Centered characters – A sense of presence

What’s so hot about characters centered in the frame? After all, your average camcorder enthusiast keeps his subjects centered on the screen without even realizing it, right? So true and such a shame, as centering a character carries distinctive meanings in movie storytelling.

 

Occupying the place…

In Dances with Wolves (K. Costner, 1990), Dunbar has a strong feeling of belonging somewhere as he watches his Indian neighbors ride off to their camp after sharing an epic buffalo hunt with him. Centered in the frame, the character looks like a pillar sustaining the image, sturdy and confident.
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DUNBAR (V.O.)
“And the only word that came to mind was “harmony”.”

In Amadeus (M. Forman, 1984), Mozart is very much in his element, directing his own opera before the Emperor and his court. At the focus of admiring gazes, the prodigy naturally takes his proper place at the center of the screen.
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At the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (S. Leone, 1966), Tuco swears at Blondie who is riding off, leaving him tied up in a lost cemetery. His desperate attempt to take over the frame, running to the center of the scene, is defeated by the emptiness of the set, highlighting his unenviable position.
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TUCO
“HEY BLONDIIIE!”

At the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Q. Tarantino, 2003), the Bride opens a panel curtain and enters the Japanese garden behind — where she knows O-Ren is hiding — to fight her. Having both the character and the set centered in the frame shows her confidently walking through the front door. She isn’t afraid of meeting up with her old ‘friend’.

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…without any aggressiveness

In The Terminator (J. Cameron, 1984), the Terminator coins his famous phrase to the desk sergeant who refuses to let him in the police precinct. His menacing attitude is emphasized by his being centered in the frame, almost front facing the audience in Close Shot.
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TERMINATOR
“I’ll be back.”

At the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Q. Tarantino, 2003), the Bride comes uninvited at O-Ren’s party to fight her. What you see below are the beginning and end of the same shot, which shows the character putting herself at the center of the frame to make it clear she means business.

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In The Blue Lagoon (R. Kleiser, 1980), Emmeline and Richard have a futile argument which will end up putting both of them in serious trouble. By occupying a central position, both characters consider themselves to be acting within their rights, denying each other that position.

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EMMELINE
“I’ve seen it all. What happens…”

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EMMELINE (O.C.)
“…after you do it a long time.”

RICHARD
“Shut up! That isn’t fair, peeking.”

What’s up?

In this article, we have seen that centering characters brings out a strong sense of presence, conveying their sense of belonging to a place or promoting their aggressiveness. In next article, we will see that centered characters can also highlight completely opposite mindsets.

 

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