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Part I: Coraline, the Camera & Control

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Meghann Meeusen

on 2 April 2011

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Transcript of Part I: Coraline, the Camera & Control

Watching Reprised
Such angles by which Coraline is being watched continue throughout the film, as seen in this god shot when she is exploring.
Many of the same shots are used again when Coraline is trying to run away in the Other World, leading us to again see how closely she is being watched. This progression repeats during the film, and these scenes are separate and don't follow each other, this provides a continuity that brings us back to an important theme, and one that also speaks to the nature of filmmaking itself.
This similar to the concept of a graphic match, but not exactly, for we can assume the same set used in these scenes. However, the idea of linking these two parts of the film by using the same shots (although vastly different coloring/tone/etc) also helps to emphasize the differences. In what ways is the Other World different? Why does this matter? What comment does this make about perception?
Comparing the real world with the Other World, and similarly the Other World as Coraline first encounters it with its final manifestation is important to understanding the film's message.
So, if watching is often associated with the doll, who acts as the Other Mother’s eyes, what can we infer? The answer brings us back to the the canted frame.
Canted Frames
One of the first times we see this canted frame, it follows the shot you just saw, where the doll's head is tilted. This is the next shot, perhaps the best example of the canted frame in the film. This is a highly significant moment, because it leads Coraline to discover the door to the Other World, which would be behind us from this perspective. Additionally, it establishes a connection between being watched and the canted frame.
The doll’s head is tilted throughout, and Coraline tilts hers when she notices the doll hidden behind the box. The tilt of the head mirrors the tilt of the frame… the canted frame. However, there are other examples of head tilting that occur, perhaps complicating the meaning we can interpret from this stylized choice.
Often when Coraline is trying to figure something out or looking at something in a new way, noticing something, she tilts her head, something she maybe learns from the cat (and also Wybie, who mimics him).
Think & Write: So whose perspective does this tilt represent… the doll, the cat, the Other Mother, Wybie, Coraline? Or perhaps some combination or something else entirely?

Write about the use of the canted angle and how it relates to the story and its themes/meaning.
After she and Wybie play in the fog (just before her second return to the Other World), we see the doll watching her from the window—just a quick shot of this, then a “lap dissolve” from Coraline’s face into the doll’s, using graphic match in order to connect Coraline to her doll.
Watching, and the angles used to depict it, start to become associated with the doll, and thus, the Other Mother.
When Coraline first finds the mystery behind the door, we get two great canted frame shots of the room. Here, Coraline is horizontal, but the room appears tiled. Coraline tilted her head to figure out what she was seeing when she first views the door, but now the canted frame asks us to question what we are seeing, trying to figure it out, looking at it in a new way.
The angle is slight—it has this sense of things being just a little out of control. Molly Bang also speaks to this diagonal angle in her study of children’s picture books, whereby “dynamic shapes are dynamic because they imply motion or tension”.
Notice that when she goes to the Other World during the day, where there is no question of whether this is real or not, there is no canted frame
And when she is returning to battle the Other Mother, the canted frames become really common. Here, the world is constantly shifting to a more frightening space... everything is getting out of control.
Often, such observation shots are also canted frames, where the camera is tilted on its axis.
Eyes of
"Little Me"
So what conclusions can we draw by interpreting the canted frame?
Another aspect of watching is the doll. Frequently, we see Coraline watched by her doll.
Coraline and the Camera
During the opening credits, the dolls come in from a window and are taken apart… cut and unraveled by somewhat sinister metallic fingers.
Creation & Control
A god shot of dolls coming in through the window indicated judgment of this item, and judgment also alludes to control.
Movement in and out of the rectangular window is very common imagery in film (thinking Twilight Zone immediately, which connects us the sinister nature of this shot). Also note the use of internal frame, emphasizing entering and exiting a space controlled by these mechanical hands (the Other Mother).
The fingers themselves deserve some consideration… in addition to obvious foreshadowing to Other Mother’s demise, they are metallic—like the needles themselves, even mechanical. What kind of tone does this set What symbolism does the metallic/mechanical nature invoke?
The dolls themselves are childlike and unassuming, but set against the harsh tools, viewers begin to encounter a juxtaposition of the childlike and the more frightening element of the film…delicate, but disturbing. They are dolls, but consider the plucking open eyes, pulling stuffing from mouth, pulling out hair—a sinister tone is set immediately, reinforced by the music (children's voices but also with edge). Even in this opening, before we know what is to come, we are already seeing contrasting imagery, a crucial element to the story's overall message.
Contrast—this space is ordered (safe), yet something is clearly amiss. The metallic fingers are careful, precise and thoughtful in their selection of the new doll’s parts, which on the surface seems positive. Yet the imagery is dark, shadowed, harsh, even frightenting. Making dolls may be a positive act on the surface, and combined with the movement in and out of window, maybe even indicate a magical setting. Yet clearly there are visual elements that highlight a more sinister aspect. When you really think about it, the dolls are at the creator's mercy. Why is this contrast an important part of the text's theme and overall message?
Too Much Repetition: Button eyes circular in rectangular rows is a striking and frightening image. Molly Bang, a noted theorist studying children’s visual art, writes of how too much order can be horrifying. She comments that “’perfect’ regularity—continual, relentless repetition—is perhaps even more horrifying in its monotony than confusion is. It implies a cold, unfeeling, mechanical mind” (78).
When her mother gets the key from the drawer, there is a sharp contrast from the drawers from the opening credits—none of the order and control present.
Use of shadow…. often the doll is held up and moved so that the assumption is that the desk light casts a shadow—adds to darkened/danger .
Uncertainty and Fear: Visual aspects in the opening credits make this an uncertain space—some aspects make it seem ordered and childlike (almost like Santa’s workshop), but there is a decidedly sinister edge (shadows, sharp fingers, spider webbing). Why would Selick choose to begin this way?
Precision and Fear
Changes from Book to Film: Selick talks about how adding the dolls as the Other Mother’s spies (not in the book) comes in part from the text, where Coraline uses her dolls to set the trap for the Other Mother’s hand. In critical readings of Gaimen’s novel, the use of dolls to set the trap is criticized by some scholars, for Coraline (like many female protagonists) uses tools of domesticity to assert power. Re-appropriating the dolls in this way takes what Gaimen already had and shifts it to reinforce his theme of control in a way that might be said to move the text in an interesting theoretical direction, where domestic tools and/or symbols of childhood femininity take on new (more sinister) meaning.
From Framing to Story: The next shot after the credits takes this juxtaposition of childhood innocence and a sinister tone into the “real world” of the film. The grey sky and harsh trees are set against the very childlike Pink Palace apartments, which looks very much like a Barbie dream house. This is another interesting contrast, whereby an ominous overall space (grey coloring throughout) doesn't seem to fit with the central image, a symbol of childhood. Similar to the credits, such a choice sets up the idea of things not always being as they appear, which is an important theme throughout.
What is Real? The questioning of the line between imagination and reality in children’s film and literature is a common thread. Here, much of the film (and novel) asks readers to question whether what happens to Coraline is real or a story she creates to amuse herself.
Theater Illusion: The opening credits of Coraline feature burgundy tones and scalloped edges, linking it visually to the idea of a stage performance. From this very first moment, the film alludes to performance by connecting it to the color/texture of a typical stage curtain. Is Coraline performing the story’s fantasy elements in her imagination? Is it all real? Who controls the performance… Coraline or the Other Mother? What are their motivations to create a world of fantasy? These are all important questions in the story to think about as you analyze film technique and stylized moments.
Control: When the title appears, the audience experiences a perspective shift, as if now looking down at a flat surface instead of looking ahead to a stage. The button comes from where we are looking and drops onto the page, so that we feel we are above it, and this places us in a position of more control. Additionally, the use of the lettering as needlepoint emphasizes this element of control, wherein creation through a craft like sewing happens through control and attention to detail.
Looking Ahead to Theme: Control, creation and imagination are all an important themes in Gaiman’s text. We are asked to consider the Other Mother’s motives, part of which comes from wanting to control the world around her, a motivation that is different from many other female villains, who are typically spurred by envy or jealousy of the beautiful and often royal heroine (consider Maleficent, Ursula and most recently Gothel in Tangled). While these heroines desire to regain lost youth or power within the systems of the real world already in place, the Other Mother wants to create a world separate from the real. She wants to have Coraline under her power, but does not what to be her, which sets her apart as a unique character in children’s film.
Opening Shot:
Reality and Perspective
Worth Watching
Here, the cinematography asks us to question the authorial viewpoint, which doesn't happen in the same way in the novel. Yet it fits with the overall message of the text. From whose perspective are we watching Coraline? This asks viewers to consider the idea of being watched, observed, and controlled. Even from the very start of the film, we see this is an important theme in terms of the Other Mother’s role/aims, etc.
“Stalking”: There is a quick progression of alternating camera angles as we are introduced to our heroine, shot from a variety of unique positions to “observe” her. Bear in mind, this is not typical in especially children's animation, and thus our attention is drawn to it. Consider especially the zooms at various speeds, as if the person watching is looking closer.
We are following cat as well, but it is not typically his perspective, as often the shot comes from behind him. Since we see him in the frame, we realize he is not who is watching her, although he helps us to realize that she is being observed.
When she notices she is being watched, we get her angle (looking up), which alternates with a shot from above (which makes her look very small and vulnerable).
Some of these shots from above appear similar to God Shots (and thus imply vulnerability, danger, judgment, observation, control) but when we look close, the nearness of the rocks indicates that possibly someone is standing on the ledge unseen. Thus, we get both the effect of a god shot, but also an continued emphasis on observation.
Often we see her from above (emphasizing her vulnerability) or behind and through frightening trees (as if watching).
Eventually, we come to believe that the person watching her has been Wybie. Perhaps this is the case, but there is a lingering question of observation in the film, and how this fits with the Other Mother.
This is especially true because we still get a few of these observation style angles after Wybie arrives… one in particular where we see her feet in the foreground and him in the background.
Stylized: These choices are stylized because the camera angles ask the viewer to acknowledge his/her role as observer, someone who is watching. The line in the story between watching and stalking is a thin one, and by setting this up from the start, observation sticks in viewers’ minds from the beginning. We are set up to more purposefully analyze the ways the Other Mother uses observation to her advantage, as well as contemplate how we as viewers are also observers.
It's useful to track this progression: the shot begins from behind the bushes, then zooms to her, then positioned behind the trees, next in the bushes (watching by looking through the terrain).
Significance of Watching
Summary: Why is this “watching” important to the story & thematic message?
Observation relates closely to control, in that the Other Mother uses her observation of Coraline to create a world for her, in which she can control and contain her for her own pleasure
This is reinforced throughout by subtle additions the film includes that the book does not, especially the snow globes and gardening themes. Snow globes are a confined space created to observe, and gardening is control of the natural world—two important changes from book to film that reinforce this theme.
Such ideas also make a commentary on film itself, as we are the observers; especially in stop-action, where these are “puppets”, a symbol of control.
Childhood is all about observation and control, a point children’s literature critics explore frequently. Children are constantly being watched and directed in every aspect of their lives, and breaking out of this is a sign of adulthood.
Considering the Film's Global Image Pattern
Canted frames are crucial to interpret because they are used so frequently in the film. However, since we've already established the importance of watching, let's start by thinking about how this might be related.
As with many film choices, there are several interpretations and likely more than one meaning. Here, all we can say for certain is that the canted frame is the film's global image pattern, and clearly, a distincitve stylized choice made by Selick and his team. However, the exact symbolism is left for your interpretation. That's the beauty of analyzing a complex film like Coraline, and more importantly, having the language to do so effectively.
What do I think? I would offer the following interpretation of the canted frame. As we cannot link the canted frame exclusively to one perspective (the doll, cat, Wybie, and even Coraline all shift their heads in this way), I would contend that it does not function to identify a particular character’s point of view, but instead emphasizes the themes of observation and control. How, you ask...
Possible Interpretations:
Selick encourages his audience to see this not as one particular point of view or even an authorial viewpoint, but link it to the audience’s perspective. Doing so places the viewer in the same position as the other characters, a position that seeks to observe and understand.
Nearly all times when a character moves his/her head to side, a motion which would create an actual canted angle, he/she is trying look closely and uncover the meaning of something.
Uncovering such meaning provides greater control, which is why the Other Mother seeks to observe Coraline in order to control her.
Interpretation Continued:
Thus, when the canted frame puts the audience’s viewpoint at same perspective, it encourages the viewer to do the same...to observe the situation.
When we are provided with shots of the Other World or door to it at a canted angle, we are meant to consider it more carefully, scrutinizing what seems an out of control situation that has gone “askew” in order to understand it more fully and assert control over it.
Linking the audience to the theme of observation and control in this way uses a visual, stylized filmic choice to enhance theme.
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