Visual Composition

Every time you point your camera you make choices: how much of the scene to include; using a still shot or movement involving pan, flit, tracking, or zoom; angle and position; length.

These are the same decisions that occupy the minds and time of filmmakers like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Akira Kurosawa. Composition choices, more than anything else, determine what your movie will be like.

In the Beginning

Whenever a new setting is introduced you should provide the viewer with a wide shot that takes in as much as possible. This first glimpse is called an establishing shot.

Most films and TV shows quickly establish setting, character, and plot. Casablanca commences with a series of portentously narrated scenes that place the city geographically, politically, and spiritually. The sequence goes from general to specific, beginning with a shot of a spinning globe and ending with a closeup of expatriate cafe owner Rick.

Each episode of the video noir television series Hill Street Blues began with a morning precinct briefing that setup the hour to come. The introductory credits concluded with a classically simple establishing shot of the crumbling brick edifice of Hill Street Station.

In Touch of Evil Orson Welles opens with a brilliant six-minute tracking shot that snoops around a town stretched across the U.S.-Mexico border, trailing both the principal characters and the automobile packed with explosives upon which the plot will turn. The shot, the scene, and the sequence conclude with sudden fiery destruction.

Video producers who open with an establishing shot provide the audience with a context for the action they’ll see. Show the whole setting, even if only a room or part of a room.

Of course, as with all conventions, it’s sometimes interesting to play against this one. In Blue Velvet David Lynch begins with such weirdities as beetles churning under the earth, water-gnawing dogs, and a severed ear.

Sometimes it pays to temporarily disorient or even mislead the viewer. Begin with a shot of a gold wedding band on a man’s hand, then pull back to reveal a soldier sprawled dead in a muddy trench.

Get Closeup

After establishing the scene most filmmakers move to medium shots and closeups. The traditional progression is long to medium to close. The most frequent shots of human beings are medium shots, framed chest high.

There are no absolute rules. The great directors choose their shots via aesthetic instinct. You should learn to do the same.

The great directors choose their shots via aesthetic instinct.

Beginning filmmakers are often like early moviemakers-they tend to turn the camera on wide and leave it running. It was pioneer director D.W Griffith who finally defied this convention, filling films like Birth of a Nation and Intolerance with closeups that delighted early cinematic audiences.

A closeup of a person should show the shoulders and a bit of space above the head. The eyes, which draw our attention, are thus positioned about one-third from the top of the screen.

Master filmmakers Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa go a step further, using extreme closeups even in action shots. See the climactic battle in Welles’ Chimes At Midnight and the “Blizzard” sequence in Kurosawa’s Dreams.

For an extreme closeup, fill the framee with the face, cutting off the top of the head and the shoulders. Again, thee eyes will be a third of the way from e top of the screen.

Closeups and extreme closeups also can be riveting when exposing on-human subjects. Martin Scorsese habitually uses extreme closeups of such objects as shoes crushing smoldering cigarette butts (Life Lessons), pool balls and cues (The Color of Money), smoke and blood (Raging Bull).

Rule Three

The rule of thirds is a classic rule of composition used by painters, photographers, and other visual artists. It states the center of interest should be one-third of the way into the frame.

Graphically, the picture frame is divided horizontally and vertically into thirds. The main subject should be located where two of the lines intersect, or one-third of the way in from the edge of the frame.

If the person is looking at the camera, your subject’s head should be centered or slightly off center. If the subject is looking at another person, place, or thing, indicate the object of the gaze by leaving more space in the direction in which the subject is looking. The term for this space is talk room, talk space, or look space.

Use this same principle if the person or object is in motion. Leave space in front of the mover and shaker-called leading the action.

When framing two people, position them diagonally. This places them doser together in the frame and creates a balanced composition.

In a group shot, don’t place people in a line as if you’re going to snap an old-fashioned still portrait. Move them all into the frame, but group them naturally. A lineup directs the eye off the frame, while a more natural grouping keeps the eye roaming around the image.

Balanced Contrast

A video producer in search of good composition will strive for an uncluttered shot. A bird flying against a background of blue sky is both beautiful and simple.

With more than one person or object in the frame the producer should seek balance. A main object looks best balanced by a smaller object to the side. Size, contrast, and color should always be balanced.

An interesting compositional technique is interior framing, composing a shot so the center of interest is framed by something within the scene-tree branches, fence rails, an archway, a mirror.

As the singer takes the stage in Diva, there’s a cut to an extreme closeup of a man’s sunglasses reflecting a full view of her striding to center stage. Such a shot is powerful and clever, but noticeable. These sorts of tricks will lose their impact if overused.

The master of more subtle interior framing is Orson Welles. Early in Citizen Kane young Charles Foster Kane is seen through a window frolicking with his sled in the snow, while inside the house and forward in the frame his mother, stepfather, and banker determine his future.

Leading lines is another compositional technique that guides the viewer’s eye to the center of interest. When shooting an historical building with a paved road winding up to it, shoot from one side so the road angles through the frame to the building. A road is an obvious leading line, but look for others you can arrange so they seem to point to the subject.

Learn to notice everything in the frame. Suppose you’re shooting an interview with the subject nicely balanced in the frame. Unfortunately, you overlook the plant in the background that looks like it’s growing out of the interviewee’s head, and the line on the wall that seems to go in one ear and out the other.

To avoid such awkward and unnecessary compositions use the same care you’d exercise in setting up a still photograph. Eliminate distracting objects. Rearrange the set. Put up your own backdrop.

Watch for extreme contrast. A person clad all in black perched in front of a white wall may come across too dark. Generally, subjects should wear medium shades and solids without stripes or small patterns. Blue is a good video color. Be conscious of the contrasts between skin tones, clothing, and background.

Up, Down, Sideways

Interesting effects are obtained in shooting from high or low angles.

If you want to emphasize the size and importance of a subject, shoot from a low angle. In the Road Warrior director George Miller intended the tough, resourceful survivor of the post-Apocalyptic battles for fuel to be a mythical hero. Thus, Miller shot Mad Max in low angles.

Low angle shots give viewers the feeling they’re watching people and events larger than life. A very low angle gives a person or object more power. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon has a memorable low angle shot of the mountainous Sydney Greenstreet as he banters with detective Sam Spade about the missing mythical relic.

John Sayles’ Matewan includes a scene where a union organizer finally wins disgruntled miners over to his side. Sayles deliberately chose not to shoot from a low angle; to do so would have painted the union man as a hero, whereas Sayles wished to portray him simply as one of a group.

A high angle shot conveys insignificance and powerlessness. In All the Presidents Men the camera moves to an extreme high angle from the ceiling of the Library of Congress, showing two reporters sullenly plowing through piles of checkout slips and conveying the ennui and tedium of their seemingly puny efforts to bring down an administration crawling with criminals.

A very high angle crane shot can reveal the sheer magnitude of a scene. In Gone With the Wind Victor Fleming’s crane shot pulls back to show Scarlett O’Hara tripping through rows and rows of wounded and dying Confederate soldiers lying in a shattered trainyard.

Of course shooting from the more standard eye level is fine, too. Howard Hawks’ belief that developing the story was the director’s most importaut job led him to frequently place the camera directly at eye level; in this way the viewer could regard the film as an onlooker. Hawks’ His Girl Friday is a film shot almost exclusively at eye level.

Don’t limit yourself to vertical angles only. In the opening shots of Bagdad Cafe, a German tourist couple who have stopped in the Mojave Desert to relieve themselves decide to go their separate ways. The scene is shot with the camera tilted at right and left angles, illustrating the disharmony between the man and wife.

Bagdad Cafe (1987)

In East of Eden Martin Pitt suddenly tilts and rhythmically swings the camera to reflect Caleb’s angry, malevolent desire for the destruction of his brother and father. Spike Lee also uses tilted camera in Do the Right Thing, a film about ethnic conflict in New York.

Long and Fast

Shot length depends on what kind it is. A cutaway still could last three seconds, a pan 10 seconds, an action shot much longer. The average movie and television shot is 10 seconds.

There are two basic editing styles, misc-en-scene and montage. Both are French terms. Mise-en-scene means directing action in a setting; montage translates as editing. In English we could define these terms as the long take and the cut.

In the long take the camera remains still and lets the action occur within the frame. Since a series of actions occurs in a single frame, there must be enough depth of field to keep everything in focus. Citizen Kane, considered by some critics to be the ultimate expression of film technique, features whole scenes covered in one take.

The montage style, involving many quick cuts, was developed and perfected by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein in such films as Ten Days that Shook the World and Potemkin.

The films of Alfred Hitchcock often include creative use of montage. The infamous shower scene in Pycho features 78 cuts in 45 seconds. Rear Window includes a tense sequence in which wheelchair-bound snoop Jimmy Stewart watches Grace Kelly ransack suspected murderer Raymond Burr’s apartment as Burr himself draws closer to his home. This sequence lasts four minutes and consists of 61 cuts.

In good montage sequences, the juxtaposition of shots creates in the viewer the effect the director seeks: horror in Psycho, suspense in Rear Window.

The quick, violent cuts of Sam Peckinpah in films like The Wild Bunch and Cross of Iron increase the viewer’s visceral identification with torn and dying men. Eisenstein’s use of montage succeeded in suspending the laws of time and gravity.

Good directors are comfortable with both styles. Films that effectively utilize both montage and long takes include Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion and Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Good directors are also most often economical. There’s no excess footage; every shot is as long as it needs to be and important to the story. Lesser works are marred by blatant padding-car chases, fights, pointless dialogue, superfluous sex scenes.

Shoot until you’ve put the point across, then cut.

In and Away

A cutaway is a shot of something apart from the main action but related to it. In shooting a family picnic, a shot of parading ants would serve as a cutaway.

Every scene provides opportunities for cutaways. A cutaway adds interest and detail, and is useful in editing to cover an editwhere the action doesn’t match.

A cut-in, like a cutaway, is a brief closeup of a person or object away from the main action. The difference is that a cut-in is part of the action, whereas a cutaway is not.

Suppose you’re shooting a person molding a sculpture. Shoot a closeup of the hands and object, either as you’re recording the main action or as a separate shot to be edited later. With cut-ins, you provide the audience with a closer look at the center of interest.

Cut-in shots add variety and are helpful during editing. A cut-in can be used when shortening a scene. The closeup cut-in can cover what would be an awkward edit between two similar shots.

A rack focus shot, sometimes called pull focus, is a shot with two objects in the frame at different distances from the camera. Focus first on one and then change focus to the second object. This shifts attention from one subject to another.

Rack focus will only work when shooting with a shallow depth of field. Shoot with your lens in telephoto position and use a low F-stop. There should be a substantial difference in distance between the two objects.

Another way to draw your viewer’s attention to a subject is to use a swish pan, panning as quickly as you can to an object. Practice ahead of time to keep the subject well-framed. For the shot to be effective, the pan should be performed so rapidly the images are blurred.

Carroll Ballard effectively uses a swish pan when young Alec falls off the sinking ocean liner in The Black Stallion. The graveyard search for gold in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly contains an extended swish pan.

A swish pan can also be used as a transition between scenes. For example, suppose you’re shooting a sightseeing tour of a city. Swish pans as transitions between locations would provide a sense of change without the finality of a fade.

Not Guilty

As in a novel or short story, a film or television show has a point of view. Often it’s a strictly objective, omniscient perspective where the camera observes the action as a neutral observer.

Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line is almost entirely composed of interviews with people involved in a case of murder. Morris dramatizes differing versions of the murder, providing several different treatments of the same events. He takes no cinematic point of view, although it’s obvious to the audience at the film’s end that the accused is innocent.

Kurosawa’s Rashonzan uses the same technique, providing three different versions of an alleged attack and rape of a woman. At the end of his film, nothing is obvious.

A director may also choose to take a character’s point of view, showing frequent closeups followed by shots from the character’s perspective. Much of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is shot in this manner. In this way the director creates empathy for the characters; the audience identifies with the people providing the point of view.

In Psycho, Hitchcock gives us Janet Leigh’s point of view, building sympathy for her. When he then kills her off, he confuses us and makes us vulnerable to other surprises. Audiences of the time were not amused.

Most movies blend both omniscient and personal point of view, sometimes offering perspectives of more than one character.

I Am a Camera

Usually, the camera operator’s objective is to perform camera moves that are invisible to the viewer-smooth, steady, and appropriate.

There is, however, one instance where operators wish to deliberately make their moves obvious. Called subjective camera, this technique wishes to convince the viewer the camera is a person. It walks by dollying, raises or lowers its head by tilting, surveys a scene by panning, and loses consciousness by going out of focus or spinning.

Lady in the Lake was filmed entirely from a subjective point of view. The camera represented the main character throughout the movie. The audience never sees him but only the reactions to him: a woman leaning toward the lens for a kiss, for example. The effect is very strange.

Dark Passage initially uses the same technique, before the principal character undergoes plastic surgery to become Humphrey Bogart.

A lengthy subjective camera sequence is used in Robocop when the policeman is transformed into a robot. We see people looking into the lens as though they’re looking into his face. This sequence introduces us to what later in the movie becomes an importaut issue: although the man is dead, transformed into machine, his emotional memories remain.

Most movies sparingly use subjective camera mixed with other points of view. Stanley Kubrick effectively uses subjective camera for key moments of the astronaut’s journey in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In A Christmas Story subjective camera dramatizes little Ralphie’s fearful expectations as he ascends the long ramp leading to an exhausted, cynical department store Santa.

Fading Away

Transitions are visual punctuation, the means to move from shot to shot. Primary transitions are the cut, dissolve, and fade. The cut, where one shot ends and the next begins without overlap, is the most commonly used.

A dissolve is when two shots overlap, one fading out as the other fades in. Dissolves are often used to indicate jumps in lime and place. In The Glass Menagerie dissolves and diffused lighting serve to differentiate monologues about the past from dramatized memories.

Robert Altman faced a similar challenge in Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, where the action cuts from the present to 20 years in the past. Altman reflected the earlier scenes in a large mirror and dissolved into them.

A gifted director can also use the dissolve to indicate shared characteristics. Touch of Evil contains a beautiful example of a dissolve that not only indicates a jump in space, but also emphasizes the similar emotional turmoil of two seemingly disparate characters.

In a fade an image either goes from or to black, indicating a definite beginning or ending. A fade out indicates finality, and is best used as an ending for a sequence. Apocalypse Now is halved by an extraordinarily long fade. It follows Willard’s sudden, casual killing of a gravely wounded Vietnamese woman, and allows us time to consider our suddenly revised opinion of his character.

With a wipe, one image seems to push another off the screen. Wipes aren’t always lateral; they can start from the top, bottom, corner, or center of the frame. A wipe is less final than a fade and is appropriate for a series of shots that don’t show continuous action, but are somehow related.

In Seven Samurai Kurosawa uses wipes as the samurai work to recruit other fighters. The shots are similar in composition but the action doesn’t occur in the same time or place.

Song of the Shoot

A melody is created from the relationship of individual notes. Likewise, the meaning of a movie or TV show is derived from the relationship of shots.

The relationship between a series of shots creates a sequence. The shower scene in Psycho is part of a sequence that begins with Norman Bates peering through a peephole in his office and ends with him sinking a body-laden car in the swamp.

In shooting a sequence, try to build a story. At its simplest level, a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It becomes more interesting if conflict is introduced and resolved.

In a sequence showing children decorating a Christmas tree, start with the first few ornaments going on the tree. Shoot the children adding more in the middle, and end with the star placed with a flourish upon the top. There-you’ve created a story. If the baby pulls the ornaments off as quick as older children put them on, you have conflict and a potential source of humor.

In shooting a sequence, first choose a point of view. Then start with an establishing shot. Keep your shots short, no longer than it takes the audience to grasp the action. Vary the distances and angles of your shots. Use medium shots and closeups. Avoid using the zoom; concentrate on a series of individual shots.

The techniques mentioned here are those professionals spend lifetimes trying to perfect. Don’t expect to master them on your next shoot.

But try one your next time out, and keep trying until you get it right. When you’ve mastered that technique, try another. Keep at it. Soon you’ll be shooting like a pro.

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

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