Geeking on the center of the frame

Like my colleague Lisa, who wrote recently on this subject, I too saw Jane Campion’s BRIGHT STAR. What innovation … Campion truly takes luscious to a new level. One element far more subtle than butterflies and tree tops, though, that I noticed right away and has been on my mind since, is how Campion twists traditional portraiture and cinematography composition by using the center of the frame. The center of the frame? Who cares! Well, to some geeks out there, including me, it’s absolutely notable.

I’m not, in this case, talking about the beautifully centered image above. I’m really thinking more about the traditional single (or shot of one person) in close up or medium. In most film frames, a subject in close up is positioned (by director; by director of photography) to the left or the right of the frame, leaving “space” on the other side for the subject’s gaze, floating over air to the object of his or her look, presumably just beyond the cut. It’s classic. Protagonist, for example, on the right, looks leftward, and thus the empty space ensues.

Campion does something else: over and over again, she puts the subject in the center, or even inches her toward “the wrong side of the frame,” thus shortening the distance between her nose and the edge, opening up the space behind her, not in front. It’s fascinating! In BRIGHT STAR, often floating behind her, and by ‘her’ of course now I mean Abbie Cornish as Fannie Brawne, is a sea of soft fabrics, color and light … delightful.

The effect simply refreshes one’s eye toward aesthetics: once a rule is broken, it’s possible to look in a new way. This subtle, consistent technique begins to impress over time, and in conjunction with elements more, well, elementary (butterflies and tree tops), makes for an absolutely unique experience in the cinema.

Of course the official images I could find do not feature a solo character in close or medium on the “wrong side.” But even here, in two stills, one can see how the eye is directed behind the subject, toward something formerly known as dead space. Here, it’s absolutely alive, and a genius part of Campion’s tool set. It’s worth seeing the film to investigate this very sort of innovation, not to mention indulging in all of the butterflies and tree tops.