Image distortion (Part 1)

Distorting a part of the image on the screen is a great way to convey mixed feelings about a subject. Hare-brained, bloated, dehumanized or deceptive characters, they all can benefit from image distortion as we will see in part 1 of this article.


He is so unusual

In Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985), Sherlock Holmes and John Watson submit an artifact to Engle, the owner of a Curio Shop. The scene starts with this improbable shot, showing him scrutinizing the prop through a magnifying glass. This conveys the picturesque personality of the character with a good dose of humor.

“Nice. Oh, very nice. Egyptian!”


Bloated and dehumanized

Do you remember this sample from Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982) we came across in Frame blockers – Symmetry? Gandhi refuses to be defended at a trial where he is being charged with sedition against the British occupier. The judge’s inflexibility and bloated personality is exaggerated by the short-length lens deformation of the frame.

“It is impossible for me to ignore that you’re in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to try. Nevertheless, it is my duty to sentence you to six years’ imprisonment.”

In Brazil (T. Gilliam, 1985), Sam Lowry — a low-level civil servant — investigates the Ministry of Information database in behalf of Kurtzmann — his boss — so as to find the next of kin of a deceased taxpayer. At work, he appears as a computer geek completely committed to his job, a slavish ‘cog’ in the ‘machine’. He doesn’t have a care for the dead, he just wants to save the day. The camera circles around the character to display his face through a magnifying screen, rendering him as a brainy but bloated person.


“There we go. Buttle. Veronica. Mrs. Veronica? What’s the number on the check?”

“Uh, 271 56789/074328K”


“Right. Into memory. Central Banking. Veronica Buttle. Mrs. Deposit.”

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (P. Kaufman, 1978), Matthew Bennell — a Department of Health inspector — carries on an unannounced inspection at a French restaurant. The very first time he appears in the movie, he has a look inside the restaurant through a door viewer. The extreme ‘fish-eye’ deformation of his face brings out his suspicious and invasive personality.


“Comment ? Qui est là ? Who is it?”

“Department of Health.”


But there’s no need to blow up characters on the screen to make them appear as ‘bloated’ or dehumanized people. Back to Young Sherlock Holmes (B. Levinson, 1985), Bentley Bobster is looking forwards to the roasted bird he has ordered in a restaurant. The shot starts by depicting the character’s favorite vice in the form of a distorted reflection of his figure on a huge bell cover. Then a waiter opens the bell and we discover what this man is craving for. By keeping his figure small as compared to the size of the reflector, the shot suggests that the character is preparing to bite off more than he can chew. His immoderate love of good food is underlined by the rounded distortion of his figure.


Not what it seems

In a now deleted scene from Terminator 2 – Judgment Day (J. Cameron, 1991), the T-1000 searches John’s room to learn more about his whereabouts. In the foreground, a huge magnifying glass blows up the character’s face as he passes by. As we saw in Subframes – Replicas (Part 2), this deformation brings out his nonhuman mind, as the T-1000 is a machine, in spite of its human appearance. Note the words “SOCIAL DISTORTION” printed in reverse on a poster in the background at the beginning of the shot, echoing with the distortion of the T-1000’s appearance.


Image distortions lend themselves very well to the theme of disguise and sham appearances. Remember that shot from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (S. Spielberg, 1982) we saw in Subframes – Replicas (Part 1)? Elliott and Gertie are getting ready for Halloween, but that’s really a setup. They try to deceive their mother to help E.T. escape the house. The distortion of the boy’s face is here to suggest that he is not actually what he pretends to be. He doesn’t really intend to take part in the celebrations.

“Now you’re going as a ghost.”

“I’m only pretending I’m going as a cowgirl.”

Back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (P. Kaufman, 1978), two characters are reflected by a concave metallic surface as one is on the phone and the other tries to catch his attention in a overcrowded bookstore. The former tries to notify the police of a weird accident while the other — an unsuccessful author — keeps talking about his frustration. But the audience knows that the bookshop is filled with cloned imposters only having the appearance of humans. Even the police is in the loop. The distortion of their reflections conveys that something is amiss, that nobody really is what they pretend to be.


What’s up?

As we saw in part 1 of this article, unusual, bloated, dehumanized or deceptive characters can benefit from a distorted representation.There are other reasons why you would want to deform characters on screen; let’s see that in part 2.


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