Critically acclaimed motion picture No Country for Old Men is the focus of this week’s instalment of Talking Movies – a guide for how to use cinema to get the best out of your street photography. I have chosen 3 of my favourite scenes from the movie to analyse, and I will explain exactly what it is that I think makes them powerful pieces of imagery. I will then show a selection of my own images and explain how the movie’s style influenced my street photography. Check out the Talking Movies section of the blog for the previous articles.
Introducing No Country for Old Men
No Country for Old Men (2007) was adapted from prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel by the celebrated directors Joel and Ethan Coen, who also directed the movie. It centres on the discovery of a suitcase full of money by Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who stumbles across drug deal gone wrong in the wilds of 1980 rural Texas. After taking the money for himself, Moss is pursued by the bloodthirsty psychopath Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who ruthlessly dispatches his victims with aplomb. Following this trail of carnage is local sheriff Ed Tom Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones. No Country for Old Men was awarded four Oscars, including the much-coveted ‘Motion Picture of the Year’ and ‘Best Director’ gongs, as well as two Golden Globes and two BAFTA wins. Director of Photography Roger Deakins’ was acknowledged with a BAFTA for ‘Best Cinematography’ for his brooding and low-key depiction of the scorched earth of southern Texas and early 1980s Americana.
The first scene I’d like to analyse is one that for me, epitomises the whole movie, and is the type of image that comes into my mind whenever I think of No Country for Old Men. This is an extremely wide shot, and one that is virtually made for the Anamorphic 2.35:1 ratio most commonly used for movies. It’s the sort of shot that is an absolute feast for the eyes on a big screen, as you can drink in every carefully placed detail in scene. One of the first things worth noting about the scene is the colours, which I would describe as ‘Coenised’. Muted, heavily desaturated colour tones are a real hallmark of the Coen brothers as directors, and their productions are famous for the complex and masterful colour correction effects applied in post-production. The warm, saturated tones in this scene really set the mood and immerse the viewer in the moment – the shot feels ‘dry’ and arid which is exactly befitting of the Texan desert. The wide angle lens used really emphasises the vast rolling expanse of desert. Note the incredible cloud formation – this must have been the result of lots and lots of planning.
The scene is made immensely powerful but its minimalism and simplicity, which really forces the viewer’s eye to consider the few objects that do populate the frame. As is typical for a visually interesting image, the horizon line is kept off-centre, ensuring an imbalance between sky and desert, making for a ‘disruptive’ layout that is more entertaining on the eye. There are three main objects that form the focal point of the shot – the actor to the left, the faraway mountain in the centre, and the cactus in the foreground. The actor and the mountain are both linked by the horizon line and, while the mountain sits at the centre of the shot, it is so small and faraway that it isn’t a great visual weight at the centre of the image, but is still noticeable and adds nice geometry to the framing. The positioning of the cactus in the foreground is crucial. It sits between the actor and the mountain, forming the base of a triangle as the interchange between the main image focal points. This triangle serves two purposes. Firstly, it emphasises the ‘depth’ of the scene by offering a sense of proportion through the imaginary linking lines – actor in middle ground, cactus in foreground, and mountain faraway. Secondly, a triangle shape linking these points is a good way to help ‘lead’ the viewer’s eye across the frame, and guide them as to the makeup of the scene.
But beyond these factors, there is one feature of this shot which takes significance above all others, and that is the positioning and movement of the character (Josh Brolin). While only small within the frame, it’s obvious the actor is the most important part of the shot by the way he is placed. He is positioned so he breaks up the horizon line, making him easy to spot. He walks from the left of the scene to the right, which mirrors how Western cultures write. This means that the viewer’s mind subliminally assumes the actor is walking and moving into the frame – a left to right movement signifies dynamism. This is a very cleverly executed scene indeed.
How might a street photographer hope to achieve a similar effect then? Surprisingly, this shot isn’t too difficult to emulate, as you don’t need to be right up close to your subject! What this shot does require though, is a moderately wide lens (35mm or wider) and the ability to step right back from your subject, and a relatively quiet scene. So look for maybe a beach in winter, or a nice wide quiet street with a pavement or path along the opposite side to you. By keeping the shot as simple as possible, and being very patient so as to photograph just one person walking from left to right on one side of the frame, you should be able to produce a strong and unusual image.
The purists may argue that this isn’t a street photo, but I will present my defence. Next to the town hall in Rethymno is the local sports club, which has an athletics track and football pitch. You can see the pitch from Rethymno’s perimeter road, and you can walk in and out of the sports centre freely provided there are people training there. I walked past with a friend one day and we decided to take a closer look. I had my wide angle (35mm) street photography lens with me and I really wanted to capture a shot of people playing football with the backdrop of the sea, sky, and massed clouds at sunset. The training session was winding down though, so I decided to go for something minimal and abstract.
As with the movie shot, my wide lens meant that the ground (in this case the pitch) and the sky played almost as important a part in my shot as my subject. The pitch in my photo dominates my shot a little more that the desert in the No Country for Old Men scene, but that was intentional – I wanted to show the position and of the boy relative to the mass expanse of the football pitch. Like the movie shot, I placed him to the left of my frame, and happily the lines of the edge of the penalty area help to draw the eye to him in the same way the ‘invisible’ triangle does in the movie shot. He doesn’t quite intersect my artificial horizon line perfectly (the heavy concrete wall) but he does break its line enough for him to stand out.
Rather than physically moving across my frame, the sense of motion from the footballer in my shot is suggested by his kicking motion as he prepares to strike the ball, and the implied flight of the ball from right to left across the frame. I don’t tend to over-edit colours, so I sought to add feel to the shot by underexposing it to lend a moody atmosphere brought on the by dark clouds above. Unfortunately though, my shot doesn’t have the gloriously uncluttered feel (and thus impact) of the movie shot.
This shot is my favourite from the entire movie – I just love how abstract it is! It’s a totally surreal image, and is magnificently ominous and frightening. It conveys the sense of dread that accompanies Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) whenever he enters a scene. Beginning first with the obvious, the focal point of the image is entirely clear – the strong light and the silhouette is placed exactly at the centre of the image. While this would appear to go against the norms of powerful composition, this shot is so abstract that the focal point needs to be clearly at the centre of the frame, otherwise it will be an overly complicated scene for the viewer to process. Keeping the focal point central helps to tie in with the neat geometry of the shot too – the background and edges of the frame are almost entirely comprised of simple vertical lines, which makes for a stark, well organised scene. The lighting is of course, key; gentle natural light from camera right illuminates enough of the background to make it visible as an element of the scene (particularly the lines), but keeps it dark enough that the focus of attention is clearly the brightly lit portal of glass right in the centre. The colour chosen for this bright light (through the colouring of the glass) adds key mood to the scene, as it’s a horrible fetid yellow with connotations of grime and unpleasantness.
The silhouette though, is what totally makes the scene, but note how carefully this has been prepared for maximum impact. The window glass has a round pattern whose purpose is two fold. The glass pattern contrasts with everything surrounding is frame because it is round, and so forms a key link with the only other curved element in the shot – the character’s outline. Most importantly, the circular patterns disrupt the silhouette outline, making it so much more mysterious and threatening. Following the golden rule of generating suspense in storytelling, this shot fits perfectly with the maxim that ‘less in more’. Making the silhouette totally abstract and mysterious lets the viewer’s imagination run wild, which makes the eventual appearance of the character all the more powerful.
Matching a shot like this would pose a bit of a challenge in street photography, as it is so abstract. A street photographer would have to be sure to create something that was not too confusing or obtuse as to what it was depicting, and all without the luxury of a totally managed set and lighting. That said though, there are options. Look for lighted doorways with glass, or windows themselves, and particularly glass that is patterned or frosted to add an extra sense of mystery. Then look for a silhouette! If possible focus on the silhouette and not the door or window frame to avoid distractions. This is especially important as a shot like this is likely to be in low light, and so using a wide aperture with narrow depth of field will make the point of focus all the more crucial.
I’ve been attempting to make a surreal silhouette street shot for months now, and this is first photo I’ve been remotely happy with, though it could be so much better to be a properly powerful image. This was shot as I walked past the doorway of a lighted church at night. I saw these mysterious figures in the doorway, and their silhouettes really stood out against the bright lights of the church. I made several attempts to get a photo, but the figures kept moving. Most of the shots I made were just too abstract – the figures were too far from the glass to be clear enough, and I couldn’t frame the doorway without it being lost in a sea of inky blackness because of the darkened street. This shot was the best I made – I took a step back to show the light spilling out of the doorway to illuminate the railings, and I waited until some people walked past to add an extra element of interest to the composition. It was just too ‘minimal’ otherwise. Unlike the movie cinematographers, I didn’t have the luxury of some soft additional lighting to light the surround of my doorway to add a little background interest, and the harsh light of a flash (and the time it took to set up) would have been out of the question. As with the scene from No Country for Old Men, I loved how the pattern on the glass (in this case frosting) helped to blur the silhouettes of my subjects inside, adding an extra element of mystery. I’ve cropped the image slightly to place the door in the centre of the frame – this shot was my final try of the set and I’d almost lost faith until the people arrived, so my composition was not spot on.
The final scene I want to look at also features the movie’s villain, and like the previous shot I admire it for the way it presents an abstract point of view and disrupts ‘normal’ expectations for a narrative scene. The first thing I notice with the composition of this scene is the heavy vertical line of the door frame which dissects the scene one third of the way across. This frame marks the divide between light and dark in the shot, and keeping that division in accordance with the rule of thirds makes for a more visually arresting image. The darkness across the left third of the shot is an excellent use of negative space – the viewer’s eye naturally gravitates towards the lit bathroom, which is where the ‘action’ of the scene is taking place. The strong lighting in this portion of the scene ensures a strong silhouette of the actor’s upper frame, as he stands out against the bright light and walls. Note how he is positioned to the right of the frame, well off centre. This arrangement leaves the centre of the shot clear for the key focal point – the character’s face. It’s very clever the way the mirror is used to show the audience the actor’s face and his reactions, whilst at the same time the viewer is able to see his body and ‘follow’ him into the room. This serves to double the tension – there is the sense of being immersed in the scene and ‘walking’ into the room, whilst also being able to see the character’s quick eyes as he surveys the room for targets, which brings the threat of impending violence. The frame of the mirror serves the shot well too – it’s a neat little box at the heart of the image that stands out against the cream wall and really draws the viewer’s eye. But the mirror also serves as clever symbolism, as by capturing the image of the character in such a small frame the cinematography also suggests he is distant, which fits his role as an emotionless and remorseless cold-blooded killer.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous article – Talking Movies: The Graduate, using reflective surfaces and mirrors can make for a really lively and interesting street shot. Learn where there are mirrors on the street and use them to your advantage. Shop window displays will often feature mirrors as they catch the eyes of passersby and will often prompt them to stop – use this to your advantage! Position yourself so that you can see both the back of your subject and a portion of their reflected image for some interesting effects. Window displays are also good because they will often be lit at night, offering the opportunity for a nice strong silhouette. Car or bike wing mirrors too are also great for reflections, though you’ll have to work the composition for these much harder in order to achieve something of the simplicity of the movie still.
My shot was one of those lucky moments that present themselves every once in a while when you’re out walking looking to make street photos. It was a late March evening in Rethymno and many of the shops in the centre of the town were being refurbished in preparation for the arrival of the summer tourists who flock to Crete. This Marco Bicego jewellery shop was one such shop. I often try to make shots of it as it is bedecked with advertising featuring a striking model whose eyes look straight of the photo, and these adverts, when combined with passersby often make for a very nice juxtaposition. In this shot I loved the picture of the advert in the frame on the table as well as the slightly bizarre shape made by the sheets covering the store furniture. As luck would have it, one of the men in the store stopped to take a phone call, and moved in front of the mirror so his back was to me but his face reflected. As with the scene from the movie, I was looking through a doorway at a lit, bright interior, with a nice block of negative space to the left of my frame. The expanse of white in the sheet created a fun extra element of negative space too. Unfortunately the darkened portion of the frame occupies more area than is ideal, as I had to stay out of view of the man reflected in the mirror, as each time he spotted my reflection he moved out of view, thinking he was blocking my shot. Of course, my shot also lacks the simplicity of the movie scene, cluttered as the store is with the detritus of the re-fit. It was a happy coincidence though that the man’s head, back and shoulders point downwards towards the mirror and the photo in the frame as this serves nicely to lead the eye to the centre of the image.
The three stills I’ve chosen are just a small selection of the visual inspiration displayed in No Country for Old Men. It really is an artfully shot movie, and the precise arrangement, attention to detail, and careful planning behind each shot really becomes apparent when you study the movie in depth. It is this careful planning that we should really aspire to as street photographers hoping to take our work to the next level. Of course we can’t expect to have a whole team on hand to arrange each individual detail in our shots, and neither should we – that isn’t what the genre is about. But we can train ourselves to spot these details and plan our compositions around getting the best out of them. It’s what street photography compositional geniuses like Alex Webb do time and time again. No Country for Old Men is a great movie to watch to get yourself really thinking about composition and details in photography, and how just by arranging a scene simply you can really convey a powerful message and mood. Sometimes less really is more with photography, and the starkness and minimalism of the cinematography in No Country for Old Men is testament to that.
Check it out!