When we think about storytelling in film, we tend to think of plot, dialogue, and characters. Even though none of that can exist without visuals, sometimes cinematography, and its fundamental building block, the shot, isn’t thought of as much as a form of storytelling. The fact is, a great director and cinematographer can work together to create shots with thoughtful composition and symbolism that tell a story as much as a spoken line or a plot twist. All you have to do is look closely, and secret stories start to reveal themselves — especially about characters.
We’ve rounded up shots from different movies that illustrate how effectively videographers and filmmakers can use shot composition to tell visual stories. (Some spoilers follow for the films surveyed.) Each of the shots featured serves as an example of something specific you can reveal through your composition.
Defining Who a Character Is
A shot can help character development as much as a single action or an extended conversation. How characters are shown to us visually can tell us a lot about who they are and how we’re supposed to see them.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is less interested in the actions of the infamous American outlaw, and more in his larger-than-life legend. We see some of that in the shot. Jesse James’ (Brad Pitt) position in the center of frame, where our eye immediately goes, conveys his importance. The halo of light and fog behind him turns his body into a silhouette, and creates an ethereal look that makes him seem like a mythical figure emerging from another world. It all conveys that — at this point in the movie, anyway — this is no ordinary man.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton’s dark fairy tale, is one of cinema’s greatest villains. He is, as fairy tales often require of their bad guys, the epitome of evil. We’re shown his malevolence in this shot, moments before he murders his wife, in the way the room is shrouded in darkness (neatly matching his wardrobe). But it’s also the shape of the shadows that tell us something about him: they seem to draw in toward him, as if he were a magnet towards which darkness is drawn. The result of that is the illusion that the shadows have reshaped the room to look like a corrupted church steeple — conveying both his twisted spirituality, and his almost supernatural powers of darkness.
Revealing the Relationship Between Characters
Where objects are positioned in a shot creates relationships between them. That’s especially true for characters. A little intent can create extra meaning and subtly tell the story of how characters feel about each other in ways that transcend dialogue.
In the Mood for Love (2001)
Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love is about the relationship between Chow (Tony Leung) and Su (Maggie Cheung). It’s specifically about a relationship that never goes beyond unconsummated longing and the societal restrictions of 1960s Hong Kong. They want to be together, but can’t be, and that conflict is revealed entirely in this shot. The couple may be sitting in the same room, but because of how Chow’s shown, as if he’s trapped inside the mirror, it highlights the physical and emotional separation between them. The reflection even makes it hard to determine where in the room he is in relation to her, turning his look of affection into a stolen, longing glance.
The Master (2012)
Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have a strange relationship in The Master. It’s contentious and symbiotic, combative and co-dependent, but, above all else, undeniable. We see all of this during this early encounter. On one hand, they’re apart in their placement, with Freddie in the foreground and Dodd in the background. On the other, their positioning makes it look like they’re facing each other. Even when they’re separated, they’re connected — right down to Freddie’s hand, which looks like it could be holding Dodd’s in the center of the shot.
As Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the murder of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) in the film noir Laura, he falls in love with the victim through a luminous painting of her. The complexity of a relationship with a dead woman is conveyed in this shot, where the painting’s higher position represents the way he’s elevated and idealized her. His relegation to the bottom right corner reflects the grounded reality of his messy emotional predicament (note the clutter around him versus the geometrical neatness around the painting).
Spotlighting a State of Mind
A shot isn’t just capable of the narratives happening before our eyes; it can also allow us to glimpse the emotional stories happening inside a character’s head.
High and Low (1963)
In Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, the son of industrialist Kingo Gondo (Toshirô Mifune) is kidnapped and detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) is on the case. In this moment, the shot is telling us a story about both men using nothing but the window frames that separate and surround them. Gondo’s placement in the background within the frame conveys his helplessness and panic in the face of his son’s abduction. Tokura’s position in the foreground conveys both his greater importance — as the one in charge — but also the claustrophobic sense of obligation and duty he feels toward the father.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Wes Anderson is known for his love of symmetry, which makes this shot from The Grand Budapest Hotel telling. The nudging of Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and Zero (Tony Revolori) off center and into the left side of the shot reveals how their world has shifted when a hotel employee walks in on them hiding a work of art. The lack of Anderson’s usual symmetry helps convey their sudden turn from normal, which adds to the performance and circumstances in the story.
Lost in Translation (2003)
A lot of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is about what it’s like to feel alone in a foreign city. That’s shown succinctly in this shot of Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) simply looking out the window. Her alienation is relayed by how far removed she appears from Tokyo in the background. Her sense of being overwhelmed is symbolized by the way the city (via the space it takes up in the shot) is smothering her into the dark corners of the frame. Dark corners, in turn, that can also represent her depression.
Establishing a Person’s Place in the World
Sometimes a shot can represent not just who a character is, what their relationship is with others, or their own mental states; it can also reveal their place in the world.
In the 1950s, where Todd Haynes’ Carol is set, members of the LGBT community were marginalized. They often found themselves hidden, or hiding, in the fringes of society. It’s that world where the romance between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) blooms and faces challenges. We see those challenges here not just in how Carol is squeezed into the margins of the shot, but also entrapped in a mirror (like Chow in In the Mood for Love). The mirror tells us something too. Movies often use them to convey a character juggling with multiple parts of his or her self. In this case, it’s the two versions Carol always has: the one she puts on to be accepted by society, and her real self. It’s no accident that we only see her mirror version here.
The characters in Coen Brothers movies can be victims caught up in forces — comedic or dramatic — that are bigger than them. Jerry in Fargo is one of those people. We see that in this overhead shot that’s not unlike a bird of prey tracking its victim below, waiting to strike. Jerry looks small and helpless, which is exactly what he is at this point in the film, as all his plans are going out of control. The shot tells us that, in the face of what’s now in motion, he is an insignificant speck.
Providing a Glimpse of Things to Come
Sometimes a shot can be used to not just tell a story at that given moment, but reveal some of the story to come with visual foreshadowing.
Much of the tragedy of Psycho‘s iconic shower scene is previewed before a knife-wielding Norman Bates ever pulls that curtain back. Alfred Hitchcock loved to let audiences know what his characters didn’t. He does that here by allowing a foreboding amount of empty space for the murderer to appear. But it also previews the coming helplessness and vulnerability by tucking Marion (Janet Leigh) into the corner until she’s diminished and almost snuffed out by space around her.
The expression “a storm is coming” is adopted visually here in Skyfall as James Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench) gaze towards a densely fogged distance that isn’t a storm coming for them, but one they’re walking into. Most importantly, it’s one they (and we) can’t foresee, but know won’t be good.
If a movie is a sentence, and shots are the letters they’re made up of, then a final shot can be a period that completes a story visually. Sometimes that’s a neat closure; sometimes it’s an allusion to what might come after.
The Immigrant (2013)
The final shot of The Immigrant is a tale of two fates: those of Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), two immigrants living (and struggling) in 1921 New York City. On the right, we have Bruno, who is about to confess to murder, represented by his walking toward darkness and the prison bar-like window frames foreshadowing his fate. On the left, is Ewa in a boat sailing toward the light of a new life that’s as open and free as Bruno’s is about to be constricted. It’s two endings in a single shot that tells us more than words.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The final shot of There Will Be Blood is off-putting. It’s not just the murdered body in the corner. It’s the violent disruption of an almost perfect symmetry in the room — the doors, the bowling alleys, and gutters — muddied by a chaotic mess of objects. It conveys not just a sullying of the natural order of the world, but Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) order specifically. Throughout There Will Be Blood, he has been a mostly restrained man, seeking to preserve the ordered world he’s created around him. Here, that world has been fatally brought to an end.
What other shots stand out to you as great moments of visual storytelling? Let us know in the comments!