Monday, March 1, 2010

Cairo Time

This is going to be a different kind of post. The other night we watched a movie called Cairo Time. It's not one I would have picked, but the trailer was intriguing. Watch the trailer. It gives away most of the movie but I'm about to do the same anyway.

Ever since I was a kid, I didn't just watch movies, I absorbed them. Assuming a movie is worth remembering, I can remember who I saw it with and where (similar to how my dad remembers what he was doing, when, and, more importantly, what the weather was like). Having been in the computer graphics industry for 12 years now (including teaching), I've taken that absorption of movies to a new level. I constantly look at settings, textures, and lighting and I instantly want to re-create it in CG. It's not that it would be better in CG, it's just that I want to know that I can recreate that material property. It's as though the entire image isn't enough to appreciate. I need to rebuild that scene and zoom in on it and admire that tiny highlight from as many angles as possible.

Cairo Time is one of those movies. It tells the story of a woman arriving in Cairo on a planned vacation with her husband. They're travelling separate from each other and his work with the UN stops him in Gaza to help with a refugee camp. She arrives to find a former colleague of his, Tareq, picking her up and taking her to the hotel. When she doesn't know what to do in Cairo, she calls on him to help her see the city. So what happens? Do they fall in love? Do they fight space monsters? You'll have to watch it to see. Or just read the rest of this post 'cause I'm going to spoil most of the movie.

What I really want to talk about in this post is the movie's use of colour. Gold and teal to be specific.

Right from the beginning, our main character, Juliette, tells us how hot it is. Sure, she does it verbally, but our lighting is hot too. The golden light accenting her hair heats her up and even tints her face red. The response she gets from Tareq is that the people there are used to the heat. It's interesting thinking back on it now. For the rest of the movie, she is consistently wearing colours, or lit in a way that is golden (or yellow, or red, or orange) while the rest of Cairo is more teal, light blue, or aqua. It really signals that she's the warm one and the visitor as she stands out. It's also interesting to see Egypt presented to us in a blue-ish tinge, when 99% of the movies we've seen about Egypt are lit in that golden light.

Here's an example of that (and one of my favorite compositions of the film). The city of Cairo and the blue sky. Desaturated distance haze reducing the contrast of our setting. In the foreground we get our two main characters. Again, Juliette is wearing yellow and her blonde hair really stands out against the water of the Nile. Having the bridge above water increases the perception of distance of our foreground from background and really makes it pop. Wonderful. Often when watching movies I think to myself, "I have to remember that and use it in CG sometime." Well now I'm documenting it.

Later, while on a boat tour of the Nile, Tareq sneaks in a photo of Juliette. He explains that ever since having a digital camera, he likes taking pictures of people and surprising them. He gets the best reactions that way.

Once again, we have the cool background of Cairo and the hot foreground of our characters. What this leads me to is another of my favorite shots in the film, not just for staging, but for the pacing of the shot. Here we have Juliette later on, looking at the photo from the boat trip...

... The background is out of focus, she's looking at her photo. It's tinged red from the boat canopy. Her hair and dress add that golden hue to the foreground. The phone rings and she leaves frame to answer it.

The blue of the Nile now takes over and the shot becomes cool again. I love this especially because she goes to answer the call from her husband who is explaining that he has been delayed yet again. The shot holds on this until the boat you see there makes it from the middle to the 3/4 point to the left. It has to go on for another 30 seconds before we cut to the interior to see her frustration. She's made a decision now. She's going to go to a wedding with Tareq (a previous invitation from earlier in the film). Something interesting happens now.

One thing is that we get one of my HUGELY favorite shots in the film. A train station. Golden. Now the colour of our environment has flipped. We're now mainly gold with more subtle blue accents. I love the exposure value of this shot. I love the background of the station with the barely visible scaffolding coming through the bright light.

Now on top of the colour of the scene changing, we're now seeing Juliette changing.

Cairo is golden and she is aqua.

Here's where we shift from her being a tourist and learning about the culture to her embracing it (and perhaps falling for Tareq?). That aside, what I want to come to now is the part of the film I'll call, "high romance." Colours shift and the look of the film is lush. After the wedding we're back in the hotel.

I LOVE this shot. I especially love her see through dress. Not because of some pervy reason, but because it adds a razor's edge to the scene. Like it can't be hard enough that she's married to the guy he used to work for and it's clear they're falling for (or have fallen for) each other, but her dress has to have the added allure of being translucent? C'mon! Imagine being him and trying not to pay any attention to that. The background sky which was cool and blue in the past is now golden and transitions us to our next setting and yet another of my favorite shots.

Gorgeous. The colours, the setting sun, her dress in the wind, the lens flare. The size of the pyramids in comparison to the size of our actors adds a more dramatic element to the scene with the pyramids dominating the landscape. The spacing of the pyramids and the road leading to the setting sun gives us a visual path that not only leads our eye, but also tells us that this could go anywhere. You don't want it to end at this point.

But it does.

And we get probably what is my favorite contrasting image of the film. Here's where I spoil the end of the film for you. She returns to the pyramids with her husband.

The colours of the scene have changed. We're desaturated and cool again. But she's wearing her yellow dress again. Could it be that she's back to being the way she was before? I'd say not. She's a changed person, but perhaps she's back to the way her husband knew her just a week ago. The composition of the pyramids in relation to our actors is totally different. Bunched together with the size of our actors larger in comparison gives me a feeling that is almost claustrophobic. All the open space of the desert and we cram it all into the middle? Where the previous visit to the pyramids was wide and expansive, this feels like a tourists photo. Some forgettable throwaway in an age where we take thousands of digital photographs and call ourselves photographers.

Cairo Time is gorgeous. I can't say it's for everyone. Slow pacing is the name of the game and the actors carry it beautifully in a colourful setting. Being in an industry that looks to what was the last explosive visual effect and wondering how it was done and how we can make it bigger, we can't forget where all of our knowledge of what makes a film beautiful comes from. Avatar is a spectacle. It pushed CG to a whole new level of what can be done on a large scale. If we want to make truly great art however, we need movies like Cairo Time to remind us what makes the intimate beautiful too.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this is a pretty great article. I often forget about the power of colour.