On the surface, I agree with Roger Ebert’s idea of a film’s composition. It is my sense that we as humans have a natural tendency for symmetry and balance. We may not notice when something “works” but we probably do when it doesn’t. It was difficult for me to think of this in the abstract so off to the internet I went and searched “famous movie stills”. This was one of the top hits:
Eeek! Let’s see how it matches up with what Ebert says:
|“…in general terms, in a two-shot, the person on the right will “seem” dominant over the person on the left”||If we count T-Rex as a person, I would say Ebert’s principle may not apply here. It all centers on what “dominant” means. Do we mean brute strength? In that case, clearly T-Rex wins. Do we mean dominates our attention, or with whom we most strongly identify? In that case, it would be (for me at least) the human.|
|“Right is more positive, left more negative”||Yup. Bad dinosaur on left, scared human on right.|
|“Top is dominant over bottom”||You could say that!|
|“Foreground stronger than background”||Depends on what you mean by stronger. Certainly the dinosaur is the “stronger” one but I as a viewer identify most with the human, so I feel more strongly drawn to the human in the shot and what he must be feeling.|
|“Brighter areas tend to be more dominant over darker areas, but far from always. Within the context, you can seek the “dominant contrast”, which is the area we are drawn toward. Sometimes it will be darker, further back, lower and so on.”||The dinosaur is certainly brighter in this shot and he dominates the frame. Yet I am drawn to the human so perhaps it is a matter of the contrast that makes me feel drawn to him.|
Verdict-in this one instance, Ebert’s principles loosely worked. It all hinges on what we decide “dominant” or “stronger” mean- visually, emotionally or some mashup of the two. Movies are intended to arouse emotion (at least I think good ones do)–to divorce the experience of WATCHING from the film itself doesn’t really work.
I watched the video “Hitchcock loves bikinis” for the filmmakers exposition on why cuts are so important in films- in this case, they either make the man in the film a nice guy or a lech. This to me was a little bit simplistic-after all, a person could start at a neutral state, see something, and have a reaction to it for an almost infinite number of situations. You don’t need film for that to happen. It’s not the cut that changes things (the pieces of bread in a sandwich), it’s what comes between (the “meat” as it were).
I also watched the video “Zooms” on the use of zoom-in and zoom-out in the Shining. [If you are ever near Estes Park, CO, head to the Stanley hotel, which inspired King’s story, btw.] God that movie is creepy. The examples of zoom techniques used and being able to see them in such short succession really emphasized how they provide a sense of tension in the story. If a zoom could talk it would say “AND THEN….get ready for this….” It’s almost a way of honing our focus on the shot- in the case of a zoom in, a magnifying glass, and in the case of a zoom out, a widening of our consciousness to include the larger world.