"Kagemusha" and some Composition thoughts

I was streaming the movie "Kagemusha" on Netflix and, like all Kurosawa films, it had great compositions. So I screengrabbed a few to share and talk about.

If you've never seen a Kurosawa movie, check out "The Hidden Fortress" and "Seven Samurai". They're subtitled, and both are made in black and white, which I know is kind of a turnoff for some people. But that's a shame, because these are both amazing films, and not in the typical film school "this is a boring movie that you have to sit through because it's become a classic" way...they are really great, entertaining and amazingly well-made movies. I have watched both of them multiple times and they are truly great. And a delight to watch.

Anyway, back to "Kagemusha". I've talked before about creating a "frame within a frame". It's a handy compositional tool, useful for getting the eye of the viewer going where you want it to go. You just create a frame within your composition to frame your subject. Some good examples from "Kagemusha":

 In this one, Kurosawa uses frame-within-a-frame to separate the people on the left from the person on the right, to sell the idea that the people on the left are unaware of the person on the right and do not realize that they are being overheard.

You can see how it's a useful tool for creating depth and interesting compositions, as well as for directing the viewer's eye, and can be used in an infinite variety of ways.

In this one, the land and the ocean create useful frames for separating the two groups and emphasize the differences between them (which you can get a good idea of, just from the differences in their costumes). I like the way the shoreline leads right to the face of the figure in the foreground to make you focus on him and his expressions.

In this example, Kurosawa creates two frames to show the two groups spying through the holes of a collapsed house. It's a great choice of location because the walls of the house make an interesting texture that fills up the frame.

Same thing here - he creates an interesting composition by placing the two people at the right and left edge of the frame, which is an unusual choice that creates an interesting composition. Then he places a rock between them that creates an interesting shape and is full of texture that looks great onscreen.

Here's another good example. An interesting composition is created by putting the watching figures higher than you might expect and widening out the shot to create an interesting texture with the rocky hillside. They're spying on an army, so the choice of putting them so high and making them so small really sells that idea that they're hiding and peeking down from their secret perch.

In fact, this reminded me of a layout concept that Dan Hansen (former layout teacher, and now the head of the Character Animation program at CalArts) used to say. He said that when a character is at a location that's down low, place them low in your composition. And when a character is up high, put them high within the composition.

Why does this matter? It helps because it reinforces visually what you're trying to say and helps keep the audience oriented as to where everyone is in relation to each other. Try it yourself - draw a storyboard where a character is down low, but put them high within your composition. Then draw a storyboard of a character that's in an up high place, but low within the composition. Look back and forth between them and see if it feels okay or seems awkward. It's definitely possible to pull this off, but I think you'll see if you try it that it can seem confusing, and the other way works better for simplicity and clarity.

Here's another great compositional technique that people don't use very often but that works well. You have one part of the frame (in this case, the background) lit all in warm colors...then another part of the frame (the foreground in this example) lit with cool colors. It separates the two areas and gives it depth while creating a nice contrast.

Anyway I hope you found these examples interesting as well and I hope that if you've never checked out a Kurosawa movie you'll try one and see what you think. Personally, I haven't seen them all myself although I'd like to, someday. I haven't finished "Kagemusha" either but if there's more good stuff to share I'll post it soon.