sergio leone | composition
Composition, as a science of assembly, is something that is very important for all creative activity. In being such an important factor, it can be defined on many different levels. Here, I hope to examine just a bit of the wonderful and timeless techniques of Sergio Leone to inspire us to think outside the box.
You could make the case that many of the problems with film making today are that not enough care is taken when things are being composed. The more variety and nuance you use when assembling the various elements of a film, whether the characters, the music, the photography, or whichever layer, the manner in which you assemble things together determines the final outcome. Everything in a film is composed – it’s all about how you do it.
Leone is one of the masters. It isn’t until you’ve watched hundreds, if not thousands of movies and shows, that you start to see how truly original, and painstakingly passionate, he truly is. Whether or not you think his output is what you would aim for as an artist, he displays a panache and passion for storytelling and feeling in his art that simply bleeds out of his films.
I do not mean for this post to be a review of his entire film career or his technique – it would be hard to cover that in multiple books. I merely want to highlight his skill and encourage people to watch his films with these things in mind.
Leone is famous for his fascination with the human face. If you watch multiple films of his, you will see the panoramic closeup of multiple actor’s faces used many times, and not always to the same effect. It is often suggested that this technique was created for his tense gunfight stand-offs in his Spaghetti Westerns, but if you watch more of his resume, you will see he is interested in this distance from the human eye for more reasons than building tension. I have seen him use the same distance to communicate vast anger, sadness, frustration, fear, apathy, and more. He also did not restrict these shots to only major characters – minor characters who only made momentary appearance in his films also received this shot at times.
His photography was not only obsessed with the vast canyons of the American West, but the vast canyons of the human soul expressed in the infinite variety of the face, and the eyes.
When widening his lens, or shooting at mid range, Leone is equally the master of photographic composition. Each frame of his films is very carefully composed, often with golden means and rules of thirds scattered throughout – I say scattered, because even with his intense ability to compose perfectly, he somehow manages to maintain an organic texture to his photography that doesn’t feel over-directed.
His combination of still life with real life, mid, close, and long range fields, along with a knack for putting something on screen and making one think “what is that?” till it is revealed by gradual or sudden story machinations, all combine to make one of the most visually interesting directors in fillm history.
To watch a Sergio Leone film as a photographer is to experience frame after frame of rapturously glorious photographic composition. In the “making of” documentary for the DVD “Once Upon A Time In The West,” it was mentioned that Leone refused to use a boom mike in assembling his sound. Very often, this mike will limit composition by providing a constant limit to the top of the frame due to distance requirements from the subject. This added freedom is obvious when you watch his films. He goes from close, to wide, to low, to high, with a freedom and joy that feels unusual. Many, many frames in his films could be paused and studied as photographic or painterly art on their own. It’s also interesting to study time as a tool for arriving at such interesting compositions. While some feel his sequences are too long at times, I feel he is studying how interesting moments are fleeting and violent by expanding the amount of gradual drift to arrive at them. If one gives him the benefit of the doubt and follows his sequences, they arrive at the point of violence almost too soon – it can be difficult to discern how we arrived at such violence with such gradual step by step adjustment.
Leone is equally a master of using cinematic sleight of hand to write his characters and add the unexpected, the unpredictable, and the exciting to sequences that have been worn thin.
Although one could say once you’ve seen a Sergio Leone Western gunfight, and the associated tension mounting, you’ve seen them all, when I saw the opening to “Once Upon A Time In The West,” I was really impressed with how he made a very similar encounter feel fresh yet again. This sequence is, in my opinion, one of his best, where the sound of a creaking weather vane, the wind, and a passing train are really all you hear as several gunfighters methodically work their way into position. When the scene exploded into action, the fury of it caused me to rewind the DVD and watch the entire sequence three times in a row, simply because it was such a masterpiece. Not only is it an example of his skill with pacing and photographic composition, the sleight of hand with which the “stranger” appears, and the outcome, at least for someone who has seen hundreds of gunfights, is incredibly creative and exciting.
Another example of his tendency to use sleight of hand and think outside the box – in the film “Duck, You Sucker,” our two protagonists violently blow away almost an entire army of government soldiers. The bloodshed by the two of them using machine guns and explosives is manifold. Since the film is about revolutionaries, Leone was interested in portraying the thoughts and feelings of someone who is partaking in an attempted violent overthrow of a government. Immediately after the aforementioned scene, we see the two protagonists in hideout in a cave, and they seem filled with remorse. One of them slowly states sadness and regret – the viewer is led very clearly down the path of thinking the protagonists are sorry for killing so many soldiers in such a bloodbath. Slowly, slowly, the camera pans down and then around the entire cave in an uncut take that is almost 2 minutes long, and you see he is standing amidst the bodies of his best friends and family members, who were ambushed by a separate group of government soldiers while he was away fighting. The inversion of understanding and emotion is instant for the first time viewer – we suddenly are taught why the revolutionaries don’t look back, and seem ready to rush out and engage the enemy yet again with little thought or consideration, despite the bloody distance they have already come.
Leone is a master of creativity and doing new and interesting things with his films, on all levels. He is virtually solely responsible for the “spaghetti western” film score – and while this type of scoring has a very particular niche in our culture, and is used to evoke a very specific sort of feeling in films of today, I believe the unique quality of his musical scores is evidence of simply more of the same passion and attention to detail.
Leone is a master, and though his films can be long to sit through, and some of them can err slightly on the side of too quirky for their own good, he is a vast source of new thinking, creative application, and excellent storytelling, even within the technological limitations of his day. Like any of the great directors, a creative thinker can learn something almost every time the subject matter is visited. I look forward to learning more from him.