Why You Should Always Start with Neutral Framing when Composing a Shot

Where is a good place to start framing up your shot?

Cinematography is equal parts creativity and technique, so knowing how to approach your craft will help you achieve the look you want. So, to ensure you're starting off on the right track as you begin setting up a shot, you might want to learn how professional cinematographers begin their compositions. This video from DP Matthew Workman of Cinematography Database covers two integral concepts, "Zero Tilt" and "Neutral Framing", that will help you begin the process of composing your shot.

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIIpSFrG1Eg

Though these are important techniques to understand if you want to work as a pro DP, they aren't incredibly difficult to execute. It's as simple as making sure your camera has zero tilt and is level in relation to the horizon. Workman shows you how to achieve that by first making sure your camera is level (zero tilt), which you can do by just eyeballing it, reading that information off of your tripod head (if it has that feature), or by drawing an imaginary line from the lens to your subject and making sure the height from your subject to the ground and the lens to the ground in relation to this imaginary line are the same.

This is what Workman calls "neutral framing"—the starting point for composing an image. Think of your composition as a blank sheet of paper—every input, from the tilt of your camera to the height of your tripod, inscribes something on that blank sheet of paper. So, if you start out with stuff written on it before you even begin to officially compose your shot, you're going to have a much harder time 1.) finding the exact framing you want, and 2.) collaborating with your team.      

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11 Comments

There is far too much time spent on talking about a "horizon" in this video. Very rarely will we be shooting in a perfect plane demonstrated in the video. On top of that when shooting any Interiors we no longer have a Horizon reference. Far too many variables to make a general statement. Instead there's something to be said starting by matching camera and subject height as a neutral starting point and perhaps the interplay between subject distance and angle of tilt which leads to the whole thing of a client requesting: "get me and the sign in the background".

October 25, 2016 at 9:42AM

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I'd be very interested in hearing more about this - have you considered making your own video about this topic?

October 25, 2016 at 3:45PM

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Jared Adamo
Creative Director / Producer
219

The horizon concept/illustration is how painters/illustrators are taught composition and perspective drawing. I'm applying it for filmmakers. Horizon on interiors is very important as well, I've shot hundreds of projects on sound stages and it's important for understanding how to film within a set, especially one without a ceiling.

Horizon should be considered in interiors even if you if cant see it. It plays into matching coverage and if you go and draw the horizon, even if obscured, in professional film coverage, you'll see how the director/operators are making pairs or deciding to move it.

Also the horizon is the horizon, even if there are mountains and un even terrain. Maybe I should dig deeper into what the horizon really is <3

October 26, 2016 at 5:51AM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
293

Porting over a concept for illustrators is the flaw in your argument. Yes those concepts aid in producing realistic perspective, but as filmmakers capturing reality, we already have realistic perspective created for us. On top of I don't think artists use perspective lines when drawing portraits or anything up close - I could be wrong because I'm not an illustrator... Anyhow as filmmakers -we're not creating perspective to simulate reality - the horizon as a tool is not that particularly useful for us - let me demonstrate.

I figured you might argue that there is always a horizon even if you don't see it or that it is obscured. The problem with that is now you are arbitrarily adding information to the frame that was not there to begin with.

Take for instance this rather innocuous shot from Fargo of William H. Macy:
http://i.imgur.com/RBDokV2.jpg

Is the horizon at the middle of the frame - at the top where his eyebrow is - at the bottom where his sleeve cuffs are?

The answer is "who cares!" There obviously has to be a horizon somewhere. But to go looking for it for your composition is to grossly ignore the real elements of composition in the scene - the framing, the angle of the talent to the camera and relationship to the light.

More troubling is how framing plays into or ability to gauge it. Take this shot from Vertigo.

http://i.imgur.com/pKt5LvD.jpg

Is the horizon at A or B?

Now look at this uncropped version of the shot:

http://i.imgur.com/23hSCFL.jpg

The assessment of where the horizon is is totally based on visual cues we can gather from them image - in the first example there are no visual queues - in the second, we have some more information from the sides of the curtain but that's really it. At best we're guessing completely blindly about the location of the horizon - an imaginary line that really has no bearing whatsoever on the way that shot looks.

Then you have this anomaly of a shot from Melancholia:
http://imgur.com/a/JvbeW

Now we're talking about gross abuse of the horizon line. ;)

Which brings us back to the original assessment - the utilizing the horizon line in any situation where the horizon is not visible or otherwise clearly evident in a shot is simply problematic as a tool for composition. Too many variables clutter up our understanding and focusing on it takes away from the classic approach to composition that includes camera-subject angle relationships, leading lines, shape, positioning, weight, light direction, etc - in other words stuff that's IN the frame.

In other words a healthy dose of Ockham's Razor is needed ;)

October 26, 2016 at 9:10AM, Edited October 26, 9:12AM

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John, I fear the day we ever have to have a film discussion in real life lol. Your general film history knowledge blows mine out of the water :)

October 29, 2016 at 4:31AM

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Matt Workman
Cinematographer
293

Maybe it's the word horizon that's making this an issue.

I think the important thing to keep in mind is that there is always a theoretical/hypothetical horizon that we should keep in mind

Even in this shot: http://imgur.com/a/JvbeW

We feel like we're slightly below that "horizon"

November 3, 2016 at 9:26AM

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Will, I agree with you. It seems to be a matter of defining words. Perhaps Matt's implication of the visible Horizontal line went too far. Like John said if it's not IN the frame then "who cares", although I feel now their are two types of Horizontal Lines, one in the frame, clear/or loosely seen that has a clear compositional value and so on and another HL that is invisibly living in the middle of the frame. Say, this HL is inherently part of life, anything that has a lens. It's the perspective of the lens in relationship to the world it sees, in its pivot point.

Whether it be your eyes or a camera lens it doesn't matter. If you tilt a camera up you'll go below the invisible HL or whatever you want to call it and the camera will be looking up at things. Tilt down and the camera will go above the HL and you'll look down on things.

Geez it's a little weird even writing this down... nobody pays attention to this, this whole argument is kind of silly.

Summarize this crap, John is very right in all his statements but Matt isn't wrong either. Just think about your composition and camera perspective. If your camera is a POV of a child perhaps being close to the ground tilting up will help the audience feel this child’s world more. This involves all HL's you can imagine, leading lines, weights, shapes, etc's.

All in all, a camera a bit high or a bit low makes a huge difference in your overall frame and what “you as a filmmaker is saying” so think about it before you hit record! But don't overthink this, feel it, internalize the ideas of visually speaking in Cinematography.

Like in Vadim Yusov incredible master piece - Ivan’s Childhood.
http://evanerichards.com/2014/4591

November 3, 2016 at 12:08PM

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davi
Cinematographer
81

What if there are mountains in the background? The whole idea of "Zero Tilt", is to avoid top to bottom image distortion especially in portrait photography.

October 27, 2016 at 2:50AM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
1710

It's fine to start from a 'value free' or neutral mathematical 'absolute zero.' Nevertheless, an experienced Camera Operator will already have heaps of ideas and instincts both story-driven and otherwise to bring to the party. Framing, these days, can be a joy of collaboration or a nightmare. Collaboration tends to yield the best result. And by 'best' I mean the result that pleases the greatest amount of people who might even remotely know what they're talking about. And in these Millennial days, I find myself forgiving a lot when I detect passion or determination in a young colleague.

October 31, 2016 at 4:39PM, Edited October 31, 4:43PM

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tilt rite
Camera Hobbyist
171

Thanks very much for the video, Matt. I've been around cameras for years, and while levelling the tripod is second nature, levelling the tilt isn't something I haven't really heard anyone talk about (except in the context of tilt-shift lenses and photographing buildings). I think most people probably intuitively use some form of zero-tilt thinking in their framing, but it's powerful to have the idea consciously articulated.

One temptation without the neutral tilt concept is to be lazy with BOTH tilt and camera height, and to use tilt (fine degrees of tilt anyway, not obvious looking down or up at a person) simply as an adjustment axis in service to other framing ideas, like rule of thirds. Why? Because camera height can be a pain to adjust. So people sometimes do treat the various fully extended stages of the tripod as default heights, or they treat comfortable operating height as a default height, and then "correct" the framing with tilt. (There may be something to be said for the latter, though: if the camera is always at the height of an average person, well, this is the normal perspective through which most of us see the world.)

One more random idea... Obviously, how you frame will vary from scene to scene, and you might be limited by location, and there might be the requirement to have certain objects in shot, etc. But, all things being equal, one question to ask yourself might be: "Is height or is tilt more important to me? Should I use tilt as an adjustment axis for height, or height as an adjustment axis for tilt?" I mean, maybe you think that looking slightly down at an actress's face is more complimentary to it, so you're adjusting height to compensate; or maybe you're Gordon Willis filming Godfather, and you think four feet off the ground is an awesome default elevation.

November 27, 2016 at 8:32AM, Edited November 27, 9:02AM

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Adrian Tan
Videographer
1024

Is this a Cine Designer commercial? Be honest No Film School

February 20, 2017 at 1:58AM

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