The acclaimed BBC/PBS Masterpiece Theater series Downton Abbey has been lauded for its period-accurate settings and for a heretofore unseen look at the non-affluent parts of historical life around the English aristocracy. I’d like to look at Downton Abbey’s use of camera stabilization as an effective storytelling tool.
As Above, So Below
As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul" - Hermes Trismegistus
It’s quite telling that even the now-iconic Downton Abbey logo mirrors one of the fundamental concepts behind the show.
That which is seen to occur in the “upper” house (the aristocracy) is mirrored in the “lower” house (the servants / plebeians) in almost every aspect between acrimony and matrimony. The upper house has a very strict system of rules which is seen in the lower house, but there is a veneer of formality which is, at least in the culture of the time, necessitated by the weight of their class.
As soon as we visit the upper house, replete with all of its pomp and rigid cultural mores, we see a very specific set of visual rules which are reflected in the camera’s positioning, framing, and stabilization.
There is a preponderance of very tightly framed shots in social settings, with the characters appearing boxed in.
It’s a pretty stunning visual metaphor for the iron shackles of social convention; the characters are almost unable to move or shift in any meaningful way even though they are surrounded by the finest items and foods that their times have to offer.
Even in a theoretically open space, they are cluttered and packed into a small area, metaphorically (as well as physically) unable to move outside of the limited boundaries they are given in the space of their gilded cages. (Note that the servants, though standing at rigid attention, are otherwise completely unfettered by these boundaries in the frame.)
In accordance with this framing, the same rigidity is applied to the motion of the camera. The scenes of the aristocracy, whether in their dressing areas or in the main rooms, are almost always locked off – and when they are not, they only use the smoothest of steadicam or gib motions to convey the movement of their characters.
… versus commoners
The images of the servants tell a much different story. Consider a very similar setting to the meals of the aristocracy:
Even though the room is far less glamorous, the spacing between characters equally as tight, and characters serving (in much the same way), there is an immediate difference apparent in the frame. Characters are shown to have a bit of negative space around them, and no props are seen to block views of their faces, as the candelabras do for the aristocracy.
Continuing on with this contrasting comparison, we can see that the vast majority of all scenes of the “lower” house are shot with little to no significant stabilization; it seems to have been captured using either over-the-shoulder or handheld camera stabilization. Rather than attempting to convey a lack of balance or deficiency in the servants, the camera work seems to lend itself to showing a more casual atmosphere – a lack of the same rigid formality (at least, not to the same degree) that we see surrounding the aristocracy.
Subconsciously we are aware that the rigidity of the class structure and all of its associated confining baggage is not as present in these shots and scenes.
“As above, so below”, as a concept, applies not just to the difference between the aristocracy and the servants in Downton Abbey, but also to the methodology of the filming in the epistemological meta-layer which is formed by the framing, motion, and stabilization of the camera.
(All images are presented under fair use guidelines – all frame grabs are property of Carnival Film & Television, Masterpiece Theatre, or any other entities who hold copyright on this film. They are presented for exclusively educational purposes.)