Viva Sectional Cinematography!

A section is an architectural drawing convention which cuts vertically through a building. It shows everything all at the same time, and in doing this it allows us to look at a building in an entirely different – and unnatural – way. It’s a view that is entirely different from the way you would actually experience a building. Walls – which usually divide rooms into discrete entities containing activities that, for practical or social reasons have been separated (bathroom from bedroom, public areas form private areas and so on) – become frames, as though the drawing becomes a cartoon strip describing a frozen moment in the life of a building. The sectional drawing convention allows us to see inside each of these discrete places simultaneously – allowing us to see their juxtaposed proximity. At the same time, the convention ask us only to draw the architecture, not the occupation of the architecture – the things which might be happening in the bedroom or the bathroom. Human figures are only normally included to suggest a sense of scale rather than activity.

The idea of seeing the simultaneous occupation of architecture is however, a cinematic staple. Think of the opening shot of Rear Window which pans across the back facade of an apartment block, its windows framing the diverse activities of the buildings inhabitants as though each were its own movie screen. The shot is set up as though it were an architectural architectural drawing: the facade in the same plane as the screen.

But this scene from “I Am Cuba” brings a more lyrical, gymnastic quality to what we might call sectional cinematography. Here the camera moves as though it were drawing the scene itself, tracing a line through space – rather than presenting in orthographic projection. Along this path we experience a multitude of intimate moments and distinct activities – as well as big vistas across Havana. The continuous tracking shot ties these diversities together so that we are aware of their spatial relationships.

Of course the technical accomplishment of this shot is astounding – as are others in the film. It’s mind boggling to imagine how the actors and camera were choreographed. Apparently, the camera lens was coated with a film developed for the periscopes of Soviet submarines which allows it to dip in an out of the pool without us seeing quite so much as a drip. Viva Sectional Cinematography!

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