Focal Points: CAST AWAY and WHAT LIES BENEATH
Robert Zemeckis always astounds me because he can create a compelling scene out of literally anything. Check out this scene from CAST AWAY:
On the surface, this scene may not strike you as anything super impressive. But think about the inherent difficulties in staging this scene. First of all, what are the focal points Zemeckis can cling his camera to? And by that, I mean: What are the key elements of the location he can frame his shots around so the audience understands the geography? In this case, there's literally nothing except open ocean.
Shooting on water is extremely difficult for many reasons, but one of the biggest –– and least discussed –– is that water presents nothing stable to frame your shot around. It's sort of like endless empty space. It just stretches on forever –– especially when you don't have boats as part of your scene. How do you create a logical scene architecture when cutting between two shots might look the exact same? In this scene, there are only two possible focal points:
1) Hanks + the raft
Zemeckis does his best to establish a shot/reverse shot structure between Hanks and Wilson, but it's the underwater shot at 1:11 that helps tie the whole thing together. Usually, cutting to underneath your subject is impossible, but shooting in water presents unique opportunities to use the Z-axis. Keeping the camera at water level is also extremely effective at conveying the risk of drowning.
Another great example is in WHAT LIES BENEATH, which Zemeckis made during a production hiatus on CAST AWAY. (They both came out in the same year, which is insane.) This scene takes place entirely in a bathtub:
The situation itself is dramatic, but a bathtub presents very limited options for the camera. He effectively creates a cutting rhythm between her foot and the plug using very creative angles. My personal favorite is the shot at 1:25, where the camera slowly submerges under the running faucet. This sequence is a masterclass in sound design too –– the sonic shift at :45 as the water covers her ears is genius.
Scenes that appear "simple" are often the most complex. It's easy to make a huge battle look intense. But what about a woman stuck in a tub? A dude trying to save his volleyball? The fact that "a dude trying to save his volleyball" –– a ridiculous sentence if ever there was one –– became one of the most lampooned scenes in movie history should tell you something.
It's famous because it worked.