Overlays – Transparent veils (Part 1)

Using some sort of transparent ‘veil’ between the subject and the camera reduces legibility, so why would we want to do that? Well, obfuscating characters precludes direct access to their minds. It keeps the audience at a distance, preventing them to ‘help’ the characters. As a result, the audience reacts by associating the obfuscating effect to the characters themselves, which in return helps describing their feeling troubled and helpless.



One of the most obvious ‘veils’ I can think of is curtains. In The Conversation (F. F. Coppola, 1974), Harry Caul — a private surveillance expert in San Francisco — is seen on a high-rise balcony through grayish curtains. In Brazil (T. Gilliam, 1985), Jill appears in Sam’s dreams as a ‘damsel in distress’ wrapped into a veil, softly calling out for help. Characters appear indistinct and distant through curtains. Acting as a barrier between them and the audience, the overlay keeps the former out of reach of the latter. In return, the audience casts their helplessness back to the characters, who seem unable to help themselves.


JILL (reverb effect)


When a strong light is almost aligned with the camera axis, the lens gets directly lighted, which forms a kind of ‘veil’ between the subject and the film or sensor. This effect is called a flare. In Saving Mr. Banks (J. L. Hancock, 2013), Pamela Travers remembers the wonderful moments she had with her father as a child. The large flare caused by the sun almost in line with the girl’s head gives a dreamy look to the shot, not unlike a faded photograph, a typical kind of lighting for reminiscences. This is when you want to keep the characters slightly indistinct and distant.

In Pink Floyd: The Wall (A. Parker, 1982), Pink’s father is one of the many British soldiers who died during World War II. The following shots display stark flares, keeping the image muddled and characters indistinct to convey the suffering endured by casualties in a military camp. Here, the ‘dreamy’ look is used to dehumanize the characters. Indeed, flares are an efficient way to turn subjects and action into concepts, as they prevent us from establishing a clear relationship with them. We are forced to take distance.


“Mama loves her baby,”


(song, cont’d)
“and Daddy loves you too.”


Smoke, dust or whatever microscopic particles that might float in the air are commonly displayed as overlays to separate characters from the audience. In Blade Runner (R. Scott, 1982), Bryant (on the left) summarizes the situation with Deckard (on the right) at the police headquarters. They can’t figure out why ‘replicants’ would try to break into the Tyrell Corporation from where they originate. The smoky ‘veil’ keeps both characters relatively indistinct to stress that the situation eludes them.


“Well, you tell me, pal. That’s what you’re here for.”


In Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (S. West, 2001), Wilson — a clock expert — tells Lara that he disavows knowledge of the clock she’s consulting with him about. But the lighting tells us this is not entirely true. A smoky ‘veil’ keeps the character indistinct and distant, throwing doubt over his sincerity.


“I can’t help you, Lara.”


“This clock truly is a mystery.”

Other materials

Any materials can act as a ‘veil’ as long as we can see the subject through them. In Born on the Fourth of July (O. Stone, 1989), Ron Kovic — a Vietnam War soldier — has been shot in the heel. The following shot shows him struggling to remove his jacket. In this case, the blurry weeds (out of focus) in the foreground act as an barrier, keeping the character out of reach. We are prevented from reading his facial expressions, compelled to helplessly witness the struggle of an injured soldier. As a result, we cast this feeling back to the character who appears unable to get out of trouble. Note: sound was unnecessary to convey the effect, so it has been cut out.


What’s up?

Because ‘veils’ interfere with direct communication we usually experience with characters, they act as barriers. Curtains, flares, smoke, vapor, dust, weeds or whatever we can see through, they all make characters indistinct and distant, which is suitable for reminiscences and evocations, or cheating and troubled characters. In certain cases and because they appear out of reach, we cast our helplessness back to the characters who seem unable to find their way out. In part 2, we will focus on the special case of glass overlays.


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