PHILOSOPHY: What Can a 49-Year-Old Ghost Story Tell Us About Craftsmanship?

Craftsmanship never goes out of style, and the “democratization” of filmmaking is no reason to get sloppy. Here’s a quick look at one of my favorite movies, in which NOTHING happens by accident.

“The Haunting” (the original 1963 version, not the appalling 1999 version) is one of my favorite movies of all time. Every time I see it I notice something new. I watched it most recently on the plane returning from IBC and decided it’s time to draw a little attention to it–particularly to a couple of scenes that, in a nutshell, show the kind of planning that went into this film.

I love haunted house and time travel movies, and not too long ago I realized what they had in common: there’s an underlying structure that is initially hidden to the viewer but that is gradually revealed as the movie progresses. At the beginning of the film we have no idea why events are unfolding as they are, and because of that they seem strange and terrifying: we are most afraid of what we don’t understand, and events that occur out of context are most terrifying of all. By the end of the film, though, we understand the context, and while we can’t always predict what will happen it all makes sense in retrospect.

Time travel stories generally unfold this way, with events only making perfect sense in hindsight. The manipulation of time hides from us the underlying structure of the story until the very end. Ghost stories do the same, but the structure is not hidden by a fictional attribute of physics but by the invisibility of one, or more, of the characters, each of whom move with purpose through the story but whose actions and motivations we can only briefly glimpse.

One of my favorite non-ghost story films is Atom Egoyan’s “Exotica,” in which a host of characters weave their way through seemingly unrelated story lines until the latter third of the movie, when their lives come crashing together. It’s a film that you must let wash over you, because trying to make sense of it from the beginning only results in frustration. The film requires that we trust it, and that all will be explained. “Exotica” does this spectacularly, delivering bombshells right up to the very last frame.

“The Haunting” is a different kind of film. Whereas we have no reason to believe that a film like “Exotica” is going to require a bit of effort from the audience until we see it, we know that ghost stories will demand our patience. The tension behind the average ghost story lies in events that we don’t understand and that are not under obvious control, but that have an underlying purpose and motivation. If only we can discover what those are we can take a stand against the invisible and set the world right again. The enemy is not only the hidden consciousness that bedevils the protagonists; time itself is an enemy, as our heroes must spend precious minutes, hours, days or years deciphering the puzzle behind the events that befall them in the hope that they can save themselves, or others, before time runs out.

This film’s storyline is simple, and has been used successfully in at least one other film (“The Legend of Hell House”): a scientist gathers a small group of psychics, and at least one or two skeptics, to investigate a “genuine” haunted house in the hope of discovering that the spirit world exists. The movie centers on four characters: Eleanor (“Nell”), a reluctant psychic without a home; Theo, a clairvoyant whose status as a social outsider gives her a unique perspective on people and events; Dr. Markway, a well-meaning scientist who ends up paying a terrible price for knowledge; and Luke, the self-absorbed playboy who stands to inherit the house and whose strongest trait is that of self preservation.

What I love about this movie is that nothing in it happens by accident. It’s not often that one sees a sketch artist credited in the opening titles of a film, and it’s clear that this person was very busy indeed. The director, Robert Wise, started his career as an editor (his early credits include a somewhat familiar title–“Citizen Kane”) and it’s clear that he knew how every shot in the film was going to play against the other. Rather than simply shoot coverage and figure out the rhythm of the scene later, he knew exactly what he needed to tell the story, complete with occasional single shots for punctuation.

I’ve found several scenes from the film online at the American Movie Classics website, and as they seem to have permission to host these clips I’m going to use them as examples of what I call “intentional filmmaking.” As the cost of making a film plummets it’s increasingly important for new generations of filmmakers to discover that telling a good story cinematically does not simply mean documenting events; instead, good films are handcrafted with intent and purpose, and with layers that reveal themselves both over the course of the film and with repeated viewings. The layers aren’t necessarily hard to create, as they all relate back to the theme of the movie and the inner lives of the characters, but one must do a lot of homework to create these layers of meaning without being obvious and amateurish about it. The writer and director must know their film very, very well.

Cinematography plays a key role in the telling of this tale. This short scene happens toward the beginning of the film, when Nell and Theo try to find their way to the parlor to meet their host, Dr.Markway. They quickly find themselves lost, and Nell–the one character without a home, and with no real place in the world–is almost swallowed by the house.

The scene begins simply enough. We see Eleanor walking down a dark hallway, and at first we think she’s alone. Theo enters the frame, checking doors and expressing her frustration at being lost. Film schools often teach that scenes start with a “master” shot that shows everything, but often it’s much more interesting to show a smaller part of the scene and then open up the setting from there. A scene that starts in closeup builds tension because we don’t know the complete story: events are unfolding but we don’t know the context, and as human beings who are driven to make sense of the world we are quickly drawn in simply because we don’t know what’s happening just outside the frame. As the scene unfolds and our view of the “world” gets bigger the tension is somewhat released, although often the tension inherent in the scene itself takes over.

The classic example of this is a scene where a phone rings, and all we see in the frame is the phone and a tiny bit of the background. We may or may not know immediately who answers the phone, or where they are, but this is revealed in time–sometimes later in the scene, and sometimes later in the movie. It’s okay to make the audience question what they are seeing as it keeps them more engaged; the caveat is that all questions must be answered eventually.

At first Nell and Theo appear in the center of the frame, either together or in single shots. Compositions happen both in space and time: not only do elements relate to each other within a shot but they relate to each other across edits. By keeping Nell and Theo in the center of the frame tension is lessened because our eyes don’t have to move around the frame across edits, but as the scene progresses the distance between them increases…

It’s interesting to see how Eleanor and Theo start out apart, then come together, drift apart, come back together, and then drift much farther apart…

…until the house finally tries to devour Eleanor. (This is a theme throughout the movie: divide and conquer.)

The shot where Nell is nearly lost to the house starts out normally enough but quickly takes on a frenetic, awkward motion–it’s a weird, disturbing take on handheld camerawork–before she’s saved by a sudden shaft of light from an opening door.

That high shot of the opening door, by the way, isn’t just “coverage.” It’s one shot designed to do exactly what the story requires: it saves a character from doom, at least for the moment. It’s punctuation, not happenstance.

Also, note how Dr. Markway’s entrance changes the mood of the scene considerably. Movies have rhythms, but so do scenes: maintaining one mood all the way through a film, or even a scene, can make it a bit tedious–which is why horror and comedy go so well together. One builds tension while the other relieves it, and that rhythm makes the scene much richer and more interesting. It’s a bit like a roller coaster: in between the bouts of screaming there are moments of peaceful ascent that break the tension. The ride would be a bit less fun if it was all screaming, all the time.

“The Haunting” is not just a great film from a cinematography standpoint; it’s also a textbook example of subtext. Subtext is the hidden and often unconscious motivations and wants of each character revealed through acting and dialog. It’s what the characters mean, in spite of what they say. It’s the “actions speak louder than words” portion of the story. Human beings say an awful lot about themselves through their choices of words, habits, gestures and social interactions, and while all this happens spontaneously in real life very little of this should happen accidentally in a feature film. Part of telling the story is knowing who the characters are, what they want and what they’ll do in reaction to the events they face. Some of that comes through when Eleanor is almost swallowed by the house: part of her is terrified, and part of her wonders if this is what she really wants.

The actual swallowing is done through the judicious use of frenetic camerawork and a trick of light. Cinematography plays a hugely important role as well–in this case merging with the character of the house for a dramatic beat.

Let’s look at a second scene on the next page…

This next scene comes considerably later in the film. Dr. Markway’s wife, a complete skeptic, arrives unexpectedly and tries to convince her husband to drop his silly experiment and come home. When he refuses she not only opts to stay but decides to sleep in what appears to be the most haunted room in the house: the nursery.

This scenes opens when Luke, who is supposed to be upstairs, on watch, near the nursery, stops by the parlor for a drink, where Nell, Theo and Dr. Markway are asleep. (Enough has happened in the house that none want to sleep alone.) As Luke takes a swig from a bottle the door to the parlor slams shut.

Nothing in this scene happens by accident. In the beginning the shots are generally balanced, but as the scene progresses the characters grow farther and farther apart. At one point Eleanor separates herself from the rest, by leaning away from Theo…

…and for a significant portion of the scene all of the other characters–Dr. Markway, Theo and Luke–are framed to the left, while Eleanor is framed to the right. Most of the action, including the door knob turning, happens on frame left, which leaves Eleanor alone in her own corner. Most of the cuts don’t require us to move our eyes around the frame, but the shots of Eleanor do. This is not an accident.

What does this say about her character? Her placement to the right of frame balances the other shots nicely (compositions happen across both space, time and edits) but also puts distance between her and the other characters. That also causes a lot of eye movement for an audience in a big theater, when most of the action is on the left side of the screen but once in a while, when looking at one character, they have to look all the way to the right. That creates tension.

Note the rhythm of the edits: the scene starts slow, but the editing grows a bit faster and more deliberate as the scene goes on. It doesn’t become frenetic, but the pace does increase with the pounding noises. One of the most dramatic moments is when Dr. Markway reaches for the doorknob and Luke has to stop him from opening the door: that one shot starts off motionless but quickly incorporates a camera move that’s faster than we’ve seen in the film so far. It’s completely different from any other shot in the film. Once again that shot exists as punctuation in the scene, and not simply action that happens within the coverage. The other shots serve as coverage as they are repeated during the course of the scene, but that one shot creates an emotional response that is perfect for that part of the story.

It’s interesting to watch the combination of wide shots and closeups as the scene progresses. The high and wide angle makes the characters look very alone, but their single shots see the camera placed below, looking up at them. In film schools low angles are taught as a way to make characters look more powerful, but here the intent is clearly different. The final shot of the scene, where the camera booms up to look down at Eleanor, is certainly intended to show her character as weak and fragile–this is the moment when she truly surrenders to the house.

But several of the other shots in the scene, such as those of the bulging door, are shot from high above and mixed with shots from below. Clearly the director is not following film school formulas–there’s a reason why he’s mixing up these angles. The effect is dramatic–not exactly disorienting, but unpredictable.

Also notice something else that happens frequently in feature films: the lighting in the wide shot is not the same as the closeups. The lighting is appropriate to each shot, but it is not consistent. It is story driven, not reality driven. Over my career I’ve run into a number of directors and clients who are very literal: if they can’t see everything in the frame then it’s too dark, or if the lighting changes between a wide shot and a closeup it’s too distracting. They are scrutinizing one frame at a time for technical details, when filmmaking is emotional and happens over many frames. As long as we’re serving the story such minor details are unimportant.

The lighting in the wide shot…

…is not the same as in the closeups. Does this matter? Not really.

Also, once again, we have several examples of humor breaking up the tension in the scene: Eleanor’s comment about vacationing elsewhere and Luke offering Dr. Markway a deal on the house.

Let’s take a look at the film’s amazing opening sequence, on the next page…

Last but not least, here is the opening of the film where Dr. Markway describes, very succinctly, the history of the house:

This is a marvelous bit of filmmaking that tells us everything we need to know to be terrified of the place, and immediately establishes the dramatic core of the film: a small group of innocents are about to step into a malicious, unpredictable place just to see what happens.

What is most interesting about each of the deaths is that some object always settles or falls in a way that makes the event slightly more real. When the first Mrs. Crane dies her bracelet slips down her wrist; keys drop from the body of the second Mrs. Crane as she lays at the bottom of the stairs; the daughter drops her cane; and the companion’s shoe plummets to the floor. What does all this mean? I have no idea… but this kind of detail certainly makes each event much more real and horrifying. Deaths in film usually happen suddenly and violently. We aren’t used to seeing the minuscule details that heighten the event’s impact. It’s much more difficult to stay detached when confronted with the mundane side effects of a horrific incident.

Also, the final shot when the second wife lands at the foot of the staircase is taken from her point of view–if she had survived the fall. That kind of startling detail–looking out through the eyes of a dead person at the last thing they see–is a master’s touch. The sequence where the companion hangs herself is also brilliantly done, as the camera pans off the staircase and we, the audience, feel ourselves suddenly and mysteriously suspended high above the floor.


When I started out in the film industry I would’ve killed (metaphorically) to have a cheap camera with which to practice and shoot short films. Not having that opportunity, though, meant focusing more on the theory and structure of filmmaking so that when the opportunity presented itself I’d be ready–or at least more ready. I sucked at storytelling when I was in film school but I learned enough to appreciate that I wasn’t doing it terribly well and became driven to do it better. It’s not uncommon these days to work with people who acquired a camera without having learned these lessons, and they don’t know what they don’t know. As a result the quality of work that they are willing to accept bewilders me.

When I look at a film like this I marvel at its structure and at how much I take away from every viewing. Someone has even felt the movie worthy of a fan website where they delve into aspects of the film that struck me subconsciously over the years but that I never really fully realized. Why, for example, are there mirrors in almost every scene, and sometimes in every shot? Interior designers often incorporate mirrors into design schemes to make rooms look bigger; is the point of all these mirrors to hint that the house is bigger than it seems? They’re certainly a pain to work around for a crew, so they clearly exist for a reason.

And what’s with all the statues?

I’m not like most filmgoers. I like to use my brain. I don’t expect all the answers right away. I’m happy to trust the filmmakers and assume that I’ll get the answers when the story dictates that I need to know them. If you’re reading this then I can safely assume that you feel the same way. Movies are not simply characters reciting lines and documenting the results: most of what a movie has to say is in what the characters want to say but don’t. The camera has a large part to play because it, too, is a character, and it always has something to say. Camera placement, composition, lighting, camera movement, and how shots cut together are all part of how the camera reveals the things that characters can’t, or won’t, say out loud. It seems a crime not to use that power–the power of the moving proscenium–to great and dramatic effect.

I remember when Dogme 95 was introduced as a new style for raw cinematic storytelling (although even the inventors admit they never really followed all the rules themselves). Such realistic storytelling can be quite successful (The Blair Witch Project is perhaps my favorite example) but it seems a shame not to exploit all the tools at one’s disposal in filmmaking. Cinematography, editing, subtext, set dressing, sound, makeup… there are opportunities amongst all the elements of filmmaking to do something special–not necessarily flashy, but meaningful–to advance the story and the meaning of a film.

Lives are lived forwards but only make sense backwards. Good films are similar, and it’s the responsibility of exceptional filmmakers to look through their script and find opportunities to include little revelatory moments that make a story truly exceptional, especially through repeated viewings.

As a cinematographer I yearn for such opportunities.

Art Adams | Director of Photography | 09/21/2012 |

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Art Adams is a cinema lens specialist at ARRI, Inc. Before that, he was a freelance cinematographer for 26 years. You can see his work at Art has been published in HD Video Pro,…

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