Dissecting Directors: Kubrick
Kubrick was a one of the most meticulous and detail oriented directors to have ever lived. Before making a film he would research his subject thoroughly and plan the movie so completely. The details he would go through would extend themselves to all the aspects in film. He would search for everything, from the perfect hat his character would wear to the very street he would be standing on when wearing it. The planning of his films would take years: From two or three in the beginning to five, seven or more years later in life.
To analyze Kubrick, one must analyze the details. And the details manifest themselves in each frame of his movies, in his mise en scene.
Every frame in his movies is built to achieve his desired result on the audience whether it is fear, comedy, tension, mystery, love, revenge, loathing or any other subject. Using all the tools at his disposable, the chief ones being lighting, colour, costume, makeup, setting, background, actor blocking, Kubrick gave so much meaning to each frame and scene that there isn’t a single mediocre movie in his resume. That is a record not even the best of directors can easily claim.
In analyzing the mise en scene of the following three frames from different movies, let’s hope to gain a better knowledge of why Kubrick became who he did and also aid any film makers out there in there endeavors.
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In the frame in Dr. Strangelove you have three characters: the Russian ambassador, the American president and General Turgidson.
The positioning of these three characters: Russian ambassador to the left, the president to the right and Turgidson in the middle.
This is a moment where the president believes what the Russian ambassador is telling him but they are framed in terms of General Turgidson standing in the middle. Whether correct or incorrect he is the one who has the overwhelming opinion on the matters at hand in the frame. That is why his positioning is in the middle; he could have been placed to the left or right but on purpose is in the middle because his opinion and reactions are the one the audience is laughing at and at the same time concerned with how his opinion affects everyone in the war room and ultimately the dire consequences at hand. Though the characters of the ambassador and president may be acting more realistic and practical as to how they should deal with the problem, the theme of the movie is how the world’s circumstances are so ridiculous that they are told by the character in the middle and his absurd mentality of what is going on. That that is why we are seeing it through his actions and reactions as the scene takes place.
Do notice the lighting, the highlights and darkness levels on each character have their own meaning. Kubrick makes sure the lighting is diagetic; we know from where the light is coming in the scene. This keeps us ingrained into the dark war room even though the situation is absurd. Kubrick doesn’t distract us in any single way in which we would be aware of the filmmaking. We are not aware of any artificial light sources. At the same time it helps in giving the place a surreal feeling which goes neatly along with the absurdity of the situation. Absurdity, of course, being the goal and message of the movie.
The clothes our characters wear are not by accident. The practicality of the American president and ambassador can be signified in how their suits are well fitting and ties well knotted but the mind of the disturbed and prejudiced Turgidson character is characterized by his loose and disheveled suit and tie. He is struggling in his effort to convince the president of his mindset which he believes is the true one. The struggle and passionate intensity of his beliefs comes right threw in his struggling costume.
To separate the characters from the background and to give the scene added depth, the background is composed of two items. One: the light source mentioned earlier which is the supposed light source lighting our characters and two, the conference table which not only achieves its purpose of adding depth and separating the characters but is a reminder of the setting of the scene. It lets us remember that there is a larger picture to deal with and other people who will be affected by the disastrous outcome. It also lends an ear of intimacy to the scene between the three characters. It makes us view the scene in a prying manner which makes us pay closer attention to what is being said and give it more importance at the same time.
Paths of Glory
Watching the frame here we first have to look at the setting. Our hero, played by Kirk Douglas, is on the side of the men, who stand accused at a court martial ,which translates to us being on the side of the prisoners. Of them, Private Ferol is the one being questioned by the prosecutor.
Setting the scene, Kubrick keeps the judging committee blurred and out of focus. He could have shown the prisoner by himself on trial, telling his story, but he makes sure it is told in terms of who he is being judged by. He achieves this by mostly having one of the committee members in the foreground out of focus. It gives the scene a feel of foreboding or impending doom as we see the dark backs of the committee members’ heads watching our man.
Moving on to the lighting, since we sympathize and believe in the prisoners point of view, Private Ferol is held in light while the jury is in dark shades of grey and the prosecutor, who is right behind Ferol, is in shadow and darkness. Going in hand with the obvious symbolism between light and dark and good and evil here, the lighting gives the prisoner a feel of innocence and benevolence while dishing out a sinister and malevolent feeling to the prosecutor and committee.
Notice how our sympathetic character, who is standing in light, has his eyes turned downwards and his hands behind his back as he answers the prosecutors questions. While the prosecutor is shown right behind him in shadow with a knowing smile on his face implying a preconceived agenda.
The costumes here are not to be ignored. If you notice our main characters costume, it is plain, baggy and has no embellishments. It gives Ferol an air of humbleness and simplicity. A man who would not be prone to creating complicated lies but instead likely to tell the dumb truth. However the judging prosecutors costume has a tight form-fitting belt, numerous awards on his left chest which just happen to shine in the light not to mention a hat while our characters hair is modestly loose. All of this is by design to give us a better understanding of their characters and purposes without them having to speak a word.
2001: A Space Odyssey
This scene is a tense and complicated one in the movie. Our two characters our discussing HAL. They believe to be in a secure location where HAL cannot hear them. As they talk to each other, it is easy to notice that one of HAL’s “eyes” just happens to lie in the background beyond the window. Once again, the setting serves to remind us constantly of the gravity of the situation. HAL is right there. What could HAL’s reaction be?
The characters’ costumes are appropriate to their futuristic placement but it is the lighting, props and colours that are highly important in the frame. Notice how the shape of the light is circular and how it darkens around the edges forming a vignette that moves our eye toward the centre of the frame, to our characters and then further on to HAL who lies at almost the exact midpoint. The colours help this vignette along, though it may not be noticeable at first. Notice how the foreground objects are dark in colour. They could have been red, yellow, green or a number of other colours. But those would have been distracting and these offer three points. 1. They give depth to the scene. 2. They do not distract. 3. They actually aid in the vignette by being of a dark colour and lying at the edges of the frame.
As if this was not enough to draw our eyes to the centre of the screen and HAL, notice the computer lights inside the pod. The yellowish-orange ones are leading up in shape towards HAL. The blue ones are coming in from the sides, leading towards HAL. And HAL himself? The sudden change to a mostly white coloured environment around HAL, from the red and blue-grey one inside the pod, separates HAL , giving him/her/it a clear distinction even though it lies far in the background.
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In closing, the analysis is by no means exhaustive and I would encourage readers to comment below and provide us with even deeper insight into the frames above. However, it does show that so many aspects can go into making each frame and scene. If paid attention to, all those aspects can raise a movie to a higher level. It is what makes the difference between well respected, time tested movies and others where a background may be chosen only because it is pretty and not to serve and enhance the story.
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