Film-Philosophy Conference, Film-Philosophy Conference 2015: The Evaluation of Form

Two-dimensional versus three-dimensional pictorial organization in film

Bence Nanay


There are many ways of depicting a three dimensional scene in two dimensions. Some of these will look odd or ugly, some others may look better. The problem of arranging a three dimensional scene on a two dimensional surface is the problem of pictorial organization.

            I want to differentiate between two very different ways of organizing pictorial elements at a very abstract level:


(2D) two-dimensionally: pictorial elements are organized and grouped according to their outline shape on the picture surface  and

(3D) three-dimensionally: pictorial elements are organized and grouped according to their position in the depicted space.


It is important that both two-dimensional and three-dimensional pictorial organization are about arranging a three-dimensional scene on the two-dimensional surface. The difference between them concerns how the three dimensional elements are organized to give us a two-dimensional composition. So the distinction has nothing to do with the invention of linear perspective. A picture can use linear perspective and still be composed in a two-dimensional manner.

            Suppose you need to depict seven identical spheres. On the most general level, there are two ways of doing this: you can arrange the seven spheres in space and then choose a vantage point in this space from which you want to depict them. Or you can arrange seven circles (the outline shapes of the seven spheres) on the two-dimensional surface of the picture. The former method is an instance of three-dimensional pictorial organization, whereas the latter one is an instance of two-dimensional pictorial organization.

            One can completely ignore the two-dimensional pictorial organization of the picture and focus entirely on the three-dimensional one – this is the way most of us take snapshots at parties. Or one can ignore the three-dimensional pictorial organization and focus entirely on the two-dimensional one – children’s drawings often have this kind of pictorial organization.

            But most often one pays attention to both – when taking a snapshot at a party, we often try to fit everyone into the frame and we also often try to not have someone’s face completely occluded by someone else’s hair. What makes the distinction between two-dimensional and three-dimensional pictorial organization especially interesting is that even in those cases where both of these ways of composing a picture are taken into consideration, as it is most often the case, one tends to dominate – in case there is a conflict between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional pictorial organization, one of them tends to win out systematically.

            There is an interesting story to be told about the shift from (2D) to (3D) pictorial organization in the history of pictures in Western Europe, a roughly Wölfflinian one. But the subject of this talk is about how the (2D) versus (3D) distinction applies to the pictorial organization of films.

            Films may seem like the natural home of (3D) pictorial organization: film is always (setting abstract films aside) the recording of a (3D) scene. So it seems that every film image is always organized in a (3D) manner. The big question is whether it is also organized in a (2D) manner. And, even more importantly, if it is organized both in a (2D) and a (3D) manner, which one is the dominant principle of pictorial organization. It would be tempting to say that (3D) pictorial organization is always dominant in the case of film, especially if we consider camera movements, where the (3D) pictorial organization remains, whereas the (2D) pictorial organization changes every second.

            The main aim of the talk is to argue that it is exactly the significant pull of (3D) pictorial organization that makes (2D) pictorial organization so salient and aesthetically significant – with examples ranging from the German expressionists via Antonioni to Angelopoulos and Wes Anderson. (2D) pictorial organization is more difficult to achieve in film than in other visual media – this is why it can be so striking.

            As a case study of the trade-off between (2D) and (3D) pictorial organization, I examine the way occlusions are handled in film. In the case of three-dimensional pictorial organization, we should expect lots of occlusion: if pictorial elements are organized and grouped according to their position in the depicted space, nothing should prevent some of these pictorial elements occluding one another. In the case of two-dimensional pictorial organization, in contrast, we should expect the relative lack of occlusion: if pictorial elements are organized and grouped according to their outline shape on the picture surface, the possibility of occlusion is something that artist needs to explicitly consider – and this, at least in the history of Western painting (especially up until the 16th Century), mostly meant something the artist explicitly wanted to avoid.          And it is revealing how those directors who emphasize (2D) pictorial organization also tend to pay very detailed attention to the presence or lack of occlusions – examples are, again, taken from Antonioni and Wes Anderson.




David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998)

David Bordwell, Wölfflin and Film Style: Some Thoughts on a Poetics of Pictures. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (forthcoming in 2015)

Bence Nanay, Two-dimensional versus three-dimensional pictorial organization. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (forthcoming  in 2015)

Richard Wollheim, On Pictorial Organization. (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002)

Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History, (New York: Dover, 1950)


Short bio:


Bence Nanay is Professor of Philosophy and BOF Research Professor at the University of Antwerp and Senior Research Associate at Peterhouse, Cambridge University. He is the author of Between Perception and Action (2013, Oxford University Press) and Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception (2015, Oxford University Press) as well as of more than 80 articles on aesthetics, philosophy of perception and other topics. He used to work as a film critic. 

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About the Presenter

Bence Nanay
University of Antwerp and Cambridge Universiry
United Kingdom

Professor of Philosophy and BOF Research Professor (ZAPTTBOF)
Centre for Philosophical Psychology
University of Antwerp
Senior Research Associate
Peterhouse, University of Cambridge