Many films are beautifully shot. Few, though, are as consistently well composed as Chinatown (1974)*. Shot in Panavision (anamorphic) format with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio the somewhat extreme rectangular image would seem to offer significant challenges to effective image composition. As I was pondering this challenge I was struck by how much I loved the images in Chinatown, which I just watched again the other day. That’s when I went back to basics and considered that even with widescreen images there are still fundamentals of composition at play. In this case I figured I would grab a few images from the film and apply the Rule of Thirds to each image.
The Rule of Thirds is simply as follows:
Divide the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, then put the focus of the image either one third across (from either side) or one third up or down the screen. Those lines, and the points at which they intersect, are the strongest invisible forces in an image.
In Chinatown the images are constructed around those lines and intersecting points. By doing this the aspect ratio becomes a relatively mute point as the human brain automatically takes in the whole image, mentally divides the image into thirds, and finds pleasure as key visual elements are constructed around those thirds. Of course, deviation from the power of the thirds creates visual tension, which is an additional tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox.
Chinatown was shot by John A. Alonzo. Here are the images from film (I, of course, added the white lines):
This is a simple process of analysis. More involving would be to examine how the rule applies to changing composition withing shots as they are re-framed or the actors move about. One thing I noticed was that all the extreme close-ups put the object of focus directly in the center of the middle square. Placing visual elements along the “third lines” was reserved for medium shots and long shots. Finally, the rule of thirds does not guarantee that an image will be good, or work well for a particular scene. However, fundamentals are fundamentals. Without them one will not only have difficulty maintaining a consistent quality, but one cannot truly “break the rules.” The irony is that fundamentals are what allow filmmakers to innovate and stay fresh.
* This is my opinion, of course, but there is a quality in the film’s imagery that is truly wonderful and yet difficult to pin down.