Educational Opinion

The Art of Gestalt: Movies


Have you ever mistaken an image or a painting you’ve seen for something entirely different to what it should be? It probably left you with a double-take: Wait, is that what I thought it was?

If it isn’t pareidolia at work, then it’s probably gestalt at play.

Gestalt is a term found in the study of psychology referring to the perception of a bigger picture resultant in the combination of the picture’s smaller parts. There are many laws that contribute to the art of gestalt and these laws are used to create beautiful art.

To talk about how gestalt psychology plays into film, we will need to draw upon the idea of how gestalt psychology plays into paintings.

The Basis of Gestalt in Paintings

Meet the works of Octavio Ocampo, famous for his gestalt paintings. These pictures help us explore how our brain perceives a bigger picture more than what we can meticulously observe.

Octavio Ocampo (1943) Horse Face

Take “Horse Face” as an example. We would probably notice the face of a woman first before the two horses. The two horses alone is just the tip of the iceberg. If we take a step back, we’ll probably perceive the woman’s nose to be the silhouette of a bird; and her lips, a hill on the horizon. It’s fascinating – It’s one of those moments where we tell ourselves: “When we see it, we cannot really unsee it.”. This is gestalt’s Law of Prägnanz at its finest: We look at the bigger picture of the face of a woman (Outside) before we study the elements that amalgamates into the perception of what looks like her (Inside).

We may be unfamiliar with gestalt psychology as moviegoers, but it is a very common technique that filmmakers like to use to drive their story.  There are many ways to apply gestalt psychology in film – commonly in how movie posters are presented, to film editing, and in still shots of different scenes.

Gestalt in Posters

Let’s look at how this technique is applied closer to what we’ve learned about the phenomena. Movie posters are not just marketing, but can also encompass the plot of the movie. Christopher Nolans’ The Dark Knight Trilogy has an apt example of how Gestalt psychology can take place.

Many posters draw gestalt principles from paintings very closely

If we look at this one from The Dark Knight Rises, we will probably spot the shape of the bat before the crumbling buildings that serve as its framing. The poster uses three elements that draw out gestalt’s Law of Prägnanz: Colour, lighting, and space.

When we look at a specific art medium, our eyes are instinctively attracted to brighter areas and colors. The bat created is of higher contrast (White to black) compared to the buildings around it. So, naturally, our brain filters out the noise of the grey-boring buildings, and the bat pops out visually. It is only when we make the effort to slowly study the outlines of the bat that we notice the intricacies of how the buildings crumble to create their shape.

Gestalt in Scenes

Another law of gestalt psychology is the Law of Symmetry. When it comes to symmetry, Wes Anderson comes to mind. Almost every scene of his films has gestalt psychology’s Law of Symmetry at play. It’s straightforward – our mind perceives an invisible center point for every visual medium, causing a scene or an object to be identical if we cut the medium into two parts equally.

Let’s look at an establishing shot for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The majority of Wes Anderson’s films are built on gestalt psychology’s Law of Symmetry

From the get-go, our mind immediately tells us that this shot is centered. If we were to draw an invisible line cutting through the hotel,  we can perceive the hotel to be the same on both sides.

Most visuals for armies and crowds in film are based on the Law of Similarity

One more that we can look at is the Law of Similarity, where our brain relates groups to be in the same classification. It is by using this theory that brings us a familiar, triumphant, “the-good-guys-have-won” feeling in various final movie scenes. For example in V for Vendetta, we know that V’s ideology has triumphed over the totalitarian empire of dystopian London when the general populace decided to march against their government wearing the same thing.

Oh, yes, remember when Captain America whispered “Avengers Assemble” in Avengers: End Game, and we all shed a tear?

Gestalt in Editing

The final law of gestalt psychology is the Law of Closure. The Law of Closure is usually practiced in a film’s editing: how scenes are juxtaposed next to each other to create a story.

There are many great examples of how gestalt psychology is practiced in a movie’s editing. The Coen brother’s No Country for Old Men is a textbook example. Without spoiling the entirety of the film, we follow Anton Chigurh, a hitman hired to recover a suitcase full of money.

No Country for Old Men is a great movie that features gestalt psychology at play in their editing

Throughout the movie, we witness Anton murder many other characters. During one of the final scenes, he sets out to kill this character called Carla. When Anton asks her to call a heads or tails, she refuses and states that “the choice is entirely your own”. The camera cuts to the wide shot of Carla’s house and Anton leaving the house, checking his shoes before entering his car to drive off.

We don’t really see or know for sure if Carla was killed. But through this cut, we might guess that she was. The editing stimulates us to guess Carla’s fate – thus, the Law of Closure at play.

Now That You Know, Go Find Somemore!

Do you see a skull first or a man in agony?

Gestalt psychology is applied very frequently in movies. It’s one of those things that are overlooked because we are unaware of its existence. But the next time you head to watch a movie on the big screen, keep a lookout for how gestalt is applied to a scene or to its editing. You will appreciate film much more if you try to do so.

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