight photo whereas the movie still is at night, the arrangement of light in the shots shares several similarities. Because my photo is shot in an underpass, shadow dominates the centre of the frame, with light used just to help illustrate extra elements of the shot and emphasise them. Of course, my shot could have been so much more powerful and eerie as a night photo, though I don’t think the streetlights in the background of the shot would have been powerful enough to leave a portal of light to create the subject silhouettes, meaning that it wouldn’t be possible to replicate in this instance anyway.
The final scene I want to analyse is this amazing room shot. This is a still from an extraordinary montage of images where the camera remains in the same position and events occur in front of it in a ‘time lapse’ style. I absolutely love the camera position in this shot – it’s very fly-on-the-wall in style, and reminds me a lot of some of the ‘voyeuristic’ shots which dominate The Graduate, a movie which I analysed in an earlier instalment of Talking Movies. A scene like this is all about layers of detail that add up to create a really immersive scene. The two boys in the foreground of the image are the clear focal points of the shot, and they dominate two thirds of the right hand side of the frame. Again, this layout follows the rule of thirds guide for good compositions. Note also how the character standing is positioned at a third of the way across the frame, and by standing he forms a lovely strong vertical line that dissects the frame and draws the viewer’s attention. The lighting arrangement in this shot is truly beautiful, with strong light spilling into the frame from windows to camera left and from the background. These lighting sources mean the image is filled with dark shadows, interspersed with patches of highlights in a chiaroscuro-esque way. I’d call this shot a truly cinematic one, without any hint of irony!
In what ways can you utilise the effects from this scene in your street photography then? For a shot in this style I would really emphasise a subtle, candid approach – look for moments where groups of people are interacting with one another in a confined space like a bar or maybe a takeaway restaurant and train your camera on them. Capture moments that show the scene unfolding before you using a wide lens, and ideally choose a location with an interesting mix of light and shadows, which would probably mean photographing at night, or at least inside a fairly darkened room, in order to really emphasise the light sources when they do appear. Be sure to expose for the highlighted area to really get the shadows popping.
My photo departs entirely from the composition used in the movie, but I feel really matches the aura of the movie scene. As with the movie, it is the lighting that really lends my shot its dramatic power, with my subjects mostly obscured by shadow, and only small parts of their faces and bodies highlighted by light falling across them. This shot was taken during Rethymno carnival season, which explains the strange outfits you can see! I particularly liked how the light fell across the bows on the tops of the heads of the two subjects in the foreground, but their faces were almost entirely hidden by shadow, which lends the photo a very surreal feel. The light on the man to the left in the middle ground falls across just one side of his face much like the City of God still, illuminating only a strip of his features in profile. As with the City of God shot, my photo is built around layers, in this case several ‘rows’ of people all interacting on different levels. There are small details too, which make the shot feel immersive as with the City of God one – they both share the detritus of the everyday accumulated on the table tops. My photo of course lacks the elegant simplicity of the movie shot, making mine an altogether much busier composition, something that the shallow depth of field only overcomes slightly. In an ideal world the two characters in the background in the middle of the frame wouldn’t be visible, leaving a nice area of negative space between the two subjects in the middle ground.
I’ve only shown you three shots from range of delights on offer in City of God, so I would certainly recommend watching it for the truly immersive experience it provides. The movie’s cinematography, sounds, and editing really hurl you headfirst into street life in Rio’s Cidade de Deus favela. Because the whole focus of the story is on the life and experiences of the favela’s young residents the movie never feels like a clichéd series of tourist-style shots of ‘poverty porn’, but instead conveys the whole life of the residents, showing the good as well as the bad. City of God, and its cinematography in particular, does exactly what excellent documentary street photography should do. It throws a camera lens into the moment, capturing the vibrant and dynamic world that unfolds around it without resorting to clumsy and heavy-handed metaphors. It’s a movie that’s going to fill you with an urge to grab your camera and head out into the melee of the streets, so please give it a watch!