Metaphors of Scale

I’ve made the case before that one of the most powerful, unique (and still underused), practical strengths of film language is its aptitude for metaphors of scale. Here’s a recent proof of concept. (Here’s another.)

And here’s the theory: the uncanny pleasure to be found in these macro-miniature toyscapes is so pronounced because paradoxes of scale appeal simultaneously to two separate brain regions: one responsible for processing metaphor, the other for metonymy. [See below for the neuroscience.]

In brief, these paradoxes are packed with comparisons of both kind (metaphor) and degree (metonymy). That’s shorthand, but will do for the moment. A miniature is a model metaphor for our own world, but the miniature relationships within that model are metonyms of compressed degree; the fisherman and the super-tanker suddenly don’t seem so different here – they’re both just toys in a toy universe. Whereupon we return to the broader metaphor in an endless, mind-churning loop.

[For an intro to the linguistic and neurological backgrounds of metaphor and metonymy see Saussure via Jakobson in this short paper by Edward Jayne.]

We’ll continue on this theme in future posts, but take the moment to revel in the ticklish pas de deux of brain regions which seldom even shake hands, and keep an eye out for possible metaphors of scale in your own work.

Here are some other well known examples of this neural enjambent using different scaling methods:

  • The snow globe opening in Citizen Kane.
  • The match cut to the sun in Lawrence of Arabia.
  • Jack Torrance studying the maze (and his tiny, tiny family), in The Shining.
  • Roy Neary trying to understand his obsession with a haunting shape and finally discovering The Devil’s Tower National Monument in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (An entire movie about the haunting pleasures of scale).
  • The opening crane shot over the city of London in Olivier’s Henry V.
  • The tiny moth returning to Gandalf on the Orthanc followed by the arc light reveal of an approaching eagle the size of a Beechcraft in Peter Jackson’s LOTR.

We live in a universe of uncanny spatial relationships – hearts to heavens, bosons to branes (so far). These visual metaphors briefly close the gap on what are normally inconceivable gulfs of scale.

[Look to see this technique, using a tilt-shft lens with a DSLR or the Red Camera, coming to a credit sequence near you! (David Fincher, are you reading this?)]

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2 thoughts on “Metaphors of Scale

    • No – good catch! He is using a tilt/shift lens for that set-up (or laying the effect in in post). Does he use it to great effect? That’s another question. The race is certainly intensified. Do you think the point was to make it seem small to the rest of the world, and a matter of life and death to the racers when we cut in close? If so, I think that would be an effective use of scaling.

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