The Cinematography of “AL”
by Lief Thomason, “AL” Cinematographer
Watching someone go through diseases like Dementia and Alzheimer’s is painful. You feel the slow loss of the individual as the disease attacks their memories and state-of-mind. But what is this experience like for the afflicted? This was the goal of “AL”, an experimental Art House Drama that moves through broken pieces of time and memory as the protagonist, Al, processes his diagnosis. On it’s face the plot of “AL” is simple, as the story focuses-in on 3 events in Al’s journey. However, we knew the meat of this film was in silent scenes of expression, and important visual metaphors.
It’s actually not inconsequential that “AL” is a 3-act structure. Like all good Shakespearian tragedies we needed to reveal our protagonist’s development through his diagnosis to bring him to the brink of redemption just before his fall. This was already well-developed in the script, but I knew we had a difficult task. Not only were all 3 acts in different locations, they were also in wildly different points in time, and it needed to feel different – the story specifically jumps time much like the diseased mind would. So how do we make these jumps in a short time-frame and maintain enough clarity for audiences to follow the story through a first viewing? Our solution: framing. Where Al is positioned in nearly all shots is deliberate. At any point that Al is alone we come center frame on him to isolate him and emphasize that he is the central figure. When we enter the doctor’s office Al is unnaturally positioned in a far corner of the frame facing off the close corner, as if too much is behind him and he chooses to ignore it all, which continues in his conversation with his doctor. When we finally arrive at the present time and he attempts to bond with his son, we see our first formal framing with over-the-shoulder, intimate frames that lock their eyes together before Al once again turns and faces off-frame, away from his son to call for isolation. These deliberate changes in frame are designed to distinguish the 3 acts. In order to then bind these scenes together we planned for match cuts. The benefit of a match cut is that the eyes maintain focus on a person or object while the setting changes, so as the audience you are participatory in the memory gaps with Al. This cutting technique is already well-established as a way to connect seemingly disconnected frames, but for us it served a second purpose: foreshadowing, another important literary device in Shakespearian tragedies.
Connecting these gaps in time was one part of taking viewers into the experience of “AL”. Central to a diagnosis like this is the revelation that at the end of the disease is the loss of memories that make up your identity. There’s a number of ways to represent that, but given our 3-act structure we knew our options were limited. We also wanted to have an in-camera effect that could seamlessly blend with reality. These factors led us to go with projection for its ability to run over top of the action and the symbolism of the home video aesthetic. The in-camera transition from Al’s doctor visit to his internal processing was essential to representing the fluidity of Al’s mind, plus it was a really fun scene to coordinate. Side note: don’t forget to have fun doing this stuff. Where Al’s framing distinguished the 3 acts and his evolving emotional state, our switch from daytime to dark/nighttime shots added one more level of separation, representing Al’s mind inside of settings that have already been established as physical, real places, and the rain representing his move from joy to sorrow in the presence of his memories.
From the title of the film, to the centrality of its protagonist throughout, our aim was simply to answer the question posed at the top of this write-up: what is this experience like for the afflicted? The narrative work of “AL” is to foreshadow the tragedy. Just as the film’s hidden title reveals the loss of it’s original identity (Al for Alzheimer’s), we wanted to arrive at the conclusion feeling that it wasn’t just his family that loses Al, he loses himself. I can’t emphasize this enough: let your composition tell your story. That’s the purpose of cinema as an art and storytelling medium. Put in the work ahead of time to plan for the visual rules and language that support the narrative points.