What is composition and why is it essential in filmmaking?

Composition is the art of arranging objects in a frame. There are actually shapes and alignments that people find pleasing. But film composition also needs to tell a story. The arrangement of your objects and actors in a frame can add to your storytelling. You do this by emphasizing some objects and de-emphasizing others. Composition is an essential part of cinematography. Read more on the basics of cinematography here.

“Framing and editing determine the eye path of the viewer. It might not be too much to say that what a film director really directs is his audience’s attention.”

Alexander Mackendrick “On Filmmaking”

Ideally, every frame of your film should be able to be hung on an art gallery wall. This is a tall order. Few people succeed in it without lots of time, big budgets, great editors and patient investors. Your budget and timeline may keep you from doing this, but there are things you can do from the very beginning to make sure that your movie looks as good as it can.

The rule of thirds

If you leave here with one thing, it should be the rule of thirds. It’s the fundamental rule of composition. Divide the screen into thirds with four lines — like a tic-tac-toe game — your objects of interest should fall at the intersection of two of these lines. Some cinematographers are more rigid about it than others, but it’s very possible to find a movie whose every shot does not deviate from this.

We mentioned before that people are vertical and movie screens are horizontal — this means that to get a person in a frame you need to either make them very small or crop them. Both of these are perfectly acceptable. Let’s take a look at Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” In this closeup of Harrison Ford, Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth have chosen to chop him off at the shoulders and the top of the head to put his eyes at the intersection of the top horizontal line and the right vertical line of our imaginary tic-tac-toe board.

Unlike in the real world, in film and photography composition, you can chop the top of someone’s head off with impunity. This is not true of people’s chins. Chins need to stay in the frame unless you crop an equal portion of the top of the head.

Blade Runner, Rule of Thirds, Composition in photography and film
Image from Blade Runner [Image Credit: Jordan Cronenweth, Director of Photography]

The eyes are the important thing

We look at people’s eyes and instinctively look at what other people are looking at. We have this belief that the person inside a body is accessible through the eyes. This is universal. In your shots, if the eyes are in focus, you can get away with a lot of other things not being in focus.

In this shot from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Harrison Ford returns is completely in silhouette with the exception of his right eye. He looks wary which, along with his distinctive hat, brings personality to the shot. Also, notice the out of focus white areas on the left and right. These serve to help balance the frame.

Image from Indiana Jones [Image Credit:Raiders of the Lost Ark, Douglas Slowcombe, Director of Photography]

Balance and symmetry

Imagine your frame as a shadow box that you’re putting items into and that box sits on a fulcrum in the center. Balancing the left and right sides normally give a feeling of harmony, and an unbalanced frame one of tension. While going counter to the rule of thirds, sometimes completely symmetrical framing with the object of interest in the center can be extremely effective.

Some directors are slaves to symmetry in their composition and when used properly, it can be extremely powerful. One of the most arresting users of symmetry was Stanley Kubrick. He put the rule of thirds in the back seat and replaced it with an obsessive adherence to center framing and symmetry, giving us some incredibly powerful images that depict order. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kubrick had a strong background in photography.

2001: A Space Odyssey, Geoffrey Unsworth, Director of Photography
Full Metal Jacket, Director of Photography Douglas Milsome
The Shining, John Alcot, Director of Photography

Balance doesn’t have to be symmetrical, though. Objects on one side of the screen can be balanced with objects on the other side of the screen that aren’t their mirror image.

In this still from “Pulp Fiction,” we have Bruce Willis on the left-hand side of the screen, but the frame is balanced by the license plates. You’ll notice the same thing in both the frames from “Blade Runner.”

Pulp Fiction, Director of Photography, Andrzej Sekula

Leading lines

Leading lines are usually imaginary lines that go from one object to another to draw our attention from the main object of focus to a secondary one. Going back to Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” we have a perfect example of leading lines, and this time they’re actually lines. The banisters lead our attention to the people on the left side of the screen. Also, note the strong use of the rule of thirds and the post in the foreground to provide balance.

Blade Runner leading lines image

Depth of field

The camera can emphasize what’s important and de-emphasize other things by using depth of field — the area of a shot that’s in focus. Depth of field can either be deep, meaning everything’s in focus — like the Kubrik image from “2001” — or it can be shallow, meaning few things are in focus — like both the shots of Harrison Ford from “Blade Runner” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Notice, in the closeup of Ford from “Blade Runner,” the use of the out of focus building in the background to balance the frame.

Good composition is essential

The best way to study composition is to watch good movies. Websites like Film-Grab.com show frames from dozens of movies, allowing you to see the composition of entire films. How are your favorite directors using depth of field? Do they adhere to the rule of thirds? How do they use centered subjects to create tension or use leading lines to guide your eye? Pay attention to composition while you’re watching movies and television — what items are in the frame and why? What do they add to the story?