The Art of Framing Primer: a Lesson in Creativity Despite Low Means by Shane Carruth
For the first time yesterday I watched Primer, Shane Carruth‘s first feature film that he produced, wrote, directed, edited and played into and that came out in 2004. I clearly remember the buzz it got almost ten years ago, after it won the Sundance Grand Prize. I remember everybody marveling at its low budget ($7,000) a number that would still make our heads spin today. I remember reading articles about Carruth, an engineer turned self-taught writer/filmmaker/editor/actor/composer/producer etc. And so I watched Primer with all that in mind and yet, I still wasn’t quite prepared for what I experienced.
I watched Primer again this morning and between yesterday and today’s viewings, I read a lot of articles about a) how Carruth pulled it off and b) what this whole movie is talking about. Primer is not the perfect movie, and I think it could have kept its edges while having a less chaotic narrative structure but it is a bold, exciting, creative and challenging film, and for a first film, it certainly is a tour de force.
What seduced me the most I think in Primer, is its visual boldness. Carruth managed to be creative using simple tools and by discarding certain conventions. But before going into it, here are some info I gathered from Indiewire and Road Dog Productions and that I found interesting and helpful to better understand the film:
- the movie budget was $7,000
- the movie was shot on Super 16
- Carruth wore all the hats possible on that movie
- Carruth spent a year writing the script
- Carruth did a month rehearsal to make sure everything was in place before shooting
- Carruth storyboarded Primer, took 35mm stills, had decided on the composition, the exposure, the color temperature etc of each shot before the first day of shooting
- the movie was shot in 5 weeks
- post-production lasted 2 years
- the ratio for Primer was 2:1
- Carruth used Rodriguez shooting style, doing a lot of coverage but only shooting the line that was going to end up in the final movie. This is what allowed him to make a movie that feels dynamic, but also made him go through post-production nightmare, lacking coverage, footage, and having to do a lot of audio work.
- Carruth used a maximum of natural light and bought some fluorescent light bulb banks from Wal Mart with daylight balanced bulbs.
- Troy Dick, the cinematographer, is uncredited on imdb…
Primer is a distinctive ultra-low budget film in that it doesn’t shy away from any situation: there are exterior, interior scenes, but also night and day scenes, scenes in a moving car, plenty of dolly shots, overhead shots, coverage… there is even a kid and a scene shot in an airport (granted, a month before 9/11). Unlike Tiny Furniture, which was all about tripod and static frame, Primer is all about diversity, even if that means the white shirts worn by Abe and Aaron are never quite white, and that sometimes the image is so grainy or dark that you can only guess what is going on.
1 – Meta Framing will always do the trick
Granted, this is one of the oldest trick in the book. It is used consistently in Primer to make the most insignificant settings become exciting or simply to focus the audience’s attention onto what matters instead of what lacks.
2 – Mood and Good Audio Beat HD
You’ll have to trust me for the audio if you haven’t seen the movie, but one of Primer’s charm is the many shots that are not in focus (or where, clearly, the wrong element is), or when the grain is so big you probably only have 48 pixels composing the frame and yet, not only you don’t care but you embrace it. If you tend to be obsessed by HD, 4K, lighting equipment, rack focus and depth of field, watch Primer, it will remind you how high our (the audience) tolerance can be if the audio is good and we are into the story.
3 – Lighting and Overhead Shots Will Take You a Long Way
The title says it all. Just in case, here are some shots:
Bonus – Bold Shots
If that wasn’t enough, here are additional shots I really wanted to share, starting with the opening shot of the movie, that is just below:
Hope you enjoyed discovering or (re)-discovering the universe of Primer. If you’d like to explore more Art of Framing, below is the complete list:
- The Art of Framing: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
- The Art of Framing: Tiny Furniture
- The Art of Framing: Luther
- The Art of Framing: Broken Embraces
- The Art of Framing: Sherlock
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check the archives for a taste of it.