The Art of Gestalt: Movies

Opbomb Read: ~10mins

Gestalt is a term found in the study of psychology that refers to the perception of a wholesome picture more than the smaller parts that make that picture. There are many laws that make the field of gestalt and these laws are used to create beautiful art. It is more of an “Outside-in” kind of idea. In order 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

Octavio Ocampo (1943) Forever and Always

Meet the works of Octavio Ocampo. Octavio is a surrealist painter from Mexico who is famous for his gestalt paintings. We know many of his paintings to be found in novelty social media sites that has the stereotypical title of “What you see in these pictures tell you who you are.”. The truth is these pictures do not tell you who you are as a person, but dives deeper into exploring how our brain perceives a bigger picture more than what we can meticulously observe.


Octavio Ocampo (1943) Horse Face

Take one of his works “Horse Face” as an example. When we look at the painting, what do we see? I would be confident to say that the majority of us would notice the face of a woman instead of the two horses. The two horses in the painting is just the tip of the iceberg in the different elements that make the face. What we can perceive as the woman’s nose is actually 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 amalgamate into the perception of what looks like her – the horses or even their manes and tails that make up her hair (In).



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


Gestalt in Posters

Let’s look at how this technique is applied closer to what we’ve learnt about the phenomena. Movie posters are pretty much the visual representation of a movie as a whole. It is the pictorial summary of what the movie is about. Christopher Nolans’ The Dark Knight Trilogy has a really apt example of how gestalt psychology can come into play.

Many posters draw gestalt principals from paintings very closely

If we look at one of the posters for The Dark Knight Rises, we would 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 for viewers of the poster – Colour, lighting and space. When we look at a specific art medium, our eyes are instinctively attracted to brighter areas and colours. We are also creatures that yearn for order. So our brain caters a visual medium to what we can perceive first. The bat created is of a higher contrast (White to black) compared to the buildings around it. The space that fills the body of the bat is brighter than the buildings too. So, naturally, our brain filters out the noise of the grey-boring buildings, and the bat pops out visually. It is only when we take the effort to slowly study the outlines of the bat do we notice the intricacies of how the buildings crumble to create its shape. It could even be the other way around. Our brain craves visual action and we notice the buildings first before we find out that the perspective of the viewer is looking up into the skyscrapers of Gotham city and the shape of a bat. Gestalt psychology can be found in posters – now we’re well aware to keep our eyes peeled.


Gestalt in Scenes

Another law of gestalt psychology is the Law of Symmetry. When we think about symmetry in film, we usually will not discount works of Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson is a director that lives on creating film with symmetry. In fact, almost every scene of all his films have gestalt psychology’s Law of Symmetry at play. The idea of symmetry is pretty straightforward – when looking at a visual medium, our mind perceives an invisible centre point, causing a scene or an object to be identical if we cut the medium into two parts equally.

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

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


From the get-go, our mind immediately tells us that this shot is centred. If we were to draw an invisible line, cutting the hotel in two,  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

Another law that we can explore in film scenes is gestalt’s Law of Similarity. This law theorises that our brain relates groups to be in the same classification. It is through the use of this theory that brings us that triumphant “the-good-guys–have-overcomed” feeling various final scenes. For example (SPOILER ALERT), 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.


Gestalt in Editing

Like many other movies, the Law of Closure is applied when editing to tell a story

The final law of gestalt psychology we will be looking at is the Law of Closure. The Law of Closure is usually practiced in the editing of the film – In how scenes are juxtaposed next to each other to create a story.

There are many stellar examples in how gestalt psychology is practised in a movie’s editing. One of my favourites would be from the Coen brother’s No Country for Old Men. Without spoiling the entirety of the film, we follow Anton Chigurth, a hitman hired to recover a suitcase worth of money. 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 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 an edited hard cut, we might guess that she was. Our minds playing this guessing game based on our human need for closure – we want to know what happened to Carla, and because we are not humoured in the way we want, we draw our own conclusions. The editing stimulates the Law of Closure by keeping us guessing Carla’s fate.

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

Gestalt psychology is applied very frequently in the movies. It’s one of those things that are there and are overlooked because we are unaware of its existence. But the next time you head to watch a movie in 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 do so.


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