Scaling down – Have subjects move to the background (Part 1)

Making characters move towards the background scales them down on screen. Unsurprisingly, the emotional response from the audience is more or less the opposite to that associated to having them come to the foreground. But shrinking characters in the frame comes with a number of completely different storytelling uses, as we will see now.

Revealing characters and their environment

Letting characters move from the foreground to the background is a common way to reveal both their appearance and their environment. Marnie (A. Hitchcock, 1964) starts with a tracking shot of the yellow purse a woman is carrying. Then the camera slows down for a second to let the character walk ahead and partly reveal her appearance. Finally, the camera stops and lets the woman walk to the background, fully revealing the set her back was concealing. In The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers (P. Jackson, 2002), the same approach is used the first time a Nazgul appears in the film, starting with Close Shots of the rider (concealing both his mount and the set), then tilting the camera as he flies away to depict the Nazgul and its huge scale in relation to the set.

Because characters become less important as they recede on screen, tilting the camera to follow characters moving away from the camera is well suited to transitioning from those characters to their destinations. For instance, at the beginning of Red Beard (A. Kurosawa, 1965), a pan-tracking shot introducing Dr. Yasumoto reveals the environment of the film (a public clinic) as the character and his baggage porters walk to the background. In Cliffhanger (R. Harlin, 1993), a similar pan-tracking shot follows the helicopter carrying Treasury agent Wright flying away from the camera so as to reveal its goal: the mountains in the background.


Revealing a character’s business

Smaller than background sets are background props. Their specific meaning in the story can be brought up simply by watching characters heading to them. For instance, in A Clockwork Orange (S. Kubrick, 1971), watching Alex staggering towards the background window instantly reveals that the character wants to shorten his suffering and throw himself through it. Moreover, watching a character moving to a small-scale background prop draws our attention to that prop while keeping it mysterious — perhaps even scary — as in The Thing (J. Carpenter, 1982), when Fuchs finds suspicious clothing in the snow. The character’s goal is kept mysterious for a moment as we can’t clearly see what it is. But if you think about it, what makes both shots scary is that the characters deliberately move away from us, and we feel helpless to ‘protect’ them at that distance. I know this might sound silly, but we have all heard people in movie theaters screaming at characters in danger without realizing it (e.g. kind of “Don’t!”, “Watch out!”, you know what I mean). They experience the movie as they experience real life, and in real life, they would be unable to protect the characters at that distance, so they shout to warn them of some impending danger (read more in Overlays – Translucency and opacity).


Leaving the scene

Characters get smaller as they recede in the frame. As a result, letting them move away from the camera objectifies those characters, which means we are less involved with them as they fade away. This is why characters are often made to leave the scene by moving to the background, so that the audience can disconnect from them emotionally and expect to move on to something else. For example, at the end of For a Few Dollars More (S. Leone, 1965), we watch Col. Mortimer riding off towards the setting sun from his associate Monco’s POV. We naturally feel we are done with that character, so we disconnect from him and come back to Monco resuming ‘work’, tossing lifeless bodies into a wagon. In Wanted (T. Bekmambetov , 2008), Fox is made to leave the scene in her totaled car after a hectic car chase so that we can turn the page and move on to her destination — supposedly hours later. Note: This is an important editing pattern that will be covered in depth in an upcoming article.

Actually, letting the leading character move to the background is very often used not only to close a scene, but also to end a movie. Rambo: First Blood Part II (G. Cosmatos, 1985) ends with a shot of John Rambo leaving Col. Trautman behind and walking off into the distance while the camera zooms out to accentuate the effect (more on this later). For a Few Dollars More (S. Leone, 1965) ends with a shot of Monco fading away in a wagon as the camera moves upwards and end titles fill the void.


What’s up?

Watching characters moving away from the camera towards the background has a number of uses in storytelling, from revealing the set, their own appearance or ‘business’, to leaving the scene so that we can skip to another subject, even ending a movie. But we also saw that this sudden ‘remoteness’ could have an emotional impact on the audience, which will be covered in more detail in part 2.


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