I learned a couple lessons while watching Selma in the theaters last month. The director, Ava DuVernay, did an excellent job at portraying Martin Luther King Jr. as the larger-than-life, heroic icon, while still keeping him as a real, relatable human being.
How did she do it?
Here are two tricks I picked up on. The first is more relevant to filmmakers and visual artists, but the second is relevant to any storyteller.
1. The Power Shot
For this one, DuVernay broke a common cinematic rule. (You rebel, you!)
Let me explain. While I was watching the movie, there were quite a few shots of King (David Oyelowo), where I was glued to the screen, thinking, “What is it with this shot?! It looks so nice! There’s this sense of… power radiating from Oyelowo’s character. I can’t put my finger on it.”
At first, I thought it was just the classy way the characters were dressed, or Oyelowo’s stellar performance. Both of these things certainly helped. But I realized, more than anything else, it was the way the shot was framed.
Look at this example. Can you see anything out of place?
If you’re familiar with cinematic or photography rules, you’ll know that this shot breaks one of the big ones: The rule of thirds. This rule states that the point of interest must always stay away from the center. The frame is broken into a grid of thirds that dictate where the character, or subject of the frame, should rest.
Here’s an example of a shot from the movie that follows this rule:
As you can see, the actress is framed off to the side, with lead room to the right. This is generally the most desirable framing for a shot.
But, as they always say, rules are made to be broken. “Always keep your subject away from the center,” mentors will tell you, “unless you have a good reason for it.”
In this case, DuVernay had a good reason.
Take a look at this shot:
Instead of framing Oyelowo to the side, this shot is boldly centered, head on. The space around him creates a sense of power and respect.
The movie Selma is full of shots like this. Check out these examples:
What if these shots were framed off to the side, instead of in the center? They wouldn’t have the same effect. Because he is centered, we are forced to focus on him – even more so than we typically would – and we subconsciously assign to him the feelings of awe and respect that his iconic, heroic character deserves.
I can think of an example from another movie where this trick is used. In a scene of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the heroic, swaggering character of Aragorn (played by Viggo Mortensen) barges in through double doors at Helm’s Deep. The moment is powerfully iconic – in part because Aragorn’s nonchalant, sudden appearance comes after all the characters thought he was dead – but also because the shot is ideally framed to generate that sense of awe and respect from the audience.
If the shot had been framed off-center, would Aragorn’s entrance have seemed that cool? I think not.
2. The Ordinary Task
DuVernay not only portrayed King as a powerful icon, but kept him very real and human. There were many techniques that she used to achieve that, but one in particular stood out to me.
Towards the beginning of the movie, there’s a scene where King and his wife are having a tense conversation in the kitchen. As they’re talking, Mrs. King hands him a plastic bag – and we watch as he takes out the trash.
The scene struck me. It’s unconventional to show a movie character doing something as menial and unglamorous taking out the trash. But in that moment, as Mr. and Mrs. King carried this commonplace task, familiar to millions or even billions of us normal people, something suddenly clicked. I was right there with them. The iconic character of Martin Luther King Jr. transformed before my eyes into an authentic, relatable person — someone just like me that had simply decided to stand up and do what was right.
Martin Luther King Jr. could be anybody.
The moment was simple, but powerful. It completely transformed the way I saw the character – and the historical figure – that was King.
What ordinary tasks could make your characters more relatable? Have you ever used the “power shot” in your filmmaking or photography? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂
(Source for Aragorn gif: My Fangirl Life)