WWI: The Cinematography of ‘Her’

Her is a touching dramatic narrative about the relationship between humans and AIs in the near future. Focusing on the relationship between Phoenix – a letter composer, and Johansson – a custom made AIthe story centers around the discussion of weather an AI can be considered a person and therefore can a relationship with one be seen as legitimate. Jones explores both sides of this argument by examining how an AI can help a person to flourish and become a fuller person while at the same time recognising this as a crutch that should not be leant on. We have already focused on this particular cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, however I believe it is important to recognise his adaptability as a DP as we contrast his approach to filming two separate films with separate requirements and creatives involved. This film stands out as a more vocal description of the mood of a scene, using lighting, colour and mental stimulation in every scene to convey a singular and simple purpose. This simpler yet more finely adjusted approach reflects Hoytema’s understanding of the material and versatility as a cinematographer in the 21st century.  This essay will not be very technical but will focus on high-level analysis to break down the major themes and interpretations.

The film was shot on Super Eight in signature Spike jones aesthetic to give the film an almost holiday postcard feel reflecting the bridge between fantasy and true enjoyment. The first act is the intro and we meet our main character Theodore. The first shot we see is one of him and we see an extreme low depth of feild of him. He is reading a letter and says meeting you is like a ray of sunlight hitting my face which becomes a consistent metaphor throughout the rest of the movie. It is religious in it’s redemptive power but also blinding. The shot holds for quite a while so that the audience is able to see the character, uninhibited and unwatched in his natural state through Hoytema’s eyes. Moreover, the colour scheme is introduced with yellow colour correct and the red turned down on either side. This red pink and white continues into the next shot with a very coloruful office set design. The office looks Google like in it’s happy multi-colourdness. Tinted glass comes down from above to light the scene and lights up the whole scene reflecting a very geometric artistic look.

Then wehen Theodore steps into the lift we see the low-colour, monochromatic background contrasted against hsi red jacket, deomstrating that he is the colour of his world. At this point it is exposition and as we see his routine the contrast between the colru of the office and the dryness of the outdoors is abundantly clear. He is made small by the framing as he walks across a bridge, imposed by the size of the city surrounding him. The shallow depth of feild and the way you don’t associate with the other people on the train who appear blank demonstrate his isolation. This is reemphasised by him playign a video game in a dark room by himself as well as the gren lighting coming from the interactive game. Then as the first act gets progressively darker we see him in his bed surrounded by complete darkness as he listens to a pre-recorded phone-sex recording to accentuate this sense of loneliness.

Then, in jarring contrast we see a flashback which is much brighter. He is seen with his wife in a sunny space with a substantial colour correct and over-exposure. This crushes the highlights and makes the blacks a little warmer to set the tone of the scene. Hoytema let’s this sequence go hot and blow it out. All of this reflects the story Theodore tells himself about his past in all it’s exaggerated forms. Then we switch back to real day with a shot that goes wide and dollies with him as it get’s closer and he is introduced for the first time to the AI. This camera-move is used time and again. He looks at an advertisement on the screen. The people in the ad have light hitting them in the face with a strong flare to recall the light imagery again.

After purchasing the AI we see a very interestign coverage. The 180 rule is not adopted and the legability of the scene does not suffer. Theodore thinks of the OS as artificial and detatched without a personality in the first shot. Once the OS is born Hoytema switches around as he leans in. The red imagery from the lamp, his shirt and the screen are united in colour to reflect visually the unifying of a principle and feeling. To get to the opposite shot Hoytema pivots from a head-on shot to the reflexive shot for a more natural and less jarring feel. Now we are on the reflexive side we are sucked in to his surprise at the AI’s human-like interactability and animatedness. As  we cross this imaginary line he begins to see Samantha as a real person. This shot also exposes his left ear where he puts Samantha in. Then he turns to the right as he begins to feel wary of his own observation. This becomes the crux of the movie as he asks himself if it’s ok to have a relationship with an artificial intelligence.

Hoytema highlight’s the turning point in the movie as a moment of ponderance as he contemplates in a reflection of the scene whether to leap into this new experience or to back away. This reflection isolates the shot as a moment of internal thought and marks it as a pivotal character moment. The glass used shows two reflections of him as his mind split’s into two parallel choices and weighs up his thoughts. We then switch to a wide-shot behind him pulling back to show more of his apartment, representative of a warm Woody Allen movie.

Weare then introduced to Adams’ character and her husband. The blockign of this initial scene places Theodore in the middle to represent the fracturing of her relationship. The subtlety of this fracturing is reflected in the coloru correction of her gentle pink sweater and her husband’s dark green jacket. The framing of this introduction udnerliens this point with Theo dead-center of frame. The scene ends and we are told through Samantha that Theo has and needs to meet with his divroce lawyer. In this shot what we think whould be in focus isn’t to reflect another moment of contemplation as Theo looks out on the cityout of focusand blurred. We are disconnecting from his body as he focuses in on the auditory yet bodiless form of Samantha as he listens and talks to her. The second flashback is of his divorce meeting as he focuses again on the background instead of the lawyer speaking in  front of him. In this way we know that these words are dredging up previous emotions, feelings but also diconnect as illustrated by Hoytema’s visual flourish.

After this we return back to his workplace to focus on the cube-like display hangign from his cieling. It is in a celestial set-up as they rotate around eachother. This could reflect his rehabillitated mind and the churning catharsis of his own self-acceptance as seen through Samantha or more specifically Hoytema. We then skip to a montage of semi-dating followed by a scene of the two observign other couples. To show this growing connect we see a close-up of Samantha and Theodore. As she is not physical we see her in the form of an earpiece which is on level with the camera’s axis. This stability reflects her fine-tunign to his verbal and social style of interaction. The shot focuses on his glasses to reflect the lenses his he sees the world through in perfect clarity and with a shallow depth of feild. The effect Hoytema is trying to infer is oen of growing intimacy.

The next scene is a date between Theodore and someone he has been set up with. One of the first shots physically imitates the initiating shots of Samantha’s introduction. This begins the comparison between traditional and artificial relationships. After the date’s priorities are revealed it becomes clear they have different intentions to one another and split painfully. We get the feelign that this is because of his past which is reflected by the slowly recurring metaphor of a close-up shallow depth of feild shot of his glasses reflecting light. This reflects the sentiment that the past is a story we tell ourselves and adds subjectivity to this lifestyle through Hoytema’s visual.

Overall, Hoytema has adopted a new and innovative visual language to complement the film’s central crux. This is accentuated by the way he uses colour, lighting and recurring camera shots as a form of visual storytelling to experiment with highly contentious debates of morality. This contrasts against his work in interstellar which worke on creating a more ethereal and visually imposing approach to demonstrate his versatility as a DP.

WRITING WITH IMAGES: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘HER’

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