Narrative paintings

David Bordwell wrote a brilliant article where he discusses narrative paintings of the late nineteenth century and their influence on early filmmakers. Here is one example from his article:

Two prosperous young women are sitting in a garden. One is reading from a sheet of paper. What’s going on?

Marcus Stone: Her First Love Letter
Marcus Stone: Her First Love Letter

The title, Her First Love Letter, helps us zero in on specific aspects of the action and fill in the situation. The girl on the left, bathed in light, leaning forward eagerly and wearing the pale frilly dress, can be seen as the more inexperienced of the pair, caught up in the anticipation of the young man’s ardor. The more worldly woman sits relaxed, perhaps a little skeptical but also tolerant of the ways of young love.


Narrative paintings like this were evidently one source of early cinema’s approach to staging and composition (among many other things, like acting or lighting).


I’m not arguing that these particular paintings influenced filmmakers, only that the principles that the painters employed were picked up by directors. The more general point is that in understanding film aesthetics, we can usefully compare movies to other movies, and movies to other arts. By doing this, we sharpen our sense of what various media can do. (1)

The painting above is by Marcus Stone and dates from 1889, I love it so much! I did a quick google image search and found another image by Marcus Stone, this one is called “In Love”:

Marcus Stone: In Love
Marcus Stone: In Love

And this one comes from the short Division of Gravity:

Division of Gravity (2012)
Division of Gravity (2012)

Again, as David Bordwell wrote already, I’m not arguing that this particular painting influenced the filmmakers, but the principle is there.




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Cinematic composition in Citizen Kane

It is almost impossible to write something new about Citizen Kane, because there were at least quadrillion pages written about this movie already.

One of the recent articles (written by Tim Wilson) deals with extreme depth of field used throughout the movie. I read it just few days ago and thought it would be a great example of cinematic storytelling. What really caught my attention were these words:

Okay, so what’s that mean about cinematic values? For me, it means “composition.” Everything in its place. Maybe the one and only reason that the chair is there is to provide one more layer — but you can tell it’s not there by accident. The shot is COMPOSED. Everything is there by INTENT. Intent and composition are merged, and set at the service of larger storytelling priorities.

So let’s take a look at the cinematic composition described above:

Citizen Kane (1941)
Citizen Kane (1941)

Each character or item creates a layer in the picture. Going from the foreground to the background, we have (for example) these layers:

  • sheet of paper
  • Mrs. Kane
  • Mr. Thatcher
  • Mr. Kane
  • chair
  • window
  • little Kane

This creates cinematic composition. I already tried to define what does the word cinematic mean, so just briefly, cinematic shot/composition is achieved by – literally – adding layers.

From the cinematography point of view, the layers are achieved through careful blocking (staging) of actors and props (chair) and by using large depth of field (=small aperture).

But also from the storytelling perspective, there are layers. While the parents are making decision about little Kane’s future, we can see him as a kid playing cheerfully outside in the snow.

That’s why this shot is very cinematic, it’s literally full of layers.


Depth of Field: Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane and Beyond
A Viewer’s Companion to ‘Citizen Kane’
The Motion Picture Cameraman
Framing and composition in short The Division Of Gravity

Other Examples:

Charlie's Family Restaurant by Andrew Mohrer
Charlie’s Family Restaurant by Andrew Mohrer

Look at the photo by DJ Poe. It’s amazing how many layers there are in the shot. Very cinematic composition!

How do you define the word cinematic?

“The truth is the best stuff evolves when I don’t really think about it. The good ones just come naturally…” [Andrew Mohrer]

Downpour by Andrew Mohrer
Downpour by Andrew Mohrer

Few weeks ago I received through email inspiration several photos by Dj Poe (Andrew Mohrer, New York based photographer). And I was absolutely amazed. Usually, I move the emails right away to my email inspiration folder, but not this one. I couldn’t stop looking at the pictures. They were absolutely stunning, they looked like they were taken from a movie! In other words, they felt really cinematic.

Recently I was wondering, how would you actually define the word cinematic? (I guess I should know, since I’m writing a blog about cinematic storytelling.) So I decided to go back to that email and tried to answer, what does the word cinematic really mean to me.

Vanessa by Andrew Mohrer
Vanessa by Andrew Mohrer

Looking at the picture above, we can see that there is a shallow depth of field, the image has widescreen aspect ratio (plus the black bars at the top and bottom), the colors are desaturated, the lighting is great and the composition is perfect as well.

The problem is that you can find thousands of pictures  like this on the internet, books or magazines with shallow depth of filed, desaturated colors etc. And yet, most of them won’t feel cinematic at all.

So what I think makes the photos by Dj Poe really cinematic is their ability to make you ask questions. The most obvious question in this case would be:  Where is she looking at and why? You can come up certainly with many other more or less relevant questions like:

  • What car is she driving?
  • Is it her car? Is she a driver by occupation?
  • Is she waiting at a crossroad for a green light?
  • Is she waiting for someone?
  • What is going to happen next etc.?

But the point here is not what kind of questions makes the image ask you, but the fact itself, that it DOES make you ask those questions.

Making the viewer ask questions is a very powerful cinematic technique, because it makes the viewer involved, and that happens when there is a certain kind of mystery, a space for your (viewer) interpretation.

That’s the difference between evening news (basically random shots, no need for interpretation) and movies by Stanley Kubrick (every shot is a very well composed shot with layers of meaning).

What I think is great about this definition of the word cinematic, that is

  • adding additional layers of meaning
  • making viewer involved by asking questions
  • ability to create a story in viewer’s mind

is that it’s applicable not only to photos, but to music, visual effects, sound design, you name it. The point is: Great art poses questions. So leave a space for an interpretation of your work, would you? 🙂

Jun 11, 2012

Andrew actually read this article, look what he wrote under one of his photos Caught The Eye.

Jun 17, 2012

Stu Maschwitz mentioned today in his tweet link to his article that he wrote back in 2009: Fact, Moment, Light. I read it today and it’s brilliant!

The fact, moment and light are 3 zones he thinks about when taking a photo. He firstly describes each zone individually and then concludes, that best photos occupy the intersection of all three zones. At the end, he shows an example of such photo (FML shot).

FML shot by Stu Maschwitz
FML shot by Stu Maschwitz

But here comes the best part! Not only it is a FML shot, but it made Stu ask questions!

  • Is that a joint in his hand?
  • Is it so important that he keep it lit that he’s tied a lighter to his wrist?
  • What do those tattoos say? Caution tape?

Read the whole article by Stu by clicking here.