I had an art teacher in college who swore the Internet was ruining my generation’s ability to process information. Per typical young people, we rolled our eyes and scoffed.
Then she asked us what kind of space the Internet is.
A few students offered answers like “storage” or “communication.” One said “virtual.” Without evaluating our responses, she persisted, “Where are things located in the Internet? Or is it on the internet? The web has addresses, but does it have any location? Where is the Internet?”
My head was reeling.
“Where is the Internet? What is space? Do you go to or on or into the Internet?”
My teacher wasn’t calling us lazy or dumb, she was pointing out that technology was breaking down the rules, making it harder for us to think.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is powerful and it is terrifying.
Herein lies the premise of Almost Human: Technology has progressed at an alarming rate that has left even the best of the best unable to fully process it its meaning and application. While pretty much no one watching the show has my particular experience with the Big Internet questions, they do very likely have experience with the Internet, which is how Almost Human generously uses its cinematography to support its technological themes of focus and bewilderment.
The web is, aesthetically, broken up into an arrangement of rectangles, or frames and subframes. We net-savvy kids know each frame will contain a certain kind of information (for instance I am typing this article in a particular rectangle, which I know is an input box, and the rectangles above and below it will have to do with manipulating this input). I know that the top of my screen there are rectangles for macro-navigation (such as the URL bar and the Chrome menu), and to the left are rectangles for navigating within WordPress. I focus on the frame(s) I need and ignore the rest, thus allowing myself to get through the information without finding myself exhausted or bewildered. Because the thing is, yeah, I am aware there is way too much going on for me to POSSIBLY process all of it, so I constantly shut out what’s not immediately relevant and focus on what I need.
So how does Almost Human use this web-navigation tool to inform its story?
There’s a lot going on in this shot, but I immediately look at Kennex and Sandra. There are a few reasons for this. One is that I’m trained to look for the main characters, the same way I am trained to look for the tool I need on a website (this is part my literacy as a viewer, and more heavily designers’ abilities to move my eye via art principals like focal point and contrast).
What’s specific to Almost Human‘s cinematography is the amount of rectangles in this shot, and the way they are used to frame the characters. The horizontal space is broken into three major sections. The middle section is bisected, and the bottom half–which overlaps Kennex and Sandra’s legs–is reflective and a brighter blue, literally highlighting Kennex and Sandra. Additionally, the duo is framed so that their silhouettes are framed in the bright white part of the wall behind them, not the drab darker cement portion, thus creating more contrast and literally framing them as the focal point.
Meanwhile there are dozens of additional rectangles and frames happening in this still, but I hardly process them past a part of the whole because they don’t have the information I’m looking for. It took me about 12 views of this thing before I noticed there are four other people and an American flag in this shot.
Now I want you to imagine Facebook, with its avatars and chat bars and posts and menus. Rectangles on rectangles. But typically, you’re focused just on the newsfeed or chat box you’re working in, ignoring the rest. Now look at this shot again. Rectangles on rectangles, but you’re focused on the one sub-box that contains the info you want.
This shot starts to feel like a webpage.
Let’s go back to the first still I posted.
In a typical close up, we get an unobstructed view of a face, but here we see Rudy filtered through a series of frames: the magnifying glass apparatus, the glass panel of the magnifying glass, and his glasses. Rudy is the most important, indicated to me by his preferential framing, then his work, then his location. In another show, I would be allowed to see Rudy unobstructed, then clearly shown what he’s working on. But in Almost Human, it’s mitigated by frames–frames that my subconscious Internet skills help me work through.
Even in the action scenes, there are constant frames. Notice how the MX’s head fits INSIDE the frame of the door, and that his body largely fits in the greater frame of the wall around the door. I can quickly process that he’s most important, without really having to consider location or any other information in the shot. That said, it is important to note the location has heavy rectangle motifs (paneled walls): Almost Human likes rectangle-saturated space. It’s the space of technology.
Here, Kennex’s head is lines up against the pink bricks pretty perfectly, making him the most important frame. We also have yet another setting with heavy rectangular motifs.
Almost Human goes out of it’s way to have frames within frames. These settings don’t come out of nowhere–someone is choosing for near all of them to be full of rectangles. Furthermore, perfectly framing actors against these background frames doesn’t happen by accident nor is it easy.
It’s also important to note that this show is shot handheld. In scenes like the one above, the actor of choice is kept cleanly framed against the background framing device through multiple shots, which is significantly more difficult when the camera is handheld. This is an incredibly active stylistic choice.
Even in the more traditional close up (focused character, blurred background), there’s an attention to framing. Kennex is separated from his peers and from this space by the frame of the staircase behind him.
In the accompanying wide, Kennex resides in the large open frame, while the villain has a plain cement wall as a frame, giving Kennex both the visual power and metaphorical power in the shot.
This fame-centric style is also present in the wide location shots.
In these images, my eye is overwhelmed, unsure which frames to settle on, which further captures the feeling of the web — it’s suddenly endless and overwhelming. Just like the landscape Kennex, Dorian, and Sandra are navigating. I don’t know where to focus, and my eye jumps around desperately in an attempt to avoid bewilderment. But it’s inevitable — there’s simply too much going on and I don’t know the system (these shots are often one or two seconds).
The trick to navigating the web is knowing where to look. It’s focus and framing. And Kennex, Dorian, and Sandra know that’s the key to the crimes. the same way the Almost Human team knows that’s the key to technology, and the key to our generation of viewers processing information. Almost Human may be set in the future, but it is thoroughly rooted in present viewers’ relationship with the internet and navigating fragmented, rectangle-saturated space. And it works beautifully.
Happy viewing, and try not to get lost out there.
Almost Human is a 2013 Fox Drama that premiered November 17, 2013. It was created by J H Wyman, a Fringe alumni, who also wrote the Pilot (featured in this article). Thomas “Tom” Yatsko served as Director of Photography on the Pilot. His other DP credits include Bates Motel, Fringe, and CSI:Miami.