Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Face Accent

When I watched Firefox (Clint Eastwood, 1982) - a truly awful Cold War movie - the other day, there was a moment (lasting barely a second) that made me wince unexpectedly, not because of some filmmaking trick but due to controlled acting. It was this one shot that still lingers on in my mind, so I decided to take some screengrabs and post it here as an acting study.

What I'm writing about here is fairly conventional stuff, but stuff I tend to forget about when falling back into animation acting clichés.

Like the hard-boiled crooks in film noir classics, Eastwood's Russian military antagonists move as little as possible when they talk.This, of course, helps establish the stiff military environment. If Eastwood as a director is capable of one thing, then it's most classic straight forward film making that never draws attention to itself. (Part of what makes this movie so unbearable is his heavy-handed earnestness applied to a preposterous story.)

What we have here is a lenghty suppressed power play between the sober Soviet general Vladimirov (Klaus Löwitsch, one of Fassbinder's stars, condemned to play communist bad guys in 80s Hollywood) and the First Secretary (Stefan Schnabel), who is outraged about Eastwood stealing a MIG31 ("the firefox"). The scene is intercut with two parallel outside actions and - just before the climax - with reaction shots of the rest of the crew, which I have all left out.

In the first part of the scene, Vladimirov's eyes are almost always in the shadow. He is left in the frame, while the First Secretary is halfway in light and backed by his subordinates.
Then Eastwood shows us the spatial relations because one of the two radio guys in the front is receiving new information. It's interesting that he doesn't cut to an immediate close-up of the radio guy but stays on the ensemble to have us see the reaction of all people involved.
Then we come back to the antagonists, only closer this time.

After a few shots of a parallel scene we are back in the control room where the two have changed positions.
Vladimirov is still surrounded by darkness but his face is lit from below.
By classically cutting closer to the opposing faces (with large shadow areas, one of Eastwood’s most obvious trademarks), the tension is heightened. So when the climactic upshot (another one of Eastwood’s trademarks) finally appears, we only see facial features lit from below.

The climax of this power play scene: the general accuses the First Secretary (the real big shot here) of being stupid in front of all his men. After a short silence, the general now reverses the chain of command and tells the first secretary: “you must act, first secretary!”.

If you listen to the dialogue snippet, the accent lies on the word “act”. In animation we tend to accent this word by a strong head move (with a big anticipation maybe). Now a big head accent would destroy the rigid composition and would also appear out of character for the general. Instead the actor goes for what I call a face accent:

In this video you see each individual frame (roughly a second of screen time) for half a second.
If you overlay frame 1 with frame 17 (the extreme position), you see how little the head moves, yet how strongly the face is distorted:

The beautiful thing: In animation we could go much further with the distortion.
This shot also shows how the expression change is not happening all at once. Just study the timing on the various features like eyelids, eyebrows, cheeks and mouth. There are so many details here. Note how before the accent (frame 11-14) he doesn’t look his opponent into the eye but slightly dow. Here are the 25 frames used in the slow-motion video (the last one is next to the First Secretary's reaction shot):

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