September 4, 2014

If You Have 14 Minutes, You Have Time to Learn the Basics of Cinematic Composition

A cinematographer expresses his or her vision, and/or that of the director, through the art of composition -- the selection and arrangement of elements. This video essay by Press Play not only compares the arrangement of early and contemporary films, but explains the fundamentals of what makes up a composition as well.

In its early years, cinema was essentially as its etymology described it: written movement. The writing, done by exposing light onto celluloid film, and the movement, an illusion called the phi phenomenon, are the most basic components of cinematography, but as filmmakers furthered the art form, films became less focused on simply capturing moments as they unfolded before them (a train pulling into a station, workers leaving a factory), and more so on creating moments by using cinematography to tell stories visually.

Line, shape, lightness and darkness, color, perspective, balance, weight, height, depth -- these remain the words people use to talk about composition.

As you saw in the video essay, elements like size, shape, color, and many other concepts of aesthetics, can change the way the audience reacts to a scene in your film. Of course, there are many, many questions you might want to ask yourself before arranging a shot, ("What shot size should I use? How many characters do I want in this shot? What size will the background, middleground, and foreground elements be?"), but there are many, many questions you might want to ask yourself before you ever pick up a camera, too, like, "How does a human's emotional and psychological response to a spherical object compare to that of a rectangular one? What elements produce the most/least aesthetic energy? How do vertices work to guide the viewers eye along a composition?"

These answers probably deserve their very own post, since they form the very foundation of aesthetic theory -- something upon which the best cinematographers set their own artistic sensibilities. And don't get me wrong, not everyone responds to elements the same exact way; for instance, some people, when asked to attribute a color to "royalty" or "regality," say blue, while others say purple. However, for the most part, human beings seem to generally respond to these aesthetic elements in similar, if not identical ways. After all, art is a mixture of science and imagination: a little bit of earth, a little bit of sky -- Leonardo da Vinci and Fibonacci both making Mona Lisa smile.     

Your Comment

16 Comments

It's an interesting video. I definitely appreciate the celebratory purpose, and even the ethereal mood it set. But it seemed a little disjointed - not a fan of the graphic style (seemed very...dated?) And while it managed to properly convey certain ideas and emphasize certain films, this success was limited - most of the time I was struggling to keep up with the visuals. If someone asked me what the basics of film composition were, I would definitely refer to different material to help me in illustrating an answer to that question.

September 4, 2014 at 9:47PM

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Steven Bailey
Writer/Director/Composer
949

Seems like a really vague explanation of composition. I was shocked to find out this was made in the last 20 years when it showed recent films. Appearing outdated certainly didn't help convey the message either.

September 5, 2014 at 12:29AM, Edited September 5, 12:29AM

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Alex Smith
Documentary/Cinematographer
1325

Basic doesn't mean vague. The video is admittedly very basic.

It'll take much more than a short video to explain more than the remedial elements of composition, so hopefully we'll be able to share a post that starts to dig into them soon. Perhaps in a series?

September 11, 2014 at 2:20PM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

Thanks for this great find, I was able to learn more here and be inspired then most videos. This is why I often find myself to fascinated with Stanley Kubrick's body of work. The use of symmetry often makes me transfix on what is being shown. A very deliberate film maker Kubrick was. One of my favorites.

September 5, 2014 at 6:26AM

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Gvickie Xiong
Editor/Cinematographer/Director
782

This didn't really do anything to teach composition. It was just a bunch of images, with the words, this is composition put over them.

September 5, 2014 at 12:17PM, Edited September 5, 12:17PM

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Thomas Koch
Director/DoP
273

Thanks for this wonderful tutorial :) :) :) .

September 5, 2014 at 6:48PM, Edited September 5, 6:48PM

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Reduanul Azim
Director
67

Really loved this article and very cool to see how film/composition progressed through time. Thanks for sharing!

September 5, 2014 at 6:50PM

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Alex Vo
Cinematographer / Director
96

Ahh, now the trolls start down voting people who enjoy something they didn't. Well, I got you back to 0 at least. There's no reason to down vote comments like this. Grow up people.

September 6, 2014 at 10:00PM

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Julian Faras
Editor, Cinematographer, Director
452

This made me want to go back and re-watch a lot of the films it mentioned. Especially "Cabaret."

September 6, 2014 at 6:40PM

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Valentina Vee
Writer/Director/Editor/Photographer
64

I agree. I found myself making a list of films to watch or re-watch as well.

September 10, 2014 at 6:33PM

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Shakima Landsmark
Writer, Director, Editor
106

Interesting video about compositions, it really didn't specify the details how but through the visuals you can learn. Thus self taught is what most filmmakers should do, enhancing it by using the internet one can learn more, when sites like nofilmschool.com, filmmakeriq, trulyfreefilm, filmcollab, cinephile & more existed. Thank you for sharing.

September 7, 2014 at 3:33PM

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Vinnoth Ira Krish
Director / Editor / Screenwriter
154

I find that this video, while visually pleasing, suffers from a common problem when professionals attempt to teach or explain concepts that are 2nd nature to them. The elements of composition are well enumerated using good examples, thus providing the viewer the "What" of good composition. But the "How" and the "Why" is sadly lacking. Like trying to verbally explain how to tie your shoes, the details are so obvious to our experienced mind that we are oblivious to their absence in our instructions. Also, more attention has been paid to production value than content. It might be helpful for the director to have the script reviewed by a friend who does NOT have a working knowledge of photography to determine if the lessons intended are actually being presented.

September 8, 2014 at 1:35PM

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Definitely seems like that first dictionary definition of composition summarised everything throughout the rest of the 14 minutes - would have been nice if it had a narrower focus but went into more depth about the variety and possibilities of composition explored in the films it showed! Thanks for posting anyway; it was enjoyable as an ode to cinema and reminded me of watching The Story of Film: An Odyssey - made me want to dive into some old movies I'm yet to watch.

September 9, 2014 at 8:25AM

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Alex J. Withers
Writer / Director
154

Eh... This video was a bit self indulgent.

September 10, 2014 at 10:39PM

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Emmett Short
Director
74

How on earth does a video on composition have such terrible composition itself. Borderline unwatchable.

September 11, 2014 at 12:38PM

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Great job.
Thanks for the lessons..!!

March 12, 2016 at 1:44PM

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Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
800

If you folks really want to learn about how composition can help a film and its characters, just study EVERY shot of a James Cameron masterpiece and ask yourselves what the relationship is between the characters, the camera / audience and everything in the background.

May 6, 2017 at 10:16PM, Edited May 6, 10:16PM

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Luke
Director, writer, DP
1