The Art of Framing: New Movies that Look Old

After the hit fantasy franchise Twilight (2008-12) made Robert Pattinson a teen sensation, the actor has gone on to explore the more experimental side of cinema, appearing in numerous indie dramas that subvert his reputation of being just another celebrity heartthrob. Pattinson’s newest arthouse adventure is The Lighthouse: an Oscar-nominated, gothic period piece directed by Robert Eggers.

The Lighthouse perfectly encapsulates a growing trend in 21st century cinema, where more and more modern movies are trying their best to look old. Academy ratio is in fashion, and Eggers couples this with high-contrast greyscale to create the ultimate cinematic throwback. But The Lighthouse isn’t the first film to step back in time; the BAFTA-winning experimental drama Bait (dir. Mark Jenkin, 2019) also adheres to the golden-oldie aesthetic. As do countless others.

The Classical Hollywood era is also echoed in the square ratio of contemporary films like The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson, 2014), Son of Saul (dir. László Nemes, 2015), Mommy (dir. Xavier Dolan, 2014) and First Reformed (dir. Paul Schrader, 2017), as well as Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016). But there’s more to this trick than meets the eye. Film grain and orthochromatic colouring gives The Lighthouse a sense of texture, with inventive cinematography employing the same level of artistic skill praised in The Grand Budapest Hotel. But why is this style becoming so popular? How has framing become the threshold between a good movie and a great one? Let’s take a look:

Frame-within-a-Frame

There is a whole host of elements that make up the cinematography of a film: the mise-en-scene, the camera movements etc. But one that’s perhaps less widely acknowledged is framing. And that doesn’t just refer to the border of the screen. Filmmakers often use natural containers, already present in the shot, to divide up the visuals even more. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, for example, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and Zero (Tony Revolori) are often framed by a train window when traveling across the rails. Likewise, when breaking out of jail, the prisoners are framed by window bars or a hatchet in the ground, symbolic of their attempt to break free.

Not only does this provide a satisfying sense of symmetry for the audience (as Anderson – an auteur – is best known for), but directs the spectator’s eyes to specific parts of the screen, guiding them to what is most important. (The ‘leading lines’ technique has a similar effect, which Eggers also uses in The Lighthouse. With the camera placed at the end of a long hallway, Eggers alludes to something ominous lurking in the distant darkness. A perfect way to build tension and suspense).

Frames-within-a-frame permit images to be divided up in metaphorical or subversive ways. In First Reformed, Schrader often splits the boxy frame into two, using the horizon as a partition between land and sky; heaven and hell (notable because of the films religious context). In The Lighthouse, Eggers halves the screen vertically instead, mirroring the characters emotional separation and contrasting personalities by framing their bedroom with a wall between either bed.

What is remarkable about Eggers filmmaking here is his ability to take it one step further: the fact that both beds look identical on either side of the wall suggest the two men are more alike than they (or we) first thought. Not only does this frame-within-a-frame offer a figurative division, but also foreshadows later events. Eggers tricks the audience through his use of framing when Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) appears, unexpectedly, from behind the wall that bisects the screen. Just when Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) thinks he is safe and alone, Wake suddenly emerges from the framework…as if one with the lighthouse.

Claustrophobic Framing

The primary result of using a tight aspect ratio/frame-within-a-frame is the impression of being cornered or trapped. The Lighthouse is an extremely claustrophobic film, both aesthetically and narratively. Due to the story following two men stranded on a ‘rock’ amid the vast, empty seas, it only makes sense that the framing should be narrow to embody this feeling of entrapment. The rooms are small, and characters often shot with close-ups, as if the lens itself is pressing in on them. If not a close-up, Eggers tends to flip to the other extreme, using panoramic wide shots to emphasize the scale of the pairs barren surroundings (yet still contained in academy ratio, stranded in boundless isolation).

A narrow field of vision is similarly applied in Son of Saul, during which Nemes tracks the Jewish prisoner in a constant, tight close-up. Just as the threat of death and torture closes in on him, so does the aspect ratio. In First Reformed, the sparseness of Toller’s (Ethan Hawke) minimalist lifestyle as a priest reverberates through the square frame. The 4:3 border comes from a time before grand special effects, mass media and screen spectacle – a time frame that Toller still resides in due to the nature of his vocation. The only time Toller is removed from this is when he kisses Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and figuratively drifts through galaxies and mountains, temporarily breaking from the shackles of priesthood and celibacy.

Changing the Ratio

Academy ratio has been around since the dawn of cinema. But since then, a whole range of popularized sizes have out-shined the basic box border. Whereas the 16:9 ratio, commonly used for TV shows, has a more casual effect (best for comedies, documentaries etc.), the “letterbox” style of 2.35:1 CinemaScope is better suited to a polished, high-budget cinematic experience. However, film is an artistic medium, and therefor will always find a way to break rules and push boundaries. The emerging trend is now to include, not just one, but various aspect ratios, visibly altering the frame throughout the movie.

Trey Edward Shults’s 2019 drama Waves utilizes differing ratios as indicators of mood and time zone. Akin to Mommy and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Waves connects our temporal and spartial awareness by actively changing the frame, incorporating five different sizes in total. The spectator is able to differentiate between location and time period through each ratio being connected to different parts of the story. Flashbacks become clearer, and sudden shifts in screen space keep the audience on edge.

Shults takes something as basic as shot size and exploits it as a means to convey emotion and create empathy with the audience. As the pressure grows on the characters, the ratio begins to shrink in reflection. This experimental use of film making has also extended into television, with Amazon’s 2018 series Homecoming adopting an unusual 1:1 ratio when denoting the year 2022.

Nostalgia: A Recreation of the Past

Super 8 cameras and VHS have now enabled us to capture our own mini films. Although they might not be Oscar-winning blockbusters, the age-old home movie holds a special place in most peoples hearts. These old videos tend to be captured in the classic academy ratio. Therefor, what better way to induce a sense of nostalgia in an audience than to use it?

In 500 Day of Summer (2009), Marc Webb integrates a handful of vintage visuals to depict the protagonists growing up, giving us that warm fuzzy feeling rom-coms aim to provide. Webb cleverly goes on to associate square-framing with a romanticized version of the past, presenting us with a dream that the couple are happily in-love in 4:3. However, when the audience is returned to Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) stood single and alone, Webb pulls back into widescreen. This standard film ratio represents the present, conveying to us how to the bitter reality of Tom’s love-life is far from our sugar-coated idea of the past.

Although The Lighthouse may not be sentimental recreation of the past, it still harbours some odes to a time before technology, in an age where fantasy seemed more possible. The whole film is concentrated in one place, with two characters. Wake is superstitious, and Howard is just a man looking to get by in peace. A simple story for a simple time. Eggers pays close attention to the detail of sound, with sparse dialogue allowing the clattering of metal mugs and rumbling of distant storms to echo an era before TV and phones. An orthochromatic greyscale imbues the screen with the romanticism of Hollywood’s Golden Age, or else the gothic fantasy of silent cinema.

Similarly, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, stepping into a flashback from a different culture means stepping back into an older aspect ratio. Not only does the old home-movie aesthetic create a sentimental sense of nostalgia, but embodies the civilization that the film is set in. Films like The Lighthouse go beyond simply mimicking the past; they place you within it.