Telling Stories with Composition: What Are Your Frames Saying to Your Audience?
Stories are told in many ways: through spoken words, writing on a page, or images on a canvas. For cinema, stories are told in all the above (and more).
But since cinema is a visual medium, the art of storytelling through cinematography is particularly interesting and unique, and it has plenty of facets to explore. Video essayist Lewis Bond of Channel Criswell does just that in his video Composition in Storytelling, which delves into how the selection and arrangement of cinematic elements work to serve the story.
Bond puts it beautifully (if you watch any of his videos, you'll soon find out that he has a knack for that) — composition is a "tool that gives — images structure and purpose." This means that the decisions you make as a director or cinematographer when it comes to what to capture within the frame is both technical (structure) and creative (purpose).
We've said it countless times on this site — everything you see and hear in a film communicates something to your audience and this includes composition. Of course, a lot of what you need to communicate is simply essential information that helps your viewer orient themselves in the time and space of the diegesis: you shoot a long shot to reveal the environment and a two-shot to allow a conversation to take place.
However, compositions communicate much more than vital info, and as the arrangement of a frame shifts further into its expressive role as a narrative device, you'll soon realize that there are many concepts that influence them. Bond mentions a few:
- Guiding lines (aka: vertices)
This is by no means a comprehensive list — we could spend months, even years discussing aesthetic theory and how things like color, size, and motion can literally change everything about an image, including the message it's communicating to an audience. But Bond provides an excellent place to start, and hopefully after watching the video, you're a little bit more aware about how powerful composition is as a storyteller.