The first few minutes of any film should be able to set the tone for what is to come. Such is the case with the first scene of Whiplash (2014), directed by academy award winner Damien Chazelle. The director of photography, Sharone Meir, understood the underlying themes of the film and was able to successfully carry them out through the use of camera angles, composition, movements, and lighting design. Whiplash carries the theme of conflicts between student-teacher relations and the hard work of individuals to reach their full potential. All of this is showcased within the first scene of the film.
The film opens up with a black screen and the sound of fast-paced rudiments on a snare drum which provides the foundation of intensity that the scene will be built on. Once the rudiments end, an image appears on the screen. A long shot of a dim hallway is characterized by is characterized by its lack of light sources. Only 2 lights are visible which creates the path towards the room at the end of the hall, where a single spotlight hangs on our protagonist. The protagonist is placed in the center of the frame to make him the focus of the scene. Once the character of Andrew starts playing again, the camera dollies in, transforming the shot from a wide shot to a mid-wide shot.
Once the camera enters the room, the character stops abruptly and looks directly into the camera. This reveals that the camera was, in fact, a point-of-view shot. Lighting helps, once more, to provide focus and intensity in the scene. The background of the room is barely lit, and our only source of light is hanging directly above our main character. The low lighting in the background, combined with the lighting focus on the protagonist helps point the direction of the audience’s eyes and focuses the scene. The point-of-view shot is revealed to be of the character of Fletcher who emerges from the darkness. The cinematography helps create the idea of ‘good and evil’. The intentions of the student are pure, pursuing his passion for drumming, reflected through the use of light. The teacher represents the exploitation of that talent, reflected through the use of shadows and darkness. The following shots are rapid cuts between the teacher and the student, foreshadowing the idea of confrontation in their relationship.
The power dynamic of the characters is also showcased through the cinematography. Fletcher is shot at a low angle and mid-shot. This presents the teacher as the authority in the scenario since we have to look up at him directly. The mid-shot creates a more relaxed and comfortable composition which shows he is used to his position of power. This is shot in deep focus to highlight him and his control over the room. There is low lighting when the camera is focused on him, with the only light source coming from behind him which creates darker visuals that encourage the idea that he leans towards ‘evil’ in the ‘good vs. bad’ dynamic. Meanwhile, the student is shot with a high angle and a close-up. This creates the idea that the teacher is towering over him as he has to look down on him and exemplifies the intensity and anxiety Andrew feels in this tense exchange. This contrasts with the initial shot of him. When we are first introduced to Andrew, he is presented with a wide shot which showcases a relaxed environment where he is clearly comfortable and confident playing the drums. This scenario shows the opposite and the close-up reveals his uneasiness. The student’s lighting only comes from above, and hence his background is dark which concentrates the scene on him and the intensity of the moment. This is also made effective through the use of shallow focus to further center the frame on him.
The intensity culminates to the slam on the door through Fletcher leaving the room. Because of this, we get our first establishing shot. The same music room is shown from a different angle to reveal that the room is much bigger and spacious than the initial camera composition had made the room appear. The scene is also brighter thanks to the addition of other sources of light coming in from the windows. This shows that the teacher was tensing the atmosphere so much that the student began to feel claustrophobic in this big room. This pushes forward the theme of intense conflict between teacher and student.
This opening scene to the film Whiplash presents the themes and mood of the film through mostly visuals. This is a wonderful example of how cinematography is an essential aspect of storytelling and crucial to driving a movie along. It hooks you in and tells you a lot more than dialogue can. Cinematography can be a lot more critical and symbolic than we allow it to be, which makes it important to appreciate and pay close attention to its use in a film.