Filmed From (and Behind) the Shoulders of Giants: Revisiting 2016’s The BFG (Spoilers Ahead)

Among director Steven Spielberg’s trademarks, as we’ve come to understand over the past fortnight, are the Spielberg face, circular-ly enclosed objects of focus and over-the-shoulder cinematography.

While the title gives that last one, and the preponderance thereof in director Spielberg’s 2016 feature film, The BFG, away, it is justified to acknowledge that, among other trademarks, in The BFG.

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Director Steven Spielberg at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival (DeliciousReads.com Photo and Caption)

 

The direction commentary will, breaking with this blog’s tradition of not passing overt judgement, declare that The BFG is also rewatchable and holds up quite well from a Spielbergian trademark-hunting point of view. While our original review was largely directorial trademark-free, we identified the following the second time around:

  1. Objects of focus being framed in foreground objects, especially ovular apertures and window frames: the BFG and Sophie’s faces are often framed in an opening in a tree in his dream cave/workshop; the Queen and Sophie’s faces are often framed in Buckingham Palace’s window frames; and BFG and Sophie’s faces are often framed in a magnifying glass in the former’s dream cave/workshop.
  2. Over-the-shoulder photography: hence the title, there are several instances of photography over the BFG’s shoulder looking at Sophie or the Queen; over Sophie’s shoulder looking at the BFG or Mary, the Queen’s aide; or jointly from the BFG and Sophie’s shoulders looking at the humans to whom the BFG must blow dreams.
  3. The Spielberg face: Sophie, the Queen and Mr Tibbs looking at the BFG for the first time; Mary finding Sophie atop the Queen’s windowsill; and really quite a few, albeit innominate ones, on the BFG’s part too.
  4. Using reflective surfaces to start or continue a particular shot: Discussed by LAVideoFilmmaker.com in context of 2002’s Minority Report, there are two such shots in 2016’s The BFG: when a look into the pond underneath the dream tree continues into the actual dream tree under the pond’s surface and when a shot of Buckingham Palace in one of its pond pans up until we see the actual building.
  5. Parallel motion tracking shot: as also discussed by LAVideoFilmmaker.com in context of 1996’s Saving Private Ryan, this shot the two-decades later The BFG follows Sophie and the BFG up the hill, past rocks, and through thick mist to the aforementioned dream tree pond.
  6. Strained familial units: note the use of familial, not family. In this film’s case, the BFG is at odds with his ‘familial’ unit of fellow giants –  as epitomised in the BFG’s ‘this be my home!‘ line to the giant folk – whilst Sophie is at odds with her pseudo-familial unit of fellow orphans and orphanage warden, à la her confession to the BFG of being locked up alone due to misbehaviour there.
  7. This one’s a bit tenuous but characters walking back to occupy the majority of the frame: Mr Tibbs, on the Queen’s instruction, calls off the guards from the BFG, moving back into, and occupying most of the frame, as he does so.

I still think this list is wanting for some I can’t verify or articulate but I’m sure we’ll find them soon, come Blu-Ray release or so.

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(from left to right) The late screenwriter Melissa Mathison and director Steven Spielberg photographed together in 2002 (IBTimes.com Photo and Caption)

There are some thematic parallels between 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and 2016’s The BFG: both deal with bravery (Elliott stands up to the government on E.T.’s behalf, Sophie stands up on the BFG’s behalf and asks him to be brave, the BFG calls her ‘brave Sophie‘), both involve the titular non-human character acclimating to human customs (E.T. is introduced to our popular culture, the BFG to British etiquette and speech) and both, while I am really stretching here, involve a plot-pivotal food that the non-human protagonist enjoys (E.T. takes to Reese’s Pieces, the BFG prefers his Frobscottle).

There’s also the framing of a non-human encounter from a child’s standpoint. That’s that done.

The BFG feels (emotionally) grounded, the deliberately chosen mid-1980s setting notwithstanding, because of the child-centric standpoint. And Ruby Barnhill’s Sophie attempts to flee from the BFG, empower him and successfully solve his problems occur in sequence. The BFG responds with soft anger, stubbornness, and love in similar and corresponding sequence.

As echoed, albeit slightly out of context here, by producer Frank Marshall, “it was a reunion of the people who worked on “E.T.” in 1982 — the year “The BFG” was published. It was like this wild sort of bookend. It’s definitely bittersweet because (screenwriter) Melissa Mathison is no longer with us.”

This coupled with the Spielberg-isms above make 2016’s The BFG stick with you for a while after the credits roll with, as per IMDB.com, a message ‘for our Melissa.’ I should start sticking around the end credits’ end more often.

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(from left to right) Director Steven Spielberg and stars Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance at the film’s Los Angeles premiere (Variety.com Photo and Caption)

The BFG’s core acting pair are Ruby Barnhill’s Sophie and Mark Rylance’s titular, and here unabbreviated, Big Friendly Giant. The film is very much made Sophie’s story by virtue of her equally emphatic choices and quiet (often dangerous) determination to follow them to the end as illustrated in our subjective plot and act breakdown below. Mark Rylance’s the BFG starts off as his own isolated, yet stubborn-in-the-face-of-Sophie character; he later relinquishes himself to her choices, and is transformed by them.

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(from left to right) Composer John Williams and director Steven Spielberg at an event for 2016’s The BFG (Heavy.com Photo and Caption)

The score by composer John Williams carries influences from his past work on the Harry Potter, Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and Home Alone films whilst having a distinctly magical vibe for The BFG. Harking to an oft-cited, except in this case, Spielberg-ism, the score reflects the optimistic undercurrent present in The BFG without needing the film to use another technical crutch for a similar effect.

Really quite Christmas-esque.

THE BFG, from left: cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, director Steven Spielberg, on set, 2016. ph:
(from left to right) Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and director Steven Spielberg on set for 2016’s The BFG (Doane Gregory/Walt Disney Company/Everett Collection Photo/Macleans.ca Photo)

But the film’s standout bit, often literally employing the shoulders of giants without standing upon them, is Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski’s photography, enhanced visibly in 3D. His trademark of white light emanating from background sources – in The BFG‘s case: windows, streetlamps, and headlights – is present and lends more focus to the set than the background. Each Spielberg-ism is clear – whether it’s Ruby running framed under the arching branches of the dream-tree or the Queen observing Sophie through her window-frame – and visible courtesy of the cinematography in The BFG.

Our apologies for the reused, albeit still fitting, picture.

With more simplification than The BFG warrants, The BFG is an optimistically-scored, Spielberg-ism heavy and gorgeous-looking family film for the summer season. Quite the entry-point for anyone looking to brush up on their Spielbergian trademarks.

(While the opinions and observations cited above are the author’s own, the following sources were used to source the facts cited herein: IMDb.com, LAVideoFilmmaker.com, Moviefone.com, Variety.com)

While the opinions and observations cited above are the author’s own, the following sources were used to source the facts cited herein: IMDb.com, LAVideoFilmmaker.com, Moviefone.com, Variety.com)

Plot and Act-by-Act Breakdown:

Plot: a young girl, Sophie, attempts to get her new giant friend, the BFG, to stand up for himself.

Act 1: Sophie is abducted from her orphanage balcony; she is taken to Giant Country by the the BFG.

Act 2: Sophie decides to hide from Fleshlump Eater; the BFG later takes her to his dream cave/workshop.

Act 3: Sophie convinces the BFG to take her dream-catching; they are caught by the giants en route.

Act 4: Sophie watches the BFG being humiliated by the other giants; they later escape to the dream-catching tree.

Act 5: Sophie and the BFG choose to return to London for dream-blowing; the BFG later chooses to return her to the orphanage.

Act 6: Sophie chooses to jump from the orphanage balcony to force the BFG to catch her; the BFG saves her and they return to Giant Country.

Act 7: Sophie evades the giants in the BFG’s cave; she and BFG later choose to return to London with a plan.

Act 8: Sophie chooses to introduce herself to the Queen; she convinces the BFG to do the same.

Act 9: Sophie and the BFG choose to have breakfast with the Queen and her entourage; the BFG later shows them the way to Giant Country.

Act 10: Sophie chooses to deliver the bad dream to the sleeping giants; Sophie and the BFG later defeat the giant folk with the Royal Army’s help.

Epilogue: Sophie has settled into her new life in Buckingham Palace; the BFG has Giant Country for himself.

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