How to Bypass 5 Common Composition Rules of Filmmaking

From neutral framing to the Rule of Thirds, filmmaking is full of compositional rules. Here's how to break 'em all.

Don't we all like to think of ourselves as creative cowboys and cowgirls. (Cowpeople? Nah, that's dumb.) We push the limits, take advantage of our freedom, and most of all, don't give two shits 'bout following the rules of no damn body. Here's the thing though, rules are pretty good. In filmmaking, rules like the Rule of Thirds and the 180-Degree Rule are achievable and repeatable standards that not only help to regulate the language of film but also help us to communicate as clearly as possible with our audiences.

But remember, we're creative cowpeople (whatever, I'm claiming it) and other than hearts, rules are our favorite things to break. So, in this video from Aputure, learn how to break five of the most common compositional rules in filmmaking and look good doing it.

I don't know if I was clear enough about rulebreaking earlier, so I'll reiterate: cinematic rules can and should be broken. I mean, they're not really "rules" at all, more like guidelines that help give you a strong foundational understanding of what the art of filmmaking is all about. In any case, there is a time to follow these "rules" and a time to break these "rules," and it's up to you as a filmmaker to decide when and where to do which.

Here are a few of the rules discussed in the video:

  • Eye-level framing: Shooting at eye-level is a good way of communicating neutrality.
  • Subject looks to opposite side of frame: This is important for providing plenty of "lead" room. 
  • The Rule of Thirds: Film Composition 10, right?
  • Adequate headroom: Too little headroom = claustrophobic feel; too much headroom = subject has little to no power.
  • The 180-Degree Rule: Breaking this one might lead to some confusion. Learn more about it here.

All of these "rules" can be broken, of course, but if you're going to do it, do it with some kind of purpose or intention behind it. Don't just start breaking rules because you're all, "Wild Wild West is my middle name." Give your rebellion some motivation and direction, it'll be much more powerful that way.     

Your Comment

5 Comments

I like what this chap is saying. Put simply, know the rules: know why you are going to break them. Clear examples too. But why, oh why, does he have to gabble as if he is desperate for a pee? Slow down, pace the narration, give yourself room to emphasise the important snippets. You are not trying to hide the mandatory terms and conditions at the end of a radio advertisement.

December 7, 2017 at 3:03AM

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Tim Pickford-Jones
Retired
107

So to "break" pretty basic rules just use other pretty basic rules. Title is clickbait.

December 7, 2017 at 1:25PM, Edited December 7, 1:26PM

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avatar
Chris Williamson
Director
116

Wondering if I can write for No Film School?

My skills to embed YouTube videos and write brief summaries of what I just watched are impeccable. Really.

January 7, 2018 at 10:13PM, Edited January 7, 10:15PM

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JayRam
93

Heutzutage tauschen die Menschen nicht nur mit ihren Liebsten Valentinsgrüße, sondern zusätzlich zu ihren Eltern, Eltern, Lehrern, Freunden, Geschwistern oder jedem anderen, dem sie nahe gestanden haben. valentinstag bilder

January 8, 2018 at 2:39PM

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fillip muller
blogger
86

I am a firm believer in that the story and the scene will tell you how to frame it.

the more important rules are the following:

1) Know where you are coming from. ie what is the tone, pacing, and emotional feel of the previous shot and scene, this also includes all that has happened before this setup and frame

2) know where you are going to. See above

3) HOW DOES THIS SHOT SERVE THE STORY I cannot emphasize this enough. Just making a "Cool" or "Rad" shot doesn't work. It needs to serve the story

and #4 to be done at the end of EVERY take. "How can I make it better"

With those 4 rules, there are no rules of composition.

This is what I teach at all the workshops I teach (and alot more) and that I use daily. A great example of this is the way I framed "Dexter" for the seven seasons I was there. Every shot was framed to propel the story forward

Eric Fletcher
Camera/Steadicam Operator
IA Local 600 Operator workshop instructor

June 1, 2019 at 11:36PM

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Eric Fletcher
Steadicam/Camera Operator and DP
170