Spotlight on Cinematography: Faceoffs

For some reason, this was a challenging post to put words to. I want to talk about how impressive a character can seem if they’re framed properly, about how tension between two characters can be tangible if they’re framed properly, and how groups can be so imposing if– you guessed it– they’re framed properly. But words are hard today, so let’s just jump right in!

I’m going to start with a few frames featuring solo characters. I think this is a largely underrated and unnoticed aspect of film that many viewers might not pick up on, but there is so much potential to character introductions, and it feels rare to see that full potential being met. For that reason, I wanted to start with my all-time favorite first appearance: the one and only Marla Singer.

The below frame is a stellar example of showing instead of telling. We don’t really know anything about Marla at this point, but the instant the camera turns to her, it’s impossible not be in awe.

fight club marla
Fight Club (1999) || Jeff Cronenweth (DP)

Straying away from first appearances, it probably comes as no surprise that I’m including a Donald McAlpine frame. The symmetry, shadows, and coloring of this character presentation all combine to work within the drama of the movie itself, and the tension of this particular scene.

moulin rouge frontal
Moulin Rouge (2002) || Donald McAlpine (DP)

The visuals of a character walking away from a fire/explosion/burning building is an age old technique. We see it in westerns, in spy flicks, in super hero movies, etc. But rarely do we see it paired with a femme fatale garbed in handmade haute couture. And boy oh boy does it work. What a force to be reckoned with.

the dressmaker 2
The Dressmaker (2015) || Donald McAlpine (DP)

Two people sharing a scene can run the gamut from stale to sensual. Characters can interact romantically, angrily, averagely, and so on and so forth. However, my favorite way for two people to share a frame is always when it’s charged with tension. This could be in a passionate way (a la cellblock tango in Chicago) or in a fearsome way (a la the xenomorph edging into a frame with a petrified Ellen Ripley).

The Handmaiden is an exquisite film, with every scene beautifully arranged and the characters perfectly positioned. But one of my very favorites moments was the one seen below. The repetition of the branches, the color juxtaposition of the costumes, and the locked eye contact all combine to create a tense and breathtaking scene.

the handmaiden 2
The Handmaiden (2016) || Chung-hoon Chung (DP)

Speaking of tense, how about this faceoff from the recent Black Panther? The tension is tangible between the two royals as they size each other up and stare each other down. Largely thanks to the negative space and forceful eye contact, you can feel the heat between the two of them.

black panther
Black Panther (2018) || Rachel Morrison (DP)

It’s been a really long time since I’ve watched Hanna, and while I wasn’t over the moon for it back then, the final scene at the abandoned theme park has always stayed with me. This wide angle in particular is such a brilliant frame. Between the wolf head and the body language, the space between the two characters feels like a living thing, one Hanna is utterly determined to keep in existence.

hanna
Hanna (2011) || Alwin H. Küchler (DP)

Most of us have some sort of familiarity with standing in front of a large group of people. Either we are being watched, or we are doing the watching, and both carry with them their own sort of weight. It isn’t every day that a character is faced with a huge group of people on screen, which is part of why the below frames are so enjoyable.

In this frame from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, using Alice’s POV was a brilliant choice. Paired with the sea of white clothes and blankly expectant faces fading into the distance, you can almost feel the panic setting in.

alice in wonderland
Alice in Wonderland (2010) || Dariusz Wolski (DP)

A Cure for Wellness is easily one of my most hated films. However, it is undeniably incredibly visually appealing. From start to finish, the movie focuses on repetition, reflections, and uncomfortable focal points to institute an undercurrent of unease. You can’t shake the feeling that something is off. This eerily centered frame is no exception. The color coordinated balls, the lines of the pool and staircases, and the razor sharp focus of the group in the pool combine to leave a tinge of discomfort with the viewer due to the unnatural perfection of it all.

a cure for wellness
A Cure for Wellness (2016) || Bojan Bazelli (DP)

While I wasn’t wild about the storyline, Girl Asleep (directed by Rosemary Myers) is another shockingly beautiful film. Based on the play of the same name, the film utilizes an almost constant feeling of being watched to inject tension and unease through the movie. Between the dark forest, characters in masks, mirrors, and clever framework during school scenes, you can feel the discomfort of our main character.

girl asleep
Girl Asleep (2015) || Andrew Commis (DP)

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