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Water droplet Part 1 - Book-ends   Part 2 - Pull-focus   Part 3 - Reflections   Part 5 - Pan left to the past  Part 6 - Washington D.C.

PURE CINEMA -  a look at moments of cinematic technique that epitomise the unique, artistic and poetic quality of film-making.

In this series freelance film-lecturer Derek Wilson writes about magic moments from cinema old, and new.

Part 4 - Left to Right is Right

Even in cultures where people don’t read written text from left to right, the natural movement of the human eyes is in that direction. Photographers and film-makers have long known this in the composition of images. Left to right is how countries fight their wars unless they’re about to lose a battle (or the director’s forgotten or is consciously breaking the ‘rule’). Still photographs from the trenches of WW1 show a long line of British soldiers about to go ‘over the top’ from left to right. Had the photographer turned round to face the other way they would have been other soldiers BUT going the ‘other’ way, right to left. There’s some evidence that negatives of some photographs were turned to make them look ‘correct’.

A classic example of left-to-right movement is in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946, cinematography by Guy Green, edited by Jack Harris). The first nine shots of the film form a masterclass in capturing an audience’s attention.
After the credits, the first shot is of the book, page one, and on the soundtrack John Mills voicing the words of Pip the first-person narrator introducing himself. A ‘sound bridge’ of wind blowing comes in as the pages of the novel begin to blow in the wind while the shot dissolves to shot 2 - a long shot of a small figure on the edges of the shoreline. It appears to be at dusk and he is running (left to right) and as the camera tracks in the same direction, he passes what appear to be gibbets or gallows. The boy (clearly now a young lad) passes the camera; there’s a quick dissolve to shot 3 of him climbing a wall into an overgrown churchyard. Movement is still left to right; he approaches (still left to right) a grave. On the soundtrack the wind is noisily rustling branches. The editor hides the next cut by cutting on movement as he kneels. Shot 4 is a medium shot of the boy tending a grave (and reading the stone, we surmise he is an orphan). Cut on movement again leads to shot 5 even closer; we see a worried expression. Then he glances upward. Shot 6 is a straight cut to a very quick point of view shot of the trees supposedly above him. The wind is stronger, branches are creaking. The mood is sinister. Shot 7, a close-up of Pip (we must have worked out by now who he is) clearly worried now. He looks up to his left from the left side of the screen and shot 8 shows us what he fleetingly sees - a tree trunk. And just as we’ve registered that the bark looks like an evil face, Pip turns in fear and runs FROM RIGHT TO LEFT, looking behind him, straight into a very scary man (Magwitch) on the left edge of the screen and the first words of the scene,”Keep still you little devil or I’ll cut your throat!”
It’s only a short scene and though it’s late and in a churchyard the left to right movement makes us feel safe enough about Pip. We can see his fear develop as he looks about him but it’s the sudden right to left movement that gives us a shock maybe a mild version of the shock felt by Pip, the brave and considerate young orphan, with whom we now have total empathy.

Internet Movie Database entry for Great Expectations   |   Wikipedia entry for Great Expectations (the movie)   |   BFI (British Film Institute) screenonline entry for Great Expectations   |   An online guide to David Lean's career and films   |   BFI (British Film Institute) website dedicated to David Lean's life and work

Pure cinema: Part 1 - Book-ends   Part 2 - Pull-focus   Part 3 - Reflections   Part 5 - Pan left to the past  Part 6 - Washington D.C.

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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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