#923. A virtually free masterclass on photography, I’m not joking!

By pascaljappy | How-To

Nov 02

Hero, Mad Max: Fury Road, Blade Runner, Pan’s labyrinth, In the mood for love, House of flying daggers, Raise the red lantern … all absolutely beautiful films to watch, all with a strong visual signature, an extraordinary use of colour and an inspiration for us photographers. But, now, there’s a new kid in town which, to me, trumps them all: Joker!


Now, for obvious reasons, I can’t reproduce images from the movie on this page. One kick in the bum from the movie’s legal department would send this blog to the moon and back. So you’ll have to make do with some of mine, with a vaguely similar vibe. And, anyway, this is a short post.

Let me just explain why I think the photography in this movie is so brilliant.

(1) Composition is so perfect it almost feels like the artistic team did it for their own personal pleasure (although it serves the storytelling at all times). The movie alternates between dynamic action and what really can be assimilated to still photography. In those stills, the use of crystal clear composition is so striking it gave me goosebumps. Centric composition (rare, but so boldly executed, as when Arthur is alone at the back of a bus), offset compositions (many close up scenes from outside buses, trains, at the mental health institution, talking to the civil worker …), frames within frames (at the hospital, visiting Penny). I’ve rarely seen a film with as much formal attention to beautiful composition. The team goes as far as often losing the main protagonist in a sea of ‘other stuff’ people, junk, garbage, so as to reinforce his solitude, seemingly mocking the concept of composition while composing masterfully. It almost feels like an inside joke 😉

The oppressed clown

(2) The use of colour is subtly exquisite. I mean, to me, Saul Leiter takes some beating. But this is right up there. This film is simply extraordinary in its deliberate use of colour universes that subtly reinforce storytelling. In a scene where Arthur talks to his mother through a door, the two rooms are completely different colour universes. Each with a incredibly consistent palette, but with a different mood and energy. In compositionally centric frames, Arthur’s face is sometimes surrounded by two different colour schemes on either side. In one, in the mental health institution, this is reinforced by two very different sub-compositions on either side (receding lights on one side, flat scene on the other), probably to reinforce the sensation of mental imbalance, the struggle between moving on and stagnation / self-pity (this reminded me of some religious paintings where Christ is represented with different background landscape types on either side). Light is sometimes soft and warm, sometimes much bluer, sometimes hard, neutral and dynamic. And all this blends in without ever jarring or feeling forced. Stylistically, this is pure genius.


(3) Intent and humility are everywhere. Many films with similar attention to photography are spectacular. At no point in Joker do you feel the brilliance is self-serving, artificial, or used for Wow-effect. Every compositional and lighting detail contributes to a feeling, to a mood, to a logical hinge between phases. The story is a prequel / repositioning of the main character compared to the previous films. The vibe and intent are different, although the facts are consistent. You’ll like that or not. But I can’t think of many films in which photography serves the storytelling as powerfully yet as subserviently. It must be a very fine balance to find.


That’s it from me. The movie has been out for some time now, but I only managed to watch it a few days ago. It had already been downgraded to a smaller room in the local cinema. You know what? I think it was better this way. This film has the feel of an intimate masterpiece. Something along the lines of the best Woody Allen, Godard and Casavetes. It’s such a refreshing change from the loud blockbuster and so much more engaging.

Let me leave you with this video from Go Creative. I’ve only viewer a bit of it but it seems to provide interesting insights into the intentions of the artistic team.


Go and see the film 10 times and forget about the comic, the political context and the impressive acting, for now. It will have cost you 100 €/£/$ and nothing I can think of can come close to the visual impact and formal training the experience would offer, for that sort of money. Masterclasses of that level don’t often come that cheap.


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  • Michael Fleischer says:

    Hi Pascal,

    Thanks for the clue, I will attend my masterclass this weekend as a good DS fanboy! 😉
    I normally don’t watch that many films in the cinema – often far too loud
    sound for my ears taste… (if ears can taste sound)?

    Yep, Blade Runner & Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski – B/W) definitely being right up the scale…


    • pascaljappy says:

      Let me know what you think. I’m not vouching for the story, only for the subtle yet powerful photography 😉 IDA, hmm, hand’t thought of that film. Must watch it, now 🙂 Cheers, Pascal

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    You might think this one is a bit odd – but it’s similar in a way. The original “Rocky” was absolutely panned by the critics, and since I hate that (and always used to go & see films they did it to!) off I went & bought my ticket.

    And I found it was really unusual. Each scene was like a “vignette” – a complete picture, in itself – and yet they strung together to make a coherent whole. I’d never seen a film like it – probably haven’t, since.

    My “take”, for what it’s worth, is that we can learn from practically anything – IFF (AKA if, but ONLY if) we are prepared to.

  • Michael Fleischer says:

    Hi Pascal

    I find Joker to be a very complex and as you already said a nearly perfect through-out experience…both visually, audio, story and acting seems to me to be a symbiose of multiple skills in a virtuos blend. Dosed unusually balanced – for an american film. Like watching a slender sharp knife going through tender butter…ouch!
    It’s difficult at this first impact for me to seperate out the story from all the many supporting arts they have applyed.
    Many scenes seem to pop up…like snapshots, especially inside the bus ones and the long staircase in the beginning/end gets a different meaning.
    Mental disease scaringly vivid portrayed in subdued colours. Had some family related experience with that over the years…!

    Ok, just a little first ramble
    Of impressions…need
    to see it again!


    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Michael, thank you for the feedback. I’m glad you liked it (enjoying it is a different matter entirely, as it is a difficult subject to enjoy …) and found that the whole movie is a complex assembly of very cleverly thought out pieces with great photography in service of storytelling. It’s impressive stuff.


  • Michael Fleischer says:

    Yes, it’s visually sublime but need a little more “sitting time” before second dose…:-)

    Ps, IDA link to trailer here, a movie I find very top class, seductive, poetic and each scene a
    visual feast if your’re into monochrome/film noir !



    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you. I found the whole movie (IDA) online but with no subtitles. Maybe it exists in DVD? But the few images I saw were indeed very beautiful and atmospheric.

      Second dose: you don’t have to 😉 I’m not going back for seconds. The idea of going 10 times is to get immersed in imagery for not a lot of money, perfect for a student, but it would take a lot of effort 😉


  • Nancee Rostad says:

    I couldn’t comment until I’d seen the movie, which I did today on “discount Tuesday”. Wow, just wow! Joaquin is absolutely superb in the role of Joker – hopefully he’ll be rewarded for his efforts!
    Your post covered nearly all my own observations about the movie, Pascal – but I’d like to add a couple of things that really stood to me. First the continued use of red, yellow, blue & white gave a wonderful continuity to the scenes. These usually cheerful colors were artfully juxtaposed against Joker’s strange and sad life. Several scenes are etched in my memory because of the use of color: after Joker brutally and shockingly murders his friend from work, the camera rests on Joker’s white painted & blood splattered face as he rests his head against the white blood splattered wall. As horrible as it was, I just couldn’t look away. Another scene where Joker is in his apartment as he freaks out and police sirens are heard outside and large squares of red light from police cars are reflected on the wall – very evocative! The two other things that struck me were the use of DOF to surround and isolate Joker clearly in each close-up, and how all the out of focus lights in the night scenes were so reminiscent of circus balloons – very cool, and obviously done on purpose.
    To add to your list of artful movies, I’d have to nominate The English Patient for its stunning cinematography.
    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Pascal.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Indeed. Amazing use of colour. I remember the scene where he talks to his mother though the bathroom door. The bathroom is all cold pastels and she is wearing a complementary dark red (I think), probably to make her stand out, while his is bathed in golden light almost to the point of disappearing in it. The two “hemispheres” are shown simultaneously and the effect is incredible. He is always the person nobody notices and the use of light and colour reinforces this. Also, I wonder whether the use of blue light around him in the beginning and warmer light in the end doesn’t make us feel good about his … progress 😉

      I may be reading too much into it, but really enjoyed the movie’s photography and am glad you did too!

      The English Patient! Yes, indeed. Long time no see. Will find it and watch it again. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

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