This weekend, Spirited Away, the classic anime film, was playing in my local movie theater. I’ve long enjoyed the movie for the magical storyline and beautiful hand-drawn animation, but I was surprised at how clearly the movie illustrates the concepts I covered in my recent Power Lunch webinar on image refinements and burning and dodging. I thought I would share a few observations with you. When you have time, be sure to check out the movie. Not only will you find it entertaining, it will help you compose, light and refine your photos as well.
Establish, then reinforce the visual hierarchy within the frame.
Our eyes are automatically drawn to the lightest and highest contrast objects within a frame. When composing a photo, set your subject against a dark background to make them appear lighter and separate cleanly from the background.
In this screencapture from the movie trailer at 0:32, the protagonist Chihiro realizes she’s trapped in the spirit world and tries to escape the meanacing ghost spirits.
The strong angles of the architecture clearly direct the viewer’s eye to Chihiro. Although she is not quite the lightest object in the frame, (the illuminated archway is a little bit lighter) she is the lightest object in sharp focus and is set against a significantly darker background. The illuminated areas within the photo are slightly blurred to make it easier to find Chihiro as she runs through the darken alleys.
Separate the shadows by lightening the highlights on dark objects.
Much of Spirited Away takes place at night in the corridors and alleys of the bath house of the spirit world. In each of the dark scenes, director Hayazo Miyazaki and his illustrators separate the detail within the shadows by gently painting on the illuminated edges of the shadowed object. This provides just enough depth to allow the viewer to clearly see all of the objects within the frame.
In this screencapture from the trailer at 0:47, Chihiro enters the darkened engine room. The illumination on the giant cogs is just enough to keep them from blending into the background, but not so much as to distract from the main subjects. This technique is used throughout the movie to preserve detail in dark areas.
The two examples provided here can easily be adapted to photography. When photographing a subject, particularly in a dark environment, aim to set your subject in the lightest part of the frame, ideally against a darker background. This provides visual separation and helps the viewer quickly and easily identify the most important areas within the photo.
When burning and dodging, or adjusting your photo in Photoshop, selectively lighten the highlight areas on shadowed objects. This prevents your shadows from blocking up, while ensuring your corrections still appear natural to the illumination within the scene.
When you have a few minutes, take the time to look at the trailer to see these ideas in practice. Even better, rent the movie and enjoy a great story from a masterful director.