P.O.V. No.15

Symmetry - the Forbidden Fruit of Picture Composition in Film

Louis Thonsgaard

The concept of symmetry sounds simple and familiar, yet symmetry is far more complex and difficult to apply in practice than one might think. The visual power of symmetry is so great that filmmakers often avoid or are advised against using symmetrical picture compositions. And this is not so odd, for if symmetry is used randomly and thoughtlessly, one runs the risk of creating visual disturbances in the narrative of the film. On the other hand, the filmmakers who master the art of symmetry wield a powerful visual aid capable of communicating complex meanings that cannot otherwise be conveyed visually.

For those interested in picture composition in film, either as filmmakers or analysts, here is an opportunity for taking a bite of the forbidden fruit of picture composition in film.

Symmetry refers to material being organized in such a way that it conveys a sense of unity through the repetition of one or more elements. In film theory it is appropriate to speak of three kinds of symmetry in the two-dimensional picture.

Translatory Symmetry
Translatory symmetry is basically the repetition of an object based on the formula "1+1+". The displacement can vary in countless ways, as can the number of objects displaced. Translatory symmetry is fundamentally static and locked in a repetitive expression, yet by varying the concept it can be infused with a certain dynamic quality.

Fig.1 Translatory Symmetry

The composition of the picture from Tombstone (George Cosmatos, 1993), showing three sheriffs, is based on the principle of staggering an object (fig. 1). By means of non-linear displacement, as well as of overlapping the objects, the objects in this example of translatory symmetry give the impression of a moving organism rather than appearing static. However, the expressive powers of translatory symmetry are not as evident as those of other forms of symmetry. Hence, for this reason among others, translatory symmetry does not have the same visual impact.

Rotational Symmetry
Rotational symmetry consists of similar, equidistant objects relating to a central point from equal distances. The objects in rotational symmetry often create a visual centrifugal force around a marked or unmarked center. In rotational symmetry at least two objects relate to each other, such as for example Sailor and Lula in Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990; fig. 2).

Fig.2-3 Rotational Symmetry

At one point, depending on the number of objects, this becomes a kind of rotational symmetry where the impression of several isolated objects gradually disappears (fig. 3). As fig. 3 from The Big Lebowski (Joel Cohen, 1998) also shows, rotational symmetry does not conform well to the wide-screen format. The squarer the format of the medium, such as the 3/4 format of television, the better rotational symmetry will be able to develop without having to be trimmed. This is clearly one of the reasons rotational symmetry is rarely used in film.

Axial Symmetry (also called Bilateral or Mirror Symmetry)
Axial symmetry refers to the popular definition of symmetry as mirroring in respect to an axis. Axial symmetry primarily differs from other kinds of symmetry by containing objects that mirror each other. Furthermore, the mirroring objects relate to each other across a given axis that is either marked or unmarked.

The axial symmetric picture consists of two mirroring parts which start out by counterbalancing each other compositionally, thus often creating compositions that are statically in balance. Yet as a closer look at axial symmetry will show, the concept has various expressive possibilities. The example from Star Wars - Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983), showing the Emperor on his throne, demonstrates the manner in which a traditional understanding of axial symmetry can involve a complex mirroring space, transferring it to a person placed in the axis of symmetry (fig. 4).

Fig.4 Axial Symmetry

The wide-screen format of film is well suited to axial symmetry, as it provides ample room for the mirroring parts when the axis is placed vertically in the center of the picture. When it comes to film, axial symmetry is the most interesting and widely used form of symmetry; thus, when mentioned below symmetry refers to axial symmetry.

A picture composition that is not symmetrical is by definition asymmetrical. This is a logical deduction that functions theoretically. Yet how much of a deviation from total symmetry is acceptable in a composition before it must be termed asymmetrical? Ten percent or twenty percent or?

No symmetries outside of exact science are totally symmetrical, which is of course also true for picture compositions in film. Offhand, this appears to be a problem, and it may well be one, but it can also be a strength: it is often the deviation from ideal symmetry that makes a composition interesting. It adds the possibility for artistic expression to the composition, which is not usually associated with symmetry. A basic observation may be phrased thus:

If a composition borders on being asymmetrical, yet can still be defined as symmetrical, it possesses other visual qualities than it would if it were completely symmetrical.

Filmmakers have the possibility of using different forms of axial symmetry to articulate different visual expressions.

In an attempt to locate the border between symmetry and asymmetry, I will now provide a number of examples illustrating borderline or near-borderline cases. In film, one of the most frequent forms of composition, often on the verge of being symmetrical, is a frontal medium close shot of a character. This is a compositional form appearing in almost all films with slight variations - the camera angle may be a little off, the person might be moving asymmetrically, or the background may not be particularly symmetrical, etc. - often leading to the conclusion that the composition is not symmetrical. In order to define such a composition as symmetrical a number of mirroring elements are necessary, either on the person or in the background, as well as a minimum of asymmetrical disturbance.

Fig.5 Wyatt

Fig.6 Wyatt - manipulated

Fig.7 Wyatt - displaced

The picture of Wyatt Earp from Tombstone (1993), fig. 5, is an example of a composition that can only just be defined as symmetrical, even if the person's body is slightly angled towards the spectator and it is only possible to see one arm, for his face is easily seen en face and there are no background elements disturbing his dominance of the picture composition. But the decisive element is his hat, the outline of which is very dominant, and which visually interacts with his mustache. The dominance of the hat in the picture composition is so decisive that if the hat were removed, the composition would become asymmetrical. To demonstrate this claim I have manipulated the picture and attempted to reconstruct the actor's head as it might have looked without his hat (fig. 6). Without the hat I find that the symmetry is weakened so much that the remaining symmetrical elements are not adequate to define the composition as symmetrical.

The placement of the symmetry axis in the picture is also significant for the question of whether the composition is symmetrical, as well as for the expression of the composition. I have illustrated this by manipulating the picture yet again (fig. 7). When the mirroring axis is removed from the geometrical center of the picture, the composition changes radically and the picture becomes asymmetrical. This picture already bordered on being asymmetrically composed, yet even for very symmetrical compositions the camera does not have to be moved far before the compositions must be described as asymmetrical.

The following example from Star Wars - Return of the Jedi (1983) shows a composition apparently full of symmetrical elements but that must be defined as asymmetrical (fig. 8). The picture shows a pilot in a fighter plane on his way to attack the Empire. The cockpit is symmetrical, as are the pilot and especially his headgear. Yet because the pilot turns his head he upsets the symmetry. All attention is drawn towards the left side of the picture, and the distorted symmetry around the pilot stands out against the cockpit, which is symmetrical in relation to the framing of the picture, but not in relation to the rest of the composition. Hence, there appear to be two axes of symmetry in the same picture, and as they are not coordinated, and the most significant one is distorted, the totality of the picture lacks symmetry.

If the pilot had been facing straight into the camera, this composition would have been very symmetrical. Instead the composition is out of balance, and this illustrates how little it takes to upset or disturb a symmetrical situation.

Is this pilot capable of being the wedge of the attack that he is supposed to be?

The picture composition suggests something else, thus heightening the tension.

Fig.8 Star Wars - cockpit

Fig.9 The Deer Hunter

An example from The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) shows another composition at the borderline between symmetry and asymmetry (fig. 9). There is obviously a smaller part of the picture, around the table, which is symmetrically composed of several elements - the two duelists with headbands, the arms of the referee, and his placement in the axis of symmetry marked by his tie. The rest of the picture consists of an asymmetrical gray mass, uncontrolled by the symmetrical elements. The symmetrical composition simply constitutes too small a part of the picture for us to call it symmetrical. If the symmetrical elements had been placed in the central axis, they would still have controlled only part of the composition, but because the symmetrical elements would then have controlled the most significant area, the center of the picture, the picture could have been described as vaguely symmetrical.

Actually, the composition reflects Nicky's situation exactly. In mental chaos after being tortured during his previous imprisonment, the only thing he can deal with is Russian roulette, which creates a kind of structure in his life. In this sense, the composition functions optimally, creating a weak, distorted symmetry in asymmetrical chaos.

Even if only details of a composition are symmetrical and the picture thus must be considered asymmetrical, the symmetrical elements can be so strong that they add significantly to the meaning of the picture composition. Yet the main rule must be as follows:

Whether the composition of a picture can be described as symmetrical depends on whether the overall structure can be considered symmetrical.

In a qualified discussion on symmetry and asymmetry, it is important not to disparage an asymmetrical composition. In film, the visual expression of the pictures should preferably be in accordance with the action of the film, and this makes asymmetrical compositions the primary component of a film's visual agenda.

The following are a number of approaches to symmetry in film. They are formulated as advice to filmmakers, but should hopefully be just as interesting for other people interested in film.

Symmetry is a very obvious form of composition, which of course offers opportunities but at the same time can cause a situation to seem artificial, stilted, and thus shatter the illusion of the fiction. This is possibly the reason that a lot of filmmakers try to avoid symmetry. If this is a concern I think that a sophisticated use of symmetry could circumvent such problems. And whatever the approach, my advice is as follows:

Only use symmetry to a limited extent, and in every single case consider whether giving this exact shot extra visual strength will fit into the overall narrative and/or the specific situation.

Rather than accentuating insignificant events in the film, it is important to emphasize those that are important at the right time. In addition it is important to remember that like any other filmic device the effect of symmetry is weakened by frequent use.

a) Important characters
Symmetrical compositions focus the attention on characters appearing in them, and hence it is important to consider who should appear in them.

Only characters who are significant to the narrative of the film should be placed in the axis of symmetry.

Less significant characters can appear as mirroring objects; however, if they do not refer to a significant character in the axis of symmetry this should be carefully considered. To place an insignificant character in the axis of symmetry can be disastrous for the spectator's perception of the scene, which is why this is hardly ever done.

b) Basic use
Personal enlightenment

Symmetry can be useful as a visual marker of important events in the narrative of a film, emphasizing the shots that need to be given attention - for example, if one of the main characters of the film gains new insight and thus makes a choice that will be decisive for the further development of the narrative.

In connection with a personal enlightenment, which may be considered a significant moment in film narrative, it is possible to focus more attention on this shot by using symmetry.

In Young Guns II (Geoff Murphy, 1990) the camera moves in close to Pat Garret's face when he decides to betray Billy the Kid. The movement starts asymmetrically, but becomes symmetrical, and the second Pat Garret's face is seen entirely symmetrically the shot dissolves into a shot of Billy; thus the symmetry is also used to show what Pat Garret is thinking and what he has decided to do.

Powerful characters
The visual control of the picture created by symmetry can be conveyed to the characters of the people depicted. Hence it is natural to take advantage of symmetry in certain situations.

Symmetry is often used to convey the high-status position of characters with, for instance, considerable power or physical strength.

Although this use of symmetry may be tempting to apply often in a film, it is not advisable.

Since symmetry basically consists of several parts combined into a whole, it is natural to apply symmetry in situations where characters participate in some kind of community, one that may also contain animosity.

Characters sharing some sort of community may figure as the mirroring objects in symmetrical compositions.

This use of symmetry may be narratively expedient, and may be varied by placing an extra person in the axis of symmetry, thus creating an internal power structure between the involved characters.

Characters or objects that can be connected to either conditions or actions in the symmetrically organized space of the Christian church are often placed in symmetrical picture compositions. Especially in connection with death, the use of symmetry is so extensive that spectators find symmetrical compositions natural, though usually this is unconscious.

Symmetrical compositions are often applied in scenes concerning death.

As the simplest form of symmetry can express peace, stability and eternity, it is natural to apply symmetry in these situations. Furthermore, this use has evolved so much that we now often see dying characters in symmetries with diagonal axes. The acceptance or expectation of symmetry in connection with death is so great that it may be described as one of the most developed areas in the creative use of symmetry, as will be illustrated by an example in the next section.

c) Advanced use

Some of the most exciting symmetries in film are created when the composition of a shot is transformed from being asymmetrical to being symmetrical, or from being symmetrical to being asymmetrical. When symmetry is applied this way, the possibilities for its use in respect to narrative transformations becomes obvious, as is evident in, for example, Barbara (Niels Malmros, 1997; fig. 10).

Fig.10 Barbara - one shot

When the civil servant Niels, who doesn't really seem like an official, has to have an important conversation with Andreas, he puts on his wig to indicate his authority. Visually, his putting on the wig creates a number of symmetrical variations in this shot, all of which point to Niels's transformation - from being a kind and natural man in asymmetrical compositions to at least attempting to appear the somber civil servant, tough and rigid of attitude. To be exact, no clear symmetries are used in this shot since the camera angle is not frontal, yet there seems to be a development from clear asymmetry to a number of symmetrical variations.

Asymmetrical symmetry
There are a number of symmetrical compositions that only occur in moving pictures. They are created by frames that may have symmetrical elements but that would not be described as symmetrical if viewed separately. These shots still give a symmetrical impression because the objects move over time, which may give the shot a visual quality that the separate frames do not contain.

In Heat (Michael Mann, 1995), after lengthy deliberation the main character Neil decides to take vengeance on the traitor Waingro. The camera follows Neil as he walks down a hotel corridor, which he corresponds to symmetrically, while other characters create disorder and asymmetry as they run past him and the camera in the opposite direction. In a film that all but avoids symmetrical compositions, this shot has a very powerful effect, charismatically emphasizing Neil's strength, decisiveness and control.

An interesting example of the foreshadowing of a death is found in Europa (Lars von Trier, 1991), in which the lack of spirit and authority of Max Hartmann, the CEO of the train company, becomes obvious (fig. 11).

Fig.11 Europa - one shot

The shot starts asymmetrically until Leopold sits down with Katharina, at which point they form the mirroring sides in a weak symmetry, with the door closing behind them as the axis of symmetry. As soon as the symmetry has been established the camera moves up along the axis of symmetry. Simultaneously, the CEO approaches from the left and stops outside the frame. In the one-tenth of a second before the door opens, the shadow of the CEO falls on the door opening/axis of symmetry in perfect symmetry. However, the doors are opened, and the shadow of the CEO and the symmetry completely disappear.

The frail condition of the CEO is indicated in this shot - he is now so weak that he cannot function as the axis in a symmetrical composition. Only his shadow can do so, but it is dissolved immediately. He commits suicide shortly thereafter.

Even if symmetries are often broken in film to indicate a lack of power or balance, it is rare to see compositions that predict the events of the narrative and thereby provide the attentive spectator with an extra experience.

d) Planning
The absence of symmetry

Each time symmetry is applied there will be asymmetry for a while up to the symmetrical shot - unless it is a matter of a series of symmetrical shots, which is very rare.

Because symmetry is a distinctive form of composition that draws attention to itself, the absence of symmetry helps intensify the visual effect and thus also the viewer's focus of attention when the symmetrical composition is finally applied. The longer the absence of symmetry, the greater an effect can be created. In Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959) there is a forty-five minute break in the use of symmetry until the cross of Christ is suddenly erected in the picture's axis of symmetry.

Be prepared
Before planning to shoot a symmetrical composition one should be aware that it is probably not possible to cut back to this shot in the same scene without giving the impression of having failed to take enough shots during the shooting. The symmetrical shot is not to be considered a regular shot from which one can cut back and forth. It draws too much attention to itself for that.

A symmetrical shot where neither camera nor objects move does not lend itself to being used more than once in the editing of a scene.

There are however a few exceptions to this rule. A scene may for example be introduced and concluded with the same shot. Furthermore, the shot may appear several times if it is part of a series of symmetrical shots, but it will function best if there is a change in the visual expression of the symmetrical composition.

Thus, it is important to plan symmetrical compositions carefully, and preferably one should film the situation from an asymmetrical angle if the possibility of cutting back to this shot is to remain open.

Hopefully, the review of symmetry in this article has given some insight into the complexity and uses of symmetry in film production. Symmetry provides a good starting point for understanding how much influence such a relatively ignored area as picture composition can have on an audience's perception of a film.

The above may be considered a proposal for a method by which the registration (in analysis) or planning (in production) of symmetrical foci can help provide insight into the picture composition of a film, a task that might otherwise be impossible.

Inasmuch as the above discussion is by no means exhaustive, the guidelines proposed here should be considered as a starter kit for the understanding of symmetry.

Translation by Susanne Stranddorf

Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and Visual Perception. University of California Press. 1974.

Arnheim, Rudolf. The Power of the Center. University of California Press. 1988.

Raskin, Richard. Elements of Picture Composition. Aarhus University Press. 1986.

Shubnikov, A.V. og Koptsik, V.A. Symmetry in Science and Art. Plenum Press. 1974.

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