Boogie Nights (1997) – Paul Thomas Anderson: A New Kind of Establishing Shot


Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight; Magnolia; Punch-Drunk Love; There Will Be Blood; The Master). Starring Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter; The Departed; Three Kings), Julianne Moore (Magnolia; The Hours; The Big Lebowski; Children of Men), Burt Reynolds (Evening Shade; Deliverance; The Longest Yard; Smokey and the Bandit), Don Cheadle (Crash; Hotel Rwanda; Traffic; Ocean’s Eleven; Iron Man 2), John C. Reilly (The Hours; Step Brothers; We Need to Talk About Kevin; The Aviator; Gangs of New York), William H. Macy (Fargo; Pleasantville), and Heather Graham (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me; The Hangover; Twin Peaks; Scrubs).

Paul Thomas Anderson’s acclaimed 1997 film investigates the world of pornography in the 70s and 80s. What stands out to me most about the film is its distinct visual style. Cinematographer Robert Elswit, a frequent Anderson collaborator (DP for all of his feature films except for The Master), achieves an extraordinary visual style. The cinematography is unique starting with the very first shot, during which the camera swings majestically like a pendulum through three-dimensional space.

Elswit and Anderson break traditional cinematographic, film-language conventions. One notable example of Boogie Nights‘s non-conventional camerawork can be found by examining the establishing shots of various scenes. Establishing shots are used at the beginning of scenes to establish the space and the characters, to orient viewers in the new environment. Traditionally, establishing shots are long-shots or even extreme wide shots so that audiences can familiarize themselves with their surroundings. However, Anderson and Elswit shatter this traditional protocol. The establishing shots in Boogie Nights are not simply a little bit tighter in than those found in most films. They are extreme close-ups. Often, the establishing shots are the tightest shots in the entire scene. Some examples are provided below.

Check out the scene included below — notice how Buck and his environment are established through the usage of extremely tight shots.

Through the utilization of extremely close-in establishing shots, Anderson alters the role of the audience in modern motion pictures. He treats us less like distant observers and more like focused, fly-on-the-wall detectives as soon as scenes begin. We are granted more detail than we are used to receiving, and that is quite a treat. We do not have the luxury of adjusting comfortably to the space during the first few shots; instead, we are always a subjective participant.

Subtle-yet-groundbreaking filmmaking techniques like this one are what make P. T. Anderson’s pictures, for me, magnetic.

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