Film Stills

The goal of the analogue photography project was to create fake film stills and reflect on the aesthetics, quality and other characteristics of the moving image.

Styling the photography on a film still requires implementation of appropriate stylistic and artistic language. A film still is just an element taken from the whole film and therefore the medium of film (not the creativity of the maker) imposes on the photography the format and aspect ratio. Currently the most popular aspect ratio is 2,35:1, while in the silent films or classic American cinema it was format close to 4:3 (1,33:1 for mute and 1,37:1 for sound movie). In 50s, in USA, was introduced aspect ratio 1,85:1 to differentiate cinema from television. In the same time in Europe appeared format 1,66:1 as a compromise between 1,37:1 and panoramic 1,85:1. Knowledge of the history of image’s format is very important in creating a film still. In my photographs I was inspired by cinema of 60s so I decided to use the aspect ratio 1,37:1.

Another factor, purely technical, to consider is the quality of image. Naturally, during the black and white cinema the picture quality was different that in the era of digital cinema, what can be seen by the noise, contrast, focus, dynamic range and of course color. The ideal solution would be using the equipment from the period of imaginary film, which is our inspiration. Therefore to take my photographs, I used the analogue camera Nikon FM2, introduced in 1982. As a result, I was able to get the aesthetic of the film reel, which is closer to the style of 60s movies than aesthetic of photos taken with DSLR.

The next phase of my work was the reflection on what makes the image cinematic. What distinguishes it from amateur videos and because of what we can immediately recognize that the image comes from a film production. Undoubtedly one of the measures used by the filmmakers  is characteristic, elaborated lighting. Creating my series I was inspired by the lighting used in films noir, with harsh key light, underexposure of the rest of the image, long unnatural shadows and strong backlight. It can be seen especially in figure 1 and 2., where it dominates the backlight making figures shadowed (in fig. 1 the figure on the first plane, in 2. the figure on the background). The image seems to be more dynamic and mysterious, what serves in cinema to emphasize the atmosphere.

fig. 1
Figure 1.
fig. 2
Figure 2.

Also the composition is subordinated to the goals of emphasizing the atmosphere. Both in photography and in cinema, dominates mainly the classic rule of thirds (fig. 4) and golden ratio (fig. 3), but also more dynamic diagonal composition based on golden triangle rule (fig. 5) and hypnotizing composition of golden spiral (fig. 6).

fig. 5
Figure 5. Golden Triangle
fig. 6
Figure 6. Golden Spiral
fig. 3
Figure 3. Golden Ratio
fig. 4
Figure 4. Rule of Thirds

We completely differently perceive the scene from The Tree of Life [1](fig. 7) composed symmetrically and statically according to the rule of thirds which creates the atmosphere of calm and harmony and differently the dynamic composition based on diagonal lines from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [2](fig. 8), heralding the danger from the Cesar somnambulist.  It does not make the rule according to which the symmetrical composition based on rule of thirds cannot create the atmosphere of terror and the diagonal one cannot be calm, but it shows how we  can emphasize our ideas using properly the artistic language of film.

fig. 7
Figure 7. The Tree of Life
fig. 8
Figure 8. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Despite the similarity in the composition of still and moving image, there is a fundamental difference between them, which is based on the essence of interaction. The photography tells a story using just one picture so it is the composition closed in their own frames. We look at the finite image. Figures and objects on the image are subjected to the relationship between each other or between them and audience which we can understand at a glance. Even if there is open composition, what is outside the frame is also in a certain sense finite by the fact that this is the story of one image stopped in time. In cinema the situation is different because it is the medium based on time. Looking at a film still we are aware that this is just a fragment of a whole story. The protagonist always refers us to something else that is directly connected with the plot of film but what does not necessarily has to be explained and present on this picture. Therefore the creation of a film still is not subordinated to the coercion of telling the finished, closed and immediately explained story. We do not necessarily have to understand what is happening in the image. It has a rather different function: to stimulate our curiosity and to suggest that beyond the frame exists whole reality.

Looking at the film still from The Roman Holiday [3] (fig. 9), we can easily see another key difference. At the image is a couple photographed on the Spanish Steps in Rome – one of the most touristic places. However we don’t perceive it as a photography from holiday, what would indicate the place, summer time and protagonists. Indeed comparing this still with a stock photography with relatively similar composition (fig. 10), we can see the key difference which is the matter of interaction. In the case of photography the most important interaction is that between protagonists and the camera or audience while on the film still protagonists are always in the interaction only between them. Even if they are alone on the frame, their thoughts still reference to another protagonists or events from the movie (as in Psycho [4] of Hitchcock where driving Marion – fig. 11 – thinks about stolen money what is also emphasized by voiceover). They are not aware of the presence of audience and cinematographer as it happens in the photography where figures interact with the creator being equal and on the same surface.

Figure 9. Roman Holiday
Figure 10. Photo stock
Figure 11. Psycho

Also the goals of both photographer and cinematographer are different. While the first has to aesthetize the moment, object or figure, the second one has to serve the storytelling being in the same time invisible for the audience. This subordination to the storytelling is extremely important in the composition of film still. In the  case of photography on the first plane is always the protagonist, which doesn’t have to be a human: it can be the drop of a milk [5],  mountain range like in Ansel Adams’s photographs or an animal like in photographs of National Geographic. This chosen by the photographer protagonist is the most important element of the image and whole composition is subordinated to it. In the cinema more important is the story. The protagonist is not in every frame and he is not always the most important on the image. The essence of my thought has concluded Alfred Hitchcock in an interview he gave Francois Truffaut in 1966, adopting the principle of differentiation the size of the filmed objects in proportion their importance at the moment.[6] This is clearly visible in the scene from Psycho, in which Marion, after the theft of money, is preparing to flee. Hitchcock in one long shot showed first dressing Marion (fig. 12), then close-ups of the envelope with money (fig. 13)  and the suit (fig. 14). These objects for a moment became more important that Marion, who seems to be protagonists of the movie (which will change in the course of events emphasizing even more my thought). Hitchcock uses them as symbols by which he builds the story and explain the action of protagonists.

Figure 12.
Figure 13.
Figure 14.

We cannot forget about the fact that film is a medium based on the word, while the photography is generally mute. Therefore the relationship between the frame and subtitles is so important. Every element of a movie is carefully thought out: every dialog, composition, object, frame. They all are important for storytelling and none of them is useless. The relations between the image and text may be various. It can be relationship based on the contrast as in Gone with the Wind [7] (fig. 15) where the elegant appearance of gentleman Rhett Butler contrasts with his harsh words he is saying to Scarlett O’Hara: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”. Another way to attract the attention of the viewer may be controversy, as in Niagara [8] (fig. 16), where Marylin Monroe lying in bed in alluring pose saying “who says the nights are for sleeping?”. In this way she simply seduces the audience who wants to see more. Instead using of irony entertains the audience because of its carefully chosen words and intelligent humor. It was used for example in The Young Philadelphians [9] (fig. 17) during the dialog between Joan Dickinson and Anthony Judson Lawrence where Joan says “I have no talents. Nothing. I was very well educated to be an idiot”. In the auteur cinema common procedure is to use philosophical, reflective texts which involve the audience leaving it with a problem to resolve. It happens in Breathless [10]where Patricia asks “does the soul exist in modern society?” touching the problem of anonymity and mass character of these days.

Figure 15. Gone with the Wind
Figure 16. Niagara
Figure 17. The Young Philadelphians
Figure 18. Breathless

In the case of my photographs I wanted to link the text with the image forming a coherent whole. Assuming that my stills come from the psychological story about the girl that is  unable to trust her own senses and reason, and living somewhere between the real world and own imagination, I wanted to emphasize the idea with the subtitles. Hence the reflective texts as „the set of the letters of seeing is a finite set”, “In dreams we sometimes see alternative physics”, and “eyes mean shit”, which additionally provokes the viewer through the sharpness of expression, irony and unusual character. Considering the fact that the protagonist is a young girl, perhaps a writer, perhaps a journalist, I wanted to accentuate it with the poetic words like „hence heaven has a shape of a human”.  The using of „It seems like every picture holds something I yearn for” was to show the confusion of the girl and her loneliness in her detached from the reality and society. „Quitting smoking would be like killing someone you love” was supposed to discharge the tension of the series by funny exaggerated comparison. It also makes the series  more convincing. It seems to be a possible collection of stills from a movie in which we can find both deep, reflective monologues as well as those causing a slight smile, to preserve the balance between what is heavy and what is light.


[1] The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, 2011
[2] Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Robert Wiene, 1920
[3] The Roman Holiday by William Wyler, 1953
[4] Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock, 1961
[5] Harold Edgerton, Milk Drop Coronet, 1957
[6] „I maintained the rule of varying the size of the image in relation to its emotional importance within a given episode.” [in:] Truffaut Francois, Hitchcock/Truffaut, New York 1983, s.180
[7] Gone with the Wind by Victor Fleming, George Cukor and Sam Wood, 1942
[8] Niagara by Henry Hathaway, 1953
[9] The Young Philadelphians by Vincent Sherman, 1959
[10] Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard, 1960



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Bordwell David, Thompson Kristin, Film Art: An Introduction. Boston 2004
Deleuze Gilles, Cinema. 1. The Movement Image. 2. The Time Image, trans. J. Margański, Gdańsk 2008
Garbicz Adam, Klinowski Jacek: Kino, wehikuł magiczny. Przewodnik osiągnięć filmu fabularnego. T. 1: Podróż pierwsza 1913–1949. Kraków 1981
Katafiasz Olga, Wojnicka Joanna, Słownik wiedzy o filmie. Bielsko-Biała 2005
Płażewski Jerzy: Historia filmu dla każdego. Warszawa 1968
Truffaut Francois, Hitchcock/Truffaut, New York 1983