Sunday, September 11, 2011

"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.


Daniel said...

Time for another viewing of Kagemusha!

Anonymous said...

You did a very fine analysis of Kurosawa's framing techniques. Kurosawa's camera work is also worth the analysis (his camera work on Rashomon puts any TV series to shame).

Unfortunately his movies really need to be appreciated on a silver screen. I have seen Kagemusha and Rashomon twice, once on TV screen and a second time in theater, and the second experience felt like watching completely different movies, and the opening sequence of Throne of Blood only works in theater.

Kurosawa's actor direction is also very interesting, especially in his costume drama, where he uses lots of techniques from No theater (pay close attention how extras react to events, how eyes are pointing in a direction before an actor actually does move in that particular direction, how body language is used to direct the flow of discourse).

SStefania said...

Looks like I should watch more Kurosawa. Even without any analysis, his films are stunningly beautiful.

Salmon Leap said...

So glad you're talking about Kurosawa, he is probably one of the single greatest inspirations for anyone aspiring to work in motion pictures.

Throne of Blood is my personal favorite, and also a great study on how restricting yourself to a very formal discipline (he set out to make an extremely formal film, where a cut, a wipe, and a fade to black, all occur several times and each indicate a different but very specific passage of time in the story, also no point of view shots and only a couple of camera moves, the last point being very handy for composing hand drawn animation)

In terms of beautiful composition, High & Low is a masterclass. The first half of the film is entirely dedicated to loads of people talking in a single room, but he is always keeping it visually interesting and dynamic. When the film opens up you get some amazing techniques with the villain (lots of frame-within-a-frame like you were looking at, but sometimes done with his reflective sunglasses)

Sorry for the long post, I get very nerdy around Kurosawa... I have and treasure an exhibition book I picked up in Paris of his storyboards, he spent 10 years painting up watercolor storyboards for Ran. An amazingly dedicated worker...

pbcbstudios said...


It's said that Kurosawa's family is descended from a line of actual samurai.

Akira placed the cameras quite far away from the actors to coax better performances out of them, as they wouldn't be so conscious of being filmed.

Akira's dictatorial directing style earned him the nickname Tenno, meaning Emperor.

Akira loved dramatic weather effects in his films and for Rashomon, he even dyed water black with calligraphy ink to produce intense heavy rain.

In Ran, an entire castle set was built on the slopes of Mt Fuji - then it was burnt to a crisp in a final scene.

Akira liked a costume to look worn-in – and even asked actors to wear their clothing on a daily basis so that it looked authentic when filming started.

Steven Spielberg called him the 'pictorial Shakespeare of our time'.

After a barren period, Akira tried to commit suicide in December 1971. He slashed his wrists 30 times with a razor, but fortunately the wounds didn't prove fatal.

Akira stood at over 6ft tall.

Jeff C said...

Anyone interested in Kurosawa should also watch Yojimbo. One of my favorites. Great analysis in this post.

Salmon Leap said...

Not to be too fussy about things, but I think the reason Kurosawa's cameras were far away from the actors is because after his early films, he really favored using telephoto lenses. His telephoto compositions, full of characters stacked in layers, are often quite amazing, and would have probably looked odd when blocking out the actors' movements.

I only mention this because, in a post about Kurosawa's composition technique, the lenses he uses are quite an important element of that technique...

Sarge said...

It should be no surprise, but Kurosawa was a painter in his early days - something he never gave up (they released a book of his production sketches/paintings from "Ran"). So his relationship with composition predates his film career.

2 compositional memories of Kurosawa:

1) In Ran, there's a high angle long shot of a mass of soldiers on one side of the screen, and I don't know if he planned it, or it was an amazing coincidence, but the shadows of the clouds seem to move WITH the action on the field.


2) I got a tv format tape of Yojimbo back in the 80's, and there's a scene where the two gangs are facing off at either side of the frame, with Mifune perching on a tower in the middle, watching. Both sides make threatening moves, but neither is willing to commit, so they never really move from their respective sides of the frame. In the tv framing, all you see is their sword tips waggling from offscreen - because they didn't letterbox, or pan and scan - they just cropped the center of the frame. It'd be hilarious if it hadn't been so frustrating. So if you get a chance to see any Kurosawa on a big screen - do it! the 3+ hrs of Seven Samurai pass much faster than plenty of 90 minute features you'll see. Consider it a gift to your eyes.