The Structure of Images – Part 1

Often times what makes a good photograph is the underlying structure of it; the elements, how the elements are placed and in what order. Order, unity, and harmony are the stuff that makes almost everything pleasing. Be it photography, music, dance, or even mathematics. Here I have a few good stills I captured from two Tarkovsky films that serve as great examples for a breakdown.

Nostalghia - Andrei Tarkovsky
From Nostalghia. A prime example of the use of triangles for composition.

Here’s the analysis:

triangles of nostalghia

Triangles really signifies connection, and unity. Here the elements are sitting on a structure which makes it visually interesting. When three points are displaced in space, it yearns to be connected, the viewer mentally connects them without any conscious effort, and this process brings completeness and meaning to the image, like what we see above. Also note the placement of the horse right at the center. The white horse may resemble something noble or elevated hence it’s placement.

Tarkovsky’s Mirror

Frames or rectangles that’s close to the ratio 1.6:1 tends to be aesthetic for reasons beyond the scope of this post. Here we have an image that was shot on a 4:3 frame originally, but intelligently composed so that it creates an apparent frame of ratio 1.6:1 inside the 4:3 frame. This was done by capturing the excess roof on top. Below the green line is our superficial frame of ratio 1.6:1. This technique makes the frame spacious, and makes it possible to arrange elements on-screen in a way that was not possible before.

Secondly, the triangle that’s yearning to be connected between contrasting points. The burning house in the far end can be geometrically simplified as a rectangle, and the two people as points in space. At this level of simplicity, the points can be connected to the corners of the rectangle to create a triangle; hence unity. Creating imaginary geometric shapes that lies between the negative spaces of elements is really powerful to bring structure and meaning to images.

Breaking the previous unity, by creating another.

Introduce another contrasting element (the child) and the previous unity is broken, but by creating a new one. The placement of elements in this picture is really artful. It’s from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (Zerkalo), be sure to check it out.

Another way of visualizing underlying structure

Here’s another way to see the underlying structure. As planes extended in space in a zig-zag pattern.

Right-angled triangles combined with the rule of thirds.

The elements are arranged in such a way that it forms a right angled triangle, and further more it’s placed right on the two thirds line of the image. The green dashed line marks the 2nd third line or two thirds of the image. The feet of the actress aligns with the lower third’s point on the two third’s line.

Parallel Lines
The harmony is in the lines.

Here’s a beautiful shot from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. I’d like to say that there’s a harmony created by the placement of the images in diagonals that run almost parallel to one another. The open book’s edges creates the horizontal and vertical components of the diagonal, you may call this over-analysis, but still it adds a lot to the image.


My favorite movie stills

Here I have listed some of my favorite stills from movies I like and mostly watch over again all the time. I find these stills photographically rich with a very good justification to the film’s theme. Most of these stills are very rich in semiotics that communicate with the film’s subtext.

gfThe GodFather (1972) – The scene where Vito Corleone get’s shot. The fire, the black car and the gloomy color tone sets a good setting.

inceptionkick1Inception (2010) – Dunk him! Dom Cobb exits from a heavily sedated dream level to… well, another dream level.

Schindler’s List (1993) – Semiotics on killer mode. The red dress here symbolizes the holocaust.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Free! When Andy, tunnels his way out of prison.

Stalker (1979) – The Zone, where thing’s are not so right. Very powerful shot!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) – He is young again!

battleship potemkin
Battleship Potemkin (1925) – The Odessa Steps.

Nostalghia (1983) – This is a golden one. A single frame alone doesn’t do much justice. This shot comes in the beginning title bands of the movie. The faint singing and the “slow” motion of every element sets a scene that’s hard to describe. Cinematic perfection at it’s best.

Raging Bull (1980) – One of the best title sequences ever!

Tarkovsky Nostalghia
Nostalghia (1983) – Triangular composition.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) – Sunrise on Lake Pontchartrain.

Tree of Life (2011) – Playful shadows. I’d say that this is plain genius.

Shutter Island (2010) – Lobotomy.

Shutter Island (2010) – This is a digital composite. Love it.

Tree of Life (2010) – Childbirth. (Again, genius stuff)

Rashomon (1950) – The bold divide. The lust-less and mere lay mortals.

The Pianist (2002) – Every time I see this frame, I envision the buildings to be giant piano keys, destroyed.

magician bergman
The Magician (1958) – Just love this frame.

Hugo (2011) – Come and dream with me.

Hugo (2011) – Time!

The GodFather (1972) – Be my friend?

The Godfather (1972) – Kay!

Citizen Kane (1941) – Tragedy!

Blade Runner (1982) – Eyes of the future.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) – Mr. Gateau goes to the sea.

Zorba The Greek (1964) – “I saw the look in her eyes, Boss”.

Alexis Zorba
Zorba the Greek (1964) – “I watched you with all the boxes and the books, very funny, Hahahahahaha!”

PS: I wish I had posted the famous ‘hand on wheat’ scene from Gladiator (2000), I couldn’t find a decent still.

Living life light as a feather.

Anthony Quinn as Zorba

vlcsnap-2013-10-24-18h16m11s36Irene Papas as the widow, and Alan Bates as Basil


He is for ever astonished and wonders why and wherefore. Everything seems miraculous to him, and each morning when he opens his eyes he sees trees, sea, stones and birds, and is amazed. ‘What is this miracle?’ he cries. ‘What are these mysteries called: trees, sea, stones, birds?’

He is Zorba! Zorba the Greek! The illiterate peasant miner with an awful loud laugh that shatters the logic of all learned men. There’s so much to learn from this man in a lifetime. I feel fortunate that I have met this man through three mediums. By the words of Nikos Kazantzakis, through the rejuvenating music of Mikis Theodorakis, and through the  cinematic perfection of Michael Cacoyannis.

I first met Zorba in a dark film projection room at my film institute, thanks to Nadeeka Guruge (Sri Lankan Musician), for Mr. Guruge had visited us to do a lecture on film music and he had chosen “Zorba the Greek” as his example. Guess what? We watched the whole film and that was the best day of my life having to meet Zorba! Astonished by the film’s music the first thing on my mind was to buy the entire soundtrack album on iTunes, but before that I visited a bookstore on my way home and bought a brand new “Zorba The Greek” by Nikos Kazantzakis, opened it right in the middle, held it near my nostrils and yes it smelled good! A good book always smells good! That was enough to convince me to read this 335 pages of miraculous wisdom.

I was amazed by the thought of seeing everything as new, like Zorba does. It’s like to die every night  and be born again in the morning with fresh dew all over your body. I don’t know if it’s to be practiced, but seeing things in a different way every day is such a bliss. It’s wonderful, all it takes is fresh thought. I don’t know if its genuine to force it, but I think for everyone who reads this book will have a bit of Zorba living inside them afterwards. Same is the case for me. Sometimes it strikes me to think that there is such a thing as life. Of course we know that there is life, but to contemplate on it for hours is just amazing. That stream of thought takes you to many other places that you’ve never visited. This is where creativity lives. To see everything as new and clean and to forget all what you have ever learnt.  It allows us to give new shapes and forms to things in ordinary life, no matter how bold it is. To listen to a tune in a way that you’ve never listened, or to see a picture in a way you never saw before. Throwing away acquaintance of things into a garbage dump is a beautiful way to refresh yourself.

In the story, Zorba is introduced to us via the “Boss” known as Basil. Zorba insists that he should consider taking him where he goes. Coincidentally Zorba is a miner, and Basil is looking for a way to start his old run down lignite mine. So the duo set forth to Crete to get their hands dirty.

Zorba: “You think too much, that is your trouble! Clever people and grocers, they weigh everything.”
Basil: “What work do you do?”
Zorba: “Listen to him! I’ve got hands, feet, head, they do the jobs! Who the hell am I to choose?”
Zorba: “And you, what do you do?”
Basil: “Well, I’m a writer”
Zorba: “Excuse me, but you look it!”

He doesn’t fret on things, nor does he regret. He is free. Zorba the Greek is all about freedom, and living life as light as feather. By the way, I failed to mention that Zorba is at least 65, whereas Basil maybe just 30, and it is Zorba who pours all the youth to Basil, altering his life. Now let me quote another paragraph from the book:

“Grandad! She calls me grandad once more, but now it’s a pet-name, boss. She say’s, “I’d like to go to the fête!”

“Go on, then, grandma,” I say to her.

‘ “But I want to go with you.”

‘ “I’m not going, I don’t like saints. You go by yourself.”

‘ “All right, I shan’t go either.”

‘I stared at her.

‘ “You won’t? Why not? Don’t you want to?”

‘ “If you come with me, I do. If not, I don’t.”

‘ “Why not? You’re a free person, aren’t you?”

“No,I’m not.”

‘ “You don’t want to be free?”

‘ “No, I don’t.”

‘I thought I must be hearing voices. I really did.

‘ “You don’t want to be free?” I cried.

‘ “No, I don’t! I don’t! I don’t!”

‘Boss, I’m writing this in Lola’s room, on Lola’s paper; for God’s sake, listen carefully I think only people who want to be free are human beings. Women don’t want to be free. Well is woman a human being?

‘For heaven’s sake, answer as soon as possible.
‘All the best to the best of bosses.
‘Me, Alexis Zorba.’

The first day I came across that paragraph, it made my day! I was smiling wide. I was saying to myself, “This man, cracks the code.” Just as Basil became fond of this man, I too became fond of him. There’s a Zorba living in me too, I think he does in everybody, it’s a matter of discovering him, and life becomes beautiful. You don’t weigh everything. You work by your instinct; you work hard as a bull, and enjoy the sweet sweat on your brow sitting on a rock looking at the sunset. Life is beautiful!

“When everything goes wrong, what a joy to test your soul and see if it has endurance and courage! An invisible and all-powerful enemy—some call him God, others the Devil, seem to rush upon us to destroy us; but we are not destroyed.” – Zorba The Greek.

I shall post about the music of Mikis Theodorakis next. The musician who scored “Zorba The Greek” motion picture.