On framing in cinema

Jack Whitehead 18 April 2016

Film reviews are usually infused with judgements on the script, actors, direction, and music. Far less frequently discussed is framing – what types of shots are used, whether the camera moves, how people and objects are composed within the shot. This is partly because of the way many of today’s most popular films are shot and edited; the frequent cutting and frenetic camerawork of a Marvel film doesn’t give you much time to dwell on the composition of the images.

But noticing the framing of a scene in many cases can lead to a greatly more rewarding cinematic experience. The idea that every shot should have the unity, composure and balance/imbalance of painted pictures is a common aspiration for the most patient and visually conscious of directors, and especially among two of my favourites: Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa.

Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) details with passion and colour the story of Redmond Barry, an Irish farm boy, who through an unstoppable drive for social status acquires a wife and large estate in eighteenth-century England. Kubrick’s use of wide shots is especially expressive. In one of these, Barry stands on a bridge within his estate. At first he fills a large part of the frame, but then the camera slowly zooms out until he is just one small part of the wider landscape. It is almost as if we are walking backwards from a picture in a gallery. But there is a deeper emotional current; we are growingly distanced from a character we know to be deceptive as we are enveloped by his new-found wealth.

But arguably no film deserves the ‘every frame a painting’ mantle as much as Kurosawa’s Ran (1985). The director had spent the preceding ten years painting every potential shot in the near-three hour film. In one truly memorable scene, the ageing feudal warlord Hidetora and his retinue are attacked by armies led by two of his sons. Trapped in a burning tower, he descends into madness. In a spectacular wide shot, he emerges from the tower, descending down some steps which cut vertically across the centre of the frame. He is flanked by the yellow-clad soldiers of one son of the left of the frame, and the red-clad of the other on the right. This remarkable piece of symmetry intentionally clashes with the chaos onscreen as the lone Hidetora, his mind raging like the burning tower, meets the cold violent fact of military organisation.

In both Ran and Barry Lyndon, framing is not just aesthetically powerful, but emotionally significant. Crucially, both directors take time with their shots, lingering on landscapes and faces, rather than cutting frequently. Their ‘every frame a painting’ philosophy makes many modern films look utterly lazy in comparison.