What’s in a Frame?

Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out. -Martin Scorsese

When it comes to movies, the frame may very well be the most vital tool that filmmakers employ in order to move their story along and present any emotions or themes they want. Writing stimulates us intellectually, and music can make us feel frightened or euphoric, but ultimately the frame serves as the conduit by which we experience these sensations. Not only is it the means by which we experience the dominant senses of film (sight and sound), but it also functions as the grammar of film which helps us understand what the filmmaker is trying to say, or more accurately show. There is one question though; how far does this idea that framing is everything, or as I’ll refer to it Scorsese’s Law, extend? Is the frame truly all there is in a movie, or is the audience required to fill in the blanks in order to get the experience they want?

The Frame as a Storytelling Device

At its most fundamental level, a film is like an epic flip-book. Thousands upon thousands of pictures are taken and played through a projector at 24 frames per second to create a sense of motion and thus a sense of time. As the projector rolls, the audience begins to see a story emerge from the myriad of frames composing the overall film. What matters here is a sense of order and direction. Returning to the flip book image, it is necessary that every frame flows sequentially in order for the story to unfold. It would be horribly odd if a film were to have random frames from other parts of the movie pop up every now and again. In this sense, the cumulative effect of the frames is that they show the audience what is happening in the order that it is meant to be seen. What’s necessary to ask, however, is just how much of the story can be presented through the frame?

Take a film like No Country for Old Men. One of the most distressing moments in the film is when Sheriff Ed Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones) discovers that Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) has been murdered in his hotel by the Mexican Cartel. The scene is very frenetic, but we don’t actually see Llewelyn being killed. All we see is Bell driving down the street, hearing some gunshots, watching as the assailants flee, and finally the scene ends with him finding Llewelyn’s corpse. This scene functions entirely on the audience’s ability to put two and two together. If there are gunshots, that means someone’s being shot at, and if we know it’s the Cartel doing the shooting, then that must mean that Llewelyn is the one being shot. This creates a heightened sense of urgency in the audience because we want to know if Llewelyn made it or not, and by showing us the shooting through Bell’s perspective, we directly feel his tension arriving at the scene, and when he discovers he didn’t make it in time, we also feel his sense of loss. This moment is very effective precisely because it doesn’t show us everything we need to know, and the emotional impact it provides certainly proves that an audience can sometimes benefit from being deprived of certain images. With that said, there is also a danger in limiting what the audience sees to the point where they can’t make heads or tails of what is being shown.

Though we don't see his death, the impact of finding Llewelyn dead in No Country for Old Men is still a harsh sensation.
Though we don’t see his death, the impact of finding Llewelyn dead in No Country for Old Men is still a harsh sensation.

Zack Snyder’s 2013 action film Man of Steel has many flaws, but perhaps the worst one is its unbalanced sense of framing. In order to get an idea of just how uneven the compositions are, it is necessary to juxtapose two scenes. Towards the end of the film, there is a moment when General Zod (played by Michael Shannon) unleashes his World Machine onto earth, and we see it wreak havoc upon Metropolis. Dozens of people are thrown into the air and slammed to the ground with tremendous force. Whether these innocents are killed or maimed isn’t important; what matters is that we see Zod hurting people, which in turn sets him as the villain in our minds. Now for the second scene; when Superman (played by Henry Cavill) squares off against Zod, the two go thrashing and bashing all throughout the ruins of Metropolis, and even into some of the undamaged portions of the city. If we look carefully, we can clearly see a moment when the two characters go flying into a building, causing it to topple over onto onlookers below. But through some editing, we never actually get to see the civilians die, and therefore we’re left wondering if they were killed or not.

Man of Steel makes it difficult for the viewer to tell whether they should consider Superman a menace or a hero.
Man of Steel makes it difficult for the viewer to tell whether they should consider Superman a hero or a menace.

One may be tempted to say that this was just a case of poor camerawork that accidentally showed the civilians in the path of the falling skyscraper, but the fact that an earlier scene shows Zod killing civilians implies that the problem with the film isn’t bad cinematography, it is laziness in visual storytelling. It was necessary for the filmmakers to show Zod harming innocents in order for him to be the bad guy, but what do we make of the fact that Superman, though accidentally, killed civilians by knocking over a building. If we were to follow Scorsese’s Law strictly, then we would have to say that Superman didn’t kill anyone. Since we didn’t see any innocents being crushed by the building, then that means that no one died due to Superman’s negligence. This is a problem because it directly conflicts with the audience’s common sense. A building falling over is going to kill whoever is beneath it, so it stands to reason that those people died in part due to Superman’s foolishness. But the filmmakers didn’t want to make Superman a bad guy, so instead of just leaving the building standing, or removing the civilians beneath the building, or just having the two characters fight away from Metropolis, the filmmakers decided to employ shoddy editing to absolve Superman of his flippancy while ensuring that the set piece remained intact.

Another side effect of bad framing is that it can cause otherwise good movies to have plot holes. The Matrix is a splendid sci-fi action film, but one of the most glaring mistakes in it comes from the absence of necessary frames. When Cypher (played by Joe Pantoliano) betrays the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, he clearly does so alone. But within the world of the story, it is necessary for an Operator to jack people into the matrix. It couldn’t have been another crew member seeing as how the whole point of Cypher’s betrayal is that he did it on his own, and it couldn’t have been him because earlier in the movie he told Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) that he couldn’t perform the duties assigned to an Operator. So how did Cypher manage to get into the matrix? One could argue that he could’ve been lying to Neo and somehow found a way to hack into the matrix by himself, but all this confusion could’ve been remedied by simply showing the audience how Cypher got in.

Without the proper information, the audience is left wondering just how Cypher managed to sneak into the matrix to betray his crew.
Without the proper information, the audience is left wondering how Cypher managed to sneak into the matrix to betray his crew.

If No County for Old Men showed that less can indeed be more in terms of forwarding the story and eliciting emotion, Man of Steel and The Matrix prove that at times less is simply less; in the case of the former, the audience won’t know what to make of Superman, while in the case of the latter, the audience is left without key knowledge that is necessary to understand one of the film’s most critical moments.

The Frame as a Cinematic Tool

The previous section was meant to show film from a distant perspective and how the frame can directly affect the story being told. From a close perspective, however, we see that the frame is just as vital to the overall quality of the film. Much like literature, there is a grammar to film that is presented through its composition. Editing, lighting, and set design can all be found in a single frame’s composition. If a shots’ temperature is blue, that can elicit a sad or melancholic response. If we see a camera panning, we get the sense that we are directly observing something from the point of view of one of the characters. If lighting is coming from below a character they look sinister, if it’s coming from above they look divine. In essence, while there are many cinematic elements at play in any given moment, the frame acts as a still shot of all those elements working in tandem.

Scorsese is fond of using classic (some may even say outdated) editing techniques that serve to provide us with information pertaining to how the character is seeing their world. Take the pinhole-zoom for example; most are acquainted with this shot through classic cartoons that would begin with the pinhole zooming out and end with the pinhole zooming in. But Scorsese employs this technique not to show the beginning and end of his story, but rather to allow us to see the story from the perspective of the characters in it.

In The Departed, Scorsese employs a classic editing technique to give us the feeling that the world is welcoming us, as it welcomes Colin.
In The Departed, Scorsese employs a classic editing technique (the pinhole zoom-out) to give us the feeling that the world is welcoming us, as it welcomes Colin.

There is a moment in The Departed when Colin Sullivan (played by Matt Damon) begins his first day at the Boston Police Department. While it would’ve been easy to just show Colin drive into the parking lot and enter the building, Scorsese offers us a chance to really feel what Colin feels. To that end, he employs a pinhole zoom-out, which is meant to show us that Colin’s world is becoming bigger and is teeming with possibilities. Later in the film, there is a moment when we see Colin alone in his office, and Scorsese uses a pinhole zoom-in to make us feel the claustrophobic paranoia that Colin is feeling. In the latter scene’s case, the world of the film is literally closing in around him.

On the other end of the genre-spectrum, comedies often benefit heavily from having a director with a strong compositional acumen. As Tony Zhou describes in his excellent video essay, modern comedies all too often rely on a static camera showing us the characters doing or saying funny things instead of having the frame itself do something funny. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (the Marx Brothers often performed in front of a static camera), but it does limit the comedic potential in film. Zhou talks about Edgar Wright, a master of cinematic comedy, and how he uses the composition to his advantage. Every shot and angle works in concert with the actor’s movements and staging thus creating a pure-comedy, which is to say a comedy that works both through the story it tells and the way it’s crafted.

An excellent example of meta-comedy can be found in Buster Keaton's One Week, where he purposefully blocks the camera in order to get a laugh.
An excellent example of meta-comedy can be found in Buster Keaton’s One Week, where he purposefully blocks the camera in order to get a laugh.

Another comedic director who would often do the same thing was Buster Keaton. Unlike his contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, Keaton would often directly mess with the composition of his film in order to elicit a laugh. As Roger Ebert once put it, what made Keaton so great wasn’t just, “what he did, but how he did it” (my italics). Take Keaton’s short film One Week; there is a moment when Keaton’s bride (played by Sybil Seely) is washing in the tub. She accidentally drops her bar of soap off the tub’s edge, and as she reaches to grab it, a hand (presumably Keaton’s) blocks the audiences’ view of Seely as she picks it up. This is a very funny example of meta-comedy, and from a historical perspective it was pretty unique for its day. But the most important thing about it is that it shows just how easy a laugh can be had when one messes with the composition of a frame.

There are many unwritten rules that are applied to filmmaking and storytelling in general (e.g. Hitchcock’s Rule or Chekhov’s Gun), but it is vital that filmmakers and audiences alike remember the most important one, which is that movies function primarily on their ability to show what is happening. At its most basic, the frame hold all the grammar necessary to understand how a film is put together. On a grander scale, the frame hold the themes and plot points necessary to understand what a film is trying to say, and depending on what we do or do not see, our discussions about films may be based on distortions that we accidentally made because we didn’t get the whole picture.

It can be annoying when someone says they dislike a picture because they, “don’t get it,” but this is not a complaint that is completely without merit. In reality, it is a criticism that can, and should be, directed towards filmmakers who think that they can get away with boring camerawork or lazy compositions. The meaning of a film resides in what we see and hear, and when we only get half of that we walk away with only half a meaning, or worse, no meaning at all.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Jemarc Axinto

    Excellent article, August. Framing is so important, especially in documentaries because the directors have to make their choices about what is seen by the audience.

    • Thanks Jemarc. While I didn’t talk about them, documentaries also benefit a whole lot from having a decent sense of framing. If they’re trying to tell a story, usually a true one, they have to make sure to get both sides and present them as honestly as possible. I appreciate the comment.

  2. When I watch a movie, I know where the shots originate from but never thought of the storytelling elements it can be used for.

    • They were only my interpretations, but (at the risk of sounding grandiose) I hope that I’ve given people some motivation to see a deeper meaning in the way certain shots are composed and how they can add emotion to the story. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Enjoyable read!

  4. Lens choices and basic camera framingis essential for anyone pursuing to become a filmmaker.

    • A lot of it does have to do with lenses. I didn’t go into that all that much, but you’re right when you imply that the amount of the shot we can see at any given time can certainly help add tension or wonder to a scene. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Always a pleasure reading articles on The Artifice.

  6. Liz Kellam

    I know sometimes with older films, the frame is cut down dramatically when you view it home, probably because they were intended to only be viewed at a theater. With widescreen format on television now, many television stations have brought back the full viewing, such as TCM.

    • That’s wonderful to hear. I remember Martin Scorsese once talking on TCM and how fullscreen formats really hurt some classic movies that were meant to be panoramic. Lawrence of Arabia, for example, is horribly disfigured because the grand scale of the desert landscape seems smaller because it occupies the whole screen (a bit ironic when you think about it). Anyway, I’m grateful for the comment and I’m also happy to hear that TV stations are starting to show movies in widescreen format.

  7. Jamie Tracy

    Great job August.
    I use film stills in my classes all the time to reference composition. I use shots from Raging Bull, Goodfella’s, Rear Window, 3:10 to Yumah and True Grit.

    • Those are great examples Jamie. I’ve often heard of shot by shot analysis of movies that take place at film festivals, but I’ve never gone to one. Though it’d probably test my endurance, it’d still be fun. Thanks for the comment.

  8. Erica Beimesche

    This is great! I’ve become more and more interested in film (directing, screenwriting, sound design, etc.), and this puts a lot into perspective.

  9. I wish more cinematographers were open on their approach on storytelling and framing.

    • I’m with you. It seems like upcoming filmmakers could benefit from learning about how certain cinematographers set up their shots the same way a writing teacher would show students different styles to see if they gravitate towards one. Still, a lot of directors today (like P.T. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino) grew up watching tons of movies and that’s how they developed their style. Thanks for the comment Amparo.

  10. Martin’s movies are cinematography at its best!

  11. roberto

    A great film to watch from John Ford is The Quiet Man starring John Wayne. Lots of great cinematography and epic looking wide shots too.

    • I’ll be sure to see it someday. I’ve only seen The Searchers and The Grapes of Wrath and they were certainly beautiful movies. Needless to say though, I’ve got a lot more Ford to watch. Thanks for the comment roberto.

  12. The actual filming part of filmmaking is probably is the most important and is something anyone can learn. Filming does not require you to have any special equipment and it is the first thing you want to learn the basics of. You can have a film shot with the best technology and have the most special effects but if the shots weren’t shot well then it doesn’t matter what you put into it.

    • I agree. At the beginning of his book, The Filmmaker’s Eye, Gustavo Mercado talks about how he attended a Q&A at a film festival and the director of the film they saw was really lax in explaining why certain shots were composed the way they were. Most of his answers amounted to, “I just thought it looked cool.” The whole audience was dumbfounded because they didn’t understand how a director could pay so little attention to the details in their movies. Now honestly I think some of their remarks were a bit nitpicky in nature, but at the same time I tend to wonder why certain things are shot the way they are and I often find that parts of the film’s meaning can reside in it’s compositions. Thanks for the comment Keefe.

  13. very insightful.

  14. Greenwalledtower

    Great analysis. When filmmakers and writers really understand the power of framing, it’s a very effective tool. Although, as you pointed out with The Matrix, it can be used to gloss over plot holes or points that might have an explanation but would be lengthy to explain. Another effective use of framing is to show important plot elements disguised as innocuous background action. This is one benefit that film has over text, since all text is seen as important to the plot, where in a film, background action could be significant or it could only be scenery.

    • That’s true. In Inglorious Basterds, there is a moment when Hans Landa talks with Hitler in order to tell him that he’s captured Aldo. Later on, we see the scene with an added shot of him placing a bomb under Hitler’s chair. This is necessary because otherwise we’d consider the scene too convenient. But because Tarantino showed Landa in two different scenes with a little bit of info in the second, we got a coherent part of the narrative; in other words, an example of not glossing over important plot points. Thanks for the comment Greenwalledtower.

  15. Excellent points made here. I am a film student, and I am constantly learning about the vitality of giving the audience the correct information at the correct time. I like the idea of frame formatting as “grammar” for cinematic art, because that is precisely accurate; it is necessary to convey a message.

  16. Christin Sage

    Gotta love those wide-angle-sweeping-compositions that demand the viewers attention.

    • Indeed you do. Lawrence of Arabia and even more modern pictures like The Lord of the Rings trilogy and, from what I’ve heard, Interstellar all have a magnificent sense of grandeur from the simplest of compositions. Thanks for the comment Christin.

  17. im am still an amateur in the world of filming so keep on sharing with me your wisdoms.

  18. Wynell Mccarty

    Wow, there’s a lot more technique that goes into filming a scene than I thought! I always wondered how top shot Hollywood movies get that “professional-cinematic” look instead of it looking like a student made film.

    • A lot of it can certainly be chalked up to having better equipment, but perhaps it could also be that older filmmakers have developed a keen eye for what works and what doesn’t in terms of cinematic storytelling. Thanks for the comment Wynell.

  19. Great article. When people write about a director’s camera work, especially Martin Scorsese’s, they always seem to focus on the grander aspects like the big moves and tracking shots, and don’t pick up on how much work and thought are put into the seemingly simpler shots and the power they hold. I’m glad to see someone write about framing and composition, and the importance of what’s shown and what’s chosen not to be shown.

    • I appreciate the kind words. With a director like Scorsese, it is easily tempted to say that his flair is purely for fun but it’s important to know that he and any director who cares about what they show and how they show it uses such techniques for a reason and not to stand out. Thanks for the comment bskelton.

  20. All the good frames correspond to the golden ratio rules 😉 Same as in photography, same as in everything.

  21. I think that film is often looked at in terms of the “big picture,” but looking at individual films shows how much thought goes into the minute details. This article made me think about how it’s not just about plot or performance, but how each shot is composed. Very interesting!

    • Thanks Krugeri. Though I tend to care more about how a film makes me feel and how it’s characters act, there is no doubt that the technical aspects of the film should not be completely disregarded.

  22. Your analysis of the Superman framing issue is spot-on, to a point. However, I appreciate the ambiguity it invites – while we absolutely know that Zod is a villain, what of the havoc that Superman himself wreaks on his environment? What of the collateral damage of “day-saving” that is so often elided in the superhero “meta-myth”?

    • That’s true, and in that sense I wonder if the filmmakers didn’t decide to make Superman careless so that he’d learn to become more thoughtful of his environment and the people around him. In that sense, the movie is a lot darker than people make it out to be and should be appreciated for it. I still think it was lazily shot but the implications there are worth noting. Thanks for the comment Scott.

  23. I’ve never quite paid direct attention to framing. I noticed it on some level but did not quite understand why a scene was weak. This piece has elucidated the issue and I now understand just a little more about this art form.
    Thank you.

  24. I really liked your article! Glad you referenced Buster Keaton.

  25. Great stuff…cool article! Thanks for posting !

  26. Stanley Kubrick’s careful composition of each frame is unnerving in the Shining. Numerous shots reveal structural contradictions. Kubrick reveals the dimensions of the rooms of the hotel and provides enough reference points in order for us to sense, even just unconsciously, that something is very off. Without these reference points, it is harder for the viewer to reconstruct the scene. A long shot down a hallway, for example, sets us up to understand that the window in the next room provides an impossible view of the outside.

    • That’s really interesting. I remember having a similar feeling while watching Shutter Island, but in that film the unnnerving sensations came from the editing. I’ll have to pay attention the next time I watch The Shining to see the paradoxical architecture. Thanks for the comment.

  27. I so appreciate absolutely everything about your article! I also so appreciate that you care enough that you respond to so many of the people that have commented. It’s such a demonstration of your passion of this kind of work. Right now I’m doing a lot of exploration and research with dance and the camera and your insight about framing is so connected to a view of what can make for “quality choreography” and what can be looked at as amateur both on stage and through camera. I’m excited to take your observations and analysis into consideration in more of my findings.

  28. rileyzipper

    Great piece. One of my favorite framing techniques is ironic framing. Arranging objects in a frame in a way that just don’t “make sense.” Wes Anderson is a good contemporary exemplar of this.

    • That’s true, especially since most of his compositions seem to have a storybook-ish quality to them, as well as odd character placement/movement. I suppose it’s just another element of his idiosyncratic method of filmmaking. Thanks for the comment.

  29. somu

    Wonderful! Framing is something that everyone should pay attention to. As a photographer, framing is extremely important and every object within the frame should be considered. I hope that people will consider framing the next time they write a movie review, artistry is something that should not be overlooked.

  30. Matthew Sims

    I think that framing has become less and less of a concern for many film-makers these days and that is a shame, because it is one of the main concepts which makes film what it is. Great article once again, August.

  31. What I would say about framing is that good framing does not necessarily make a good movie. Bad framing can easily make a bad movie for that reason alone. It’s not everything but it’s not nothing.

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