Thursday, May 12, 2011

Learning Composition From the Movies

There are few better ways to learn about photographic composition than by watching movies. Hollywood's best cinematographers are masters at using composition to help tell a film's story, to impart emotion, and more. (They also use lighting and other techniques but I'm writing about composition today, okay?)

Let's take one of the simplest rules of composition: the Rule of Thirds. We all know about the Rule of Thirds, right? It's where you divide your frame into nine equal parts with two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. Then, when framing the shot, important compositional elements are placed along these lines or at their intersections. Cinematographers use the Rule of Thirds often and in many ways.

Suppose you're shooting a movie and the scene features two actors sitting across from each other at a table. You'll probably want to get ample coverage by, minimally, shooting a wide shot, close-up "singles" of your two actors, as well as some "cut-aways."

First, you might shoot a wide shot establishing your two actors seated at the table in whatever environment, like a restaurant for instance, they might be in. Then, you might shoot a closer "two-shot" of your two, seated, characters and record their dialogue in that shot. Next, you will probably shoot close-up "singles" of each actor, once again recording their dialogue as well as their reactions to what the other actor is saying or doing. This is where the Rule of Thirds often reveals itself in obvious ways.

If those "singles" are profile or semi-profile shots, you'll probably want to shoot the actor on the left utilizing the Rule of Thirds and placing that actor in the left 1/3 of the frame. When you then shoot the actor on the right, you'll again probably use the Rule of Thirds but this time by placing that actor's face in the right 1/3 of the frame. As long as your camera remains on the same side of the table for both shots, the actors will appear as if they're facing each other while they speak. Using the Rule of Thirds in this way also retains the sense that there is some distance between the two actors, in this case, that distance seemingly reflecting the horizontal width of the table. Each of those "singles" are more effective because, like the Rule of Third's many uses, it often results in more effective composition and, in this case, helps tell the story.

BTW, those "cut-aways" I mentioned are things like shots of the actors reaching for a glass or a cup or scratching their noses or perhaps other shots that will allow the editor to "cut away" to something else happening in the room or to other people in the room.

Let's look at another compositional technique: Negative space.

Cinematographers often use negative space to impart many different ideas and emotions in a scene. Suppose your movie includes a character who is lost and alone in a desert. Your first shot depicting this character in this situation might be a very big, wide, shot with plenty of negative space surrounding the character. So much so that he or she might seem an insignificant part of the environment. Doing so will heighten the sense the character is lost, alone, isolated from civilization, and possibly in a dangerous situation, that is, the danger inherent in being exposed to the elements, perhaps without water or shelter or proper clothing or other things necessary to his or her survival.

Sometimes, negative space is used to portray the grandeur or beauty in a scene. We've all seen movies that take place in Africa's savannas. They often include a beautiful sunrise or sunset shot of the savanna with plenty of sky, plenty of savanna, and that one, lone, tree on the horizon depicted in the image. You've probably all seen that shot. It's practically a stock shot in those sorts of movies. In fact, it might often be a "stock" shot that was used.

Cinematographers also understand the importance of where to place the camera, that is, the "angle of attack" of the shot. That angle can also impart many feelings or emotions. If you're introducing a character in your movie or scene, one who is an imposing figure or threatening character, you might set your camera low and angled up at a rather extreme angle. This compositional technique will heighten the audience's sense that the character is intimidating or lofty or powerful or frightening or other things.

Cinematographers, just like photographers (because cinematographers are photographers after all, the difference being they're shooting motion pictures rather than still images) call on all the techniques and so-called "Rules of Composition" to help tell a film's story in much the same way photographers should call on those same rules and techniques to tell a story in their images or to add power and interest to their photos.

Next time you watch a movie, pay attention to the compositional techniques used in the film. Who knows? You might learn something. I know I often do.

The pretty girl the top is Dahlia. I snapped this one and a bunch of others at El Mirage Dry Lake near Victorville, CA, last year. About 5 minutes after I snapped this, two rangers showed up asking for my shooting permit. Having a pretty naked girl handy helped me convince the two rangers I didn't need no stinking permit. Instead, they decided to hang around and watch the rest of my shoot.

1 comment:

Tay Y Z said...

"hang around and watch the rest of the shoot"...