Levithan (2012) – Sensorial & Immersive Techniques in Non-Conventional Documentary

Introduction:

In presenting a compelling and aesthetically innovative sensorial portrait of the fishing industry, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2012), can thus be described as an “experimental documentary” (Unger 2017) made evident by its rejection of the “many tired conventions of contemporary documentary cinema.” (Pavsek, 2015) In disconnecting with the necessity to present a compelling character-driven narrative to manifest a social impact, Leviathan (2012) seeks to expose the visceral reality of a fishing vessel located in the United State’s whaling capital, New Bedford, Massachusetts. The title ‘Leviathan’ itself, was inspired by Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick (1851), a textual allusion to the film’s shared nautical thematics and maritime imagery. In addition to disconnecting with conventional documentary making techniques, Leviathan (2012) favours the use of the humble “GoPro” point-of-view camera as a pose for “high-definition digital imaging cameras,” (Unger, 2017) an intentional creative decision to manifest a “disorienting aesthetic experience” due to the lack of “fidelity and definition” that GoPro cameras inherent. (Unger, 2017) In this essay I will analyse the innovative and non-conventional documentary making techniques utilised to create the immersive sensory experiences that Leviathan (2012) has developed its cinematic reputation by. I will also attempt to contextualise the use of GoPro cameras and explain the significance of this specific creative decision in providing viewers an experience that favours a sensory engagement, breaking the conventional journalistic approach to storytelling that is typically associated with being devoid of aesthetic value.

Contextualising The GoPro:

  1. Visual Aesthetic:

To appreciate the “newness and rawness” of Leviathan (2012) [Unger, 2017] one must celebrate the use of the GoPro miniature hand held camera. Invented in 2002 by “surfer, skier and motorsports enthusiast” Nick Woodman, with the desire to create a device that would allow people to capture high quality point of view footage, the development of a 35mm lens attached to a wrist strap proved suffice in recording sporting activities that would otherwise be impossible with a normal sized DSLR. (GoPro, 2021). In regards to Leviathan (2012), due to the rather harsh environment in which the documentary is set, the use of GoPro cameras appeared to be the “only viable way to [safely] capture” detailed P.O.V video aboard the vessel itself and within “the choppy, dangerous waters.” (Unger, 2017) Apart from the practicality associated with the GoPro, aesthetically, this creative decision allowed for the development of a sensory cinematic experience, providing viewers with an immersive perspective into the visceral reality of the conditions upon an industrial fishing vessel. As described by Casting-Taylor himself, “the footage seemed to be much more opaque in a good way [as] it activates the viewer’s imagination…”. Aesthetically, GoPro cameras typically produce “grainy images “oversaturated with colours”, which in addition to the “blurry sheen visible around the edges of the objects” recorded, there is an evident “lack of depth”, demonstrating a clear contrast to cameras with wide angle lenses. It is by these visual results that manifest a “hallucinogenic texture” that emulates the quality of the early mini-DV grade video, (Unger, 2017) solidifying the film’s unique cinematic qualities.

  1. Audio Aesthetic:

Along with the built-in microphone system of the GoPro, the Sony EX3 and EX1 cameras were also used during the shoot. To further attain a comprehensive collection of audio from the vessel, Lectrosonic wireless lavalier microphones and a stereo microphone were attached to a Sound Device T799 recorder. (MacDonald, 2014). This expansive use of audio recording technology proved effective in providing viewers an immersive auditory experience, as the audience is constantly faced with “relentless battering and brutal noise”, further described by Pavsek as an “assault of sound,” harshly characterising the fishermen’s working conditions in its most realistic form. In conjunction with rather confronting imagery of “blood spilling overboard… rays being hacked to pieces [and] the decapitated heads of glorious fish sliding about…” (Pavsek, 2015), the intentional decision to allow the “relentless sounds” of “wind, water and [various] objects striking” the camera’s microphones, elevates the “lack of clarity of the [GoPro’s] imag[es]” (Unger, 2017). As a result, this uncanny sensorial experience, it leaves the audience overwhelmed by the “astonishing visual and auditory” symbiosis, illuminating the film’s effort to throw viewers into the visceral environment of the vessel itself, forcing them to reflect upon the duality of “social existence and subjectivity” between human emotion and what appears to be unethical labour. (Pavsek, 2015)  In addition, the intense “layering of sound” of  “heavy machinery, wind, and waves” results in the “linguistic intelligibility” of the fishermen’s voices (Pavsek, 2015). It is this intricate creative decision that is used to provide the audience with an “abstract aspect of reality though sound where meaning is not fixed”, (MacDonald, 2014) a notion that Castating-Taylor himself suggests is a desire to create a sensory experience that emphasises “perceptual first and the conceptual second.” Essentially, it is up to us to discern the happenings and emotions aboard the vessel.

Sensory Immersion & Audience Experience:

It is clear that Leviathan (2012) effectively exposes the ordinary audience member to true working conditions upon an industrial fishing vessel. Though the non-conventional cinematic approaches to the construction of this documentary, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel evidently prioritise sensory immersion over the delivery of a linear narrative. In suggesting that Leviathan (2012) “swallows us – regurgitating us out of the theatre” by the end of the 90 minute play time, Pavsek further describes that the “sensory trauma” of the film “immerses us [the audience] in a watery hell”, manifesting the metaphorical sensation that “we [are] on the boat itself” watching it “rock us to and fro” as we engage with the film though its entirety. In understanding the cinematic intentions behind Leviathan (2012), Castaing-Taylor explains that the purpose of the film was to “give people a very potent aesthetic experience” providing us a “…painful, difficult, visceral [and] profound embodied… glimpse into a reality” that we have not experienced at first hand ourselves. As described by MacDonald, efforts to manifest a “disorientating sonic and visual perspective of the ship the ocean [and] the sea life”, an array of small DSLR and GoPro cameras were attached to the end of a collection of poles each with a length of eight feet and were submerged under water to gather footage of the activity beside the vessel’s hull. In addition, cameras were also affixed to the “heads, chests and wrists” of the fishermen aboard the vessel. (MacDonald, 2017). This creative decision provides viewers a raw, point-of-view experience of the intense labour and working conditions upon the ship, a cinematic notion described by Castaing-Taylor himself as the audience’s engagement with the film as an “experience of an experience.” In capturing the “mechanical body movement of the [fishermen’s] labour” (Pavsek, 2015) one example could be the repetitive sound of men shucking scollop shells into a basket which begins to gradually amplify in volume, sonically expressing the “feeling of monotony of the task.” (Unger, 2017) Here, the film simultaneously immerses viewers with an audio-visual conjunction “touching the spectator, providing [them] with an uncanny sensory experience” (Pavsek, 2015) of the seemingly unethical treatment of sea life within an industry centred around the collection of live marine produce.

Cinematic Presence & Audience Experience:

Apart from the multitude of sensory inputs and inherent qualities of materials used to create an immersive experience of Leviathan (2012), the setting by which the film is actually viewed plays a significant role in enhancing and, or maximising the sensory experience it provides. The extreme close-up shot, which Unger describes as “too close for comfort” showcases “vivid details of the dead eyes and skin texture[s]” of dead fish sliding across the ship’s deck. When viewing this scene upon a big screen, the graphic imagery of the fish is effectively “cinematically magnifi[ed] in… size…” and is further enhanced in a sensorial manner due to instances where the fish “hit the camera itself or obscure the camera’s field of view.” Compared to viewing the film upon a smaller screen such as a smartphone or tablet, the extent to which the viewer is able to discern and digest the graphic detail of the mise-en-scene or be confronted by the imagery presented is significantly affected. Unger also notes that “much of the film is dark” as a majority of the footage is shot at night time. It is this point that Pavsek suggests that regardless of the audience engagement with the film it often provides a raw, visual sensation that leaves viewers “…quite blind”, keeping them solely with the “volulumnius depiction[s]… [and]… sensuous richness and thickness” of the film’s auditory elements. (Pavsek, 2015) This appears to be one of the leading cinematic factors in the evident immersive nature it so effectively manifests. It becomes clear that in order to gather the most effective sensorial experience of Leviathan (2012), the scale in which one chooses to view the film dictates whether the degree of immersion is successfully maximised.

Conclusion:

Leviathan (2012) can be characterised by its non-conventional approach to documentary cinema as its mode of address evidently detaches itself from traditional forms of broadcast storytelling. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel appear to prioritise senatorial and immersive cinematic techniques and technologies over the delivery of character driven, journalistic content where a linear narrative is required to manifest a recognisable social impact. In subverting the expectations of conventional documentary making, Leviathan (2012) exists as the hallmark for the contemporary creative shift of exposing the truths of industrial realities, through the effectiveness of the humble point of view camera and raw, almost unedited audio-visual imagery. 

References:

Arrete Ton Cinema.org. (2021). leviathan. [online] Available at: http://www.arretetoncinema.org/leviathan/ [Accessed 12 Aug. 2021].

Gopro.com. (2021). About Us. [online] Available at: https://gopro.com/en/au/about-us?gclid=CjwKCAjwjdOIBhA_EiwAHz8xm4QcPEgM378K7OdxGuim8RFzEnKTOHR66gScsfE83KJUya3oN4lGxhoCs2EQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds [Accessed 12 Aug. 2021].

MacDonald, S. (2014). Avant-doc : intersections of documentary and avant-garde cinema. [online] New York: Oxford University Press. Available at: https://oxford-universitypressscholarship-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199388707.001.0001/acprof-9780199388707-chapter-21 [Accessed 12 Aug. 2021].

Michael A. Unger. (2017). Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s GoPro Sensorium: Leviathan (2012), Experimental Documentary, and Subjective Sounds. <i>Journal of Film and Video,</i> <i>69</i>(3), 3-18. doi:10.5406/jfilmvideo.69.3.0003

Pavsek, C. (2015). Leviathan & the Experience of Sensory Ethnography. Visual Anthropology Review, [online] 31(1), pp.4–11. Available at: https://anthrosource-onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/doi/full/10.1111/var.12056 [Accessed 12 Aug. 2021].

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