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Film stills and line of sight

November 9, 2011 10:00 am HKT Leave a comment Go to comments

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Do you go to the cinema often? If you do, do you look at the film stills before you decide which film to go to? Maybe you are just curious about who stars in the film, but that’s not my point, as you’ll see.

Positive expectations

Film stills, in fact, are not solely about film stars. More often they are about expectations. A film still works if it triggers positive expectations in you. Most often, it is taken using the line of sight of the protagonist to stir up your imagination. And that “line” is mostly, if not 100 percent, directed to something off-frame. That “something” may be a horrible scene, a hilarious incident, a gorgeous lady— you name it. It depends on the look on the protagonist’s face. The look works best if it’s mysterious, puzzled, confused, stunned, and so on. That leads you to think the unthinkable, incredible, and unimaginable, etc.

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Off-frame mystery

A film still comes out most often in landscape orientation, as that represents the way you would watch a movie. Try looking at Photo 1 or 2, and compare them to the reference photos presented in portrait orientation (Photos 6 and 7). A landscape photo resembles a screen and the way we see the world (through TV/movie media), while a portrait photo does not. Here, Photo 1 looks like one of those film stills where three protagonists saw something intriguing during their train ride. That “thing” is off-frame obviously. Compared to Photo 2, Photo 1 is more interesting. First, we have foreground and background here. Second, we are closer to the protagonists in our imagination. You see, when we watch a movie, it’s as if we are peeping into someone’s life. Watching these three people chatting in a train (even in a film still) is like you’re overhearing them side by side, unnoticed. That’s why looking at Photo 1 makes you feel more like an insider than when you look at Photo 2.

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Then when you look at Photos 3, 4, and 5, you might find them a lot like the insert shots/intercuts in a movie, where the different reactions of the protagonists are presented. After all, in all these shots, the protagonist is looking off-frame, which seems natural as he is supposed to be talking to someone “off camera.” Yet the trick lies here. You never know what or who is out there, and this mystery works in its unique way to draw your attention.

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Equipment Setup

Photo 1 Photo 2 Photo 3 Photo 4 Photo 5 Photo 6 Photo 7
Camera Canon EOS 5D 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Lens EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
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