Left or Right? Why a Character's Lateral Movement On-Screen Matters in Film
If there's only one tenet of filmmaking you learn today, let it be that everything, everything in your film matters -- including the direction your characters are moving on-screen.
That's right. It matters whether your actors are moving right or left across the screen. Or whether your character appears on the right or left side of the screen. Or whether they are right-handed or left-handed. Why? Because -- science -- and psychology.
In the very educational video below, you'll get to learn about how different directions of character movements affect audiences the way they do, as well as why it happens.
I love this video because it touches on some very important concepts in aesthetics (basically the dictionary of mise en scène), namely spacial properties of objects, size, and movement. How does the size, movement, and placement of an object communicate to a viewer? What do they communicate?
These aesthetic theories are explored (finally, a film theory actually put through an official test) in a study conducted at Cleveland State University, in which participants were asked to, first, watch a scene where the characters' movements went from left to right, as well as from right to left, and then share how each video made them feel.
Their findings? The footage that showed right to left lateral movement made the participants feel -- bad. They responded that watching the footage made them have more negative feelings than the footage in which the lateral movement went from left to right. Why? It's not entirely or definitively clear, but if you think about it, our culture has trained our brains to view left to right movement as an indicator or progress -- of success.
Other factors play a role in how we interpret a subject's movement within a frame. For instance, there's a concept in aesthetics that defines the actual angles of lateral movement -- the lateral (L-R/R-L) movements that are either angled up toward the top of screen or down toward the bottom of the screen. These are defined as easy/hard ups/downs. They're broken down as such:
- Left to right from top to bottom: easy down
- Left to right from bottom to top: easy up
- Right to left from top to bottom: hard down
- Right to left from bottom to top: hard up
All of these things have different indications. For instance, an easy up composition would be Rocky running up the stairs during his training montage. He's powerful. He's driven. He's a good guy. He's running toward success. He's going easy up!
Now look at this image from World War Z. What's the difference? The zombies are also powerful and driven, but they're bad guys running toward the destruction of the human race. They're going hard up!
Just take some moments to look at each image. The first one inspires thoughts of progress, hope, success -- even good, altruism, and heroism. The second one inspires thoughts of antagonism, regression, hopelessness, failure, and evil. Essentially, one is positive, and one is negative. Why? Because of the direction of the lateral movement. Both images are angled up, but the one that moves from left to right is the one we consider to be positive, while the other that moves from right to left is considered negative.
Again -- why that happens is still not officially determined, but the study from Cleveland State University, which I highly suggest you take a peek at, aims to figure it out scientifically. To learn more about the role character movement plays in aesthetics, as well as how those things communicate with your audience, you can check out the CSU study here.