Still Looking: Gail Segal and Sheril Antonio’s Dramatic Effects with a Movie Camera
In their new book, Dramatic Effects with a Movie Camera, Gail Segal, a poet, filmmaker and associate arts professor, and Sheril Antonio, an associate arts professor in the department of art and public policy, both at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, describe a form of shot-by-shot film analysis that can teach filmmakers the nuances of cinematic storytelling. Recently published by Bloomsbury Publishing, the richly illustrated book is based on an NYU graduate filmmaking course taught more than two decades ago by Segal.
“This class was an investigation of film technique,” Segal explains, “with the goal of applying these techniques toward one’s own work. One of the ways that I put it was, ‘What can we steal?’ or ‘What can we learn from other films?’” Segal adds that the first iteration of the class was extraordinary, with students such as Debra Granik, Michael Burr, Katherine Lindberg, Lisa Robinson and Joshua Marston. Because of the class’s instant success, Segal continued to teach it regularly. “At some point, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, someone said, ‘I wish this was in writing,’” says Segal. “That was really the impetus for creating the book.”
The challenges facing Segal, however, were daunting. How would she capture the dynamism of the graduate film classroom, in which film viewing is accompanied by discussion? “My whole teaching strategy is Socratic,” she says. “We look at work. I ask a question, then the students answer and we build a dialogue. By its very nature, this is going to be gone in a book. And that dialogue is what creates the energy. So for me, in deciding to do this project, the challenge was finding what could substitute for the energy of the classroom on the page.”
This is where Antonio stepped in. She and Segal had been friends for many years and shared a passion for global cinema. While discussing the project over dinner one night, Antonio offered to help out, with the goal of focusing specifically on the images to be included. Segal had already been turned down by two presses wary of the cost of publishing a book with an abundance of images, but Bloomsbury was undaunted. The next step, then, was to decide which film sequences to include, and to choose the specific images and place them on the page dynamically.
Antonio dove into the project enthusiastically: “I went back and watched many films. I watched all of Satyajit Ray and Kurosawa’s early films that were requirements in film school, but I had forgotten what it was like to enjoy them!” Like Segal, Antonio is passionate about the melding of theory and practice. How can deliberately examining and discussing films make one a better filmmaker? She fully endorses Segal’s idea that shot-by-shot investigation leads to more thoughtful filmmaking choices.
“I start with the work,” says Segal. “I don’t start with an idea. I don’t start with a concept. I start with the work. What can the work show us?” She continues, “Film is a visceral medium. Maybe even before it’s a narrative medium—as those early experimental films show us—it’s just visceral. So, how can you as a writer or director hold that visceral nature of it captive and in service to the story you want to tell? That’s what we’re doing. How did this director do it? How did that director do it? I’m asking students when they watch a clip or a film to respond first with their viscera. What was the sensation? How did it make you feel? Then, how did we get there?”
The book models how to engage in this inquiry. Its nine chapters address mise-en-scène, the static camera, close-up, moving camera, wide shot, long take, handheld camera work and visual dynamics and tone. Almost all of its pages include shot sequences with clear descriptions of the techniques used to achieve certain effects. A brutal sequence from Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité, for example, shows the power of the static shot across seven images, with specific attention to character point of view. The images alone are compelling, but the text offers a way of reading their “disturbing complexity” that is thrillingly insightful. “This is the discomfort of our having to look for too long at an image that refuses immersion,” Segal writes, noting that we, as viewers, come to share not something as simple as character identification but rather the accusation of voyeurism that is directed at the character in the scene.
Segal demonstrates the power of the close-up through a reading of the 16 shots opening Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl. The filmmaker restricts the frame to tight shots on several girls pushed together, refusing to establish a location or context to orient the viewer. “The use of close-up and crowded medium shots act as a strategy for giving emphasis,” explains the accompanying text. “The emphasis is weighted by what we are not shown, but what is subtracted.”
Antonio says that while the examples are indeed exemplary, they are not necessarily replicable. “One of the things to be careful about with our students is not to highlight anything as the only way to do something,” she says. “Instead, we say that in this context, this technique delivered this result. We don’t want to [privilege] any single way of doing something, but instead we want to highlight achievements.” She adds, “I’m proud of the films we put in conversation.”
And she should be. While it would have been easy to collect simple examples of various kinds of camera techniques, Segal and Antonio have instead selected powerfully expressive examples, moving well beyond the Hollywood canon. The historical and global range of films included in the book is quite stunning, and just paging through it prompts a desire to see unfamiliar films or revisit those already seen. Miklós Jancsó brushes up against Béla Tarr and Gus Van Sant in the long take chapter. Andrea Arnold, Paweł Pawlikowski and Charles Burnett share space in another chapter focusing on handheld techniques, while Jia Zhangke, Spike Lee and Věra Chytilová connect in yet another chapter centered on tone.
With its expansive array of examples, careful attention to dramatic complexity and devout respect for the achievements of directors and cinematographers, the book exemplifies a great graduate seminar between covers. The clear affection for cinema evident on every page is contagious. “It really is a love letter for people who make movies and who love movies,” says Segal. “I love movies, and I love anyone who is bold enough to look at them and make them.”