Trevor Reznik (played by Christian Bale) is an industrial worker who hasn’t slept in a year and starts to doubt his own sanity. Maybe not the most original tagline in the movie history, but it is supported by a very nice cinematography serving the story really firmly.
When I watched The Machinist for the first time, all I remembered was the darkness, the depressing mood, bleak and gloomy picture.
Recently I watched it again trying to focus more on the technical aspects of the cinematography to understand how to mimic and provoke this feeling. And this is what I will try to describe in this post today.
Needless to say, the big factor that supported the story perfectly was the dedication of the Christian Bale who lost an incredible amount of weight for this role.
Watching his almost skeletal posture is disturbing itself and when it is supported by all the other elements of cinematography and production design it creates a very powerful and dramatic visual effect.
The exposure is toned down throughout the whole movie. The contrast is relatively high and the mid-tones are low. Many of the shots are really dark, staying below the midpoint of the luminosity range:
Throughout the movie, the levels go up mostly due to practicals in the frame like lightbulbs or flashlights. The skin-tones are shot dark, often covered in deep shadows.
Virtually the whole movie is nearly black & white with a strong blue or green tint.
Even the exterior shots are vastly desaturated – looks like only the red color is boosted a bit to accentuate the vehicle:
In the frame below you can see a very nice color contrast between the rooms — the bedroom filled with warm light and the bathroom with a strong blue/green tint:
It certainly makes Trevor look even more unnatural and lifeless.
The simple solution to replicate the lighting from The Machinist would be to use fluorescent lights. We can see them all over the place. The whole movie is shot dark in the low key. The key to fill ratio is oftentimes very high creating almost crushed shadows.
Fluorescent lighting mounted in the ceiling is part of the set in the BTS frame here:
In the below closeup we can clearly see the catch light suggesting once again fluorescent nature of the light that was used:
In the behind the scenes video we can see how the diffusion and flags are used to create the contrast on the actors’ faces in the dialog scenes below:
Oftentimes we can see the practicals placed in the frame and once again these are the fluorescent ceiling lights as before:
In the tracking steady-cam shot below some sort of LED panel or again some fluorescent panel was used to light the actor in the night exterior scene:
Quite often we will see high angles when the main character is losing control and feels weak. On the other hand, low angle shots emphasize his confidence or regaining the control over the situation. Additionally, the usage of a wide angle lens distorts the portraits and brings out the skinny features of Trevor.
A wide angle lens is also nicely used to depict the interiors with practicals:
The high angle shot above amplifies the drama and helplessness of the character. Tight shots in the bathroom are sometimes shot through the mirror masking or blurring some parts of the frame increasing the tension and suspense.
Most of the scenes in the movie are slow paced composed of the panning and tracking shots. Lots of dollies and steady cam shots give the film more realism, make the audience pay attention to details and creates suspense.
Production design took a big part in shaping the final look making sure the colors and hues used in wardrobe comply with the intended look. Trevor wears blue and green clothes almost exclusively with the exception of a neutral white t-shirt. We also see the red color used to create the contrast – the car or blood in the fridge. The rest consists of neutral white, gray or beige colors.
When we watch the movie it looks like Trevor is actually driving the car, but in reality the below rig was created for all the car shots:
We can see the camera mounted to the hood of the car and additional fluorescent lights directed towards the driver.
The film action takes place in California but as the movie was produced in Spain it was actually shot in Barcelona. The crew put some effort to make it look like it was actually shot in the US. Starting from the road signs, street names to the cars’ license plates replacement. The movie was shot in the summer and the temperatures made some scenes exhausting for the actors and the whole crew.