Crowds are mundane, regular aspects of everyday life. Whether we’re commuting in traffic, walking to class, or jiving at a concert, crowds usually don’t play large roles in our ordinary lives. However, when it comes to film, crowds can add dynamic narrative levels that help develop the main characters or advance the story forward.
The new YouTube channel Cinema Cartography has released a video essay explaining how Steven Spielberg is an expert at using crowds to effectively develop the narratives of his films. Whether it’s the fear and panic he created in Jaws, the sense of dread he cultivated in Schindler’s List, or the sheer awe he presented in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg uses crowds to immerse viewers deeper into the action and emotion of the story.
As the video remarks, Spielberg always makes sure we see the point of view of the crowd, introducing viewers to different situations in unique ways, allowing them to consume information in the same way the crowd would. This adds a level of audience involvement to films that bring you to further understand different characters or to propel the narrative along.
Watch the video essay below.
While Spielberg may be a master at using crowds, there are other directors who are also able to use them to engage with their audiences. Crowds can be used to enhance excitement during a grand battle, perpetuate emotion during touching scenes, or influence the speed of a film’s pacing.
In terms of action, I think of the way Peter Jackson uses crowds to rile you up with excitement during a massive action sequence. In the incredible Battle of Helm’s Deep at the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the crowd of armies puts you into the heat of the battle, allowing the audience to fight alongside the heroes. This scene puts the audience in the crowd, screaming excitement as the viewer can witness the sheer brutality and pain of combat firsthand. Battle scenes like this are visceral. We’re not just watching from afar, we’re watching from within as if we’re pawns on the front line.
Spike Jonze’s Her is an absolute masterpiece steeped in emotion and heartbreak. The film follows Theodore’s (Joaquin Phoenix) relationship with his AI, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and Jonze sets pivotal moments of emotion within a crowd’s setting. In one scene, where Theodore and Samantha are in a developing honeymoon love, Samantha takes Theodore on a date to a carnival, guiding him through crowds of people as they bond together.
While Theodore certainly looks like a fool at the carnival, aimlessly walking and spinning around at Samantha’s direction, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that other people are around staring at his perceived loneliness. He’s in love and his disregard for the crowds surrounding him only demonstrate how far his love goes.
Conversely, one of the final scenes in Her also takes place in a public, crowded area. In this scene, Theodore, while sitting in the middle of a public staircase, finds out that Samantha has been involved with other people, prompting anger and frustration. Although he’s in a very public area, he doesn’t care, showing that his emotions know no bounds or situations. The scene also cuts in between other people who are casually using their own AI devices, juxtaposing Theodore’s anguish.
These two scenes use large groups of people to demonstrate how emotion interacts with the public, showcasing how crowds can be used to highlight the way the main character deals with extreme emotion in his life.
Crowds can also present a sudden shift in a film’s pacing as the below scene from Children of Men shows how a crowd’s reaction can mean the world. As Clare-Hope Ashitey is the first woman to give birth to a child in nearly 20 years, the war-torn world stops in its tracks to witness a baby’s first cries. As everyone stops their fighting to pay attention to the woman and her child, the crowd’s sudden reaction highlights how important, emotional, and visceral this scene is for the fate of their world.
Crowds can be so much more than extras. While Spielberg may be the prime example of directorial crowd control, understanding how other directors utilize their crowds can be beneficial to understanding the different layers of narrative and storytelling.