Saturday, January 30, 2010

Expressing Loneliness and Isolation...

This definitely qualifies as a "so obvious, we forget to use it" piece of film making advice.. Loneliness and isolation, are powerful emotions that are often an important part of a hero's journey (Above from "Avatar"). I've found that the most effective way to express this is NOT with direct dialogue, or even an accurate drawing of the characters expressive face, but rather to place the character small in the frame and/or surround that characters by empty space. Above, a story sketch from my new film "Masks", where I used this approach in a very basic way to show one of the characters traversing the exploited badlands of his once lush home.
(Above a classic story sketch from "The Rescuers") It's effective for expressing character's emotions and it's a poignant statement, despite the fact that you're not even looking at a detailed image of the character, just their gesture and their placement within the background. It also acts as an effective establishing shot for the rest of the sequence, putting the sequence into context right out of the gate!
In addition to giving a lonely feel, Andrew Wyeth placed the female character low in the frame, creating an even more powerless position in relationship to the overpowering desolate farmland.
This painting by Kendrick Mar, expresses the same thing in a more iconic context, but the basic idea is there.. small figure, open space.


  1. Our late Dutch queen Juliana once said:"Lonely, but not alone". She was surrounded by people, but most of them were hawks and opportunists.
    I think it´s possible to show someone being lonely, amidst crowds of people. It´s all about the context.
    But I agree that your examples do express loneliness. One time I figured out that my top three of films are (somewhat) about loneliness: The Tenant (Polanski), Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger) and 2001 (Stanley Kubrick.
    2001 a space odyssey is a great example of that iconic loneliness that you talk about.

  2. Excellent point, Hisko. Loneliness can be expressed a myriad of ways, not just through basic composition. Putting someone alone in a frame is actually the most elementary way of achieving this.

    One could use the passage of time, like the undercranked bar scene in Trainspotting, when they're celebrating Renton's "cleaned-up" life.

    One could surround the character completely with people, and increase the brightness of the palette for the lonely character so that he/she popped from the crowd. Then maybe add posture/facial expression. Political cartoons love to use this.

    One could use audio cues. It's an old trick to engulf a character in people chattering (walla noise) and increase the volume of the crowd to single out the focal character as uncomfortable, claustrophobic, in chaos, stressed. The same if you bring the noise down, to silence, or to interior VO, or music- you take the crowd out of the scene and make the character alone even if they are completely surrounded visually.

    Or one could write a scene that featured many characters all interacting except for one. You could move coverage (composition over time) through the scene to serve the story (sorry- I know how you and Bill feel about that word) having each character interact with whatever the necessary context/subtext, then choose when, or when not, to include the lonely character in coverage. The lonely character could be singular in the performance blocking, and say, trying to interact, or interject, throughout the whole scene, and never getting in a word edgewise- or just be lonely and disconnected the whole time, in which case coverage and editing define when the character should be onscreen- not taking part. At the end of the scene, the group could end up looking to the character for some continuation of the subject matter, which is then given or not. Which would all depend on character traits and where the characters needed to be in the story at that time in the film. Or narrative. Or whatever. In this way the solitude is built into the content as well as the medium.

    Many ways to express things, not just visual.

  3. two great, insightful comments. I agree, many ways to illustrate this emotion on the screen. often times though, the simplistic solution can really solve the problem. and my point, when posting these basic techniques, is that they are SO every day and so obvious, the we sometimes forget.

    how's "junkyard" looking Hisko??

  4. One of the opening shots in Little Miss Sunshine always stuck with me for this very reason. It starts with Steve in the hospital lobby, with lots of empty frame all around him.

  5. Great blog! Lots of thought provoking insights here (the Rule of 3rds post was fascinating). And thanks for mentioning one of my paintings.