Composition in visual art is a subject that I’m endlessly interested in. As a painter who appreciates bold design, illustrators of the early to mid 20th century particularly appeal to me, but I’m very happy to take lessons from any visual artform. Paintings and photographs are obviously great sources of inspiration, but I also love looking at cinema. Along these lines, I recently watched the classic 1946 Great Expectations and I am completely in love with it’s visual style.
As photographed by Guy Green (who earned an Academy Award for the picture), the movie has a brilliant visual design from start to finish, creating dynamic and painterly compositions even in relatively mundane scenes. I was so taken with Green’s arrangements that I rewatched it a second time on mute, pulling screen shots to examine things more closely. Of course, as a film it is meant to be seen in motion, I highly recommend giving it a proper watching. Even just as a collection of still though, I think there is a wealth of inspiration and educational value and I wanted to share some of my favorites.
There are three major tools that Green is using particularly well: Lighting, Shape, and Overlap. I’d say for most scenes that stand out to me, he’s doing interesting things with all three. Doing this effectively in a still image is already hard enough, so it’s doubly impressive when you add movement and time as actors and the camera move about the shots.
The lighting is more stylistic than naturalistic, which is what one should expect for the era it was made. Generous use of rim light, quick falloff from light to shadow, and extremely well controlled contrast and value design are used throughout. Old Hollywood often has a stage-like or operatic look that reads well in black and white. But take particular note of how so many scenes can be reduced to simple dark, midtone, and light shapes, and some just two of the three. These tonal shapes always create a dominance hierarchy which, combined with the simplicity of them, practically underlines and circles the focal areas. Though the scenes are often very dense in detail, they are never confusing. In addition, the three tones are often arranged on different layers of depth. For example: a dark foreground, mid tone middle, and light background.
Classical theater lighting is not always the best solution for every visual problem, but it certainly is dramatic! When this film was shot, some 70+ years ago, film and optical technology would not allow photography of actual candle-lit rooms as it does today. And in this comparison you can see the difference in stylized vs naturalistic approaches to a very similar scene. Personally I love them both and would use either if it fit my needs.
The shapes that are created with tone are stunning. Some scenes play in simple silhouette, again with an operatic flare. I’m very much a fan of minimalism and the ability to convey emotion and story through actual silhouette is deceptively difficult. Beyond this though, the lighting shapes are so well designed they often create fantastic abstract compositions when reduced. In other words: thumbnails.
Additionally, leading lines and in-frame frames are plentiful and extremely effective. There are many complex environments shot in wide angles which, through very careful placement of the camera, actors, and set dressings, come across clear and bold. In other words: great shape design!
Perhaps the composition tool which grabbed my attention most as I watched was the constant use of interesting foreground shapes. Except in intimate moments, there is often the indication of objects, figures, or environment features between the viewer and the focal area. It not only gives depth to so many scenes, but also adds to the voyeuristic feeling of watching as though from a window or doorway. To use these foreground shapes successfully means, once again, very disciplined control of values and scale so that they are effective but do not distract or clutter the scene.
Do you have any favorite visual movies? Please share some scenes that inspire you in the comments!