Ben Dickinson – Student #10734580
When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialog only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shot and bits of film in between.
Hitchcock 1967 pp.23
In their most basic sense, ‘principles of composition are only ways of arranging lines and shapes.’ (Dow, 1997 pp.86) For from being a trivial or insignificant aspect of visual composition, the use of line and shape to communicate narrative, mood and setting is an essential component in being able to tell a story, ‘in pictures’, as it were. Stephen D. Katz has written that ‘by themselves, camera angles have no meaning… The value of the shot really depends on the narrative.’ (Katz, 1991 pp.239) In approaching the task to ‘tell a story in pictures’, I devised a relatively simple narrative story of a man who, discontent with his identity, delves deep into his psyche in search of his alter-ego. This simple narrative will be presented through three different shape and line compositions; the linear, the circular and the organic.
For the initial frame (Appendix ), the character is captured on a staircase, surrounded by ‘precise and sharply defined geometric shapes’ (Gatto et al, 1978 pp.68). Note the evenly distributed horizontal lines of the stairs and the distinct linear angles of the railings and tiles. It is a rigid setting, one that infers rules and regulations, and a certain degree of uniformity. As Jennifer van Sijll states; ‘a balanced frame is one in which there is an intentional symmetry.’ (van Sijll, 2005 pp.22), and yet the pure symmetry of the image is such that it presents a rather flat, dull and disconcerting impression on the viewer. Rather than be drawn to the character, the viewer’s gaze resides on the foreground of the picture, focusing on the imposing geometry of the setting (see also Appendix ). We are thereby able to acquire a sense of character and setting without the use of dialogue or music; although he is the central figure in his personal narrative (as implied by his placing along the vertical centre of the frame), the character is surrounded and contained by the banality and rigidness of his structured life (symbolically represented by the foregrounding of the horizontal lines).
In the second frame (Appendix ), linear angles are swapped for a multitude of curving lines and circular shapes. Contrary to the harsh ‘flatness’ of the previous frame, the curving lines elongate the frame by presenting a cyclical ‘gaze into the space by spatialising the gaze’ (von Amelunxen in Crone, 2005 pp.7). The curved lines and circularity of the image and the character’s movement away from us suggests a portal or threshold into another world (as in Appendix ), as van Sijll states; ‘if done carefully, it [circularity] can externalise a character’s inner world or even… be prescient.’ (van Sijll, 2005 pp.26) Gatto writes that the ‘curving lines allow the artist to change direction’ (Gatto et al, 1978 pp.26), and so too is the character’s change of identity represented in the dizzying circularity of the image. A similar example can be found in Francis Ford Coppola’s script The Conversation, in which the protagonist, symbolised by the linear, finds himself disoriented and confused in a foreign circular setting, and only regains control when he returns to the structured rigidity of his normal environment.
In the third image (Appendix ), the character has come to reside in the organic setting, surrounded on all sides by twigs and bush. Note how, in comparison to the linear setting, the character is no longer the centrepiece of the image, and yet our eyes are drawn to him far more than in the first image. Once among the natural environment, although not the central figure, he holds his own distinct place within the setting. Environment and character here share equal billing, illustrated by the asymmetrical balance which creates a ‘sensed equilibrium between parts of the picture.’ (Gatto et al, 1978 pp.124) Rather than the brazen ‘oppositional’ perspective of the first image (Appendix ), the voyeuristic point of view from within the setting is organic to the scene, and makes us feel as though we are intruding on an intimate moment between character and setting (see also Appendix ). Indeed, in this composition, the intention is not to render the landscape, but rather ‘the sensation produced by the landscape.’ (Castagnary in Art Gallery of NSW, 2008 pp.6 – see also Appendix )
Thus, through the manipulation of line and shape in the images, as well as the relationship between the images, narrative, mood and setting are made visually explicit without the need to resort to music or dialogue to communicate story.
Word Count: 795
Art Gallery of NSW 2008 ‘Monet & The Impressionists’, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, Australia, pp.1-16
Coppola, Francis 1972 The Conversation: Screenplay, Script City, CA, USA
Crone, Rainer 2005 Stanley Kubrick: Drama & Shadows – Photographs 1945-1950, Phaidon Publishing, NY, USA
Dow, Arthur Wesley 1997 Composition, University of California Press, LA, USA
el Laberinto del Fauno 2006 Motion Picture, Warner Bros, Mexico
Gatto, J., Porter, A. & Selleck, J. 1978 Exploring Visual Design, Davis Publications Inc., MS, USA
Katz, Steven D. 1991 Film Directing – Shot by Shot: Visualising from Concept to Screen, Michael Weise Publishers, CA, USA
Picnic at Hanging Rock 1975 Motion Picture, Atlantic Releasing Corp., Australia
Trainspotting 1996 Motion Picture, Miramax, UK
Truffaut, François 1967 Hitchcock, Simon and Schuster Publishers, NY, USA
van Sijll, Jennifer 2005 Cinematic Storytelling, Michael Wiese Publishers, CA, USA
Witness 1985 Motion Picture, Paramount, USA