5 Principles of Cinematography We Can Learn from Turner

Yesterday I took a trip to The Tate Britain to see what I could learn about light and composition from the world of traditional art. My background is more technical than fine art, so this world is quite new to me. Within quarter of an hour of arriving, I had fallen in love with the work of JMW Turner. The way this man captured the natural moods of light and weather is breathtaking.

Here are five of Turner’s techniques for creating beautiful images which we can apply to cinematography.

 

1. Negative space

One of the most powerful things you can do with an area of the frame is to let it go black. A great example is Bill Pope’s work on The Matrix. But 200 years before that, Turner was embracing the darkness, emphasising those areas in the light, and allowing the viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps.

“Jason” (1802) – That dragon is lurking in the shadows like a dodgy monster costume in a B-movie.
“Sketch of a Bank, with Gipsies” (1809) – The titular gypsies are barely visible in the black shadows, betrayed only by the smoke from their fire.

 

2. Layering

Any artist creating a 2D image strives to give the impression of depth and dimensionality. There are a number of techniques that can be used to achieve this, but one which Turner uses repeatedly is layering. See how the paintings below delineate foreground (light), midground (dark) and background (light again). The midgrounds sink into shadow, becoming negative space, reinforcing the link and relationship between the foregrounds and backgrounds. At the same time, the foreground figures stand out clearly and eye-catchingly against the shade behind them.

“The Tenth Plague of Egypt” (1802)
“The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides” (1806) – This painting contains five layers: light-dark-light-dark-light, highlighting the two groups of people and the monster in the distance.

 

3. Framing

Although most images we see are framed, be it by a gilt picture frame or by the black edges of a phone screen, there is something aesthetically pleasing about adding a second frame within the image itself. An extreme example would be shooting through a window, framing the image on all four sides, but more commonly we frame two or three sides of the image. Turner frequently does this using trees, buildings and shadowy ground.

“The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire” (1817) – A backwards-‘J’-shaped frame is created by the dark foreground: the wall on the left, the shadowed floor across the bottom, and the dark space in the lower right. To balance the shorter part of the ‘J’ on the righthand side, the sun and its reflection (the focal point of the image) are placed left of centre.
“England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday” (1819) – The dark ground and dark tree to the right create a backwards-L-shaped frame which appears to cradle the rest of the image like a waiter cradling plates in the crook of his elbow.

 

4. Dynamic Composition

The composition of the two paintings below fascinates me. Both seem to be two images in one: a deep view of a settlement on the left, and a tapering tunnel perspective on the right. As I studied them, I found my eyes “panning” from one side to the other. As cinematographers, we can use actual camera movement to create a dynamic shot, but we should not forget Turner’s lesson here, that there can also be dynamism in static frames.

“Rome, from the Vatican. Raffaelle, Accompanied by La Fornarina, Preparing his Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia” (1820)
“Palestrina – Composition” (1828)

 

5. Colour Contrast

Apart from stunningly demonstrating Turner’s power to create mood and atmosphere (a core skill for any DP), the two paintings below are great examples of warm/cool colour contrast. The yellows, oranges and reds of fire and sunset are juxtaposed with the blues of the sky. The result is pictures that really “pop”, arresting the viewer’s attention. A modern cinematographer can readily achieve a similar effect by playing natural daylight, and daylight sources like HMIs and Kinos, against practicals and other tungsten sources.

“Peace – Burial at Sea” (1842) – Contrast in both hue and luminance make this a powerfully evocative painting.
“War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet” (1842) – Note how Napoleon’s blue uniform causes him to stand out against the oranges of the sky, whilst the unimportant, red-garbed soldier behind him is allowed to blend into the background.

 
See also: my trip to the National Portrait Gallery.

5 Principles of Cinematography We Can Learn from Turner

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