It’s a Sin

Just a warning. Spoilers for It’s a Sin. It’s weeks since it was on, but (for some bizarre reason) I see from Twitter that some people have been watching is one episode per week. We binged 4 ½ episodes in one day. It would have been 5 but the wifi packed in. Probably thought it could only handle so much of an emotional wringer in one go.

It’s highly recommended. The characters are only one year older than I am, and I lived in London from 1985 to 1988, but the AIDS epidemic only really impinged on my life when the “Don’t die of ignorance” billboards started springing up. Everyone pretty soon caught up with the bare facts, and when celebs you’d heard of started dying, then it made some sort of connection, but no-one I know (as far as I know) has died from AIDS, so I’ve been spared any direct experience how absolutely devastating it was. Seeing it on the screen was hugely powerful.

So – obviously part of that emotional impact is because of how dreadful it is as a disease. But also, people have recognised the power of RTD’s writing. Which of course it is. The man’s a genius. The power of the acting too. Everyone on screen is spot on. This blog though is about the direction, which few people are raving about.

That’s because direction, if it’s done perfectly isn’t noticeable. It’s not meant to be.

When we’re looking at technology there’s two phrases that describe our relationship with what we’re seeing – immediacy and hypermediacy. Immediacy is when we’re not conscious of the means by which the content is conveyed to us. We’re there, in the action, and not making any deliberate effort to make sense of things. The difficulty with teaching anyone to read is that until the reading is effortless, the fun of reading is diminished. You’re so caught up with trying to make sense of each individual word that the fun in having a story emerge in your head without thinking about it, isn’t there. So the fun is never there. Once you’re literate then you just get the book out, read the words, they automatically make sounds in your head, the process is transparent. The tech is immediate. You, the text, the story are one. It’s called the diegetic effect. Occasionally there’ll be a word you don’t know, it’ll blip you out of the diegetic effect. But just highlight the word, click define, and the internet will provide the info, and you carry on reading. Diegetic effect restored.

Virtual worlds on screen are the same. At first you’re struggling to move around, find the animation for the gesture, work out how to move the camera. You’re not focused on the interaction that’s happening because you’re having to focus too much on how to interact. But you get used to it, and the tech becomes transparent. The experience is immediate.

The counter to that is hypermediacy. The point of hypermediacy is to make the tech apparent. There are loads of reasons why this might happen. Obviously one of the reasons is accidental. A spelling or punctuation mistake for example. You’re reading a book and that whole autonomous words to sounds in the head to images to story are all working in harmony and there’ll be a blip, like a speed bump while you’re driving and you’ll think that was weird, what happened there? Going back you’ll see someone’s written “it’s” instead of “its”, or whatever, and it was just enough to interrupt the flow. You just set off reading again. But I find if it happens too often it just stops the process being enjoyable and I have to give up. This is why punctuation matters.

Or it can be done deliberately. I was reading James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes. Really funny, well-written. Narrative flows, you get drawn in. But at one point there was the blip – where I’m half aware something went wrong with that autonomous reading thing. Scanning back I saw him writing about getting his “just desserts” 😊 Now that’s funny, the implication being that James likes his puddings so much he puts an extra “s” in there. And you’d have to really stick to your guns to get something like that past a technical edit, so he must have really wanted it. I know I’ve tried. And failed. But then I don’t have the same weight as James Acaster. There was a “free reign” pun as well, which I didn’t get, but I’m guessing some play on words that went over my head.

My point is … hypermediacy is valid too. It pushes you out of the diegetic effect, but if you’ve got a reason, like you’re making a point about the process of mediation. Or making a pun. Then no problem.

It’s a Sin is directed by Peter Hoar. He incidentally also directed my favourite episode of Dr Who “A Good Man Goes to War” (the Seven Samurai homage one image below I think). You won’t notice the direction though. That’s because throughout he follows the basic rules. Film-making has been around for about 140 years and pretty quickly worked out how best to tell stories visually. If you look at movies from the 1920s, whether they’re German, Russian, Japanese whatever they follow certain rules.

One of these is to take you on a structured walk through a scene. There’s an establishing shot, there’s close-ups, the camera picks up on specific bits of action, then pulls out again. It draws on theatrical traditions of the tableau, but there’s a limit to where you can put the camera, not because of technical limitations, but because of the way the brain decodes the scene. In film studies it’s called spatial verisimilitude – but it’s how the hippocampus works on imagery. There’s a line which you can’t cross without disrupting the ability to work out where everything is. I mean a physical line across the space being filmed. Those earlyish movies did one thing that’s a bit different, which is when they were cutting between two people, both would look out of the screen at the audience. Within 10 years though, these two shots were sorted, so that one person would be shot over the right shoulder of one person, the reverse shot would be shot over the left shoulder of the other. The camera moves more, but it never crosses over that line. On the screen, it means that one person will always be looking towards the right hand side, the other to the left. There’s a continuity that makes sense. If you want to reposition the scene, you need to do this carefully, tracking from one place to another, or moving in 30 degree jumps, then continuing from that new position. Fail to do this and the viewer loses the sense of where everything is. To do this requires meticulous storyboarding and blocking of the scene.

Follow these rules and the audience does not consciously have to decode what’s going on. They can be immersed. Break them and the audience is putting their effort into making sense. You’re in the realm of hypermediacy.

Watching It’s a Sin and you are never thrown out of this sense of immersion. The emotional power of the acting and the writing comes through constantly. You’re caught up in the drama. And because it’s done right, you never notice it.

There are exceptions (here comes the spoiler). When the Keeley Hawes character finds out her son has AIDS and is gay, at the same time, she takes off like a rocket, walking from ward to ward to try and get something sorted. She’s trying to overcome her sense of powerlessness (not only then but retrospectively how powerless she’s been as a mother) by doing *something*. The camera moves backwards the whole time, following her as she strides towards it. It has power because it’s so visually different from anything before – AND IT’S ALL ONE TAKE. There’s no cutting, which would undermine the intensity. You’re not consciously aware of this, but it works on the way you read that scene.

Contrast that with another Keeley Hawes TV show. Finding Alice. I managed about 10 minutes. There’s a scene in a kitchen where her husband’s death is being investigated. The camera cuts quickly and aimlessly (it seems) through the space. It crosses the line constantly, a new character walks in and there’s no establishing shot. We never have a continuance sense of where everyone is in relation to each other. There is no emotional engagement, because there’s no immersion. We’re watching a series of discrete, disconnected images. There’s no flow. We’re constantly struggling with the form, so much that we’re not engaging with the emotion of the scene.

What’s weird is no-one has really commented on this in the reviews. I think one called it “stylish”.

I mean fine, if you want style, then creating something where you’re not immersed works. I’ll watch a Godard movie, where from one shot to the next there is no continuity. It deliberately defies engagement – in a move called distantiation. Distantiation makes you aware of the artifice of what’s going on. Which is great for cineastes or film studies students. It’s not really fun though. People want immersion. It’s a Sin got 6.5 million viewers – the highest streamed tv show ever on channel 4. I don’t know anyone who managed longer of Finding Alice than I did.

Which makes you wonder why someone would deliberately make something that’s not immersive? Unless they just don’t actually know how to direct?

And just to reiterate, this isn’t just a cultural thing – what people are used to. It’s a neurological thing. I watched Violence Voyager – which is made in Gekimation – the same sort of cut out cardboard animation that we got with Noggin the Nog in the 70s. This is a long way from Smallfilms though – it’s possibly the most disturbing film I’ve seen. But despite the imagery, and the form, it still followed the rules of not crossing the line,  that careful establishing shot, two shot, close up, two shot dance that makes sense of visual spaces. And that’s one where I’d have appreciated some distantiation.

My hope is that the impact It’s a Sin has had will perhaps persuade other film-makers that establishing immersion requires these basic rules and that if you follow them you will get bigger audiences. There seems to be more and more TV shows that screw them up, where you get blipped out of that diegetic effect because the camera has crossed the line, and suddenly everyone’s facing in a different direction from where they were a moment before and it just looks weird, or there’s no eye-line match because they’re shooting from random directions and your brain isn’t tying up the space in a coherent way. And it’s just sad – because the writing and the acting is excellent, but the director is trying to be stylish, or is incompetent, and I want to love the show, but they’ve made it impossible to get into. It’s a sin.