Use of Framing to Visualise Characters’ Thoughts and Feelings in Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire is never afraid to go for broke with its direction. While sometimes (especially in Season 1) this leans too hard into melodrama or Dutch tilts, overall, the direction makes any given episode stand out.

(To read a fantastic piece on the show’s use of colour, in the episode after the one we’re discussing now, check out this piece from The A.V. Club.)

I just want to talk about one scene [start @ 27 minutes] in 2.05 “Extract and Defend” – where Cameron confronts Joe in that most handy of all cinematic places, the parking garage.

Ah the parking garage. You ubiquitous, cheap-to-rent, easy-to-excuse-shifty-lighting-because-of, delightful bastard of a cinematic multitool.

The same place Deep Throat met Woodward, the same place we first see Batman in The Dark Knight, the same place Mike introduces himself to Pryce and a couple goons, the same place Tokyo Drift made a redeeming scene, and the same place literally hundreds of slashers go after their would-be victims, to varying results. Baby Driver jumped there. Logan Echolls made his second White Knight stand there. Ethan Hunt staged a fantastic setpiece there. The Driver debuts there.

Etc. etc.

An iconic place, ripe for some iconic staging which uses literal spacial relationship to signify inner thoughts and metaphorical relationships to each other.

Immediately, Cameron lines up on the left, Joe on the right. They start as far apart as the frame will let them be, and Cameron gradually gets closer.

And closer.

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When they cut into medium shots, they frame them nearly on top of each other.

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Cameron always on the left of Joe. Cameron on the far left third of the screen, half off-screen, when the camera is behind her.

Joe the right of Cameron. Joe on the far right third of the screen, half off-screen, when the camera is behind him.

Among other things, this ‘extreme third’ framing keeps the focus clearly on the face of the person we’re seeing dialogue and reactions from. 

And then to closeups, where we have the same setups..

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So far, it’s visually interesting, but other than the obvious closing of distance, then getting closer and closer as the characters get more and more confrontational, it’s not particularly telling us anything about their inner thoughts.

Then! When Sara, Joe’s fiancée, arrives, she deliberately steps between them.

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The scene continues with the same framing as before, only now there’s another level of meaning. 

Sara’s visible when we’re on Joe’s medium shot, because all Cameron sees is this obstacle between her and Joe.

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But when it flips to Cameron’s MS, Sara is completely obscured and out of the picture . . . Because all Joe (and the audience) sees is Cameron.

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In other words, the framing in the first half of the scene doesn’t just work well as it is aesthetically, but sets us up perfectly for this emotional payoff.

The camera angles never change, we keep cutting back to the same setups we saw earlier. The main players never even move. Yet, it’s wildly different.

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Just by adding one piece, the way we see the figures in the frame informs us of their inner thoughts. It’s so much more powerful than to have readjusted frame after Sara walks in. Keeping it static with Sara being the only thing that shifts, and of course that shift is so massive, nothing else needs to change around it for us to notice.

Last, when Cameron walks away, she walks to the left of frame (where she’s been pidgeonholed the whole time), and Sara steps in to take the place Camera just left vacant. Which of course is what happened between Season 1 and 2. 

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Halt and Catch Fire is so good in great part because its directors understand how framing, not just colour and acting, give us insight into the characters’ mental and emotional states, as well as where they are in relation to each other at any given moment.

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