What Happens in the Background? or How Cuaron Interlaced Layers of Stories in Children of Men
There are many ways to add layers and complexity to a story. One technique is to use the composition within a frame.
A classic example of carefully planned composition to move the story forward is this single shot from Citizen Kane. Your eyes progressively move from the foreground to the background, through focus and sound, and you immediately understand what happens within that scene:
The camera guides us to make sure we see the key information first, but also includes hints at elements that, while sometimes absorbed subconsciously, will create a feeling and an understanding of what makes Children of Men’s dystopian world similar or different to ours.
In an excellent video essay, The Nerdwriter expands on that:
“As the plot moves along its linear path following Theo [the lead story], the camera repeatedly becomes preoccupied with what’s going on in the background.
And this is a technique that Cuaron has used in the past and it makes for an interesting effect.
As in thousands of other films, we experience the world through the eyes of the main character. This process of identification is automatic and strong. So strong that we can even been made to sympathize with people who we would otherwise identify as bad or evil.
So when the camera actively breaks that identification and shows us imagery the lead character doesn’t see or notice, we’re made forcefully aware, in a purely visual way of the perspective of the film itself.”
In several scenes of Children of Men, Cuaron’s camera stops following Theo to swipe sideways, looking at something Theo might have seen on the periphery of his eyes but we wouldn’t have if it was not for the director’s choice to show us more.
The video below also explores the many cultural references Cuaron uses as figurative background to add layers to his world, another fascinating point:
The big output here, for directors as well as screenwriters, is to remember that the background can be used to add a load of information, while your main storyline is taking place.
(I believe this is rarely done because writing a foreground/background type of scene is a headache, unless you’re planning to direct the film yourself.)
And if you want another illustration of how this can be done in a completely different genre, check this video showing how Dan Harmon and his staff wrote a full storyline that only takes place in the background of the other characters’ storylines, but that started episodes before… humbling and inspiring: