Repetition – Portrait galleries and evocations

Now that the topic of repetition has been touched on with fixed angles, let’s review its many different uses in movie storytelling, starting off with portrait galleries and evocations.


Portrait gallery

Displaying characters one by one in a series of shots more or less similar in scale — which is what I call a portrait gallery — is a very efficient way to put the audience right into static but tense action. The repetitive scale of the shots brings out the seriousness of the situation, as though we were utterly concerned with characters and action. For example, such series of portraits is used to depict three apparently conflicting characters at the beginning of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (S. Leone, 1966). We intensely scrutinize the traits of the characters as they walk towards each other, as though it was key to understanding the action, which leads us to think the characters are about to engage in a fight.

Depending on the context, sequential portraits of scary characters can even turn tension into fear. Such sequences are typically used in adventure and horror movies to describe crowds of menacing characters (e.g. pirates, zombies) from the victim’s viewpoint. Here an example from Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981), where Jones comes face to face with a group of Ovitos. The repetitiveness of the shots conveys the tension of the encounter. The more frightening the characters, the more scary the result, as demonstrated by this excerpt from Creepshow (G. A. Romero, 1982), where a series of Close Shots of two characters peeking into a crate suddenly includes a reverse shot of monster eyes peeking at them from inside the crate at the exact same shot scale.

Used in a less dramatic context, this very technique can produce completely opposite results. For instance, the repetitive aspect of a portrait gallery is a great asset for mocking characters, either because of what they are doing — as in Birdy (A. Parker, 1984), where the characters’ disproportionate endeavor to capture a little dog is highlighted by a series of Medium Full Shots — or what they represent — as in A Clockwork Orange (S. Kubrick, 1971), where the repetitive scale of the shots emphasizes the ludicrous situation the character is going through.

Portrait galleries can be formatted in many different ways, depending on the context. For instance, TV interviews lend themselves very well to presenting characters from a humorous angle, as in Full Metal Jacket (S. Kubrick, 1987), when a TV crew interviews the main characters about their respective involvement in the Vietnam war. In Wall Street (O. Stone, 1987), the repetitive aspect of the portrait gallery is displayed as a mosaic of subframes where characters are shown to take action as Wall Street spreads a rumor — not without a certain humorous tone. Photomontages, newspaper headlines, monitoring screens, mirrors, the number of portrait-gallery designs is virtually infinite.

Note: Learn more about pitfalls related to portrait galleries in Editing – The 30-degree rule (Part 2).


Evocation and illustration

Many evocation and illustration sequences are based on the same concept. Let’s start off with evocative depictions of the surrounding environment. In The Avengers: The Morning After (J. Hough, 1969), a long series of shots similar in scale and composition, all featuring symbolic objects in the foreground, depicts the eerie ghost town the characters are immersed into. In Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (T. Tykwer, 2006), a more straightforward approach is used to bring out the countless scents that are invading the character’s nostrils. In both examples, the evocations are fueled by the repetitive aspect of the shots.

Evocations of a single subject are frequently edited as catalogs of striking pictures showing its various aspects. In Max Payne (J. Moore, 2008), Lupino’s appearance and evil personality are described by a speedy sequence of very short shots — almost snapshots — showing him ‘at work’. With a wry sense of humor, the same kind of illustration sequence is used to refute the character’s statement in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (T. Gilliam, 1988).

Speaking of snapshots, like portrait galleries, evocations can be stylized in many different ways. In Run Lola Run (T. Tykwer, 1998), the future of a surly woman is shown in an expeditious series of snapshot-like shots. On a completely different note, a slideshow of static shots centered on pictures of Karen’s happy family life depicts how she feels after realizing that her husband is cheating on her in Love Actually (R. Curtis, 2003). Although both of them are based on a series of photographs, these evocations are formatted in two very different ways for two very distinct results.


What’s up?

The repetitiveness of portrait galleries is key to achieving important effects, most of them pertaining to presenting the action or characters in either a scary or a caricatural way. Evocations and illustrations are also very often based on that editing technique by depicting a subject or situation in a slideshow of evocative pictures for a large array of effects.

In next article, we will continue exploring repetition in movie storytelling with multiple, two-way and chain reactions.


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