The Living Lens: why the human eye is the most important directorial tool

The Living Lens: why the human eye is the most important directorial tool

Walk yourself round an art gallery and find what you are most drawn to. So many faces surround you, but I’m sure its those staring out at you that are most engaging. The human eye is obsessed with itself and is therefore drawn to other human eyes, to unite each owner of the eyes. It’s why the look to camera, as well as breaking the fourth wall, is not often used in film: it is an exceptionally distracting display as the viewer is likely unable to look at anything else on screen when a set of eyes is staring back at them.

There are many artistic theories which point out what the human eye is drawn to and therefore how trickery in film can be used to direct the audience’s view. The Fibonacci Spiral is probably the most well known, which dictates what is most aesthetically pleasing to the eye using a rule of thirds.

Rather than centred, as some might expect, the focus of the artwork is balanced in thirds. The famous artworks, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa most obviously use this principle.

As much as a director must dictate which way the camera turns, they must also consider what the audience looks at on that screen.

Film is able to take this theory and put it onto screen, using focus and out-of-focus, colour, distance, and even sound to draw the audience towards a particular space on the screen. As much as a director must dictate which way the camera turns, they must also consider what the audience looks at on that screen.

Horror films might be nearly not so scary if you were constantly looking in the background to look for ghosts and monsters ready to jump out, so the audience is specifically drawn to some other action on-screen in order to make the background happenings even more unexpected. When a character is looking off-screen, we anticipate the camera turning to show us what they are seeing, and our eye diligently focuses on the subject of the character’s attention as the screen does eventually turn.

This interplay of perception and emotion is elegantly used in many of the greatest films.

Double focus scenes can confuse the eye but they allow the audience to look wherever they want. If the character in the background is as equally in focus as the character in the foreground, there is a duality in their experiences; we are not experiencing one after the other. At the same time though, this can make the audience member very jumpy: with so much in focus on-screen they look everywhere, expecting everything. This interplay of perception and emotion is elegantly used in many of the greatest films so keep a focused eye out for it during your next movie night.

Advances in technology have called for even closer consideration of the physicality of human perception. Most recently, The Mandalorian has made use of first-person video game technology in which the setting around the character must adapt simultaneously with the player’s chosen movements, using parallax shifts to ensure the depth of the setting matches the character’s, and therefore the player’s, view.

‘The Volume’ is a semi-spherical screen within which miniature sets are made. Beyond these sets, the screen displays a video of the distant setting with the parallax in place so that when the camera moves the screen moves with it. Otherwise, it would appear flat and immersion in that extra terrestrial world would be lost.

Older examples of such technologies can be found in early Disney animations: a multi-plane camera would move forwards through several layers of setting to capture the sense that the audience member is moving through a scene. This technique was used at a time when depth was difficult to replicate in hand-drawn animation.

So, next time you’re watching a film, make the conscious decision to look beyond what the director is forcing you to see. Doing so, you may better experience the talents of the set designers, background artists, and supporting actors as they quietly set the scene while knowing they won’t be the primary focus. Conscious viewing can enlighten our understanding of the process of filmmaking, and allow us to be the director of our own built-in camera: the human eye.

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