Space and Movement: Building Blocks of Visual Structure

Space and Movement: Building Blocks of Visual Structure

Welcome to my very first blog post where I’ll be analyzing Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, a film inspired by the true story of Bertie, the Duke of York, and his journey finding his voice to encourage his nation teetering over the brink of world war for the second time.  Today, I will look at how director Tom Hooper uses movement and space (as defined in Bruce Block’s A Visual Story) to reflect the state of Bertie’s emotional well-being, his courage and progress overcoming his stammer, and his willingness to trust his peculiar speech therapist, Lionel Logue, all while building tension to best serve the climax of the film.  And just FYI, there are a ton of *SPOILERS* in this discussion, so I am assuming you’ve already seen the film.  

First, I need to do a quick recap of the visual component of movement, which has different classifications based on whether or not the motion is actual, apparent, induced, or specifically perceived in relation to the frame (Block).  Movement can pertain to objects moving within the frame, the camera motion, or the audience’s eye movement as they follow objects on the screen.  Different attributes affect visual intensity including: direction, quality (as in curved or straight), scale (as in duration or distance), and speed of motion.  In addition, camera motion can be simple and two-dimensional or complex and three-dimensional.  3D motion (like the dolly, crane, or tracking shot) creates more relative movement than 2D motion (like the zoom, pan or tilt) because the foreground, midground and background elements move at different rates (Block).  Just think about the parallax effect; a long crane shot of a car chase will have a higher visual intensity than a brief, panning shot of someone strolling down a sidewalk.

Movement can often affect the visual component of space.  Space refers to the two or three-dimensionality of the frame.  Does the scene look flat or does it have more perspective lines or other depth cues?  Space can also be categorized depending on whether it feels closed within the frame or open and bursting from the seams.  Creating an open space is actually quite difficult to do because of all the lines within a shot from walls and windows, for example, that reinforce the outer edges of the frame.  Minimizing lines within the frame, using fast motion, and/or allowing lots of objects to move in and out of the frame tends to open up the space, giving the shot a much higher visual intensity (Block).

I mention these visual components because all good storytelling uses visual structure to support the rising climax of the story structure.  For example there should be higher overall visual tension when the story is closer to the climax.  Any time the director breaks the normal visual pattern, it should somehow be related to the story because the audience will feel it one way or another, whether intended or not.  So let’s look at the typical visual structure in this film so we can recognize the deviations.  Tom Hooper uses:

  • Minimal camera movement unless following the subject
  • Little to no relative movement within the frame
  • Many Steadicam and handheld shots
  • Very few tracking shots
  • Wide angle lenses

Here’s an example describing how the camera moves to follow the subject.  For instance, when Bertie bursts out of the room after nearly swallowing the elocutionist’s marbles, the handheld camera never allows Bertie to leave the frame despite the outburst.  The marble scene is posted below:

Tom Hooper was 

composing these rock solid frames because [he] felt that somehow stammering is about inhabiting a sense of constriction and stiffness…There’s hardly any tracking and [he] save[s] movement [until] later in the climax when Bertie’s overcoming his blocks.  

Most of the time the camera only makes simple tilts and/or pans to ensure that the subject remains in view.  The Steadicam generates a bit more relative movement because it is moving three-dimensionally, but it usually leads or follows the subject at the exact same pace.  The background may change but, for all intents and purposes, the subject remains fairly stationary on screen.  The few tracking shots tend to be reserved for those who can communicate freely.  Tom Hooper uses dolly shots almost exclusively to increase the visual tension and the wide angle lenses show it off beautifully; when that happens, it’s usually a pivotal moment in Bertie’s journey. 

There are several watershed moments in Bertie’s struggle that demand more visual intensity.  After his humiliating exchange with his father, Bertie decides to find out how badly he stuttered at Lionel’s consultation, so he plays the souvenir recording.  The camera creeps forward around the record player to uncover Bertie seated on the couch and pushes past him to reveal Elizabeth standing in the doorway, shocked at hearing Bertie’s flawless speech.  This take stands out because it is by far the longest take in the film; it lasts 92.7 seconds when the average shot length is only 6.7 seconds (Cinemetrics).  There’s always more visual intensity with a longer take.  The camera flows independently of the actors and serves to visually support Bertie’s paradigm shift.  Now he knows it’s possible to overcome his stammer.  

When Elizabeth and Berty return to Lionel strictly for business, Tom Hooper uses a training montage to capture all their rigorous hard work over time.  The camera melodically moves in and out.  Bertie swings his arms, rolls across the rug, and stands straight up from the floor.  These curved and vertical movements have a higher visual intensity, especially whenever combined with a dollying camera.  Although Bertie still struggles to speak publicly, the increased movement showcases Bertie’s attempt to break free from the confines of his stammer. The montage clip is posted below:

After the death of King George V, Bertie visits Lionel but instead of speech therapy, the two commiserate more than usual.  The camera pushes in on the two of them seated together.  Although Bertie and Lionel still have a long way to go, it’s as if the camera motion is inviting us to pull up a chair and listen in to this intimate moment where Bertie opens up for the first time, marking a shift in their relationship from “no personal nonsense” to eventual lifelong friendship (Hooper).  

Later Lionel and Bertie go for a walk to discuss Bertie’s failed confrontation with his older brother David.   The Steadicam leads the two of them as Bertie relates the serious implications of David’s intention to marry the “twice-divorced” Wallace; this is the second longest shot in the film and it lasts 51.2 seconds (Cinemetrics).  It allows more time for the intensity to build and creates a tempting opportunity for Lionel to overstep; he attempts to comfort Bertie and encourage him to at least consider the possibility of being king.  In the next shot, the camera faces the opposite direction, abruptly breaking the plane; Bertie is just not ready to face this possibility yet.  Lionel took too many liberties with his “treasonous words” and they go their separate ways.  See the walk in the park scene posted below:

Of course, Lionel was correct in assuming David would finalize his marriage with Wallace and evade his duties.  Not surprisingly, David’s character has the fastest accelerating motion of the entire film.  We first see him flying in on his airplane.  The fast motion out of the frame overpowers the screen and creates an open, more dynamic space paralleling his escape from responsibility.  Ironically, he has no difficulties communicating which is why the camera tracks when he performs his resignation speech and when we see the “Save Our King” placards that refer to David, not Bertie.  David’s charisma made him a favorite with his people.  The fallout of his irresponsibility wreaks havoc on his nation and his family, but especially Bertie who still struggles to speak.

Just before the Accession Council, Bertie is dressed in full regalia, grimly marching toward the Rolls parked outside.  The camera shakes as Bertie gets in the car and looks out the window; we catch a glimpse of Lionel and the two have not reunited from their fight; Lionel is still on the outside of Bertie’s inner circle.  The fast, shaky camera combined with the vehicle motion is disorientating enough to create another open space that pushes past the frame, not unlike David’s airplane shot, but unlike David, Bertie courageously yields to his public duties in spite of his petrification.

After Bertie accedes the throne, Elizabeth decides to check on her husband.  Bertie sits at his desk examining the coronation plans and the camera subtly pushes in on him- heightening the overwhelming pressure he feels.  He breaks down, lamenting “I’m not a king.”  The terrifying  feeling of ineptitude in his new role forces Bertie to seek out Lionel once again.  The camera pushes through Lionel’s doorway to reveal Bertie and Elizabeth, ready to pick things up where they started.  See Bertie’s meltdown scene below:

Fortunately Bertie regains his ally Lionel, but unfortunately Neville Chamberlain informs his country that England is at war with Germany.  The Logue family sit around the wireless radio listening to the announcement and the low, forward moving camera pushes in to reveal each person’s apprehension.  This scene marks “the beginning of the use of movement in the film as we come to the climax- gentle camera moves” (Hooper).  The stakes are rising, the climax is approaching, therefore it makes sense for the visual tension to increase as well.  As an aside, my favorite shot of the film is from this scene; it’s a profile shot of Lionel’s son, Antony.  He’s seated against the wall facing the right side of the frame and the camera pushes in along the wall which occupies the entire left side of the frame.  I love how the wide angle lens keeps everything in focus allowing the wallpaper pattern and strong perspective lines to accentuate the camera motion as it approaches the young, scared Antony.  Life, as he knows it, is about to change and his oldest brother, Laurie, will almost surely be off to war soon. 

In this grave hour, the people of England could benefit from the reassuring words of their king.  Bertie sends for Lionel and immediately makes preparations for the daunting nine minute speech using all the tricks Lionel has taught him: singing, swearing, bouncing onto words, and even waltzing.  Bertie rotates clockwise as the camera encircles him in a counter-clockwise direction.  With Bertie twirling in the opposite direction of the camera, the background really appears to whiz past him.  Bertie rarely moves faster than a walking pace in any of his shots, or if he does, it’s very brief.  This shot lasts 7.1 seconds, higher than the usual average shot length (Cinemetrics).  It is appropriate that his longest shot of dynamic motion and visual intensity occurs when he is fighting the hardest to be heard.  Check out the preparation scene below:

At last, Bertie commences his speech to inspire courage in his people.  At first the camera remains on Bertie facing down the microphone, but as he progresses it loosens up and even sweeps around him and Lionel.  Tom Hooper explains that 

the camera really starts to move for the first time consistently in the film. [He] wanted after all those shots with cameras locked down … to give this flow, but Bertie in the center of a lot of his shots still is static because he’s still in that struggle.  But there’s this fluidity when you go outside.”   

The camera pushes in on Bertie’s listeners, pans around the radio station, tracks along the radio technicians who have no trouble communicating, and cranes up along the palace gate and rack focuses to reveal the scope of the crowd.  Tom Hooper has been carefully rationing the camera movement, but now he fully emancipates the camera.  The crescendo of camera movement and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 makes it impossible for the audience not to join in and celebrate Bertie’s triumph.  We know how constricted he’s been, how hard he’s worked, and that he has many more wartime speeches in his future, but with Lionel by his side he’ll confidently face them and serve as a symbol of perseverance to inspire his people.  See Bertie’s big moment below:

There’s so many good things to say about The King’s Speech.    I found many of the clips online, but to catch all of them I highly encourage you to go back and watch the entire film on your own.  In the future I’d like to talk more about Tom Hooper’s compositions, use of short-siding and wide angle lenses.  I hope you enjoyed this blog post and thanks for reading!

Sources:

Tom Hooper. Audio Commentary. The King’s Speech, The Weinstein Company, 2010.

Block, Bruce. The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media.

“THE KING’S SPEECH (20110501, USA) directed by: Tom Hooper.” May 2011. Cinemetrics, http://www.cinemetrics.lv/movie.php?movie_ID=8106#so he