A friend posted a link on Twitter the other day to what seemed like an interesting story for film fans. The headline heralded “The science behind why we love Wes Anderson movies.” Anyone who has seen and enjoyed the director’s films, which include Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and his latest The Grand Budapest Hotel, couldn’t possibly resist clicking.
Anderson is known for a number of things: his colourful visual palettes, weird and quirky music, excellent uses of Bill Murray, and of course, his symmetrical camera shots. It’s here that the writer of the article tries to bring science into the equation:
Research has shown that human beings can be obsessive about symmetry in general. This desire plays a big role in what or who we find attractive. Science has shown that, consciously or subconsciously, we judge others’ appearance based on the symmetry of their features. That’s why humans almost universally tend to find features like high, prominent cheekbones (and Brad Pitt) beautiful… Our love of symmetry is hardly a social construct; the instinct that Anderson is tapping into is almost primal, in fact. Some incredible research has shown that even infants as young as 4 months old recognize and prefer symmetry. And other animals, like honeybees, seek out symmetry, too.
There’s no doubt that Anderson loves symmetry. As the writer notes, the director spends an inordinate amount of time and effort getting perfectly balanced shots into his movies. The only problem is, that’s not why we love his work.
While there is a good deal of science supporting the theory that humans and perhaps other organisms seek out symmetry and consider it to be beautiful, that’s not the case in film, photography or art. If it was, all film makers would be composing perfectly symmetrical shots all the time.
Anderson is perhaps the biggest violator of the rule of thirds, or a basic art and photography principle that encourages artists/shooters to place their subjects slightly off to the side of their composition, rather than square in the middle. The idea behind it “stems from the theory that the human eye naturally gravitates to intersection points that occur when an image is split into thirds,” as LearnProPhotography.com puts it.
As my eleventh grade art teacher used to put it, images composed according to the rule of thirds give the viewer’s eye some place to go. Putting a subject in the centre often doesn’t engage the eye’s penchant for dynamic movement, which usually results in such images being considered boring.
The same holds true for movies and television. The next time you’re watching some sort of fictional video, if you pay attention you’ll probably notice that the characters are positioned slightly off centre whenever they’re looking at something or talking. That heightens the illusion that they’re in fact looking at something or talking to someone. The only place you’re likely to see a character in the dead centre of the screen and looking straight ahead is on the nightly news.
However, as just about every piece of advice on the rule of third adds, it is not necessarily so much an inviolable law as it is a guideline – and some striking results can be achieved by deviating from it. Enter Wes Anderson. Symmetry has become part of his style – which also includes a colourful palette, quirky music and Bill Murray – and he stands out precisely because of his unique approach. We like his movies because they are very different from everyone else’s, not because they’re symmetrically shot.