Composing Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia is playing at the Astor cinema for a limited season and if you see it there you will never forget the experience. It’s probably lookimg better than on its release in 1962 because after its restoration and digital transfer this year, there are no scratches or dust or colour mis-matches. The image is so clean you can see that Anthony Quinn’s false nose does not quite match the colour of his face!

As a visual artist (still photographer, painter) you can learn from movies to see how problems of composition, colour, scale etc are solved. One of the challenges faced by cinematographer Freddie Young and director David Lean was how to fill the extreme Super-Panavision film format.

At a ratio of 1:2.2 it’s the longest screen format of all and presented extreme compositional challenges, and opportunities. Despite the long horizontal span of the format, the filmmakers were able to create taut compositions in the huge scale of the landscape.

The focal point is on both the vertical and horizontal centres.

No shot in his entire career aroused so much comment as the scene when Omar Sharif emerged from a mirage – achieved with a unique 430mm telephoto lens he had had the foresight to bring with him from Panavision in America. (

Linkage between left, right and middle.

The minimalism of the desert shots was partly determined by the subject. As the Prince Feisal character states, ” There is nothing in the desert.”  The insistent horizon line and flat blue skies created a ready made design, but the filmmakers embraced it, creating a new, painterly image of the desert.

Symmetrical composition

The film looks so modern it was seemingly inspired by contemporary abstract art. The indulgence in pure flat colour and graphic compositions is noticeable, especially in comparison to other comparable films. Another British desert film made only four years earlier, Ice Cold in Alex, has none of the geometric starkness of Lawrence. Lean and his cinematographer Freddie Young imbued their film with a very modern, even modernist, visual sense.

Geometric abstract composition


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