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What Do Filmmakers Mean When They Refer to Composition?

Shooting a successful film requires more than just technical knowledge. It also requires compelling film composition. But what, exactly, is that?

Top image via Warner Bros

Composition refers to how the elements on screen (actors, scenery, props, etc.) appear in respect to each other and within the frame itself.

In the earliest days of cinema, film composition basically mimicked that of a stage play. Directors staged all actors and important information to face the audience. Takes were also much longer, and the camera moved infrequently. The audience rarely get closer than a wide shot and the blocking was practically two dimensional.

What Do Filmmakers Mean When They Refer to Composition? — Film History

Image via A Trip to the Moon.

But, as film became more popular and better gear was developed filmmakers began to realize that, if done well, the audience wouldn’t be confused by a sudden close-up, or by the camera changing its position. So, filmmakers gradually moved from a flat, two-dimensional portrayal of characters to three-dimensional depth. This depth allowed characters to move about more realistically. As filmmakers and their gear progressed, they were able to seamlessly move the camera about and rethink how they could display the information on screen. They began to realize through certain composition techniques they could not only control the audience’s attention but could use these techniques to create visually pleasing images and their own unique visual styles.

The Importance of Film Composition

What Do Filmmakers Mean When They Refer to Composition? — Importance of Composition

Image via Hard Target (Universal Pictures).

First and foremost film composition is important because it directs the audience’s attention. Second to that it’s important because through composition we can create visually appealing images unique to the director and DP’s style. It guides the audience to pay attention to one single person amidst a crowd of people, or a single point in a busy frame.

But beyond all of the technical and personal objectives of composition, it allows us to instantly convey information and subtext. By controlling the angles and the distance between characters or significant props we can instantly and intuitively clue our audience in on the deeper meaning of the scene. After all, film is a visual medium, and in all literature it’s best to show and not tell. What better way to illustrate an internal power struggle between two characters, or our hero reflecting on the dire circumstance he’s been faced with, or a woman coming into her own power, than by showing it in a series of beautifully composed frames?

What Do Filmmakers Mean When They Refer to Composition? — Importance of Composition

Image via The Post (20th Century Fox).

Basic Tools of Composition

An in-depth course to film composition is beyond the scope of this article. But, here are a few basics for beginning filmmakers or those needing some review.

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is arguably the core of composition techniques. It’s a simple enough rule to learn and follow and will elevate the quality of your shots. Divide your frame into three sections vertically and three sections horizontally. Then, simply place your subject at one of the intersecting points. Simple enough! The Rule of Thirds works because it creates an asymmetrical image, thus mimicking natural and organic landscapes and imagery. It feels more natural to the human eye. Strict, perfect, geometrical shapes and arrangements are man made, but asymmetrical and uneven designs and layouts are more organic and natural.

What Do Filmmakers Mean When They Refer to Composition? — Rule of Thirds

Image via The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line Cinema).

A good rule of thumb is to keep your subject’s eyes on one of the horizontal lines. This way, even if your subject isn’t strictly in one of the intersecting points, having his or her eye line off center still creates a natural feeling image. On top of that, humans are instinctively drawn to look for eyes in an image.

What Do Filmmakers Mean When They Refer to Composition? — Rule of Thirds

Image via Fight Club (20th Century Fox).

Light and Dark

Remember, the first goal of composition is to direct your audience’s attention. An excellent way to do this is through lighting contrast. By placing your subject in the brightest spot of the frame, or inversely by silhouetting your subject against the bright landscape, you isolate him or her and thus guide the audience.

Admittedly, this technique isn’t as universal as the Rule of Thirds. Playing too much with your lighting might convey a different subtext than intended. Be sure that you use this technique appropriately and that it fits the theme and emotions you’re intending to communicate to your audience.

Angles and Perspective

Remember, we live in a three dimensional world. So, film should utilize three dimensional space as well (I’m not advocating for 3D movies, however). The distance between two characters in an over-the-shoulder shot, or looking out towards the horizon or to the light at the end of a tunnel, creates perspective. With perspective, we create angles. Angles and converging lines in an image naturally guide our eyes to a single point.

What Do Filmmakers Mean When They Refer to Composition? — Angles and Perspective

Image via The Raid: Redemption (Pt Merantau Films).

Creatively we can use this idea to convey several emotions or themes. The distance between two people can be both literal and metaphorical. An object or goal can seem perpetually out of reach. We can isolate a character in the center of the frame, between two other opposing characters, showing that all eyes are on him and the pressure is mounting.

We can also use the distance of an object or person from the lens to denote power and importance. As Alfred Hitchcock stated, “the size of an object in the frame should equal its importance in the story.”

But, we don’t just need to move the camera forwards and backwards. We can raise or lower it to create different types of angles to make a character look bigger or smaller. A character seemingly growing or shrinking in size is quite possibly one of the most primal indicators of power. Think of the way that a cobra stands herself tall and opens up her hood, or how a dog hides his tail between his legs and lowers himself to the ground.

What Do Filmmakers Mean When They Refer to Composition? — Angles and Perspective

Image via A Christmas Story (Warner Bros).

Goal of Composition

Remember, the primary goal of composition is to control your audience’s focus. Everything else stems from there: the aesthetics, the subtext and underlying themes, etc.

If you simply make a beautiful shot without structure, your audience’s attention is going to scatter as they attempt to take everything in. In the end the shot, despite being filled with beautiful art and images, will just be unorganized and confusing. Give your shots structure, and use the structure to guide attention and give meaning. Then, working within that framework, you can add your personal aesthetics, subtext, and storytelling.

Cover image via The Accomplice (John FM Films).

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