Every shot in a movie communicates information the filmmakers want us to know.
They can communicate something directly or indirectly, but the best filmmakers are even able to communicate with us on a subconscious level. By learning the language of shot composition and framing, we can decode how filmmakers infuse symbolism into their imagery to give it deeper meaning.
In this post, we'll look at several major movies and how they use this language to tell a deeper story. Let's dive in!
Minari (2020), dir. Lee Isaac Chung
When two or more characters are in the same frame together, the way they are arranged communicates something about their relationship.
In this shot from Minari, Jacob and Monica (Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri) are looking in two different directions, affirming to the audience that they are in conflict. However, they are visually overlapping and carefully framed by a single object—a religious tapestry—communicating to us that they are still unified.
Also note the production designer or set decorator has placed a pair of figurines, a couple, reinforcing the state of their relationship from the point of view of our protagonist, their son David (played by Alan Kim, not pictured), who sees them as a united front, a matched set.
Director Lee Isaac Chung subconsciously calls our attention to the relational dynamics of the characters, even in a scene that addresses a different element of the plot.
Palm Springs (2020), dir. Max Barbakow
Sometimes, a simple change in the angle of a shot can call attention to the symbolism of its content.
At the start of Palm Springs, we find Nyles (Andy Samberg) floating alone in a pool on an inflatable pizza slice. We understand it's telling us that Nyles is aimless—literally floating through life.
Then Nyles meets Sarah (Cristin Milioti), and they find a sense of meaning in life together.
The movie ends with a recreation of the same shot, now with both characters floating on interconnected pizza slices. Using an overhead shot, director Max Barbakow calls special attention to this connection visually, creating a tone of harmony and unification. Max and Sarah are still floating, but they're floating together, subverting the initial symbolism of the lonely slice of pizza.
Promising Young Woman (2020), dir. Emerald Fennell
Often, the implicit messages can be built into a shot with small but precise details in the mise en scène.
In this shot from Promising Young Woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is positioned directly in front of a keystone headboard to give the illusion of her having angel wings, communicating to us that her vigilantism is the work of a guardian angel, not retaliation, catharsis or misanthropy.
Director Emerald Fennell also has Cassie framed very symmetrically—a visual indication of stability and order—to impart her organized, methodical approach to revenge.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), dir. Charlie Kaufman
Compositional choices can also bring you into a character's reality, and a shot with extra negative space above a character's head suggests the presence of thoughts or questions in their mind.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, like many of Charlie Kaufman’s films, plays with philosophical ideas, confusion, and existentialism.
At this moment, "Lucy" (Jessie Buckley) starts to note something unusual about her dinner with Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). As "Lucy" tries to understand if the impossibilities she is seeing are real or if she's imagining them, Kaufman frames her with an extreme amount of headroom, reflecting the nature of the intensely cerebral experience she—and the audience—are about to go through.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), dir. Shaka King
Pay attention to the words you use to describe a moment or character metaphorically, as they could be keys to your cinematographic choices.
In this case, director Shaka King frames Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a character who's hiding his true motives from the people around him, with compositions that obscure him from view. It visually communicates that the character is mysterious, dodgy, and possibly dangerous.
Words like mysterious, dodgy, unclear, unknowable, shady, shrouded, and distant might come to mind when describing O'Neal and are reinforced with the power of visual storytelling.
The Assistant (2020), dir. Kitty Green
Blocking and the visual distance between characters can tell an audience a lot about the relationship those characters have with each other.
Note in this image from The Assistant how there are several visual barriers between Jane (Julia Garner) and the young woman she suspects may be in danger (Kristine Froseth). Director Kitty Green makes it clear that though Jane does want to learn more about the new girl and her situation, unspoken rules of her workplace prevent her from engaging. This invisible tension is conveyed by the distance between the two characters, as well as the vertical lines that serve as visual barriers between them.
Additionally, check out how the production designer has chosen movie posters with an eerie implication of women who are on edge or fading away.
The Father (2020), dir. Florian Zeller
We tend to rely on the basic shot setup—wide, medium, medium, close-up, reverse close-up—but creative conceptualization of a shot can make your storytelling both deeper and more efficient.
This shot of an interaction with Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) and his new caretaker (Imogen Poots) includes Anthony's daughter, Anne (Olivia Colman), in the background. Director Florian Zeller uses this opportunity to create a frame that communicates several things to us in the same moment.
First, by framing Anne in the shot instead of leaving her out entirely, we can see clearly that Anthony is intentionally excluding her from the conversation. She's relegated to the background of the frame, further expressing Anthony's feelings about her. Positioning Anne carefully in the small gap between Anthony and his new confidant indicates how Anthony feels Anne is coming between them. And finally, because she's framed clearly behind them we get to see her drop her previous act of pleasantry and reveal her true feelings in a moment when the other characters can no longer see her.
Framing this moment in this way allows us to stay with Anthony through his experience without cutting back to Anne to communicate each one of these ideas, and maintain the integrity of the pacing.
Without sacrificing this impactful emotional information that might not be necessary to the plot adds layers to the audience's experience and understanding of the story.
Da 5 Bloods (2020), dir. Spike Lee
Putting two objects or characters in a shot together invites an audience to compare and contrast them, particularly two objects or characters that are visually reflective of each other.
In this image from Da 5 Bloods, director Spike Lee has mirrored the poses of Otis (Clarke Peters) and Desroche (Jean Reno) to draw specific attention to the similarities and differences between the two characters. The overhead shot presents a strong visual symmetry, encouraging the audience to compare for ourselves.
Their distance from the camera makes their faces begin to disappear, making them appear more as icons than characters, highlighting the symbolism of what they each stood for in their final stand-off.
The Invisible Man (2020), dir. Leigh Whannell
Horror movies often use the tool of excess negative space, because it's perfect for building tension and dread. Focusing on the negative space subconsciously alerts the audience, leading their brain to assume the presence of something they can't yet see… after all, why would the filmmakers choose to show us nothing?
In this frame, we see only a sliver of our protagonist Cee (Elizabeth Moss), and a hatch to the apparently empty hallway below. In fact, we almost don't even know what we're seeing, which is unsettling.
This frame creates a sense of anticipation by implying the presence of something or someone... like an invisible man, perhaps?
The Queen’s Gambit (2020), created by Scott Frank & Allan Scott, dir. Scott Frank
Where a filmmaker places their camera in relationship to their characters can tell us whether or not we are meant to see the scene objectively, or subjectively.
In The Queen's Gambit, director Scott Frank places the camera behind Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy), so the audience can view this scene through her eyes. Making use of one-point perspective, the shot stretches out like a road in front of her, showing us the journey she's about to undertake: a long line of world-class players, all her opponents, all of them men. One-point perspective is useful for showcasing length or volume, and here it calls our attention to the fact that there are many opponents (and many men watching in the audience).
Yes, we know The Queen's Gambit isn't a movie. But aren't you glad we included it?