Cinematographic Breakdown: Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver (1976) was shot on 35mm Eastman Color Negative 100T 5254/7254 Film using ARRIFLEX 35 BL Camera and Zeiss Super Speed Lenses. The distributed aspect ratio of the film is 1.85:1 although some portions were filmed on 16mm.
Cinematography, like all other departments of filmmaking, is all about making choices. Such as framing, composition, lighting, and camera movement – all of these choices ultimately shape and give life to a scene. Through these shots and scenes, you construct the foundation of the film.
The Director of Photography for Taxi Driver (1976), Michael Chapman, said in an interview that people should look at Taxi Driver as a kind of folktale, an urban legend. He further explained his point, saying that Taxi Driver has deeply profound implications and layers, which are left for the audience to decipher. There’s more to the film than what’s apparent on the surface such undertones not disclosed through silly exposition.
Chapman stated in an interview, “the movie portrays itself as a documentary, but it’s not. It is lit, although very minimally, but still is. It is not realistic at all. In many ways, it’s not meant to be realistic.”
The film’s lighting was deliberate and, in small amounts, only what he considered necessary. Sometimes just enough to guide the audience’s eyes, masterfully directing the attention of the spectator. As to do nothing more but enhance the mood or showcase the emotional states of the characters. Michael Chapman took a cautious approach to shoot a film that felt authentic, therefore bypassing the glitz of the Hollywood counterparts.
Taxi Driver wastes little time setting the tone of the film. The grit, grime, and rawness are on display from the first frame. As a spectator, you get a sense of theme from the initial sequence. We step into a bizarre world of slow-moving chaos as Travis’s taxi slices through a cloud of smoke in the coldness of the night. This ominous, opening shot, combined with the prominent background score by Bernard Herrmann, serves as the unveiling of the curtain and the introduction of a chaotically distorted world.
On the second shot, We dive into the soul of a man with an ECU (extreme-close-up) of Travis Bickle’s eyes as he gazes off into what seems to be the never-ending emptiness. Michael Chapman (DP) then reveals the hypnotic vacancy of a city in ruins. But there’s something odd, a contortion of sorts as to imply that Travis has a freakish POV of New York City. Spectators step into Travis’s world or better yet see it through his eyes. By leaving the role of onlookers and becoming one with Travis, we gain a wealth of character insight, such as the calculated selectiveness of his outlook.
This distorted vision was made possible through a process called Chem-Tone. Paul Schrader, the writer of the film, said, “The process that Marty (Martin Scorsese) used at the beginning was called Chemtone, and he uses it here at the very beginning and then uses it again for the very last shot. the intention was to show that the film was a loop.”
TVC labs came up with Chemtone, Which was a mix of push-processing and chemical fogging to increase the density of the stock to compensate for underexposure. The effect was to fill in the toe region of the curves (in all colors, of course), thereby reducing shadow contrast a bit, and lowering the threshold point.
The camera movements on Taxi Driver are somewhat unusual, almost as if the camera behaved by its own accord, choosing when to be static and when to creep towards the characters, mainly Travis. The unobservant bunch may say the movements are random, but if you examine carefully, you may find an emotional connection to camera movements within the film. The movements serve to enhance or highlight character reactions, situations, and bits of dialogue. At times Travis and the camera fuse allowing for an enriched experience through the lens of Travis himself.
POV shots are frequently sprinkled throughout the film. Most of them from Travis. These conscious cinematographic decisions lure the audience to partake in Travis’s world, even creating a sense of empathy for his reality. His loneliness.
Loneliness is a central theme throughout the film. Travis is, as Paul Schrader hints on the script, God’s lonely man. To feature his isolation and detachment from society, framing him alone wherever possible was a conscious decision. Incredibly Travis can’t conform to his environment, and his separation even when out in a heavily transited city such as New York City is indisputable. Camera framing and movement work in direct correlation with Travis’s mood, desires, and outlook; therefore, the cinematographer had to portray a man in total disgust of his surroundings visually. Regardless of scene or situation, whether in a pornographic theater, dinner with fellow cab drivers, walking down the street, or standing in a political rally, through framing and use of shallow depth of field, Travis is always segregated from others.
A barrier perpetually subsists between Travis and the rest of the world, although it’s not always a physical one.
While there are many iconic shots throughout the film, one of the truly memorable ones is the left to right, desolation dolly. It encapsulated the theme of the movie in one sequence. Chapman masterfully heightens the experience of Travis, calling Betsy and facing her rejection. The camera dollies as if pushing Travis away from the frame and moving onto better things which quite disturbingly ends on an empty hallway. At first glance, this shot can be interpreted as a metaphoric representation of an abandoned relationship highlighted by the dolly movement signifying a page turn or end of a chapter.
According to Chapman, the real motivation behind the camera move was that Martin Scorsese perceived the camera to be embarrassed after witnessing the interaction between Travis and Betsy and felt compelled to move.