February 8, 2018

Watch: 6 Ways to Ace Your Shot Composition

Take your shot: A new tutorial by Videomaker breaks down the essential traits of enhancing your frame.

In a new tutorial published this week by the good folks at Videomaker, Multimedia Editor Chris Monlux breaks down and explains the essential factors involved in composing a professional camera shot. While many of these terms may appear familiar to you, there's always a need to repolish your understanding by seeing new examples of the technique in practice. And although the video is steadfast in describing the rules of shot composition, it makes sure to note that each rule was made to be broken (if a filmmaker can find the right justification for it). An awareness toward classic examples of how cinematographers make these choices can influence your work for the greater good. 

1. Plan your composition

As filmmakers, we're tasked with forming an unspoken relationship with audiences that draws (and demands) their attention to what's occurring in the frame at every given moment. It's something we're constantly aware of, and for good reason. Even if you feel the action taking place in front of your camera is compelling on its own terms, that can all be for naught if you're not framing the shot to complement that action. You need to arrange accordingly. The video quotes Cal Arts professor Alexander Mackendrick in acknowledging that, "framing and editing determine the eye path of the viewer, and it might not be too much to say that what a film director really directs is his audience's attention."

2. Choose your aspect ratio carefully

Either before or after you've determined what you wish to place in your frame, you will need to decide on the size of that frame, both horizontally and vertically. It may seem obvious, but as screens continue to adjust in size due to streaming and multi-platform devices, how you choose to expand or condense your frame is extremely crucial. Put another way: before the eagerness to overpopulate your new home kicks in, make sure you know whether it's a place with two or three bedrooms and fill it accordingly. "For the most part, Monlux explains, "people are vertical objects and most of your frame is going to be empty. So what do you fill the empty space with?" It's a smart question, and as the actors move through your frame, what are you placing around them to fill the entire aspect ratio?

3. The rule of thirds will break everything down for you

Called the fundamental rule of composition, the rule of thirds is essential in providing a full view of your in-frame blocking. What you will need to do is take your frame and divide it into thirds, separated across by four horizontal lines; you're essentially creating a grid over your lens to put the weight of everything in perspective. If you're filming one of your actors, it becomes easier to see the "busiest" parts of the frame while also drawing attention to the amount of presence your background takes up. Depending on the shot, it also allows for a better sense of your how your actors' in-frame placement can strengthen both the horizontal and vertical framing of your movie.

Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining." Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

4. Pay attention to your actors' eyes

Keep everything in proportion, and remember, eyes matter! As all living creatures can attest (I haven't polled cold-blooded mammals just yet, but I have my confidence), our attention is instinctually first directed toward someone's eyes. When watching a film, things follow suit. Citing a shot from Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Monlux explains how Spielberg draws attention to Harrison Ford's right eye, which in turn allows the director to balance out the darkness in the foreground with a cloudy, out-of-focus, background. Yes, it's possible for our brains to simultaneously (and subconsciously) acknowledge both. 

5. Symmetry matters

Citing Stanley Kubrick as a particular fan of symmetrical framing, Monlux points out how drawing attention to the patterns in a shot can heighten and accentuate the viewer's emotional experience toward it. "While going counter to the rule of thirds," Monlux admits, "sometimes completely symmetrical framing, with the object of interest in the exact center, can be used extremely effectively." Case in point? The shot from The Shining where the young Danny rides his tricycle through the swerving, neverending hotel hallways. It showcases a symmetrical composition that evokes an odd tension from a muted, seemingly welcoming visual.

Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner.' Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

6. Leading lines direct the viewer's attention to the information they need

While the term "leading line" may accurately describe itself—a line that is established with the purpose of directing a viewer's attention toward desired visual information—how a director puts it into effect is where the creativity often pours in. The beautifully simplistic and yet stunning leading lines established in a scene from Ridley Scott's Blade Runner filmed in the Bradbury Building of Los Angeles are a perfect match of visual and narrative composition: the soaring aircrafts above shine an evasive light down below, as they search for characters that only the viewer can spot. It's a scene in constant motion and it works within several rules of composition. "The banisters lead our attention right to the people on the left side of the screen,' Monlux confirms, "and also note the strong use of the rule of thirds and the post in the foreground to provide balance."

Do you subscribe to any particular theory when it comes to framing your shots? Do you strongly believe in one "rule" of composition and abandon all others? Let us know in the comments below.      

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