One of the first things that amateur photographers and cinematographers are taught is “correct” headroom. Don’t put people’s heads in the middle of the frame, we’re told, but at the top. Rules are made to be broken though, and here are three examples of beautiful cinematography which do just that.
“A town wrapped in secrets” is the tag-line of this critically-acclaimed ITV detective serial. In classic murder mystery fashion, every character is hiding something, causing suspicion to rest on each of them for a little while until the the person hiding the right secret is found.
David Tennant’s DI Alec Hardy complains of the small coastal town’s “endless sky”, an observation which could equally apply to the cinematography, framing the action as it often does with expansive headroom. While this may be partly an attempt to emphasise the isolation of the titular town, where people are small in the face of nature, its primary effect is to evoke the secrecy so integral to the storyline. Just as the police – and viewers – are figuratively misdirected by the suspects’ lies, so the camera is literally misdirected. The message from Matt Gray, BSC’s cinematography is: look at the beautiful sky and the paintings high up on the wall, because if you look too hard at what’s in front of you, you’ll see that the surface perfection of the bucket-and-spade idyll is built on foundations of sand.
This stylish, stunningly-photographed thriller ran for two seasons on Channel 4 in 2013 and 2014. It featured a group of disparate characters following clues in a cult graphic novel to uncover a chilling conspiracy. It was the first TV show I’d ever seen in 2.39:1, it had a garish, digitally-manipulated palette, and its composition broke all the rules.
Amongst Utopia‘s visual hallmarks was the use of plentiful headroom. Characters were frequently crushed into the lower half of the frame, a symbol of the powerful conspiracy looming over them. The overall look crafted by director Marc Munden and DP Ole Bratt Birkeland placed the viewer completely outside of the comfort zone of TV’s visual conventions, into a world where you couldn’t trust or rely on anything. (The Amazon series Mr. Robot uses similar techniques for similar reasons.)
Both seasons of Utopia can be viewed free at channel4.com
The makers of the Oscar-winning Polish indie feature Ida also chose an unusual aspect ratio; 4:3 had not been commonly used in features for decades. It was director Pawel Pawlikowski who wanted to try framing his subjects low down within the boxy ratio, leaving lots of headroom.
DP Lukasz Zal, PSC embraced the idea. “We saw that [the odd framing] created the feeling of loss, isolation and that it wasn’t just a strange mannerism but it conveyed so much more,” he told The LA Times.
Many interpretations have been placed on the meaning of the extra headroom in this tale of a young novitiate nun who comes to question her lifestyle. Most commonly it is seen as implying heaven above and therefore the nuns’ thoughts of the divine. To me it also conveys a sense of helplessness, of free will being overcome by larger forces above and around Ida.
Read this post on the ASC website for more on the cinematography of Ida.
If you want to delve deeper into the topic of headroom, I highly recommend this article by Art Adams: A Short History of Headroom, and How to Use It.
I’ll leave you with Pawel Pawlikowski’s thoughts on the ambiguity of his framing in Ida…
Some audiences have said the sky was crushing them. When you do something that’s formally strong, it elicits all kinds of responses. When you make these decisions, they’re kind of intuitive. You don’t intellectualize what it means; it feels right.