Ignoring Cinematography Conventions in “The King’s Speech”

In the artistic world, “rules” can be broken and “laws” can be bent. Guidelines taught in school are subjective and flexible. Always seeking innovation, the industry and seasoned professionals occasionally ignore them to create something new.

When I was watching The King’s Speech a few weeks ago and again yesterday, one thing that really struck me was the cinematography. Composition guidelines – namely Lead Room - were blatantly ignored, yet the result wasn’t terrible.

This is a conversation between Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and Lionel (Geoffrey Rush):

Notice how in both cases the lead room (open space) is behind the actors. This mightn’t look terrible, but it’s hardly the norm.

Observe these two other frames:

Geoffrey Rush in The King's SpeechColin Firth in The King's SpeechToo much wall! The composition in the first frame is actually motivated because Lionel’s wife is behind him while he does some paperwork at his desk. But the composition in this second frame has no reason to be.

What amazes me is that the Rule of Thirds is still there but reversed. Needless to say, it was deliberate. Who ever chose that composition knew the norm, which emphasizes the importance of learning convention first and deviting from it later.

I’m curious to know what people think. Does this “new” style satisfy or annoy? Would you implement it in your own films?

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7 Responses to Ignoring Cinematography Conventions in “The King’s Speech”

  1. OMG….I was awestruck. Danny Cohen must be a painter. His use of negative space is reminiscent of the late 19th century-early twentieth century painters such as the impressionists and later. They began to break the rules. Cohen’s shots had a feel of Whistler’s “Arrangement in Gray and Black”. The abstraction and negative space as almost subject…and the minimalism. I was dazzled by some of the wide-angled exterior shots where there would be, for example, the castle and in the right hand corner….only a car. There were quite a few shots like this….. or symmetry with rows of trees. I also loved his minimal use with color….almost achromatize. I read an article on how he shot that beautiful impressionistic scene at Regent’s Park with it’s lighting and shadowed figures in the mist. Reminds me of a show I once saw at the Brooklyn Museum called “The Impressionists in Winter” http://www.studiodaily.com/filmandvideo/technique/craft/f/shooting/Cinematographer-Danny-Cohen-on-The-Kings-Speech_12926.html

    I concur….you must know the rules before you break them and Danny Cohen knows his stuff…that’s obvious to me. His cinematography was breathtaking. His style annoying? Anyone who would find it so…doesn’t understand their art history. I found it captivating…almost immediately. It was a feast for the eyes. I’m looking forward to the DVD for the director’s cut. Would I use this technique if I were making a film? Yes I would study the film and Danny’s work intently. I would become a protegee of Danny Cohen’s. I have been so aroused by the cinematography and found it truly inspirational. Gior

    PS: You see the frame that you posted with Logue sitting in his office to the far right facing outside the frame? Evidently quite outstanding in it’s simplicity and use of negative space and the placement of the subject. Well earleir I had print screened it from the trailer and saved it to my computer so that I could email it to someone as an example. So I can see that you were impressed with it too. Take a look at Degas painting “Viconte Ludovivic Lepic, his two daughters and their dog”. It’s difficult to think that Danny Cohen was not influenced by these painters. Also look at Degas “L’absinthe ” see also John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo” “Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife “

    • Gabriel Moura says:

      Thank you, Gior, for your insights. Indeed it was “a feast for the eyes.” You added to the discussion from an artistic standpoint that most filmmakers don’t really pay attention to. Having some knowledge of art history is definitely a plus, so your comment is greatly appreciated. And thanks for sharing the link.

  2. Chloe says:

    I, too, noticed this set-up upon watching the film.
    However, I feel that in someway what is being shown in these ‘open spaces’ is symbolic. The open door behind Elizabeth, for example, shows that there is no commitment to the speech therapist (yet) there is the possibility that she can leave without there being any coalition.
    The two shots with, arguably a little too much, wall again I feel is symbolic. All the internal locations in the film are representative of the characters in them. The luscious rooms of the King and the sodden walls of Lionel’s workplace and, as shown here, the humble, common wallpaper. I think it acts as a display of the characters, a description of their class/personality/attitudes.

    Of course this could’ve been shown more subtly and through other methods and it has. But I think it’s worked brilliantly. Upon leaving the cinema with my father there was even a discussion about the flaky wall, it brought some amusement, as did the film in general.

    • Gabriel Moura says:

      Isn’t interesting how subjective and subtle this is? I agree with you. Maybe that open door symbolizes her indecision.

    • ACurrie says:

      I agree that there is surely a “rhyme to the reason” for these shots. Your observation with the first image, the shot with Elizabeth, seems spot-on to me. I feel the next shot, with Lionel, has him pushed to the left side of frame, and looking screen-left, as he has not yet admitted her into his space, like he’s shielding what’s behind him. If I remember right he was reluctant to take a new patient at this point.

  3. michaela says:

    I noticed this also. i am studying this film in class, and our teacher read a review saying how clever the director was for going against the rules of leadroom shots. The still of the leadroom with bertie on the chair, is said to portray the ‘nothingness’ that he experienced with his stammering.
    Thats just one view though. but did you notice that as the kings speech got better, the empty space in the lead room shots decreased?

  4. Neil Johnson says:

    I am amazed that you consider this use of negative space and unbalanced framing a ‘new style’, and I am not referring here to it’s use in painting, but to it’s use in Cinematography.

    I often use this type of device in my own work and have done for years – having been aware of it for years.

    I’m not trying to be smart here or all knowing – just to open up the discussion further.

    It’s well discussed in several Cinematography books, see the following example (page 31 of, ‘Cinematography’ by Blaine Brown).


    Film Noir really began to exploit the visual stress caused by the use of such unbalanced frames and it it moved into fairly common usage from there.

    Bertolucci’s, ‘The Conformist’ (1970), a masterpiece of Cinematography shot by Vittorio Storaro is littered with examples.

    I am also pretty sure Hitckcock was well aware of all this and used it often.

    For examples of unconventional use of Framing and breaking the compositional rules, check out Lance Acords’ work in, ‘Being John Malkovich’ (1999) – John Cusack’s character, Craig, is often awkwardly framed with something growing out of his head or the wrong (as far as the ‘rules’ are concerned) amount of headroom. This is done purposefully to emphasise things about that character.

    None of this is said however to detract from the Amazing job Cohen did with the Cinematography on, ‘The King’s Speech’.

    Breaking the compositional rules can and should be done – but you should always be aware of why you are doing it – creating tension, making a statement about a character, etc., and an awareness of what shots are going before or after – if you have no reason it’s a mistake or will look like bad Cinematography.

    That said, whilst a lot of Framing is deliberate, sometimes it is intuitive – call it based on experience, memories of other art, whatever, but often a Frame, though not going by the rules, just feels right.


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