An analysis of cinematography and it’s role in conveying power and defining character relationships in House of Cards.
Politics is old men talking and young men dying, or so the saying goes. And yet for a series filled with scenes of brilliantly crafted dialogue, House of Cards is still at it’s very core mostly scenes of people talking. Rarely will you ever see a physical confrontation or action and yet each scene in House of Cards is able to communicate a very subtle but important language to it’s viewers – The language of power.
Note: if you haven’t watch House of Cards yet, first off – shame on you – But don’t worry I’ll use frames mostly the first episode of the first season.
Let’s take a look at two different scenes with the same characters.
Even without knowing the context of the scene we can tell who has the power. What’s the difference between how Frank Underwood is shot in the first scene and how he is shot in the second?
Let’s start with the simplest one –
It’s a primal, almost intuitive way that we have learnt to sense power in one another. The bigger someone is the chances are the stronger they are. And yet this subtle trick is used the most and the least recognized. When talking about size in film don’t just pay attention to who is taller or more muscular, pay attention to their proximity to the camera.
In this scene below Peter Russo finally confronts Frank after he blackmailed him into closing a shipyard in his district. Watch how much space each character takes in the frame.
What I love about this scene as well is the fact that Kevin Spacey has no lines because what he says simply with his body language and blocking in the shot implies more than anything that could be explicitly said.
Peter Russo moves close towards the camera increasing his size until his body takes up the majority of Frank Underwood’s reverse shot. Then we switch to a two shot showing the difference in height between the two characters and showing conflict by having both characters be the same distance from the camera and proportionality the same size. Finally Peter back away with the camera eventually panning down to make Peter look even smaller as Frank towers over him.
Character sizes also change when the camera moves closer to them –
We’ll go more into this scene at the end when we put everything together. Let’s move on to the next method of conveying power.
Like size this also preys on our primal language. Things that are higher are usually also bigger. In House of Cards you will find that the camera never really pans down, it mostly pans on it’s horizontal axis. As such you’ll usually see one character become lower or higher than another.
We see this quite clearly in the relationship between Zoe Barnes and Frank Underwood. Look at the frames below –
In case you’re wondering why Zoe gets shorter, Frank in this scene tells her to take her heels off before they proceed to have sex. This simple act will define their relationship for the entire season. One will be the dominant party and the other will be the submissive party.
Here’s another example that I really like – In this scene Linda Vasquez breaks the news to Frank that he won’t be nominated for Secretary of state.
As we can tell Frank enters the room with an air of authority and pride, having helped Garret Walker win the election, and now expects his nomination in return. However he is soon brought back to earth, literally, as he sits down shocked.
However the best example of height being used to convey power is actually at the end of this scene –
Frank gets up to leave, increasing his height, coincidentally as Linda pleads with Frank that he is needed in Congress. Frank has the power in this scene as the administration needs him, a power he will later go on to exploit.
Finally my favorite shot that proves my point eloquently –
(It works so well I can’t even remember the bodyguard’s name.)
Our eyes focus on things that get our attention and we rarely focus on things that aren’t important to us. So it makes sense that character that aren’t important to the narrative or the scene would have less focus then an important character in the scene. Case in point, another great shot of the bodyguard whose name I can’t remember –
But showing character out of focus does not simply mean they are unimportant or irrelevant. In fact when a major character is shown out of focus that’s when we should be focusing. Let’s look at this single frame from another great scene –
Focus doesn’t just represent irrelevancy in the scene, but also outside. These shots come the scene straight after Frank returns home to bring the bad news that he didn’t get the nomination. Frank feels irrelevant, and him being out of focus reflects his diminishing self esteem. Focus in this context reflects attention and after Claire walks away Frank feels alone.
Another great shot where we see one of Peter’s friends accuse him of losing integrity of the closing of a shipyard.
While we’re on the topic of attention, let’s also take a look at how eyelines within the frame can be used to convey power. As with the previous section we know how important attention on character is, so let’s take a look at another shot where attention is taken away from a character making them seem more vulnerable.
Frank looks on as Peter and Christina Gallagher discuss Frank’s proposal. In this scene, later on in the series, Frank is fearful that Peter will reveal the secret that he persuaded a former college editor to falsify testimony. Frank is established as the outsider in Peter’s office.
Here another good example of this –
The scene starts with Zoe informing Frank that one of her colleagues is digging into one of Frank’s previous machinations. Frank seems disinterested, pretending not to have been involved and blowing off Zoe’s warnings. However just before Frank leaves Zoe informs him that she wants to end their sexual relationship and we see the roles reversed as Frank feels that Zoe is slipping from his control. Also make note of height in this scene.
Not to be confused with proximity to the camera, Proximity here refers to the distance between characters and how that affects their relationship. When a character leans in usually the other character has got their full attention. In body language leaning in is a submissive gesture that shows interest or to gain interest from the other party. In House of Cards we can see this clearly as character move in and out of another character’s space in the frame.
Or when they enter into another character’s side of the frame –
Zoe and Frank’s first encounter.
The scene starts with Zoe desperately trying to reach Frank at his house –
Zoe starts above the bodyguard as she knocks on the door, when it opens we see Zoe in focus and larger indicating her desire to join Frank on his level. Frank finally invites her inside and she is eye with Frank.
“You like it weak?”
Frank offers Zoe, who is already seated, a drink. Frank towers over her, in height as well as space in the frame. We know he’s in control.
“Well you have my undivided attention.”
Frank lowers himself and sits down and both character’s eyelines connect. Then Zoe leans in as she begins to tell Frank he proposal.
“Oh, is foreplay over already?”
“Powerful people don’t have the luxury of foreplay.”
Frank interrupts her calmly as he remain unmoved in his chair and leaning back from Zoe. However Zoe continues to lean in making her appear closer to the middle of the frame. Also note how the show has changed with each character slowly growing larger as the camera moves closer. Frank isn’t convinced by Zoe’s proposal and tells Zoe she needs to gain her trust.
“So we’re talking about trust.”
“Use whatever word you like”
“Words matter very much, Ms. Barnes.”
Zoe tells Frank that she can trust her and leans back, believing she has power in her journalistic work. However Frank cites a few of her less than impressive articles. WE can see in the second shot that Frank dominates the frame with the camera in tighter than Zoe’s shot. However that is about to change.
“I’m better than what they have me doing. You know what that feels like.”
Zoe reveals she knows that Frank was promised the Secretary of State nomination but was double crossed. Now both Zoe and Frank are the size in the shot and their eyelines match perfectly. Neither Zoe or Frank has complete control over the other and they both end the scene as equals.
Hey! Mark here. I hope you enjoyed my quick little analysis of cinematography in House of Cards. I’ve been a big fan ever since the first season so I highly recommend you watch it as well. And if you really really liked it, and you’re so a cool dude, share this with your friends. Cheers!