November 11, 2014

Studying Composition #2

'Ida' (2013) by Pawel Pawlikowski is a beautiful, black & white film I watched recently. It is Poland's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Oscars. Shot in the 'Academy Aperture' of 4:3 Aspect Ratio, this film was a revelation for me with regard to framing. Hence this post.

The picture above is a classic Extreme Close-Up where the upper edge of the frame cuts the head and the lower edge cuts the chin. The Aspect Ratio here is 2.35:1 or Scope, and this is roughly, the ratio of the width and height of the projected image in our cinemas these days. However, the image above is cropped by me from the original image (look below), shot in 4:3 ratio. Note that the lower edge is still the same, but the upper edge is providing for an unconventionally large head-room.

This unconventional framing recurs in the film, giving us some daring, but surprisingly beautiful compositions. In fact, the very first frame (see below) of the movie sets-up this stylistic tone:

Before we move ahead, it's important to wonder why such an unconventional framing became an aesthetic choice for the director-cinematographer. The conventions of compostitions are based on the principle of finding ways to involve the audience effortlessly, by placing the 'Centre of Interest' in that part of the frame where the audience naturally focuses its attention while looking at the frame for the first time. Does this stylistic variation, then, is to invite the audience for a more active effort toward observing the 'Centre of Interest' and thus making it a more involved viewing experience in the contradictory way? Look at the frames below. What do you think?

It is important to note that such framing where the 'Centre of Interest' is to be 'found' with effort may not work when the edit is fast and shots do not stay for long. As is with all decisions of film-making, this decision with regard to composition has clearly been taken while keeping the edit in mind. There are times when this has been pushed to a maximum. And surprisingly, the aesthetic beauty of the frames is still not lost. In fact, these frames look fresh and extremely pleasing to the eyes. Look at the frames below:

And then there are certain compositions that not only play audaciously with the vertical negative space, but also the horizontal negative space, and still, surprisingly, look very appealing (look below). These composition-related decisions actually contribute to the 'voice' of the film, that is self-assured and unique. Without causing any hindrance to story-telling, the choices of cinematography of this film give it a visual texture that would be lost in otherwise generic or conventional aesthetics:

However, the biggest question to ask while studying the aesthetic choices made by the director is, in my opinion, do they serve the purpose of the storytelling? In this case, I think it does, and very strongly so. Not just the compositions add to the central conflict of the film which is very 'internal', by creating unconventional frames in B&W 4:3 ratio, the classical old-school template, it seems the filmmaker is conveying the premise of a certain struggle that the young nun is facing, challenging (or not) the traditional institution of Church and its faith. Is the enormous head-space, then, making room for 'someone' observing our diminutive characters from 'above' or, even better, being an omnipresent part of the story and an invisible 'Centre of Interest' for us to discover?