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Movement and Composition in Akira Kurosawa Films

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?

Tony Zhou goes to point out how Akira Kurosawa made over 30 films throughout his career and each different film is like a master class in different types of motion, and also ways to combine them.

Movement in Groups can be used to unite or divide. (Image via everyframeapainting Screenshot/YouTube)

Movement in groups can be used to unite or divide. (Image: everyframeapainting via Screenshot/YouTube)

Here is a look at the different types of motion Kurosawa liked to use to create a lot of visual interest:

  1. The Movement of Nature or weather — wind, water, fire, smoke, snow.
  2. The Movement of Groups — groups coming together or split apart.
  3. The Movement of Individuals — to recognize character and how they are feeling.
  4. The Movement of Camera — every camera move has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  5. 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.

Group reactions are a way to heighten the emotion. (Image via everyframeapainting Screenshot/YouTube)

Group reactions are a way to heighten the emotion. (Image: everyframeapainting via Screenshot/YouTube)

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 from a simmering fire can be used to reflect a characters resentment. (Image via everyframeapainting Screenshot/YouTube)

The movement from a simmering furnace can be used to reflect a character’s resentment. (Image: everyframeapainting via Screenshot/YouTube)

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 outer-world reflects the emotion of the inner-world of our characters creating a feeling of a needle lost in a haystack in this scene. (Image via everyframeapainting Screenshot/YouTube)

The outer-world reflects the emotion of the inner-world of our characters creating a feeling of a needle lost in a haystack in this scene as many people pass by the car. (Image: everyframeapainting  via Screenshot/YouTube)

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.

Kurosawa would end a scene on a static shot then cut to something moving to create rhythm in his edit. (Image via everyframeapainting Screenshot/YouTube)

Kurosawa would end a scene on a static shot then cut to something moving to create rhythm in his edit. (Image: everyframeapainting via Screenshot/YouTube)

Through Kurosawa’s style of filmmaking, Tony Zhou looks at how you can improve a scene that feels flat, he suggests:

You can try combining every type of motion into one image but you must get the balance right. (Image via everyframeapainting Screenshot/YouTube)

You can try combining every type of motion into one image but you must get the balance right. (Image: everyframeapainting via Screenshot/YouTube)

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.

Ikiru / Akira Kurosawa. (Image via everyframeapainting Screenshot/YouTube)

Ikiru/Akira Kurosawa. (Image: everyframeapainting via Screenshot/YouTube)

If you enjoy this video you might want to check out Tony Zhou’s one on Buster Keaton’s Art of the Gag.

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