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Flexing Your Fundamentals: Cinematography and Composition with Shane Hurlbut

10.18.12 @ 10:36AM Tags : ,

Composition is a subtle art of filmmaking that can have a powerful influence on the films we create. It often goes unnoticed by casual moviegoers, but the effect it can have on viewers when executed properly cannot be understated. Shane Hurlbut has been featured a number of times on NoFilmSchool, he’s an ASC Director of Photography working at the highest level (We Are Marshall, Terminator Salvation), and he’s also recently offered his perspective on his favorite, well, camera perspectives.

Shane’s post illustrates, among other things, the flexibility of the Two-Shot (pictured above). He emphasizes that for the most part, his preferred angles of attack are simply variations on “classic frames” honed to his aesthetic tastes — and whatever the scene might call for. He says that a good foundation for developing a trademark visual sensibility lies in the fundamentals of framing.

They include:

  • The Wide Shot (or “Doinker,” as static Wides may be called)
  • The Two-Shot
  • The Off-Balance Shot (those which violate the Rule of Thirds for dramatic effect, pictured at top)
  • The Over the Shoulder (‘Dirty OTS’ means the foreground player is defocused, while absent in the ‘Clean OTS’)
  • The Collar-Bone (my personal favorite — you’ll have to read the article)
  • John Fording into a Close-Up (wherein a character moves towards a locked down shot, starting from further away)
  • The Choker (full-frame dramatic close-ups)

Shane also elaborates on the versatility of Over the Shoulders. In the context of a developing a love story in Crazy/Beautiful, he and director John Stockwell began with clean OTSs, at first minimizing the compositional prevalence of the foreground character:

[We] used this style as a vehicle to bring the two together in a subtle way. We did not want Jay Hernandez and Kirsten Dunst to feel like they were together at first, so we shot clean overs. Then as they befriended one another, we started to link them together in wide dirty overs. Jay and Kirsten’s dirty overs became more and more claustrophobic as they fell deeper in love.

This is a great example of the power that composition can have — it can underline a blossoming romance by literally moving the characters closer together within the frame over time, and in the process, actually help to move the story forward.

Stripping things down even further, Shane beckons back to the days of John Ford, in which moving the camera wasn’t always practical. Why not circumvent the problem with an actor’s blocking? (The actor may be John Wayne, but everyone can get behind some creative problem-solving every now and then!)

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Of course, all of these types of shots can be enhanced or expanded by handholding, dollying, or craning, but those things aren’t always necessary (as cool as they can be), and at the end of the day, I think there’s something to be said about how effective these core principals can be.

How does Shane’s process differ from your own? Do you shooters out there start off with a basic approach, then tweak, or do you dive head-first into dolly shots and handheld pans right away?



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 31 COMMENTS

  • Julian Terry on 10.18.12 @ 12:06PM

    I wanna see the look of the DP’s face when I ask him for a Doinker on the two actors. I feel dirty just saying that word…

  • In my experience, my DPs and I always use “dirty” and “clean” OTS shots to mean whether the foreground actor is present in the shot (dirty) or not (clean). I’ve never heard it used to suggest focus.

    • I agree. I’ve never heard it used to describe whether someone is in focus or not. I believe Shane is incorrectly quoted here. I read his original article and I can’t see him describe a non-dirty OTS shot having the foreground person in focus anywhere.

      • Dave Kendricken on 10.18.12 @ 9:20PM

        Hey guys — thanks for the comments! I’ve re-read Shane’s post and it looks like you guys are absolutely right. I’m not sure why exactly but something about that section didn’t click with me in my brain, thusly my mistake. The article should reflect the proper info now, so thanks for pointing it out!

  • Dave Kendricken. Making an entrance to NFS! Solid first three articles. :)

    • We like to sneak people in and see if anyone is noticing. :)

    • Dave Kendricken on 10.18.12 @ 3:05PM

      I was waiting for something along the lines of, “…and who in tarnation is this Dave guy anyways?!” Many thanks for the welcome Luke! :D

  • I just DP’d a low budget film on a Canon T3i, and I didn’t have any steadicams or dolly’s and wanted to avoid handheld whenever possible. I used the “John Ford” shot a whole hell of a lot and it worked great. I also did a lot of mid/closeups that eventually became two shots due to the blocking, and it saved me a ton of set ups. Being very inexperienced, this article makes me feel like what we did was okay!

    Thanks Dave! Nice article.

    • Daniel Mimura on 10.24.12 @ 7:39PM

      I use it all the time and I’m a steadicam operator. (Anything I direct or shoot gets steadicam for free—that’s the deal, so there is no financial considerations involved with moving the camera or not.) I hate dollying in. Another similar technique is to pan over into a close up…that way you get your solid close up, but without dollying into it (the dolly being too slow or emotionally being too big to move it fast. (It works really well as a point of view shot and reverse in one shot.)

      There are times and places for it, but dollying in rarely “reveals” anything…(a dolly in to a cliff’s edge being an obvious exception)… Dolly-ins feel too heavy handed a lot of the time… “This is important.” Or even worse… “This is meaningful.” I hate being talked down to and that’s sort of how it feels. It also feels very 80′s and 90′s now.

  • Great link, great topic. I’m actually doing a lot of reading up on this at the moment. Got a couple books being shipped at the moment. “Sight, Sound, Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics” by Herbert Zettl, and “Power of the Centre” by Rudolf Arnheim. I’m keen to learn just how much composition can influence emotional impact, either consciously or subconsciously. Like the many meanings a push in can have depending on timing, context of the scene, and the score. Or the subtle influences of profile vs front on.

    Ive been looking for some films that are good, varied examples of this. Anyone got any recommendations? Does anyone have any recommendations of other good books/etc that cover this topic?

      • Thanks Ryan. I’ve had Shot by Shot for quite a few years, and every time I read it I get something extra out of it, but it’s never quite covered emotional impact and the psychological effect of composition as much as I would like. I find that it, like The Hollywood Camera Work Master Course DVD series, it covers blocking and staging moreso than the emotional register of the framing. I’m almost looking for an advanced, contemporary version of Kuleshov’s experiment with the emotional response to soup/death/innocence.

        I’ll give the Visual Story a go and see if it adds anything extra.

    • Daniel Mimura on 10.24.12 @ 7:49PM

      The Steadicam Operator’s Handbook. (I’d put on the Amazon linky, but I think if I do it, it won’t link thru NFS if I do it.)

      Yes, there is a lot of technical stuff of interest only to Steadicam operators, but the chapters on framing are better than anything I’ve read in film school (which includes shot by shot, bordwell & Thompson, Kuleshov…etc…etc…). It (being a steadicam book) focuses solely on camera movement. When not to move the camera is equally important.

    • When i was writing a paper about camera movement is used this:

      It’s a clip of 2 scenes from there will be blood, most importantly, the first one. The opening part of the scene is a superb, yet subtle use of a dolly, moving from one room to another, introducing new elements very thoughtful and effective (introducing new characters one by one, and often on moments with no dialog). For me a great example of direction, cinematography and acting coming together masterfully, creating more than the sum of it’s parts. But hey, maybe that’s just me.

      A big bonus is that the clip is also a part of a project where they tracked where 11 viewers were watching at, you can track the eye movements. It’s very cool and insightful to see how they eye is led across the screen by movement, composition and light.

  • Nice article from Mr. Hurlbut as usual. I would like to quibble with some of his verbal descriptions. He describes the cowboy shot as: “this shot is a frame of an actor’s body cut off at the knees.” He goes on to say that the shot is designed to be certain to see the cowboy’s holster and gun. A cowboy would have a pretty “big gun” if it hung all the way to his knees. Generally speaking (in a non-western) a cowboy shot is a frame that crops somewhere around mid thigh. I was taught (and still believe) that it is generally best to not cut people off right at a body joint. It makes them appear visually “amputated.” For the same reason, I respectfully disagree with cutting an actor exactly at the waist (what Shane calls “the waister”). I don’t have an issue with the term, just the literal description for those who take advise literally. Interestingly, in nearly all of the still frame examples that Shane showed, he did not cut people at their joints. The waister usually cuts just below the belt, including some hips. The cowboy is above the knees. This rule of thumb, only applies to fairly static shots. If an actor is moving closer or further away from the camera, it isn’t objectionable for the frame to “amputate” a joint briefly.

    • Thanks Randolph — very nice addition to the post.

      I will refrain from making any obvious “big gun hanging all the way to the knees” jokes.

    • Daniel Mimura on 10.24.12 @ 7:56PM

      I can’t remember who—maybe DW Griffith but probably before—but in early silent films (I’m talking Lumiere Brothers old), they tried to always have people’s whole bodies and then they realized you connect more by getting in closer and they would cut off the feet, so the shot was below the knee.

      I agree that the frame right on the knee looks weird. Above or below looks better.

      • Daniel Mimura on 10.26.12 @ 12:02AM

        I just read Hurlbut’s entry about cinematography and composition…

        I had heard from film school (not, nofilmschool, which is infinitely more usable, and cheaper to boot) that The Cowboy was so named, not b/c of John Ford, but Edwin Porter who did The Great Train Robbery and early silent films…b/c they were just starting to evolve out of the Lumiere Brothers era and it had so much more drama to punch in compared to the head to toe.

        Anyway, that’s the reason I always heard. Everything on set is just passed on antidotally, so I think half of it is made up.. Ask 5 grips how the name C-47 got started and you’ll get 5 answers.

  • Scott Ressler on 10.19.12 @ 2:20PM

    To follow up on Randolph Sellar’s post, and with no disrespect toward the very talented Mr. Hurlbut, I also disagree with some of the terminology. Most everyone has their own terminology, but in many years of working on sets I’ve never heard of a shot referred to as a Dirty OTS. Generally it’s an OTS if a shoulder is included, and a Single (or Clean Single) if it is not. A Dirty Single is when the foreground person comes in and out of the shot, or is in the shot in a limited way (as compared to an OTS shot). And Wide Dirty OTS is redundant, as every OTS is, by definition, dirty. I’ve never heard of a Doinker, but I like it.

    Many thanks to you and Shane Hurlbut for your generous sharing with the community!

    • I agree with Scott. I didn’t mention the odd slang because I didn’t want to pile it on Shane. I really appreciate that someone as skilled and as busy as Shane is willing to share his knowledge gained from high level experience. But I think that Scott is right to point out these slang terms that seem idiosyncratic to Shane’s circle of filmmakers. Beginning filmmakers should not assume that these are industry standard terms or even widely used slang. I’ve been in the business a long time and I’ve never heard of a “doinker.” I agree with Scott’s definition of a dirty single. I’ve never heard of Shane’s use of clean (focused) and dirty (unfocused) OTS shots either. But, it does make sense and is logical – just not widely used that I’m aware of. Of course, one of the quirks of filmmaking is that there are filmmaking slang terms that are regional (in the US) as well as internationally. The Brits have some fun ones: pups, blondes, redheads. When I teach cinematography and lighting workshops, I make it a point to teach students the most widely accepted industry term first and then the most common slang terms. When I started in the business, almost all light names were derived from Mole Richardson lexicon: mini, midget, baby, junior, etc. But since other manufactures have made inroads – I try to teach and use more generic terms like 650W fresnel or 1K open face as well as tweenie and mickey. For a newby on a set, it can seem pretty violent and very un-PC. “Strike the blonde, kill the baby behind the black, and poke the eye out of that midget!”

  • Dave – Thanks for a nice article. What I call the dirty is where you have a piece of an actor in the foreground. Depending on your lens it could be slightly out of focus or very out of focus.

    • Dave Kendricken on 10.23.12 @ 6:07PM

      Hey Shane, thanks for the comment! I hope now it’s all straight, my fault for fudging reading your original post. Thanks for the great posts and all that you do!