Off-centered characters – Marginalized

Just as centering characters in the frame bears typical meanings, off-centering characters carries its own. In this series, we will consider the main reasons for leaving a character against the frame border.

 

Isolated

In Wall Street (O. Stone, 1987), Gekko is lost in awe at the beauty of the see at dawn as he phones Bud from the beach to wake him up. The character has been off-centered to let nature speak for itself. He’s just a witness of its beauty.
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In Dances with Wolves (K. Costner, 1990), Dunbar sees a lonely wolf staring at him. At first, he thinks the wolf is a threat and prepares to shoot at it. But he realizes that the animal is just seeking company. Having the wolf off-centered in this shot of Dunbar’s POV makes it look harmless, even pitiful.
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In Alien (R. Scott, 1979), Ash breaks away from the crew when a creature emerges from Kane’s belly at lunch and inexplicably gets them to let it flee rather than kill it. Maintained off-centered close to the frame border during the whole scene, this character seems in opposition with the rest of the crew, showing off his suspicious behavior (i.e. not playing fair). No one understands his motivations yet.

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In Sherlock – A Study in Pink (P. McGuigan, 2011), Sherlock listens to Watson praising him for his amazing talent for deduction. The two-shot cuts to a one-shot of Sherlock, alone and off-centered in the frame, commenting on his friend’s last remark as though he was speaking to himself, thinking “out loud”. This shot shows him voluntarily excluding himself from the relationship in order to be left alone in his own solitary world. Note how the empty space is not on Watson’s side to emphasize the isolating effect of the shot.

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WATSON
“It was extraordinary, quite extraordinary.”

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SHERLOCK
“That’s not what people normally say.”

WATSON (O.C.)
“What do people normally say?”

SHERLOCK
“Piss off!”

Against the wall

In Outland (P. Hyams, 1981), Doctor Lazarus joins Federal Marshal O’Niel in the squash court of a mining outpost based on a satellite of Jupiter. They know that killers have been hired to do him. She wants to assist him but her off-centered position shows that she doesn’t know how. He would like to take action, but his off-centered position shows that he hasn’t yet figured out what to do. Both characters literally have their backs to the wall and, more importantly, to the frame border, undecided but bound to co-operate.

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LAZARUS
“You know, if you’re the kind of guy you’re supposed to be‚ you wouldn’t stick around.”

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LAZARUS (O.C.)
“That’s why they sent you.”

O’NIEL
“Maybe they made a mistake.”

In The Matrix (A. & L. Wachowski, 1999), Trinity — who is secretly taking care of Neo — discovers she’s been spied on by Cypher. Her off-centered position shows that she feels as though she was caught in the act, while Cypher’s off-centered position shows a cunning man trying to blame her out of jealousy. Both characters are entrenched in defensive positions, their backs to the wall, or let’s better say to the frame border.

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CYPHER (O.C.)
“I don’t remember you ever…”

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CYPHER
“…bringing me dinner.”

In Jaws (S. Spielberg, 1975), Chief of Police Brody is sure that the teenager who died the day before has been killed by a shark. Discouraged to put signs around the beach by the council, he undertakes personal surveillance of the waterfront. The following shots show him at two different moments of the same scene. Both display him off-centered to convey that he is involved even though not as freely as he would like. He’s been sidelined, relegated to the role of an observer looking after the bathers from one side of the screen. Note that he will appear centered again the moment he witnesses a new shark attack at the end of that very scene.

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At the beginning of Sherlock – A Study in Pink (P. McGuigan, 2011), Watson — an army doctor who’s been traumatized by war — suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The following two consecutive shots mean to suggest that he is to make a decision about the walking stick resting against his desk. His off-centered position shows that he is bound to do something about his situation, his back against the wall (i.e. frame border).

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What’s up?

In the first article of the series, we came across two main categories of reasons why you would want to have characters off-centered in the frame. Close to the side of the screen, characters may appear insignificant, isolated, sidelined or bound to make a decision. In next article, we will consider the pressure that the empty space can put on off-centered characters.

 

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