Shot Details and Framing in Wentworth

Wentworth is an Australian prison drama, actually a remake of the show Prisoner. It’s dark and tense and manages some nice plot turns, it’s got a very teal and gray palette but breaks it up with reds and greens, it’s well acted, it uses slo-mo and occasional fantasy sequences to great effect. But you should discover that for yourself. I’m here to just talk about some details in the framing of shots.

I’ve talked elsewhere (especially regarding Luther series one and Sherlock) about the way the BBC is experimenting with framing in many of their shows, but they’ve hardly got a corner on it. Wentworth does one thing I’ve liked for a while and used myself, and one I found rather unorthodox but purposeful. 

[all color shots from Wentworth, all black-and-white shots from my film The Lilith Necklace]

The first technique is a simple eyeline director.

An object or shadow or stripe of some kind runs through the frame and ‘directs’ the viewer’s eye towards the characters eyes. 

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Nice enough when your set has so many built-in lines.

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The colors dividing the shot into approximate horizontal thirds is lovely.

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All the windows have bars, so again, makes it easier to continue the motif.

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Here, making the line intersect with the actor’s eye is a simple matter of where you set the camera.

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The fact it’s a lonely island is also telling.

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Nice use of color, probably using a gel over the light behind the window.

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Railing running behind her from the right to her eyeline . . .

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. . . railing running in front of her from the left to her eyeline.

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Just . . . wow.

A couple examples of mine:

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The second technique is the way conversations are framed.

A standard two-person conversation starts with a wide or medium shot something like this:

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then when you switch to singles, you place the characters on the same side of the screen as they are in the establishing shot, blonde on the left, raven on the right:

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This not only keeps the viewer oriented and maintains continuity, but if you were to superimpose the two shots onto each other, you’d still have two people sitting on either side of the screen, talking. 

Sometimes – especially in modern pictures, which use wider 16:9 screens instead of more square 4:3 frames – you use over-the-shoulders for the singles, but the principle remains the same. If the establishing shot has Character A on the right and Character B on the left, then you will get Character A’s shoulder on the right and see Character B’s face on the left.

Henry (suit guy) is on the left in the establishing:

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 10.21.16 PM

so when we’re looking over his shoulder we stay to his right, see his shoulder in the left of the screen, and see Louie (blonde) on the right: 

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All of this keeps the viewer oriented, and it’s become basic shorthand. I shot my film in the style of 20s and 30s films, and this is the same technique used then, and the same thing you seen in a lot of film and TV. It’s what you expect, consciously or subconsciously, when you watch a show.

Wentworth uses this technique throughout as well, but it often does something else very interesting: when conversations get tense or the characters are being intimate / secretive, it pushes them both into the center of the frame. So the establishing shot is as usual: 

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but then the singles push them both so they’re on the edge of the screen they’re looking towards.

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When the shots are consecutive on your TV, it feels like they are ‘in each other’s space’ without actually showing them on top of each other. Your brain essentially puts the pieces together like this:

Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 11.11.54 PM

They seem closer to each other, even though in the establishing shot they’re a ‘normal’ distance apart. It adds to the claustrophobic feel of prison, as well as ratcheting up the tension a notch in an already tense situation. It does this time and again, with different character combinations, with great effectiveness.

If you haven’t seen Wentworth yet, it’s only 10 episodes long, and well worth your time. Notice what other atypical shooting and editing choices they make, and what they make you feel and think about the actions and characters being shown. 

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