The poor prioritization of visuals in film

Aditya Thiyag | The Chronicle

Film is a visual medium.

It’s a phrase that I’ve heard before, but it’s something that I didn’t really understand until recently.

Last week, I watched Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance and The Lighthouse – two wildly different films each with unreal performances, inventive screenplays, and compelling characters. Yet the thing that stood out the most to me was the visual style of both films.

Examining the former, Birdman is filmed to look like it was shot in one take, meaning it’s one continuous experience from beginning to end without any apparent cuts, akin to 2019’s 1917, enhancing the chaos of the film on-screen and the multifaceted conflicts between characters taking place simultaneously. The Lighthouse, on the other hand, is an entirely black and white film, presented in a square-like 1.19:1 aspect ratio (the size of each shot) that allows for more verticality within each shot and enhances the dated feel of the 1890’s setting.

For context, most films are shot in a widescreen, 16:9 aspect ratio leading to “cinematic” black bars appearing on the top and bottom of each shot. The most recent film to feature such an aspect ratio was the smash hit Spider-Man: No Way Home, a movie that I enjoyed quite a bit for the fan service, performances, and characters, but a movie that, upon rewatch, felt extremely dull visually.

Now, I’m not trying to sound like an elitist that thinks the MCU marks the death of modern cinema or that every hit movie needs to redefine the industry. I grew up with and enjoy the MCU and superhero movies, and calling No Way Home a soulless cash grab is such a disservice to the passion on display in front of and behind the camera. But I think it’s okay to point out the fact that the movie didn’t use its monstrous budget to its fullest extent. Instead of spending extra time on practical effects and a visual style that made it stand out, we got several CGI sequences that ultimately left me wanting more.

This brings me back to the idea of film being a visual medium. It seems like an obvious statement, but one that I think isn’t discussed enough. When we sit down in a theater with our oversized popcorn, 3D glasses, and family members, we aren’t there to listen to an orchestral performance or read a novel. We’re there to watch a movie. And a movie isn’t just a script or a bunch of weightless computer-generated characters floating around a screen. A movie is an event that should transport the audience to another world for a couple of hours in a way that no other piece of entertainment can. And in movies without a visual style, I find myself less and less invested in that world, and instead of asking myself why I didn’t just read the script.