How to Use Movement to Stand Out

5 types of visual movement you can apply in your films.

You’re a filmmaker, not a playwright.

From Rashomon | Daiei Film Co., Ltd., 1950

From Rashomon | Daiei Film Co., Ltd., 1950

Three men seek shelter from the rain under the ruined gate of the ancient city of Kyoto. There is nothing to do but talk, about a topic which torments two of the wayfarers, who have just been witnesses in a police court inquiry…

So begins Rashomon, director Akira Kurosawa’s meditation on relativity and human nature, described by scholar Alexander Sesonske as “the best known, most widely shown Japanese film of all time.”

There are some incredible silent sequences in Rashomon, but there’s also a lot of conversation.

I’m especially sensitive to this onscreen. Some years ago, I directed a short with lengthy dialogue sequences, which led me to wonder why it merited a film’s visual treatment. Would not the drama read just as well onstage? Why tell this story as a film instead of a play?

Despite my bias, Rashomon drew me into its dreamy medieval world. Eventually, I came to realize the role that movement plays in packing the film – dialogue sequences and all – with symbolic meaning and visual interest that would not have been possible onstage.

For example, the torrential rain in Rashomon suggests the obscurity created by lies and subjectivism, while simultaneously entrancing the eye. This movement of nature adds depth, both narrative and visual, to the wayfarers’ conversation.

Kurosawa was a master of movement. “It’s the visual stimulation that hits the audience [in his work],” director Sidney Lumet reflects. “That’s the reason for film, otherwise we should just turn the light out and call it radio.”

Or theatre, or photography, or painting.

Because Kurosawa was so central to my awakening to the power of movement and its ability to vitalize a film, I was thrilled to discover Every Frame a Painting’s recent analysis, “Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement”.

It’s a fantastic breakdown of the director’s dynamic compositions that identifies five types of movement: movement of nature, such as the rain in Rashomon; movement of groups; movement of individuals; movement of camera; and movement of cut.

Take eight minutes to give it a watch:

The comparison between Seven Samurai and The Avengers is especially interesting. As much as I love Joss Whedon, the video makes a good point: “If you know what the scene is about, try to express it through movement,” filmmaker Tony Zhou encourages us.

He also discusses the importance of externalizing the internal: “Take the feeling that’s inside the character, and bring it out through the background”; a technique which Kurosawa manipulated to great effect.

So, next time you’re directing a scene – dialogue-heavy or otherwise – remember the rain. You’re a filmmaker, not a playwright! Use movement to tell your story.

 Michael Koehler, with

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