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Cinematography Breakdown: "Children of Men"

An autistic film geek lover who loves the art of film and is not ashamed of it.

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Introduction

Over the years, there have been long debates on who is the best duo of film director/cinematographer of all time. During Hollywood’s golden era, the names that have come up were Alfred Hitchcock/Robert Burks, Ingmar Bergman/Sven Nykvist, and David Lean/Freddie Young.

Today is a lot more different. Whenever people think of the best duo of film director/DP, they think of Steven Spielberg/Janusz Kaminski, Christopher Nolan/Wally Pfister, Spike Lee/Ernest Dickerson, and possibly the most famous of them all, the Cohen Brothers/Roger Deakins. Those collaborations show the best working relationship between the director and cinematographer. The duo of Alfonso Curon and Emanuel Lubezki is no exception.

Curon and Lubezki have made some of my favorite films of all time. I loved Gravity and Y Tu Mamá También. I even adore Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment of the Harry Potter franchise. Today we are going to be covering Children of Men. Some of the clips on this article may contain material not suitable for young readers. Viewer discretion advised.

Trailer

Plot

In the year 2027 of the not-so-distant future, mankind is on the verge of extinction. Infertility has spread across the globe, and the last born child has perished. Civilization has fallen, with only the United Kingdom as the final place of civilized society. As a result, Britain has become a police state of handling immigration there and placing people in refuge camps.

Theo (Clive Owen), and activist turned bureaucrat, is living a peaceful life in London, with no care about the world ending. He gets thrust back into his former life when his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) asks him to transport a mysterious woman named Kee to the coast of London. He’s reluctant to do it but agrees anyway because of his feelings for Julian. But tragic events turn a simple transport mission into a desperate fight for survival. And along the way, Theo discovers the truth about Kee that could lead to the salvation of the human race.

A Visually Dark Future

When the movie was released, people imagined that the coming years would be dark times ahead because of the 9/11 attacks. It wouldn’t make sense to set a future where there are floating cars and bright cities like the one in Back to the Future II. So Curon and the filmmakers chose to show one that reflected the struggles of the early 2000s. And it shows.

London is in a black state because the world struggles with infertility. And although it is the last place of civilization, the sense of hopelessness is evident on screen.

The aesthetic goes for a muted color palette. We can hardly see the sun in the sky. Despite not seeing the bright sky, we do get glimpses of light through flairs coming out the windows.

Visual Style

To make the film distinguishable from any other sci-fi movie, Emmanuel Lubezki shoots it like a documentary. Lubezki shoots on film with an Arricam LT camera and Zeiss Prime Lenses to achieve this sense of realism. The film stock was Kodak Vision 2 Expression 500T 5229.

Since Zeiss Primes is known for having no virtual breathing and unprecedented resolution, the film feels more natural with its realistic look.

The moments where the camera is shaky are the action scenes. But they don’t feel amateurish or out of place. They serve a purpose within the story. Except for one that we’ll talk about later, the documentary style adds more realism to the film.

And since we know Alfonso Curon has a fascination with tracking shots in his movies, Children of Men shows his skills as a filmmaker.

Beauty Of Children of Men

Tracking Shots

This film is best known for its use of tracking shots. Tracking shots are shots in which the camera moves through the scene for an extended amount of time. These types of shots often follow a specific subject or bounce around to the next one.

Tracking shots have been used quite well over the years in movies like Boogie Nights, The Revenant, Birdman, and Goodfellas. But the tracking shots in those films work well because of three things: 1) showing off the rich details of the setting, 2) making the audience feel like a particular character in a particular scene, 3) effective use of enhancing the plot of a story. Those films use tracking shots to enhance the story rather than just showing off visuals. And Children of Men is no exception.

Let's break down two key scenes in how they use tracking these shots to serve the story.

The Opening Scene

The film opens with a group of people in a cafe watching TV. On the news, they are horrified that David, one of the youngest persons on earth, is brutally killed by an obsessive fan. This news is devastating because of the epidemic of infertility.

Theo, our protagonist, comes in through the crowd and gets some coffee. He sees the news on the TV for a while and exits to the streets of London. Before he could enjoy his drink, the cafe explodes, killing the crowded people that were inside.

Context

At the 50-second mark, the camera follows Theo as he exits the cafe. As he goes outside, the camera turns to the streets of London. This showing of what the UK looks like in the future gives us the feeling of the hopeless future that our protagonist is living in.

Then the camera goes back to Theo. It breaks the 180-degree rule by turning around him to show that he's away from the cafe. Theo is about to enjoy his coffee and read the newspaper. Once the cafe explodes, the camera becomes shaky in its handheld style as Theo moves away from the carnage.

This explosion is a small sequence to the rest of the movie, but it is really well done. From a story perspective, it also establishes three things:

  1. The theme of finding hope in a hopeless world.
  2. The jaded worldview of the protagonist.
  3. The unpredictable nature of the future.

Car Chase

How a Three-Act Structure Is Integrated Into the Action Scenes

In this scene, Theo and the group are on the road to transport Kee to the extraction point to be delivered. However, as we soon find out, things don't go well for them.

It's hard not to talk about this movie without mentioning the famous car chase scene. It's one of my favorite sequences in the movie. And in my opinion, one of the greatest action scenes of all time. So why is it talked about and raved to this very day?

Well, it's because of the way it is structured. Not just technical-wise, but story-wise. The long take follows the basic three-act structure of a story. There's the first act, second act, and final act.

The structure of the scene

In the first act, the scene begins with our group on the road. And it looks like it's going to be an easy drive for them. The camera stays in the car and moves as each character has their conversations. The conversation shows some humorous moments like Theo's background in the resistance and how he met Julia. We see a brief spark of what Theo's and Julia's relationship was during that time. It looks like it's going to be an easy job for Theo.

But the inciting incident begins when a firey car blocks them and a group of rebels surround them. Thus the transition to act two of the sequence begins.

In the second act, the rebels go after the group with the car going in reverse. We get a clear sense of the geography of the scene happening despite being in the vehicle. The tension was established with Kee being in the car. So with that information being established, it makes the stakes of the action more impactful. The midpoint of this scene is when a motorcyclist shoots Julia in the throat, instantly killing her. Theo sees it and is horrified at what has happened. The motorcyclist tries to kill Theo but fails when he uses the door on him. The group is out of harm's way in the climax of the sequence.

In the third act of the sequence, the group tries to avoid attention when police and emergency vehicles go past them. A police car pulls them over. The police officers ask for their identification papers, but Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) kills them with a gun. That wraps up the sequence as the group leaves the site of the carnage.

Context

The action scene plays out like a story unfolding between our very eyes. Like a regular story, there's a clear structure to the pacing. There's a start (the characters' interaction), a middle (the action happening itself), and a clear end (Luke resorting to killing). The precise structure of the pacing makes the long take flow naturally with ease while not forgetting the tension.

Conclusion

Children of Men is a movie in which the cinematography is a character in the story. It showcases Emmanuel Lubezki as a master storyteller behind the camera. Every frame and shot has a purpose within the story.

It's easy to think this film would have been bad if it was in the wrong hands. It would have been a forgettable action movie from the late 2000s. But Alfonso Cuaron chooses to adapt the novel with care and made one of the best action movies of that year. And it's not only a great action film but a good character piece with a focus on story and character development.

Children of Men is an example of how to do long takes well.

Additional Note

First, I would like to give a shout-out to In-Depth Cine. His YouTube channel provides an in-depth study of cinematography and filmmaking. His channel became the inspiration for the breakdown series. I highly recommend checking him out.

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