Visual storytelling in Westworld

I will take any excuse to go back and re-watch Westworld. Today, after reading something by another filmmaker, Arthur Woo, I went back and looked through what at first appears to be a very simple scene in season one: Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) having a conversation. However, with Westworld, deceptively simple things are often more complex.

Here are my thoughts on how the camera placement and movement reinforces and expresses the narrative in this scene. In other words, how the camera’s visual storytelling works with the actors and the screenplay. Production design, blocking, sound design, lighting, and lots of other factors are important, but I’m just concentrating on this for now.

Westworld EP104: Dolores and Bernard opening scene. Running time 3 minutes.

Starting with a reflection of Bernard in Dolores’ eye, the camera pulls back to reveal her face, at eye-level. Dolores describes being trapped in a dream. Cut to wide shot showing both characters inside a glass room. They are literally trapped in a physical space that itself is a visual conflict; the glass makes it appear open, but it is actually closed. Bernard is standing, pacing a little. Dolores is seated, still.

Starting on Dolores at eye level with the camera—and therefore with the viewer—establishes/reinforces that this is Dolores’ scene and it is told from her dramatic point of view (although it’s not necessarily her literal POV). Bernard is guiding her in finding the truth of her existence. He provides the conflict through a series of questions and orders, but every decision in the scene—every decision that moves the story forwards—is hers.

As Dolores describes her dream and the murder of her parents, Bernard gives an order: “Limit your emotional affect, please.” The camera crosses the line of action at this point. Reality has changed. The camera switches to an objective, profile view of Dolores, putting the viewer outside her as she states, “Everyone I cared about is gone. And it hurts…”

Bernard offers to make the feelings of pain and sadness go away, seeing them as a result of her programming. “Why would I want that?” asks Dolores. The camera is facing her again, allowing us to identify with her. And we are below her eye-level, emphasizing the importance of her decision: to keep her emotions. “The pain. Their loss. It’s all I have left of them.”

At its core, Westworld is a story about the nature of consciousness and sentience. What is it that defines us as living beings? As self-aware? Sentient? This scene touches on a theme which continues throughout the series, across seasons: the philosophical idea that we are the stories we tell ourselves. Dolores’ story is initially a result of programming; she is programmed to re-enact a complex storyline on a repeated cycle. In this scene, we see that change.

For the show’s creators (Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan), Dolores’ story—and therefore her sentience—might be as valid as that of the humans, despite the fact that her story, the story she believes, was originally written for her by others. This is partly because it develops and branches away from the initial narrative she was given. Dolores goes on to talk about this. “I feel spaces opening up inside of me. Like a building with rooms I’ve never explored.” She is becoming self-aware by adding to her own narrative.

Cut to a three-quarter profile of Bernard’s reaction. Before he speaks, we see he is stunned by her words. He tries to dismiss them, “That’s very pretty… Dolores…” He questions the origin of her assertion. The camera becomes looser. There’s almost a hand-held feeling. We aren’t as certain any more. Dolores asks, “Is there something wrong with these thoughts I’m having?”

The camera crosses the line a second time, to outside the glass room. We see the invisible trap, but this time it’s from Dolores’ side, looking towards Bernard, pushing in as he sits down. “No. But I’m not the only one making these decisions.” This is new information. Bernard is not fully in charge or in control. The visual shows he is trapped too.

Again, the camera crosses the line, switching to the other side of the action. “Can you help me?” asks Dolores. “What is it that you want?” asks Bernard. “I don’t know. But I think there may be something wrong with this world.” Camera is now in an objective profile again. We are observing Dolores, instead of identifying with her at this point. It encourages us to think, “What does she know? What does she guess?” Cut to Bernard’s reaction. He thinks he knows what she means. Cut back to high angle extreme close up on Dolores; we are looking into her mind as she reflects on her self: “Either that or there’s something wrong with me. I may be losing my mind.”

Camera comes back to a two-shot, this time inside the room, same side of the action, from Dolores’ side looking towards Bernard. Camera moves down, indicating what’s coming is increasingly important. Bernard cleans his glasses, symbolically finding a fresh way to look at things. Cut to close up of Bernard, on same angle, slightly to one side as this is also an objective view; it is not his scene. Although we see both eyes, so his reaction is important.

“There’s something I’d like you to try. It’s a game. Called The Maze.” Cut to close up, almost straight on, low angle, on Dolores, with looking space to the right as she looks to Bernard: “What kind of game is it?” Bernard describes the maze. “If you can do that, maybe you can be free.” At this point Bernard is framed in an off-axis, tight close up, from slightly below his eye-line, indicating power.

Cut to camera pushing in to tighter and tighter shot of Dolores’ face. She considers. “I think… I think I want to be free.” She has made her choice and the shot on her now matches the close up on Bernard. The camera is also below her eye-line, indicating that she has made a powerful decision which will drive the story forwards. Dolores and Bernard finish the scene as equals, visually and narratively.