Cinematic Discourse Notes 6:
Stasis in Motion: Understanding Cinematic Space

A) Performance & story spaces:

One distinction that we need to make in the study of cinematic space is the difference between performance and story spaces. They are related, but not identical. The performance space is the actual physical location where the actors perform, whereas the story space is implied by what can be seen in, or suggested by, the performance space. In cinematic terms, the latter is what Bordwell calls the scenographic space, or the space that we see or assume in the film's final product (Narration in the Fiction Film, 113: see the end of these notes for a brief discussion). 

The difference between performance and story spaces will become clearer when we consider theatrical spaces, and compare them to the spaces used in cinematic production. The performance space of a theatrical production is obviously closer and more immediate to the audience than that of cinema. The audience, even in a traditional theatrical production, may have an effect on what is being performed onstage. The role of the audience is in fact greater and even crucial in some experimental theatrical productions. This is of course, by the nature of the medium, not possible with film, unless of course, film is used in a theatrical production, in which case, the audience response is to the theatrical production as a whole, and not to the film or films by themselves.

Cinematic performance spaces

The performance space of a cinematic production can be either on location or in the studio. Theatrical productions are of course almost always staged, hence its similarity to studio sets. However, cinematic spaces are presented through the intervening medium of the camera, which is not transparent, and has an effect on how the spaces are seen by the audience. The use of lenses, the location of the camera, visual composition, and camera movement, as we will see, all have an effect on the presentation of cinematic space.

Studio sets are used in cinema partly because of lighting problems: the camera, lens or film used cannot shoot in on-location sets within a building, for example, because the brightness might be too low to allow filming, and the quality of the shots would not be acceptable for a film production. The lighting is also variable, with some parts of a room, for instance, not clearly seen or not seen at all in the shot after it is processed, although they were quite clearly observable to the naked eye during filming. Providing artificial lighting in the studio is usually cheaper and poses fewer problems than providing lighting for on-location sets. Historically, filming in available light was not always a viable option for the older cameras, their accessories, and the available film stock,which were not as versatile as cinematographic systems today. Hence the greater need for studio sets in the past. Miniature sets or other miniature effects are also easier and cheaper to construct and film in the studio.

Spaces created through editing?

Spaces in a film may be created or modified through the process of editing. For example, three rooms need not be contiguous for them to appear, after editing, as adjacent to each other, and located in the same building. Through the use of cheat cuts, the conception of space in cinema becomes more flexible, and is more in tune with the aesthetic or dramatic contexts of the cinematic narrative, than with what the physical space would actually allow. The location may be suggested through sound editing and sound mixing, where it could be suggested, for example, that a location in a studio is situated in a factory, or very close to an expressway.

The creation or modification of space through editing is enhanced with the use of computer software. Chroma keying, for example, can place characters in certain settings without the actors actually being there, and whole locations can in fact be created or re-created through the computer during post-production, after the actors have performed in the studio in front of a blue screen (or a single-coloured screen which does not match any of the colours on the actors or their clothing). In this way, whole locations can be created or re-created with the actors performing in a studio, without actually being at the location that we see in the finalised version of the film. Using this technique, entire movies, such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Sin City can be performed by some actors in a studio, with the locations (and some of the minor characters) re-created during the process of editing by a computer.

It needs to be noted however, that the idea behind chroma keying is not new, and neither is the computer necessary to create a similar effect in the past. A matte shot, for example, allows characters or objects to be superimposed on a different scene from the original background through the use of an optical printer. However, the optical printer has now been largely replaced by the computer, not only for the re-creation of cinematic space, but also for other procedures done by optical printers in the past, such as transition effects.

B) The camera's lenses in the depiction of space

The camera has an obvious part to play in the depiction of space in a film. However, it is not a transparent medium. What we see on the screen may be directly affected by the lenses or type of camera being used. This extended section will deal with the lenses used and the features or techniques of cinematography associated with them, and also, towards the end, with widescreen. For further possibilities in the use of the camera for the depiction of space and the creation of cinematic discourse, refer to the summary in Section 11.25 and the hyperlinks indicated, in the chapter on Cinematic Narratives in NT.

Wide-angle lens

The wide-angle lens has a greater angle of view, which means that it can include more of a scene than a lens with normal focal length. Its greater inclusiveness creates the effect of spaciousness. Another feature of the wide-angle lens is its greater depth of field which means that, everything else being equal, more objects and more of the scenery can appear in focus when compared to lenses of longer focal lengths. The wide-angle lens is thus ideal for achieving deep focus photography, which, as we saw in Notes 1, is prized by Bazin. Some of the features of the wide-angle lens were exploited with great artistry by Gregg Toland in his filming of Citizen Kane.

Deep-focus photography and the concomitant use of the wide-angle lens, as Bordwell has noted, are associated with monochrome film. It declined with the advent of colour, as technically, it became more difficult, at that time, to maintain the same high level of depth of focus in colour cinematography. But this does not mean that the wide-angle lens went out of favour. The wide-angle lens, even though it is associated with older films and with monochrome photography, is still generally used today. It is clearly favoured by Martin Scorsese, for example, who notes (in Moviemakers' Master Class, Laurent Tirard, 2003 [henceforth MMC]: 65):

As a rule,... I prefer wide-angle lenses. I like 25 millimeters and wider, and that has mostly to do with Orson Welles, John Ford, and even some movies by Anthony Mann. These are movies that I grew up watching, and they used the wide angle to create a sort of expressionistic look which I guess I liked very much.

Scorsese's association of the wide-angle lens with expressionism, which in cinema, is associated with German expressionist cinema, forms an interesting contrast with Bazin's association of the wide-angle lens with realism (by way of its logical connection with deep-focus photography). In their own ways, both of them are right, depending on how you look at what the wide-angle lens does or is capable of doing. The wide-angle lens may cause cinematic space to look ‘unreal’ or ‘expressionistic’ by the perspective distortion of making the background appear unnaturally more distant to the foreground, by the contortion of subjects who are too close to it, and by the curvature of straight lines, unless they are at the centre of the horizontal or vertical planes in the lens. On the other hand, the greater depth of field contributes to realism, because one is not led by an artificial intervening medium to look at certain points in the mis-en-scène. The belief that greater depth of field contributes to realism is something that cinema criticism and scholarship inherit from a similar belief in painting.

Telephoto lens

The opposite of the wide-angle lens is the telephoto lens. It thus has contrasting features to the wide-angle lens: it has a smaller angle of view, and takes less of a scene than a wide-angle or normal lens. The telephoto lens also has a narrower depth of field, which means that fewer objects and less of the scenery can appear in focus.  The director Akira Kurosawa is well known for exploiting the relatively narrower depth of field of the telephoto lens and placing the action within it and making objects that are in focus appear closer together, thus ‘flattening’ the scene (see the stills from Red Beard (1965): redbeard3.jpg and redbeard4.jpg). 

Because of its narrower depth of field, the telephoto lens is better at depicting, or focusing on, human subjects or individual objects than in presenting more of the scenery: i.e. what the space contains rather than the space itself. It may highlight a group of individuals, and the background and foreground become less significant, which can be seen in some of the shots in the films of Hou Hsiao‑hsien. Narrow depth of field in general is good for focusing attention on a particular spatial location or on individuals in a conversational interaction, thus bringing into notice the speaker or the reactions of the listeners.

As the name implies, the telephoto lens can bring distant objects closer, by apparently reducing the space between the camera and the subject. It is thus the lens to use for close-ups or extreme close-ups. This is what the director John Woo says about his use of the telephoto lens (in MMC: 146–147):

As for the telephoto, I use it for close-ups because I find it creates a real “encounter” with the actor. If you shoot someone's face with a 200-millimeter lens, the audience will feel like the actor is really standing in front of them. It gives presence to the shot.

Except for certain cases – some of which are noted above – the telephoto lens is more often an occasionally handy lens that is used rather sparingly. This can be contrasted to the more sustained use of the wide-angle lens for aesthetic and more broadly practical reasons. Tim Burton, for example, has said that ‘...I use telephoto lenses only as a sort of punctuation. I use them in the middle of a scene the same way you would use a comma in the middle of a sentence’ (MMC: 97).

Burton's claim that the telephoto lens can be compared to the punctuation used in written language is interesting, from the perspective of discourse analysis. Generally, the telephoto lens does not deal with the substance of a movie, which appears to be the prerogative of the wide-angle lens, but with its embellishments, enhancements and linkages. Thus the wide-angle lens is the main stay of cinematic discourse, whereas the telephoto lens serves a supportive or decorative function. This is quite easily a description of Burton's visual style in the presentation of cinematic space, and is shared by many other film directors.

Zoom lens

The zoom lens is easily adjustable over a progressive range of focal lengths and may be in the wide-angle or telephoto range or both. Thus a zoom lens may display the features described above, depending on whether it is within the wide-angle or telephoto range, except that, for technical reasons, its maximum depth of field is usually narrower than that of lenses with fixed focal lengths (this parallels the traditionally narrower depth of field of colour motion picture photography).

The persistent exploitation of the capability of the zoom lens is not always viewed favourably when compared to the wide-angle and telephoto lenses. Its frequent use may bring attention to itself, and thus draws away the viewer from the scene, from the depiction of cinematic space, and from what the cinematic discourse is supposed to convey. It has been noted, for example, that the over-use of zoom shots in some of the movies of Mario Bava, ‘signal (or seem to signal) the director's indifference to the material at hand’, and in Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass' Cyrus (2010), it has been observed that ‘rapid, frequent and gross overuse of zoom-ins and zoom-outs’, together with other self-conscious camera techniques, ‘makes for an exercise in annoyances instead of unique vision’.

Special lenses and lens filters

Lower light photography is possible by using lenses with significantly wider apertures. The aperture is commensurate with the f-stop [or T-stop] numbers (also known as f-numbers): the lower the f-stop number, the wider the aperture, resulting in better ability to film in lower light. But a wider aperture leads to a shallower depth of field, which means that deep focus is no longer possible. Thus the director's and cinematographer's options become more limited, although the ability to film in low light is definitely enhanced.

Perhaps the most famous use of a special lens with an extremely low f-number is the use of a 50mm lens with an f-stop of 0.7 in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975). Apart from using it for filming in low light, the lens aesthetically allowed Kubrick and his cinematographer, John Alcott, to imitate the paintings of William Hogarth, which William Makepeace Thackeray – the writer of the original work, the novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, – had a strong interest in.

A special lens that has been much more widely used is the anamorphic lens for widening the screen (which is best explained below, in the next sub-section, on widescreen). Other special lenses that were more widely used, at least historically, were soft lenses. However, image softness can also be created or simulated during filming by narrowing the depth of field, by using filters, fast films (see below), or, it is generated during the editing process.

An obvious use of lens filters is for the alteration of colour. In Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002), for example, coloured filters are used for some segments of the film, which, together with colour modification during post-production, imbued the scenes with different dominant colours. Lens filters are not only used for the overt alteration of colour, but some of them help to adjust colours so that they do not appear odd, such as the effect created by ultra-violet rays that are captured by the camera equipment but not seen by us, and which could be corrected with the use of ultra-violet or skylight filters.

Widescreen

For much of cinema history, the prevalent size of the frame, or what is better known as its aspect ratio, was 1.37:1. This is also known as the ‘standard’ aspect ratio, and is very close to the 4:3 aspect ratio used for silent films, older television sets and older computer monitor screens. Anything wider than this, including the prevalent 1.85:1 or 1.66:1 used today, is described as widescreen.

It is appropriate to discuss widescreen in the section on lenses, because a good number of widescreen movies were created  through the use of special lenses. This is done through the anamorphic process of stretching what is originally available in a 35mm film with a lens during filming, and replicating the widescreen image when playing the movie, with the use of the appropriate anamorphic lens on the projector.

An obvious feature of widescreen is its lengthier horizontal framing. The cinematic space shown is thus less crammed and what is filmed can be presented more broadly over the horizontal plane of the frame. A palpable benefit of this is evident when filming an extensive landscape, which cannot be adequately presented with the standard screen ratio of 1.37:1.

With widescreen, there is more flexibility in the depiction of personal relationships, as they could be symbolically related to the physical distance between characters. The physical distance between characters, especially with wider aspect ratios – such as 2.40:1, the 70mm aspect ratio of 2.20:1 or the CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 – could be further away, but still within the frame, whereas characters are more closely bunched within the frame when filmed using the standard aspect ratio.

It has been claimed that widescreen cinema gives the audience ‘a greater sense of space’ and that ‘the more open the frame, the greater the impression of depth: the image is more vivid, and involves us more directly’ (Charless Barr, 1963, cited by Harper Cossar, 2004).  Bordwell (in his The Poetics of Cinema, 2008: 282), further notes that the widescreen format is ‘dense with realistic detail and yet as geometrically stylized as a frieze’. Widescreen provides the audience with an enhanced sense of presence, of the feeling of ‘being there’ and the impression of participating in the space shown on the screen. In this light, Wijnand Ijsselstein notes that widescreen gives ‘a heightened sense of engagement and physiological arousal as a consequence of the immersive wraparound image’ (“Presence in the Past” 2003: 27). With the addition of multi-track sound – which is a frequently added feature of widescreen – the apparent immersive presence of the cinematic space becomes even greater.

Long takes are a tendency associated with the widescreen format, and this of course would reduce the frequency of editing. This is due to a practical factor; Paul Monaco explains that widescreen ‘made montage sequences difficult’, as ‘the human eye had far greater difficulty adjusting to and tolerating quick editing and cutaways presented in widescreen’ (The Sixties, 1960–1969, 2003: 70–71).

Widescreen's association with long takes might be regarded by some quarters as one of its technical limitations. However, some filmmakers and theorists saw it as an advantage. Bazin, who, among classical theorists, was one of the chief advocates of the long take and the concomitant reduction of editing, was happy with what the format would do to cinematic discourse in this direction. To him, a widescreen format such as cinemascope, ‘has come to once and for all destroy montage as the major element of cinematic discourse’ (cited by Bordwell Poetics: 466).

C) Camera movements

The movie camera is not always static. Indeed, if the camera does not move for prolonged stretches in a film, or has very limited movements, the film may be described as canned theatre, as the camera resembles the vision of a member of the audience in a theatrical production (see also, section E, in Notes 7).

Many of the earlier sound films have been described as canned theatre. This may not be an aesthetic choice, but may reflect a technical limitation. The production team at that time were not used to the camera with synchronised microphones, and the bulky equipment deployed meant that there were technical limitations which some film companies were not able to overcome, at least in the earlier stages of the transition from silent to sound movies. Tim Dirks notes (in “The Pre-Talkies and the Silent Era, Part 4”):

Technically, camera movements were restricted, and noisy, bulky movie cameras had to be housed in clumsy, huge sound-insulated booths with blimps (sound-proof covers), to avoid picking up camera noise on the soundtrack.

Camera movements, of course, may depend on the style of the director and cinematographer. But it may be influenced by the intended cinematic discourse, or more specifically, the story conveyed by the movie. For example, if a particular character is important in an event being shown, the camera may follow this character over the spatial location, in what is known as a tracking shot.

The tracking shot conventionally involved mounting the camera on a wheeled platform. Hence, it is also called a dolly shot. In recent years, tracking shots might be executed with steady handheld cameras, without the use of wheeled platforms. For such shots, the term tracking shot is thus more appropriate than dolly shot. A tracking shot may make a spatial movement towards, or away from, objects, some of which might be stationery (also called track in or track out). Tracking in may provide a discoursal explanation, a discovery, or an exposition in the film. For an extended example of a tracking shot, see the beginning of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil  (also called a crane shot, as the camera is mounted on a crane to film the shot; for this and other examples of tracking shots, see The Ten Best Tracking Shots Ever).

A variation of the tracking shot is the circling shot or arc shot, where the camera makes a spatial movement round the subject, usually when it is stationary. The circling shot goes completely round the subject, while the arc shot makes a semi-circle.  The tracking shot may be combined with the zoom lens to create what is known as the dolly zoom (track in and zoom out, or track out and zoom in). The camera may also move either horizontally or vertically, while remaining in a static position. These are called panning – when it moves horizontally – and tilting – when it moves vertically. Panning and tilting are more frequently encountered in films than the dolly zoom.

Establishing shot

The establishing shot (or establishment shot) is a technique used for the introduction of a particular spatial location in cinematic discourse. This is how it is defined by Trisha Berendt:

Also known as an extreme wide shot, the establishing shot shows an extremely wide view of a scene or location. An establishing shot could show a large farming field, a long row of houses or a city skyline. It gives viewers a better idea of where the story is taking place.

An example of an establishing shot can be found at the beginning of Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971), where there is a shot not only of the cinema where the last movie was shown, but also, of the windswept, rather under-populated town where much of the action of the movie takes place. Discussing the establishing shot leads us to a discussion of setting, which is an important component of cinematic discourse.

D) Setting

Setting is not equivalent to the film's set. The film's set is related to the performance space mentioned above, but setting goes beyond the performance space during the production stage. The setting appears, and, where it extends beyond the frame, is partially implied in, the finalised version of the movie.

Although setting includes space, it is not wholly equivalent to it or to its presentation. It comprises more than just space, and is more abstract (for a more general discussion of setting, see Chapter 3 of NT). One way to see what needs to be added in the definition of setting, is to think of the setting of your computer, mobile phone or other electronic devices. In this light, although space is an important component of the cinematic setting, it goes beyond space, as it also deals with the potentialities of the location, including possible actions and occupants within it, and not just static physical space per se.

The setting is also associated with the beginning. In this light, it has a relationship with the plot (see NT, Chapter 6), and with cinematic discourse as a whole, as an initiating component of a movie. Although the setting can be said to extend throughout the cinematic discourse, and is not only positioned at the beginning, much of what is significant in a setting should be indicated at the beginning of the entire movie, or the beginning of a significant segment of the movie.

There is a descriptive tendency in settings. Quite often, this is set in motion with a more general  overview, followed by a more specific view of a location where the action of the movie will take place. In this regard, the establishing shot is a natural companion of the presentation of the setting, although other types of shots may be involved.

Realistic and fantastic settings

Settings can be realistic or fantastic. But realistic and fantasy settings do not always coincide with their respective broad generic associations. In other words, a movie which is generally fantastic may have a realistic setting, and vice versa. If they coincide, there may be a convergence of the two definitions of setting: as spatial location and as a cluster of possibilities. It is believed by some observers that in fantasy narratives, these two definitions of setting should coincide, or that the possibilities of the setting should be made use of in such narratives. In this connection, it has been noted, for example, that fantasy stories ‘that use the setting as merely a backdrop... have been criticized for their failure to use it fully’. It has also been noted that ‘Fantasy settings are defined by their magic’. Although these observations refer to fantasy in written narratives and in games, they are clearly relevant to fantasy movies as well. Thus, although fantasy settings may resemble the real world in some respects, they have their magic mountains, enchanted rivers or other supernatural locations, which give possibilities to how their narratives will develop, and which make the narrative cease to have a clear connection to the real world.

Setting and characters

Because the setting also deals with potentialities, including the possibilities of action, cinematic characters have an evident relationship with it, as their actions are determined by the setting (see NT, 3.12 for a more general discussion of the interlinks between settings and characters in narrative). Even magical characters are bound by their settings (cf. the definition of the setting as extending beyond space and comparable to the settings of electronic devices above). As noted by a commentator on the settings of electronic games, whose observation could also be applied to fantasy settings in movies: ‘The number and type of powers a character should have’ are ‘dependent on the setting and the plot’. Indeed, an otherwise fantastic character, such as a three-handed female cab-driver, may find justification for her existence in the narrative, if this has been laid down by the setting.

Technically, one of the aims of the establishing shot, as noted by the director James Cameron, is not only to show the setting, but also, to establish a relationship between the setting, at the beginning of the whole or part of the film, with some of the characters in the movie. The usual sequence for an establishing shot is to show the spatial location of the setting, after which it moves on to the characters: ‘After the setting has been established, the characters can be shot much closer, showing more detail’. 

Minor or insignificant characters have an even closer relationship to the setting, as many of them are virtually part of the setting and may contribute significantly to it. As Rita Marie Keller has noted, a minor character

could be used as part of the setting. A director casts extras for movies. They fill in the background of a scene, but they also have a function. We might see them as fillers, but the director has a function in mind for them. They might be used to set the atmosphere or mood of the scene he is shooting.

In fact, the more insignificant characters are, the more likely it is that they are an integral part of the setting, and are not characters in their own right. These insignificant characters fill out the setting and contribute to its believability, which may present the filmmakers with different challenges from the main characters. As noted by Glen C. Strathy:

Such very minor characters, sometimes called supernumeraries, walk-ons, spear-chuckers, or red shirts (if you're a Star Trek fan), may not have a dramatic function. They may not be memorable characters, and they certainly won't be three-dimensional. But they do need to be believable. That is, you should create characters whose appearance, speech, and mannerisms are consistent with that setting. If not, they will call too much attention to themselves and make the setting less believable.

E) Film stock

The space that we see in a movie may not be what the naked eye sees. We discussed this earlier with regard to the focal lengths of lenses being used, which, except for the ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ lenses, are not really a replication of what is seen through the human eye. The same can be said about the use of film stock, which, in analogue cinematography, refers to the type of film being used.

In our discussion here, we are more interested in the effect that film stock has on our viewing of films than in its physical production or chemical composition. The discussion here refers to analogue cinematography, which is still dominant in mainstream cinema in the first decade of the twentieth century. In digital cinematography, which is becoming increasingly important, film stock is not physically available, but the so-called ‘film’ is usually a multi-purpose memory card or disc that is not exclusively geared for specific features of the movie. In digital cinematography, some of the features associated with film stock below, such as colour or monochrome and film speed, are manipulated by the camera's system.

Colour or monochrome

Film stock may determine whether the movie is in monochrome or colour, as there are specific analogue films used for either. Before colour films were widely used, most movies were in monochrome. We do not, of course, see the world in monochrome. Colour seemed more natural, although the colours we see in a movie are not of the exact shade, brightness or saturation that we see in real life.

Ideally, the use of colour or monochrome film stock should be an aesthetic consideration, but this is not always the case. Earlier in movie history, monochrome was chosen for the vast majority of films because colour films were too expensive. Thus the choice of monochrome was not a significant choice for most films, as aesthetics did not play an important part in its choice.

Later in movie history, when the use of colour became more dominant, the deliberate choice of monochrome, as in The Last Picture Show (1971) and Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise (1984) became more significant. Although Jarmusch's film was made on a shoestring budget, the use of colour at that time would not have been too expensive.  His aesthetic intention of using monochrome, especially when the movie was also shot with 16mm film (see film gauge below), is thus clear.

Using monochrome or colour has an effect on our impression of cinematic space. According to Y. G-M Lulat,

...color makes it much... easier to create a sense of depth on a flat plane than does black and white because depth is dependent in part on separation of individual elements in an image from each other along the axis of perspective (called 'layering') and obviously color, compared to shades of gray, are more easily amenable to this separation or layering. For example: visually, red and orange are easily separable, yet these same colors in black and white would be almost indistinguishable shades of gray.

The association of colour with depth however, is not so straightforward. Monochrome, as we have noted, was more closely associated with deep focus.

Another use of colour and monochrome, especially if they appear in the same film, has to do with the presentations of settings: fantasy settings versus ‘real’ settings, or the ‘present’ setting (within the chronological framework of the film's narrative) versus the past. The most famous instance of the use of colour for the dream or fantasy world, and sepia-tinged monochrome for the ‘real’ world is Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939). But of course, this might be more a reflection of the overwhelming use of monochrome for feature films at that time, and hence the belief that it represents what is ‘natural’ for the medium. There is no reason why the associations could not be reversed in a future era when colour has become predominant. In Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), for instance, the real world is in colour, whereas the fictional world of cinema is in monochrome.

Film speed

Other than colour, film stock may refer to the speed of the film used: fast films are for low lighting conditions, and slow films are for well-lighted scenes. It must be added that fast films are of lower quality than slow films, and what is taken with fast films usually looks grainy, unlike the sharp, well-contrasted shots taken with slow films. It may be possible to film in lower lighting conditions with high quality slow films by reducing the depth of field of the lens (especially by using high quality lenses at low f-stop [or T-stop] numbers: see the discussion on special lenses above). But a significant reduction of the depth of field means that deep focus is impossible, and thus the director's and cinematographer's options become more limited.

Directors and cinematographers do not merely choose film speed strictly according to the availability of light. Before filming Out of Africa (1985), the director Sydney Pollack found the natural light in Kenya, which is near to the equator, to be ‘very ugly’, with a lot of sharp contrasts. He and his cinematographer then decided to use a very fast film for the exteriors, in order to lessen the contrasts and create a softer look (MMC: 19). This might have created a beautifully arty and dreamy touch to the cinematography. But to someone who has lived much of his life near to the equator, like me, it created some confusion with regard to the geography of the film, as the scenes of Kenya captured in the film looked fake, and in fact, I thought that they were filmed in another country, far away from the equator.

Film gauge

Film stock also refers to the film gauge, or the width of the film used. For much of its history, feature films used 35mm film stock. There were exceptions, such as the use of 16mm film in Stranger Than Paradise noted above. The other, more prominent, exception was the use of 70mm  The use of 70mm (or more precisely 65mm) resulted in a widescreen format. However, as noted above, widescreen was more frequently created anamorphically, by stretching the original format of the 35mm film with a lens on a camera during filming and with a compatible lens on the projector while playing the movie. Thus the horizontal extension of cinematic space was often not directly generated by the film stock used, although there are some exceptions, such as the use of 70mm.

F) Space: onscreen and offscreen

Onscreen space

Space, of course, can be related to what is seen in the frame. As we saw above, the space constrained by the frame may vary according to the aspect ratio of the screen. Characters and objects are more bunched up together in the standard aspect ratio of 1.37:1. They are more spread out in widescreen, which opens up more possibilities for the filmmakers. What can be found and how they are placed within the frame, or the visual composition, is not only a concern in the static visual arts such as painting and photography, but is an aesthetic consideration in its own right for cinema as well, with its more dynamic conception of composition. But cinematic space goes beyond what is captured within the frame.

Offscreen space

What is relevant in a film may occur offscreen. For various reasons, not everything is shown onscreen. The events may be too violent, obscene, or the filmmakers want to imbue a sense of mystery to the narrative by not including everything within the frame.

Offscreen space may be adjacent to what could be seen within the frame: it may be above, below, to the left or right, or behind the camera or behind the set. The characters may move in or out of the frame, and characters may talk about or look at objects or other characters that are in adjacent locations outside the frame. The relevance of offscreen space may be highlighted by the sounds, music or conversations occurring outside the frame, which have an effect on what goes on within the frame.

Offscreen space also includes the larger location that contains the onscreen location, such as the town, village or country that the film's narrative is located in, but which cannot be comprehensively or adequately shown in the film. It further includes unseen spaces that do not contain or are not adjacent to the onscreen space, but may be remote from it, but which nevertheless impinge on what goes on in the film's narrative. The significance of these remote offscreen spaces is usually indicated or suggested by the characters or by the narrator.

Scenographic space

Onscreen and offscreen spaces combine to form the scenographic space, which was mentioned at the beginning of these notes. Bordwell defines scenographic space (in his Narration in the Fiction Film, p. 113) as ‘the imaginary space’ of the fictional film: it is the ‘world’ in which the story events occur. In addition to clear-cut instances of offscreen space, there are three cues, according to Bordwell, that point towards either onscreen space or both onscreen and offscreen space, and which combine to flesh out the scenographic space as a whole: shot space, editing space, and sonic space.

The shot space has the closest relationship, when compared to the three other cues, to onscreen space. But shot space is not always straightforward, as it contains indications of depth, distance, perspective, size, and what can be found in the background and foreground, which are viewed in conjunction with the visual composition mentioned earlier in this section. To add to the complication, there are movements within the shot space, and the camera itself may move, thus expanding or changing the space that we see within the shot (see pp. 113–116 of Bordwell's book). Editing space, or the space or spaces created or suggested through editing, has been briefly discussed earlier in these notes. The sonic space refers to the sounds that create or recreate the space for us in the film. Sonic space does not only correspond to the sounds that emerge from the onscreen space. It also refers to offscreen sounds that originate from adjacent vicinities mentioned above, and which define or situate the onscreen space for us, such as street sounds that indicate that a room is located near a busy road.


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© 2010. Ismail S Talib. Last revised: 06 July 2011.