The Rules of the Grid

Knowing the technical workings of your camera is half the battle of shooting a good video. Understanding good composition can really give your work some pizazz.

If you’ve been reading this column for any length of time, you’ve heard me talk about the Rule of Thirds. If you’ve been reading about film and video producing anywhere else, you’ve heard other people talking about it too. It is one of the most important compositional rules in painting, photography and, by extension, film and video producing.

What is the Rule?

As complicated as its history is, the Rule of Thirds is extremely simple for you to follow.

Divide your video screen into three horizontal and three vertical segments – like a tic-tac-toe grid. The Rule of Thirds dictates that points of interest should land at the intersection of two of these lines or, in the case of lines, like horizons or pillars, they should fall at either the 1/3 or 2/3 level.

Why Should I Use the Rule?

While it’s easy to explain why other compositional rules such as “look space” or “chin room” work, it’s extraordinarily difficult to understand why composing with the Rule of Thirds works. For some reason, people simply find it pleasing. This is borne out by more than a hundred years of cinematography. But don’t take my word for it – after reading this article, try an experiment. Go set up some shots with your video camera. In one, have the subject centered, and then shoot a second, following the Rule of Thirds. Watch the shots on your television and see if one of them seems inherently “right” and the other inherently “wrong” – try to quantify your own reactions.

Watching the Pros

The great thing about movies and television is that you have access to the greatest artists in the field with a $2 rental at your local video store.

Those among you who live alone and are dedicated to becoming better videographers may try this experiment: Take four pieces of string and tape them across the front of your television set to represent the grid. Remember, you’ll need to move the horizontal ones a little if you’re watching something that’s letterboxed, so that they represent the director of photography’s intended screen. (If you’re watching the 4:3 “full screen” version of a film shot in 16:9, shame on you.) Then go to the video store and rent some of your favorite movies. They don’t necessarily have to be films that have won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, though it’s always nice to check out what people consider the best. While watching them, see how often people, things and points of interest lie at these intersections. Also, pay attention to how often things are centered – if they are, is there a reason? With the lines actually on your television screen, you’ll be able to look at things that draw their own lines, like roads and horizons. Do objects in the frame – a person and a building perhaps – draw an imaginary line between two intersections on the grid? How are the director and the director of photography using these intersections? How are they using empty space? How much information is in each shot?

If you don’t live alone and have a spouse who will make your life miserable if you tape string to the television, you can put eight small bits of tape on the top, bottom, left, and right sides of the screen and imagine there are lines between them. If your spouse notices and asks about the tape, just say you’re performing an experiment by visualizing the Rule of Thirds in great movies that you’ve rented. Then it turns into a date and you get points for it. (For this to work, it’s best to have already purchased popcorn and flowers.)

Visual Aids

Many still and motion video cameras have a Rule of Thirds grid built into the viewfinder specifically for helping with composition, but all you really need is your trained eye. When you are looking at the frame, you should always be thinking how best to tell your story in that limited canvas.

Here is an easy way to remind yourself: You can make your own Rule of Thirds visual aid using a clear hard sheet of plastic and a tiny bit of gaffer’s tape. Cut the plastic sheet to the same size as your LCD viewfinder and draw a tic-tac-toe grid with a permanent marking pen. After you’ve composed, focused and set levels to your shot, carefully tape the top of the plastic sheet to the edge of the LCD housing, (not the screen). Check your composition. Do the key subject points fall within the crosshairs of the grid?

If you hold your tic-tac-toe plastic sheet away from you and frame the world around you, using your hands to make a square frame as directors do, you’ll soon be “composing” shots in your head every time you look at anything. Your friends and family will either be awed by your plastic sheet and smile and nod knowingly thinking, “Aha, he has the makings of a Hollywood director,” or they’ll be laughing their heads off behind your back, wondering what you’ve been eating lately.

Does Every Shot Have to Follow the Rule?

We’ve all heard that rules are made to be broken, and the Rule of Thirds is no exception. No one will call your production to task for slavishly following it, but they might wonder about your compositional skills if you deviate from it without a good reason.

When Steven Bocho made Hill Street Blues in 1982, he chose to film the opening sequence of every show, the “roll call,” with a handheld camera. He was hailed as a visionary for deviating from the established tradition of sturdily-mounted cameras. If he’d chosen to film the whole show that way, people might have gotten motion sickness. Bocho had good reason for going off on his own: he thought the jerky, handheld camera would give viewers a “you are there” feel of being in the room with the police officers. This went along with a gritty, dingy set, and it was successful. It looked like real life and was hailed by police across the country as being accurate, partly because it dared to break some rules.

There will be times when it’s appropriate to throw this compositional rule out the window and put your subjects dead center – it’s up to you to know why you are doing it.

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

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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