LOOK BACK: I Am Sam (2001) Directed by Jessie Nelson
by Colin Chapman
In telling a story that can be so distant from our realities, how can we make the audience feel empathy? In the 2001 film I Am Sam, directed by Jessie Nelson, we can see the tactics used to create this effect. The film successfully executes the use of a specific color palette, music, and camera techniques that guide the audience into feeling empathy for the characters and the situations that they go through throughout the film.
The film introduces us to the protagonist “Sam”, by focusing the camera on his hands, allowing viewers to see his subtle actions. The director chooses to present us with Sam’s slow pace when organizing sugars and his meticulous system of arranging various commodities. It helps to reveal his mental capacity to us, along with his work ethic and dedication. Once we get a wide shot of Sam, we get a better taste of how the cinematographer will be using the camera to assist in telling the story. The camera appears shaky and at eye level as if we are a customer who is watching Sam in this busy Starbucks. It allows us to see just how slow the protagonist is during rush hour, giving the audience more understanding of his capabilities. What is also very noticeable in this wide shot, is Sam’s attitude. He can clearly be seen smiling and having positive interactions with customers. Aside from his smile, there is other evidence to pull from that would help us as audience members, in understanding his mood.
Taking a moment to observe the lighting in the first scene, we can see that the room is filled with very natural sunlight, with an orange tint on anything not being hit directly. As a viewer, the meaning behind the lighting might not be understood until you see the contrasting colors that start to periodically show up as the movie progresses. However, looking at this lighting as spectators who have finished the film, we can understand that this natural light is representing Sam’s comfort and happiness in the workplace. The orange tint helps to set the mood of the opening shot while also aiding in giving us an understanding of Sam. We can deduce that he’s a hard worker and enjoys what he does.
In breaking down the first scene and our introduction to the main character, we can also point out the very innocent and peaceful music in the background. The music has similar pacing and tone to something you might have heard while growing up. These childlike melodies continue throughout the film and serve as a reminder of our protagonists’ mental state, his IQ being around that of a seven-year-old. However, even with music, lighting, and some opening shots of the characters actions, we still, as audience members, do not empathize with our characters, even if our understanding of them is starting to improve.
If we jump ahead in the film, we start to grasp the meaning of the color scheme and the effect it’s supposed to have on us. The colors start to be clearly distinguished as orange or natural sunlight versus an unnatural blue, industrial tint. By looking at past scenes in the movie, we begin to understand that this orange sunlight mix tends to mean that Sam is happy or in a state of comfort. The color almost always appears when Sam is with his daughter outside of Child Protective Services (CPS) or when he is aiding with his lawyer’s character ark. The blue appears when emotion is completely drained from the scene. It has the propensity to show up whenever the scene is focused on Sam being caught up in the legal system. Examples of this would be when Sam is in court fighting for his daughter or when he is meeting with his daughter with CPS supervision. We watch as Sam is being literally ripped away from his daughter, and it is because of this lack of empathy from the legal system, that we as spectators, feel the pull of empathy starting to grow. The industrial lighting in these heartfelt scenes help in giving us this feeling of empathy.
Additionally, we see this blue tint show up at his lawyer’s house. The reason this occurs is because of the disconnection that the lawyer has with her husband and child. Her focus is almost entirely on work, and even when at work, she feels no compassion for her clients. When Sam’s lawyer, Rita Harrison, starts to feel more compassion and empathy for Sam, we see that color start to change to orange as it follows along with Rita’s character ark.
The camera work isn’t dramatic in this film, but it is effective. An example of this is during a very important courtroom scene that involves the prosecuting lawyer asking Sam a series of questions. Visually, we can see that Sam is struggling based off of the acting and the characters unique mannerisms. In order to assist the actor, the cinematographer makes quick cuts while Sam is in a state of panic, cutting from one angle of his face to another. This subtle, but effective camera work makes the audience feel just as panicked as the protagonist. You don’t have time to focus and neither does Sam. This kind of teamwork between all of the different stylization of the film help to build our empathy to a character we might not understand who is in a situation we might not have ever been in.
After having analysed this film in depth, it appears clear that even when living a different reality in comparison to the characters on screen, we can experience empathy for them. It’s not just movie magic, it’s the organized synchronization of all of the aspects of film making that have to come together so that the audience can understand and empathize with the characters. The music and lighting need to fit the situation and the cinematographers have to successfully work with the scene in order to create emotion between the audience and actors. It’s a beautiful science, but it definitely isn’t magic.