GUEST ARTICLE: CINEMATOGRAPHY DECAL WEEK 10 – COMPOSITION
Greetings, fellow filmmakers and readers of Tobias Deml’s excellent blog. My name is Casey Currey-Wilson, and I’m a freshman at UC Berkeley taking Toby’s Cinematography DeCal this semester. This week’s topic: Composition.
Before we properly delve into this important topic, I’d like to share a little bit of background. I became interested in film through landscape photography, and as such I began experimenting with cameras at a young age (although they were all digital – I’m not that old). Coming from Oregon, I always had plenty of spectacular locations to shoot, but for a few years I never managed to take very good pictures, and the main reason is that my compositions sucked.
Here is an example of how composition can make or break a photo (or a shot in a film). Neither of these are my photos, but I visited and shot this location (Punchbowl Falls in Oregon) many times. Although there are differences in lighting and camera quality and settings, the main reason the second photo’s aesthetics are so superior is that its composition is significantly more appealing. Over the course of this article, using information from Toby’s lecture and a variety of screenshots, we’ll get closer to figuring out why.
Principles of composition in film originated from composition in photography, which in turn originated from composition in painting. As Toby says, the best way to improve your composition as a filmmaker is to pick up and study a book on composition in painting, or simply try some painting yourself. Unlike with photography and film, in which the contents of your image are already laid out before you, with painting you have to consciously decide exactly what to include or not include, drawing attention to the act of composition that novice photographers and filmmakers often take for granted.
Essentially, composition is based on contrast, which in its most basic form is a tool to shift the audience’s attention to a specific element in the frame. This can occur in many different forms, including the following (it’s important to note that many shots include several different types of contrast at once, in order to further differentiate their primary subjects):
Contrast via color: we’re drawn to the person or element that’s a different color from the others in the frame.
Contrast via density (or lack thereof): our eyes travel to the one person/character standing outside the crowd.
Contrast via scale: we focus on the one element that is much larger or much smaller than the others (usually, a larger element has priority).
Contrast via brightness: often, the lead character in a shot is simply given more light.
Contrast via light and shadow: we look where the light is, or we’re confused when there’s no defined light source or bright area in the frame.
Contrast via lighting quality: we focus on a character lit from a different direction or with a different color or intensity of light compared to the others.
Contrast via orientation: we look at the one person facing in a different direction from everyone else.
Contrast via texture: we focus on a character or object with a different texture or pattern than those surrounding it.
Contrast via motion: we’re drawn to the one moving person in a still crowd, or the one still person in a moving crowd. This effect can be created artificially by making the primary subject the center point of a dolly shot.
Contrast via focus: we’re drawn to whatever is in focus. This type of contrast is almost always used to differentiate the subject in close-up shots. Incidentally, this technique did not exist in painting prior to the invention of photography.
Contrast via depth and perspective: our eyes are naturally inclined to follow perspective lines within an image (which often converge to a single point), so we focus on a character in the direction that the lines are pointing.
Contrast via guides: our eyes tend to follow the direction of lines, whatever type they might be.
A general principle for all these types of contrast: as a cinematographer, look at what you’re most attracted to in the frame. The audience will also probably be most attracted to it.
Another important aspect of composition is whether the image is balanced. A balanced image has straight horizon lines and an equivalent amount of compositional elements on each side, and it helps create a feeling of tranquility and comfort for the audience. Meanwhile, an unbalanced image can be created using either a disproportionate amount of contrast on one side of the image, or with a tilted horizon line.
It’s a good idea to avoid using an unbalanced image unless there’s a good reason to have it. However, they can be used intentionally to create a feeling of disruption for the audience, or in some cases even a feeling of exhilaration.
Toby provided a helpful anecdote for cinematographers grappling with these concepts: for classical narrative filmmaking, we always want to let the story win over the imagery. No matter how magnificent the individual shots are in a film, most audience members will remember it for its story, so the cinematography must help to communicate it as effectively as possible.
Another important principle of composition is talking space. For most close-ups of someone talking, the character’s face should be placed on the left or right side of the frame, and the opposite side of the frame should contain no distractions. For instance, if another face is in the frame in this type of shot, it is usually out of focus. This principle helps audiences grasp what the character is saying without being distracted by the shot itself.
A similar principle is movement space. If the primary subject in a shot is moving, it helps draw attention to the motion if the space in front of the subject is free of distracting areas of contrast. For instance, most shots that depict a moving car leave empty space in front of it.
A final important principle is that of the golden ratio. A mathematical pattern found everywhere in nature, it dictates that the most aesthetically pleasing images tend to be based on rectangles whose side lengths A and B follow the ratio A : B = (A + B) : A. A simplification of this principle, designed for photography, is known as the Rule of Thirds, and it states that the subject of an image should ideally be places on one of the intersection points of grid lines dividing the frame into equal thirds both horizontally and vertically.
The best illustration I could find of both these concepts is this video deconstructing the golden ratio-derived cinematography of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film There Will Be Blood. It’s well worth six minutes if you’re struggling with these principles.
One of the best ways to cement these principles in your mind is to study the work of the old masters who discovered many of them, and applied them to their paintings. Cinematographers today still use and discuss Rembrandt lighting, named after the Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. It comprises lighting of the primary subject from a soft light source at a ¾ angle relative to the front of the subject. If done properly, it creates an upside down triangle beneath the subject’s opposite eye (on their cheek).
Another Dutch painter with similar lighting techniques is Johannes Vermeer. Rembrandt and Vermeer’s lighting techniques helped give their paintings a more three-dimensional feel. Interestingly, they resulted from the natural lighting conditions inside the artists’ north-facing studios, which experienced reflected sunlight from surrounding buildings late in the day, bestowing the very soft light that became these artists’ trademark.
In addition to studying old masters, almost everyone can improve their composition skills by studying the new masters: the cinematographers who work on well-shot films. One of the best ways to do this is to visit Cinemasquid (the source of many of the screenshots in this article) and browse the high-quality screenshots until you find some that jump out at you. Then take a few minutes to analyze why these images are so impressive. All of these cinematographers were students at some point as well, and now, by exhibiting their work in movies, they’re passing their knowledge of composition on to a new generation.
Image Composition Analysis through Computation
I’d like to end on a personal anecdote. A few years ago, at the beginning of my senior year of high school, I’d taken all the computer science classes my school had to offer, so I set out to do my own research project. I’d always been intrigued by what makes a photograph aesthetically appealing, and I wondered if I could train a computer to tell “good” photos apart from “bad” ones. It took me a while to figure out how to get my program to communicate properly with my camera, but I was eventually able to write a program that identified areas of contrast, guessed at the location of the subject, and applied the golden ratio and the rule of thirds, among other principles, in order to ascertain whether a photo was well-composed.
Here are a couple of screenshots that illustrate the program in action:
However, there was a problem with my strategy. Many photos that were technically well composed according to the computer had nothing interesting going on in them, so they weren’t interesting regardless of how well-placed the subject was within the frame. Similarly, some photos that the computer rejected for poor composition were almost universally recognized as great images. So, while the principles of composition that I’ve gone over in this article are all helpful tools for improving your composition skills, perhaps an even better principle is that if you find an image or a shot interesting, chances are other people will agree.
That’s all for this week! I hope you enjoyed reading my article, and be on the lookout for upcoming articles about Working Styles on Set and Getting Work, as well as some final cinematography reels from the members of the DeCal.
Casey Currey-Wilson is a first year undergraduate at UC Berkeley studying film and computer science. He began his work with film after several years of landscape photography, which he publishes on his website. Some of his short films can be seen on Vimeo and Youtube.
Casey formerly worked as an assistant editor at Visual Aid, Inc., where he honed his production and post-production skills with the goal of writing and directing his own films in the future.