How the Golden Ratio Explains Cinema’s Hold On Us

You know what they say. The eyes are the window to the soul.

Lucasfilm / Walter Murch

By Meg Shields Published on February 7th, 2022

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that makes a case for the prevalence of the Golden Ratio in cinema.

Our relationship with cinema is pretty phenomenal when you take a step back to think about it. Flickering images can capture our imaginations and mesmerize us, rather literally, with plots of peril, love, loss, and everything in between. There are a number of psycho-visual phenomena that account for cinema’s emotional grip on audiences. Persistence of vision explains how we’re able to perceive a series of still images as continuous motion. Gestalt theory describes how we’re able to see a shot of a blank-faced man and a bowl of soup and infer that he is hungry. And the video essay below through another wrinkle into the tapestry: the Golden Ratio.

You may already e familiar with the Golden Ratio if you’re a mathematical historian or art student. But for those of us with an allergy to anything even tangentially related to numbers, here’s a basic overview. Also known as the golden mean or the divine section, for our purposes, the Golden Ratio is a mathematical ratio commonly found in nature. Humans have been studying the ratio essentially since we invented mathematics, and when applied to design, the result is organic-feeling, “natural” compositions that are aesthetically pleasing. The Golden Ratio is why something inane like a photograph of drunken British bar-crawlers can look like a Renaissance painting. And according to the video essay below, it’s yet another reason cinema has its hooks in us.

As the essay describes, many cinematographers frame human faces in a way that conforms to the Golden Ratio. This is because, as the essays, eyes feel most natural to us when they are positioned within the screen at the same proportion as the human face. So, effectively, many shots use the ratio to effectively turn the cinematic screen into a human face. Creepy? Compelling? Both? You decide:

Watch “Golden Ratio in Cinema”:

Who made this?

This video essay on the impact of faces in cinema and how the golden ratio might contribute to cinema’s hold on us is by Walter Murcha film editor and sound designer whose credits include The Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, Apocalypse Nowand THX 1138. This essay illustrates a hypothesis from Murch’s book Suddenly Something Clicked. You can find Murch on Vimeo here.

More videos like this

Related Topics: Cinematography, The Queue

Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).

Leave a Comment