Loneliness is a universal emotion. Every person on Earth has felt it at one point in their lives—the dead weight, the echoing pang, the electric skin that fires every time it's touched. Because it's such a huge part of the human experience, filmmakers have been making films about loneliness since the beginning of cinema, but one director that really stands out in his filmic exploration of it is Spike Jonze.
His lonely characters are some of the most memorable: Craig and Lotte Schwartz from Being John Malkovich, Max from Where the Wild Things Are, and, of course, Theodore from Her. But how does Jonze reproduce this very intense, very common experience cinematically? In this video essay from Studio Binder, we get to see three ways he uses cinematography to do it.
Though it's not very comprehensive, the list of Jonze's techniques that are mentioned in the video is a great place to start.
- Shoot close-ups to isolate emotion, and wides to isolate the character.
- Shoot a montage to capture time.
- Let your style be simple so your audience can focus on your character's emotional struggle.
Many times you just have to ask yourself what a lonely person looks like. What does a lonely person do? How do they speak? How do they walk and interact with others? What do they eat and drink and wear?
Sure, you've got the quintessential lonely look: a sullen person walking alone through the rain, arms folded, chin to chest, looking up to notice a couple lovingly feeding each other raviolis in a warm Italian restaurant. That kind of imagery would certainly tell your audience, "Hey, here's a lonely guy," but personally I always found that using restraint and subtly when trying to communicate loneliness on screen is much more potent. My favorite quote from author John Cheever perfectly encapsulates this:
A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind. (The Journals of John Cheever)
Though great subtlety may require you to trust that your audience won't overlook the queues (they won't), it really opens up doors for you cinematically. Just look at Her. Jonze didn't have to create a lonely world full of blues and greens and empty walls to show us that Theodore was a lonely man. We peered through the colorful environment, his saccharine profession, and even his convincingly cheerful disposition to find that he was in fact a stone, a bone, a stick, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of his bed illuminated by a glowing screen alone.
Source: Studio Binder