Tony Zhou brings us another neat video-essay exploring movement and composition in Akira Kurosawa films. It’s just over 8 minutes and it explores the fundamental question:
When you’re judging a shot, what’s the first thing you look for?
Balance? Leading lines? Golden ratio? Color? Light? Shapes?… Or is the first thing you notice movement?
Here is a look at the different types of motion Kurosawa liked to use to create a lot of visual interest:
- The Movement of Nature or weather — wind, water, fire, smoke, snow.
- The Movement of Groups — groups coming together or split apart.
- The Movement of Individuals — to recognize character and how they are feeling.
- The Movement of Camera — every camera move has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
- The Movement of The Cut — the reasons his films flow is that Kurosawa tends to cut on movement.
The Movement of Nature: Rain is another layer in film on an emotional level as people can relate to it sensually.
The Movement of Groups: Big crowds are cinematic — you put a large amount of people in a shot and the emotion feels big. Great for reaction shots. If we have 4 people or 25 all reacting, the impact is larger.
The Movement of Individuals: Akira Kurosawa’s blocking might be unrealistic and exaggerated, but through the individual’s movement we learn a lot about his character. If the characters in his films are nervous, they pace left to right. When they are outraged, they stand straight up.
If they are ashamed, their face goes into their hands and they drop to the ground. He would often choose one bit of movement for a character trait and get the actor to repeat it over and over throughout the film. That way the audience can quickly recognize who the character is and see how they are feeling.
The Movement of Camera: One of the hallmarks of the Kurosawa style are his fluid camera moves with characters moving within the frame from wide shots to medium close ups and over the shoulder shots — all within a single unbroken take. It’s a wonderful balance between the blocking of actors and camera movements.
The Movement of The Cut: Kurosawa worked as his own editor and with his films we are paying so much attention to the character moving that we don’t notice the cut. As he ends the scene he usually switches the rhythm by ending on something static, and that cuts to something moving. Switching up the rhythm keeps viewers on their toes.
Through Kurosawa’s style of filmmaking, Tony Zhou looks at how you can improve a scene that feels flat, he suggests:
“If you know what the scene is about, try to express it through movement. Start with the character — how are they feeling? Is there any way the actor can convey that through moving? Or take the feeling that is inside the character and bring it out through the background.
“Another option is to contrast one character within the group. Camera movement can be used to convey excitement as characters run. Or cut on movement to show surprise… Or combine every type of motion into one amazing image.
“Although you don’t have to put every type of movement into every shot — as that gets tiring, there is a nice middle ground with lots of variation and subtlety you won’t know what works best until you try it.”
When you combine the right motion and the right emotion you get something cinematic.
So next time you are looking to improve a scene, take a look back in time by re-watching some of Akira Kurosawa’s films, you won’t be disappointed. Kurosawa’s understanding of motion in film is remarkable.
If you enjoy this video you might want to check out Tony Zhou’s one on Buster Keaton’s Art of the Gag.