Winning with Composition

The Martian invasion squadron was headed in full force down Main Street, both their antennae and their disintegration ray guns glinting menacingly in the sun.

Despite this menace of poised, certain destruction, Yuri's nephew, Denver, was nowhere to be seen.

"Look", Yuri had said to me when shooting began, "My no-good nephew just failed out of business school and I have to give him a job." He looked hard at me, "Because I know I can trust you until I fire you, I am giving you a promotion."


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Denver was going to be second unit director and my job was to keep him from screwing up Underwater Alien Attack IV: The Mayhem. Great.

The aliens prepared for their attack, evil looking ray-guns raised. "Where's Denver?"

"I'm up here!" came a voice from the trees to my left.

"What are you doing in the tree?" I shouted up at him.

"I'm videotaping the alien invasion!" he bellowed back.

"Denver," I called up, trying not to lose patience, 'you can't shoot this scene from up there."

"Why not?"

"Because you're shooting directly into the sun."

"I can't do that?"

"No," I said," you can't do that".

"Hey," he replied, with a searching bravado, "I make my own rules!"

"I know you do, Denver, but you can't do that either."

I realized what Denver needed was a crash course in shot composition and camera placement. He had a tendency to put the camera in random positions, without regard to the scene, or what we were trying
to convey.

There are Rules to Framing
and Composition

"Frame real estate," I explained, "is a valuable commodity. You need to be very careful how you use every inch of the screen. You don't want to clutter it, but you don't want to keep it devoid of information either. The problem with shooting the alien invasion from the tree is that it's easy to see that we only have 15 Martians in our invasion force, and they're very tiny and far away."

"So what do we do?" Denver asked.

"Let's shoot a closeup of the little girl hiding in the alley, we show fear in her face, and the slightly out of focus Martians marching past. Fifteen Martians walking past the alleyway will look like an endless stream. And we can cut away to closeups of the alien faces, then back to the little girl and have them walk past again."

"Clever!" Denver exclaimed. "We're showing two things at once, firstly that people are afraid of the aliens, and secondly that the aliens are on Main street, and we hide the fact that we couldn't afford too many Martians."

"Thanks!" He clapped me on the back, "You can take the rest of the day off, I can handle it from here."

"Not just yet," I said, "there are a few other things that we need to talk about first."

PROBLEM: Shaky Cam — The shooter never settles on a composition, the camera constantly wags, waves, pans and zooms in constant motion.

SOLUTION: A steady camera angle relaxes people. Violent motion keeps people on edge. This is why the camera is always moving in action movies. Unless you're doing the new Die Hard, pick a composition and stick with it. Wide? Tight? Figure it out before hand. If you need to change from a wide shot to a tight one, make sure you can cover the zoom in the edit with a cut-away. Think "final edit"– what are you going to use, what are you going to throw out? Nobody, even the bride's mother, wants to watch a 2-hour wedding video.

PROBLEM: Slip Sliding Away — The camera is tilted sideways or at an angle that causes people to appear as if they should slide out of the frame.

SOLUTION: That's what the bubble level is for on your tripod. If you don't have a bubble level, eyeball it. Give the frame a level horizon. A slight cant of 5 or 6 degrees is more unsettling than a deranged one of, say, 45 degrees because the viewers don't know what's wrong, only that some thing's wrong.

PROBLEM: Quick Sand — People/things in the shot appear to be falling out the bottom of the frame as if they are sinking in quicksand.

SOLUTION: Cutting people out of the
frame in certain locations looks strange. Typically, you don't want to hack someone off at a joint. Cutting someone off at the knees is the typical example, but even worse is a drifting camera that pans slowly up as though we are expecting a dirigible to float into the scene. If you're not going to lock your tripod down, keep a grip on the handle, watch for unintended motion in your frame.

PROBLEM: Room to Move — There's no room in your frame for people to move around the scene.

SOLUTION: Anticipate motion. Could this person suddenly lean forward? Or backward? If they turn their head or shift their weight, will critical parts of them be out of frame? Give a comfortable border around people to allow for slight motions without having to re-frame the shot.

PROBLEM: Background Check —
Something in the background becomes a distraction to the viewer (e.g.: a tree seems to grow from a subject's head, a telephone wire seems to run through the subject's ears, etc).

SOLUTION: It's difficult to notice backgrounds when you're actually looking through the lens. When your movie plays on the big screen, or on the TV in the living room, everybody starts to notice the tree growing out of someone's head. Train yourself to watch for these things before hand. Not only trees and wires, but things like "is the background too busy? Too brightly colored? Is there too much motion? Is the background ugly?" As much as possible, try to plan your shots around the background.

PROBLEM: Weak Chinned — The lower part of a person's face is chopped off at the bottom of the screen.

SOLUTION: Be very careful about showing irregular bits of people's faces. If you have a specific reason to show an ear or an eyeball, by all means, go ahead and do it. But as a general rule, you want to keep someone's whole face in the shot. Since we use faces to recognize one another, it's disconcerting when bits of it are missing. If you find yourself in a position where you have to crop a face, crop the blandest parts first. Given a choice between the top of the head and the chin, crop the top of the head.

PROBLEM: Cluttered Vision — The shot's a mess.

SOLUTION: Pretend that every shot you frame is going to be a still photograph that you want someone to hang on the wall. Spend as much time as you can with each camera placement, view the image as a still. Can you print it out, hand it to someone and have him or her say "wow, that's a beautiful photo!" If not, go back to work.

PROBLEM: Why Wide — A small object of interest is framed too small or too far in the distance for good visuals. Like our Martians today. Too small.

SOLUTION: Sometimes, in old John Ford movies, you see the wagon train moving along through the huge vista of Monument Valley. The wagons look like little bugs at the bottom right hand side of the screen. In fact, it takes a minute to notice the cloud of dust, and then another moment to realize that those black specs in front of the cloud of dust are wagons and horses. This was to show how vast the Wild West was, and how insignificant people were in relation to nature. Unless you have a very purposeful reason for composing a subject small in the frame, keep all the action up close and personal. Be where the action is, fill the frame.


Underwater Alien Attack IV: The Mayhem opened to significantly better reviews than I was expecting. The hometown newspaper said of it: "More explosions than many other movies." And a review I heard on the radio said "The aliens didn't look as fake as they did in part III."

I take all of these as little victories.

By the end of shooting, Denver was actually paying a lot more attention to where he placed the camera and how he framed the shot.

These changes I regard as major victories.

"My boy is a genius!" beamed Denver's mother after the premiere.

"He has it where it counts," said Yuri, winking at me.

"I've already forgotten the little people," said Denver to the gaggle of starlets surrounding him, "let's have some Champagne!"

Kyle Cassidy is a video artist and network engineer and co-author of Enterprise Internetworking and Security.

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