Posted by: daveed | September 2, 2008

Hidden language of film

Roger Ebert writes about a fascinating (at least to me) method of watching movies—essentially a shot-by-shot study of visual composition as another way to communicate emotions, story, character motivations, and so on. It reminds me of his commentary track on Citizen Kane, which although it spoils some of mystery surrounding the amazing special effects, does provide an enlightening new perspective of Welles’s masterpiece.

Ebert elaborates on the concept of “intrinsic weighting” in cinematic shots, where:

… certain areas of the available visual space have tendencies to stir emotional or aesthetic reactions. These are not “laws.” To “violate” them can be as meaningful as to “follow” them. I have never heard of a director or cinematographer who ever consciously applied them. I suspect that filmmakers compose shots from images that well up emotionally, instinctively or strategically, just as a good pianist never thinks about the notes. It may be that intrinsic weighting is sort of hard-wired. I am not the expert to say. I can observe that I have been through at least 10 Hitchcock films and not found a single shot that doesn’t reflect these notions.

You can see this to great effect in Kane (as Ebert discusses in his commentary as well as in his regular column), particularly in these scenes:


  1. Very cool post. The idea sounds sort of abstract at first, but I’ll bet there’s truth to it.

    Painters play with symmetry in their composition to affect mood. Just enough is pleasing, too much can seem boring and a little asymmetry can create tension. So even outside of the content itself, composition of elements can deliver meaning. I think there’s a whole art movement based on arranging simple shapes to create emotion, isn’t there? Some “ism?”

    But there’s probably way more to it than just symmetry.

    The second image you show has a nice symmetry to it, but there’s an interplay between the characters in the foreground and background that kinda reminds me of Gary Larson’s approach to creating comics. He said that most comics tell a story from left to right. But in a one-panel comic, that method literally falls flat. To create the feeling of comedic tension in a single frame, he often composed his comics in a foreground/background way. Something in the background is about to disrupt something in the foreground (and often the subject in the foreground is blissfully unaware of it).

    So there are probably ways to compose a situation that trigger emotional responses. Maybe we’re hard wired to react to oncoming danger or something. Dunno. One day science will figure it all about and will create a movie that completely controls our emotions in a Clockwork Orange kinda way.

  2. I wonder if the foreground/background concept has a different interpretation in a still shot than in a moving picture. For instance, in the second screenshot above, the figure in the deep background looks menacing. But we know, from how the scene is playing out, that it’s Mr. Bernstein, a rather benign character.

    In the film, the position of Bernstein signifies that there is a palpable distance away from loyalty (his strongest character trait) and perhaps innocence as well. Same in the Kane homestead shot. There it’s a young Charles Foster Kane in the background, the last vestige of innocence and independence.

    The art movement you refer to might be Cubism(?). “Golden Ratio”, which Ebert mentions in his essay, is the central idea behind a lot of visual composition (I only tangentially heard of it before). I plead ignorance when it comes to art theory…

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