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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.