The contents of this exegesis and the works displayed within contain strong themes, direct reference to suicide, the Holocaust and complex trauma; and indirect reference to sexual abuse, child abuse, domestic violence. To discuss the central ideas of this dissertation, it is necessary to incorporate these potentially triggering items. Reader discretion is strongly advised.
Without doubt, this exegesis would not exist without Aliecia Braddock. Her outstanding level of compassion, patience and belief in the goodness of people has shaped not only a promising start to a career as a social worker and counsellor, but also the growth and values of her other half. Conversations about policy, literature and best practice in the social sciences when conversing with clients inspired a reflection in how my path as a cinematographer can be influenced by the way we communicate with one another in a mental health capacity. Additionally, her introduction to Trauma Informed Care and The Body Keeps the Score, which were inciting pieces of literature in developing my research question, have stimulated an interest in the social sciences in more capacities than as just a cinematographer.
At first a pain-point for what I imagined would be a course full of practical learning exercises where I could be an experienced technician, this exegesis provided a contextual argument for what kind of artist I wanted to be. The academic side of this course is unwieldy and unnecessary to some very talented up-and-coming practitioners, but the pause for reflection on my practice was worth the price of admission. Adam Daniels and Tara Lomax were key staff members who took the time to understand my jumbled thoughts and idiosyncratic communication and helped me discover the language that allowed me to articulate my ideas. They, along with Alison Ingham, Michela Carattini, Juliet John, Miro Bilbrough and, of course, Steve Arnold ACS, validated my area of research as meaningful academia, as did my compatriots Oren Kanski and Lindsay McDonald, whom indulged me in my dry, literary approach to the photography of our projects.
Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the support of close family and friends who encouraged the undertaking of this course and participated in discussion about this exegesis. These include Kevin Nguyen, Julian Panetta, and my family; Maria, Chris, James and Alice.
Ethics | Spectator | Trauma | Coverage | Compassion
"Atrocity is an act; trauma is an experience." (Rutherford, 2013, p. 85)
A core tenet of why I was influenced to pursue filmmaking as a career is its innate ability to invoke a transcendent experience that widens horizons and permits involvement in novel situations and interactions. One area of the human condition that gets a vast degree of attention in this pursuit is the trauma response to atrocity; at once persistent and simultaneously unique to the affected individual, trauma carries a qualia-like attribute in which a victim of atrocity can find it impossible to articulate the degree of suffering; an allure of film medium is the ability to engage both with language and pre-language cognitions to inform the viewer, and therefore carries the distinctive capability to open us up to experiences we have never authentically felt outside the art form. However, with the advent of technical cinematographic innovation, and a turn in supporting the concept of “first person” embodiment, a growing number of film texts such as Blonde (Dominick, 2022), Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk (Lee, 2016) and the HBO series Euphoria (Levinson, 2019-2022) have begun to engage with filmmaking techniques that encourage the audience to ‘experience’ the trauma response of the subject in tandem. This exegesis will both argue that this approach conflicts with the current literature of mental health practice in working with traumatised persons, and explore if there are alternative pathways to representing trauma response.
Due to my relational proximity to members of the mental health profession, I have had time to reflect on why I feel the above film works invoke questions of the ethics in depiction as I have undertaken my Masters in Cinematography at AFTRS. Concurrently, there are depictions of trauma response that I feel have evoked different reflections of ethics – questioning my own moral positions rather than those of the filmmakers. Examples include Aftersun (Wells, 2022), the HBO miniseries I Know This Much Is True (Cianfrance, 2020), and the bookend scenes of Good Time (Safdie & Safdie, 2017). Whilst it is difficult to formulate language to describe exactly why I feel so compelled by these depictions of suffering, there is a definite dichotomy between the spectatorial experience of each set of examples.
This exegesis documents my creative practice research exploring the intersection of my role as a cinematographer and my interest in the ethics of trauma depiction. The greatest asset of a cinematographer is their ability to influence how a film looks (composition, movement, perspective, lighting and mise-en-scène, aesthetic flairs, etc.). Whilst they do not necessarily have full creative control of the final image, and have limited autonomy over how the image is represented in the context of the edit, the conversations a cinematographer has with the director and other key peripheral collaborators contributes much to the development of the final imagery. These conversations will be key to the integration of ethical considerations to the staging of trauma depiction.
Studying at AFTRS has informed my distinction between which aesthetic parameters inform the perspective of a viewer, and which inform the tone and atmosphere of viewership. As such, whilst tonal aesthetics such as lighting design and optical characteristics have a functional influence over the perspective of a viewer, it has become apparent that the primary toolset that shapes the spectatorial perspective is the employment of coverage and framing. As a result, this exegesis will focus predominantly on the composition and movement of the camera.
It is also essential to clarify that the semantic use of trauma in this dissertation refers to individual trauma. While there is overlap between trauma response from the individual identity and the group identity, such as nationalist or ethnic identities, the literature on treating victims of genocide, cultural cleansing and colonisation tend to factor in to mindfulness of these sensitivities in individual treatment. Furthermore, as the texts in my source review tended to focus on films that privilege group identities to a tangible, singular subject, an integration of collective trauma is inherently outside the scope of study.
With these observations, reflections, aims, definitions and boundaries set out, I focus on the question at hand:
How can cinematography practice play a role in the relationship between characterisation, trauma, and ethical spectatorship?
There were two projects that contributed to the practice-led research of this exegesis. The first was the AFTRS capstone project The Method (Kanski, 2023), a 26-minute non-linear psychological melodrama about a self-help guru, Deborah Katz, and her husband, Andrew, whose lives unravel in the wake of their son’s suicide. As Deborah clings optimistically to the strains of her unravelling ideology, she is reminded of the birth of that ideology from her time at a commune retreat, which is represented through flashbacks captured with formats authentic to the time period. This unwieldy and eclectic narrative, layered deeply with thematic and subtextual exploration of complex trauma response, trauma narrativization and unhealthy coping strategies was the perfect challenge to test the ethical considerations of staging spectatorship in trauma, and through strenuous script analysis and camera tests developed a ‘Spectrum of Ethical Spectatorship’ framework to allocate to tangible cinematographic devices to subjective notions of ethical reflection.
Due to a desire to test the veracity of this framework in a more contained, experimental environment, I applied to produce a second project for this exegesis through the AFTRS Innovation Fund program. This project, titled The Fingerpainting (McDonald, 2023) is the deliverable of a workshop designed to produce three styles of coverage, in line with the Spectrum of Ethical Spectatorship model devised in The Method’s pre-production, for a single scripted scenario. This project would be co-developed with Lindsay McDonald, who wrote and directed the scene, of which the three assembly cuts were reviewed, analysed and reflected upon in respect to our spectatorial responses.
This exegesis will undertake a constructionist approach. In opposition to objectivism, constructivism embraces the concept that reality is generated as a reflection of our subjective interpretation of our surroundings. With the theme of trauma response being so prevalent in this dissertation, it would be highly irresponsible to pretence this practice as an objective discovery process. Rather, it should be viewed as an experiment of the synthesis between interpretations of mental health-care literature and reflections on the constructs of spectatorship theory manifested through cinematography practice. My research will be firstly informed by the literature in my source review, and my reflections and findings from those sources will then in turn inform my creative and collaborative decisions and conversations in the development first of the capstone project The Method and then innovation fund workshop artefact The Fingerpainting.
I have married the fundamental methods of film development as cinematographer to the methods of this exegesis. This is composed of script analysis, including script mark-ups and intense scrutiny of the screenplay with the director; storyboarding, shotlisting, blocking mud maps and camera plots; and camera and lighting tests. The camera and lighting tests in particular were catalogued and analysed, and became the foundation for the Spectrum of Ethical Spectatorship model, which will be introduced in the Research and Findings chapter. This model was then used to develop the visual language of The Method, and was the foundational artefact that influenced the design of the AFTRS Innovation Fund project The Fingerpainting.
It is important to recognise that the integration of ontological, primarily quantitative medical literature and epistemological qualitative film theory is not a simple mesh. The agency of the spectator is an entirely inward proposal, whereas the duty of care a practitioner has in a medical setting is inherently tied to the responsibility of their immense agency. As such, it is important to find a link between literature modes to find commonality in attitudes, and integrate those hybridised theories into my practice. This theory-informed practice will result reflexively in practice-led research outcomes in line with the Cowan Diagram, which is an adaptation of the Kolb cycle. The Cowan diagram allowed me to visualise my process, in which I focus in on my findings, reflect on these tangible discoveries, and reintegrate those thoughts into more specific avenues of investigation (Cowan, 1998). I am drawn particularly to the Modified Cowan Diagram which features Kolbian coils that segment smaller, sequential loops from larger partitioned loops. I have partitioned my practice-led research into theoretical pre-production, practical pre-production and the shooting experience of The Method, as well as the development, the shooting experience and the editorial review of The Fingerpainting. The self-feeding loop of generalising reflections into hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, experiencing the tests and formulating reflecting on these experiences, will distillate my learning objectives from the broad-strokes theoretical formulations into tangible outcomes and assertions.
“I’ll forget that you’re fake, as long as you help.” (Aaron, 2007, p. 91)
Problematic Trauma Depiction
It has been recognised that perhaps due to more present social awareness of trauma, there is an increasing number of film works that centre around this theme, yet there are examples of popular or innovative stories released recently that have problematic implications (Aaron, 2007). In Blonde, I sympathise with the atrocities Norma responds to, but fail to emotionally connect with her. The depersonalisation of the cinematography devices, along with the indulgence in iconographic recreation creates a dichotomised existence of Norma as an object and as a person, failing to connect the two. We are constantly looking at Norma, but we are never with her. The film generates a subjective experience of Norma’s trauma response through special effects and photographic techniques of immersion, but the film blocks me from registering empathy for her. Upon watching the film, rather than being left with the deep, ethical questions it seemed, based on interviews, Dominick wanted viewers to be consumed by (Dominick, 2022), we are left with a product of spectacle based on the arguably unnecessary suffering of the subject.
On the other hand, cinematographic innovation has generated coding that offers audiences the ability to engage with the abstract emotions of the subjects they identify with. This has manifested through technological advancements such as Billy Lynn’ Long Halftime Walk’s implementation of RealD, which provided 120 frames per second playback, Dolby Atmos mixing and haptic seating to simulate the physical shock produced by explosions. It is also evident through wild aesthetic properties only achievable with uniquely characterised lenses and camera movements reserved for music videos, such as in the case of HBO’s Euphoria, and series director Sam Levinson’s pursuit of what he has coined “emotional realism” (Levinson, 2019). The by-product of this experiential rollercoaster is that, whilst we can now identify with the subjects on screen and sympathise with their emotional dispositions, the viewer receives at best a simplification of the traumatic experience and at worse festishisations of victimhood for the purpose of entertainment (Roberts, 2022).
Philosophy of Spectatorship and Trauma Represented Through Affect
Attractiveness to suffering – taking pleasure in seeing things we would not normally be able to see (Aaron, 2007, p. 87) – is a driving principle of spectatorship theory. In Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On, Michele Aaron creates a framework that parallels the apparatus of spectatorship to that of masochism, in which both depend on an embellishment of the chosen fantasy and disavow reality. This is in contrast to the sadistic model of spectatorship based on the principles of the key theorists of the 1970’s psychoanalytic movement, which have been scrutinised and updated to reckon with the clear affective properties of film as a “polyvocal” medium. (Rutherford, 2013, p. 93) In what is described as its “phenomenological-affective turn” (Sinnerbrink, 2016, p. 82), spectatorship theory has increasingly incorporated the aesthetic and ethical dimensions of a film into the fold of their moral function. With these integrations of phenomenological, cognitivist and affect theories, modern spectatorship theory has validated the notion that film can inhabit a more subjective approach, both in function and in identification.
The question of whether filmmakers can effectively utilise a ‘first person’ approach to representing trauma, however, is debated. Focusing primarily on language, Michael Richardson’s ‘Torturous Affect’ analyses the disconnect between the depiction of trauma and the limits of linguistic representation (Richardson, 2013). The essay is anchored by the inclusion of essayist Jean Améry’s accounts for failed attempts to enunciate a representation of the pain he incurred through torture by the Nazi regime (Améry, 1980). At each implementation, Richardson further explores the nature of the paradox in Améry’s writing: “the pain was what it was, and what it was is indescribable” (Richardson, 2013, p. 148). This concept of indescribability is further extrapolated by Anne Rutherford’s ‘Film, Trauma and the Enunciative Present’. The indefinable nature of trauma and the social shame associated with victimhood, she argues, contributes to the failure for traumatised persons to vocalize their experience. Crucially, Rutherford notes that whilst there exists accounts from the perspective of what Dominick LaCapra calls the “primary witness”, there is an overwhelming amount of media presented from the perspective of the “secondary witness” (LaCapra, 1997, p. 262) (Rutherford, 2013, p. 83), and that a vicarious encounter with trauma is loaded with assumptions that must be acknowledged, as well as the exclusionary nature of this presentation for those survivors. In relation to film’s ability to provoke an embodied experience, Rutherford conveys the unresolved questions concerning if, and if-so-how, traumatic experience can be translated into language, or if it eludes representation, and the ethical consequences of this dichotomy.
Psychiatric and Mental Health Space Literature on Trauma
If there are ambiguities to how film and writing address the representation of trauma, the current psychiatric and mental health literature should be investigated, both for their definitions of trauma and their best practice in treating traumatised persons. Two texts in particular have stood out as exemplary: Dr. Judith L. Herman MD’s Trauma and Recovery, hailed as “one of the most important psychiatry works to be published since Freud” (Chesler, 1992); and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk MD’s The Body Keeps the Score, described as "essential reading for anyone interested in understanding and treating traumatic stress and the scope of its impact on society" (McFarlane, 2014). These texts both explore the psychological effects of trauma, and draw from a number of case studies from the author’s and their colleagues in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, though van der Kolk frames his dissertation through a physiological lens (van der Kolk, 2014), and Herman focuses on exploring the inseparability of trauma from its social and specifically political contexts (Herman, 1992). Both exhaustively outline treatment methodologies, with both positive and negative implications for differing approaches to provocations unique to the patient, and assemble a vast philosophical framework for engaging with traumatised clientele at the level of intuition, so as to engage in a tailored response to the needs and strengths of each patient. Herman, in particular, draws attention to the necessity of restorative power of both therapist and community, and contextualises the principle methodologies that allow the traumatised, specifically victims of atrocity by a perpetrator, to be validated through active listening, compassionate empathy, and empowerment of the patient’s agency, which she collectively ascribes as to “bear witness” (Herman, 1992).
These evidence-based principles can be easily identified in the framework of Trauma Informed Care (TIC). TIC frameworks often implement a variation of the following principles: acknowledging and bearing witness to the patient’s trauma, fostering an environment where the patient feels safe and can trust their practitioners, including patients in their healing process through informed choice and empowering them to take agency of their recovery, supporting the notion that the patient has tremendous strength and resilience, and recognising the influencing factors of the patient’s identity (race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual preference and culture) to avoid marginalisation and othering (Patel, Purkey, & Phillips, 2018). Whilst it is important to recognise that the language and framing of the above principles relate to mental health professionals and cannot be applied to the general public on account of the duty of care implications, there is inherent social value in being aware of these principles in the pursuit of a “trauma conscious society” (van der Kolk, 2014, p. 417). The concept that trauma-causing atrocities and tragedies is pervasive in society is not controversial – it is estimated that 57% to 75% of Australians will experience a potentially traumatic event in their lifetime (Bendall, et al., 2018, p. 20) – and a preparedness in general culture to helping those affected through trauma response and mitigating any further harm from a position of advocacy and holding space for victims in conjunction with mental health intervention is an ethically attractive proposition.
The Ethical/Moral Divide, and Questions of Sympathy, Empathy and Compassion
In addition to the masochistic contract between spectator and subject, another concept introduced in the phenomenological-affective turn of spectatorship theory is the ethical contractor between these parties. Aaron investigates the “ascription of spectatorial agency as a marker for socio-political responsibility” (Aaron, 2007, p. 88) – a way in which the spectator, who is usually denoted as lacking agency to influence the unfolding events of the screen, has in fact a participatory aspect to their experience, which she refers to as ethics in spectatorship. She notes the staging of spectatorship generates self-reflexive inquiry into the responsibility of looking on, as ethics in spectatorship is a “prioritisation of (ethical) recognition, realisation, reflection – the stuff of agency – over (moral) prescription, proclamation and punishment – the stuff of ideology” (Aaron, 2007, p. 109). The aim of ethical spectatorship, therefor, is to question one’s individual relationship with morality rather than being prescribed morality through film product.
In addition to distinguishing ethical from moral, it is also important to also recognise the sympathy/empathy divide in the discourse of these theories. Sinnerbrink both identifies the confusion in semantic utility of the terms and provides a clear articulation for the difference – “sympathy is feeling for someone while empathy is feeling with him or her” (2016, p. 92). He then integrates these two concepts in congruence to compose what he defines as cinempathy, a complex experiential and ethical response to the subject’s situation. While this methodology of moving between affective and reflective experience, he argues, is a “more dynamic, kinetic expression of [this] synergy,” (2016, p. 95) in the context of the secondary witness modality of trauma response, it can be argued the synthesis of a sympathetic response, and of first person affect, is detrimental to the traumatised person in the health-care setting. A study on patient-preferred attitudes in the palliative care setting provides clear statistical evidence that patient outcomes in the health care setting felt pitied and distant when their support network engaged sympathetically with them, whereas empathic and compassionate engagement generated responses of engagement and unconditional kindness (Beamer, et al., 2017). This attitude is shared by social work practitioners in the communications with their clientele, where empathy is defined as “genuinely understanding and accurately perceiving the other’s feelings and situation without taking that person’s position, thus retaining one’s separateness and objectivity, but also without becoming cold or distant” (Mulvaney, Newhill, & Simmons, 2020, p. 43). This dichotomy between the affective properties of visual language and what is considered best practice in practical treatment is a notion that should be reflected upon deeply in the establishment of a film work’s spectatorial experience.
The definition of emotional empathy is further tested by the notion of involuntary emotionality. The mimicry of emotions between subject and spectator can be the result of an automatic and involuntary process known as emotional contagion, a physiological process humans have little control over, which can be theoretically differentiated from cognitive empathy by the “fast reflexive sub-cortical processes” that bypasses the cortex region of the brain (de Waal & Preston, 2002). Amy Coplan argues that emotional contagion, rather than a deeper empathy, is the reason in the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan the spectator receives such immediate emotional responses to the feelings of the soldiers the filmmakers choose to hyper-fixate upon in the face of atrocity and potential death (Coplan, 2006). Further, Aaron, who also critically investigates this same sequence, describes this as ‘spectatorial insulation’: “Involuntary emotional is the opposite of reflection and implication” (Aaron, 2007, p. 116). Therefore, these cinematic techniques that pretence empathy, through identification of the suffering subject, encourages an abdication of ethical responsibility.
Incorporation of Theory
During the development of this source review, one quote in particular spurred an epiphany. When establishing the foundations for spectatorship theory from the core ideological position of cine-psychoanalysis, Aaron first introduces the concept of a contract between spectator and subject: “The terms of this contract run something like this: ‘I’ll forget that you’re fake, as long as you help’” (Aaron, 2007, p. 91). The notion of a masochistic contract between spectator and subject begs the question “what is the ‘help’?” The ‘help’ could refer to simply widening one’s horizons to worlds they’re not exposed to, or introduce them to new thoughts or feelings that help navigate the infinite complexities of the human condition.
Another way is to view ‘help’ as simulation – as practice. Encouraging the spectator to ask themselves “What would I do in this situation?” or “How could I contribute to minimise the suffering of others?” is an inherently compassionate proposition. Ambiguity over how to take agency in the support of others, even in simple, attitude-based actions, leads to apathy, an unwillingness to confront and engage with present issues. If this notion of ‘practice’, as I term it, to address social support and advocacy for one’s betterment can be enacted within the masochistic contract of the spectator witnessing the suffering of subject, and if they are offered a spectatorial contract that supports these ethical enquiries, perhaps they will be better equipped to approach loved ones, close friends, or strangers, with the same attitudes.
Research and Analysis
To integrate these concepts of affect and reflection, sympathy and empathy, and ethical and moral, I decided to analyse the spectatorial experience of Good Time to try and theorise why I felt I was engaging with an ethics in spectatorship. In Good Time we follow Connie as he attempts to free his developmentally-impaired brother, Nicky, from incarceration after Connie involves him in a botched robbery, and we are taken on an elliptical amoral odyssey where the spectator witnesses Connie doing whatever it takes to secure Nicky’s rescue, with disregard for the ethical implications of his actions. However, it is within the prologue and epilogue – in Connie’s absence – that I feel as a spectator I engage the most with the core theme of the film.
In the prologue, we are thrown into a therapeutic exchange between Nicky and his court-mandated psychologist. Without Connie there to strip Nicky’s agency, and command the masochistic contract as the film’s primary subject, the spectator is met with aesthetic and temporal techniques that make me feel as if I am sitting in on the session. I see how much strength it takes for Nicky to emote and, in the epilogue, to participate in the session with his classmates. The film has a moral and political agenda – the film is a haunting exploration of the wrong kind of love – but it is because we realise, not having been prescribed, that we feel compassion and truly empathise with Nicky’s integration with society. It is precisely because the spectator does not identify with any characters, and acts as a silent witness. The spectator holds space for Nicky.
So, by creating a more self-reflexive spectatorial experience, the filmmaker can encourage a question of complicity and ethical responsibility in the constructed presence. This further provides a two-pronged theoretical argument that when identification is encouraged, the spectator both witnesses as subject which undermines the goals of TIC, and disengages the self-reflexivity that comes from participatory spectatorship. The consequent hypothesis is that by creating a spectatorial entity that abides by the guidelines of TIC – holding space, acknowledging their unique response to a tragedy, and not stripping agency – an awareness of the vacuum of support without the presence of the spectator produces a transcendent attitude for the viewer to utilise with real victims of trauma. These ideas were the theoretical foundations on which pre-production of The Method was built upon.
Section I: The Method
“We must never judge Deborah.” (Kanski, personal communication, 2022)
Script Analysis and Coverage Planning
The Method is a polemic, polymorphic short film that addresses questions and themes I was personally excited to examine. The concept that the same atrocity can incite vastly different trauma responses was a core theme director Oren Kanski wanted to explore. Kanski emphasised that while Deborah’s complex trauma history and narcissistic personality fostered a destructive reaction to her son’s suicide, it was his ethical position that no one can be expected to act virtuously in the face of tragedy, and that all trauma responses were valid, no matter how harmful. It was therefore vital that the narrative did not morally impugn Deborah, and therefore, it was my job as cinematographer to ensure the coverage of the film complied with this conviction.
At the time I could not articulate my theoretical arguments in Layman’s terms, so to extrapolate on integrating TIC into the spectatorial experience, I expressed these notions with a social context. One imagines themselves meeting an old friend for coffee. After half an hour, the friend answers their phone and received devastating news. If one was to consider the principles of TIC and use them as a guideline to supporting their friend, then the coverage of The Method should attempt to fulfill this same social obligation in a spectatorial sense. Kanski was enthused by this experimental, self-reflexive style of spectatorship, wherein the spectator is aware of their status in the third person, and experience the situation independently of the emotions of the subject.
Since we could not yet conceptualise how we might achieve this mode, we hypothesised that by humanising the camera’s approach to “looking on” (Aaron, 2007, p. 104), we could increase this spectator’s self-awareness as separate from the subject. To conceptualise this spectatorial separation, Kanski and I began to develop the basic coverage of the film by moving through the shots in large, physical spaces, taking turns as theoretical subject and spectator. In implicating ourselves interchangeably as subject and spectator, we had a natural sense of when our presence was too intrusive, or too astray, which allowed us to map out which perspectives felt both functional to the plot and ethically considerate to the subject.
Certain movements created an undesirable sense that the spectator was a permeant presence over the subject, which inspired the concept of the spectator “stepping on eggshells”. We interpreted this notion of distant attentiveness, where the spectator is invited into a world but not to make themselves at home, as a spatial transliteration for TIC’s principles of holding space for the subject yet respecting their agency. Kanski also identified a desire to not stray from the eye-level, both to ensure a humanness to the perspective and to ensure, literally, that we never look down on our characters.
We elected to document this process through unsophisticated storyboards rather than a shotlist to account for Kanski’s more fluid filmmaking methodology which prioritised finding the correct ‘feeling’ perspectives over the concrete structure of the scene. Once the boards were drawn, we created a placeholder shotlist to submit to clear our project feasibility status, after which these materials were never looked at again, but the act of logging our ideas further exemplified our approach framework of ethical spectatorship. From here, we could conduct camera tests to ensure our speculations could be practically recreated.
Upon completion of feasibility, Kanski and I were approved to conduct a series of test shoots to verify our planned approaches. Of highest priority was our camera tests, which were required to verify the technical attributes of our spectatorial concepts, such as frame sizes, angles, focal lengths and types of movements. Unless we could translate our ideas into technical terminology, it would be impossible for to comminute between all the departments on set, particularly the camera, lighting and grip team. It was also vital to assess our visual ideas and eliminate unsuitable techniques if we either improvised upon the initial plan or were limited by the circumstances on set.
First, we needed to define which focal lengths achieved desirable perspectives. It is important to recognise that whilst focal length only alters to magnification of subject on the image plane, perspective is created through its juxtaposition to the distance between camera to subject. Thus, we began by creating a wide-angle medium close-up (MCU) frame of our subject and, in combination of moving away and zooming in, created a library of different perspectives. Immediately, we identified that an MCU at the 65mm focal length felt not too removed and not too intrusive, and therefore provided an impression of a sweet-spot within the spectatorial framework. Additionally, higher levels of magnification at the distance achieved in with the 65mm (approximately 7-8’), such as at an 80mm focal length, allowed us to get close-up (CU) shots within this same mode of spectatorship. Conversely, we identified that the 35mm focal length was the widest we could frame before the field of view felt inappropriate, as wider focal lengths used in close-proximity to the subject heightened affect, whereas wider compositions felt far too removed from the action to feel present with the subject.
Another factor in respect to focal length was the elected camera’s sensor size. Throughout pre-production, I continually urged Kanski to consider the 1.33:1 aspect ratio for this film, as this film would predominantly consist of portrait frames. Additionally, this choice would allow us to remain consistent with flashback sequences that would employ imaging technology authentic to the time period, which would natively use this aspect ratio. However, my primary motivation for this request was to acquiesce the largest sensor size at my disposal, which belonged to the Alexa Plus 4:3. Using a sensor with open-gate dimensions of 23.760x17.82mm meant we effectively had 33% larger capture size than recording in the 16:9 HD crop mode, and an over 75% larger capture size than if we had horizontally cropped a 1.33:1 image from the 16:9 image. The reason I mention all this is if we had used a 16:9 sensor, to achieve the same size shot vertically would require a 50mm lens, though this would create a wider field of view horizontally and render a deeper depth of field. The taller sensor dimensions allowed us to fill the frame with more of our subject’s face with higher optical resolution and a shallower depth of field.
We next investigated some of the movement types we had devised in the storyboarding process, where it became apparent immediately that certain types of movements felt inappropriate. When the camera orbited action, or when movement was unmotivated, Kanski and I reflected on the feelings of blasé indifference to the subjects. Interrogating this, we theorised that to achieve perceptions of compassion and self-awareness, camera movement must be motivated by the subject, and remain at a respectful distance and pace, such as if a character moves to the edge of frame and a reframe is needed, or moving slowly down a corridor if a character walks to the door. Building on this, we made a note of keeping MCU compositions loose enough so we would not have to constantly reframe the subject, both due to an aesthetic desire from Kanski and also to further highlight only deliberate movements.
Spectrum of Ethical Spectatorship
From these observations, I noted that the concept of respectful perspective could be illustrated within a spectrum model. The ‘Spectrum of Participation’ maps the feeling-state associated between perspectives from a sense of sympathy, empathy and apathy. I then assigned descriptors of behaviour associated with these modes of engagement. However, at a glance, this model begged more questions that it answered.
When reflecting on the use of this terminology, I considered why, when film is generally defined by its passivity, I felt the need to define these modes of spectatorship through participation. I also needed to verify my semantics of sympathy, empathy and apathy, considering the myriad of conflicting definitions for these terms. Through conversation with Tara Lomax and scrutiny of Michele Aaron’s assertions of spectatorial agency, I specified that ‘participation’ could ostensibly be referred to the level of empathetic engagement I felt, or a sense of ethical responsibility I should feel, for the subject. Additionally, Lomax and I agreed that the definitions of sympathy and apathy I had built into this model reflected a social abdication of this engagement. Sympathy can be defined as a pitying, sorriness that offers to bear no weight of responsibility for the betterment of another. In attempting to sympathise with a victim of trauma, stating something to the effect of “I know exactly what you’re going through,” or “I cannot imagine what you’re going through” not only invalidates the unique complexities of their experience, but also alleviates the social obligation to truly connect and empathise with their struggle. On the other hand, apathy could be characterised as the antithesis of compassion: to objectify or morally laud over a person struggling to respond to an atrocity, offering shallow advice or insights that, again, generalises the uniqueness of the situation without attempting to understand its complexities or specific triggers.
By identifying that whilst sympathy and apathy are dichotomised by emotionality and intellectuality, they both share a lack of engagement and compassion. Empathy, however, requires a balance of care and consciousness in the pursuit of compassionate engagement. Therefore, the spectrum was redesigned into a parabolic curve, where the origin point demonstrated the balance between emotional and intellectual empathy, and the peak point of compassionate engagement, was the ideal mode of ethical spectatorship. This model, which later we renamed as the Spectrum of Ethical Spectatorship to simplify the semantic confusion over ‘participation’, was the guide Kanski and I used to develop coverage on the set of The Method, and became the provocation for The Fingerpainting.
As our spectatorial approach was based so heavily on attitude and presence, Kanski and I realised our coverage needed to be more fluid and responsive than a traditional technical approach. Whilst not a conscious decision, in hindsight, it could be argued that by humanising the camera, we approached the coverage similarly to the performances of the actors. To pre-ordain coverage would be to prescribe a dominating sense of authorship, whereas similar to how a director encourages actors to find their performance through reaction to their surrounds, the camera too had to be reactively informed by the situation. Because of this, while lighting plans, floor plans and technical specifications were prepared in great detail for cinematographic departments, Kanski and I entered production of The Method with very little formal documentation for the coverage of each scene, and instead relied on intuition informed by the Spectrum of Ethical Spectatorship.
We used our discarded shotlist to inform our 1st AD Pash Julian roughly how many shots we needed and how much time it could take, so he could effectively maintain the rhythm of the set. We would then consistently approach each scene with an establishing shot first before moving into more specific coverage, which meant every instance of reframing invited us to react to the framing and reflect on if we felt we were being ethically considerate of our distance, attention and presence. It should be noted that the establishing shot was not always from a geographic sense. Instead, we would use the establishing shot to orient or reorient the audience from a spectatorial position, usually as an outsider working gently into the tender scenario. This allowed Kanski and I to mirror the spectatorial approach and gauge if our authorship in coverage was aligned with the spectrum. It was also used a signification of a return to the present time, as Kanski planned to intercut these sombre, delicate scenes with very loud, stimulating flashback sequences. As such, we tended to start our coverage by employing masters that established the spectator away from the blocking, observing from a distance, not yet able to insert themselves into the drama, before validating the spectator’s invited presence through MCU frames from a safe yet intimate distance from the subject, regularly on a 65mm lens.
During these MCUs, it felt ethical to keep the frame as static as possible. I will divulge into the implications of this further when reflecting on The Fingerpainting, but the concept that the frame should not move felt the most respectful of the subject’s space we are holding as spectator. Any sudden moves or hyper-fixations could imply voyeuristic intentions, or enjoyment in spectacle instead of compassionate presence. If the subject moved out of frame, a deliberate but unnoticeable shift in composition would be appropriate, but constant shuffling of the frame did not feel ethically appropriate.
To elicit the concept of ‘walking on eggshells’, Kanski and I felt it was more appropriate to prioritise pans to witness subjects moving around the house, so as to not disturb the delicate environment. In certain situations, a dolly move was appropriate, but we made sure never to orbit the character or track diagonally through the scene. In one particular shot, we followed Deborah’s conversation at the front door from the painting to the dining table, and witness Andrew rush to her aid. As Deborah evades the situation, she walks back to the dining table and leans on a chair. The spectator is allowed to get closer, but only at the most conservative pace. Moreover, a measured zoom gradually fixes our attention from a wide of the empty space to a close-up on Deborah’s twisted expression. We give her space, and fixate our periphery to her face.
Breaking the Framework
From the outset, the most troubling aspect to The Method was the final sequence of the film, where Deborah decides to end her life, consuming an unknown substance and drifting unconscious, before violently struggling for help as she panics and wishes to live. Kanski and I decided that the framework of compassionate spectatorship was incompatible with a suicide attempt, as it was antithetical to the psychiatric literature on handling suicidal ideation, the only instance in which restricting agency from the patient is necessary (Herman, 1992). We therefore needed to break the mode of spectatorship, and chose to stage the sequence so the spectator is forced to witness the consequences of their inability to act, complicit in the resulting circumstances as witness.
We found an ideal point in the script to shift the mode of spectatorship, noting the ambiguous delivery of Deborah’s line “What are you looking at? Fuck you.” The spectator may have tried to hold space for her, but they have also continued to bear witness to the spectacle of trauma response, indicating their complicity in the masochistic contract with Deborah as subject. From this point on, the spectator is purely omniscient, unable to influence the outcome of the scene. The rules of the framework are broken: we look down on Deborah, and we lead her to the phone as she attempts to call for help, before pulling away to see her fail to pull her own weight in her drowse. Intrusive flashbacks pepper the scene with rhythm and energy, as Deborah’s death becomes a spectacle. Yet, as we view Deborah’s final breaths, we are disallowed reprieve. We are forced to stay with her corpse in the early hours of the morning for an extended period before the picture abruptly ends. We must wrestle with the ethical implications of what could happen if, in real life, we fail to actively support if someone we love indicates suicidal ideation.
In the weeks after wrapping The Method, two thoughts dawned on me. I was on one hand proud to be a part of such challenging work, and permitted to bring my values to the table in such a demonstrative and, in my opinion, effective manner. However, I wondered if the veracity of the coverage framework was compromised by the necessity for the film to be the film. My role as the cinematographer was always in service of Kanski’s vision, as he bore the responsibility of the project’s artistic merit. As such, there were subjective and immersive elements to the film’s design that did not mesh with the dogmatic framework I had devised, specifically with the edit, sound design and score.
I strongly believe these approaches elevated the film holistically, and I am particularly grateful that I got to collaborate with so many creatives that gave their all to the project. It did, however, put an asterisk on the claims of my Spectrum of Ethical Spectatorship, as did the limited case uses of one project. Therefore, in consultation with Adam Daniels and Juliet John, I devised a plan to test this framework out in a more rigorous and controlled setting, and see how much crossover there was between different narratives and modes of storytelling.
Section II: The Fingerpainting
“Every survivor … the first thing they wanted is for the people who mattered to them to support them.” (Herman, 2023)
Establishing the Workshop Parameters
To further test the veracity of this framework, I elected to pursue an Innovation Fund grant to put this coverage approach into a workshop setting. The goal was to create an artefact that presented three distinct coverage styles, each an interpretation of the three points on the Spectrum of Ethical Spectatorship. As Kanski and I had inferred through our creative process, sympathy, empathy and apathy could be characterised by varying in perspective and affect. Apathy, which was defined as emotionally distant and unmoved, would employ static, distant frames. Sympathy, which was expressed by primarily through emotionality, would utilise handheld motion, a closer proximity and wider-angle lenses to induce an affective experience. For the empathetic coverage, would establish distance but fill the periphery with the subject’s face by utilising longer focal lengths.
As for the subjects, I wanted to devise a two-hander dialogue scene that was topical to the Australian social work setting. I collaborated with counsellor Aliecia Braddock, who contributed to an authentic and specific narrative outline, whilst still catering to a short runtime. We arrived at a plot where a supervisor in a childcare setting speaks to the mother of a child who has painted something indicative of sexual assault or child abuse, though the painting in question is never revealed. The mother experiences a trauma response, reacts negatively to the intervention, and storms off.
As this scenario would be heavily informed by performance, I approached Lindsay McDonald, who was experienced in working with actors on stage and in screen, to collaborate on the project. He wrote a two-page screenplay based off the synopsis, with additional consultancy on accuracy and authenticity from Braddock and Audrey Splatt, a former child care worker. McDonald then engaged two professional actors, Ariadne Sgouros and Rachele Edson, who were given a brief rehearsal period to embody the characters without diminishing the spontaneity of the exchange.
McDonald and I were interested in running the workshop like a scientific experiment, where the independent variable in the scene was the positioning of the camera and all other aspects were dependent variables that would go as unaltered as possible between takes. An immediate limitation to the veracity of this test was the performances, which naturally changes over the progression of setups, scenes and shoots. To compensate, McDonald aimed to give as little literal direction as possible briefing and rehearsing with the actors, and rather let them respond to the energy changes both within themselves and in response to provocations from external sources.
We then created a setting that required no resets or alterations from setup to setup. Lighting was motivated from windows and a practical on the desk, and the design of the space was uncluttered still allowed the performers to draw from the layout in characterisation. During shooting, only myself as operator and the sound recordist were in the set, with all other crew removed from the scene. In this way, the setting acted more like a live theatre stage play, where my operating was akin to an audience member who could observe from anywhere within the space, with no agency to influence the outcome of the scene apart from their presence.
Apathetic Coverage Approach
Empathetic Coverage Approach
Sympathetic Coverage Approach
What became apparent to McDonald and me when watching these assemblies was that, whilst certain aspects of each approach felt inappropriate for certain reasons at specific times, none of the styles felt completely unethical. Perhaps because the scene was a two-hander with a surrogate character for the spectator to associate with, or because the trauma response is bookended by moments of dramatic tension, each style had its strengths and weaknesses. For instance, McDonald identified that when Jade is reacting to the painting, the sympathetic coverage approach felt invasive and pitying, but when she erupts, the threat in the scene naturally alters the social priorities of the witness. Conversely, whilst McDonald found it hard to empathise with the characters in the apathetic coverage approach, he noted his capacity to choose where to look indicated a sense of spectatorial agency. This approach also allowed for more intellectualised, subjective compositions. In the final shot, negative framing is employed in a wide to associate Natasha with being dimishined, eliciting an emotional response of empathy without identifying with Natasha’s subjective experience. With these reflections, it became clear that while ethical spectatorship can be designed within the framework, the question of where the most appropriate designation lies depends entirely on the functional and ethical aims of the narrative.
My most profound observation, however, was that in my participation in the scene, I perceived clear indications that my presence as the operator was altering the emotional responses of the performer. This perception was shared by the performers, whom remarked after the camera had cut that they could “feel” where I was looking with the camera (Sgouros, personal communication, 2023), or looking at another subject or object. Below are two examples where the change in where I was looking as the operator provoked a discovered reaction in the performance.
In other takes of this over the shoulder, I remained on actor Edson’s face for the full moment. However, in this take, I began to pan to the short-side profile of Sgouros’ character, and in looking back at Edson on the line “Ian would have had to have been exposed to this kind of behaviour before,” the feeling of being looked at by all witnesses invoked an one-off, improvised response: “You don’t know that.”
In this shot, the ending of the scene was completely altered by Sgorous’ awareness of the camera. In the script, Natasha retrieves the scrunched-up painting and places it on her desk. However, in this variation, instead of sitting at her side of the desk, she sits where Jade sat moments prior. With the painting in her hand, I tilted down from the close-up of her face to the painting. Impulsively, she shreds the paper, violating her duty of care.
This insinuates that, when staging a humanistic coverage approach, the operator, and by extension the cinematographer, creates the first instance of spectatorial agency. The relationship between spectator and subject in, in the sense of constructing the scene, entirely participatory. This implies that the operator can project ethical attitudes onto the spectator with their ability to decide how to “look”. If this is true, then it can be argued that a cinematographer’s role in shaping an ethics in spectatorship is less about dictating the aesthetic minutia of the coverage, and rather about the inherent, ethical attitudes the cinematographer holds toward the act of “looking”.
While tight framing and micro-movements to hold a performer in close-up felt inappropriate for The Method, it felt compassionate to continually centre the character’s faces and move with them in The Fingerpainting. Similarly, the stillness of the apathetic approach stirred a level of remorse I was not expecting, and the sympathetic approach I correctly assumed would not induce self-reflexivity, still felt appropriate in covering the argument. It would seem that, while the aesthetic design of a film’s spectatorial experience is still vital, it is not the aesthetic parameters themselves that determine ethical spectatorship. Rather, it is the ethical attitudes of the cinematographer, and their priorities to handling the coverage of trauma responsibly that determines ethical spectatorship.
“We are on the verge of becoming a trauma conscious society.” (van der Kolk, 2014, p. 417)
This area of research was, in part, incited by an adverse reaction to films that use certain aesthetics to communicate a subjective trauma experience. However, it has become apparent through this practice-led-research that it is not the aesthetics of a film that informs the mode and ethical implications of spectatorship. Rather, it is the attitudes and priorities of filmmakers engaging with themes and conversations around trauma that inform the spectatorship. If the operator can convey notions of compassion by when, where and how they move the camera, the onus is on the interpretation of visual language in communicating those notions rather than the visual language itself.
Upon reflection of the Spectrum of Ethical Spectatorship, I believe the model holds validity as a framework of ethical spectatorship, and I aim to use it on future projects as a stimulus for collaborators who are working on projects in this area. However, rather than a manifesto that cinematographers must either adhere to or reject, it can instead be a starting point for reflecting on one’s practice in staging trauma response. Pivotally, this framework provides a conceptual theory, with supporting examples, that cinematographers should strongly consider engaging the spectatorship of a film about trauma response as secondary witness, rather than attempting to use form to represent a primary witness trauma response, and provokes questions about how one might achieve this with cinematographic technique. Additionally, this research might elicit reflection on where one’s values lie in participation of creating works about trauma. At the very least, this exegesis acts as a rebuttal to the notion that the only way for an audience to engage empathically with a character on screen is through the representation of their emotions and actions, and rather, provides a starting-point for screen practitioners to integrate core mental health literature on trauma into their craft as artists.
It is obvious that the scope of this research does not dictate a definitive approach to crafting stories about trauma. I view this as a positive outcome. Artists are unique and have differing approaches to their craft, fuelled by contrasting world views, ideological beliefs and moral values. To distil a framework as an absolute approach to filming trauma would be reductive at the least and censorship at the most. There is also the implication that a theoretical model such as this would not be academically sound at this level of interrogation. Much research needs to be done in viewing effectiveness with an audience, and a lot more philosophical integration with cognition and affect would be needed to be in a state where one could view this an academically robust gaze. There is runway for further progression into exploring this model and defining core tenets to the framework that are less negotiable than others, and I would be excited to see more research done in this area by more diverse voices. However, I’m thrilled that there is genuine interest from my peers in reviewing this framework to critically analyse their process and how it fits with their values as artists.
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