Editing “Creative Geography”

While writing my recent review of “House of Cards,” I noticed an excellent example of an editing technique that is sometimes called “Creative Geography.”

In episode 3 of “House of Cards,” Kevin Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, visits his hometown of Gaffney, South Carolina, site of the “Peachoid” water tower. Gaffney is a real town (“House of Cards” lead writer Beau Willimon’s father is from South Carolina, and recommended Gaffney as an iconic Southern small town), and the Peachoid is real, but the show did not film there. Instead, as reported by the Baltimore Sun, Havre De Grace, MD was converted into the Gaffney location.

In the early 1920s, the legendary Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein discovered that viewers will automatically find connections between images that are shown in sequence. For example, a shot of a person with a neutral expression is interpreted by a viewer as happy if it follows a shot of something pleasant, and interpreted by a viewer as unhappy if it follows a shot of something unpleasant. For decades, film editors have used this to their advantage – sometimes to conceal something that the viewer should not see (an excellent example is in the climax of the movie “Traitor,” in which color grading, background differences, and careful framing are used to convey the impression that characters are boarding buses in multiple locations, only to eventually reveal that they are all on the same bus) – and, more often, to convey the impression that characters are somewhere they are not.

This latter technique is used skillfully and simply in the following three-shot scene in “House of Cards.”

First, we see Kevin Spacey and the other actors standing in a field somewhere in Maryland, looking up at something outside the frame.

Then, we see a shot of the actual Peachoid in Gaffney. Because the shots are back-to-back, the viewer assumes that this is the point of view of the actors in the previous shot.

Then, we see another shot of the actors, looking at what we assume is the Peachoid.

Voila! The illusion is complete. No need for compositing, chromakey, or any kind of special effects beyond the color grading that would be done anyway. The juxtaposition of shots is enough to sell the illusion that Kevin Spacey was in South Carolina for this episode, even though he never left Maryland.

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