The '50–50'

In a recent class, my cinematography professor brought up a study about bandage-removal techniques in ERs, which found that patients prefer nurses who slowly and gently remove their bandages. Yet even with this knowledge, nurses strongly prefer to rip bandages off in one fell swoop.

What accounts for this discrepancy? It’s for the same reason a recent ex of mine (who is, coincidentally, an LVN) decided to break up over text, rather than face to face: it causes less suffering for the doer. The nurses didn’t want to see their patients’ suffering drawn out; my ex-beau admitted that he texted me because, "It's just easier."

So now, we come to the “50–50.” If you’ve seen enough student films, you’re familiar with this kind of shot, where two characters stand face to face in a flat composition. It often demonstrates that the key creatives know nothing about their characters’ motivations, so they take the easy way out by giving both people equal visual weight. My professor, bringing the bandage-removal study full circle, noted that the “50–50” allows filmmakers to avoid their characters’ gaze, since the camera is positioned perpendicular to their eyeline.

The Chapman thesis film I’m shooting in a few weeks is about a difficult subject, a father who’s so in love with his drug-addicted daughter that he goes to extreme measures to protect her from harm. I’ve heard classmates describe the movie as a thriller because of several violent scenes, but it’s really a romance gone wrong. The characters don’t have an explicitly incestuous relationship, but let’s just say that the father has an unhealthy attachment to his daughter.

In order to give this disturbing story the treatment it deserves, my director and I must avoid the “50–50” and its attendant mediocrity. It requires breaking down each scene so we fully understand the characters’ motivations. And it requires having the fortitude to place the camera directly in line with the father’s gaze, when he comes to the horrific realization that his efforts to protect his daughter were for naught.

I like to think people watch movies because they value originality, not because filmmakers take the easiest and most predictable route. Great films are the antithesis to the “50–50”'s laziness. They force viewers to think that, maybe it’s OK to re-evaluate their lives and make difficult decisions that build character.


UPDATE Feb 8, 2014: My friend Michael Trevis comments, "I think there is importance in the objective and subjective in films, and maybe the '50–50' is one strategy for objectivity." I agree, but few filmmakers are able to effectively employ the technique. Beginning filmmakers, in particular, tend to use it as a crutch to hide from their characters and avoid unpleasant topics. Director Andrew Haigh proved to be an exception in his 2011 debut, WeekendHaigh and cinematographer Ula Pontikos use the "50–50" to visually underscore how an introverted gay guy suddenly finds himself on equal footing with a one-night stand who's very different from himself.