ALL HAIL THE NETFLIX KING AND CINEMATOGRAPHIC WIZARD
Four Ways Adam Arkapaw Showcases His Cinematographic Genius
Featuring examples uncovered from True Detective, unearthed from Macbeth, and won from The King
The fact of Adam Arkapaw being a cinematic master? The case was closed with True Detective (2014). If you’ve ever feasted your eyes on this brilliant HBO drama with its bleak, barren landscapes and cutting edge shots (including the famous six minute single-take tracking shot), you’ve already had your mesmerizing introduction to the cinematic artistry of Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw.
Chances are, you may have already seen some of Arkapaw’s former works: Animal Kingdom (2010), The Snowtown Murders (2011), Macbeth (2015), The Light Between Oceans (2016) or Assassin’s Creed (2016). But Netflix recently released his newest masterpiece: The King (2019). It’s certainly well worth the watch (even a re-watch) if you enjoy movies that patiently break down character behaviour and motivation in insightful and methodical ways. Both True Detective and The King expertly examine different character philosophies, delving deep into character psyches to showcase what lies within their minds. The characters either possess or are introduced to bleak philosophies and harsh perspectives to their reality. Arkapaw has succeeded in presenting us with a beautifully crafted — if not inherently dark — depiction of this grim reality, creating stark imagery that lends well with the beautifully crafted narrative. All this, complete with expert dialogue that never falls short of eternal depth, combine to form a masterpiece of cinema and an experience like no other.
In lieu of the new kingly release, I have noted four things Arkapaw does right when crafting his cinematic pieces.
**If you have not yet watched True Detective, Macbeth, and/or The King, this post may contain spoilers**
1. Arkapaw sets the tone of upcoming scenes using landscape design
When you need to set the tone of a film to showcase a bleak reality, call in Arkapaw and he’ll do a magical job of it. At various strategically-placed points in his films and shows, he zooms out from the main characters and flies us over the landscape in all its grim glory. He does this many times in True Detective. He also showcases this among many battle scenes in Macbeth and The King.
True Detective: Rust’s hallucinations
There are times when the first season of True Detective’s main character Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) looks up to the sky and is witness to a series of hallucinations. He explains these are the product of his PTSD and the past trauma he has experienced, lending the way to sleep deprived hallucinations. These hallucinations are woven into the landscape as Rust’s spiritual experiences, as he appears to be the only character in the show who can see what others can’t or refuse to see, and voice it out loud. He himself is depicted as a philosophical messenger, bearing a truth and awareness that his partner Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) is reluctant to face — a philosophy made up of pessimistic degradation in line with the decaying landscape that surrounds the two of them.
To further showcase this point, throughout the entire season Rust is always seen looking up to the sky, while his partner Marty always keeps his eyes to the ground. This begins in the first episode when the two detectives first observe the original crime scene, the homicide that begins the case that will run throughout the season. When the two men encounter the body, Rust immediately looks up to the sky for answers, while Marty keeps his eyes directly on the ground near the body.
This juxtaposition of looking up vs. looking down repeats throughout the two’s journey on the case. In this way, Marty misses a lot of things Rust perceives, and in more than one way, Marty is blind to things that are right in front of him. He describes himself in the third episode as feeling like Wile E. Coyote from the famous Looney Tunes cartoon, looking only ahead of him and barrelling forward with blinders, failing to consider he might be running straight off a cliff. He describes to his wife during a moment of intimacy in the third episode that he thinks if he continues forward, only forward, he might just be okay. And in the fifth episode, in the aftermath of everything, he explains to the other men at the station that he had the detective’s curse: “The solution to my whole life was right under my nose — that woman, those kids — and I was watching everything else. Infidelity is one kind of sin, but my true failure was inattention. I understand that now.”
As the viewer, we look up to the sky along with Rust and see what he sees as well. And we see what’s there, embedded into the landscape.
The King: Battle landscape
Arkapaw uses contrasting images in the landscape to set the tone for upcoming scenes. In the beginning of the film The King, when England is in trouble due to certain decisions the current king (Hal’s father) had been making, we see the war-torn land cast in a sun-setting glow with soldiers strewn about over the remnants of the battlefield. This sets the tone for when the viewer later learns about the issues plaguing England along with its growing number of enemies. In contrast to this, later in the film when Prince Hal takes the crown as King Henry V, the hope for victory is showcased by a brighter landscape and greener grass.
2. Arkapaw uses the camera to effectively capture the imagery and symbolism of a piece of work
True Detective: The circle of eternal recurrence
Throughout the first season of True Detective, Arkapaw presents us with the cinematographic version of the recurring theme of circles. In the fifth episode, Rust Cohle utters a comment about life being like a circle, making reference to the Nietzschean philosophy of eternal return/eternal recurrence.
“Someone once told me, ‘Time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again. And that little boy and that little girl, they’re gonna be in that room again and again and again forever.”
~Rust Cohle, True Detective (Season 1, Episode 5)
This reference to circles is reflected throughout the season by embedding various forms of circles into the images and pictures of the show. Arkapaw showcases this imagery further by spinning the camera in a circle over the crime scene evidence in the second episode, indicating the crime is one which will eternally occur.
This sets the tone for the nature of the crimes the detectives are trying to put a stop to and sheds light on their inevitability; it presents us with the grim reality that even if the detectives catch the present criminal, there will always be another person committing these types of crimes to keep pursuing in an endless chase of cat and mouse.
Rust highlights this point in the fifth episode when he explains to the other men at the station that “this is a world where nothing is solved”. He then proceeds to enlighten them on the nihilistic Nietzschean meaning of circles to explain why this is the case.
Rust also highlights the point of eternal recurrence in the third episode when he mentions that closure is only an illusion, and we can never truly obtain it.
3. Arkapaw is exploratory and plays a lot with colours and hues
Macbeth: Battle upheaval vs. calm conversation shifts
Arkapaw describes himself as an explorative cinematographer rather than a technical one, and this can be regarded in his various works. The talented cinematographer plays with different contrasts of warm and cool colours. While most of his pictures take on a cool black-and-white-and-grey feel, he contrasts the grim coolness of the image by peppering in sections of warm, bold orange-yellow. This contrast is effective for highlighting certain scenes, giving them a warmer, friendlier, and more relaxing feel.
An example of Arkapaw’s contrast between warm and cool is shown in the 2015 movie adaptation of Shakespeare's famous play Macbeth. In the beginning scenes of the movie, during battle, and when men, women, and/or children are being slain, the landscape is full of cool colours and slow motion shots. When the three witches show up, there is a warm, yellow glow around them. After the initial battle scene, the tent where the men converse is lit up in a warm, orange-yellow candlelight glow. The image contrast in these various scenes play with the viewer’s senses: the warm glow relaxes the senses and viewers let their guards down, while the cool, bleak contrast tenses them up to be on guard, as if they themselves were the ones walking into battle or to face certain death.
True Detective: Colour and hue separate perspective from reality
This juxtaposition of light vs. dark, colour vs. absence of colour can also be seen a lot in True Detective. Towards the beginning of the second episode of the first season, Arkapaw portrays the different worlds of the two men using colour (and lack of) in their morning routine. Rust’s world is shown in simple grey, beige hues — minimalist and absent of colour. The room he wakes up in is bare, save for one lone cross on the wall — a symbol reflecting the recurring theme of religion throughout the season — and a single circular mirror, barely large enough for the man to view his own eye.
In contrast to this bleak, barren room, Marty wakes up to a world filled with colour. He has a wife in his bed, and he is greeted by joyful, laughing children. He smiles as the children open the curtains to let in the light and the family gathers together in the bed. All the while, the room is filled with warmth — bursting with soft colours.
An interesting thing to note about Marty’s world though is despite the colour and happy sounds, the whole scene takes on an enchanting, dream-like quality as if it was but a fading memory. This depiction is in line with Rust’s quote in the first episode of the season: “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading. It’s like there was never anything here but jungle”. On the other hand, Rust’s world is more concrete and real. In this brilliant way, Arkapaw helps us visualize Rust’s philosophy of “pessimistic reality”. Rust is a man who has accepted his own fate and who “knows who he is” — as he states in the second episode, the statement of which is reinforced by Marty’s wife in the seventh episode. In the same way, the faded dream-like image of Marty’s world reflects Marty’s inability to accept or accurately perceive his reality throughout the show (whether it’s regarding his propensity for affairs or his continual neglect of his own children). In a way, it’s a foreshadowing of this optimistic reality one day being but a dream for the hopeful optimist.
4. Arkapaw slows it down and gets right into the action — real and raw — when the shot calls for it
During scenes of great action — such as the aforementioned six minute tracking shot of the take down in episode four of True Detective as well as the great French-English battle scene near the end of The King — Arkapaw slows down the reel and gets right down in the dirt and mud with the actors.
True Detective: Six minute single-take tracking shot
The camera follows Rust throughout houses and yards, rooms and corridors, even up and over a fence, not once cutting out. It’s six minutes of zoomed-in mastery, taking the viewer straight into the shot to experience all the action up close. During the shot, the camera shifts this way and that, following along with the detective as he moves back and forth through the area. The action revolves around Rust, and each time he looks back to a certain place he was at previously, the scene and the action has changed. This well-choreographed six minute shot took lots of prepping and rehearsing before they could even get down to filming it. But it was all worth it for the spectacular end result.
The King and Macbeth: Up close in battle
Arkapaw takes us with the characters as they crawl around in the dirt, giving us the full experience of battle. We come out of it knowing exactly what went down, what they went through, seeing exactly what they saw — and it makes the whole experience complete. As much as Arkapaw has convinced us he can zoom out and show us the bleak landscape from afar, he can also masterfully zoom in and show us close up the specks of dirt and grime on each individual soldier’s pained, expressive face.
Adam Arkapaw has captivated the senses with extraordinary visuals that stimulate your eyes like no other. He adopts a very specific filming style that is unique in its own right.
After so many visual masterpieces, I for one cannot wait to view the next sight he has in store for all his viewers.