Monday, September 26, 2016


Okay, so what about this crazy idea of a painting being a visual cipher to decode this film's visual language? And what in the world is visual language anyway? 

Well, to answer the second question first: to my mind visual language is the unique expression of visual design choices that permeate a work of art. It is the unique visual fingerprint, which in the case of a film is generally the product of how the creative crew (cinematographer, set designer, costumer, art director, and so on), all serve or inform a director's vision. 

I will go into more examples of visual language in a future post, but for this one I am proposing that the design choices in this painting act as a blueprint for the unique visual language that carries through almost every shot of the film.

Now there might be some symbolic meaning to the painting itself, what it mainly did for me was change how I looked at every shot of the movie afterwards. The painting is a visual pattern, a relationship of squares that hold some significant yet unknown relationship to each other. To me they almost felt like post-it notes, or index cards pinned together on a bulletin board, the meaning of their relationship indecipherable simply because the cards are blank. 

Okay, a bit of a stretch I’ll admit. But in the following sequence of a conversation that sets in motion the mystery of the mole who Smiley must uncover, look what we are shown on this phone booth: squares upon squares on the glass--more post-its, cards, notes, what have you, all blank, at least from our view. While the cards serve a purpose of masking the identity of the caller, this could have been easily achieved with a different camera angle or with obscured glass. By the third shot the notes on the glass are so prominent it's hard to imagine they don't hold some greater significance.

In the intercutting between these callers, note how the camera in the office gradually swings around and settles on a flat composition with the speaker framed against the wall. I'll touch more on this camera and staging choice shortly.

As an artist and writer, the papers on the phone booth present a pattern I’m familiar with: an array of thumbnails to find the right composition; an array of index cards to find the right story structure; bits and pieces of imagery and story to find a larger context. 

As a watcher of movies and television, it reminds me of the scenes with detectives piecing their clues together on a wall to uncover the psychopath’s pattern; the eccentric mathematician trying to solve the impossible theorem strung across a pattern of numbers; the psychopath displaying their obsession through a collection of creepy photographs on the crazy wall. 

This is all ordering of information, the collection and assembly of puzzle pieces to construct a larger whole, and it is basically the premise of the entire movie. Smiley, and by extension the audience, is desperately trying to solve the complex mystery threatening British Intelligence during this dangerous period of cold war espionage. This painting, with its particular design language, is the visual key that unlocks the larger design language of the film, which is essentially Information Design. Only these groupings of information are devoid of information like empty frames on a museum wall. It is the visual representation of complex, indecipherable information that must be ordered and deciphered to be solved.  

So let’s test this crazy theory. Here is a SMALL sample of random shots. See any patterns?

What do I see going on here? When reduced down to flat space and basic shapes, each shot bears an uncanny semblance to a cluttered post-it note/bulletin board arrangement. These kinds of compositions don't happen by chance. The camera has to be placed perpendicular to the image plane and generally longer lenses need to be used to minimize perspective. Shooting any of these shots at an angle would greatly diminish this feeling of controlled, ordered square shapes and spaces. 

Look at these exterior locations below. These are likely sets that were specifically selected by location scouts. They are all distinctively composed of irregularly shaped and positioned squares or rectangles. The odds of all these locations have this commonality by coincidence is very unlikely.

Now look at these interior sets. Notice how they too all have compartmentalized, non-repeating square shapes. Is it a coincidence every scouted location and art department-designed, crew-built set has the same square motifs? Is it a coincidence that almost every wall or flat surface has a picture frame or wainscoting, wallpapering or paneling that breaks of the plane into smaller squares?

And consider the camera staging: look at where doorways or vestibules of foreground objects further subdivide the flat space into smaller square shapes. 

Scouring every shot of this film, one of the only places in the entire movie that has no squared subdivision of shape is the 'hush room' where the top agents of British Intelligence hold their secretive meetings. I'm not sure what the meaning is behind this yet, other than to say it stands in stark contrast to everything else. It is like the eye of the information storm, calm, controlled and devoid of any visual information or clutter.

So this is my theory: The director and creative crew crafted a unique visual language in service to the story built on the impression of organized chaos--an indecipherable yet intentional organization of squares upon squares like those reflected in the bulletin boards and map walls of British Intelligence, the phone booth and the painting in Smiley's house. This motif of information design lends a puzzling visual complexity to a puzzling mystery. At a sensory level it makes the world harder to parse, the clues harder to find, and the layers of lies and deceit harder to unveil. In essence, it basically puts us in the emotional and perceptual state of our sleuth protagonist, Smiley.

I may be totally wrong about of this. I may be just seeing the Messiah in the toast. But this also part of the fun with art: it's not always about the answer, but about thinking and asking questions. To those involved with designing this remarkable film, I applaud you if I'm right. I applaud you if I'm wrong too. Just don't tell anyone!

As a parting thought, there is yet one entirely different visual motif I noticed in the film, complete with its own cipher. Take a good hard look and see if you can spot it. And yes, that is a clue. :-)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


I recently had a late night viewing of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This was probably the third time I’ve seen the film, which according to my own personal gauge for judging the effectiveness of a film’s design made it the perfect opportunity to begin analyzing its visual language. Why three?

On first viewings design itself should generally go unnoticed. If it is done well the visual choices empower the story, working in seamless harmony with all other creative choices that shape the film--from casting and performance to score, sound and so on--creating a completely immersive viewing experience that convinces the viewer what they are seeing is a 'reality' and not just a bunch of artists and craftspeople throwing their work up on the screen. 

By the second viewing individual elements and choices should begin to stand out, leaving distinctive and memorable images in the viewer’s mind after the film ends. By the third screening, when the mind knows the story and the senses can drift to other aspects of the work, the craftsmanship should then begin to surface, revealing the patterns of thought and logic behind the visuals.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a complex work of cinematic art stemming from a complex novel flush with sophisticated themes of trust and betrayal, allies and enemies, all wrapped around a dangerous puzzle of cold war espionage. It came to me then as a delightful surprise that I should not just begin discovering aspects of the film’s design logic at this stage, but I believe, totally decode it. 

And here lies the interesting thing about this film’s design: like the unfolding of the masterfully complex mystery that must be solved by the film’s protagonist, Smiley, so is there a visual code for the audience to decipher. And there just so happens to be visual cipher* that makes the design logic of the film so blatantly obvious that in retrospect the design is even more amazing it isn't noticeable before. 

Now all of this is pure theory, of course. I haven't read interviews and don't have any evidence to back up my interpretation. But this is part of the innate beauty of art: whatever meaning is created through the expression of the artist gains new meaning through the impression of the viewer. At leas this is my rationale and I’m sticking with it.

Above are shots from before the appearance of my so-called cipher. On their own any design logic doesn’t seem to jump out. There is a standard compositional range with a number of wider shots establishing locations, a generally subdued palette switching between warm and cool, and some somber architectural settings relevant to the period and setting; nothing particularly unique given the serious tonality of the subject matter. 

Across these early shots we are introduced to ‘Control’, the head of British Intelligence who we will learn is subversively forced out of service and who takes with him his faithful ally, Smiley. Beholden by loyalty, Control’s logical successor goes home to contemplate his new life out of the game, which we will further learn had been recently made even more meaningless after his wife betrayed and left him. 

At this moment in Smiley’s upturned life he stands in front of a wall in his empty home, work and purpose now behind him, contemplating a simple post-modernist painting of drab colored squares on a dark field. The image itself seems to say nothing. It’s abstract and even our genius spy Smiley doesn’t seem to be able to make anything of it. Yet it holds him and the viewer transfixed for a moment. 

This painting I argue holds the clue to the visual language of this complex film. This is the cipher that changed how I looked at the rest of the film and found meaning in its visual-emotional storytelling.

And what makes this design choice even more significant is that is also an integral story device that prevents Smiley, one of ‘British Intelligence’s’ greatest spies, from solving the mystery earlier in the story. It is as much a decoy to the protagonist as a cipher to the audience. Even more, it is a key that leads to his and our understanding of the film's central mystery.

But I'm not going to spoil this discovery just yet! In effort to shorten my posts and to give you the chance to make your own discoveries, I'm saving my full visual analysis and breakdown for next week's post. In the meantime, go watch the movie and take a good hard look at Smiley's painting. See if you catch what I caught. If you do, just don't spoil my next post! :-)

*(I know I'm using the word 'cipher' incorrectly here my cryptographer friends. Forgive me!)