Framing & Composition
Composition can be deﬁned as the orderly arrangement of elements in a scene which, when taken as a whole, conveys intent and meaning. Composition itself can be broken down further to static composition and dynamic composition.
Static composition covers the content of ﬁxed images such as paintings or still photos.
Dynamic composition goes a step further and takes into consideration the effect of time: Moment-to-moment change.
There are eight basic framing sizes for shot composition. The diagram at right outlines their names, abbreviations and relative size.
By studying the most enduring and aesthetically pleasing paintings over the centuries, as well as the most effective ﬁlm and video scenes during the past 50 years, certain artistic principles emerge. To get a good idea of how art has inﬂuenced the movies we watch today go to a good art gallery, then rent some movies that have won awards for cinematography, and see if you can draw some conclusions for yourself
Even though the principles that have emerged for good composition seem rather clear, they should always be considered guidelines and not rules. Composition is an art and not a science. If composition were totally a science, it could be dictated by a ﬁxed set of rules and would end up being rigid and predictable, without room for creativity.
Since composition is part art, the guidelines can occasionally be broken. But when they are broken, it's generally by someone who understands the principles and recognizes how, in the interest of greater impact, they can be successfully transcended in speciﬁc instances.
When the vast majority of individuals break the guidelines, it's because they are not "visually savvy." The results speak loud and clear: weak, confusing and amateurish-looking work. In order to break the guidelines it is important to ﬁrst understand what they are & why they are so important. To begin, we will look at an example “L.A. Conﬁdential” MA 15+, then discuss the compositional guidelines.
Headroom is a vitally important consideration in composition
Another important guideline for good composition
Centre of Interest
Before rolling tape on a scene, ask yourself what major element in the shot communicates your basic idea.
Starting with the most obvious, it may be the person speaking. Or it may be something quite subtle and symbolic. Whatever it is, the secondary elements within the scene should support and not pull attention away from it.
Multiple centres of interest may work in three-ring circuses where viewers are able to fully shift their interest from one event to another. But competing centres of interest within a single visual frame weaken, divide and confuse meaning.
Every shot is a statement!
An effective written statement should be cast around a central idea and be swept clean of anything that does not support, explain or in some way add to that idea. Consider this "sentence": "Man speaking on phone, strange painting on the wall, coat rack behind his head, interesting brass bookends on desk, sound of motorcycle going by, woman moving in background...."
Although we would laugh at such a "sentence," some videographers create visual statements that include such unrelated and confusing elements. We are not suggesting that you eliminate everything except the centre of interest, just whatever does not in some way support (or, at the least, does not detract from) the central idea being presented.
A scene may, in fact, be cluttered with objects and people; as, for example, an establishing shot of a person working in a busy newsroom. But each of the things should ﬁt in and belong and nothing should "upstage" the intended centre of interest.
A master (wide) shot of an authentic interior of an 18th century farmhouse may include dozens of objects. But each of the objects should add to the overall statement: "18th century farmhouse." Just make sure you put these supporting elements in a secondary position.
Remember that the viewer has a limited time— generally only a few seconds—to understand the content and meaning of a shot. If some basic meaning doesn't come though before the shot is changed, the viewer will miss the point of the scene. One of the deﬁnitions of a "director" is one who "directs attention”.
Keep in mind also that the eye sees selectively and in three dimensions. It tends to exclude what is not relevant at the moment. But a camera does not see in the same way, just as a microphone is not able to hear selectively and screen out all background sounds.
Other compositional tools
Part of the "ﬁlm look" that many people like centers on selective focus. Early ﬁlm stocks were not highly sensitive to light, and lenses had to be used at relatively wide apertures (fstops) to attain sufﬁcient exposure. This was fortunate, in a way, because by focusing on the key element in each shot (and throwing those in front and behind that area out of focus) audiences were immediately led to the scene's centre of interest and not distracted by anything else.
Movie lighting is often called ‘painting with light’, because of the many important roles lighting plays, both compositionally and aesthetically. The eye is drawn to the brighter areas of a scene. This means that the prudent use of lighting can be a composition tool. Therefore lighting can be used to emphasize important scenic elements and to de-emphasize others.
Shifting the centre of interest
In static composition, scenes maintain a single centre of interest; in dynamic composition, centres of interest can change with time. Movement can be used to shift attention. Although our eye may be dwelling on the scene's centre of interest, it will quickly be drawn to movement in a secondary area of the picture.
Rule of thirds
Except, possibly, for closeups of people, it is often best to place the centre of interest near one of the points indicated by the rule of thirds. In the rule of thirds the total image area is divided vertically and horizontally into three equal sections.
Rule of thirds
Although it is often best to place the centre of interest somewhere along the two horizontal and two vertical lines, generally, composition is even stronger if the centre of interest falls near one of the four cross-points.
180 degree rule
The 180° rule is a basic ﬁlm editing guideline that states that two characters (or other elements) in the same scene should always have the same left/right relationship to each other. When we ﬁrst set up a scene we take our two subjects and imagine an invisible line between them - it helps to picture the two subjects straddling a fence.
180 degree rule
Once we place the camera on one side of that line we need to ensure we do not cut to shots taken from the opposite side. If the camera passes over the imaginary axis connecting the two subjects, it is called crossing the line. A new shot, from the opposite side, is known as a reverse angle.
180 degree rule expanded
Weekend snapshooters typically go to some effort to make sure that horizon lines are perfectly centred in the middle of the frame. This weakens composition by splitting the frame into two equal halves. According to the rule of thirds horizon lines should be either in the upper third or the lower third of the frame. In the same way vertical lines shouldn't divide the frame into two equal parts.
From the rule of thirds we can see that it's generally best to place a dominant vertical line either one-third or two-thirds of the way across the frame. It's generally also a good idea to break up or intersect dominant, unbroken lines with some scenic element. Otherwise, the scene may seem divided.
A horizon can be broken by an object in the foreground. Often this can be done by simply moving the camera slightly. A vertical line can be interrupted by something as simple as a tree branch. Filmmakers have been known to have someone hold a tree branch so that it projects into the side of a shot in order to break up a line or make composition more interesting. Now let’s look at the movie Pi - MA - to check out the use of lines...
As a ﬁlmmaker it is important to know how to use lines to your advantage. The boundaries of objects in a shot normally consist of lines: straight, curved, vertical, horizontal and diagonal.
Our eyes tend to travel along these lines as they move from one part of the frame to another. Knowing this, it becomes the job of videographers to use these lines to lead the attention of viewers to the parts of the frame they wish to emphasize—especially toward the center of interest.
When used in this way lines are referred to as leading lines because they are selected or arranged to lead the viewer's eyes into the frame, generally to the scene's centre of interest. In addition to moving our eyes around the frame, lines can suggest meaning in themselves.
Horizontal lines suggest stability and openness. Diagonal lines can impart a dynamic and exciting look. Curved lines suggest grace, beauty, elegance, movement, and sensuality. In contrast to curved lines, sharp jagged lines connote violence or destruction, and broken lines suggest discontinuity.
Because we as ﬁlmmakers are trying to recreate a 3-D world in two dimensions we need to be able to use visual perspective to our advantage.
When shooting locations, try and use the corners of buildings to emphasise perspective!
When shooting people, make sure to never position the camera straight in front of them. Always try to position the camera almost 45 degrees from the subject.