Gavin Stuff

The Abyss Stares Back – Inside Bo Burnham’s Camera

Every YouTuber and their communist lesbian mother has talked about Bo Burnham’s quarantine “comedy” special Inside by this point. Not a damn one I’ve found so far has talked about one of the most obvious pieces of visual symbolism that feels specifically targeted at content creators, so here’s a blog about that. 

Bo Burnham’s special Inside has become the newest meme media du jour for essayists. If a video essayist has even a fraction of a brand built on discussing media (and a zoomer audience) there’s a strong likelihood they’ve either rushed an Inside video out the door or are now, months later, putting out thoroughly-digested interpretations. 

Good luck to future essayists in topping CJ the X’s gargantuan, complex Bo Burnham vs. Jeff Bezos – Video Essay both in examination and length. It’s a gargantuan essay that – to continue a We Hate Movies meme – clocks in 20 minutes longer than Star Wars (1977). Their video towers above all coverage of Inside I’ve yet seen. 

Yet, despite every discussion of Burnham’s intentionality and work in crafting Inside almost entirely in-camera, I’m flabbergasted by the lack of discussion about a couple of shots in the special. Especially in an industry where the majority of work is doing what Burnham did: look directly into a camera for long periods of time.

Let me briefly talk about Bo Burnham’s equipment. 

The Camera.

Thanks to the fact Netflix has a relatively short list of cameras approved for use by partners it’s quite easy to fact-check claims Burnham used a Panasonic Lumix S1H. Hell, here’s their flashy official camera production guide specifically for the S1H. Further digging around surfaces an /r/boburnham commenter who proposes the lens Burnham uses for shots when the S1H is looking directly at itself in a mirror is a Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM. Don’t worry, the granular specifics of the lens aren’t important, just note that we have a pretty good idea what gear Burnham used. 

Offical product image for the Sigma Lens – B&H Photo

That’s the lens. For all its $1,500 glory it remains just another big-ass cylinder with a glass end and inner workings meticulously designed to get light to the S1H’s mirrorless camera sensor as clearly as possible. One can see this photo from the B&H product page staring straight down the barrel betrays how reflective the Sigma’s glass is. You can clearly see the two box lights and white table in front of it reflecting on for infinity.

Content creators spend as much time staring down that barrel as they do making direct eye contact with other humans. I’ve barely made video content and I’ve still trained myself to make eye contact with lenses far bigger than the miniscule dots found on most phones. Do it for long enough and that Nietzsche quote every sci-fi nerd loves to drop springs to mind: “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back.”

Effects and Intent

Much digital hay has been made about how Burnham pulls off most of Inside with practical in-camera effects. A projector changes the white walls of his quarantine prison at a whim. A spaghetti mess of cables and stomp pedals enable Burnham to swap between lighting setups midstream. It’s all him doing things live with pure ingenuity, relatively cheap equipment, and several years working in the film industry (though articles about Inside conveniently forget he’s been a director for years. People love a natural talent narrative, I guess 🤷). 

The infamous “easter egg” frame that launched dozens of TikToks.

Hell, the one skit necessitating a green-screen to set up a bit of Burnham streaming a video game version of his quarantine depression is so out of place with the otherwise practical effects a single frame lost deep in the edit (likely cut from the footage and forgotten about) was treated like some deep conspiracy by Burnham fans, damned and determined to figure out why this one frame was unique and important to what Inside is trying to say. There’s so much intentionality behind Burnham’s complicated lighting setups and framing there must be that intentionality behind the artificial effects as well. 

Yet, for all that fervor over a lost single frame, there’s a far more visible special effect Burnham put in after the fact that’s so lacking in subtlety it practically screams in chorus with Burnham’s ongoing discussion of the toxic side effects of content creation: the S1H’s lens. 

The Abyss.

See it now? This shot is haunting, and it’s maddening it’s not a go-to visual when discussing Inside.

When the camera faces the mirror the audience is forced to look down the barrel with a black circle over the glass of the lens, turning it into a bottomless maw. Burnham shows us the abyss staring back at him whenever Daddy makes you your favorite, open wide.

As an amateur editor myself I can’t say with full certainty how he pulled it off. Given the S1H films in 4K and Inside has a lot of post-production zooms, facing it towards a mirror means any zoom could easily be done in post. The effect of the abyss could’ve been as easy as making a shape and feathering the edge to give the effect of the darkness fading in on the bottom of the lens. Regardless, it’s a deliberate decision to Other the camera. As one English professor said every damn semester (honk if you had to take multiple classes from the same person regardless of pedagogical synergy thanks to tiny departments), it’s not-quite not-right. At least on a subconious level the intended viewer of Inside knows what a camera looks and this is off.

A simple black circle turns a relatively benign shot into a psychological horror. Humans are really good at anthropomorphising inanimate objects. Cameras are giant eyes in both form and function, yet this one’s eye is… wrong. The line “Well, your fucking phones are poisoning your minds, okay?” in 30 isn’t a one-off jab, it’s a continuation of a thesis Burnham regularly presents in interviews and Q&As over the last five years. Again, CJ the X covers so much of this in-depth throughout Bo Burnham vs. Jeff Bezos. It’s damn near the ur-text on some of the themes Burnham’s exploring with Inside.

Cameras for content creators aren’t a fun tool. They’re a bottomless pit. You can vlog and stream and do gig work until your last breath and it’ll still be there, blankly demanding more footage for the video mills. The spotlight relentlessly follows Burnham throughout Inside and the camera waits, unblinking. It’s wild to me this hasn’t been a driving force in the meta-conversation about Inside. Hey, what can you say? We were overdue.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest: you should also check out F.D Signifier’s essay Bo Burnham’s Inside and “White Liberal Performative Art.” It’s not particularly relevant to anything I’ve just talked about but the world’s better off with more discussion of Inside that isn’t vaguely left-leaning white people being like “wow quarantine was bad for his mental health and he said that out loud.” Remember folks: media can be impactful and good to you and still be open for critical evaluation. 

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