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House of Cards Chapter 30: Shot / Reverse Shot

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This is a deconstruction of a single scene in Netflix’s House of Cards, from the fourth episode of the third season.

One of the most common conversational constructions in modern film and television is shot / reverse shot. It’s the usual way (using an approach forwarded by Soviet montage theory) to show a conversation between two people by cutting between single shots of each person to establish that a conversation is taking place. Sometimes this is done with choker or half shots with a single character in frame, sometimes this is done with “over the shoulder” shots, where the other character appears in frame – though usually out of focus or not in the principal focal part of the frame.

Another, competing approach, is to reframe the shot to include characters, incorporating fewer cuts. Older cinema, such as Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, used this system for conveying conversation:

As this more holistic approach to film exposition and exposing conversation has fallen by the wayside, we have seen a drop in average shot length. The Bad Sleep Well has an ASL of 15.9 seconds, but The Avengers has an ASL of somewhere between 2.8 and 5 seconds (depending on who measured it). Breaking Bad’s pilot episode had an ASL of 5.5 seconds, according to the same database, so we can see that the decrease in shot length is not limited to film.

Chapter 30 provides a good example of a well composed and executed shot / reverse shot, performed in a moderately unconventional style, in the hallway conversation between Heather Dunbar and Doug Stamper. The scene also has some trappings of classic horror and suspense film.

It starts when Dunbar receives a call from Stamper. She is still flanked by colleagues, but visually separated, as she is isolated by the narrow depth-of-field in the shot. Lighting on her face is good, and we can see that she’s supposed to be a relatively good person; at least, in the House of Cards pantheon of Gods and Demi-gods.

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As she looks down the hall, we’re treated to what must obviously be Dunbar’s point of view, with Stamper occupying a very small space in the frame – a shadow at the end of a hall. We’re immediately aware of the separation between the two, which includes not only their physical distance, but the professional separation between the two. Stamper could have simply come up to her, but as he says, “Stay where you are. We wouldn’t want to be seen together.”

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As Dunbar commits to the conversation, she moves into the center of the frame, and her colleagues are gone. She’s all alone, and we’re very aware that she is the most important thing in this conversation. The man in the shadows does not (yet) have any critical importance to her.

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The conversation continues, and we finally get a closer shot of Stamper; but he’s still mostly obscured by the shadows, finally occupying a larger part of the frame as his position becomes more important to Dunbar. He’s talking about how he’s been “out of the game” (on the sidelines) as he’s physically away from the center of the frame.

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The perspective is flipped, mid conversation, to show Stamper’s point of view. We can see that Dunbar is isolated, but of prime importance, occupying the center portion of the frame with all lines leading directly to her. It’s also fairly impersonal, as we can’t see her face.

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The monster (Stamper) approaches. His features are still mostly obscured, which is part of some of the horror/thriller idiom. (I actually left out a floor level shot of his feet, which also speaks to that.) We know that this is not a good person, even if we haven’t seen the previous seasons of House of Cards. He’s quite literally blocking the light and bringing darkness wherever he goes. As he draws closer, the reverse shot of her draws in.

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As he comes close to Dunbar, it should be noted that we never see their faces in the same shot. Continuing with the theme of darkness vs light, we see Stamper pass Dunbar in the hallway obscuring the frame, first from the left …

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… then completely obscuring Dunbar in darkness.

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When she finally emerges from his shadow, we see that the are represented as equals in frame size and position. He passes just as he mentions that they both “rub shoulders” with different people ; her with the leadership, he with those who work for them.

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At the end of the conversation, Stamper recedes into the background, losing immediate importance to the conversation, while our shot of Dunbar is only slightly wider than our original framing of her:

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Finally, Stamper gets into the elevator as a mechanical voice announces “Going down.” This seems to be a not-so-subtle inference about Stamper’s less-than-pure intentions, as well as a reference to the good/evil theme which we see in other parts of this episode.

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I might end up putting together a deconstruction on some of the other parts of this episode, but this scene is a good example of shot / reverse shot used in an effective, yet slightly unconventional, way.

(All images are presented under fair use guidelines – all frame grabs are property of Netflix.)

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