Composition 101: Part 1

What makes great art great? Composition. In this first of two parts, we’ll reveal some of the secret tricks of composition that the Masters use.

Ask a lot of people what makes good art, and they’ll all have a different opinion from an artist’s use of color and paint to the subject matter or design, but one thing they’ll all nearly note what separates the amateurs from the masters is composition.

Step right up, boys and girls, class is in session.

The Screen is your Canvas

Videographers, photographers and painters are all very similar. Besides getting invited to all the best parties, they each need to tell a story within the four walls of a frame. These frames differ in dimension, but the principle remains the same: the screen is the real estate you are using to sell your vision. Use it wisely.

There are movies like The Cell, Snow Falling on Cedars and Sisters that I believe you could pause at random, print that frame, hang it on your wall, and be happy looking at it for the rest of your life. This is a worthy goal.

The Long and Short of It

Composition can vary slightly depending on what type of shot you’re using. Close-ups usually fill the frame with a single object, while long shots will often include more objects.

Long shots are often establishing shots that portray characters in their environment. You may, for example, compose a shot showing the Washington Monument in the background and two tiny people sitting on a bench in the foreground. What does this tell us? That they’re in Washington — they may be politicians, or spies. Or, a shot of two tiny people with the vastness of a mountain before them. What does this tell us? That people are small and frail.

One of my favorite long shots in recent history is in the climax of Ryuhei Kitamura’s martial arts adventure Azumi: town gates open up to reveal our heroine standing alone in the distance. In between her and the man she is supposed to rescue are several hundred heavily armed pirates. A gasp of anticipation goes through the audience. What do we learn from this shot? We know that Azumi must get from point A to point B through a very dangerous expanse of pirate infested street. How well those three bits of information (heroine, villains and goal) are composed on the screen is the difference between a movie that tells a story, and one that tells a story beautifully.

Medium shots are often used to show interactions between characters — two people sitting at a table, a person cutting vegetables at a kitchen counter. Medium shots are how people living and working indoors usually see things. The medium shots Steven Spielberg used in the boat sequences of Jaws give the viewer a cramped feeling, reminding us that our heroes have very little sanctuary.

Close-ups reveal facial expressions, and emotion, they take the world away and leave us alone with a character. One very effective use of closeups was in the intro sequences of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill–where a woman’s hands are shown buttoning a man’s shirt, adjusting his tie, straightening his collar. At first the audience is mislead into believing that a man is being dressed for a romantic evening on the town by an attentive partner, only as the opening credits go on, do we realize that the hands are that of a funeral director preparing a corpse for burial.

Compositional Vocabulary

There is a language of composition just like there’s a language for football. Learning the various parts, their definitions and usage will help you immeasurably, not only in composing your own shots, but in being a critical observer of other work.

  • The Rule of Thirds:
    The "Rule of Thirds" is possibly the most crucial lesson you can learn in composition. It asks that you divide the frame into nine equal rectangles (draw a tic-tac-toe board on it) and that you place your area of interest at the intersection of two of those lines. Next time you’re looking at still images or watching a movie, see how often this is used.
  • Leading lines:
    Leading lines draw a viewer’s eyes in a particular direction — railroad tracks, rivers, fallen trees, are all things that can be used to funnel the viewer’s eyes across the screen to a particular object.
  • Juxtaposition:
    To "juxtapose" something is to place two things together for comparison. Sometimes this can be literal, like the millionaires in Trading Places juxtaposed next to Eddie Murphy playing a panhandler, or it can be symbolic, like the scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, where Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader first meet. They are shown on the opposite sides of the screen, one good, and the other evil, representing the breadth of the human condition.
  • Headroom:
    Headroom is the space above a person’s head. Too much or too little headroom and the image will look unbalanced or cramped.
  • Nose Room:
    For some reason, it bothers us when we see someone looking into space with no room in front of them. When shooting a 3/4 or profile shot, leave space in front of the subject’s nose.
  • Lead Room:
    Lead room is nose room for moving objects, like a moving horse or a car — leave space for the horse or the car to move into rather than crowding the side of the screen.


Background

Be wary of what’s behind your subject. Through the viewfinder you’re often very concentrated on the principle and don’t realize until later that there is a telephone pole growing out of their head or a window sash that looks surprisingly like an arrow going in one ear and out the other. The background can also be used to add to your shot. When interviewing your grandfather about his experience in the war, for example, hanging his uniform or a map in the background, slightly out of focus, can add visual interest and useful information to the shot.

Foreground

Likewise, the foreground can be used to add information — two people lying on a blanket in the foreground, for example, might suggest that the grassy expanse we’re looking at is in a park. Put a deer in the same place, and suddenly, it’s a meadow in the woods. Place in a few well-dressed, out of focus people playing croquet, and it becomes an English manor.

Balance

Our own brain’s function to keep us upright makes us seek balance in composition. An equally weighted frame appears to be at rest and makes the viewer calm. "Balanced" doesn’t necessarily mean two people equal-distant apart. A person on the right hand side of the screen might be "balanced" by a clock hanging on a wall on the left-hand side.

Tension

You don’t necessarily want the viewer to feel peace and harmony all the time. One thing you often want to achieve is tension, which can be done by skewing the balance, adding vertical or angled lines that take away from a balanced frame. Tilting the camera a few degrees to one side will keep your audience from relaxing. They might not even notice the horizon being off, but subconsciously, there is a feeling that something isn’t quite right. Using a wide-angle lens that distorts a shot so that lines aren’t parallel or perpendicular also creates tension.

Maintaining Your Composition

It’s important to keep consistency in your composition to keep from confusing your viewer. Your actors need to look and speak in consistent directions, two characters facing one another over a dinner table, for example, shouldn’t be shown in closeups looking in the same direction.

Using Color

Color composition is a major part of many motion pictures — M. Night Shaymalon’s The Village, for example, made good use of the color red to represent evil elements and cooler blues to represent good.

Months before shooting begins, many directors, production designers, and directors of photography will choose a color palette for a movie, which includes wardrobe, deciding what types of colors will work together to give the audience the proper "feel". For an example of hyper-color composition, check out Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

Conclusion

Don’t get that cap and gown out of mothballs yet, it’s not quite time for graduation.

We showed you the basics; next month, we’ll show you some advanced tips on composition to take your shots from video postcards to masterpiece showcases.

Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.

Basic Training: Composition 102: Part 2

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