In film, a reflection is rarely just a reflection. It says something about the character, about the moment, about what is being realized or learned or considered. Zack Sharf says: “A mirror shot is never just a mirror shot, and each image speaks volumes to the respective movie’s themes.” Duality, turmoil, hesitation, tranquility– reflections often allude to the fact that there is more going on beneath the surface than the character has admitted to. Below are some of my recent favorite reflections.
Darkness and stark light in movies help to create negative space, which functions to draw the eye to certain focal points and heighten drama. Sometimes, negative space also creates a feel of tension by emphasizing the solitary nature of an object or highlighting the lack of surroundings. In scenes like the one from Chicago, seen directly below, the shadowy negative spaces makes the glitz and glamour of the scene really stand out. The frame from Moonlight, however, uses shadows and negative space to emphasize the space between the two boys, thereby increasing the tension of the moment. Extreme light and extreme dark are both useful visual tools for filmmakers.
Now that my first round of color-centric cinematography posts is wrapped up, I wanted to pause and explore a couple of other themes. These seven frames all feature fireworks and sparks as a focal point. It’s exciting to see how such a variety of movies uses a similar item in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons.
Disclaimer: Thus far, I have only posted frames from films I’ve watched and that is a habit I have every intention of sticking to. However, the below frame from The Theory of Everything popped up on my dash and was such a perfect addition that I had to include it. This will be the very rare exception of including a frame that wasn’t hand-picked after a viewing.
I’ve talked about the color red before, in regards to Tarantino and Anderson‘s use of it to drive home drama and importance. It’s an intense color that is visceral in a way no other color is. I’ve arranged these frames in order of presence/intensity, but I think all of them utilize the various shades in an amazing way. Enjoy!
I haven’t published a post about it yet, but as I mentioned in a previous post (and in just about every other place on this blog), I absolutely adore color in film. I love seeing how it functions as a plot device and how it sends subtle messages about what is happening onscreen. Color sets moods and drops hints and amps up aesthetics. To pay homage to my love for color in film, I’m kicking off a series of posts all about certain colors in certain frames. I won’t be talking much in these posts, but rather just letting the stills speak for themselves.
So without further ado, here’s seven shades of green.
Oh the drama of a solid silhouette. Is there anything quite as commanding? They demand attention by drawing the eye to the subject, and often leave nothing else in the frame. Silhouettes define characters and situations, and are often used to emphasize the solitary nature of a single figure (a la Batman) or to amp up the drama of a group of people (a la Chicago‘s cellblock tango). Silhouettes help to elevate tension in an understated way by eliminating all the other details that would otherwise be vying for attention. It draws the focus to a pinpointed item or character and builds significance through isolation. They carry power through their simplicity– when you remove all the extra information, what is left is all the more commanding.
The use of expansive spaces on screen most often serves one of two purposes: to draw the eye towards something or someone, or to highlight the enormity (and sometimes hopelessness) of a specific situation. Expansive spaces can be used to highlight the hopelessness of a single person stumbling across an icy wasteland, or to emphasize a focal point of importance or beauty. Below, you can see some of my favorite frames that use skies and sand for one (or maybe even both) of the above purposes.
Prompted by: Kill Bill: Vol 1
I’ll never forget the day I watched both volumes of Kill Bill and Moonrise Kingdom in the same night. I was introduced to Tarantino at an earlier age than I was Anderson, and have always been partial to Anderson due to my own affection for whimsy and quirkiness. But for some reason, I never made the connections between the stylistic choices of the two directors until the day I accidentally watched their films back to back.
Here’s my hypothesis: Anderson and Tarantino use the same techniques– color and symmetry– in similar ways to achieve different results.
The colors that Anderson and Tarantino use are completely different, as are the moods they achieve with those colors. But both of them utilize color, both in entire palates and in specific spots, with a dedication that is not often seen. The thing about using color in film is that it isn’t always something viewers consciously pick up on (expect to see more on this in an upcoming post about color in film). The psychology of colors is a complex and extensive field of discussion, and there is no doubt that colors can both subtly and massively impact moods and feelings. Successfully utilizing certain colors to set certain moods is quite possibly one of the most clever ways to evoke feelings in film.
Tarantino uses primary colors such as red and blue in bold hues and cool tones to create emphasis on certain characters and contribute to the intensity of certain scenes. An excellent example of this is the use of the color red with Shosanna in Inglorious Basterds. When we first see her, she is running away with splashes of dark red blood on her face.
When we see her next, she is working on the marquis for her theater. There are bold red letters in the background and she is wearing a muted red jacket.
Her next scene features red as a significantly more dominant color: she is sitting in a bright red cafe booth and is surrounded by a vibrant shade of red.
And by the time we finally arrive at her climactic scene, she is draped, garbed, and surrounded by red.
The use of such a visceral and unavoidable color to slowly develop an incredibly strong and driven character is unmistakable. Tarantino’s most frequent use of red is with blood, but he often utilizes the color to evoke feelings of passion, violence, revenge, and intensity. Red is also known to enhance attention, both by drawing the eye to the color and by triggering certain feelings in the viewer. In the case of Shosanna, this works to drop increasingly more obvious hints that ‘this character is important, pay attention when she’s on screen.’
Anderson, on the other hand, uses it more often as an aesthetic focal point, while still hinting that something important is happening. An excellent example of this is with the narrator in Moonrise Kingdom. He’s simply talking about the weather, which is a very easy thing to zone out for. But by dressing him in a bright red coat and placing him in relatively colorless scenes, it helps the viewer to pay a bit more attention. Of course, anyone who has seen Moonrise Kingdom knows that the weather turns out to be a rather pivotal aspect of the entire storyline.
A similar effect is achieved through the coloring of the tracksuits in The Royal Tenenbaums. It is impossible to not be drawn to those fire-engine-red outfits, which again hints that this is something important and the viewer should take note. In this case, it is quite possibly the clearest indicator of the arrested development that the three children experienced.
Anderson also plays up the passionate nature of the color red, using it to illustrate longing and deep desire, usually for affection. We can see this through the simple act of putting red hats on Suzy, Ned, and Max– all of which are desperate for the love of someone who is inaccessible in one way or another.
Over the years, Anderson has become known for his symmetry, and it is undoubtedly one of the primary characteristics of his stylistic choices. Tarantino seems to be a bit more partial to asymmetry, often choosing to follow the rule of thirds and offsetting a character to one side of the frame.
When I was watching Moonrise Kingdom minutes after finishing both Kill Bills, it was impossible not to notice the similarities between some of the frames.
Director Stanley Kubrick is often referenced in discussions about symmetry in film, but in a very specific way. He utilizes symmetry to create unnatural and oftentimes uncomfortable frames (think about the hallway shots in The Shining). A similar effect is achieved in the living room frame from Kill Bill: Vol 2 seen above. The precision of the character’s exact separation creates a tangible sense of tension that is virtually impossible to ignore.
Anderson, on the other hand, uses symmetry for the complete opposite reason. Almost everything about the way he frames his shots, symmetrical or not, helps to create a storybook feel. The viewers are the intruders looking in on what might as well be paintings, a feeling further heightened by shots where the characters in the frame look directly at the camera, as seen in the above shot from Moonrise Kingdom.
The overhead shot from Kill Bill: Vol 1 creates tension in a different way. Rather than showcasing the amount of empty space around or between key characters, this frame highlights the lack of space that currently exists around our protagonist. The symmetry and mirror images help to build the tension of a scene that already has us on the edge of our seats.
Tarantino is responsible for coining the specific shot seen below. Known as a ‘trunk shot’ they feature characters (usually two or three) opening something and looking down at the camera. It’s a creative angle that brings a unique perspective to the shot.
While Anderson doesn’t mimic the trunk shot exactly, he’s fond of a similar reveal: an item being suddenly moved or opened to reveal a group of characters looking directly at the camera.
Both directors also utilize wide angles, although Anderson more so than Tarantino. Wide angles help contribute to that painting-like quality I mentioned above in regards to Anderson. In the below frame from Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson pairs the wide angle and symmetry to create a rather haunting shot. This frame is an excellent example of building tension using the devices discussed above.
The above frame from Kill Bill is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful shots from a Tarantino film. Whether it was the brain child of Tarantino or of DP Robert Richardson, I’m not sure. Whatever the case may be, it is a breathtaking frame in every way and not one that is easily forgotten.
So what do you think? Do the two directors utilize the same techniques to get different results?
Robert Richardson is the DP for all the Tarantino films referenced here, and Robert Yeoman is the DP for all of the Anderson films.
Prompted by: re-watching LotR
I am such a sucker for cinematography.
Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos have, in my opinion, the best video series out there on film and cinematography: Every Frame a Painting. Their series has come to an end, but if you haven’t already watched some of their work, you’re truly missing out. Their very handle perfectly sums up the magic of cinematography– it is truly art.
So what exactly is cinematography? Essentially it’s what the viewer sees in any given frame. It’s composition and angles and light and shadows.
“The cinematographer—also known as the Director of Photography, or “DP”— is responsible for all the visual elements of a film… He or she makes every creative choice related to composition, lighting, and camera motion—anything that audiences can see in a given shot.”
While a DP is responsible for those visual elements, they are chosen through very specific conversation with the director. The DP is the one who brings the director’s vision to life, so it is of utmost importance that the two are allies and agree on creative choices. As a director, having a DP that you can rely on and trust in is an absolute game changer. The two individuals inform and support each other throughout the creative process, from day one all the way to color correction in post-production. We can see how a close relationship between the director and the DP magnifies stylistic choices through the work of director Wes Anderson and his most frequent director of photography, Robert Yeoman. Yeoman has worked with Anderson for over 20 years on no less than 8 films, working alongside him on films from Bottle Rocket to The Grand Budapest Hotel. There’s no question that Yeoman has been an instrumental part of bringing Anderson’s visions of symmetry and color schemes to life through his own choices of lenses, lighting, framing, and positioning.
Cinematography connects with different people in different ways. Some viewers like wide angles, some like symmetry. Some like orbital shots, some like overhead shots. Some people may not even realize that what they like so much about a film is the cinematography. Regardless of their level of awareness though, from super hero movies to romances to arthouse films, a good DP makes all the difference.
I still remember the first time I saw a frame that made me audibly gasp out loud in the theater. It was 2012 and I was watching Django Unchained, which was only the second time I had seen a Tarantino film. Growing up in a very conservative household, my media intake was strictly limited, and Tarantino was definitely not approved viewing. There’s a scene that takes place in a cotton field where Jamie Foxx’s character points his gun and takes precise aim at a man fleeing on horseback. He pulls the trigger and the camera angle changes to a cropped shot of the cotton. We hear the hoof beats of the running horse in slow motion, and then…
A fine spray of bright red spatters the pristine white cotton. I watched Django Unchained three more times that year, and every single time there was something about the cropped frame took my breath away. And so began my documented love affair with cinematography.
But then, when I was re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy this summer, I realized that my delight with well-framed shots had actually started much much earlier.
In fact, it had even started earlier than that. The Prince of Egypt was the first movie I ever saw in theaters, and even at the ripe old age of four, certain shots stood out to me.
I still gasp out loud when I’m watching movies and a particularly moving frame appears. I “mmm’ed” out loud at the end of Fight Club. My toes curled with bliss at the opening of Evolution.
Cinematography will be a frequent topic on this blog. Whether a monthly collection of favorite frames or a closer look at the work of a particular DP, it is something that I find to be an endless source of joy and fascination. So join in on the fun and leave a comment! What are some of your favorite frames?