It was when I was writing my book on John Carpenter’s The Thing (BFI Modern Classics, 1997) that I first became interested in the arrangement of figures within the frame of a film. In the book I wrote:
Now we get a better look at what Mac and Copper picked up, and Carpenter makes full use of his widescreen format to circle the group of men and the object in their midst. (The Thing is an exemplary film in its arrangement of men within the frame.)
I was aware from the very first that framing and composition were very important factors in the film, both in Carpenter’s directing and in DP Dean Cundey’s cinematography, and also from both aesthetic and storytelling points of view. Several times, the framing or focus is used deliberately to direct the viewer’s attention either to the foreground (alien goo oozing out from beneath the blanket while Bennings (in his orange jacket) roots around in the background):
…or to spaces behind the characters (MacReady and Windows failing to notice the scuttling head behind them):
When I wrote the book, I hadn’t seen the film in its 70mm widescreen version since its initial release in 1982. In the mid-1990s, all I had at my disposal was a pan-and-scan VHS recording taped off the television. There was a VHS version available, but that was pan-and-scan too. (Just try to imagine these screengrabs in their pan-and-scan versions!) The BFI very kindly laid on a screening of a 35mm print for me to watch, but in those pre-DVD days, there was no way of viewing and reviewing these elements at leisure; during the screening – the first time I’d seen the film in widescreen for 15 years – I was more interested in studying it as a whole, from a storytelling point of view, than in zooming in on details.
Now, thanks to the miracle of DVD, I am able not just to view and review certain scenes, but to make screengrabs (no thanks to Apple, which won’t let me play my legally purchased Region 1 The Thing DVD on my legally purchased iMac, forcing me to dust off an antediluvian laptop for this purpose).
There are 12 main characters in The Thing, and several scenes in which all or nearly all the men are not just present, but standing around passively. It seems to me this is a very difficult composition to get right. Odds are that if the scene is badly directed, it will seem awkward and unnatural. The arrangement of the figures needs to look natural, but a genuinely natural composition wouldn’t necessarily work – some characters would be obscured by others, other characters might not be in the frame at all. The need to keep as many faces as possible visible further complicates matters. Short of lining all the men up in a row, what do you do?
The most obvious solution is to have them looking at something which requires all of them to face in the same direction – for example, a video monitor:
or to stand around in a circle, gawping at a sample of gruesome Thinginess:
or clustered around the burning remains of Bennings (someone here asks, “Where’s Blair?”:
The key ensemble scene occurs at around the 33 minute mark, just after the men have witnessed the first big manifestation of the Thing, that of the dog. All the characters are present in the lab as Blair, who has been examining the grotesque carcass, begins, “You see, what we’re talking about here is an organism that imitates other lifeforms…” This is a very important speech because it sets out the Thing’s motivation and modus operandi, and the men don’t just need to hear it, but need to be seen to be hearing it if the rest of the story is to make sense.
The very elegant solution is for Blair to walk slowly around the carcass, explaining what he has discovered as he moves, while the men are shown listening to him, ever so slightly out of focus, in the near background:
There’s a brief interlude just as Blair says, “It’s not dog, it’s imitation…” and a cut to a close-up of the carcass:
After which Blair resumes his slow circling:
They’re all there – count ‘em! And they all look as though they know what they’re doing there – no-one is hovering around looking awkward or superfluous, and it doesn’t strike you as peculiar that all these very strong, aggressive characters should shut up and let just one man talk (something I kept finding absurd in The Thing prequel, when entire roomfuls of hefty pre-New Man Norwegians kept their mouths shut while an unknown slip of an American girl explained the preposterous-sounding events to them).
The arrangement of figures in the frame is maybe not the element that strikes you first when you watch The Thing, but it’s as important to the overall success of the film as the screenplay, the performances and the special effects. Beautifully done.