Epic Stills

Every film is a set of images. From the oldest German feature animation- The Adventures of Prince Achmed, to the latest Star Wars. It’s hard to think of any film which doesn’t conjure up at least one iconic or memorable image.

Those which resonate with an individual, though often, are not always the most widely iconic. Instead, it may be a single still that reminds you of the first time you watched the film or, as any form of art, it could be down to an aesthetic that enchants the viewer. In the same way, colour palette, camera angle, dialogue and music, also help us develop a love for a particular frame. 

The Apartment, 1960

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The Apartment, often thought of as being one of the most beautiful films of the latter black and whites. The most famous sequences occurs early on with the establishing shots of the office space, where the desks in the back were smaller, as were the actors- some who were children. This perspective shot, as well as the densely decorated sets, helped The Apartment win the award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (33rd Academy Awards).

It is however, the shot in which C.C Baxter finds Fran Kubelik’s broken mirror, that is both beautiful and telling. The mirror plays a significant role in the setup and payoff of information- it presents the end of Baxter’s innocence, revealing to him Kubelik’s affair with his boss Sheldrake. Looking at it as a single shot, it’s beautifully constructed, symbolic and engaging. 

Kramer vs Kramer, 1979

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French-toast attempt number two. This image alone presents a visual for change- the point AT which we see evidence to Ted Kramer’s development, from a fragile father who folds the bread and squashes it into a mug, to a more accomplished man who uses a bowl. It is of course more than his ability to successfully make french-toast that Kramer has accomplish, however in screenwriters terms, it’s a ‘show don’t tell’ shot. 

Another definitive mid-shot is of Joanna Kramer against a wall. The colour palette is uncomplicated and the setting, though barren, helps bring balance to the undistributed elements within the image. Aside from Meryl Streep’s emotionally strong performance, it becomes an image that can be appreciated in its own artist right. 

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Vivre Sa Vie, 1962

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It’s hard to select a still from a Jean-Luc Godard film. Every image can be taken, framed and admired.  Vivre Sa Vie s excels in the art of cut-ins, close ups and focalising on body parts- a hand, a back, an arm. This still presents an amalgamation of tension and comfort, beautifully balanced in lighting and composition. 

Frances Ha, 2012

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Simple framing and shot in black and white for Noah Baumbach’s modern classic, it becomes a shot that could be mistaken for a vintage postcard.  

Her, 2013

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“I wanted to avoid certain light sources, certain things that will make you connect it with something you know well. A lot of times we’d be building up the frame and then we’d say, “Let’s eliminate certain things so it looks more like a hypothetical universe.” We were also trying to create a very comfortable L.A. So it’s very much chasing the sun and capture moments in which the light is most gentle toward the city.” – Hoyte Van Hoytema (DOP), latimes.com

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Star Wars, 1977

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Both images are ‘epic’. Pre-production sketches, a solid screenplay and the mind of George Lucas, at the time, couldn’t comprehend the impact this filmmaker would have on cinema. Star Wars’ 2.35:1 widescreen ratio enhances the grandiose nature of every image.

“…the “new millennium” started in 1977 when Star Wars created a cultural and technological phenomenon and forever changed the traditional roles and interplay between the Director (George Lucas), DP (Gilbert Taylor) and SFX/VFX Team (ILM).”– Yuri Neyman, ASC (©2012 CreativeCOW.net)

A lack of close-ups within the film, focussing on medium long shots, enhances any close up that was shot. The scene at the Mos Eisley Cantin bar, is intimate, and one of few such shots. 

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Ex Machina, 2015

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Somewhere in a forest, lies a concrete and glass home with a strict security system and the billionaire who owns the expanse. It’s desolate, secret, intelligent and unnerving. The visual contrast is ever-mores striking.

“What I was seeing with my eye is what I wanted the camera to see. It wasn’t a question of looking through the camera and re-inventing the look of the movie by applying a lot that’s irrelevant to what you’re seeing. We’re gonna light the set, photograph the set and that should then carry on through the whole process into editorial, and it should feel very natural. . . We wanted to have enclosed sets. So everything had a ceiling, the doors were sealed so there would only be one entrance in and out of the set. So when that door was closed, you really felt like you were in this environment.”– Rob Hardy, DP. (http://filmschoolrejects.com)

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Play Misty For Me, 1971

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The point we are waiting for, which inevitably happens. It’s one of the darkest scenes colour-wise, in which we see Evelyn in contrast to her bright yellow clothes and the backdrop of the ocean front. This worm’s-eye view, known for its use in Pulp Fiction, Casino Royale and The Adventures of Tintin, makes for a beautifully dramatic image. 

When Harry Met Sally, 1989

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Nora Ephron’s classic romantic comedy drama, formed my early temptation into cinema and begun my aspirations for travelling to New York City. The most iconic shots are that filmed in Central Park, Katz Delicatessen, on New Years Eve and of Sally dragging a Christmas tree through the street. For me, this is the shot. The rug is now down, the sun is streaming through, the framing is centred and the sweaters are a personal favourite. Red throws the shot of balance just enough for it to be perfect.  

Moonstruck, 1987

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The moon is often abstract, appearing somewhat exaggerated. It is of course a film where the moon is in part, a central character, but it’s a piece of cinema centred on story and character. Nevertheless, the cinematography has always been highly regarded, heavily made up of medium-shots and simple close-ups. As characters are key, it is inevitable that such shots play a heavy role in this classic- but lighting and set design also pay a key role in a film full of such charm.  

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Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, 2004

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Cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman is a name synonymous with Wes Anderson’s work.  Production designer Mark Friedberg, who also worked on Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, is another creative able to produce the creative concepts formulated by Anderson.  Coming together in Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, is yet another set of beautiful images. It is hard to pick only one film, and only several frames, but Life Aquatic is one more rustic and centred on documentary work, giving some of the images a certain texture unlike his other works. 

Filmed in CinemaScope- a super-wide rectangular format, in addition to light and colour contrasts, and the whimsical elements that make up the film it is one of Anderson’s most visually dramatic works. 

“The framing is at once spectacular and intimate, elevating characters to heroic scale in close-ups and taking them down a peg in wide shots that turn them into flyspecks. More often than not, Anderson plants people and objects dead center in the frame, surrounded by acres of negative space, pinning them to their environments like butterflies behind glass.”– Matt Zoller Seitz

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Annie Hall, 1977

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It’s one of the most iconic images of the entire film, but then it is one of the most important  and funniest. During the scene, as in real life at times, what one says, is not always what is meant. Woody Allen breaks realism and tells us through subtitles, adding to the comedic elements. Annie is wearing the outfit she is most know for, whilst a floral adorned New York rooftop is the setting. It’s both romantic, idealistic and somewhat bitter.  The scene is very self aware, but visually, it remains memorable. 

With a different tone to the balcony scene, Annie is left under the spotlight as she sings for the few who intend to listen. It’s sad a beautiful moment. Strands of purple light focus on the centre of the frame, delicately illuminating Annie who sings ‘It Had to Be You’- The lighting casting purple over Annie, against the silhouettes of the audience, makes an attractive image which reflects a quintessential Woody-Allen moment. 

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Jumanji, 1995

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Despite having to be taken out of the cinema when I was taken to watch it as a child, I soon grew to love it. The shots of wild animals running through the corridors and vines twisting themselves around banisters, and legs alike, help form the aesthetics of this childhood adventure. But the contrast of normality in and amongst the ruins of what was once a normal family home, creates a beautiful composition. 

The close-up shot of the dangerously precarious game is one of the most iconic images to come from the motion picture. This one still holds much of the films tension. The shallow depth of field emphasises the ill-famed dice that control the fate of Judy, Peter, Sarah and Alan. 

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A Beautiful Mind, 2001

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The beautiful but moving tale of mathematician John Nash’s life has several beautiful shots. In the library, against algebra-ridden chalk boards, in desolate army-sheds and of the wall full of codes. Subtle colour tints, the changing of hues and an assortment of camera angles, come together to bring a heartbreaking biopic a certain cinematic texture that perhaps, would have been missed out on otherwise. The first image is more of the concept. The story behind the girl who isn’t physically present to anyone but Nash. The drama is swaddled within a simple shot.

Seeming like a snapshot from ‘Charles James: Beyond Fashion’ (Metropolitan Museum Of Art), enhanced by the couple in the background, with a slight high-angle, we’re looking down on one of the earlier, more lighthearted moments between John and Alicia.

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Another beautiful and memorable shot, is the birds-eye of Nash. 

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Mrs Doubtfire, 1994

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Despite watching the film for the entirety of my childhood and beyond, this will be the shot that remains a favourite. The tone and level of humour is captured within this one still.  

Chinatown, 1974

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Chinatown encounters two very strong styles of imagery- close-ups and wide shots. In understanding roman Polanski’s work, the importance of imagery and style is merely a side-thought. Inevitably, every image is heavily stylised and with meaning, creating a range of attractive and entrancing shots.  

“We see what Jake sees, and it’s invariably filtered or blocked–viewed from a distance through binoculars, or from outside through a door or window that obscures a more complete perspective. Photographs–snippets of time recorded on film, one of the tools of the detective trade–are potentially misleading because they don’t–can’t–capture what’s going on outside of the frame, beyond the moment. …every image is loaded with meanings, associations, resonances.”- Jim Emerson (rogerebert.com)

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American Beauty, 1999 

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Red. It’s what we’ve come to expect. Colour-matching and entirely red-drenched images have become some of the most iconic images in recent cinema. Lest we forget that Conrad Hall’s images have been analysed, praised and hung up on walls for good reasoning. Symmetrical compositions, emptiness, low-key lighting and wide-shots, come together in creating a film which can de dissected into single arresting shots.  

“I think close ups are wildly over-used, especially in films (as opposed to TV).”- Conrad Hall

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American Graffiti, 1974

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It is the setting that holds the story together. The opening shot, and a personal love for neon signs and eighties films, makes even one of the most iconic images of George Lucas’ personal exploration, remain a favourite. 

Pulp Fiction, 1994

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“Like a shot of adrenaline to the heart, “Pulp Fiction” changed the movie landscape when it opened on Oct. 14, 1994. Quentin Tarantino’s ode to crime and pop-culture was a bold new cinematic vision in a decade that badly needed one…Shot in the gorgeous wide-screen Cinemascope ratio and filled with fetishistic close-ups of squinting eyes and twitching trigger fingers, “Pulp Fiction” cinematographer Andrzej Sekula turned the sunbaked Los Angeles crime world into a Sergio Leone-style Western landscape. With its inventive compositions, prowling camera and striking use of split focus diopters, Tarantino’s brazen masterpiece recalls the visually dynamic work of ’70s era Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese.”-
Matthew Chernov – Variety Article 

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Amadeus, 1984

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On the day I first saw this in music class at school, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The film, which tells of the extravagant and eccentric life of Mozart, is just as theatrical in its visuals. Cinematpgrapher Miroslav Ondříček was Oscar nomitaed for his work on the film, and won the BAFTA. 

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Lost In Translation, 2003 

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It’s hard to find reasoning behind why you favour certain shots from one of your favourite films. But the shots in Lost In Translation show the city at its busiest and the temple at its most peaceful. Neon signs, towering buildings, glittering lights and delicate floral arrangements, are each given the same sort of attention. The first image epitomises Charlotte’s emotion is one single frame. The shallow depth of field draws attention only to her, dismissing the unnecessary need to see the city in its imposing lustre

“The movie was filmed using a 35mm Aaton 35-III for the handheld shots, and a Moviecam for the stationary shots where the camera didn’t move. The cinematographer and director of photography, Lance Acord, was able to capture the beauty of Japan and convey the emotions of the characters by using different cinematic techniques, including creative lighting, composition, lens filters and angles. As a filmmaker, Sofia Coppola is known for using the visuals more than the dialogue to tell the story. Because of this, Lost in Translation is filled with beautiful and emotional imagery.”- Jonathan Brady

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I Am Love, 2010

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I Am Love has become one of the most visually strong films to come out of the past ten years. Restrictions applied with grip and lightning in many of the locations, specifically the palazzo; so natural light, reflectors and white bounce were used. Production design, together with the technical departments, enhanced a dramatic and heartbreaking story. 

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“I was very much influenced by the revolutionary cinematography that came out during the new waves in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The cinematography came from new Hollywood, such as Roger Deakins, Gordon Willis, etc. A little bit after I started making movies in the late ’90s, I became interested in the idea that you could control and manipulate perspective and save your ass as a cinematographer or director. All the movies these days just look the same, as they all use, more or less, high contrast and different uses of color than the Technicolor era. They’re also strongly influenced by advertisements.” – Luca Guadagnino

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His Girl Friday, 1940

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This screwball comedy is nothing short of witty dialogue. It’s certainly fast paced, but looking at the frames, It’s hard to not appreciate this Hollywood classic visually. 

“The cinematic style of the classical Hollywood film is just as well defined. In addition to the familiar glossy images, three-point lighting, and generally high production values, Hollywood style comes down to this: An illusion is carefully constructed to convey the impression that we are gazing into a three-dimensional world that seems utterly real and unconsturted. “– Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique, Marilyn Fabe

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Long kiss Goodnight, 1996

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It’s a film I watched years before I should have and I remember three frames vividly: Samantha tied to a wheel, Caitlin and her mother in the freezer, and the one above. Samantha is a strong woman, stronger than what she remembers from her past, and this image epitomises that. It also gives us a visual indication of her transition from loving mother, to the woman she lost in her past. 

 Three Men And A Baby, 1987

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Though not the first film to spring to mind when discussing framing and cinematography, DOP Adam Greenberg (Ghost, The Terminator, Rush Hour), has over eighty credits to his name. Inevitably, even a lighthearted comedy drama produces handsome images. The humour of the frame comes from Jack, Peter and Michael’s attire and facial expressions, perfectly captured in one pastel-coloured shot. 

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The Shawshank Redemption

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Roger Deakins much celebrated cinematography for The Shawshank Redeption, has come to bring cinephiles some of their best loved stills. Naturally, Andy Dufresne’s escape image is the most iconic, but that of music bringing prisoners to a standstill is one of the most emotive. Dufresne challenges authority for his own compassionate reasons, and thus he plays the music out. Prisoners and officers alike stand in awe of the music, whilst Dufresne sits back with an exhausted smile- It is a part in which I have written a short paper on, but this one still, captures that euphoria. 

Pretty Woman, 1990 

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A quarter-of-a-million dollar necklace, an elevator and a red dress- three elements of  the perfect shot. 

Jaws, 1975

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Possibly the most famous dolly zoom shot in cinema, yet even as a still, it speaks a thousand words.

“While you can’t deny the brilliance behind Spielberg direction, Jaws was a success due to a talented, relentless and ambitious crew. The screenwriters deliver well drawn characters, crisp dialogue and wisely opted to introduce two villains; the face of bureaucracy and the man eating beast. Cinematographer Bill Butler did remarkable work shooting much of the film from right above the water line. The point of view of someone treading water helped increase the level of suspense … The film’s framing techniques are brilliant, most noteworthy is the steady-cam view looking down a 100 foot pole upon a rocking boat.” – popoptiq.com

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