Filmmaking 101: Using framing for storytelling

By PierreL | Content For Creators | 19 May 2021

Four years after everyone else, I finally started watching Hulu's show The Handmaid's Tale. I just finished the first season, and I can already say that it is an amazing show for many different reasons (story, storytelling, acting, editing, soundtrack...). But today, I wanted to focus on cinematography. Let's see together how framing, camera angles, and shot composition help further the plot and support the storytelling throughout the show. THT is a masterclass of cinematography, so let's try to understand why that is.


Before we start

Spoiler alert: since I'll be talking about how the cinematography helps accentuate the plot, I will have to talk about some plot points. I will keep it to a minimum, but you've been warned.

Disclaimer: these are my own views, I haven't read or seen anything from the crew that indicates that what I will describe below is accurate. I will simply be explaining how the show makes me feel as a viewer and a videographer.

If you don't know the story of THT, here is a very short summary to understand what I'll be talking about (you can skip this if you're familiar with the book or the show): in a world where fertility rates dropped drastically because of pollution, a totalitarian government takes over the US and creates a new society based on different social classes. One of these classes is Handmaid, the only remaining fertile women, who are now used as sex slaves by the upper class. They have no rights and only one role: have children. The main character is June, the handmaid that has been assigned to Mr. and Mrs. Waterford's home.

And, finally, a few words on the director of photography of the show: Colin Watkinson. He is the artist who created everything I'm about to describe, so he deserves some recognition and praise. He is a British cinematographer based in Los Angeles who has worked on shows such as Entourage and of course, The Handmaid's Tale, as well as a number of music videos for Paul McCartney, Katy Perry, Ludacris and Avril Lavigne, among others, and commercials for Apple, Samsung, Disney, Chevrolet, Adidas, to name a few... He also won an Emmy Award and an ASC Award for his work on THT so, yeah, pretty talented guy.


The breakdown

Time to start this breakdown, and you'll see that it gets interesting from the very beginning of the show.

The first image showing June as a handmaid in the first episode already sets up the entire backstory. There's so much information to be taken from this first glimpse of the new society:


What I see: She is shown in the very center of the screen, but she appears extremely small in the room. The bed and the nightstand look huge, the chair looks way too big for her, the wall seems to be endless. Another interesting point is that the only light in this shot is coming from the outside, everything in the room is in darkness. June is perfectly placed in the middle of the window, but she is turning her back to it, looking inside the room.

What I read: Our main character is being introduced as this tiny silhouette surrounded by all this dark greatness. She is framed by the light (the blinds stopping it just above her head), by the window frame, and by the wall surrounding the window. This conveys the feeling that she is trapped, she's a prisoner in this dark room, surrounded by so many layers that it feels impossible to escape. She can't escape the frame, as she can't escape her fate. Then, we have the sole source of light that, to me, sends two messages:

  • First, it is coming from the outside, while everything inside is dark, and this accentuates this impression that the room is a prison and that freedom is out there, unreachable. As I pointed out, she's not even looking at it, making me feel like she has lost hope at this point. From now on, her life will be this room, this house, this prison, and she stopped thinking about the rest of the world that she knows she can't reach.
  • Then, she is lit from the back, rendering her faceless, without any distinct feature except her outline, drawn by her clothes and hat. At this moment, when this new world is being introduced to the viewer for the first time, she is not June, she is not even Offred, she is all of the handmaids. They are all represented by this faceless silhouette, recognizable by the outfit. They are all small, trapped, hopeless and nameless. This is the world the show is setting up in the very first frame.


In fact, she is always small, crushed or surrounded by something or someone greater than her. Wether it's a wide shot or a close-up, she can never escape the frame, and this emphasizes this prison vibe and makes you subconsciously feel it as she is living it. I think you can clearly see what I mean in these stills taken from episodes 1 through 5:


Wherever she is, there is no escape.


Now let's focus on another scene, the first ceremony:


The top two shots clearly demonstrate who is in charge and who is powerless. Throughout the show, the "masters" tend to be shot in low angle, conveying a sense of greatness and power, while the handmaids are usually shown from a higher angle, giving you the impression that they are dominated, or from their eye level, putting the viewer in their shoes. We always see and feel the action through a handmaid's point of view. Here, June is surrounded by faceless bodies, and this happens a lot in the show whenever she is at her lowest. It doesn't matter who's there, she's weaker than the people around her. She only matters because of her role, but she is replaceable - she is an object more than a human being. In these stills, her background is way more crowded, with the house staff being extra close to her, trapping her, while Mrs. Waterford's background is further away from her and less oppressing. She has room to breathe and move in her frame, June does not.

The bottom shot, on the bed, is another clear indicator that she, as a human, is worthless. She's not even visible, even though she's the only one that truly matters, and that moment is the only reason she's even there. The act is happening between the commander and his wife, and June is just a tool that they're using. Faceless, meaningless, powerless. And visually trapped, yet again, by the couple, the framing of the bed, the wall, and the curtains.

To finish, I just wanted to talk about a couple examples showing the unavoidable strength and power Fred Waterford has over June:


The top two shots are set in the same location, same background, same scene but definitely not the same feeling. I feel like these shots don't even require an explanation. June is, as always, tiny, crushed and trapped by her surroundings. She's a mere piece of furniture among the countless other pieces of furniture around her. The commander, on the other hand, is escaping the frame. He's escaping the fireplace and the painting, he's taller than everything else, and the directional lines drawn by the curtains, along with the usual low angle view, just make him look great, powerful and unbeatable. He is dominating the frame, the room and June.

The bottom two shots are very interesting because it is a simple conversation between the two characters over a game of Scrabble, a back and forth dialogue as we're used to seeing in movies. They are both sitting on similar chairs and lit equally, so you would think that they will finally be on an equal footing in this scene. And yet, pay attention to how close they are being filmed. You can see the whole chair on June's shots, but the framing is slightly closer on Fred's side, making him fill up more of the screen. They are in the exact same environment, but he, yet again, appears bigger, in control, while she's trapped in her chair and dominated by her frame. The body languages of the actors also help convey this feeling.


I could go on for hours with this show. So much thought is put into every single shot. You can learn a lot about filmmaking and storytelling when you pay closer attention to the movies and TV shows you're watching. As a viewer, you're constantly being influenced and driven by these techniques without even realizing it, making you subconsciously feel the action as it is happening. This is why the role of a cinematographer is so vital. Two different lenses could convey two very different messages, and it's extremely important to be able to decide how to compose a shot in order to help the story move forward. Again, these are just my personal understandings, don't hesitate to comment below if you have different interpretations for these shots. I can't wait to see how the story and characters evolve and develop, as I'm sure the cinematography will change accordingly. That being said, I'm off to watch season 2!

And let me know if you would like to see more cinematography breakdowns on this blog!

Until next time, stay creative! See ya!




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French video editor, wildlife photographer, amateur space junkie, sports and history buff and crypto enthusiast.

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