Seeing Breath

Look! A Speech bubble!

Look! A Speech bubble!

So there’s this curious impulse among filmmakers to have characters who are smokers. I notice it a lot in student films, but it’s not like they have a corner on the market. Considering how well the catechism of non-smoking has been drilled into the brains of the Millenial generation this seems like a strange impulse.

I suppose there is an element of fascination involved since smoking has been made into such a strong taboo. It’s subversive to smoke. It looks kinda tough in a nihilist sort of way. It has a certain air of ritual about it. It’s somehow interesting to look at. There doesn’t seem to be any good substitution for it either: a gangster with a toothpick isn’t quite as tough as a gangster with a cigar.

We were preparing to shoot a fantasy scene in which a character was imagining herself to be Holly Golightly from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. This, of course, necessitated the acquisition of a cigarette holder and a pack of herbal cigarettes along with a dreaded Hazardous Shooting Form to allow us to light it. The actress didn’t smoke. The director didn’t smoke. It took the five of us on the crew about ten minutes of deliberating to figure out how the cigarette holder should be held that looked natural. And what for? Just for a tendril of back-lit smoke to give the scene an aura of vintage class.

This was what really got me thinking about smoking and storytelling and why it seems to persist even though smoking has been marginalized in the “real” world. I started to think back to something I had read in “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud which explained that the shape of speech bubbles used in comics came from illustrating the character’s breath. At the time this was a MIND=BLOWN moment for me because the explanation was so simple. I’d never thought about it before, but once it had been pointed out to me it made perfect sense: the words were being carried on the character’s breath so it made sense to write the text of the character’s speech on the space that the breath would take up.

This, in turn, made me think about breath as a source of meta-communication: that is, the information we communicate without words. Anyone who has ever sat in front of someone with a cold knows just how much information breath alone can communicate about a person. Film is limited to things that an audience can see and hear.  Breath is typically invisible. This means that in a normal scene we can only hear a character’s breath. This might be drowned out by music or sound effects or by some guy in the movie theatre talking on his cell phone at top volume.

There is a lot of potential to miss out on interesting information from breath just because we can’t see it. But smoking makes breath visible. (Also extreme cold and being under water, but these aren’t easy conditions to film in). I speculate that filmmakers like to tell stories about smokers because it offers the audience an interesting insight into the emotional world of the character that might not be completely apparent through words and actions alone.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on January 30, 2014.

One Response to “Seeing Breath”

  1. I get the whole appeal of (or pre-programmed draw to) smoke/smoking in “shady” films. But, I’d be just as content with background smoke and no actual cigars/cigarettes. I often wonder–when I see one on film–if it’s real or just some “powder prop” the actor/actress is blowing. I think it’s the movement through the air that matters more than the actual act. It was a thing of a time that’s phasing out now. And, no matter how they change that bad habit–electronic crap!–I have no desire to advertise it. So, for me, any smoke on scene should be pumped in with a fogger-type machine.

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